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Stories >> The Boat Returns

Sailing the Salt Seas

After six months, the timing of open schedules and good weather actually converged, so I finally endeavored to bring my boat back from Morro Bay to Berkeley. This nightmare tale started when I sailed from San Francisco to Mexico, and last ended when I couldn't make it all the way back up the California coast alone. I had resolved to trailer the boat the rest of the way, but of course that never worked out. I still didn't have the energy to make the sail alone, so instead I gathered a buccaneer crew to brave the central California coast with me.

I was actually pretty nervous about getting people who had no sailing experience into this situation, so most of the "recruiting" time was actually spent trying to dissuade people from coming. Knowing what I know, there is no way that I would want to come along on this trip for the ride, so I did my best to impart that knowledge on those who were volunteering to do just that. I wasn't very successful in my attempts to dissuade people, and actually, the more unappealing I made the trip sound, the more excited people seemed to be about it. I'd go on at length about the miserable combination of cold, wet, wind, seasickness, hunger, and sleep deprivation -- to no avail. I even started talking about a 50/50 chance of death or serious injury. In the end, though, I was satisfied. Clearly, my crew was a foolhardy one, but there is no way that anyone could say my disclaimer hadn't been extensive enough.

The final roster included Marie, Jason, and Jennifer (who'd come all the way from Ohio for the trip). The sail back from Morro Bay was going to be hard enough, but first we had to get down there. None of us had a car, or knew anyone who would carpool us for 10 hours. Hopping the coastal train out of Oakland is pretty fickle, so that left hitchhiking — which is something that I really do not enjoy anymore. The whole experience of watching hundreds of cars go by without stopping generally leaves me feeling pretty depressed, and the excitement of meeting new people who I would never ordinarily meet under other circumstances has been replaced by a number of unpleasant interactions. But to add insult to injury, we also had to transport a large, four person, inflatable dingy.

We decided that we'd split up, travel in groups of two, and meet again in Morro Bay. The dingy was divided into the large blob of vinyl (which took two people to carry) and the wooden slats that served as floorboards (which could barely be managed by one person). The group that got the slats would also have to carry the paddles and pump.

We played a rock-paper-scissors tournament to decide who had to carry which part. Jennifer and I won, so we chose the slats/oars/pump. At that, we set off.

We spent a lot of time waiting on the 101S on-ramp in San Francisco, but eventually got a few short rides out of the city. We accidentally left our bag of food in one car, and also had to walk a few miles down the highway, since there was no southbound on-ramp where we were let off. The caustic smell, noise, and wind that speeding cars kick up in their wake is pretty unpleasant, especially when combined with the thought of all the good food that had just driven off in the trunk of a stranger's car, who probably wouldn't even eat it himself.

The sun was shining, though, and we eventually made it to the next on-ramp. The setup wasn't so great there, but we only stood out for a short while until a sleek new Mercedes pulled over. The guy inside informed me that he was only going about 20 miles down the road, but that he could take us that far. I asked if the on-ramp where he was headed was a good one, and he immediately responded "Oh it's good! Reeaaaal goood." We got in, and he mentioned that he used to hitchhike a lot in his day. "Back in the 60's."

I guess it's pretty old news, but I've been fascinated by the whole baby boomer phenomenon lately. Suddenly I realized that this guy might qualify, and asked "Could you be considered a baby boomer?" He snaps back: "Oh, I am a boomer! I'm Richard Jakes, six foot three, 235 pounds of black DYNAMITE... I was hanging out in the Fillmore, pre-afro, listening to Ike and Tina Turner!" At that, he turned up the stereo (which I assumed was playing Ike and Tina Turner) to sing along with the "whoohoo" and "oohooohs". During the twenty mile trip, he gave us the synopsis of his youth, his time as a conscript in Vietnam, as well as the story of his selling out to become a real estate broker.

What I found interesting was that he seemed to equate all of 60's radicalism to drug culture. From his perspective, giving up on that radicalism was as simple as "getting his nose out of the bag." And, of course, he'd made the decision to "get a real job" when he'd had kids.

We got closer to his exit, and he said "Now I'm going to show you guys how this is done. Check out this on-ramp here, reeaal wide shoulder, not like that death trap back there. This is THE PLACE." We started to get out, and he handed Jennifer a $100 dollar bill. We said that we didn't need it, and he said "Oh no, this is from Ike and Tina Turner!"

So we were feeling pretty good about things, took two steps across the on-ramp, and stuck out our thumbs just as the first car was passing. That car immediately pulled over, but the driver was only going 20 miles, and was drinking a beer. We thought we'd just wait for another ride, since this one was pretty short and the driver was drinking. Besides, the first car stopped, surely we'd get another ride in no time!

And oh were we wrong. We waited on that on-ramp for six hours. Finally, the sun went down and we had to quit. We walked off the on-ramp, and discovered that we were in Blossom Hill, which is essentially San Jose. I checked my voicemail and learned that Marie and Jason had made it all the way to Morro Bay in three rides. I sighed at our defeat.

We managed to get all of our stuff and our half of the dingy onto the roof of a Hollywood Video, and slept until early the next morning. We trudged back out to the same on-ramp, and waited for another two hours. I was about to go insane, when some folks finally picked us up. They were only going two exits down before turning off the highway, and apologized as if it wasn't going to work out. "Oh no no no!" we insisted, "We'll take the ride! Just get us the fuck out of here!"

Another memorable ride was with a woman who had to pick her son up from highschool on the way. So, we rode with her through the carpool line in her minivan. When her 15 year old son got in the van, looking pretty surprised to see us in the back seat, I wanted more than anything to know all about how much he hated highschool, and who in his class he had a crush on.

We finished the trip laying in the flat bed of a truck, riding through the ravine of highway 41 as the sun was setting. We met up with Marie and Jason, put the dingy together, and rowed out to the boat. It was a nice feeling to be back at anchor, especially with friends, and playing hearts that night under the warm glow of the oil lamp was as cozy as I've ever felt.

We spent the next day going over the boat and practicing sailing in the harbor. It was somewhat tricky to teach sailing effectively, since that harbor is pretty narrow and littered with boats at anchor. We actually hit another boat while practicing our maneuvers. As we were heading towards it, I yelled "fend off!" to Jason at the bow. He gave me a confused look and didn't move at all. We crashed right into the side of it. Afterwards he came back from the bow and asked "I couldn't hear you up there? What was that you were yelling before?" I laughed, and for the rest of the trip we'd spontaneously yell "fend off!" to each-other in different situations.

Later that day I ran into someone who I'd met on previous trips to Morro Bay. He asked me if I had a crew for the trip back, and I told him that I did have a crew, but that they were pretty green — in fact I had just taught them how to sail by tacking around the harbor that day. He laughed out loud "Holy shit! That was you guys! Good luck man, good luck..."

We sailed out towards San Simeon the next morning on the 4am tide. The trip out of the harbor was incredibly surreal, since the moon had set and we were navigating strictly by the compass and the flashing red/green channel markers. We could feel the motion of the swell, and we could hear it crashing against the breakwater as we got closer and closer to the entrance, but we couldn't see anything.

Almost as soon as we made it out into the ocean, Jason got sea-sick. He seemed to be sitting quietly, and I thought he was lost in introspection or marveling at the stars hanging over the open ocean, but when Marie asked him to come and help her look at the chart, he sort of mumbled "Sure, uhm, just give me a second..." in a strained voice. Eventually he had to lie down in a berth and close his eyes. From the few times that I've experienced sea-sickness, I know that it's one of the worst feelings there is. It makes you feel like you've always been sick, and like you'll never be well again. Jason's analysis was that any kind of sensory input becomes nearly unmanageable. We thought he was sleeping for most of the trip to San Simeon, but later he told us that he just had his eyes closed and was trying to block out as much sensory input as possible. Jennifer threw up into a bucket a few times right next to him, and Jason just continued to lay there completely motionless. He later told us that he thought the sound of Jennifer's puke hitting the bucket was a leak that we'd sprung in the hull, but he had just continued lying there absolutely motionless since thinking about the implications of that would make his head swim. Marie, as usual, was as cool as a cucumber.

It was only a 27 mile run and we made it to San Simeon in 5 hours without incident. We anchored there, everyone recovered from their sea-sickness, and we decided to take a break by blowing up the dingy and going to shore. We rowed towards the big fishing pier, but discovered that there was no ladder for us to tie up to. "Oh well," we said casually "we'll just row up to the beach." From the bay, we could see what looked like very small waves breaking slightly up against the beach. Nothing that we couldn't handle in our four-person dingy. Sure, I'd gotten burnt by this before in LA, but this was different. I wasn't in a pool raft this time, right? As we got closer, the swell started to seem a little larger, but still not too much of a problem. At most, we might get splashed a little. We got in a little further, a big wave came, and completely flipped us. I saw Jason emerge from underwater, wearing his camouflage rain gear over a backpack, with a face of utter shock and bewilderment. Looking around, he saw our trash bags and empty gas cans floating by. "Let's..." he stammered, "Let's get this stuff out of here!" Marie, who had just read about "capsizing" in her book on sailing, was saying "Capsized!" over and over again. Someone yelled "fend off!"

Jennifer had managed to hold onto the dingy and avoid getting tossed out. I thought about the camera in my backpack and made a direct line for the shore. And, once again, waded up soaking wet.

We were all wearing our warm clothes and had our backpacks with us. Instead of casually hanging out on the beach, we spent a fair amount of time shivering, trying to dry our clothes, and waiting for the swell to calm down so that we could actually make it back out. Eventually we ended up making a mad dash back out through the swell from a somewhat calmer area of the beach, and managed to return to the boat without another capsize. We were planning to leave that night, but all of our clothing was still wet and we needed warm clothing for the long sail ahead. We planned to let our stuff dry overnight and leave mid-morning instead. The forecast for that day was "NW winds 15 to 25 knots." Which is pretty stiff, but a far cry better than the 30 knots steady that had been blowing for most of the spring. We got out into the ocean, and the wind almost immediately overpowered us. We reefed down the main sail, and Jason asked "Should we put up the storm jib?" I sighed, "Yep, I guess we should." All the while the seas had been picking up, and by now the swell was running pretty large. Waves and spray were breaking over the sides, so we were all pretty wet. Jason was asking questions based on his reading about sailing like "So when I take down the head sail, should I flake it out and fold it into a sail bag?" I'd shout back through the wind with answers like "You're going to be lucky if you can stuff it down the hatch without getting swept overboard!" So Jason, like a fucking hero, headed to the bow of the boat. For never having changed out a headsail before, he did amazingly well. The whole process took half an hour, during which time the bow of the boat was being completely submerged underwater. A few times I saw the freezing water come up to his waist. When the storm jib was finally hanked on right, he wasn't able to move his legs from cold and cramp. He had to belly crawl back across the deck of the boat to the cockpit, where he started to get sea-sick again. We're lucky we got the storm jib up, because the wind just kept getting stronger and stronger. Eventually it was howling by at a consistent 30 knots, while gusting to 40 knots. We were well into Force 8 winds, where wave height usually averages 15 feet. So much for the forecasted 15 - 25 knots. In those winds, forward progress was extremely slow. We had to tack back and forth up the coast, and had only made 10 miles of actual forward progress by the time the sun set (although we'd probably sailed at least 30 miles). At one point we saw a large power cruiser that looked like it was floundering heavily in the swell, and I wondered what our little ultralight looked like to them. Fighting our way through the gale was exhausting, and since there's nothing between San Simeon and Monteray, it was clear that we'd have to suffer another few days of getting continually beaten down before we made it. Jason was still puking from sea sickness, though, and everyone was feeling pretty worn out. At one point I shouted to Marie "So! What do you think!" Marie looked back at me "About what?" "Sailing!" She paused for a few seconds and then replied calmly "Well, I guess I wouldn't choose to take too many more trips like this." I laughed "No! I meant, should we turn around and run for our lives, or suffer our way through this!" Eventually, we all decided to head back for San Simeon. Coming about in a rough swell can be tricky in an ultralight fin-keeler, so we waited until just the right moment in between the waves, then came about hard and started the downwind run back in the direction that we'd come from. It had taken us eight hours to make it that far upwind, and it only took us two hours to make it back. Once we dropped the anchor in San Simeon, we all collapsed in our wet bedding and slept until morning.

Marie and Jason decided that the sailor's life wasn't for them, and that they'd disembark there. Jennifer and I resolved to sail back to Berkeley or sink trying. So, once again, we rowed into shore at San Simeon. This time we were a little more careful about our approach — looking frantically behind us to see what the next swell set would be like as we got closer. We managed to make it in without capsizing, and Jennifer and I managed to make it back out by ourselves.

We listened to the marine weather forecast, and it sounded like the weather would be much nicer two days from then. So, we sat at anchor in San Simeon for two days. We tried fishing, did an epic amount of sewing, read a lot, and listened to our one tape over and over again. Finally, the time came and we set off at midnight. We had really amazing weather, and sailed a pleasant 27 hours straight to Santa Cruz — blowing by Monteray completely.

The last time I anchored in Santa Cruz, the pier was bustling and there were probably 12 other boats anchored out there at the same time. When we arrived at 4am and dropped anchor this time, though, we discovered that we were the only ones there. I guess spring sailing isn't for everyone. We hung out in Santa Cruz for a day, replenished our food supplies, and woke up the next morning to find that the Southwesterlies which we were expecting that evening had arrived early. Santa Cruz bay is completely unprotected in south west winds, so the anchorage was already starting to get a little rough. We got everything together as quickly as we could, and barely got out in time. As we got out towards the Santa Cruz buoy, we could see the waves starting to break where we had just been. We decided to duck into the Santa Cruz harbor to get some fuel before setting out north, and by the time we headed back out things had picked up considerably. The forecast was 5-15 knots SW, and instead we found ourselves in a consistent 30 knots. For a moment I thought we weren't going to make it out of the Santa Cruz harbor and that we'd end up floundering on the rocks instead. We got hit really hard by a breaking wave, and the cockpit nearly flooded into the cabin. We were in an incredibly dangerous situation, because the increasingly strong wind was very close to blowing us ashore. The phrase "fighting your way off a lee shore" acquired new meaning for me, and there were a few moments when I was seriously worried that we weren't going to make it around Santa Cruz point. In fact, throughout the whole trip, I had an interesting relationship to panic. Usually, it seems that people who are uninformed or inexperienced with a particular kind of adversity will panic when faced with that adversity. Usually, experience renders calm and capability. However, I went through just the opposite while sailing on this trip. Since my buccaneer crew had no sailing experience, there were times when the shit was really starting to go down, and only I knew it. Everyone else was experiencing things like "Oh, so this is sailing" while I was the only one with enough experience to know "Oh no, this is really really bad." We did manage to make it offshore, though, and once we got around the Santa Cruz point we were running downwind.

We put up the drifter and sailed at 8 knots all the way to Half Moon Bay, where we intended to ditch out for the night. Two things prevented this from happening. First, I was using a GPS waypoint for Half Moon Bay that was printed in "The Cruising Guide To Central And Southern California." It was hard to tell at night, but as we got closer to the waypoint, it occurred to me that we seemed very close to shore. I went below and plotted our position on the chart, only to discover that we were basically on top of the shore line, definitely less than one mile off shore, in an area with many obstructions. I jumped back into the cockpit, Jennifer untied the preventer line on the boom, and we jibed around hard for a run straight West. In trying to find out what had gone wrong, I discovered that the GPS waypoint for Half Moon Bay is printed 10 miles off! Talk about deadly information. So with the correct waypoint, we started for Half Moon Bay again. The entrance to the harbor is marred by a number of reefs, which are marked with flashing buoys. At night, it was essentially impossible to tell what buoys were marking what, what were actually lights on shore, and where we should be going. Eventually we decided the that the whole thing was a bad scene, and set a course straight for San Francisco instead.

Usually, it's very important to time your entrance to the Golden Gate in order to avoid the strong tidal currents. The ebb tide can hit 6.2 knots at times. We didn't have a tide table, though, so we just hoped that we'd hit it on the flood tide. We arrived at the Golden Gate around 3am, and of course the tide was ebbing. So there was a good 45 minutes where we were sailing hard but sitting completely still in the water. We sat directly under the bridge for a good while, watching the water careen by us while we made absolutely no progress. Eventually we eeked under, and it was smooth sailing across the bay from there. It had taken ten days of chapped lips, sun burn, wind burn, bitter cold, and pure exhaustion — but I was so relieved that the boat had finally returned.