In Greek mythology, the sirens sang a mesmerizing song that lured sailors to sea.
In the years since the sirens called Odysseus, their song has taken different forms for different people. For Lorajane “Lj” Kessler, it took the form of these words, which she first read on the National Outdoor Leadership School’s website in 2018:
“Wake up early to ready your boat. Hear the sails flap as you race through the waves. Spot colorful fish poking around coral reefs. Relax in the evening on a beach under the stars.”
How could a landlocked Wyoming resident resist those words? Even though she didn’t know a clove hitch from a reef knot, Kessler knew the sea was calling her and, in early December, she finally had the chance to answer it.
“Outside of my husband and kids, I think this is one of the most self-fulfilling things I’ve done in my life,” Kessler said of her eight-day sailing excursion on Bahía Concepción (Conception Bay) in Mexico’s Gulf of California. “Just being out there on the open water with all of these amazing women from across the country was a really incredible experience for me.”
Kessler said that she has always felt called to the sea. She spent her childhood surrounded by water – from the California coast to Puget Sound – but never had a chance to learn to sail until now.
The opportunity came courtesy of the National Outdoor Leadership School – a nonprofit global outdoor school started in 1965 in Sinks Canyon, Wyoming, by Paul Petzoldt. Since those humble beginnings, the program has provided thousands from around the world with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities ranging from mountaineering in the Himalayas to kayaking in the Patagonia Sea.
“I had been wanting to do something different for a while and had been looking on the NOLS website for some time,” Kessler said. “When I saw the sailing trip in Baja, I was like, ‘This is perfect.’”
The trip, which took place from Dec. 7 to 14, started when Kessler arrived in Loreto, Mexico, after flying nearly 1,600 miles. From there, Kessler and her 14 fellow students, who ranged in age from 25 to 60, drove to NOLS’ Mexico base in Coyote Bay near Mulegé, Mexico.
“When we got to the base, we met the instructors and went through all the gear we brought,” Kessler said. “They had a store on base, so we could buy or rent any other gear we needed, and then we went into the ration shop and picked up all our food for the week. From there, we were assigned cooking groups and our 22-foot longboats. We were rolling across the waves by about two in the afternoon on that first day.”
The first trip was a memorable one, Kessler said.
“It was fun – really windy and the waves were kind of kicking up,” Kessler said. “Our instructor was doing everything for us, but it was still kind of thrilling to sail for the first time.”
There were multiple legs to this sailing journey, Kessler said. The group’s first anchorage was at a place on the Baja California Peninsula known as Amorales. The group spent a day there exploring a rock canyon and learning some basic sailing skills.
“I knew nothing going in, and I felt like my brain was full of information by the end of the first day,” Kessler said. “From the different types of sails to the parts of the boat to the knots, there was a lot to take in. Every day, I would come back the next morning unsure if I remembered what I had learned the day before.”
From Amorales, the group moved north and camped for a few days on the island of Guadalupe. The wind here made the sailing more challenging, Kessler said, but the group kept sailing.
“We sailed every day, which does not always happen on these trips,” Kessler said. “The wind and waves were certainly rough in places, but it was generally pretty clear and comfortable.”
After a few days at Guadalupe, the group moved north again to the island of Santo Domingo, where Kessler and her fellow sailors practiced tacking, the art of changing course by turning a boat’s head into the wind, and jibing, which is the art of turning the boat’s stern into the wind so that the wind direction moves from one side of the boat to the other.
At Santo Domingo, the final stop on their journey before returning to base, the group also took some time to rest and enjoy snorkeling and hiking around the island, Kessler said. From the island, Kessler could view the outer bay of the Sea of Cortez.
“The Baja Wilderness was beautiful, and it was nice that we had some time to explore it,” Kessler said. “This was primarily a sailing trip, but it wasn’t just sailing by any means.”
The trip also provided opportunities for leadership development, with each sailor taking on different roles on their longboat throughout the journey, Kessler said.
“I didn’t necessarily go on this trip to enhance my leadership skills if that makes sense,” Kessler said. “I came to learn to sail and develop camaraderie with this group of women. But I do think I grew as a leader through the experience. It is difficult to lead others when you are just learning the skill yourself, and I think I received a lot of valuable experience in not only sailing but leading.”
Back in Buffalo, Kessler said that she still remembers the feel of the wind in her hair and the rocking of the longboat on the waves. While NOLS doesn’t provide their students with sailing certifications during eight-day trips, Kessler said that the trip motivated her to pursue one for herself.
“I do want to continue my sailing, because it’s like anything – if you don’t use it, you lose it,” Kessler said. “This trip reinforced the fact that I made a good choice to pursue sailing, but also reminded me that I still have a lot to learn.”
Kessler said she hopes to take her husband sailing sometime soon, but, in the meantime, she’ll fondly remember her first sailing adventure.
“It really is a renewal of your independence – a chance to grow and explore somewhere you’ve never been,” Kessler said. “It was a great experience, and I would love to go back someday.”