Sunday, March 18, 2007

Life Aboard

We finished another day’s work and kept watch down the channel for the Irving Johnson—she’d been gone for a week on a voyage among the Channel Islands. Tiffany brought Judy aboard—she’ll be here two weeks as a volunteer, bless her heart—and Saul dug into his stuff and brought out some refreshing beverages. Judy immediately began making a big dinner in our galley, with me peeling potatos, Courtney drifted in and out—pried away from her MySpace account for the moment--and the whole operation shifted into after-work mode. A couple of truly stupendous luxury cruise ships went by, their decks crowded with waving people—you need to look way up to see them as these mountain ranges go floating past. The mariachi bands were already warbling away at the fish market dock beside us, and Saul came into the galley to hang out awhile.

You know, he said, living aboard a tall ship is really the best way to go. You make almost no money, but you have room and board taken care of, you get to hang out with a lot of brilliant crazies, and every day or so you get to sail. You get to climb to the top of the mast and look at whales or dolphins, explain to a bunch of kids how to haul a ton of mainsail and gaff to the top of the mainmast, and then stand back and watch them do it, steer the boat, anchor at interesting islands and explore them, zip around in your little inflatable, and be generally arvy-dar and self reliant among the pasty white landlubbers you see ashore. You really could do much worse.

Saul’s headed off this week to work on another tall ship, this one in Chicago, where he’ll be first mate. It’s probably not the career his scientist parents envisioned for him, and maybe he won’t stay with it. But for now, like so many people who drift into this world, he is captured.

A bit later, Irving came grandly in and discharged her crew of college students, the Irving’s regular crew came over for dinner and the sun went down on another raucous Saturday in San Pedro.

The evening drew on, the refreshing beverages got refreshed, and things in the nav station got increasingly debased until Tiffany finally crawled off to her cabin—not even Carlos wrestling her to the floor could stop her--and the party broke up. Tomorrow, another sail among dolphins and whales.

Yes, Saul, I know what you mean.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Tarring the Rig

Hey, you gotta tar the rig today.

You see all those ropes up there, brother? All the blocks and links and pins and shackles? Get a harness on, you’re going up to be among them.

Because you see the bigger lines leading down from up there, the ones that look like a ladder, starting near the top of the mast and going down to that platform 50 feet up, and then down from there to the deck, where they form a ladder seven feet wide? Those are the shrouds. They stabilize the masts laterally. But more important, they let hot-stuff sailors like yourself climb way the hell up into the sky and lord it over the distant world down below. Working a tall ship you can stay up there a good long time and no one knows you’re goofing off.

It’s a good thing the shrouds do. But they get thirsty-dry. They need a coat of this special little formula we got here, made of a bunch of ingredients including oils and turpentiney stuff and maybe some essence of heave-ho and whale tooth. It’s called pine tar, and it’s been used on ships since tall ships began.

What you do is, you take a squeeze bottle of this stuff—an old dish soap bottle will do—and tie it to your body with a length of twine. Then climb up to the top of the mast with this bottle and a rag, and start wiping down the lines with it.

Take your time. It’s gonna take several days. The shrouds will take two days each, if you’re working alone. And after the shrouds, you’ll want to get the backstays, two on each of the main and foremasts. For these, you’ll need to get in little boson’s chair at the top of the mast, and be slowly lowered along the stay, from 70 feet up down to the deck, by a person you trust like few people you have ever trusted.

Then how about the peak pendants? For these you’ll need to walk out along the gaff, 10 feet over the deck, balancing with feet only. And then, of course, the lifts. Oh, the lifts’ll be easy. Just loosen them as much as you can, then climb up the shrouds again to reach the top parts, pulling the lifts over to you with one hand and tarring with the other; then get the lower parts by walking along one of the housetops and reaching out over the deck as far as you can. Better rig a tagline to hold the lifts away from the boom: If you get tar on the mainsail, the first mate is legally bound to cut off your thumbs.

The whole thing is just dip and wipe, dip and wipe. Work slowly and rub your rag into the service of the shrouds like you’re trying to polish them. Don’t quit till the service is soaked with black liquid. After a while your rag will be saturated with pine tar, also your hands, and you won’t need to refresh it so often. Just work that rag, brother. Get comfortable with your rag. When you’re finished, you’ll have a good looking ship with gleaming black rigging that looks supple and fresh. And you’ll smell good. Some soap makers even put the fragrance in their soap. It smells like a campfire in an evergreen forest.

But before you get started, go and find the lousiest, dirtiest, oldest clothing you can possibly find, the kind of clothing it would give you pleasure to destroy. Because by the time you’re finished, you’ll look like the creature from grime planet. It’s just the pine tar, really, a good and honest residue from a good day’s work. You’ll remember this when you go out for a beer afterwards and the other bar patrons move away from you. That's okay, you still got your crew, and they are just a crazy as you are.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

In Search of the Killer Dana

The curious thing about Dana Point, where Exy took us for three days last week, is its blandness. All upscale, all palm-treed, all highwayed. It sits at a place where a ridge of highlands comes down to the Pacific, making a very picturesque headland with cliffs. The headland itself bears the name Dana Point, and the town behind goes by that or San Juan Capistrano, its original name, tiny though it was until three decades ago, when it began to grow like mad. The cliffs entered popular consciousness through the huge annual migration of swallows, who come every year to nest there—though fewer now because of development. The Inkspots wrote a song about it, which you might have heard Bugs Bunny sing in one of his cartoons:

When the swallows come back to Capistrano
That's the day you promised to come back to me
When you whispered, "Farewell", in Capistrano
T’was the day the swallow flew out to sea

But Dana Point has much more to boast about, and probably should.

I had time to kill during one of our days there and found my way into town, intent on fleshing out a bit of cultural history. More than half a century ago, a young man named Hobie Alter began building surfboards in a small shop he’d bought in Dana Point, and added some significant flavors to the American taste. It’s not too much to say that from his work in that shop we get much of what we know today as American Surfer culture: Beach Boys music, surfboards posted in rows along the beach, Annette Funicello, Surfing Surfari and the Endless Summer. I wanted to see the place where it started.

I found my way to the Chamber of Commerce office and asked the nice lady behind the desk for the location of Hobie Alter's original surf shop.

Blank stare. Another nice lady joins us. Same question, same stare. There's a Hobie Surf Shop down in the shopping center, they say, you just go back down that road there and--No no, I say, I'm thinking of the original surf shop, the one built by Hobie Alter way, way back, where he made his surfboards. It's around here very close.

We all scratch our heads for a while. Then a man from the back room comes out. Yes, he says, he knows the place. Just down the street, second building after the intersection, on the right. It's mixed in with a bunch of newer buildings so you have to look. And it's not a surf shop anymore.

I follow his directions, down the street and across the intersection, two buildings down, and there it is, The Place Where It All Began: It's now a dive bar with a loopy Mexican theme. An old frame building that you can just recognize from the old black and white photographs. Nothing on the outside hints at its history but one long wooden surfboard fixed to the second storey facade. No plaque, no poster.

This time there are dazed looks when I enter, faces at the bar, busy with the slow work of inebriation. The bar is along one side, small tables on the other. Like any other bar. The magic dust of historical momentousness does not flutter down around me. They have decorations made of palm leaves, a sign advertising $2 beers, coconuts carved into faces. I step out as soon as I enter. These people don't even know what this place was.

In 1954, Hobie Alter began shaping balsa surfboards in this building, having been "encouraged" by his father to stop doing it in the family garage in Laguna Beach. His father bought the lot, a lonesome spot on a lonesome stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. Alter shaped the boards, the surfers bought the boards, and the lonesome shop suddenly become very crowded. It became more crowded yet four years later, when Alter and Gordon Clark finally learned how to build a decent board out of foam and fiberglass, a much lighter and much cheaper product. This was the revolution. Now it was not just the California crazies who came by and hung around, but increasingly kids from the east, from the south, from the north. From anywhere near a breaking surf. Because surfing suddenly had mass appeal. Surfboards suddenly didn't require an unconscionable outlay of capital to purchase, or a long wait to receive. Supply went rocketing upward. By the end of 1969 Alter was producing 250 fiberglass surfboards a week, and production had moved to a small factory. But demand grew faster.

Increasingly, too, there were kids showing up at the shop who liked surfing all right, but who really liked the lifestyle that went with it, a lifestyle that was now becoming for many a tantalizing detour. They forgot about work and fell in love with sunsets and bikinis and baggie shorts. They cooked hot dogs and drank whisky and pineapple juice at Dana Cove. And with Alter still hard at work, they wanted to be part of what everyone seemed to believe was the dawn of a legend.

I walked the few steps through the sprawl to the other Hobie surfshop, the one the Chamber ladies directed me to first. Inside, indeed, Hobie surfboards stood in racks, along with hundreds of Hobie shirts and other Hobie gear. But more numerous by far were sun-worshiper hats, jewelry, tank tops, sunglasses, tote bags, and many varieties of beach-related bric-a-brac. This was Alter’s later surf shop, the one he built to stay current with the huge boom he had helped create. A young man there answered my questions, a surfer, who did not seem especially pleased that the surf shop he signed up with two years ago had become a boutique. But so it had happened.

Yes, he said, Hobie Alter is alive and well and living in Idaho, though an old man, now, in his 80s. He comes in every so often just to say hello, but the shop and its products have nothing to do with him anymore. He licenses the name and stays out of things. Some of the old surfer gang went with him to live in Idaho, all of them old men together. Alter's sons still oversee the name licensing and so on, and keep an eye on production at the factory, which still produces surfboards. As for the Hobie Cat, another of Alter's great inventions, the most popular catamaran in the country, the young man doesn't know much, and in a way it doesn't matter. Because it was surfing that Hobie loved first, he says. It was surfing that Hobie loved best, like it was in the old days. And here he points to a photograph on the wall that I had to look at twice to believe.

The photograph shows a man on a surfboard cutting cleanly down the face of a wave that is 20 feet high.

That, he said, was the famous wave, the Killer Dana. When certain weather patterns set in around Dana Point, waves would curl around that headland and roll in toward the beach at heights of 30 feet, sometimes. It was that wave that got surfers coming here in the first place, that brought Hobie Alter out of his garage in Laguna Beach. And it was that wave that sent the California surfing spirit rolling across the country.

But the 70s came along, he continued, and you know what happened then. The city of Dana Point asked for and received lots of federal money to build a luxury marina in the cove. Construction began with three days of public celebration. It finished with a mile-long breakwater beside a huge concrete island, and slips for thousands of yachts. Tons of rock went into the water just where the wave came around.

Yeah, I said.

That put an end to the surf scene in Dana Point, and destroyed one of the great breaks of the world. There was some noise about it at the time, but really not much when you consider the loss. And who were surfers anyway but a bunch of deadbeat teenagers?

Which may be why Dana Point doesn't make much of Alter's original surf shop now, the young man said. We're too embarrassed by the killing of our own original culture. Of course, there's still a fun little wave nearby, just down the way at Doheny Beach, and folks still come out to ride it. But it's nothing like it was.

I thanked him and left. Walking down the hill toward the water and the expensive marina where my own guilty boat lay tied up, I tried to find some more engaging moral to the story than "nothing like it was." But I couldn't. Dana Point is a sprawl of expensive condos and upscale strips. The force that used to dwell here has gone. Hobie Alter is nowhere near an ocean, and the birthplace of Surfin' USA is a Mexican restaurant.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Day

Had a great sail today. I'm onboard the Exy Johnson, one of two brigantines named for the pioneers of tall ship education, the husband-and-wife team of Irving and Exy Johnson. Mostly we do day sails just outside the channel at San Pedro, and today was no different. Both ships went out today, which was unusual, and our crew were young people in training to sail tall ships, so the professional crew mostly stood back and watched. I took pictures. This one shows Irving Johnson with Catalina Island in the background.

Here's our first mate Tiffany Krihwan driving the boat, a very skilled captain in her own right and a blessing to those who work for her.

Here are a few of the less-active student crew.

Next week we're making a 60-mile trip to Dana Point to take over the program that The Spirit of Dana Point can't, being in drydock for a few weeks. Dana Point is a fascinating place which I hope to write more about.