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Published: Sunday, January 19, 2003
By Tom Wilmes, Lexington Herald-Leader

RANCHO COYOTE, Mexico --The pavement shimmers in the morning sun as the vans pull into the Mexico branch of the National Outdoor Leadership School.

Our group of still pale strangers piles way too much luggage onto the sand and stands blinking at the barren landscape: a simple, solar-powered house surrounded by mountains, desert and sea. During an equipment-packing class later that day, after we measure our bulk rations and eat lunch, a goateed, young instructor with a name tag that reads "Big Wave Dave" spends an hour dismantling the gear list.

His eyes gleam as he explains the importance of waterproofing, expounds on the bug-free benefits of a bivouac sack and systematically eliminates every creature comfort we could think about for our three-week sailing expedition down the cliff-strewn coast of Baja.

"You won't miss it," he says, and flashes the same beatific grin that many of the folks hanging around the NOLS branch have.
All I know is that 22 days is a long time to go without a shower.

Anchors up

The James Caird and the Liberdad, the twin 22-foot Drascombe longboats that will carry us into the Gulf, leap like puppies released from their kennel the first time we raise sails.

Douglas, Shari and Porter, our instructor team, introduce new skills as needed and by the time we arrive at our first campsite, a short passage across Conception Bay, we have a working knowledge of the parts of the boat, points of sail, signal flags and radio use.

It's time for another important introduction after we ferry the gear to the beach and anchor the boats for the night: the shovel.

In order to camp and cook with minimum impact on the fragile desert ecosystem, we'll need to watch where we step, keep track of every scrap of trash and bury our waste where it will biodegrade undisturbed. Due to the sudden change in diet, some of us become experts at the "cat hole" technique before others.

Routine tasks such as eating, sleeping and staying healthy take on a new dimension in the wilderness, and it will take a few days to adjust.

The Expedition

Sarah celebrates her 19th birthday on the third day of the course. She admits to feeling a little homesick but warms up as we sit around the campfire and talk. Shari builds a small "twiggy fire" on the lid of a pan to make sure the cake she's baking cooks through, and Porter decorates it with an M&M "S."

We haven't been in the field a week, but already wherever we land feels like home.

A typical travel day begins with a watch-alarm chorus at sunrise. We groan, we stretch, we eat a lot of oatmeal. Some of us load the boats -- the process has been honed to a lean half-hour -- while others spread out the charts and work on the passage plan.

Charts can tell you only so much but Douglas, our sailing guru, is a wealth of local knowledge. He runs a charter sailing business in Loreto and sold NOLS its first Drascombe longboats when the coastal sailing course began in 1991. He still accompanies one course a season, usually in October when the weather is comfortable and before the "norte," caused by the same high-pressure pattern that produces the Santa Ana winds in California, begins to blow.

Most days are mild, and as they pass, Douglas is not as forthcoming with information, preferring that we figure it out for ourselves.

But at this point the daunting has become routine, and life aboard the boats settles into a light-hearted groove -- we take turns at the helm, keep a close watch on our bearings and share stories from our assorted pasts.

But occasionally no amount of whistling will rouse the wind, and we reluctantly break out the oars.

"Remember that wind you love so much?" Porter is fond of saying. "Dead!"

Final exam

Wind whipping across the beach wakes me early on the second-to-last morning of the course. I cinch the bivy sack tight around my ears and try to steal a few more minutes of sleep. That norte we've been hearing about has finally arrived.
The wind picks up steadily during our morning classes on the beach and the instructors are getting antsy. What's there to worry about? We finally have plenty of wind.

That afternoon our boat crews are scheduled to make a "ghost run" with a silent instructor aboard to see whether we are ready for a student-only run. We discuss the sail plan, raise the James Caird's main sail and working jib, usually reserved for fair weather, and weigh anchor. Shari sits quietly but takes a firm grip.

We aren't even in open water before the first gust threatens to knock us down. The whitecaps past the point don't look any better.

"Um, do you think we should reef the main?" Daniel asks, struggling with the tiller to steer a straight course.

We tack to hove to, much like putting a car in park, by releasing the main sheet and back-winding the jib. The wind rips at the main sail as we struggle to put a double reef in and reduce the sail area.

We pass the point and the Caird is smacked with the full force of the wind. She strains to stay upright, forcing us to hove to again and swap the working jib for the storm jib, about the size of a hankie in comparison.

"Daniel!" Shari breaks her silence with an alarmed cry as he makes a sudden move towards the stern, upsetting the balance and sending water over the gunnel.

"Head up!"

The Caird steadies as her bow snaps into the wind.

"No worries," Daniel says. His cool-headed response signals that we are finally sailors.

Distant ports

Sarah is lost in thought as she stares out the van window on the long ride back to the branch. As we pass the roadside bars and burned-out wrecks that dot Baja's only highway, I know how she feels.

We sailed 100 miles down the coast of Baja and saw more sea lions and dolphins than we did other people.

We made tortillas at Chico's place during the food re-ration, and feasted at his table.

We climbed a volcano on Halloween, and trick-or-treated at the haunted palapa on Dead Man's Beach.

Here we are on a collision course with the real world and it shows no signs of giving way. I take a lingering look at my deeply tanned friends and my long face brightens into a grin.

Now we have the confidence to weather whatever comes our way.

Students on a Baja Coastal Sailing course navigate through the waters of the Baja California Peninsula.
© Tom Bol
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