Locals brave stormy seas with a Sunderland while setting sail for a piece of paradise

By Paul M.J. Suchecki

On Oct. 28, four intrepid sailors left Marina del Rey on a beautiful Beneteau 423 to join the 23rd Baja Ha Ha cruisers’ rally from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas. The journey is about 750 nautical miles, but those aboard the De Vrijheid — owner/skipper Johan Feldbusch, his wife/first mate Barbara Baumann, Laurence Sunderland and Diane Hubner — didn’t stop there. They sailed around the tip of Baja California to La Paz, in the Sea of Cortez.

In short, Baja Ha Ha is “a West Coast rally of boats heading south after hurricane season,” said Baumann, a longtime local event producer, who went on to recount the backstory. “Latitude 38, a West Coast boating magazine, began it when they realized that at the end of October a lot of boats started heading south, so they thought, ‘Why not make it a fun group effort?’ [This year] 182 boats signed up.”

Now, about the De Vrijheid. That’s an unusual name for a boat. In Dutch, the name translates to “The Freedom,” but inspiration also came from an adventure comic that Feldbusch read while growing up in Amsterdam: “The Adventures of Captain Rob and his Sailing Vessel, De Vrijheid, with his dog Skip.”

Feldbusch and Baumann have been living on a Venice walk street since 1998 in a home he built. But this year they felt it was time for a change of scenery, so they recruited friends Sunderland and Hubner, Marina del Rey resident and massage therapist, to join their escape plan.

Any boater should recognize the Sunderland name. Laurence is a shipwright, sailor and a USCG-certified captain. He’s also the father of Zac Sunderland, the youngest American to circumnavigate the globe by himself in a sailboat, and Abby Sunderland, the youngest person to ever sail solo around Cape Horn.

“Often people have asked me what I think about the ocean, and I tell them ‘to be quite frank it terrifies me.’ When it stops doing that I’ll be dangerous. I’ll be overconfident. Yet I’ve had some of my best times on the ocean and in remote around places the world that you only get to through sailing,” Sunderland said. “The biggest advice I gave Zach and Abigail was to not grow complacent, which is easy to do after you’ve been out for a couple of days. The ocean doesn’t care if you’ve been up for three days and nights without sleep.”

Hubner agrees. “I’ve been sailing for about 18 years, and I consider myself a rank beginner. I always look at what I can learn, what I can do differently,” she said.

Although their voyage began with so little wind they had to motor, by Nov. 1 the crew of De Vrijheid faced 20-knot winds and rough seas with large swells.

“It was all hands on deck. As the crazy winds developed, we put up the whisker pole for downwind sailing. However, the pin broke and therefore no pole,” Baumann said. “The winds and seas settled down for part of the day. By mid-afternoon they picked up again, and it blew all day and night — crazy wild winds of 20 to 40 knots.”

While monitoring the radio, they learned of many fellow boaters facing numerous problems including rudders, boom vangs and auto pilots breaking, sails ripping, losing power and communications, and even rogue waves battering boats.

“Everyone was sharing advice, parts, labor, whatever one could do; we were all in this together and helped where and when we could. Mother Nature is very powerful. And it was cold,” Baumann recalled.

One sailboat wrecked on the rocks. Another lost its engine. But Feldbusch and Sunderland managed to fix the whisker pole the very next day.

On Nov.9, they made it to Cabo San Lucas, reeling in a 15-pound tuna as they arrived. The next day they said farewell to Sunderland as they put him on a plane. When the last of the boats arrived, it was time to celebrate —“a rowdy event at Squid Roe in downtown Cabo; everyone singing, dancing and really partying,” Baumann said.

After a few days of recuperating, De Vrijheid left for La Paz. On Nov. 18, three weeks after leaving Marina del Rey, they faced yet another rough day of sailing. “The wind was on the nose at 20 knots, making for a very bashing day. It was very rocky with large swells,” Baumann said.

But then they arrived in La Paz, where they’re drinking desalinated water in a solar-powered slip — and staying at least until June.

A longtime sailor, Suchecki is a member of Fairwind Yacht Club and Single Mariners of Marina del Rey.