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  • Steve

Made it to old Mexico

Sailing from Key West, Florida to Isla Mujeres in Mexico with a female captain and all female crew might sound like paradise, but when you’re a neophyte sailor like me, being out on the big bad open ocean with no land for miles and miles in any direction is at times intimidating, overwhelming and utterly terrifying.

Being an island of light, sound and fury roaring through the darkness with at best a tentative, fleeting grip on the outside world through technology is both amazing and deeply, profoundly different than anything I’ve ever experienced before. And when there are thunderstorms all around you in pitch black darkness, profoundly different turns into something transcendent and beautiful -- a place where fear melts off into the elements as you surrender yourself to the awesome power of nature.

The passage took a little bit longer than we anticipated, probably because we didn’t accurately account for having to run out of the way of massive thunderstorms, but all in all the crossing was a tremendous success. We learned a lot of things about our boat and ourselves, as everything outside of the first day of sailing pushed us to our absolute limits -- mentally, physically and emotionally. I have to say that we wouldn't have been able to do it without our amazing friends and crew -- Prudence, Claire and Patty.

The seas were a lot rougher than anticipated, the projected two to three foot swells were at least twice that, at times as high as ten or twelve feet, and we had to contend with currents and storms and lightning that all felt incredibly more intense than they might have actually been because we were out in the dark ocean, far from any help or assistance of any kind.

The things that could have gone wrong could fill a library. In the end, though, we lost our flag, which somehow ended up in the drink despite being tied to the boat. We also lost our horseshoe life-vest and we had some peculiar engine trouble which was only noticed yesterday when we finally turned the engine on after a long time of sailing without any motor power.

I’ve been a hawk looking at the temperature and oil gauges and when we started up I noticed the temperature gauge went through the roof -- literally all the way to the right as high as it could go -- so I immediately demanded that the engine get killed. Strange how assertive I've become in certain situations as the default mechanic aboard.

I ended up troubleshooting the engine for the rest of the day -- reading the manual for our Yanmar engine from front to back in wobbling, rocking seas, then moving on to our Marine Diesel Engine book which had a number of good suggestions. With some amazing assistance from Prudence, one of our spectacular crew members on this passage, I was able to remove and clean out the raw water strainer.

Then I removed and replaced the impeller and added coolant to the fresh water tank -- all to no change in the underlying problem. I would have taken the fresh water pump to pieces and tested the thermometer but the bolts were on so tight that they ripped my 12mm socket in two places.

All of which meant that by the time we went to bed, there was a very real concern that we wouldn’t be able to make it into Isla Mujeres without any engine power. In the morning I read some more and consulted with my Stepfather Howard whose knowledge of all things mechanical is both wide and deep, and eventually we settled on thinking the problem was with a temperature sender sensor and maybe with the gauge itself.

Of course, knowing what the problem might be didn’t mean we could just run the engine on a whim, so we limped into Isla Mujeres, towed by the amazing crew at El Milagro Marina. No thanks to BoatUS who assured us there would be coverage in Mexico and Honduras when we bought our policy, only to tell us when we needed to use it that they didn't have anyone who could help us. Hell, they couldn't even make a long-distance phone call on our behalf. So yeah, don't trust the salespeople at BoatUS.

Once the El Milagro crew got us into the marina (which was a bit of a process), clearing customs and getting all the paperwork done was a breeze -- even with two dogs on board. Once we were cleared and free and the doggos had a chance to do their business on the hard for the first time in days, I started talking with some of the other people in the marina, and before long they confirmed Howard’s diagnosis. Then a mechanic -- whose grasp of English rivaled my ability to speak Espanol -- came aboard and also confirmed the problem was with the temperature sender unit -- not with the engine itself -- I was finally able to relax.

Since we’ve landed here, I’ve fielded numerous questions on who the Captain of City Dogs is and when I say it’s Ella, there does seem to be a little bit of, I wouldn’t say confusion but you can tell it’s not the norm, not what they’re used to hearing. I’ve also been asked by several people who the mechanic is and it’s kind of weird, kind of surreal and entirely disconcerting to answer that, well, I am. Truth is, I’m trying as hard as I can but there are some seriously steep learning curves that I’m struggling to surmount. But as our spirit guide from Key West, Brent told us, the giving up is the only fatal mistake.

Let’s not even get into how much attention Mischa got when we went for a long walk down into town with our crew. We received no less than three offers to buy Mischa for whatever price we named, and fielded at least a couple dozens queries asking what type of dog she was. We need to get a sign that says she’s an Alaskan Klee Kai.

It’s funny that the things we talk about now, like whether or not to order another manual toilet repair kit have changed drastically. We used to talk daily about what to order for dinner -- do you want Thai or Chinese or Italian or whathaveyou and now we eat the Ramen noodle and basic salads and are happy to have something warm in our bellies. It's all about perspective.

For the moment we’re going to take a little pause on the island of women and let our batteries recharge on shore power. Tomorrow, I might even run the blender. Tonight we’re going to enjoy the air conditioning.

Tomorrow, I might even get another phone since my Nexus 5X finally gave up the ghost, but part of me is thinking that I don’t really need a phone. It’s weird not having that weight and constant companion in my pocket but I’ve found that I am much more aware, much more present in all kinds of situations than I would have been previously. Instead of pulling out my phone whenever I feel a moment of social anxiety or there’s a lull in conversation, I find myself engaging more with people I wouldn’t have had the time of day for in my old life.

If you have any suggestions for a new, cheap phone that will work with my Project Fi plan -- hit us up in the comments or shoot an email over to

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