Chapter 1 - The Stage Is Set
My pirate beginnings came together this time last year, when the idea for the Sea Collective was born. The greater story of my life has been the story of a giant pendulum swinging back and forth along a metaphorical axis of desire. On one side is an affinity for travel, newness, excitement, and adventure. On the other - stability, community, and connection. The tempo changes with time, but the pendulum has never stopped swinging.
Both sides of this metaphor for my life have a tendency to sabotage each-other. In moments of stability, I'm usually involved with a number of land-based projects oriented around community. But just when my relationships with my co-conspirators begin to become more than a series of surface-ridden interactions; just when connection on an emotional level begins to mean more than the logistical concerns of some project — the pendulum swings and I end up abandoning that community for travel.
But then, in those intense travel moments of adventure, excitement, and freedom — I discover the communities in other towns and cities and feel a longing for a community of my own once more. This cycle seems to be a common thread for those of us who aren't interested in living life for money, property, or prestige. But if we realize that happiness must be an active experience, what good is dedicating ourselves to transformation if it means falling victim to the banality of routine which we so despise in the capitalist abstraction of every day life?
October found me looking for a way to preserve feelings of community and connection while living a life rich with excitement and adventure. In talking with my partner Becky about our lives, we stumbled over the solution: pirates. Here it was, the answer we'd been looking for all along, a story we'd known about since the naive Halloweens of our childhood. A floating democratic utopia that's rich in both community and excitement. How could we have overlooked a means of travel that does not imply parasitism or limit our productivity, creativity, and autonomy?
So we recruited some co-conspirators, and the Sea Collective was born. By January, we had a boat. In retrospect, we didn't get the right boat for us. From our position of novice-sailor-first-time-boat-owners, we got an incredible triple-masted pirate ship at a discount. In reality, we'd gotten a boat-load of work.
What looked like a little painting was actually much, much more... Almost right away, I threw my furniture out the window, broke with my projects, the bulk of my social life, and myself. I moved from San Francisco to the Berkeley marina, where I worked on the boat every hour of every day for nearly six months — pausing only to check the trash at the sea-breeze restaurant around lunch time. I sanded, painted, and scraped. I fiberglassed, caulked, and epoxied. I cursed dry-rot as my sworn enemy, and found a friend in fungus-hunting epoxy. I went to sleep with a sunburn on my face and woke up with sawdust in my hair. I dangled from the tops of our masts, varnished relentlessly, and sewed with vigor. I tempted fate with propane, and was involved in at least one Kerosene siphoning incident gone wrong. I felt strong at the end of the day with engine grease on my hands and soot on my face.
In the end, it didn't work out the way we planned, and we never did sail away for any significant length of time. I decided that after working on putting an adventure together for so long, I needed to take one. I also decided that I'd learned a lot about boats, but not much about sailing. So I bought a Catalina 27 from a friend on the dock, spent about four days making it passably sea-worthy, and set off for the open ocean with my friend Tanya on September 5th. The irony being that I'd spent six months heavily outfitting a large boat made for blue water cruising, and then actually left on a really light day-sailer that I'd spent four days fixing up.
Chapter 2 - A Grand Beginning
Sailing is unpredictable, and the ocean has very little regard for your feelings. We made our glorious departure under the golden gate, and were then immediately beset by calm. Whenever you feel like you should be running at six knots with the wind at your back, you will inevitably be floating absolutely motionless, staring at the banana peel that you threw overboard an hour before.
Eventually we made it down to Half Moon Bay. We sailed all the way through the breakwater and up to a mooring bouey without using the engine, and thought we were pretty bad-ass for it.
We tried blowing up the dingy and going to shore, but realized that we didn't have a working pump. We stowed the dingy and hung out on the boat instead. The next day we thought we'd sail to Santa Cruz, but when we motored out through the breakwater we realized there was no wind at all. Not wanting to motor all day, we decided that we'd turn around, squat a slip in half moon bay, and spend the morning finding a working pump for our dingy.
We didn't actually find a pump then, but we did get a fishing rod and a fillet knife. It seemed like the wind had picked up a little, so we started the outboard and began to untie the dock lines. Just as we were about to float out of the slip, the motor died.
"That's strange" we thought, and pulled the starter cord to get it going again. It didn't start. We pulled again and again, pumped the fuel line, and decided that maybe the engine was flooded. We ate some lunch, and tried again 30 minutes later. It still didn't start. We decided it was a problem with the fuel line, looked around for someone else's that we could borrow as a test, but couldn't find anything to fit our Johnson 6hp. We were just about to hithchike to Santa Cruz so we could get a new fuel line (which we were almost certain was the problem), when we noticed a dingy further up our dock with the same type of line. We couldn't find the owner, but borrowed it anyway and were surprised when the engine still did not start. We took the new spark plugs out, cleaned them, replaced them, still no luck. We took the fuel pump apart, cleaned the screen, still no luck. We gave up and decided to go fishing.
We bought a dozen sardines for bait, walked out to the breakwater, and tried fishing off the wall. There were tons of other people out there, and we sat down on the rocks between them. We discovered that we're not very good at fishing, particularly the casting bit, and had lost all of our bait within 30 minutes. Everyone out there looked very professional with their rods and coolers, but we kept asking around "Do you know how to fish?" so that we could get some help — and realized that nobody else out there knew what they were doing either! Next to us, there was a guy who had what closer inspection revealed to be a dish sponge on a fishing line, with some strands of yarn attached to it.
"What's that?" I asked. "Oh," he said "I put some pieces of chicken in here, and I figured that when crabs go after it they'll get tangled in this yarn here and won't be able to get away." I watched as he cast it into the water and if floated on the surface. "You need to put a weight on that" I said. "I figured that the crabs would swim up to it" he replied. "I don't think crabs swim - here I've got a sinker you can use." So he put the sinker on the line, but it was too heavy for the weight line he was using, so the whole thing snapped off on his next cast.
"Crap! I think it was too heavy for the line! And I need that sponge back, I use it to do my dishes."
We watched as he stood on a rock, patiently waiting for the sponge to come back in. The waves would knock it closer, almost within reach, and then suck it away - over and over.
We walked over to the beach and went for an incredibly numbing swim which made our bodies tingle and feel alive.
Back at the dock, we met what we thought was an old salt named Roger — but it turned out that he was a new sailor on a boat full of new sailors. He, Wade, and Kerry had all managed to get a fucking incredible 28' Bristol Channel Cutter that was built like a brick shithouse, but they didn't know much about sailing at all. They seemed eager to sail along with us, and said that they'd give us a 6hp Johnson outboard engine that they didn't want.
The next morning they brought over their 6hp as we were cleaning the corroborator on ours (to no avail), and we bolted it onto our engine well. It started, and we were stowing things as it idled in neutral, when it died. We pulled the starter cord, and it wouldn't kick over. We couldn't believe that this was happening to us again. We tried a few things, and finally I said "I almost hope it doesn't start" as we pulled the starter cord for a last try. It didn't start, of course, and we decided "Fuck it, we don't need an engine anyway! We're sailors!" This was the beginning of our career of engine-less sailors, and I've been sailing in and out of tricky breakwaters, dredged channels, anchorages, and slips ever since.
We cast off our dock lines, and sailed right out of our fucking slip. We sailed right out the breakwater and sailed into the open ocean - like sailors would do.
We had good wind, and even tried flying the spinnaker (it only got diabolically twisted around the forestay once). We made it to within 5 miles of Santa Cruz when the sun set and the wind died. All night long, we floated slowly on two hour watches. We could actually see where we wanted to be, but had no way of getting there.
Around 6am the wind picked up a little, we sailed into the Santa Cruz harbor, and dropped the anchor. We still didn't have a way to blow up the dingy, so we flagged down another boat anchored nearby and got them to give us a ride to shore in their dingy.
In Santa Cruz we borrowed bikes, ate ice cream, napped in a tree-house, and enjoyed the sunny day. As the sun was setting, we headed back to the boat to drop some stuff off before meeting friends for dinner.
There is a paranoia amongst sailors around leaving your boat somewhere. You're convinced that something is going to go wrong while you're away. That rusty sea-cock will finally break, water will come flooding in, and it'll sink. Or the anchor will drag, sending the whole boat up onto the rocks. Any number of hypothetical disasters await your boat while you're away from it in some strange place. But of course, nothing ever happens... until it does.
We were riding up to the pier and I shouted "Is that it? There it is!"
Tanya yelled back "Where?"
I yelled "Right there!"
She yelled back "Where?"
Suddenly I realized that the boat I was looking at wasn't ours at all. In fact, there wasn't any boat where ours was anchored. Our boat was... gone.
We looked around frantically, checking the beaches and the rocks. No washed up sailboats. Our boat was nowhere to be found, and you feel pretty helpless standing on the pier asking strangers "Have you seen a sailboat that was right over there?"
After some calls, we finally determined that it had broken anchor, ran up against the pier, and had been rescued by the Santa Cruz harbor patrol. They'd taken it over to the marina. We got there and were relieved to find that there was basically no damage at all. The rub rail had done its job and taken the brunt of the attack by the pier.
We decided that the boat had earned its name: Vigor.
Since we didn't have an engine, we decided to make giant 15-ft oars out of bamboo poles. Moving those around on our bicycles was an interesting challenge, for sure.
So we sailed off the hook in Santa Cruz, headed 56 miles out to sea, and then came about for a two-day run towards the channel islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. The wind and swell were pretty stiff, and our two-hour night watches were hard ones. Our compass was pretty difficult to read during the day time, since the compass card was old and very worn out — so reading it at night was virtually impossible.
Perforce, holding a downwind heading is an incredibly zen-like thing. You have to be aware of everything: the way the tiller feels in your hand, the sound of the wind, where you feel the wind on your face, and the motion of the swell.
And the sea is scary at night. The swell picks up, and it's relentless. Giant monsters rolling towards you, attacking you over and over. Every once in a while you catch a glimpse of them coming towards you in the moonlight, then they roar past you and carry on towards the horizon. We sailed into the setting sun, got pounded by swell as cold as the night, and sighed with relief at the morning light. Apparently I'm a very heavy sleeper, so when it was time for me to take a night-shift at the tiller, Tanya had to throw things at me from the cockpit in order to get me up. I didn't realize that was the case at first, so I kept waking up and finding unexplicably strange things in the bed or on my face.
We spent two days in the channel islands, reading aloud from Grapes Of Wrath, laying around talking in the sun, and fishing to no avail. Eventually we made the run over to Santa Barbara, and Tanya left to catch the start of the work season at the maritime museum.
The night before she left, we lost our dingy. I maintain that it was stolen, Tanya believes that my knot tying skills failed me (once again). One way or another, I went and got (essentially) a pool raft to replace it. I was anchored near a giant pier with all kinds of shops and restaurants on it, very similar to the Santa Cruz pier. There are a few big ladders on the pier that go down about 25 feet to the water, so if you're anchored out you can row in to tie up at one of the ladders and climb up to the pier.
I walked back towards the pier with my inflatable raft box, and stopped where the ladder is. That area is actually the porch of a restaurant, so there were about 20 people sitting there eating their lunch when I started blowing up an inflatable dingy in the middle of the table area. I assume that most of them had no idea that the ladder is there.
When I walked up, everyone was talking, and as I started unpacking the box I noticed that it was getting quieter. By the time I started pumping, it was absolute dead silence. I felt pretty strange pumping up a pool raft in the middle of their dining area, and they all thought this was clearly insane - but nobody said anything to me, and nobody said anything to each-other.
It took about five minutes to pump the thing up, and it was absolute dead silence the whole time. I paused and glanced around — everyone had stopped eating and was watching me pump up the inflatable.
I untied the grab rail rope and re-attached it to the bow as a pantier line. Then I lowered it over the side of the pier and tied it to the bottom of the ladder. I came back up, got my stuff, and went back down into the pool raft.
In the pool raft I assembled the oars and started to row towards Vigor. I glanced up and noticed that at least 14 people had gotten up from their tables and were silently watching me from the rail of the pier. It was as if they thought I was starting the long row to Hawaii in my pool raft.
Later I rowed back, and was walking down the pier towards town. Some guy putting on rollerblades with his girlfriend stopped me and said "Hey, where did you go with that raft anyway?" I laughed and told him I went to my boat. "Ohhh! You have a boat out there!" "Heh, yeah I do. That whole experience was kind of surreal" I said. He said "Yeah I know, the whole thing was really strange - but we couldn't figure out what you were doing. At the time I felt like it was the equivalent of watching someone about to commit suicide."
Chapter 3 - You Believe In Authority, I Believe In Myself
I hung out in Santa Barbara for a week, met up with the local Food Not Bombers, and had a reunion with some friends from Camp Crimethinc. Eventually I set off towards LA, the first jaunt of my solo-sailing career. My friend Jeff was playing a show in Santa Monica on Tuesday, so I planned to leave Santa Barbara on Sunday to make it there by then. I listened to the marine forecast, which predicted "variable winds less than 10 knots, increasing to variable 10-15 knots in the afternoon." I was planning to leave around noon, but by 10am it was already blowing 30 knots with gusts to 35 in the anchorage.
The guy next to me had drug anchor a bit, and his boat was directly above the position of my anchor, making it rather difficult to get mine up. I decided that it was blowing too hard anyway and that I'd wait a day to leave.
Monday I woke up and eeked out of the anchorage super-early in near-calm. The wind picked up in the afternoon, and I had a nice broad-reach run to Channel Islands Harbor. I decided that I'd check in with the harbor master, so I sailed right up to the harbor master dock (downwind) for a fucking perfect landing in 25 knots. I was feeling pretty proud of myself when the habor patrol guy was all "Damn dude, did you just sail up single-handed in that wind? You're taking it back to the old school!"
Tuesday was forecast as another 10-20 knot day, but I ended up rocketing out of the harbor in 30 knots at 9am. Once out, it picked up to 35 knots from the NE — so I was beating right into it. I was fucking flying at an average of 7.4 knots with the main completely down and the working jib luffing hard. Vigor got lifted out of the water with one gust and peaked at 9.9 knots. I had to completely close off the compainonway hatch because water was pouring across the bow. It was a little nerve-wracking at first, but then I got into it and was screaming the lyrics of "diving bows under" into the wind. The jib sail tore slightly in two places, but held together pretty well.
In the afternoon, the wind died down to 25 knots and I put up a reefed main. Just as I was about to round point Dume it went from 25 knots east, to absolute dead calm for 1.5 minutes, to 25 knots west. I moved the sails over and continued on the exact same tack.
I was planning on anchoring off the Santa Monica pier, just as I had done in Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara. The cruising guide reads "you can anchor here, but it's not very well protected and there's a submerged breakwater so DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS AT NIGHT." It was a 37 mile run, so I was racing to get there before the sun set. I was running downwind across the bay after passing Point Dume. Checking the GPS, it looked like I'd get there 45 minutes before sunset.
I was congratulating myself on a sail well done when the wind completely died 1.5 miles away from the pier. The swell was pushing me pretty slowly, and at times the GPS read "0.0 knots". I couldn't believe that I'd gotten so close, and the sun set while I was still a mile away (Santa Cruz all over again).
I decided that the swell would push me in eventually, so I couldn't stay out all night. I thought that I might as well try and have the swell vector me towards the Santa Monica Pier anchorage, despite the warnings about trying it at night. So I sculled and waited, sculled and waited. I made the mile in 3 hours, barely missed the submerged breakwater, and dropped the anchor a good ways off the pier. There was a fair bit of swell, so I let out a big scope. There were no other boats anchored there.
I cleaned up a bit, got the sails secured, and blew up my pool raft. I put some clothes in a bag, and set off in the raft to find Jeff's show. Just like every other pier, there were a bunch of shops and stuff on this one, people fishing off the side, and a ladder that went up from the water. I rowed over to the ladder and started to tie the dingy off when all of a sudden I was spotlighted by a police officer with pistol drawn, screaming at me to back away from the pier! I was pretty surprised, and asked if there was another ladder that I was supposed to use. He was saying "You can not approach the pier, stay 150 feet away from the pier at all times, you can land on the beach if you want to." I was trying to ask what the deal is with a beach landing when another guy showed up over the side and started screaming that if I continued to disobey their orders that they will impound my boat.
So I turned around and rowed away. I looked towards the shore and saw some breaking waves. I watched the swell roll in for probably 15 minutes before deciding that I could probably make it in pretty easily between sets. So I waited for the end of a set, and started rowing as fast as I could. Pretty quickly, I realized that I wasn't capable of rowing fast enough, but it was too late to turn back. Another set began to pick up. A smallish wave almost tossed me, and I realized that the swell was bigger than I thought. Finally an overhead wave hit me, tossed me out, and I washed up on shore - completely soaked - with an overturned dingy and a bag full of wet clothes.
So I was cursing those cops for not letting me use the ladder, and I realized that I was too wet to try and find Jeff's show. Someone was screening Star Wars on a HUGE screen right there, so I decided to wait a while for the tide to come up and the swell to go down before trying to go back out. There were a number of people standing around, wondering how I just materialized from the dark ocean with a little pool raft.
So I started towards the pier, and those police officers came roaring across the beach in a truck! I was thinking "Surely they're not coming to keep hassling me?" They skidded to a stop, JUMPED out of the truck, and started sprinting towards me. I threw down my raft and clutched my paddle for protection. They stoped short of tackling me, and started screaming at me for "approaching the pier!" I was pretty confused about this, since it's a public pier, there were TONS of people milling around on it, and I was heading towards a public entrance (not their precious ladder).
The big cop was literally screaming at me for "disobeying his orders" by not going back to the boat. I was trying to tell him that I felt like I was free to use the public beach, and that I didn't realize I was under house arrest on my boat. Finally they said that if I went any further up the beach, they'd arrest me and I'd spend the night in jail. I thought OK, whatever, I'll swim back out to the boat.
They said they had another call, and took off. I was walking back down the beach, planning to swim out past the break with my raft tied to my foot, when another official looking truck pulled up with flashing lights, and spotlighted me. "For fuck's sake! What now?" I thought.
Some dude in a wetsuit got out of the truck and ran towards me. "Is this your vessle?" he asked while pointing out at my boat.
"Yes, it is." I responded.
"Did you row to shore just now in that raft?"
"Yep, I did."
"For what purpose?"
"Well, to come to LA."
"Are you going back out right now?"
"Yah, I was about to swim out there - the cops on the pier won't let me use the ladder and I got tossed on the way in."
"Yah, the surf was overhead an hour ago," he glanced at my dingy, "I bet you got tossed alright. So you're not in need of a tow after all then?"
"Tow? Huh? Who called you?"
Just then, the cops rolled back up. The big cop came back over and started screaming at me again, right in front of these other guys (who turned out to be lifeguards). I was looking at the lifeguards like "Holy shit, can you believe this?" and they were looking at me like "Dude, we're sorry."
It turned out that it was a magenta alert or whatever then, and the Santa Monica pier is a "major terrorist target", so it's not OK to have a boat anchored near it, and that I had nothing to say about it because I didn't know the status (pronounced stay-tus) of that "structure." The cops called the lifeguards because they had a boat capable of towing mine away. "The fuck you're towing my boat, I'm going back out right now." "If you attempt to return to your boat, I will arrest you." "For what?" "I don't need a reason."
So in the end, the lifeguard boat showed up, grabbed Vigor, and towed it over to Marina Del Ray. The lifeguards gave me a ride over there, and I met the towing boat when they came in. It turns out that the cops had told the guys on the lifeboat that Vigor had broken anchor and was drifting free. The guy on the boat is all "I didn't understand it, it sure looked like your tackle was holding strong to me."
So I missed Jeff's show, but at least I managed to avoid arrest, and a major terrorist plot was squelched. These guys definitely didn't do much to improve my perception of authority, though.
Chapter 4 — The Lone Sailor Pushes On
I tried sailing to Newport the first day out, but there were very light winds. I was right near the Long Beach harbor when the sun started to set (a sure sign that the wind will die completely in that area), so I decided to ditch out there for the night. Of course, it was incredibly foggy, so the whole thing was a great test of my navigational skills. I also discovered that the Long Beach harbor is a huge commercial port, similar to the port of Oakland (only bigger). So I found myself trying to sail through the breakwater in heavy fog, surrounded by huge freight ships moving in and out, in light wind that was threatening to die completely, in a sail boat with no engine. It was really eerie, hearing the fog horns of those freight ships and then seeing them emerge from the fog like giant looming ghosts.
I managed to make it in without getting run over, and squatted a slip in the city harbor (A-13 is not currently rented). The next day I sailed out towards Newport.
The whole way down, I'd been trying to fish. I hadn't caught a single thing. The whole way down I'd been asking fisherman what I was doing wrong, and in Channel Islands a guy told me "You know, you're not doing anything wrong. But you're in-between seasons up here, and you're not going to catch anything until you get past Santa Monica bay. Then you'll catch plenty."
On the way to Newport, I caught three fish! I expected to be talking trash to the ocean and dancing around in the cockpit like some expert sport fisherman, but it was actually a pretty sad time. I put them out with alcohol as soon as I could.
In Newport I learned how to clean them, and ate fish tacos. I went to Minnie's second-hand marine store, which is absolutely amazing. Used sails for $25, stainless steel fasteners sold by the pound, used line at $1/lb, sail cloth at $3/lb, old bronze portholes stacked to the ceiling, and piles of crap that I could spend days going through. I would have, too, if my ride hadn't been ready to go.
I was looking for a new working jib that would reef down into a storm jib, but they didn't have anything like that. So instead I just got a storm jib for $25 and some sail cloth to patch my working jib. When I got back to the dock, there was a rigger/sailmaker guy working on the boat next to mine. He saw me trying to patch my sail with a needle and dental floss (how punk rock is that?) and said "You know what man, I'll take that back to my loft and patch it up for you for free." He saw my other working jib and took that one along as well. The next day he came back with them fully patched and completely re-enforced. He even took 2in of the leech completely off and put a new leech on! He also had a nylon drifter which fit my boat perfectly that he gave me!
The stop of good fortune for sure, and I sailed on towards Dana Point. On the way to Dana Point, I caught three more fish! I started making fish fried rice, sushi (sashimi and maki), fish tacos, and fish stew.
When I go to anchor, I try to pick the exact spot where I want my anchor to go down, sail downwind of it at the right speed, and then round up into the wind such that my boat stops right at the spot that I picked out. That way I can drop the anchor, backwind the sail, and drift back while I pay out the correct amount of scope. I had to make two passes to get it right in Dana Point, and just as I dropped anchor a big Beneteau 44 came in to anchor as well. These guys had their sails down and engine running, had a big bruce anchor, all chain, and a shmancy electric windlass. They could not get their anchor to set in the right place. I'd be flaking out my sails, covering them up, and coiling my lines — look up and they'd still be trying to maneuver their boat. I went and started inflating my dingy — looked up and they were still cranking their windlass up and down. Finally as I started rowing to shore, they were getting their anchor set. They glared at me every now and then, but really it was embarrassment in their eyes.
Chapter 5 — Sometimes The Stars Are All You Have
I was planning on sailing from Dana Point to Ocean Side, spending the night there, sailing to Mission Bay the next day, spending the night there, and then sailing to San Diego. The winds were terrible the first day out, so I made it to Ocean Side around 9pm. They have this ridiculous track of red and green lights inside the breakwater designed to guide you to the "civilian" marina and away from the "military" marina. Of course, from outside the breakwater, it just looks like a giant jumble of flashing lights. Most importantly, it's nearly impossible to figure out which red and green lights mark the boundary for the giant rock walls that are just waiting to break your boat into pieces.
So, I decided, fuck this I'm sailing straight to San Diego. There was still a little wind, so I put up my nylon drifter and shot seven miles off the coast. I sailed down towards San Diego until the wind started to die. Then I rigged the tiller and started sleeping in two hour intervals. Finally the wind died completely, I took down the sails, attached a five gallon bucket to a line, tied it off to the stern of the boat, and threw it overboard. It acted as a great sea anchor, and prevented the swell from carrying me towards shore. I fell asleep and let the current carry me six miles down the coast overnight.
I woke up and saw the sun rise right over point Loma, which marks the entrance to San Diego harbor. The wind picked up progressively, and I sailed into the harbor. I nailed a really hard landing at the customs dock under sail, and a guy in a super-schmancy 120 foot schooner came out to tell me how impressed he was, that he knows small boats are really better than big boats, and that he wishes he could sail his super-yacht up to the dock as well. I ended up drinking martinis on deck with him, wishing that I had super-white shorts with matching super-white dockers for the occasion.
I had a nice sail to Mexico, and I spent my 24th birthday drinking tequila in a mexican bar, dancing to a full-on Salsa band. Everyone else in the bar knew the words and screamed along, so it almost felt like a house show. But mass culture is a sad thing, and even in that setting I could feel it creeping in. All the salsa band guys were wearing full-on Mexican bullfighter type regalia, and I wondered if it made them feel silly or proud.
I liked being in a place that felt so new and strange. The whole town had been infected by tourism, though, and everyone was obsessed with selling something. People were constantly hassling me "Do you want pipes? Do you want knifes? What do you want? What are you looking for?" I wanted to scream "I want relationships with genuine trust that aren't based on exchange!" But my Spanish isn't that good.
After three days, I decided to turn around and start heading home, both because I wanted to get back to San Francisco towards the end of October, and also because I sailed to Mexico very illegally. I didn't think it would be a problem, but then I talked with some sailors (who were there legally) that were boarded by the Mexican navy. The Mexican navy? Who knew?
Chapter 6 — The Long Trip Home
This was the beginning of my north-bound sailing career. The whole way south had been a down-wind sail, but sailing up-wind is much more difficult. To make matters worse, you can't just sail from one place to another directly. You have to sail 45 degrees off the wind, which often forces you to sail pretty far out of the way. The way down to Mexico was a 24hr trip from anchor to anchor, and really it was just 12 hours of sailing with a night hove-to just outside the harbor — waiting for the morning to make a daylight entrance. The way back was 56 hours of non-stop hardcore sailing, and very little sleep. It's a 60 mile shot by the rhumb line, and I sailed 170 miles.
My plan was to sail out of the harbor, gage my highest point of sail, plot that heading down from San Diego, and sail west until I intersected with it. I caught a big fish straight off that was too big to fit in the cooler or a bag, so I had to clean it straight away. Of course I was in the middle of cleaning it when Islas Todos Santos emerged from the fog, and I had to stop and pay attention to steering through the rocks. But the conditions also started to get really bad, so I'm bracing into the swell and water is coming over the side and I've got a fish half-cleaned in the cockpit with blood getting all over everything. And in that moment the self-bailing cockpit drains got stopped up, so the cockpit became a big pool of blood mixed with sea-water.
Eventually, things finally calmed down and I got everything cleaned up. That's how it is with sailing sometimes. You have to realize that, eventually, somehow, if you just manage to hold fast, things will eventually calm down again.
When I came about, though, I realized that the wind had shifted - so I couldn't even hold due north and was trending N-NE to NE at times. So I barely cleared Islas Todos Santos on the tack back over, and quickly approached the point. Given my new heading, I calculated that I needed to tack out at least 30 miles to hit San Diego on the way back. The sun was about to set, and I had only made 8 miles of forward progress in the day. I came about and started out W again. I was passing in front of Islas Todos Santos, and on the horizon I could see dolphins jumping REALLY high out of the water and doing flips - silhouetted by the setting sun. I sat there, alone with the sea, and thought about how beautiful it was and that maybe it would be a nice night after all.
And then the wind completely stopped. I was maybe two miles away from the northern island of Islas Todos Santos, and the swell was pushing me straight towards it. The shore is all cliff face with really harsh looking rocks breaking the incoming swell. I thought that surely the wind would pick up again. I waited, it got dark, and I got closer. On that shore of the island there's a big light house, which every five seconds swung its blindingly bright light around to remind me that I was in a bad spot. It was almost like it was taunting me: You're in a bad spot. Pause. You're in a bad spot. Pause. You're in a bad spot.
I started to get really worried, took down all my sails and put up the nylon drifter. I even tried whistling up a wind. I was about to start inflating my dingy and make a row for it when a very light breeze started filling the drifter, and I eeked away from that island. After a few hours, the wind picked up steadily and I continued my course west.
Sleeping while trying to point up wind is extremely hard, because it's nearly impossible to balance the sails correctly for any lasting length of time. Since I had to sail on the absolute highest point possible, any slight variation in the wind would backwind the jib and push the whole boat around. If the wind shifted one degree west, I had to get up and move the boat around, set everything, and then go to sleep again.
What's worse, if the wind even lulled a little, the boat's speed became more of a factor on the apparent wind - so the AP would shift forward and backwind my sails. This happened constantly, over and over, along with plenty of other minor disasters, all night long. By 4:30am, when the wind died completely, I was absolutely exhausted. I took the sails down, threw out the bucket, and went to sleep down below.
Now, in my exhausted state, I'd unclipped the halyard from the main sail and clipped it onto the lifeline - but I didn't tighten it and cleat it. So the line was loose, and inevitably got twisted on a worthless pulley halfway up the mast that had achieved "bane of my existence" status on several occasions prior. When I woke up in the morning, I discovered that it was not just twisted, but diabolically twisted. There was absolutely no way to shake it loose.
I decided that I had no choice but to go up the mast. The wind hadn't picked up for the day, but the swell was rocking the boat pretty hard. I was pretty used to it by then, so it didn't seem so bad from the bottom of the mast. I barely had the strength to pull myself up, but slowly started ascending with a harness and pulley system. As soon as my feet left the deck, I realized how far the top of the mast was swinging back and forth. I alternated between pulling myself higher in a frenzy, and then clutching the mast against the next swell set. One wave rocked the boat so hard that I couldn't hold onto the mast, broke loose, and swung free over the ocean. I had an instant of looking out across the miles of brilliant purple water with no land in sight, and realizing how alone I was. It went from intense guttural fear, to the thought that this could be it for me, to "oh, what the hell" - and I let out a big Tarzan cry "oooohhhhhhwhoahwhaoh!—" SMACK back into the mast. I thought that I'd broken a rib at first, but managed to scramble onto the spreaders and recover. I got the halyard untangled, and started down.
As luck would have it, in all this confusion and motion the free end of the rope attached to my harness got wrapped around a cleat at the bottom of the mast. So, I couldn't descend. I had to unclip myself, and slide down the mast like it was a firepole. It probably took me 15 minutes of clutching the mast while it rocked insanely back and forth to make myself do it.
Finally everything was untangled, and I got the sails raised. I followed the wind all day, N, N-NW, N, N-NE, NE. By the time the sun was about to set, I could see the Coronado Islands - which are near the US border. I thought I'd ditch out there for the night, but never made it that far. The wind died as the sun set, and I got two hours sleep before it picked up again. In that two hours, the swell pushed me back 4 miles. The moon wasn't showing through the clouds and fog, so the phosphorescence was absolutely beautiful. At one point a school of dolphins started swimming behind the wake of the boat. They'd all jump out of the water, and then down along the side of the boat. They created intensely bright glowing phosphorescent trails along their path underwater that were absolutely incredible. Afraid to try and navigate through the Coronados at night, I started west again until I stumbled into a shipping lane. I headed back NE and tacked around in that area before I decided I was too exhausted to sail, took the sails down, and slept for another 3 hours. In that 3 hours, I lost seven miles.
I woke up and spent all morning fighting the wind. It was almost like the wind was conspiring against me: if it was time for me to sail west, it would shift to N-NW. If it was time for me to sail north, it would shift to true N or even N-NE. I studied the wind patterns on the water and learned a little about the games that the wind can play.
As I was sailing along, something struck my fishing line hard. I started fighting it and realized that I'd caught a really big fish. I couldn't reel it in at all for the first 20 minutes, and just held on tight while I dragged it. After 20 minutes, I started making slow progress on reeling it in. It took me a full hour to get it all the way in, and peering over the transom my prize finally came into view: a fucking shark.
So after all this, I decide that I was damn well having shark for lunch. But this thing was bigger than my cockpit, so I wasn't sure how I was going to get it in the boat or where I was going to put it. Or how I was going to do this without it having me for lunch. So I was looking around for something to club the shark with, and decided that I was going to try and use the anchor. I was trying to secure everything so I could go get the anchor when the shark shook its head violently and cut the line with its teeth. My lunch vanished just like that, along with my best fishing lure.
Anyway, the day produced some good wind - so I sailed in between the Coronados and triumphantly into the San Diego harbor. I was very very haggard from the three day sail, but was going to see how the next leg went before I considered getting the motor fixed or giving up. I was feeling pretty unsure about it all, and was talking to a guy on the customs dock who had just motored back from Ensenada. It had only taken him 12 hours under power. When he was turning to go, he stopped, shook my hand, and said "I have a lot of respect for you as a sailor." And that made me feel pretty good about the whole thing.
Chapter 7 — More Authority Encounters
Back in San Diego, I ran into Jim and Kaye who I'd met and hung out with in Newport. They invited me over for dinner on their boat, and I brought a bottle of wine. Some other people were there who also brought wine, so we didn't end up drinking the bottle that I brought. They gave it back to me, and I started walking back over to my boat. To get back to my boat, I had to walk up the dock, across 100 ft, and then down another dock.
I was walking across that 100 ft when two harbor patrol police officers spotlighted me from a ways away.
"You! Stop right there! What's that!"
"Uhm, what's what?"
"That right there, in your hand. NO - don't move!"
They walk up to me.
"Did you know that it's illegal to possess alcohol in the tri-marina area?"
"Wow, this is a dry... marina? You mean none of these people are allowed to have alcohol on their boats?"
"Well, no. Your boat is like your home, but you can't have alcohol outside of your boat in this area."
"I mean, this is a sealed bottle of wine. It's like I went grocery shopping. I'm just coming back from dinner on someone else's boat."
"OK - spread your legs and put your hands against the wall. Do you have any ID on you? Are there any warrants for your arrest?"
...eventually they "let me off" without citing me for "possession" - but they were sure to tell me how nice they were for letting me go. Later that night I was brushing my teeth on the dock when I noticed a guy standing out in a wetsuit. I walked over and started talking with him and his partner about what they were doing. Apparently, they train dolphins for the navy. They teach dolphins to find and tag "swimmers" near navy vessels. The wetsuit guy jumped in the water and went out to the middle of the channel, and a little navy boat with a dolphin guarding it started up the channel.
Just then, the two marina cops come running down the gang-plank with shotguns!
"YOU! GET OUT OF THE WATER RIGHT NOW!"
"Uhm.... we're with the navy?"
"I SAID GET OUT OF THE WATER RIGHT FUCKING NOW!"
They have their shotguns aimed at this guy! His partner came rushing over, everyone's all confused, the swimmer is shouting at the navy boat "Hold on! I have to get out of the water right now!" The dolphin is chasing him down to tag him, and the cops aren't sure who they should be aiming at.
Finally the partner convinces the cops that they're with the navy, and that everything is OK. They're visibly disappointed.
I was sailing from San Diego back to Dana Point, and I sailed into a navy training exercise. They were doing something with hovercraft and a big destroyer. I tried to sail around them, but they kept moving back and forth in different directions. So, finally I just started through.
They sent an envoy out to talk with me: six people in a zodiac. All of them were younger than me. They didn't seem very comfortable in their role at all, and when they pulled up next to my boat they all kind of looked at each-other - as if to ask who was going to talk with me, and what were they going to say?
Finally I spoke first: "Hey?"
A shy girl on the zodiac answered: "Uhm, we're trying to do a training exercise?"
"So... If maybe.... You could sail around?"
"I tried to but they keep changing course. Give me a course to sail and I'll stick to it."
"A... uhm... course?"
"Yah, right now I'm doing 330 degrees. I don't have an engine and the wind is dying, so I can only do three knots right now. What bearing do you want me to take?"
"Oh... bearing... uhm... could you just pass to the transom side of that boat?"
"Well, that's the way I'm headed right now."
"Right... well... just keep heading that way?"
I was boarded by the coastguard just outside of Newport. They were actually very friendly, very respectful, and almost seemed embarrassed by the way they were intruding in my space. They were all-around nice guys. At one point one of the coastguard guys pointed up and asked "What's the black flag for?" I paused for a second and then suddenly yelled "Anarchy!!" He jumped in his seat, then nodded and went back to his clipboard.
Chapter 8 — The Ocean Doesn't Give A Shit About You
I made it from San Diego to Dana Point on SW winds, and then started off on a sail straight to Channel Islands harbor in Oxnard, CA. This turned into a seriously bad three-day trip where the ocean went absolutely ape-shit on me. The marine weather forecast for the last night was: "West winds 10 knots. Visibility: Clear."
Instead I found myself beating into 25 knot winds with enormous mixed swell and badass windwave. Water was pouring into the cabin, and everything in the boat was soaked - my bedding, all my clothing, all my books, and all my food. Usually the wind dies down at night, but this night it only got worse. I decided that maybe it was better that I couldn't see the waves coming at me - since they were almost taking my breath away when I could. And so there I was with the holy trinity of misery: cold, wet, and weary. I was navigating around Pt. Dume, so you have to sail between rocky shores and the coastwise shipping lane, without much room in between. The whole time I was being pounded by wind and wave I was haunted by the knowledge that as bad as it was, it could easily get much worse.
And that's what it did.
I was using some lights on shore as a navigational reference, and all of a sudden they disappeared. Then I couldn't see the horizon at all. Then I noticed that my running lights were making the air around me glow. I was immersed in incredibly thick fog that almost obscured my vision of the bow of my boat.
I'd been trying to hold a west course, but knew that I'd been trending south as well. All of a sudden it occurred to me that I might have trended too far. I hove to and swung down below (climbing over everything that had fallen on the floor) to try and plot my position on the non-waterproof chart that was soaking wet and getting ripped up. My lines of longitude and latitude converged... right in the middle of the shipping lane.
I jumped back into the cockpit and frantically looked around. And then I heard it, the sound I was dreading most of all - a loud fog horn of a nearby freighter. I couldn't see anything at all, and my running lights were making everything around me glow, so there was no hope of seeing any other lights. I tried turning them off, but still couldn't see anything. I didn't know which way to go - that last horn sounded like it was to port, but didn't it seem like it was to starboard before? Or maybe there are TWO ships?
I sheeted in the sails and started sailing back towards the coast as fast as I could. Water was still pouring in, my hair was soaked, my hands were wrinkled, the boat was being lifted out of the water and slamming back into it, and I was sounding my ridiculous air horn in two minute increments like that would make any difference at all.
In the middle of it all, I shouted "this sucks!" - and immediately gasped at how alone I was, how empty words felt when there was nobody to hear them.
To my relief, I didn't smack into any passing freighters.
I caught myself thinking "Well, I'm not going to be able to sleep tonight. Good thing I slept last night. Wait, did I sleep last night? No! I didn't sleep last night either! When was the last time I slept?" I knew I was only four miles off shore, but I couldn't keep my eyes open. I kept nodding off and waking up every time the boat careened off coarse or water splashed onto my face.
And of course, five miles away from the harbor - the wind died completely. I didn't know if I was near any obstructions or if I was going to wash up on shore, and at that point I almost didn't care. I slept for two hours in twenty minute increments. Eventually a SE wind picked up and carried me the rest of the way to the harbor. At that point I was so cracked out that it was seriously dangerous for me to be operating a boat. The fog had lifted slightly, and I could see lights from a half mile away. At one point I saw a red light and thought "I should pass offshore of that marker," but couldn't seem to steer around it. I thought I'd hit some super-strange current or tidal effect before I realized that I was looking at a boat, not a marker, and that it was moving - not me. It took me three tries to sail up to the harbor master's dock, and I stumbled up to the office. I looked at my watch: 6am.
He looked at my boat: "Tell me you have radar on that boat."
I slept all day.
Although still completely exhausted, the next day I tried pushing on. I started out towards Santa Barbara somewhat reluctantly, given my energy level and the state of the weather. An hour out of the breakwater, the Small Craft Advisory was updated to a Gale Warning with a forecast of swell 14 - 18 ft. Santa Barbara was still more than 20 miles away and the wind was blowing from the wrong direction, so I decided to ditch out in Ventura. I made it there just in time, and stayed for two days while I (gasp) got my outboard engine fixed!
I tried doing a lot of diagnostic stuff with my multimeter, and eventually decided that I'd just take it to a mechanic. I thought that hitchhiking in the rain with an outboard engine would be so absurd that it'd be effective, but not in Ventura. And, of course, the problem with the engine was a short in the fucking kill switch! I told the guy that I'd checked that, and he said "Yeah, I saw where you hooked up the continuity tester." Then he shrugged and said "I guess the short is intermittent." So that was frustrating, but at least I now had the option of using an engine.
Storms continued to come through, and the rain was torrential. I left on the day of another Small Craft Advisory, so the winds were Force 5, but they were blowing from the South East. I decided that a down-wind run in Force 5 winds in the rain was better than Force 4 winds on the nose with clear skies, so I set out.
And oh did it rain. The wear on my hands was like taking a six hour bath while chaffing your skin on ropes, and there was just no way to keep my feet or head dry. But, I made it to Santa Barbara. I only saw one other boat out on the ocean during the trip, and that guy looked kinda nuts.
The town was flooded, so I went out in my foul weather gear to splash around in the closed streets and entertain myself by sailing tin-foil boats along the gutter.
Eventually I set out towards Point Conception, the Cape Horn of California. There are all kinds of stories and long yarns about sailors who have run into fantastically bad wind and seas there. To even mention "Point Conception" around California sailors will conjure a series of serious expressions and a knowing nods, even from sailors who have never been near it. Everyone's advice is to sail to a safe anchorage in the lee of the point, wait until either midnight or 4am (this detail is debated heatedly among sailors), and then motor around it. I sailed to the anchorage, and spent one night waking up every hour to listen to the wind/swell readings from the weather buoeys off the coast of the point, in an attempt to get a feeling for how the wind/swell patterns develop overnight. From this I determined that I've seen much worse, and that it would be safe to sail around at any point during the night.
And the next night, that's exactly what I did. I was in sight of Avilla by day-break, but it took me until sunset to make it around towards Morro Bay. I broke down and used the engine for the first time to make the last 10 miles. To me, this was a real sign that I was done with the trip. I'd been, essentially, alone at sea for the past two months. I'd really learned a lot, and felt a sense of confidence and comfort that only individual responsibility can foster. I liked being able to look at the clouds and know what the wind would do, or know what kind of fish would strike a certain color lure on a bright day or a dark one. I'd had a ton of fun and learned more than I could have imagined about sailing, but the ocean had taken a lot out of me. I just didn't have the energy to sail the next 100 mile leg up wind, and storms continued to blow through. The forecast for the next night out was 16 - 22 foot seas, and I was well into the "unsafe" sailing season. I could have motored the whole way back, not completely without peril, but it just didn't seem worth it to me. I contacted a friend of a friend in Morro Bay about the possibility of using his sailboat trailer.
Appendix - An Excerpt From John Steinbeck's Sea Of Cortez
We come now to a piece of equipment which still brings anger to our hearts, and we hope, some venom to our pen. Perhaps in self-defense against suit, we should say, "The outboard motor mentioned in this book is purely fictitious and any resemblance to outboard motors living or dead is coincidental." We shall call this contraption, of the sake of secrecy, a Hansen Sea-Cow - a dazzling little piece of machinery, all aluminum paint and touched here and there with spots of red. The Sea-Cow was built to sell, to dazzle the eyes, to splutter its way into the unwary heart. We took it along for the skiff. It was intended that it should push us ashore and back, should drive our boat into estuaries and along the borders of little coves. But we had not reckoned with one thing. Recently, industrial civilization has reached its peak of reality and has lunged forward into something that approaches mysticism. In the Sea-Cow factory where steel fingers tighten screws, bend and mold, measure and divide, some curious mathematick has occurred. And that secret so long sought has accidentally been found. Life has been created. The machine is at last stirred. A soul and a malignant mind have been born. Our Hansen Sea-Cow was not only a living thing but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful living thing. In the six weeks of our association we observed it,at first mechanically and then, as its living reactions became more and more apparent, psychologically. And we determined one thing to our satisfaction. When and if these ghoulish little motors learn to reproduce themselves the human species is doomed. For their hatred of us is so great that they will wait and plan and organize and one night, in a roar of little exhausts, they will wipe us out. We do not think that Mr. Hansen, the inventor of the Sea-Cow, father of the outboard motor, knew what he was doing. We think the monster he created was as accidental and arbitrary as the beginning of any other life. Only one thing differentiates the Sea-Cow from the life that we know. Whereas the forms that are familiar to us are the results of billions of years of mutation and complication, life and intelligence emerged simultaneously in the Sea-Cow. It is more than a species. It is a whole new redefinition of life. We observed the following traits in it and we were able to check them again and again:
1. Incredibly lazy, the Sea-Cow loved to ride on the back of a boat, trailing its propeller daintily in the water while we rowed.
2. It required the same amount of gasoline whether it ran or not, apparently being able to absorb this fluid through its body walls without recourse to explosion. It had always to be filled at the beginning of every trip.
3. It had apparently some clairvoyant powers, and was able to read our minds, particularly when they were inflamed with emotion. Thus, on every occasion when we were driven to the point of destroying it, it started and ran with a great noise and excitement. This served the double purpose of saving its life and of resurrecting in our minds a false confidence in it.
4. It had many cleavage points, and when attacked with a screwdriver, fell apart in simulated death, a trait it had in common with opossums, armadillos, and several members of the sloth family, which also fall apart in simulated death when attacked with a screwdriver.
5. It hated Tex, sensing perhaps that his knowledge of mechanics was capable of diagnosing its shortcomings.
6. It completely refused to run: (a) when the waves were high, (b) when the wind blew, (c) at night, early morning, and evening, (d) in rain, dew, or fog (e) when the distance to be covered was more than two hundred yards. But on warm, sunny days when the weather was calm and the white beach close by - in a word, on days when it would have been a pleasure to row - the Sea-Cow started at a touch and would not stop.
7. It loved no one, trusted no one. It had no friends.
Perhaps towards the end, our observations were a little warped by emotion. Time and again as it sat on the stern with its pretty little propeller trailing idly in the water, it was very close to death. And in the end, even we were infected with its malignancy and its dishonesty. We should have destroyed it, but we did not. Arriving home, we gave it a new coat of aluminum paint, spotted it at points with new red enamel, and sold it. And we might have rid the world of this mechanical cancer!