Saturday, February 14, 2009

Another Brief Pleasure Trip

“On the schedule this is a training voyage,” John said, “and we’ll do some drills and take the small boat out.” He considered a moment. “But really I see this as a reward for a kind of a dull winter.” He looked up, raised his arms to the California sunshine. “Winter!” The crew laughed. “A dull winter sitting at the dock with not a lot of sailing. So with any luck we’ll have some fun.”

The robotic voice of the weather radio used the term “pulses”—“the first pulse of the front will approach the area…” as if it were some kind of nuclear event.

We unfurled the sails and ran out the lines, topped up the water, even brought the plastic kayak aboard and tied it to the cabin top, the regular crew working quickly and the guests—they were told of a pleasant two-day sojourn to Catalina Island—pushing the tasks forward where they could.

A flat ocean heading out of San Pedro, with Catalina on the horizon, that rocky brown island of roaming buffalo and dirt roads and several thousand mooring balls. Heading up the mast to do something important, I forget what, Captain John said to watch for the whale reported to be near, and 10 seconds later the animal breached 200 feet away.

That was the excitement for the trip out, until we finally got some wind near the island and spent the rest of the afternoon enacting the golden picture contained in the phrase Sailing to Catalina. We came to anchor at a place called Isthmus Cove.

I took my anchor watch at 1 a.m. that night and felt some trepidation at the snapping of the flag in the breeze, and the deep gray obscuring everything around.

But the sun came up bright and those who wanted went ashore to scavenge the tiny village for something to eat or purchase. I paddled among the caves at the water’s edge. At noon the clouds began to pile in.

By 1 p.m. it was blowing at 25 knots with gusts to 35. By this time we were well under way, the crew drilling, along with the startled guests, in fire response, collision response, and abandon ship procedure. By 2 p.m. we were canting at 25 degrees, and had stationed people to let the mainsail out if we leaned further. We practiced tacking with just one person per station, in case we ever lost half the crew.

I stood watching the foremast flex and wriggle in its mess of wires, with three of the four square sails set and the main sail reefed to the first line. The leech of the main and the flag cracked like pistol shots with the boat bounding along, bounding along, pitching over the swells. It was a laughable proposition, to be riding such a contraption in this tempest. Laundry on lent sticks. A contrivance of ropes and pulleys and spars. I had the feeling of a tight-built wooden drum coming slowly unglued in the water, and sticking out here and there a butt or plank as the center dissolved.

But not a thing dissolved. The masts flexed and on we went. The swells came over the bow and the poor unready visitors shivered in their cotton clothes and on we went. And at last it looked like John had had enough, and just at sunset we finally let go the anchor at our spot of the previous evening, and this time no one stayed up to sing with the guitar or puzzle out the words to old songs. This night everyone went to bed after dinner dishes were washed and wet clothes hung in the engine room. It proved a wise choice. For at 2 a.m. we were up again: The GPS and every available instrument showed us 100 feet closer to Bird Rock and getting closer, pushed by the even stronger wind funneling through the two land masses of the island.

The still-soaked guests didn’t even appear on deck for this operation. The engine came on, the windlass turned, the anchor came up with 300 feet of chain. Out of the lee of the island the wind began to howl at a near gale. But in this direction we had only to ride it back to San Pedro, not take it in the teeth. For a quarter of an hour, four dolphins ran with us in our bow wave, flitting back and forth beneath the cutwater like ghosts, matching our seven knots with ease, and popping above water for air faster than a fingersnap. They looked not like solid bodies at all but outlines of pale light connected somehow with the vessel, a trick of light or a reflection. They stayed with us for several miles and peeled off in tight little curves, one by one, as if to salute us for the sport.

The rolling calmed a little inside Angels Gate, a place that even at this hour, in this weather, was humming with activity. No sooner had we slid past Los Angeles Light than one of the modern omnidirectional tugboats came bowing and curveting up to within 100 feet of our side, driven, in fact, by a former captain of our sailboat.

“John,” said the boat, “stay well to the left of the channel, stay to the green side of the channel. We’re bringing in the Ever Dainty and she’s going to need lots of room.” Back at the wheel one of the crew asked the captain, “Did that tugboat just address you by name?”

The Ever Dainty, I need hardly say, was a stupefying spectacle of a container ship. She had filled the eastern horizon as we approached the gate, waiting for us to get in, and for the tugs that would slow her down in the harbor. We stayed to the left as advised.

At the dock we got the mooring lines secured quickly, for it had begun to rain again. The captain drove home to his wife, and everyone else went back to bed. And not a human voice was heard again on deck for three hours.