Monday, July 13, 2015

Fragment From a Voyage

We set out from San Pedro with a boatload of Boy Scouts, and things went according to plan: Up to Smugglers Cove on Santa Cruz during the day, around to Painted Cave next morning, back down the other side in the afternoon. Nearing evening, we heard a distress call coming from our intended anchorage. A boat had gone up on the beach and the skipper was frantically calling for help. His words were poorly differentiated but his tone sang through. Panic. No one, he would have acknowledged in a calmer moment, could have appeared suddenly by his side, on an island 30 miles at sea, at least an hour from the nearest tow boat, to stop his sailboat from grounding higher on the beach with every breaker. After 10 minutes of shouting to the Coast Guard, he had established that he and a crewmate were safe on the beach, but their sailboat was grinding away in the surf, hard aground.

By this time we were opening the cove in question, a 100 foot line of sand bookended by tumbled falls of boulders, with the suggestion of a widening of the beach behind this landing. It was in fact an attractive place for cruising sailboaters, who liked to anchor there close enough inshore to relish the secret, empty beach. The first mate peered through the binoculars and at last saw the boat, a big cruiser whose distant mast swayed lazily in the swell. He didn’t see the former occupants, but they saw us. The frantic voice haled us soon after we radioed the Coast Guard of our proximity and readiness to help.

“Are you the big white sailboat a couple hundred yards out?” he said. The relief was already coming into his voice. “Thank god.”

Our inflatable boat was speeding shoreward.

“Are you able to bring the others aboard from the beach?” the Coast Guard asked.

We were.

“Are you able to carry out these operations without risk to yourself or your vessel?”

We believed so.

We came to anchor.  The next half hour we spent relaying information from the beached boat to the Coast Guard as the beached captain had only a handheld radio. We gave the vital information the Coast Guard always gets in cases like this, and then stood by for further need. Though our inflatable boat had stayed near the two men on the beach, eventually we recalled him when it was clear that rescue boats were on the way.

Meantime the scouts had gone swimming off the boat. And while they swam, and leapt, and swung from the tacks, we observed while the rescue boat from Santa Barbara arrived, and discussed with the stranded owner the cost of the salvage—as it was by now a salvage operation and not a simple tow—and then labored mightily with his 400 horses to drag a 10 ton boat off the sand. It was a tricky job as the tide was now falling and the next chance would be more than 24 hours away. But at last he succeeded, a cheer went up from the deck of the Exy Johnson, and tower and towed set off for home. For a moment before they left, a group of adults met at our bow to watch the goodbye, and to bid farewell to the little train. But also to possibly fend it off as it floated close.

Exy Johnson at Santa Cruz Island
The scouts, who had encircled the boat with all manner of aquatic capers, and mounted upon unsteady kayaks to search for distant caves, now slowly returned aboard. The tacks were brought in and restored to their rightful duties, likewise the rescue rings and floating lines. The galley, already warm, heated up to business strength, and dinner loomed ever closer. The first mate took the deck, and afterwards reported that we had received a thank you from the Coast Guard.

Next morning we weighed at eight and were out of soundings before breakfast was clear, turning 2000 and steering for Isthmus Cove on Catalina. At 1330, the breeze finally stirring the ensign, the squares all came up and the main went down. Our speed dropped from six to under four, though it rose again as the day waned. We had never dropped the main while running downwind and it came off well, the agile deckhand tip-toeing forward on the boom guiding down the sail and the scouts folding it there as neatly as they rolled their neckerchiefs. 

But I fear that with so much sailing talk the sensory parts of the thing, the memorable parts--the smell of jasmine, the barking of sea lions, the white crash of breakers on rocks, the peachy creamy morning of a deserted island cove—might be left unnoticed. To show a fair picture of our lives, this will not do. So then, be it known:

On the approach to these islands, they never simply appear. Rather, at some perfunctory point, oh, they are there. They are a less vivid brightness against the horizon, a pale outline between the sea and sky, a looming, a species of cloud. Many hours pass between first awareness of them and the first meaningful assessment. After a long time in the back of consciousness, thoughts turn at last away from the stowage of deck stuff and overhauling the ground tackle, and, once again, to them, to those sudden great presences-out-of-nothingness. Now regions of color are discernible, tan fields of sun-baked island grass, brown ledges of igneous rock, and lighter brown cliffs reaching straight upward from the ocean. Withal there is now a heaviness to the view in that direction, a heavy stolidity to what before was empty as ether.

Moving closer you begin to feel the mass of the land, like an object of gravity in blank space. Now the froth and cream of surf appears as a changeable white line at the bottom. Boulders of blue-gray jut up from the surf. Seabirds wheel above the worried shores, darting in and out among the wet boulders. Browner tufts of scrub bushes and trees populate the hillsides, with here and there a scar of ripped earth where a crag or promontory fell anciently into the sea. The outline of the land describes a sudden, thrusting aspiration skyward from the ocean, and among the sea caves at water level you hear the roar of crashing currents against the rocks and the voices of seals.


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