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Spring 2004 Issue
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Alumni Trip Journal
By Shannon O'Neill

As we settled into our first group meeting as a unit in the pagoda that looms over the grounds of NOLS Mexico, I could tell our little group of strangers was not the NOLS norm. As an intern here since early January, I’ve seen courses move in and through the branch regularly and watched their rapid metamorphoses intently. Though each group has its own unique vibe, certain trends in the “warming” phase have made themselves subtly clear. What was happening here, in my group? We weren’t greeting each other with the “what up’s” and nods of the chin that characterize other NOLS courses. There was a puzzling absence of nervous chatter. In its place were the old fashioned full-on handshake, and perhaps a little-overzealous but purely enthusiastic grin. Some people had ‘hankies’ tied askance around the neck, others had shorts hiked a little higher than the twenty-something norm, others wore baseball caps with a back-flap sunshade without the slightest bit of sheepishness. What special brand of NOLS Mexico group was this? This confident combination of personalities created the 2004 Baja Alumni Sailing Trip.

Already before meeting, we were known to each other, in a way. We all had an under-standing of the amazing learning potential that was ours for this moment of our lives, this brief week. We shared the desire to use the vast resources at our disposal to the utmost, a knowledge of how much is possible in a place like this, with people like these. This desire born of collective knowledge had much to do with our shared status as NOLS alumni. As a group of NOLS graduates, we held a commonality of experience: an understanding and appreciation of the basic tenants of NOLS, a shared history, in a sense.

We were all already familiar with Leave No Trace ethics, had dug our fair share of catholes, were well versed in the art of backcountry baking, and had dealt with some difficult fellow ‘problem students’ in our combined journeys. This group, however, was poised for performance: free of dramatics, full of desire. We were set to sail, and to live like NOLS royalty for a week on the fringe of the gorgeous Bahia Concepcion.

Our instructor team was nothing less than the best. The mix of personalities was pure alchemy — a mix of the dynamic and forthright, the serene and subtle. At the heart of the small team was a collective store of skill and an insatiable desire to pass it. The gift of their guidance was most clear in teaching us the basic tenants of sailing. From the start, they gave us the language to describe our vessels, the 22-foot Drascombe longboats, and the basic idea of how to prepare and maneuver them. The new language of the boat involved so many things — how to talk about her while raising the jib, mainsail, or mizzen, tightening sheets to keep a sail from luffing — and how to talk to her while learning where the safest anchorage is, which point of sail or tack she wants to take to best make use of any given wind. A fluency of this kind leads you to let her fly through wind and water. As a true novice who at first spoke not a word of “Sail,” the week spent exploring a small sliver of coastal Baja gave me more of a lesson than I could have hoped for. The more experienced sailors among us were satiated too — there was a bit of passage making, and plenty of day sailing to go around.

From Playa Santa Barbara to Cardoncito to Amolares to Tinhetas, we made our way, with reefed mainsails in 15 knot winds, with oars drawn through the glass water of a calm morning, through classes on collision regulations and crew overboard drills. The chosen part of our route also led us through campfire laugh-a-thons and short swims and exploratory hikes in search of petroglyphs. We shared snorkeling sessions, sunrise hikes, fishing attempts, classes on deduced reckoning and navigation. Moments at sail were driven sometimes by adrenaline, other times by relaxed laughter. I got us into a curious situation at one point where the wind seemed to hold its breath and we struggled to escape ‘irons.’ This place is the no-go point of sail where the world stands still. It seemed to me a perfect instant. For a moment, the boat paused: I could feel the sea still moving under me, I could sense that all was about to begin again. In that time, I snapped a mental photograph; I took a sum of the sea and sky and the furl of the sail, and I saw myself there, at the center of it — but just another part of it too. The wind filled the mainsail and the jib and the wind took us again; the boat continued on her tack.

Back at Bahia Coyote after seven full days of life on and at the edge of the sea, there was hardly a moment to pause as our group prepared to dismantle and disperse. We began the course as graduates, as alumni with a formidable store of our own knowledge and skills of various kinds. We were poised from the start to make the most of it all: our time together, this compelling place, and our leader team of seasoned sailors. We provided each other with support, information, and a hefty dose of humor. The wind and sea and sun showed us the true spectacle: all there is, all the rest.

Shannon O’Neill is a graduate of a 2000 NOLS Semester in Patagonia and was an intern at NOLS Mexico this spring.

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