At Places I Remember we love stories of memorable people and places, and this episode certainly offers that.
After a life of international travel; work including opera performer, chef and arts director; raising a family; divorcing and recovering from alcoholism, Sandra Smith was a ready for a sea change. Literally.
At 43, Sandra moved from Philadelphia to the California coast, bought a 35-foot sailboat, painted it pink, and taught herself to sail. Her travel adventures for the next seven years took her down the coast to Mexico and into the Pacific.
Navigating by the ancient mariners' system of dead-reckoning, she experienced storms, evaded drug dealers and pirates as she sailed over 4,000 miles alone and sometimes with her rebellious teenage daughter. Using just a compass, a chart and a prayer, the author embarks on this spiritual odyssey which brings self-discovery and healing.
Later Sandra enjoyed adventures in Guatemala, and winds up in Arizona, living a land-locked, but still fascinating life.
Sandra's spirit is unique. Her ability to live large in the moment and roll with the tide is remarkable and inspiring.
Sandra C H Smith 's memoir, Out of the Fog, is available at Amazon in paperback and eBook. It's also available from the publisher, and online and in-store at Barnes&Noble:
Her website: https://SandraCHSmith.com
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at forbes.com, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to many guidebooks.
Contact Lea @lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; on Facebook, it's Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Website: placesirememberlealane.com.
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*Transcript edited for clarity.
Lea Lane 0:04
Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world.
At Places I Remember, we love travel and travel stories, and our guest today has a memorable one. Sandra Smith's memoir, Out of the Fog, describes how marital discord, alcoholism and recovery led her to a mostly solo seven-year sailing adventure in the Pacific. At 43 she buys a 35 foot sailboat, gets rid of the radar system and all the fancy navigating equipment, and teaches herself to sail, navigating by the ancient mariner system of dead reckoning. Sandra experiences horrendous storms, evades drug dealers and pirates, as she sails over 4000 miles alone, and sometimes with her rebellious teenage daughter. Her odyssey brings self-discovery and healing. Welcome, Sandra Smith, to Places I Remember.
Sandra Smith 1:12
Thank you, Lea. I'm thrilled to be here with you.
Lea Lane 1:15
Well, before we talk about your incredible sailing adventures, let's talk a bit about your earlier life. In your book, you write that you went to school in Scotland, you spent a summer in Greece, you studied in France, you hitchhiked to Barcelona, you lived in a villa with a friend in Aix-en-Provence with no indoor water and only a wood burning stove, you sailed to the Canary Islands on a banana boat, and you met your husband there. And you married in Philadelphia, had two children, and eventually got divorced. Along the way, give us a brief idea of some of your occupations.
Sandra Smith 1:53
Oh gosh, I've had a lot of them. Let's see. I've been director of the Springfield Regional Arts Council. And I was Cultural Affairs, that's in Missouri, and then I was Cultural Affairs Specialist for the County of Santa Cruz in California, and then director of the Santa Cruz County Arts Council. I've been a chef at a restaurant in the harbor in Santa Cruz because I told him he was losing money not having breakfast. So he opened up. And I had never been a chef before. Oh, it was awful. It was hard because the young chef dudes gave me all the hard work 'til I finally told them, That's enough. But I became an expert on doing all the fish. Oh, I owned my own real estate and insurance agency in Philadelphia in the '60s when I was very young. It was my husband, that husband, number one, inherited it from his father, but he was not good at ...
Lea Lane 2:52
Well, you were also an opera singer, weren't you?
Sandra Smith 2:55
Oh, yeah. Well, that's ...
Lea Lane 2:56
Oh, yeah, by the way (laughs).
Sandra Smith 3:00
Actually, the Philadelphia Opera Company found that, in a head on collision, somebody hit me, that my vocal cord had been semi-paralyzed. Because all of a sudden, I wasn't able to sing. But the directors of the operas loved my acting. So I was always cast as a character, like the lead the little French maid to the leading lady. And I'm the number one prostitute or, you know, I was also the cafe owner and in La Boheme, then I was also in a lot of theater. I've been in a lot of theater all my life.
Lea Lane 3:38
Well, you've had a fabulous life in so many ways. But what made you buy a sailboat off the California coast?
Sandra Smith 3:45
Well, my mother was paralyzed in a botched surgery, paralyzed permanently from the waist down. And she was very independent, from Scotland, of course. And she insisted on staying living alone. She was a widow in her beautiful home outside Santa Cruz, and I was in Philadelphia. But I even got a housekeeper and she wouldn't use her, but she kept falling out of her wheelchair, breaking legs. So after the seventh broken leg, even though she kept saying, Don't move here on my account, all the time. And I would say, If you say that one more time, I'm gonna have that engraved on your tombstone. But anyway, so it was a choice of either staying in Philadelphia, close to my kids, there was a shared custody arrangement, and they were now teenagers, or moving to California again and taking care of mother. And I asked the universe and God and everybody in the universe said, "Mother," so I moved to mother but I didn't want to live with her because she used to push all my buttons and favor my twin brother. So I said, you know, I'm moving here not to take care of you, but to improve the quality of your life. But I know you're very independent and I don't want you to feel like I'm, you know, moving right in, so I thought I'd buy a sailboat and live on it in the Santa Cruz harbor and be real close to you.
Lea Lane 5:03
So what was the most difficult aspect of learning to sail and failing?
Sandra Smith 5:08
Oh gosh, I made the mistake, there's - I call them dock birds, it's boats that men wearing white pants, never take their boat out. They use them for a little, you know,to have little trysts with martinis, etc. And so when I bought the boat, I promised it that you'll never be a dock bird, I'll take you out every day. And even though I didn't know how to sail yet, and then I realized, oh my gosh, if I don't keep that promise the boat might not save my life when I needed it to. So every day, and it was December in Monterey Bay, is very fierce in the winter. Every day, I had to take that boat out. And that was the hardest thing. I was terrified. And I would go out and go round in circles with my eyes closed and hope that we wouldn't die, you know. But that was the hardest part.
Lea Lane 5:56
Did you do it by yourself or did people teach you?
Sandra Smith 5:59
No, I did it by myself.
Lea Lane 6:00
Wow. I know you had some memorable crew, I read your book. Some of them were very, very good. And some of them were very, very bad. Can you tell us about a few of the both of them, good and bad?
Sandra Smith 6:12
Oh gosh, well, when my mother died, and I asked God what to do, he said it's time to go out in the Big Blue. But I had gone up and down the California coast learning how to sail that thing, but out in the Big Blue? So I thought, well, maybe I'll get some crew to help me. And in the boating world, people offer to be crew as volunteers. You don't pay them. But you supply all the food and, you know, any other little extras. So I found two women, one had worked for a yacht broker and the other just wanted to go sailing. And it turned out to be a disaster because that second one, she delayed our departure by two weeks because she had to have a tummy tuck for showing up for, you know, swimsuit time. And then she finally arrived and she had the long nails, I call them claws. And I thought, how is she going to pull the ropes up with those claws. But anyway, we took off, you have to go around Point, Sur, which is very scary. And I hadn't even been around it ever myself. And they stayed below, they wouldn't come up the whole time. And I needed to check the chart to see where we are, and they wouldn't come up. And they wouldn't take the steering wheel or anything like that. It just got worse and worse and I finally had, my daughter came out,my teenage daughter, and I said, "What should I do?" And she said, Those two are so nasty.
Lea Lane 7:45
It worked out, you got to the harbor and you got on your way again. I know you sailed for seven years. And you were heading directly down the Pacific Ocean hugging the coastline from San Francisco. Tell us about some of your favorite harbors in and around Mexico. You mentioned the San Benito islands in your book.
Sandra Smith 8:06
Yes, my daughter came out to sail with me as crew. And so I had gotten to San Diego. And so one of the boaters told me, who was really a nice boater, said Sandra, if you have time go out to the San Benitos because there's an elephant seal population out there. Well, I didn't know how hard this would be. But I had taught myself how to navigate with the compass and the chart. I didn't have fancy equipment. And so I made a course and everything and we took off. And so we thought we should be there, you know, in two or three days. But there was supposed to be a lighthouse and a lighted buoy there. And when we arrived in the middle of the night where we thought we would be at the islands, there was no lighthouse, and I got on the radio, Help anybody out there? And a fisherman in broken English said, Watch out!. I see the light on top of your mast and you're heading right to go over our reefs. And I said where's the lighthouse? And he said, Oh, it died years ago. So he guided us in, all around the three islands, to get the safe way into the anchorage. Oh, no, another reef! It was like that for a good hour or so. But we got there and got to see these fabulous elephant seals.
Lea Lane 9:24
What about an island that's near Cabo, near Cabo San Lucas in the Sea of Cortez called Espiritu Santo? It's called the Jewel of the Sea of Cortez. Tell us about that pretty island.
Sandra Smith 9:36
Oh, golly. At that time, in fact, San Benito's, there wasn't anything on there at all. No buildings at all. Now I understand they have cruise ships going over there. But Espiritu Santo is 23 miles off La Paz, which is the most fabulous place to be in the whole of Baja.
Lea Lane 9:52
What makes it so fabulous?
Sandra Smith 9:55
Oh, so much culture. So many art events. They even have symphonies there. So Espiritu Santo, you go from La Paz over there for the day or you can anchor over there, and the rocks there in the formations are incredible and the plant life, the cactus, they're just gorgeous, and the little anchorages. The water is so blue and it's so peaceful there.
Lea Lane 10:22
It's a very beautiful thing to see the desert come down to the sea. It's a very stark and beautiful landscape. I agree with you. And you continued over to mainland Mexico and you went to anchor in Puerto Vallarta, you went to visit Mazatlan, and many uninhabited places. What were some of your favorites of those?
Sandra Smith 10:43
Oh, there's a little island off Puerto Vallarta that was always fun to go sailing over. Sometimes when I didn't want to pull anchor I'd just hitch a ride with a fisherman and go over there. And we all called it the Pie Island, because there were only a few people living there, and the ladies that lived there, the locals, they made fresh pies every day and they'd walk up and down the beach. Each day it was a different pie that you could buy or take back with you to your boat and that was a lot of fun.
Lea Lane 11:13
Yum. I think I remember reading it was mango pie. Was that one?
Sandra Smith 11:16
Oh, that was their specialty.
Lea Lane 11:16
Oh, my goodness. I would like that part. Well, after that, you got lost at sea trying to get to Costa Rica. Could you tell us a little bit about that saga?
Sandra Smith 11:29
You talked about crew? That was another bad crew. Well, I was in PV and trying to decide if I should go south. Because it was kind of scary. And so this fellow there, he needed crew, he was going to go to Costa Rica. And so I thought, Well, that's good. I'll get a chance to see what it's like sailing down there, and if I can handle it myself. And he had leather patches on his jacket and had graduated from Stanford, so I thought he can't be all that bad. So I said, because I had stopped drinking years before, I said, I'll be happy to do it if you don't take any booze and I can bring my dog. And he said yes, he agreed to that. And the next day, another fellow appeared that wanted to go on the trip. And he was a cinematographer for the largest movie company in Canada. And when he didn't have movies to do, he would just come down there and hang out. And so I called him Bear, he was kind of cuddly and big, you know, and really nice. So we took off and a few minutes out of the harbor, the owner, I'm going to call him Captain Bligh, said, Get me a beer. I said beer? And Bear opened up the refrigerator. And I had donated all this filet mignon that I had driven to San Diego just to get because Mexican meat is so tough to chew. And I donated this whole thing. And he had gotten rid of it and the whole ice box was filled with beer. And Bear went to get a glass to pour and the guy shouted down, Don't bother with a glass, just bring me the quart bottle. And I knew I was in trouble and it went downhill from there.
Lea Lane 13:07
So you were supposed to be there about a week or so. But you ended up being lost at sea without much food, and I guess weeks on this trip, right, without a compass and and sort of having to work it yourself with with your own charts? Is that correct? You were kind of leading the way?
Sandra Smith 13:24
Yeah, well, we almost were a few hours out and his engine died. And I just read in my Bible, the Annapolis Book of Sailing, how to fix what was wrong, and he didn't want any woman messing with his engine. So we were off without an engine, and then not too far down the line, the jib, the main front sail, got a little rip in it. And he didn't have any sail repair tape. I mean, you go with that everywhere. And so he took that. So now we're down to just going on the main sail. And when I didn't see him navigating the charts, and I'm really good at that. And I said, I'd like to navigate the charts today. I'm good at it. He said, I'm doing the chart. Well, I said, Can I look at them and see where we are? Because I used to look every two hours and find where I was. He said, I didn't bother wasting money on charts. I said what are you using? He held up a book, National Geographic Atlas, and I knew we were in trouble.
Lea Lane 14:28
Oh, my goodness.
Sandra Smith 14:28
And it took weeks.
Lea Lane 14:28
You got back from that one, too. But one thing you wrote about, on the way though, you found this beautiful island. Wasn't there a lovely island in that area?
Sandra Smith 14:36
Oh, yes. We went by Cocos Island, and it's where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his book, Treasure Island, because they're pretty sure there's over a billion dollars worth of treasure hidden there by the fellow who took, when Peru was going to have a war with Argentina invading, the head of the church asked him, this guy, to take all the treasures including a full size solid gold Madonna, and diamonds and pearls, everything, to take it to safety. Well, the guy turned into be a really naughty man. And he grabbed, took all this stuff and instead of taking it where the guy said, he took it to Cocos Island, and they say buried it there.
Lea Lane 15:19
Well, it's still there probably, right?
Sandra Smith 15:22
Also, the author of Jurassic Park used Cocos Island as a model for Jurassic Park movie.
Lea Lane 15:29
Interesting. Well, you write that you lost a lot of weight from the lack of food while you were there. But you eventually wound up in Antigua, Guatemala, which is a beautiful, landlocked area, it is not on the water. And when you were there, you were only supposed to spend a weekend. What happened?
Sandra Smith 15:48
Well, I was, you know, after being lost at sea for so long, and being a hostage, because another boat offered to take me and he wouldn't let me get off. I was really in low, low space. And Bear and I traveled around Costa Rica, but he was also, it was terrible. So I said, Well, I guess I have to fly back to my boat up in Mexico. So I was at the airport, I got a reservation to get up to Mexico to get my boat. And these ladies behind me were talking about this place, Antigua in Guatemala. And it sounded so wonderful. They said, oh, there's artists everywhere. So I quickly ran up to the desk and changed my ticket and flew to Guatemala City to go to this Antigua. And I got a ticket that I would go there today, Friday, and leave Sunday and go up to Mexico City. But when I got there, the US government hands Americans three single spaced typewritten pages. It says Guidelines for US Travel in Guatemala, and all three pages is, don't do this, don't go climbing the volcanoes, blah, blah, blah, don't go blah, blah, blah. And I scratched that out because I said I'll never know Guatemala if I follow this rule. And I changed guidelines to guide book and I promised Guatemala you know, in my heart that I would not leave until I'd done everything on the three pages.
Lea Lane 17:11
So how long did it take?
Sandra Smith 17:13
It took me six months!
Lea Lane 17:14
Oh, my goodness. You did it, you did it. I'm so proud of you.
Sandra Smith 17:20
My daughter even came down and climbed on a volcano with me. And we were getting so exhausted. I saw a man with a white horse collecting wood and I ran up to him. Can I borrow yours? Please? I'm tired. And he said, sure. We both rode off on a white horse to the top of the volcano.
Lea Lane 17:39
Oh, that's a beautiful image. Well, people can read in the book, your other adventures, but you wound up in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, owning a B&B. And now you are happily married and landlocked in Bisbee, Arizona. How's that going?
Sandra Smith 17:56
Oh, it's all wonderful. I finally sold the boat after another bad crew experience. One guy admitted he was a murderer, and that did it. Oh, it was awful. So I sailed my boat back again to Puerto Vallarta and I got on the radio. Anybody can help me sail up to San Diego? And a guy came out and said he could go as far as the Baja. Right. And when he came on the boat, he looked it all over and he said, do you want to sell your boat? I said, sold. And somebody in Puerto Vallarta was going to Arkansas and I asked her, Can I ride with you, because these two other guys from Missouri told me I should move to Eureka Springs because there's people like me there, they said.
Lea Lane 18:41
It's a very artsy and fun area, I will say. A lovely town.
Sandra Smith 18:45
So that's how I ended up there. And when, one of the times when the boat was almost going to sink ,my whole life passed before me. And I saw the time when I was really single mom, poor, and I rented out my bedroom, you know, overnight, and I had the best time with everybody. And that came across the screen when my life was flashing by and I thought, okay, I'm going to move to Eureka Springs and open a B&B. So I ran it for 26 years.
Lea Lane 19:15
Wow. I think I probably have passed it, as I said, I've been in Eureka Springs and I used to write guide books about B&Bs, so I may have been in your B&B for all I know. We may have met. We could have passed in the night. So let me just ask you, Sandra, the name of the podcast is Places I Remember. You have so many memories. But can you tell me one special one to you, of all your travels?
Sandra Smith 19:39
Gosh, you know, the landscapes can change and be beautiful or different, but it's people, the people you meet traveling, that makes all the difference. And it makes me really angry when you hear people with their hatred and their prejudice. It's the people you meet. And so, when I traveled all around the Greek islands, you know, I met so many wonderful people on the Greek islands. Not the touristy places, but the locals. And I always stayed away from tourist places because I wanted to know the real people. So in Greece, it was wonderful. It was also wonderful, the fishermen that I met in the different anchorages. You know, going down the coast of the Baja, it turned out each fisherman would call ahead to the next fisherman south to say, Watch out for the pink boat, you might need help. They passed a message like that. And one time the motor died and everything and I got to Manzanillo for the nearest mechanic and it took days to sail there. All of a sudden, I docked my boat in the marina and here comes a running man, Surrenta! They always call you by your boat name. Surrenta, Surrenta! I mechanico! I waiting for three days. You see how wonderful they are.
Lea Lane 20:56
Yeah, I agree that people are what makes travel the best. I agree. Thank you, Sandra Smith, the name of your award winning book is Out of the Fog. And we have links in this episode's show notes. You show us that we're capable of amazing rewards when we open our minds and take some risks. And we all have stories to tell, whether or not we solo on the high seas. So, thank you, keep on going, landlocked, not landlocked. I know you'll have a wonderful adventure coming up soon, wherever you are. Because that's who you are.
Sandra Smith 21:29
Oh, thank you very much, Lea. You're a wonderful person to help everybody find neat places to travel to. Thank you.
Lea Lane 21:43
Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book, Places I Remember, is available on Amazon and at bookstores, in print, on Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.