By Jessica Heinicke • CM440 • Volare
We got up this morning and my husband, Adam, mopped the dew off the deck while I wiped down the windows. The 440 sure has a lot of windows! We love that about her though. And we LOVE the fly screens now that we’ve moved to the tropics. Adam is going aft to fire up the generator. We have just shy of 1000 watts of solar painstakingly mounted to our bimini and dodger and in these short December days, it’s not quite enough to keep up with our three refrigeration compressors. More on that later, but back to the task at hand: A Year In.
Our dear friends in southern California are living aboard and making ready to set out cruising in a few years. Now that a year has lapsed since we cast off our lines, they’ve asked us to summarize our first year. I have brainstormed repeatedly how to do this. It’s no easy task. How does one sum up a year’s worth of preparation, logistics and finances, mechanical matters, and emotions?”
I vividly remember the gloomy day in October 2017 when a few friends came to the dock in San Diego to cast off Volare’s lines and wish us Bon Voyage. We were members of the 2017 Baja HaHa Cruisers Rally from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, and 150 sailboats were leaving in a cluster of white sails, spinnakers, dinghies and jerry cans for far off lands. It was excitement and trepidation, courage and determination. No one will ever be truly ready, but we were as ready as we were going be and that October day was “the day”! There was no time to think and off we went!
Prior to that day, we spent 10 years living aboard Volare, our 2007 CM440 (hull #43), in San Diego while we worked on our careers and worked on our vessel. The plan was to cruise the moment Adam was eligible to retire. To that end, we spent every moment and every dime making Volare the best equipped, most comfortable cruiser out there. Those of you with 440s will agree with me here. Gerry Douglas and crew have provided us with a stout, beautiful, comfortable home on the water.
We invested in 1000 watts of Solbian lightweight, flexible solar panels. These are not inexpensive, but our stern sits a little low with all the “necessities” we have packed into Volare’s ample storage. Solbians can be mounted to canvas, negating the need for a heavy stainless framework to support them. We used our Sailrite sewing machine to painstakingly construct storm-proof Velcro attachments. Would we do it this way again? Hard to say. The panels have not been trouble-free. In fact, we have had two sets of five panels replaced under warranty because the surface became hazy. The latest set is working beautifully with no hazing in two and a half years, so we’re hopeful the problem has been solved. We have been comparing three 100-watt panels of the hazy generation with three of the new ones, and it appears the hazy panels have been producing about 10% less than the clear panels. Unfortunately, one of the hazy panels has failed altogether, so we will be in the market for yet another replacement. We have no complaints though, as the phenomenal customer service at Ocean Planet Energy has gone above and beyond to take care of us.
The short days of winter have demonstrated that even this much solar is insufficient for our needs. Our 440 is equipped with a small fridge with freezer in the top and an in-counter deep freeze. I’ve been mentally preparing for a three- to four-week South Pacific crossing since we stepped aboard Volare all those years ago, and I wanted more. We have the fridge (which keeps ice cream!), the freezer, and a 64-quart Engel 12V that can be either fridge or freezer and sits on the top shelf in the lazarette “garage” quite nicely. We use it as a freezer and freeze two large water jugs, which we rotate in and out of the cooler that serves as our helmseat. The Engel only uses 2.4 amps/hour which is more efficient than either of the other two, and it stores lots of delicious meats and the extra sharp cheddar cheese to which I am addicted. Thus, we have lots of fridge and freezer space and lots of power demands.
Other equipment Adam installed on Volare includes a Spectra watermaker, Raymarine electronics and autopilot, Manson Supreme anchor with 300 feet of chain, a Philippi systems monitor, a Kubota generator, an Arid Bilge system, and various smaller additions of our own invention that make life comfortable and safe. I could go on and on, but there’s more to our “One Year In” story.
Logistics and Finances
Adam retired from federal service on October 28, 2017. We set sail on October 30th. As I said, the plan was to go as soon as we could, and we did. Mexico meets all of the criteria for ideal cruising grounds that we dreamt up while sitting in California traffic. It is inexpensive, beautiful, safe, and dog-friendly. Though we have dreamed of farther destinations, we want to spend a few years in Mexico before moving on. We bought the cruising guides and made mental notes of places we’d like to see Volare anchored, but we left without much of a plan. Some friends had left California the previous January and spent time in Puerto Vallarta. They sailed across to Cabo San Lucas and met us at the end of the HaHa with plans to sail together to La Paz and then cross back to enjoy a warm winter along the mainland. As everyone knows, cruisers’ plans are written in the sand at low tide, and our plans were washed away just that easily. Three days after leaving Cabo, circumstances began to pile up that ended up keeping us in La Paz for six months.
Our friends traveled home to the US for six weeks around Christmas. As we awaited their return, we made the best of things by sailing into the Sea of Cortez for three weeks. It was easy traveling, nearly all motoring, from stunning anchorage to stunning anchorage, marveling at the clear water, abundant sea life, and diverse landscapes. Eventually the famous Sea of Cortez Northers began blowing, and we scurried back to the marina in La Paz, as the anchorages became uncomfortable and sleepless. Just as our friends returned, it was our turn to travel to the US to initiate the process to get our Mexican residency. The two-week trip became a five-week trip as the fates had their way with us, and we remained with our families during very sad times.
We finally completed our residency process and were ready to cruise by mid-April, but the six-month unanticipated stay in a marina was a blow to our finances we were not expecting. Marinas have by far been the biggest drain on our bank account. The financial aspect of cruising began to worry us in the back of our minds. We were happy to be getting back to anchoring again.
We checked out of the marina and set out with friends to really explore the Sea of Cortez. The trip started out a little rough with the remnants of north winds roughing us up our first couple of days, but after that we experienced a whirlwind trip that was absolutely magical. We were short on time, wanting to be snugly secured in Puerto Vallarta for hurricane season, so we were only able to spend a night or two in each anchorage. Fortunately, they are close enough together that you have time to move to a new anchorage and explore it in the same day. We swam, snorkeled, and hiked the diverse and beautiful desert landscape, making it up to Bahia de los Angeles before turning back around. All told, we sailed 760 miles over 46 days in the Sea of Cortez and stayed in 26 anchorages during our first season there.
Logistically, the Sea of Cortez has its benefits and its challenges. As mentioned, the anchorages are very close together, especially in the southern Sea, making movement from one to the next easy. Weather forecasting accuracy is middle of the road in the area. Winter’s northers are fairly well forecast, allowing you to move to a protected anchorage in time to ride out the 30-40 knots that howl down the Sea. Everything else is a crapshoot, however, so we found an occasional sleepless night when unforecast wind and swell kept us hunting and bobbing all night. Upon leaving La Paz, true grocery stores with refrigeration are few and far between. There are several small tiendas with shelf stable items in the more remote parts of the peninsula but nothing whatsoever on the islands. Planning ahead for how to eat was essential. Our Engel came in very handy on this trip and we ate well. Volare performed flawlessly, and we had very few concerns as far as boat maintenance. We really enjoyed the trip and want to visit the Sea of Cortez again soon, next time for more time.
After the whirlwind tour of the Sea, we crossed to the mainland and tied Volare up for hurricane season in La Cruz, near Puerto Vallarta. We had decided to buy a car in Mexico. It is rather necessary as Puerto Vallarta is a sprawling area and getting around without wheels is cumbersome. We also wanted to be able to drive to the US and stay for as long as we liked. The rental car we took the first time was costly and inconvenient. If Volare had to be immobile, we at least wanted freedom to get around by road. In the end, we were happy to have the freedom of having a car and it may have saved our sanity! It is hot in Puerto Vallarta. Very hot. The car allowed us to find shady hiking spots, go to the movie theater, and get groceries from the luxury supermarkets in comfort and convenience. After four months of the heat, we drove to the US for a month to visit family and escape the tropics. When we returned, we were ready to get cruising again.
This is a great boat. There’s no other way to put it. We chose well and we have enjoyed the fruits of our work. We have done our best to avoid foul weather but nonetheless have had 30-40 knot winds, high swells, and extreme heat and humidity. Volare has endured all with strength and grace. She is approaching 12 years old and can handle anything we have asked of her. That said, the past year we have had some mechanical problems to sort out.
Our generator water pump stopped pumping effectively. Adam was able to clean it and rebuild it. It works well now, but we picked up a spare while we were in the US in case it fails again.
We have found an air conditioner to be a must in this climate. However, it can only be used when plugged into shore power at a marina. There are a few hearty souls who live at anchor without air conditioning all summer long. All I can say is they are a sight tougher than we are. I didn’t want AC and Adam talked me into it. I acquiesced when he showed me he could install it inside the nav table (pure genius!). I’m grateful every day we have it. We have had to periodically soak the intake filter in vinegar to remove the growth of sea life. Once we discovered the magic of vinegar, this became an easy task.
Raising the sock on our spinnaker is ordinarily a controlled event, but it got away from us and flew to the top of the mast as the sail unfurled. It broke off one of the little scoops on the anemometer. We picked up a replacement while in the US, and it is now up and running after a trip up the mast. This trip coincided with the discovery that our anchor light had stopped working. Corrosion in the wiring caused it to fail. Adam had to bring it down and replace the wiring.
Our three 8D AGM batteries finally reached the end of their lives. They were no longer holding a charge. We replaced them with five Firefly carbon foam batteries after a drive to the US. These batteries can be discharged deeper than AGMs without damage so we purchased a smaller capacity. However, we feel we undershot the mark and are ordering a sixth battery to be delivered to Mexico (three freezers, remember?).
We used our time in Puerto Vallarta to replace our 11-year-old bimini, which was no longer waterproof; to perform sail maintenance; and to do a planned haul out. The labor was very reasonable for the bimini replacement. We provided the canvas and the zippers. We are happy with the result, though we do have two colors of thread up there now. We saw a weak spot forming at the top of the bolt rope of the jib when we took it down for Hurricane Willa. We took it in for repairs and replaced the nylon webbing at the clew where it was chafing and had the UV cover restitched. Not too bad for a boat with 8000 miles! All in all, the sails are in great shape. It helps that they are furled and out of the sun when not in use.
During the haul out, we had the bottom repainted. We had to raise the water line into the boot stripe. The stern is lower than the bow and bottom paint was added halfway into the boot strip aft and just to the boot stripe forward. Adam suggested painting a stripe above the boot stripe so it’s not so painfully obvious that we have submerged our lines. Hopefully this will be the last time!
We have done all routine, scheduled maintenance on the Yanmar, and it has been absolutely perfect! We just did the 1000-hour service. We drove the injectors to a fellow in Puerto Vallarta who pressurized them and examined the spray pattern. Three of our four did not pass his analysis. He sent them off to be cleaned and they worked perfectly afterwards. We have had to bring our oil of choice from the US. Synthetics have been impossible to find in Mexico, so we’ve stocked up. Not an easy thing to store but worth it to keep the engine happy.
Apart from these items, we have had very good luck maintenance-wise. We did have one clogged toilet on the HaHa but a borrowed plunger solved that one. We have since purchased our own plunger!
This part is hard to write because I feel it highlights my weakness. As I have chronicled, we have seen stunning places, eaten well, played and relaxed and learned throughout the past year. We have no reason to complain. We are living our dreams and everything has been going well in large part. Why, then, have I had a few emotional break downs, questioning my life choices?
Some of the reasons are just part of life. The past year has included deaths of loved ones, family struggles, and highlighted the impact of the earlier deaths of loved ones who should be experiencing this with us. Financial worries are also part of life. We spent more money than we planned to. This happened in part because we have been staying in marinas both to travel home and to have air conditioning. It’s expensive and not how I pictured cruising. We will save up again though. And we will keep cruising beyond marina life.
Some of the reasons are distance from home. I miss my friends. I miss my family. I miss cold weather at Christmas. I even miss my job at times. I spent so many years looking forward to living the dream that I didn’t realize it would mean giving up a lot of the wonderful things that were right in our backyard. I’m a creature of habit. I order the same things at the same restaurants time after time. I’m not the type to seek out new curiosities, even though I usually enjoy them when I do.
Most of all, I think I’ve struggled with the climate. San Diego has a perfect climate and is insect-free. In the tropics there is one hour of the day in which it’s pleasant to be outside: sunrise. After that it’s either too hot to move or the mosquitoes set in as the sun sets. I don’t want to sweat anymore!
So, in spite of how perfect this life can be, it has been a bit hard on me all the same. I’ve always looked up to Carolyn Shearlock of The Boat Galley and her advice has always been spot on. She says the first year adjusting to cruising is the hardest, so I will trust in her and hope to be writing another summary of all smiles next year.
That’s it! That’s a down and dirty summary of the first year of cruising aboard Volare. Thanks for reading!