The crew from hell

The year was 2003. I had Star Path based in Puerto Vallarta. Through a bit of an accident of scheduling, I had the entire non-hurricane season off. What a treat! This is rare. Almost all of my career, I was in Alaska in January and February, so I was determined to do something a little more ambitious than hang around with the retirees around Mexico.

Right on cue, I opened up an old Cruising World, and found a story by Alvah Simon (one of my all-time sailing heroes, by the way) about the Galapagos and Ecuador. The Galapagos had recently changed their rules, allowing cruising boats 6 weeks in the islands. This was a big departure from the old ways, and the islands suddenly became a very attractive target for me. There was also a small, secure marina on the mainland which had been recently visited and written about favorably by Jimmy Cornell, so I made the plan to make a winter circuit from PV to Ecuador and back. I was really looking forward to both the islands and getting up into the Andes. I’d never been anywhere in South America except Cartagena back in 1990, so getting some exploration in was an exciting prospect.

There was just one problem-no crew. I can’t remember if I was broken up with my on again-off again girlfriend, or if she just didn’t want to come, but I was faced with either finding somebody or going solo. It’s a really long-ass passage from PV to the islands, and a long-ass one back, not to mention the 500 miles or so from the islands to the mainland.

I didn’t want to go alone. I just don’t really think that singlehanding’s that much fun.

So, I started looking around online, and found a crew site or two. I posted an ad, and got quite a lot of responses. Most were from obvious dreamer hippie snowflake types. Nothing against the dreamer snowflakes, but I really didn’t want to go to sea with someone who was all keen for the romance of the open sea. These types are more often than not very quickly disenchanted when reality sets in.

Yes, when things are going perfectly, it can be really special out there. But, for the most part, it’s a lot of work, repairs, broken sleep, and general discomfort. Let’s just be honest about it.

Also, the offshore route to the Galapagos is a very hot, often very light air passage. There would be a lot of mizzen staysail and spinnaker work to do to make any miles. The stormy gulf of Tehuantepec also had to be negotiated, as we would not be completely offshore of the wind zone.

Anyway, this was not really going to be a pleasant trade-wind trip. I expected to be at sea for somewhere between 2-3 weeks.

Finally, Erin materialized. She was light on experience, but seemed really keen to go, and had what I deemed to be the proper reaction to my description of what she could expect. Sort of a mix of apprehension and determination. Ok, a good candidate! I bought her a ticket straight away, and we arranged to meet at the PV airport in a few days. I then set about finishing up readying the boat.

On the appointed day, I waited outside the arrivals gates, with nothing but a general description-medium build, reddish curly hair, the obligatory Canadian flag patch sewn on to everything. Why do they do that, by the way?

Finally, the palest individual I’ve ever seen emerged. We’re talking skin entirely devoid of pigment. Probably as close as one can be to albino without actually being one.

Oh, shit. I really hoped that wasn’t her. This person was probably among the least suited for being on the water at the equator I’d ever seen. We made eye contact. Yup, here’s my crew. Oh well, they make SPF 950 or something, right?

Anyway, we had a couple of friendly nights getting acquainted to each other, and her to the boat. All was looking good.

We set off from Banderas Bay on a warm evening, rounding Cabo Corrientes in a moderate fair wind. Erin turned in while I took the first night watch. After a few hours, I called her up to the cockpit for a short shift, which was handled just fine. But, I had the sense that all was not well with her. Every little whitecap that hit the hull seemed to startle Erin, and the fact that no land was in view was a frequent topic for her. This was a bit of a bad sign, as we would spend the entire passage way offshore, up to about 450 miles.

Day 2 found us ghosting along on an oily sea, with just a slight swell from the south. Hungry, I put some cheese between a couple of tortillas and tossed them in the oven. I offered Erin some, and she gave me the most horrified, accusing look. ‘How can you even think of cooking in these conditions?!’.

Uh oh.

So it went for 17 days. Erin generally stopped talking, didn’t eat much. I asked her to do as little as I could. Generally, I’d have her stand night watches for as long as she could stay awake. Her record was 12 minutes. Rarely did she stay on deck for an hour at night.

I should have singlehanded…

Anyway, all good things do come to an end, and we made our landfall in the Galapagos in good order. The boat had a little bit of damage due to what I’m pretty sure was a whale collision, but she was still seaworthy. We anchored in Puerto Ayora, checked in, had a decent meal, and turned in for some needed sleep. At least I needed to sleep. I’m pretty sure Erin was managing 18 hours a day in the bunk.

The next day, I really wanted my boat back. First, I encouraged her to go take a tour or something. Anything. She replied that her walk around the village had shown her all she needed to see of the Galapagos, and she settled into the cockpit with a trashy novel. I couldn’t believe it.

Finally, I booked her a room in a cheap little hotel, telling her I needed 24 hours for boat chores. Reluctantly, she packed up a little gear and went on her way. I finally relaxed, poured a strong rum and coke, put on some really good late ’60’s Grateful Dead on the stereo and finally was able to bask in the satisfaction of a landfall well made, and also my longest passage ever.

Anyway, the Galapagos turned out to be great, even with Erin. We left Star Path anchored bow and stern with the tour boats, and went on the pretty high-end ‘Galapagos Legend’ for a week. It’s prohibitively expensive to cruise on your own boat. The islands really are spectacular.

Finally, it was time to head for the mainland. It was right back to the same old Erin. Contrary, grumpy, just awful.

It took us 6 days to get to Salinas. About a day out, I broke the news to her that she’d be leaving the boat as soon as we arrived. Her look of surprise at this news was unexpected, but she just had to go.

So, as soon as we got to an internet connection, I booked her a ticket back to Toronto or wherever the heck she was from for the next day. She would have to take a bus to Quito from the coast, about 6 hours, and then fly from there.

She appeared on deck in a pair of short shorts and a sort of bikini top for her solo bus voyage into the S. American interior. It took some convincing to get this 23 year old to cover up, but she finally did so, and she left with the promise to send me the money for her ticket home.

And, she was never heard from again. Her parents knew how to reach me, so I can safely assume that she made it home.

Wow.

On the way back to the marina from the bus stop, I walked with the lightness in my step of an innocent man just released from prison. There were just a few cruising boats there, and the first guy I saw off of one of them noticed my radical change in demeanor, asking me what was going on.

‘She’s finally gone… I’m free!!’ This got quite a chuckle, and of course the topic around the evening pow wow in the marina revolved around crew horror stories. I was not alone, not by a long shot.

In the end, I found someone else to make the trip back to Mexico with me. A 25 year old guy, Geoff. We had an awesome time heading back to Mexico. Even getting denied entry back into the Galapagos (a long story-we didn’t read the fine print) didn’t faze the guy. We hopped up the Mexican coast in a leisurely fashion, having made our landfall in Zihuatanejo.

My only gripe was that he was probably the most beautiful guy I’ve ever seen, just a perfect sculpted body, rippling muscles, long hair, Adonnis landed in Mexico. He preferred to haul the anchor by hand, and I swear that every woman on every cruising boat was staring wistfully at the dude through binoculars while this was going on. I was definitely the dumpy friend on this cruise.

Good times.

I’m sure glad I’ve got Jenny now. It’s almost too easy. And, I’m still the dumpy one of the crew. Oh well, I’ve gotten used to it.

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