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Sailing Out Of Willits

1-24-88 — I’m sitting here in Aero Puerto Mexico City waiting for my flight to Ziuatanejo so I can meet up with Chris and Donna and get my sea legs for our sailing adventure down to Panama, but my flight has been delayed twice and I don’t want to have to spend the night here.

This is the first entry in my 1988 running log that doubled as my sailing adventure log, which I will quote from while sharing this trip almost 30 years later…but first, how did this whole thing happen?

I first met Chris in Sausalito back in ’74 when he showed up at Gate 5 to rebuild an old fishing boat that was stuck in the mud behind the Charles Van Damme, a landlocked paddle-wheeler known locally as the Ark.

A few years later he bought a 55-foot schooner hull that needed so much work I remember doubting that any one person could stay with this project to completion.

Knowing I had some sailing experience, he asked me if I wanted to go with him down the coast, thru the Panama Canal, and across the Gulf to Florida when he finished the boat. I said, sure, I mean, how could I turn down a sailing adventure fantasy that could happen several years into the future?

A decade or so later he calls me from San Diego and tells me the couple that said they would go backed out and it was just him and Donna and she was pregnant, so they really needed my help.

A few years before when I heard the other couple were going I was relieved because I didn’t really want to go sailing anymore, assuring myself that they didn’t really need a fifth crewman, and they understood. Not to mention I had enough scary adventures back in the day, and I was now a happy landlubber, living on my new property up in the hills of Mendocino County, a bit north of Willits.

But in this new scenario I couldn’t say no. He said he’d get back to me with more info soon. A few weeks later I got a letter from Donna.

12-8-87 — Dear Jim,

Chris was going to write this letter but time is slipping by and he doesn’t seem to be getting around to it. He’s simultaneously hooking up the Sat-Nav (Satellite Navigator) and the AUTOPILOT. They are both things we wanted for a long time so we’re thrilled to have them. Now if they would only work…The Sat-Nav is a pretty direct installation, but the Wagner Auto-Pilot is a hydraulic/12V/computer component conglomeration. He’s been spending hours in the stern cabin, crouched up on our bed, while looking at the quadrant and trying to sort out the lot.

I just spent $300 or more at a discount house for food and packed it into the bilge. It’s beginning to look as though we have enough food for 4 months rather than 3. I have to get all the fresh stuff just before we leave.

We will be leaving San Diego in approx. 10 days to 2 weeks. We will be in Cabo a week later and hope to be in Ziuatenejo around mid-January to pick you up.

Then we will head offshore after the Gulf of Tehuantepec to pass Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua. We will probably be in Costa Rica by late January. It shouldn’t take too long to pass from Costa Rica thru the Canal to the Yucatan Peninsula, and from there we pass by the western end of Cuba to Key West, Florida.

Pack your duffle bag with gear and be ready!

Well, time to get rolling on this fine day—all this was written before 7 AM. We’re on a 5 AM wake up program. Serious business.

Bye, Donna

It sure seemed like this sailing adventure was on course, and I actually started looking forward to it. The three of us had taken vacations together before, to Hawaii in ’86 and Puerto Vallarta in ’85, where Donna’s bilingual abilities really made it more of a fun, learning experience.

Only problem was I met a woman at the North Coast Strider’s Resolution Run in Redwood Valley who I started dating without telling her I had to go off sailing within the next few weeks. My New Year’s Resolution was “A date in ’88,” as ’87 had been a very dry year. To then meet the woman of my dreams right away was awesome, but would she wait for my return?

The day after my first Log entry (see top) when I was temporarily stuck in Aero Puerto Mexico City, I wrote the following…

1-25-88 Monday — Almost ready to turn in for the second night on the Constance. Everything is perfect—the temp, the water, the town, people…always a nice breeze, no mosquitos, plenty of cold beer, good food, papayas the size of footballs…for the second day me and Chris ran barefoot to the far beach and back a few times for about 3 miles (22 minutes)—then back in the surf!

Earlier today we were visited by Pat and Dan from their boat anchored nearby. They plan to stay here a month because this is the best spot they’ve found. While they were visiting, a woman came swimming between our boats and Dan said, “She’s naked!” Then invited her to come aboard. She climbed up the boat’s ladder, dripping naked, saw my face and asked, “Are you from Willits?”

I said, “What’s your name?”

She answered, “Marlena River.”

Turned out she and her husband Larry and their two kids live just down the road from me. Small world. She climbed aboard and we chatted for a while. She said her and her girlfriend are renting a little bungalow on the beach for $50 a night. They’ve already been here a month.

I mentioned the time we ran into each other in Kona. It was February ’86 at the Keauhou Triathlon. I was the runner on our relay team. While I was getting ready for my leg, my son Eli came running up and said, “Hey dad, there’s a woman over there from Willits.”

Again, she was with a woman. Hmm…I guess she and Larry like separate vacations.

When everyone finally left this afternoon Chris told me we’d head out Wednesday to test my sea legs and check out a little island just 10 miles north called Isla Grande, with a beach called Playa Linda that Marlena said was really great.

Then we will head south to Acapulco, which according to a Coast Pilot-type book called Charlie’s Charts, is “One of the world’s finest harbors and most popular tourist resorts…”

1-28-88 — Thursday Left Ziuat yesterday at 4:24 pm. I was at the helm as we headed out and I remember looking at my watch. We hoisted the sails, but continued to motor, as the seas got heavier. We stayed on deck most of the time, as it is hard to stay down below under passage without unloading your stomach a few times, as Donna did. Surprisingly enough I didn’t get seasick. I took a few 3-hour watches, and a few short siestas on deck and down below. No problema.

We pulled into Acapulco around noon. Beautiful entrance. Great houses up on the cliffs. I took some photos, in fact, at one point, as I was trying to steer and take a photo, the boat swung hard to port toward a big party boat. Needless to say, I had to drop the camera and grab the wheel. Whew! Party on amigos!

We had trouble setting anchor, so we put the dinghy in the water and Chris dropped the Danforth off the starboard bow, giving us two anchors out just to play safe.

Shortly after setting anchor a couple pulled up on a trimaran from San Francisco called the Bona Venture, introduced themselves as Glen and Barbara, and said they were from Willits. Unbelievable! For those who don’t know, Willits is not a port town on the California coast, but a cowboy town 35 miles inland.

After they moved on Chris looked up at the cliffs and told me he heard divers are known to dive off those tall cliffs, as if daring me to do it. Donna laughed and read from the Chart Guide the following:

“DIVING: This coast is rarely visited by divers because of very turbid waters, bull and other sharks, black and yellow sea snakes, and a general lack of access and good diving. The snakes are members of the cobra family, forming masses on the surface to attract fish to eat.”

1-29-88 Friday — We’re paying 15,000 pesos per night to anchor the boat and use the facilities here at Club de Yates de Acapulco, which include poolside amenities, telefono, and hot showers—a real luxury after being out at sea. The plan is to watch the Super Bowl Sunday and head out Monday…

2-1-88 Monday — Woke up because Chris killed the engine…now I hear the water slapping against the hull as I lay here in my bunk…it’s 7:30 am and Donna’s playing with the ham radio (it doesn’t pick up well with interference from the engine) trying to get the Class of ’88 Net—which includes the other cruisers planning to go through the canal together and split the cost.

Guess I’ll drag my ass up on deck…I had the 1am to 4 am watch so I feel a little groggy, which makes me think of a way to describe to my boys what it’s like cruising out here on the ocean. Think of it as a big motor home with mushy, worn out suspension, driving up and down, back and forth on Highway 20 between Willits and Fort Bragg for days without stopping.

Like Chris says, “It’s not bad in strong winds, it’s the big waves that do you in.”

Up here we’re beating into an 8-10 knot wind and going only about 3 knots with the engine off. When it’s on we average about 5 knots. This boat was designed for motor sailing. It’s a long and narrow (55’ X 10’) double-ended three-masted schooner.

Anyhow, the seas are fairly flat and nothing on the horizon for 360 degrees, except now the sun is coming up and we’re heading right into it. Going to be a hot one today. We’ve noticed more humidity as we head south. The present reading is latitude 15 degrees north and longitude 99 degrees west.

2-2-88 Tuesday — Pulled into Bahia Guataleo, the only sailboat in the bay, but many little pangas (fiber glass fishing boats with big outboards). Happens to be a new tourist spot with mucho construction. Chris and I went for a short run and then had lobster and shrimp in a little restaurante right on the beach.

We couldn’t get ice until manana and figured why buy beer if we can’t keep it cold. Then as we got ready to leave a federale asked us if that was our “barka.” He followed us out to look at our papers. All good.

So we’re under way again, chugging along at 5.5 knots and under full sail. Weather is good and we should be through the treacherous Gulf of Tehuantepec in a few days to arrive in Puerto Madero, our last stop in Mexico.

Conventional wisdom says that boats heading through the Gulf of Tehuantepec should stay close to land because of the “Tehuantepeckers,” up to 60-knot winds that scream across the narrow, flat spit of land separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Pacific.

Three people lost their boats last year making this same run--two in February, the worst month, and they all tried to take the short-cut straight across.

Only problem is by hugging the shore to avoid the Tehuantepeckers you’re on the drug route, the active smuggling route between Columbia and California, where more boats laden with cocaine have moved to the Pacific from the Caribbean because of an ongoing crackdown. Then there’s the local traffickers making quick trips over the Guatemalan border.

We will stay about a mile from shore for the duration of this leg to avoid the strong off-shore winds and big seas that could send us down to Davy Jones Locker…and hope we don’t run into any pirates.

(To Be Continued…)


  1. Donna Schuler November 6, 2016

    I am glad my historian has taken care of writing the chronicles of a Pacific sailing adventure for us. Thanks, Jim Gibbons. Could not have entrusted our family sailing history to a more genial and adept writer. Seriously though, I have not read my journals in almost thirty years, so now that the story is published and I have paged though my own records, it was surprising to see how closely our journals matched, and how wild and uncertain sailing in foreign waters on a small boat can be. Looking forward to reading more from you, my friend.

  2. Andy Stock November 6, 2016

    Yes thanks Jim, its great reading. And wonderful to have a new piece of the puzzle. Very special stuff.

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