My home on the Sea
My first Solo-Sail
I'd like to say that my first solo sail went smoothly as I masterfully skippered my sailboat across the ocean waves. But that's not how it went at all. I motored out of San Francisco's Loch Lomond marina feeling like Daedalus escaping the tower, a smile on my face and my hand steady on the tiller. As soon as we passed East Marin Island and cleared the channel, I raised her sails.
Something magical happens to a sailboat when you hoist her sails, she comes to life. When you're motoring you can feel the boat being pushed through the water, shoving it out of the way, fighting the ocean. But when you're sailing your vessel slides through the water, smooth and graceful. The annoying, metallic rattle of the smoke spewing, noise making engine falls blissfully silent to be replaced with the silky sounds of the sea stroking the sides of your hull. It's as close as man can get to touching the face of god.
My boat is a Triton, a wonderful craft to make any man proud. Created by the legendary yacht designer, Carl Alberg, back in the 50's, she's an old girl but she still loves to race across the waves like a youngster. That's how my first solo-sail started out, me smiling and my Triton performing like a frisky teenager on a date. I steered her north and watched Point San Pedro pass by on our port side. We passed the sisters, twin islands in the San Pablo Straights, agilely avoided the massive dredger and the field of giant floating cubes of concrete blocks.
Once clear of that obstacle course I experienced the ancient right of passage that all mariners encounter periodically, I realized that I had completely lost track of time. The sea is a siren and she'll mesmerize you if you let her so keep your wits about you and watch the sun. I checked the time and realized that I better head for shore if I wanted to make it to my destination in daylight. I turned the tiller and we headed for China Camp.
Anchoring at China Camp
Headed almost directly into the sun, the shoreline was a black, featureless silhouette to me, offering no navigational aides to tell me if I was on course to reach my target or not. I wasn't concerned. These were not treacherous waters. Within a few minutes I spotted Rat Rock and felt pretty good about myself for piloting old Windswept to her home for the night. The sun had dipped completely behind the hills now allowing me to make out enough shore details to confirm that I was in the right place. I lowered the sails and dropped the anchor. I had soloed my way to China Camp.
After checking the depth with my lead-line and confirming that the anchor was securely set, I patted myself on the back, poured myself a celebratory scotch and lit up a congratulatory Cohiba. Perched on my favorite spot in the world, the forward hatch, I watched the day's light fade away while imagining the proud looks on the faces of Magellan, Cook and Slocum as they observed me from Fiddler's Green. Then it all went badly.
I guess you could say that my first solo sail was a complete success. I navigated my boat into unfamiliar waters and securely anchored her. Not bad for a guy that had barely sailed before, had never sailed alone and never anchored anywhere before. Not too shabby. If I'd have gotten up the next morning and sailed away I would have been able to pound my chest and claim champion mariner status but that wouldn't have been much of a story so I guess I'm glad it turned out the way it did.
China Camp is a picturesque anchorage. Back in the 1800's this national park used to be a Chinese shrimp-fishing village where 500 Cantonese immigrants lived and worked. The beach is beautiful, a favorite picnic spot for families year round. The old, rough and tumble shacks are still there, slouching and sagging. There's an old, wooden boat, the Sea Breeze, beached on the shore. Every experienced sailor, or photographer for that matter, can testify that all the best anchorages have a ruined, old boat.
The pier is right out of a black and white photo. Ancient, wooden fishing boats skippered by old men of the sea tie up to work on heir nets and tinker with their equipment. It's a magical place to be and I couldn't have picked a better spot to drop the hook. That's why I invited my friends to come visit.
The Old Boat
Things Get A Little Rough
John was the skipper of a sister ship to my own beloved Triton, and I met him and his wife, Susan and their dog, Cosmo, while living aboard in the Loch Lomond marina. I liked him immediately. With his white, full-faced beard and a smile that never left his face, John reminded me of a seafaring Santa. Susan is a joy to be around and Cosmo is my favorite dog in the world. I hadn't seen them since they moved their boat to a marina in Richmond so we made arrangements to meet up at China Camp. That decision had consequences.
John didn't have much luck as a sailor. The last time we went sailing together he got his arm caught in the main sheet and fractured a bone. This time, after a small series of issues, he tore a jib sheet and had to turn back for home. With no phone and no radio, he couldn't let me know he wouldn't make our appointment.
I waited all day for him, getting a little worried when they hadn't turned up by sundown. I'd been listening to the VHF all day in case there was any news about a Triton sailboat getting into trouble but there wasn't, which I took to be a good sign. I was relieved a few hours later when John finally got to a phone and let me know they were safely tied up at the dock. He also let me know that a Small Craft Advisory had just been issued.
Well that answered the question I had been asking myself which was "I wonder where all the boats went?" One minute there had been a sea dotted with graceful sails and speeding motorboats and then there was no one as far as the eye could see. Even the other boat anchored near me and vanished. How had I missed the weather report?
Despite the eerie absence of other boaters I wasn't worried. Lack of concern is one of the chief benefits of ignorance. I had a solid boat, a heavy, plow anchor set deep in a mud bottom and plenty of chain. Sure it might get a little rocky, maybe even a little wet but that's the price of life of the sea. So I settled in and prepared for a bumpy ride. I wasn't prepared for just how bad a mood King Neptune was really in.
If you're unfamiliar with boating then you might be surprised at how many sailors get sea sick because it's all of them. Every mariner I've ever met gets sea sick, even the really experienced ones. Even my friend, Tom, who's lived and worked on boats his whole life. He's been a professional tub-boat captain for over thirty years and yet he gets sea-sick. Mark, my sailing mentor, who's sailed and raced boats for more than twenty years, he gets seasick too. There are only two boatmen that I know that never succumb to the malady. One is my close friend, Don, a sixty-six year old sea-dog who's lived on a boat since he was just thirteen and the other is me. That night, anchored off China Camp, I was extremely grateful that I was the second.
An anchorage can be what we call 'rocky and rolly'. In fact my boat is currently anchored off Shelter Island in San Diego, a place that has earned the nick-name Rock-N-Rolla but the motion of the sea has never bothered me and China Camp is not known for this kind of action. It's regarded by the locals as a calm, placid anchorage. That must be on the days when Sea Gods are happy.
On this particular evening China Camp was neither calm nor placid. My boat and I were caught in a battle between wind and current with the wind pushing us one way and the current dragging us another. The result of this situation is a vessel held broadside to the wind-whipped waves. Waves were literally crashing over our side all night. Sailors like to tell tall stories but this was beyond belief. Crashing surf at China Camp? Unheard of.
Inside the boat was chaos. I pride myself on stowing things correctly but on this particular evening it was like visiting a library that was built inside a clothes dryer. Not a single item remained in it's place and everything that wasn't bolted down ended up on the floor in a heaving mass of tools, books, equipment and lines.
It was rough, yet still I wasn't concerned. My anchor was holding fast and we weren't in any danger. My old marina, Loch Lomond, was just around the corner so I could always duck back in there if things started to get too much for me. Through lack of experience I didn't realize that sailing out was no longer an option. With the current and the wind being the way they were the only thing keeping my boat off the shore was the anchor. Something I would find out tomorrow.
On land there is a saying, 'Fortune Favors the Brave' but at sea the saying is 'The ocean punishes the unprepared' and I was unprepared. I had not set up any lee cloths, a system that keeps the sleep from getting rolled out of bed in rough seas. I had not prepared and now I was paying the price. Battered and bruised I resigned myself to a long, sleepless night of sleeping on the cabin sole.
Sleeping that way soon proved impossible so I did the next logical thing. I lashed myself to the deck. At first blush this idea might seem, at best, ill conceived but it wasn't just inspired by watching old, Errol Flynn movies. With the boat moving the way it was the forward deck was the place with the least amount of motion and, as such, was the only place that offered any hope of getting some rest. So I strapped on my safety harness, went up through the forward hatch and latched my twin tethers to the lifelines that ran the length of the boat. It was wet yet surprisingly comfortable, especially when you are exhausted from hours of holding on.
And then my cell phone started ringing. I assumed it was either my wife calling to see how I was faring or perhaps it was Neptune calling to ask me if I had had enough yet. It was neither. I smiled when I heard the voice of my friend, tug boat skipper Tom.
" Hi. Are you at the marina?"
"Loch Lomond? No, remember I sailed out today."
"Yeah that's what I thought. Say, are you anchored off of China Camp at the moment? Because I'm watching a boat that looks a lot like yours just getting the hell pounded out of her there right now." I raised my head from the deck and looked towards the shore but I couldn't see him. "Yeah that's me. What are you doing out here at this time of night?"
"Well I was just driving past on my way back to the marina and I was keeping an eye out because I thought you said you were going to spend a night or two out there. You look like you're really having an ugly ride out there." I sat up, phone tucked inside my woolen beanie to protect it from the splashing waves. I still couldn't spot Tom anywhere along the road or beach. "Yeah I wasn't expecting a night like this."
"To tell you the truth, I've never seen it like this out here. Are you side on to the waves?"
"Are you run aground on something?"
"Then how the hell are you side on to the waves?"
"It seems that the current is pushing me one way and the wind is coming from another."
"Well that sucks."
"Where are you? I can't see you."
"I pulled over onto the side of the road and I'm watching you through binoculars. Are you sitting on the forward deck?"
"Yeah." I waved but he didn't say if he could see me. I was surprised that he could see me at all in the dark.
"I needed some sleep and this is the only place I could get any so I lashed myself to the deck." There was a moment of silence and I could tell that Tom was making a confused face. "Did you just say that you tied yourself to the deck?"
"Lashed, I said I lashed myself to the deck. It sounds more nautical and adventurous when you say it that way."
"You're nuts. I always knew you were a little crazy but that's just nuts." I laughed. Tom was one of the people I would miss the most. "You OK out there?" he asked.
"Yeah it's a little bumpy but it'll pass."
"Well you've got my number so call me if you need help, I'm just down the road."
"Thanks, Tom. I'll call you tomorrow."
We hung up and I laid back down to get whatever rest I could.
Believe it or not I was happy. I'd dreamed for so many years about sailing away on my own boat that nothing could spoil it. Worn out, soaking wet and cold I wouldn't have chosen to be anywhere else except right where I was, aboard my faithful Windswept.
I was sure that when I woke up tomorrow morning that everything would be much better and we'd just sail off like a graceful dancer. Maybe I'd go over to Richmond and see John and Susie and Cosmo.
The next day was worse. To be continued...