The Sea Gypsy of Southern California
The old man from the sea
I heard the slapping of his paddles long before I saw him. When you live on a boat you become attuned, no, obsessed with noises. Every new creak or scrape or bump instantly gets your attention. You cease all activity while you tune your ears into them, trying to discern their source and evaluate their consequences. Is that quiet rattle a mere annoyance or is it something working lose that might cause injury or worse? Sound plays a big part in your world as a sailor, especially on days like this, when the fog is so thick that you can barely see the bow of your own boat.
I was sitting in the cockpit enjoying a steaming cup of coffee when I first heard the slap of his oar paddles on the water, getting louder and closer with each rhythmic splash. Must be the skipper of the old, wooden, Tahiti Ketch that was anchored near by, I assumed, since we were the only two boats in the anchorage. Another boat could have slid in under the cover of the dense mist, I supposed, but I was sure I would have heard them.
The ketch had seen better days, days of glory even, but she was still a fine looking vessel, regal and stately as they come. I had always been interested in them so I was keen to meet her master and discuss the boats merits and characteristics and the splashing slaps promised I would soon have the opportunity. If the rower kept a straight line from the shore to the ketch then he would pass within a few feet of where I was sitting. Sure enough, a few moments later, the heavy, wooden dinghy I had seen tied to the twin master began to appear out of the whiteness.
The Tahiti Ketch
He was old, older than I would have guessed from the clip at which he was propelling the dinghy through the water. I knew many a man half his age that couldn't have matched the pace he was setting. I hailed him, "Ahoy!" With his back to me he was taken a little by surprise, not startled, not this old man of the sea, but definitely surprised. He glanced back over his shoulder and raised a hand in greeting while he took a moment to catch his breath. I could tell immediately that, like myself, he was not a man given to rambling chatter and it made me feel instantly comfortable with him.
He rowed up alongside and stopped himself with one sturdy hand on my stanchions. "Ahoy" he said in the friendly but disinterested way that people who prefer their own company do. "A nice day to be anchored up in a safe harbor" I offered and he responded in agreement. "I've been admiring your boat, a Tahiti Ketch if I'm not mistaken?"
Now there's a sparkle in his eyes and he smiled as he looked up at me with the genuine warmth of someone about to speak about their pride and joy. I might have imagined it but I was sure that his back straightened, his shoulders came back and his chest thrust forward as he effused "Yep, she sure is." he looked in her direction even though it was impossible to see her through the fog. "How does she sail?" I asked with bona fide interest and received a response that was equally enthusiastic "Ya know, I never thought I'd like sailing a ketch but I love it." His boyish affection for his boat transformed his face from a stern, wooden carving into the lively visage of a man happily arriving at the gates of heaven. It made me smile. There's one thing all men of the sea understand and that's another sailor's reverent adoration for his vessel.
"Why do you love it?" I asked.
"Well, there are lots of different reasons, actually."
"Would you like to come aboard, share some hot coffee and tell me some of them?"
He looked at me and I think he was a little surprised at himself because he discovered that he did indeed want to. "Yeah, let me just tie up here." He picked up his painter and I showed him where to tie up to my boat and then helped him aboard. While he got himself settled I stepped below and started making my colorful guest the promised coffee.
"Is this a Triton?" he called down to me after casting an experienced eye over my home. "
"It is. You know your boats."
"Good sailboat, it'll take you anywhere."
"Yeah she's old but she's solid and sails well."
"Sounds like me" he muttered to himself as he took a seat on the portside cockpit locker. I came back on deck and handed him his mug "Let me know if you want it Irish." He was either unfamiliar with the phrase, was having difficulty with my accent or was a little hard of hearing. Maybe all three. "I can add some whiskey to it if you like. Help keep the damp out." He declined and I seated myself across from him, eager to continue the conversation about the ketch. "So you were saying, you never thought you'd like being the skipper of a ketch. What did you usually sail?"
"Sloops, like yours."
"And why didn't you think you'd like sailing a ketch then?"
"Well, I thought of all the extra work and didn't really see the benefit of it all."
"What changed your mind?"
His smile could have come from the face of a man talking about the love of his life "She sails beautifully." His voice held something magical that made me unconsciously lean in, excited to hear his next words. "She balances perfectly."
Only a sailor, in particular a solo-sailor such as he and I could truly appreciate the wonder and benefit of a ship that balances well and sails herself. "I just hoist the sails and she just goes. I rarely have to adjust anything." Led by the conversation he notices for the first time that my boat has no self steering rig hanging off the stern. "What do you use for an auto-pilot? One of those electronic gizmos?" I always enjoyed this conversation.
"Nope." I held up my hands "I use these."
"No self-steering at all?"
"I'm not a gadget kind of guy. In my experience the more gadgets you have the more time you spend tied to a dock working on getting it fixed." His kindred spirit responded immediately "That's very true. On the Princess I don't have all of that computerized stuff. Just a depth sounder and a knot-meter. This last Christmas my daughter bought me one of those chart plotters. It's alright but I know the places I sail so well that I rarely turn it on."
"You have a territory that you sail regularly?"
"Yep. Been sailing these waters most of my life. Spent a few years sailing Baja but spent most of my years around these parts. Sailed pretty much every bay, cove, harbor, inlet and marina between here and San Francisco over the last forty years."
"A life well spent."
"Yep. Not for most people though."
"Agreed." We had fallen into an easy back and forth that didn't need to conform to the conventional pattern of constant talk. Long pauses didn't bother either of us and we each sat drinking our coffees for a few wordless moments.
"No TVs, no microwaves, cold showers and a lot of hard work." He resumed where he left off.
"Wouldn't have it any other way." I concurred.
"Nope, me either. There's some beautiful things along this coast here."
"Got a favorite spot?"
He leaned back and considered his answer, a thoughtful man who didn't just spit out the first thing that came to mind. "Well, I've got a few actually."
"You call any of them home?"
He laughed "Me? No, my homes The Princess, has been for most of my life. I keep moving. Every few days I haul anchor and move to somewhere else. It's a lot of sailing but it's the only way you can live rent free these days."
This old, sea-gypsy had been living aboard and sailing the Southern California coast since he was in his early twenties . He had learned to live cheap, his only costs being food and whatever parts he needed for his boat. He had spent decades enjoying the best views along some of the most expensive real estate on the Pacific Coast and all for less than most landlubbers were spending on fast food every month. He was living free, aboard his own, floating palace like a king of the sea.
We sat talking about his life and his adventures for several hours. When he realized he had met a kindred spirit he was eager to share his knowledge about the different anchorages where a sailor could safely drop the hook for a few days without having to pay mooring fees. He was a treasure chest of information. Everything from the types of bottoms in each bay to which harbor masters would turn a blind eye to you stealing a few days in one of their slips. I wrote it all down, in detail. Charts and cruising guides were nice but first hand knowledge from an experienced sailor was worth more than gold and I didn't want to miss a thing.
We soon tired of coffee and switched to something a little warmer. Cheap and not very good but it kept you warm on a damp, foggy evening. In all the time we talked I never learned his name and never offered my own, an experience I found was normal among certain types of people. The encounter ended with us swapping the traditional mariner's farewell, "fair winds and following seas" and then he was over the lifelines and back into his battered dinghy. The fog was still thick and it was only a few strokes of his oars before he had vanished completely from my sight.
I only saw him once more after that, the next morning when he was weighing anchor and raising his sails. The morning air was clear and our boats weren't far apart but neither of us called out a greeting, preferring instead to raise silent hands to wave goodbye. Despite his age he handled the ketches rigging easily and he and The Princess slid out of sight with just a few tacks.