From the Baja-Ha-Ha race to the Coconut Milk Run

"El Nino is supposed to diminish the trade winds"

— It takes a lot of work to drop out of the rat race if the escape route entails crossing 3000-plus miles of Pacific Ocean. Justask Ellie Goolkasian and David Hudson, most recently of Oceanside.

Three years ago, Goolkasian, a 44-year-old registered nurse, and Hudson, a 42-year-old aerospace programmer, started to lay their plans. (Social acquaintances for years, they had just become romantically involved.) Hudson has sailed all his life and always intended to take a long trip someday. He began setting aside money in earnest in 1990.

The deadline they set themselves back in 1994 was the October 28 start of this year's Baja Ha-Ha race. As its name suggests, the Ha-Ha is a not-so-serious sailing contest; it lasts ten days, covers 700-plus miles, and runs from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. More importantly, the race, now in its fourth year, has become a popular takeoff point for dozens of boat-owners who have decided to chase after their version of the endless summer.

"There's safety in numbers, and we will meet people we'll see along the way," Goolkasian says. "We're not in it for the partying, though I'm sure we will do some. It gives you a deadline. So many people say they're going to do it and don't. It puts the pressure on."

Their route is known as the Coconut Milk Run. It carries them down the coast of Mexico and Central and South America, across a 3000-mile ocean passage from the Galapagos Islands to the Marquesas in the South Pacific, and on to various archipelagos until they reach New Zealand. That should consume about a year. After that...who knows?

"Thinking about it and doing it are a world apart," Goolkasian says.

With the recent killer hurricane that hit Acapulco, and the speculation about the weather effects of El Nino, the only subject their landlubber friends can talk about is storms. But Hudson and Goolkasian have studied the books, read the charts, memorized the currents, and logged onto the Internet oceanographic sites. Hurricanes are meant to hit Mexico's coast in October, they explain. And on the first of November, the hurricanes stop.

"El Nino is supposed to diminish the trade winds, which could hurt us," Goolkasian says, "but it's not supposed to cause hurricanes out of season. It's not like we're not scared. We're paying attention to it, but it's not going to stop us.

"But, Jesus, it's still close to when we're leaving.... You spend all this energy calming down your mother's fears, and then I wake up and imagine the 40-foot wave or abandoning ship and getting into the life raft."

"When people get in storms it's because they're sailing where they don't belong," Hudson says. "This whole trip is designed to avoid them. You get in and out of each area when the weather is right. Because we're beginners, we're going to stick to the route. More experienced sailors take side trips. People think we're just going to be [aimlessly] sailing around the islands, but we have to be in and out of each place by a certain time."

Their boat, the Mare Alta, is "not fancy by any means," Hudson says. He paid $55,000 for it. At 38 feet in length and with 20,000 pounds' displacement, it's heavy for its size, which makes it more stable.

The Mare Alta also has a cutter rig. "That has three sails," Hudson adds helpfully. "It's probably easier with a short-handed crew. You don't have two huge sails to struggle with. Instead you have three slightly smaller sails to struggle with."

Much of the steering will be done by an electronic autopilot. A windvane, which is activated by the wind, is their backup system. "Physically for one person to be at the wheel is exhausting," Hudson says.

Goolkasian and Hudson are a modern couple in some senses. They haven't seen the need to get married, and they are leery of the sexist traditions of old-time male-dominated sailing culture.

"We've seen those sailing husbands and wives. It's so obnoxious," Goolkasian says. "David's not like that at all." Once, on an early cruise around Catalina Island, Hudson gave Goolkasian the wheel. Goolkasian, who had never handled a boat before she started sailing lessons, was still a rookie. "In five minutes I was 90 degrees off course," she recalls. "David comes up on deck, looks around, and very calmly says, 'Where're we going?' We got an autopilot since then."

Hudson, who moved to San Diego from his native Corpus Christi when he was 18, still speaks with a slight Texas accent. (Goolkasian has a Boston twang.) Despite their egalitarian intentions, he still sounds a protective note. Preparing the boat is "like getting a car ready for a date," he says. "You make sure it's running good because you don't want to break down in the desert."

To test Goolkasian's resolve, Hudson showed her a photograph of a 40-foot wave in a book about storm sailing, Goolkasian recalls. "Then in an article in Cruising World," a monthly magazine devoted to sailboat cruising, "they said, 'Don't let the first book you show your woman be a heavy-weather sailing book.' "

Unfazed, Goolkasian signed up for sailing lessons, and Hudson bought the Mare Alta, a used downeaster. Later, they went on a charter in the British Virgin Islands, as part of a small flotilla. That and the Catalina cruise are their only offshore experience together.

"David used to be a machinist so he knows how to fix anything," Goolkasian says. "Otherwise, I don't know how people do it. Especially when you're out at sea. It's not like you can call Neptune."

"In a marine environment," Hudson says, "things will break. It's a hostile environment." Hudson has never done prolonged ocean cruising. "So I read a lot of books. I've read too much. One book says you have to have this, another says you have to have something else. After 10 or 12 books, you have so much junk."

Hudson estimates he spent an additional $25,000 or so, "half the purchase price," on modifications and repairs to the boat. He has also invested a huge amount of time. He stopped working three months before the race's start and devoted all his time to the boat. "It's a job," he says.

Goolkasian continued to work at her nursing job until two weeks before the race. In her spare time she handled the domestic side of things - food, medicines, and books.

Both are voracious readers, and their boat came lined with built-in bookshelves. "When we started loading the books onto the boat [three weeks before the race], we realized it started to look like home," Goolkasian says.

Stocking a boat for a cruise isn't as difficult as for a race, but weight and space are still extremely limited. The heavier the boat, the slower it goes. Ultimately, if it's too heavy, it won't sail properly.

In addition to their books, they've packed Hudson's three surfboards and guitar and Goolkasian's word processor - she's keeping a journal and plans to write freelance magazine articles about their experience. They are also bringing a water maker so they won't have to drink water stored in tanks.

Food runs to cheap dried goods such as beans, rice, and pasta. The first four months will be spent close to shore, but they have to be prepared for the ocean passage, which will last 20 to 30 days - if everything goes well. "That's when you eat a lot of beans and rice," Goolkasian says.

But there's more to their menu. "Right before we leave, I'll buy all the fresh fruits and vegetables. I bought these bags to delay their ripening. I've tried them; they really work. Citrus fruits you wrap in tinfoil. Eggs you turn the carton upside down every day. The whites keep them from drying out. I also bought a vacuum sealer, so I've been dehydrating things and vacuum sealing them."

After taking a course in medicine at sea, Goolkasian consulted with the Seaside Pharmacy in San Pedro, which makes up first-aid kits for oceangoing commercial vessels. "The pharmacist faxed me what he includes, and I talked to doctors I know. You can bypass needing prescriptions for a lot of drugs; he just gets a copy of your boat registration and writes down that it's for your boat."

The weeks before departure were frantic, Hudson and Goolkasian say. The apartment they rented temporarily was stacked with supplies; Hudson was continuously on the run tracking down last-minute items and installing them in the boat.

"To me, I'm looking at the boat as a collection of machines," Hudson says. "So I go through every system. I've replaced the plumbing, the sails, the dinghy, and the outboard. I've had the life raft repacked. I replaced the loran [navigational system] with GPS," which has a longer range. "I bought a sextant and learned how to navigate using the stars and the sun. Because if you lose your electronics, you lose your navigational systems."

Sometimes, Hudson concedes, the sheer crush of preparation makes him forget his ultimate goal.

But he won't miss much when they do shove off. "I've been working on the road for the past seven years. I'm already used to getting rid of the good furniture. "

He's looking forward to fishing, sailing, and, most of all, surfing. "Surfing's been a very big passion. This is the ultimate surf trip. There will be fabulous waves all through the South and Central American part of the trip - medium-sized, perfect waves. All the islands in the Pacific will have fabulous waves," though they're the larger, rougher reef waves, which are harder for him to surf than they would have been ten years ago.

Encroaching age was Hudson's main reason for going now. "If I wait until I'm 50 or 55, I physically won't be able to go after those things. If you wait till you retire, you can only sit in the cockpit."

Goolkasian's ambition is even simpler. "I want to be out in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight and see the sun set or the sun rise," she says. "People wonder what we'll do all day to keep busy. My days are going to be totally full between being on watch and writing. I'm not worried about passing the time."

Both traveled on the cheap in their younger days, when you literally could live on the $5 a day the guidebooks wrote about. Hudson calculates their expenses this trip could range from $400 to $1000 a month, depending on whether they eat onboard or ashore, or pay for slips in marinas or anchor and row in.

Cruising "is like a subculture," Hudson says. "We've graduated from backpacks to sailboats."

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