Outer Waters: The Voyage of the Rhino

Eight thousand nautical miles before the mast—from Dana Point to Teahupoo.

Light / Dark

Distance traveled under sail: 10 nautical miles
Location: 33°31.531’N 117°45.455’W

The freedom of floating across the dark abyss of the Pacific is exhilarating. With no moon, I can almost touch the Milky Way. M83’s “Intro” echoes across the water as Rhino happily creaks and hums, gliding downwind, my foot on the rudder. I feel connected—like I have a place in the world. 

My brother Conner and I grew up steps from the beach. In front of our house, the ocean was divided by three buoys: surf, swim, and boat. We stayed mostly in the surf zone. What was beyond the boat buoy gave me the spooks. The water was dark and deep, and sailors disappeared into the horizon. 

I got into surfing for freedom—the freedom to express myself. But after a while, Southern California’s crowds caused surfing to become more like a medicine to wash off a day’s work. At 24, my new desk-job bones were also beginning to ache. I could feel my body stiffening, fast-forwarding in age. When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, my  brother and I realized the brevity of youth. We needed a change. We started planning a sailing trip that coincided with our biggest passion: surfing. 

We wanted to find uncharted surf, of course. But above all, we wanted to venture deeper into our blue backyard. Part of the journey would also be inward. Solitude and the ocean would shape us into the men we wanted to become. 

The only thing we needed to do was to become mariners. A minor hurdle. 

I purchased my first home—a 28-foot monohull—and was introduced to the sailing world. “She’s a beauty, ain’t she?” said Paul, one hand over his rotund stomach, pleased, gazing at my new vessel. He saw me as a young man with a naive dream. I think it was the yearnings for his younger years, when he sailed the world with his wife in the late 1970s, that called him to help. And as my boat broker, he felt responsible. 

Paul taught me how to sail and what it meant to be a mariner, though I was the furthest thing from one. On my first trip, I snapped the mast, then fell into debt rebuilding it. After much trial and even more error, I soon learned how sailing was a lot like surfing. Trimming your line and holding  your rail were congruent with each. Instead of forecasting swell, I began forecasting wind. Speed, power, and flow were common factors. 

A few years later, I traded in my 28-foot sloop for a 32-foot cutter. Her name was Rhino, and she was a classic 1970s beauty with a thick fiberglass hull, meant to endure large storms. She was everything I needed, but not what I’d envisioned. Built for long-distance sailing and slow as a snail, her cramped cabin left little room for comfort. But there was enough room for three surfboards on each side. 

It took six years of learning, planning, saving, and dreaming before we were ready to take a port tack out of Ventura Harbor. Now we finally find ourselves offshore, at the outset of our voyage.

10 days post-departure
Distance traveled under sail: 255 nautical miles
Location: 31°42.796’N 116°43.988’W

Conner and I make the decision to chase a west swell through central Baja, a risky move because there are unruly seas and all the marinas are closed for exit. We think it Photos courtesy of Austin Cooper  OUTER WATERS 49 shouldn’t be anything we haven’t seen the ocean do before. Corrected naivete: a sailor’s best lesson—if it doesn’t send you to the bottom.

 I hold my breath as I wrangle the fuel filter loose. My oxygen runs low and I’m forced to inhale. Hot diesel fumes fill my lungs, and my breakfast rises in my stomach. I can hear Paul’s voice echo, faintly instructing me from the satellite phone outside the engine room. My dizzying mind can’t stand it, and I throw up on my chest leaning over Rhino’s Yanmar. “Your engine won’t start because your fuel filter is bad from dirty diesel in Ensenada. And when you change the filter, make sure there are no air bubbles in the injector,” Paul says. 

What’s an injector? I think to myself. I know we should have prepared more. We are not ready to sail the world, and Paul knows it. 

After 10 hours of bobbing in the wind without an engine 2 miles off the coast of Punta Banda, the current pushing us closer and closer toward jagged rocks, it seems our dreams are about to be fragments of fiberglass within the first two weeks. A sigh of relief comes over us when the port captain permits a fisherman to tow us in, despite marina closures. 

“Two thousand dollars,” the fisherman says over the radio, a sum that would shave away much of the budget we’ll need for many months ahead in our journey. 

“Five hundred,” I reply. The radio goes quiet. “And we’ll throw in a bottle of tequila.” 

“Okay,” he responds. “Send me your longitude and latitude.”

Photo courtesy of Austin Cooper.

1 month post-departure
Distance traveled under sail: 750 nautical miles
Location: 26°15.321’N 112°28.135’W

We weave between lobster traps in order to arrive at the bay before daybreak. Conner guides us from the bow with a flashlight. Awaiting morning light, we drift and unwrap our new quiver. I can still smell remnants of the hot coat. 

The cold morning offshores foreshadow inbound light. We set the anchor and prepare the dinghy to go surf. Knee-high waves peel into the three bays. I’m overjoyed. Their size doesn’t matter. I’ve worked hard to achieve  this very moment—surfing and sailing’s harmonic intersection.

Conner jumps off the dinghy and I decide to take photos. His 7’2″ glides endlessly through Second Point. I laugh, motoring in sync alongside him. He outpaces the outboard. 

This is the first time we’ve felt confident since leaving Ventura. Being halfway down Baja calls for celebration, my first beer in more than a month. After Punta Banda, I didn’t think we’d make it this far.

Photo by James Ferrell.

4 months post-departure 
Distance traveled under sail: 2,288 nautical miles 
Location: 13°29.141’N 90°27.128’W 

We continue south, battering uphill against waves, current, and wind. Rhino’s bowsprit bashes the rough seas. I can’t complain. We’ve just surfed three weeks of perfection at Barra de la Cruz. And we’ve timed our Gulf of Tehuantepec crossing with good weather. Boats typically have to wait weeks to cross the perilous 250-mile body of water. 

Light emerges from behind the volcanic coast as the wind increases to a near gale. Conner wakes as he feels the boat make a heavier lean. We trim our sails, logging an average speed of 6.5 knots. As we settle into our morning coffee, we carefully sip at a 20-degree angle. Books become hazardous as they tumble off the library shelf. Heavy wind tilts life’s axis. Simplicities become difficult. 

After five days at sea, we make landfall in El Salvador. I’m greeted by two men in hazmat suits. They lift what looks to be a dart gun and aim it directly at my forehead. The pandemic has spread while we’ve been at sea.I register at 98.6° and they allow me to step onto land. I hesitate, tempted to sail back out into the open ocean, but a large south swell is scheduled to arrive tomorrow. 

The landscape has rapidly evolved since our journey’s inception. Tropical fruit drips from trees. The once-barren land now teems with canopy life. But one constant remains: waves. Another right-hand pointbreak peels perfectly in front of our eyes. And the lower longitude keeps the crowds away.

Photo by James Ferrell.

12 months post-departure
Distance traveled under sail: 3,380 nautical miles
Location: 08°55.254’N 79°31.892’W

It’s been five months since I’ve seen our beautiful boat. We left Rhino and all of our possessions with a man we had met a couple days after our arrival in Panama. We had no other option: We were forced to leave the country because of Panamanian border closures due to the pandemic. 

Much like surfing, sailing works on seasons. Luckily I’m able to return now, ahead of my brother, which puts me on a timeline that will allow us to depart in mid-February, to catch the trades by April. I immediately start on the list of duties to prepare Rhino for the months ahead at sea: change fuel filters, clean starboard fuel tank, install new stay sail, climb the mast to change wind indicators, check rigging, clean water maker, fix refrigerator, weld the back stay. I remind myself of how far we’ve come since leaving Ventura Harbor.

Two months of work and the Pacific checklist is complete. A week later, Conner flies down to meet me. We provision food and water, and chart our itinerary in preparation for a second tack out of the harbor—a Pacific crossing.

16 months post-departure
Distance traveled under sail: 4,173 nautical miles
Location: 0°45.153’S 90°18.122’W

The fire has been burning for three days now. The equatorial sun asserts itself as we take refuge in the merciful Scalesia trees. Under the canopy, we have two dogs, three chickens, six surfboards, 20 gallons of water, two blankets, one deck of cards, a constant fire to repel mosquitos, and the remnants of a pig carcass, which we eat for sustenance. 

Rhino is chained to the seabed 45 miles away. We’re chasing two large south swells to a remote part of Galápagos National Park,  and, without permits, we need to go undetected. We packed a week’s supply of survival  gear, a generator, a satellite phone, and every surfboard in our quiver into a panga for the four-hour ride to our current location. Alone, we are left to surf and survive. 

Erik—a Galápagos local, whom we saw ripping around on a vintage Vespa carrying a  Gerry Lopez single-fin in Santa Cruz—introduced us to this uncharted land. He didn’t  have any income, but his contribution to our expedition was rich: the pig, the chickens, and two crates of produce from his finca. The kicker was I had to kill the pig. 

Sure, I’d gutted fish and hand-hunted lobster underwater, but I’d never felt the last drops of warm blood leave a mammal. A dribble of nervous urine trickled down my leg as the pig squealed for its life. It became a sacrifice of sustenance for the next two swells. 

Perfect lefts peel into two bays that often connect on the larger sets. This surfing paradise has no name, no surf lodge. We feel like explorers of another era on every takeoff. 

“The second swell should show this afternoon,” I say, looking at Conner on the fourth day. “It’s forecast for 2.2 meters at 19 seconds.” 

“That’s what the buoys showed?” he asks.  “I guess,” I say, and shrug with uncertainty.  

“There’s no buoys out here,” he responds, laughing maniacally.  His knotted brown hair and sun-stained eyes already seem surf fried. We both question how we can continue to muster enough energy to surf. We also know, deep within our skin, that the incoming swell will be even better and our days surfing beyond the buoys are limited. 

We reach for the melted wax and begin suiting up.

18 months post-departure
Distance traveled under sail: 6,109 nautical miles
Location: 27°8.847’S 109°26.163’W

Hanga Roa anchorage is unprotected from the south swells that mercilessly roll Rhino’s cramped cabin. Because of COVID, Easter Island’s police and port captain have forbidden our entry to land, following our open-ocean crossing from the Galápagos. So here we are, still onboard at Hanga Roa, taking a beating. 

We watch as Esmeralda, a Chilean navy ship, flees the approaching storm. The waters are whitecapped. Swaths of 18-foot raw swell and 40-knot winds and rain are quickly approaching. A thick coat of clouds looms over the horizon. I can feel the cold air of the Antarctic moving north. We are far from the comforts of our Laguna Beach backyard. 

My squally jitters are interrupted by the sight of a small fishing boat bashing its way toward us. It’s piloted by a dark, leathery man with gray hair down to his waist. He’s seemingly the only person to recognize our hopeless situation. Still, no words come from his split lips. Instead, he casually reaches into his bag and hands me a 3-foot-tall marijuana plant, as if to say, “Good luck. You’re gonna need this.” Then he quickly motors back to shore to beat the incoming storm. 

The fierce wind creates a frothy swirl on the turbulent chop. Splinters of lightning split the sky through the night. No doobie, no matter how strong, can provide sanctuary from this. 

By dawn the next morning, the gale has dissipated. The swell remains. We decide to paddle our 7’2″ single-fins out to Hanga Roa point, a left-hand slab with volcanic-rock tombstones on the inside. We draw a crowd of pangas—the morning commute of fishermen. Even at head-high, the wave is spooky enough to create a spectacle. 

The almond-barrel takeoff is a reward for the shallow air-drop. I feel alive to be surfing  again, especially on such a remote island with a local crowd watching. One pangero in particular hoots and hollers throughout the session as my brother and I share leftover remnants of the storm.

Photo by Austin Cooper.

 On our paddle back to Rhino, the fisherman trawls through the whitecaps with the air of a welcoming host. In Spanish, he offers to take us to land. We tell him we are not allowed. He chuckles and insists it isn’t a problem. It was his father, “Califa del Mar,” who’d given us the plant yesterday, as an invitation to come ashore.

Mayor of the Sea? 

We load our boards and gear into his boat and head ashore. On closer inspection, we realize it wouldn’t be right to say that Piche, son of the mayor, resembles his father. He is more like a replica, only younger and brimming with stoke. He tells us we are the first tourists on the island in more than a year. He also says that he’s negotiated with the ranger to allow us into the nearby national park to see the moai. All it took was a plant from his back pocket. 

Just as night falls, however, Piche receives a phone call from a friend, who tells  him that six police cars are at his house. With- in minutes, the caravan of officers surrounds  us in the restaurant where we’ve been eating. We are detained and taken directly to the island’s only police station. 

Sitting inside, more stoned than the moai statues in the park, I imagine that my glossy red eyes reflect the paranoia that consumes me. It had been 45 days since my brother and I last touched land. This was not the way I wanted our reintroduction to terra firma to go. 

My brother seems far more relaxed than I feel. I’ve always envied Conner’s calm demeanor in stressful situations. We attempt to listen to the conversation across the room, wondering whether the officers are debating extradition or execution. 

Eventually, we are offered two options: Leave the island and sail into an incoming storm, or desert the Rhino and take an emergency flight to Chile.

Photo by Ben Thouard.

19 months post-departure
Distance traveled under sail: 7,345 nautical miles
Location: 24°28.115’S 131°10.680’W

Fifteen days in the open ocean since leaving Easter Island and all I want is a full night’s sleep. I plead with the port captain at Pitcairn to let us anchor. Another massive front is headed for this chunk of ocean. We aren’t prepared for such a humbling display of nature. The captain doesn’t budge. His orders are from the mainland. 

Once again, we’ve been denied access because of the pandemic. Denial from this island—to which convicts were once deported, where the mutineers of the HMS Bounty settled—feels inhuman.

It’s midwinter in the Southern Ocean, with forecasted winds of 50 to 55 knots. 

“Make as much northing as possible,” says a Kiwi researcher we meet outside Bounty Bay. 

He solemnly hands me a USB drive depicting the storm’s trajectory. 

“The gale is coming from the west. It’s the closest chance at removing yourselves from its zenith. Stay safe out there. It’s going to be heavy.” 

In addition to the forecasting data, he’s brought fresh fruits and vegetables, an empathetic gesture given our circumstances. He knows what it’s like to be alone in harsh elements—but to be at sea during a low-pressure system terrifies him. He’s one of 14 people on the island, making Pitcairn the most remote inhabited island in the world. 

Our silence magnifies all of our fears. I’ve never seen Conner like this before. He’s supposed to be the confident one. He continuously checks the weather, hoping for a different outcome. 

The radio squelches as we lose contact with the island. Rain trickles down the dodg – er as we weave around the rocks to leave Pitcairn in our wake, dark clouds engulfing the island as the wind steadily increases, foreshadowing the inbound wrath. We tie everything down that might break free or be a hazard should we need to get on deck. Neither of us plans on allowing minor errors to lead to bigger problems. We prepare a cup of coffee and make pasta over the stove, still in silence. We know we will not be sleeping tonight. 

“Crank faster!” Conner screams as I winch to bring in the jib a few hours later. “Starboard is underwater!” Then the sheet snaps in the overpowering gale and we scramble to replace it. 

“Forty-two knots!” I shout back when we’re finished. “How long’s it been like this?” 

Rain pelts us as it whips downwind into the cockpit, stinging like thrown sand. Suddenly I open my eyes and realize I’m soaked. I must have dozed off for a moment. 

I’m relieved to see my brother strapped into Rhino. Knowing his lackadaisical demeanor, I realize our situation must still be serious. 

It’s 4 a.m., and through our red and green navigation lights all we can see are waves avalanching into a malformed jumble, confused and uncontrollable as they break over the boat. The wind roars thunderously as it batters our sails. Its reverberations shake the boat like an earthquake. I’m terrified, but there’s nowhere to place my fear. If our rigging fails, we are stranded in the Southern Ocean. The nearest help is at least 1,500 miles away. Even then, chances are slim for a successful rescue. 

So this is what goes on beyond the buoys, I think. 

Thoughts ebb and flow, swashing into a pool of silence. I have only the tiller for control, though the weather helm is so strong I’ve no say in where the boat is going. 

The soaking waves push me to succumb. Finally a moment of calm, of release, as the wind abates. My white knuckles, tight at the helm, loosen. My clench for control dissipates. I realize I’ve literally been cleansed and renewed by the downpour. Aside from the deluge, I hadn’t washed in days.

Photo courtesy of Austin Cooper.

20 months post-departure
Distance traveled under sail: 8,477 nautical miles
Location: 17°59.151’S 148°5.629’W

The corduroy highway of deep blue is endless from my vantage at the tiller. At the trough of each wave, our vessel billows, only to catch the wind again at the crest. We sail at a snail’s pace through this barren ocean. The wind’s light breaths and gentle gusts lessen the sun’s burn. 

I put another 5 gallons in Rhino’s fuel tank, enough to ride the engine for another day. It’s a shame to use machine power when we have sails. It goes against one of the reasons we crossed the Pacific: a divorce from the material world. But there’s swell tomorrow at Teahupoo, and we’re surfers first and sailors second. 

The Yanmar’s pistons fire with intensity, the groan of the motor echoing throughout the cabin, as jarring as it is sickening. We’re hell-bent on arriving at the pass before dark. 

We awake the next morning to an eerily still anchorage, considering there’s terror beyond the reef pass. The roosters harmonize with the rumbling waves in the distance. Rhino’s anchor chain pulls tight as the calm lagoon turns into a swift river. My brother and I load surfboards into our 8-foot plastic dinghy to follow the draining current. 

At the pass, we are greeted by a conglomerate of photographers, Tahitian surf royalty, and a few brand-name professionals who make me bashful. We are so eager. We tie up to the black buoy in the middle of the channel, hardly looking at the horizon for what may come. We’ve been through enough to assume we can handle whatever the ocean gives us. 

As we paddle toward the lineup, boats and jet skis slowly disappear back into the pass. Gray, dark skies stand starkly against aqua caverns. Apparently, the squally conditions have sent everyone back to shore. Once again, we are the only ones on the water. 

Contrary to empty-lineup office daydreams, we realize how, in waves of consequence, it’s reassuring to have other surfers present. Conner paddles for the first set as I sit nervously out the back, waiting for him to kick out or to see his head bobbing on the inside. I need his confirmation before I swing for one. 

“Go grab the camera!” my brother exclaims on his paddle back out. “We’re the only ones surfing!” 

My nerves don’t like it, but I know he’s right. 

I swim back to the dinghy to load up our medium-format camera and housing, then froggy kick my way back to the impact zone. A professional photographer who has come out for a look takes photos from his boat, watching over me with apprehension. 

After documenting a few of my brother’s waves, it’s my turn for glory. Surfing backside on a single-fin at a hollow wave, let alone Teahupoo, can have major drawbacks. It’s hard to change lines. One wave cocoons me in its aqua dome, the translucent curtain blurring Tahiti’s mountainous coastline. All I can hear is my brother’s encouraging scream from the channel. It’s as if the wave is rewarding me for how far I’ve come on my sailing journey. 

As I shoot out of the tube, I quickly grip the rail to exit the oncoming west bowl. I grab too fast—and my single-fin slides from its track. My back skips across the water, offering me a perfect view up at the thick lip descending toward me. 

My face smacks the bottom. I feel shards and shattered grit in my mouth. I pray the fragments are cracked coral, not splintered teeth. When I reach the surface, a fast check with my tongue indicates that my teeth are still intact, but blood begins to pool around me. The next wave drags me over the shallow lagoon. The mountain’s gravitational force seems to know I’m overdue on dry land. And even though I feel I’m now a mariner, I realize I do need a breath on solid ground.

Photo courtesy of Austin Cooper.

23 months post-departure
Distance traveled under sail: 8,790 nautical miles
Location: 17°44.304’S 149°19.992’W

Early morning delusions have me thinking the sea and Rhino are conspiring against me for one final laugh. Our easy sail to our final port of call has turned into an all-night battle. Rhino’s rigging twangs in the strong breeze. We beat directly into the wind, tacking up the Taravao channel. I let go, knowing the boat will be fine. She doesn’t want me to forget her on this final stretch, our last sail. I soak up every breath of headwind upon my face. 

After three months in French Polynesia, it’s time I go back to California. A mathematician from the Marquesas has offered to buy Rhino, promising to journey farther into the Pacific. She’s a boat, and a boat must be sailed. 

As I sit at the tiller, trimming the headsail, I think back on what it’s taken to get here. Paul would be proud if he were sailing with me. I reminisce about Erik and Piche. I replay the remote waves Conner and I discovered and surfed. I feel proud of the resilience in our minds and bodies, the confidence we discovered within ourselves, and the closeness in our brotherhood. 

Sailing was never about searching. Rather, it was about discovering—discovering who I am, what I’m capable of, and what’s most important in life. Though I had to sail an ocean to find it, my future will always be with the sea. I am more at peace. The ocean pushes me to not be afraid, to reef when it’s stormy, and to turn left out of the harbor when I least want to. 

After setting anchor for the last time, I give Rhino a final kiss on the bow. Green algae protrudes from below the waterline. It’s time for a fresh coat of paint. Motoring away in a Tahitian panga, I look back at her, thankful to have sailed with her and for everything she has allowed me to find.

[Feature photo courtesy of Austin Cooper]