Many people dream of sailing off into their retirements. Jan and Lance St Pierre, longtime Bakersfield residents, have done just that.
Until her retirement in 2016, Jan was the well-known spokeswoman for First 5 Kern, a tax-funded program for early childhood development. Before that, she spent more than a decade as the spokeswoman for the Bakersfield City School District, and was on the staffs of the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce and Kaiser Permanente Kern County. Lance owned and operated a school lunch production company in Shafter.
Married for four decades, they are the parents of three adult children, grandparents of six and great-grandparents of five.
But Jan and Lance were not about to sit rocking in chairs on their Bakersfield porch when they began planning their retirement.
“We have been blessed to have been there to share our grandchildren’s and great-grandchildren’s lives and watch them grow,” said Jan. “But now it’s time for us to live our dream. Have you ever been on vacation in a beautiful ocean town and wished you could stay forever? Well, that’s what we’re doing.”
In 2017, Jan and Lance sold everything — home, furniture and nonessentials — bought the 41-foot Islander Freeport named Canta Libre, which is Spanish for “Sing Free,” and set sail with their two dogs, Ali and Fenway, for the Bay of La Paz, Baja California Sur in the Sea of Cortez. Their 1977 sailboat is docked at the Marina Palmira.
It sounds idyllic. And Jan St Pierre says it is. But she admits that it hasn’t always been easy.
Since the beginning of the year, St Pierre has shared the couple’s adventures via text messages, emails and occasional telephone calls for this story. A retired Bakersfield Californian journalist, I have known St Pierre as a news source for decades, and more recently I have been tracking her life in Mexico through Facebook.
“Making a move to a different lifestyle takes lots of planning and preparation,” said St Pierre. “We created a three-year plan, which turned into a five-year plan. The plan included specific steps to early retirement, searching for and purchasing the right sailboat, and selling our business, home and cabin cruiser.”
The couple have long owned boats, including bass and ski boats, as well as a cabin cruiser, until buying the vintage sailboat they now call home.
St Pierre explained that it took several years to find just the right, well-maintained boat, which was docked in San Diego. Canta Libre’s “comfort features” include a regular stairs entryway, rather than narrow or ladderlike stairs, which allows their dogs to go up and down unassisted. The boat also has two bedrooms, two baths, and roomy open living and galley areas. It is equipped with electronics, water maker, washer and dryer, and enclosed cockpit. Jan and Lance expected all the old boat needed was some cosmetic touches — upholstery, curtains, carpet, etc. But old boats are full of surprises.
On the boat’s first passage from San Diego to Channel Island Harbor in Oxnard, where Canta Libre would be docked while she was prepared for her voyage south, the engine seized.
“We were 5 miles from our destination,” St Pierre recalled. “With lack of wind to sail, we began drifting towards a rock cliff and called for help. Soon, there were several people there. A good Samaritan in a large cabin cruiser was first on the scene to monitor us and keep us out of danger. Then came a helicopter, a lifeguard from a nearby beach, Oxnard police, an ambulance, the Coast Guard, a Bay Watch boat with two guys (yes, they really do wear Speedos!) and a tour boat full of tourists taking our picture.
“We felt like celebrities and maybe those tourists thought we were. Finally, Vessel Assist arrived to tow us the rest of the way.”
Installing a new engine cost $25,000 and required cutting open the cockpit floor to remove and replace the engine with a crane. More money was spent on new electronics, including GPS and radar, a new dinghy and motor, a new refrigerator, rebuilt generator, bow thrusters, paint job and installation of a complete sound system and “much more,” said St Pierre. “So, all the things it had that we liked, we ended up upgrading.”
Their initial plan was to sail south to Cabo San Lucas with a large rally group. But that plan changed and they left about a week later on their own.
“The voyage south on the Pacific Ocean, from Oxnard to Cabo San Lucas, was no smooth sailing,” said St Pierre. “The predicted tail winds were mostly headwinds. The ocean swells and waves fiercely rocked us and sleep came intermittently.
“On the other hand, we saw beautiful sunrises and sunsets, anchored at small seaside fishing villages, met many wonderful people, and enjoyed authentic Mexican food, fresh seafood and great margaritas,” she said. “And there is nothing quite like cruising offshore in the calm of the night with no land in sight and only the moon lighting the water, surrounded by a zillion bright stars.
“By the time we docked in La Paz, we decided this will be our lifestyle for at least a couple of years. It’s been 2½ years since we arrived in Mexico,” St Pierre said. “We plan to continue living on our boat and cruising Mexico until we become tired of it and we are not sure when that will be. Right now, the ocean is where our hearts are. We love the warm weather, white-sand beaches, crystal-clear water and, of course, sailing.”
“Not everyone would sell everything they own and sail away. But for us, this life works well,” said St Pierre. “We are fortunate to have the freedom and good health to take a permanent vacation in Mexico or anywhere else and stay as long as we want. No alarm clock, no traffic, no schedules. Plans are written in the sand at low tide.
“Beauty aside, the pace of life here is relaxed,” said St Pierre, who noted that the harbor comes alive with families and celebrations at night and on holidays. Biking, walking and watching breathtaking sunsets along the waterfront is a daily treat.
“Within an hour’s drive, you can reach quaint little towns and villages on both the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez loaded with history, culture and artisanal delights. The waters are packed with all sorts of sea life and are perfect for snorkeling and diving. Jacques Cousteau called this area ‘the world’s aquarium’ and for a good reason. Dolphins love swimming alongside your boat and you can swim with the whale sharks and sea lions.
“The annual whale migration from the feeding grounds in Alaska to birthing grounds in Baja California Sur and Sea of Cortez takes place from mid-December to the end of March. The sea turtle population comes ashore to nest from December to February. The thousands of sea turtle eggs are protected and when born, the baby turtles are released and head straight for the sea.
“Life in La Paz offers just about everything you need. Internet allows us to stay in touch with family and friends, shop on Amazon, and watch almost any television station in the U.S. and around the world. We have a Walmart, Home Depot, department stores, grocery stores, lots of specialty stores and boutiques, and many open-air restaurants and clubs along the sea. Cabo San Lucas is a two-hour drive from here with lots of historical towns and villages to visit along the way.
“As a bonus, just about everything costs a lot less here than in the States. Who can complain when it’s just another sunny day in paradise? This is truly living the dream.”
Editor's note: This interview was conducted prior to the shutdown. The St Pierres have been sheltering safely on their boat since early April.