Sunday, July 25, 2021

Defying Death And Humiliation In A Sailboat

Me in the Key West Upper Harbor 2011

When I was a youngster in school I met children from all over the world and I wished I was them sometimes. Even though I suppose my own life as the son of a wealthy lawyer with summer holidays in remote central Italy might look unusual or exotic I went to school with the President of Zambia's son who got taken home for vacation in a motorcade of black limousines. Another youngster I knew lived in Auki in the Solomon Islands where his father was a District Commissioner as those distant Pacific islands were then a British Colony. Another boy was the son of a tea planter in Assam, a province of India so remote you could see China and Burma on the horizon. I know because I spent a summer there and learned to swim in the family pool in the white people's compound. That was exotic watching elephants working in the jungle and riding bicycles down tea plantations to the sounds of exotic birds and fears of meeting tigers.
For me landing in California to be a student was as exotic as I needed my life to be in 1982. I had my  student visa and $1500 a month from money I had invested in a  Swiss bank so I set to learning not only from books but about life. That ended up with me getting married at far too young an age and not long after my marriage ended and I had to learn how to apply for a job and rent a room all by myself. It was a steep lonely learning curve but I managed though to this day if I have money I spend it and as my wife is fond of pointing out she is the only reason we are able to actually retire. Practicality comes hard to people who dream big dreams.
The winter of 1985 in Santa Cruz was long cold dark and rainy, at least that's how I remember it. Bill managed the local arts theater  where they showed movie classics and I got my Hollywood education. I read a lot and decided I had to move forward with my life in some manner. I had my residence in the United States so I dropped my original plan to emigrate to Australia, the furthest point I could find on the globe from my family and when Spring arrived I put my plan into action.
I decided to get involved with the sea after a lifetime spent living inland. Now I was on a coast, far from farming and I wanted to embrace the sea with all my might to repudiate the life that had come before. I signed up to go diving and despite some rather serious reservations after nearly drowning in the pool when my would-be rescuer pushed me under the water in a dive buddy exercise while taking my arm waving as me play-acting to the hilt, as my mouthpiece and precious air floated away from my face... I did get PADI certified. I dived  off Monastery Beach in Carmel descending to green foggy depths under the surface and groping around looking at black rocks and thick rubbery kelp stems one hundred feet down. It was rather gross to be honest and no surprise the instructors nagged on and on about the delights of diving in Cancun and how they organized expensive dive trips to the sun. I decided to try hang gliding.
There are steep sand dunes around the southern curve of Monterey Bay and the hang gliding classes took place in a small unprepossessing town called Marina, known mostly as a service center for the military base called Fort Ord nearby, soon to be closed.  We stood on a  sand dune shivering in the summer chill as the wind blew giving life to the giant sails on the ground while robbing us of every atom of body heat. Hang gliding was a new sport back then and I'd seen people hovering like butterflies up the coast near San Francisco. I'm not sure looking back what the point was as they went nowhere and hung like caterpillars meditating fifty feet up in the air but it looked like freedom from the rather cold seat of my motorcycle.
It wasn't. Hang gliding is weird and ultimately pointless most of the time and as far as I can tell that fad has passed. I learned to run awkwardly down the sand dune until with a jerk the wing caught the wind and with my stomach firmly planted in the sand I was whooshed up into the air desperately trying not to wet myself while remembering to pull the control arm back to stop myself climbing vertically like the Red Baron preparing to stall into a  death dive. It was a herky-jerky means of locomotion, pushing the control arm forward to slow down and gain altitude and then pull the arm back to point down and gain speed  .  It was clear the caterpillars of San Francisco had the art down to a science because I could not for the life of me find time to meditate as I lurched around the sky like a one winged moth on acid. To my eternal credit I broke no limbs in this madness and I always managed to land somehow before I went out over the steely gray waters of the Pacific. Our instructions were to avoid drowning by not landing in water where the wing would become an airtight canopy and drown us like panicked rats. That speech was motivation enough to push the control arm forward and stall to pancake into the sand whenever the wing felt like it was really flying. I decided to go sailing.
My buddy Tim who I first met in Florida when I was riding across the country on my Vespa also wanted to learn to sail. He had learned to dive on the Mississippi River which was even worse than the Pacific Ocean as he told me tales of being roped together while groping around under water in what looked like coffee grounds. Illinois was not where his heart was at all and he went to Florida to study marine science and swim under the sun. California's reputation beckoned and we happened to meet up in Santa Cruz and stayed friends even though my marriage ended our time as roommates.  We gathered at the O'Neil shop to meet our sailing instructor and I dare say we were both a bit nervous under the foggy cool summer sky on the Santa Cruz waterfront.
Rich was a renaissance man, a flute maker and flute player, a  sailor, an eccentric and a philosopher and a no nonsense instructor but so very very gifted. I have no idea what happened to him, he must have been in his fifties, lanky with soft gray hair blowing every which way, piercing blue eyes and soft folds of weather worn skin. He was an outdoorsman who made money from his teaching gig. I was sorry he had his work cut out for him teaching me to sail. I wanted to pay him double for his efforts before they even began. I had no confidence I could learn how to operate a sailboat, it seemed so improbable. In visits to the library I had pored over books on the subject and they were filled with geometric diagrams of boats on flat placid waters turning this way and that like protractors on graph paper while an intense poised stick figure at the back expertly pointed the steering arm the opposite way. I lost sleep trying to understand how a boat went forwards if going forward caused the sails to flap and not draw? Clearly I lacked the gumption to be able to sail but I doubted I would drown despite my incompetence and I probably would not have cause to wet my pants from fear, though the jury was still out on that one as my stomach churned while we waited to meet our Sailing Instructor that cold summer morning in the Santa Cruz Harbor.
Tim and I sat in the front part of the boat right behind the mast. Rich stretched out at the back looking like a well worn Egyptian potentate on a  Nile Barge. My mouth was dry. He leaned forward and explained how the wind affected a sailboat. With one finger he pushed my head to the left by pressing on my nose. He tried to restore my head to its original position by pushing the back of my head with his entire palm. It is a lesson I have never forgotten, when a boat is at the mercy of the wind it will turn downwind by the bow. A very useful lesson if you  want to sail off the anchor without an engine. Oh and I forgot to mention the Pearson Ensigns we sailed had no engine. I found this photo online of one in action:
The situation as we sat in the twenty-two-foot boat securely tied up in the slip looked serious but not desperate to us novices. Everything was mysterious and confusing, all ropes and peculiar words and creaking noises as we ground restlessly against the floating dock. Rich explained the principle of sailing close to the wind but not too close thus allowing me to return to uninterrupted sleep at night. We untied the boat and he pushed us out of the safety of the slip, mainsail up ready to sail out of the harbor. The Small Craft Harbor in Santa Cruz is built into a river mouth with breakwaters built to protect the harbor from Pacific waves and strong northwest winds. 
Santa Cruz Harbor breakwaters with the dredge clearing the channel

There are restaurants on either side of the entrance where guests can sit protected from the biting wind and watch the parade of boats thread their way between the breakwaters into the open ocean. Among that parade of motoring boats we sailed, expertly guided by Rich who had no engine to rely on and made the task look easy.  As we passed the restaurants and came out into the breeze blowing strongly over the breakwaters he sent one of us to haul up the foresail which he had prepared previously on the foredeck. We were sailing! 
Pleasure Point and Monterey Bay covered in sea fog

Twenty two hundred miles to the southwest lay Hawaii and we were bounding across the waves under sail, masters of our own little ship. This was way better than wetting my pants in the air or drowning deep underwater. Sailing was my path to recovery from the divorce proceedings.
There were some hiccoughs on the path to passing Rich's test and being allowed to take out O'Neil's sailboats by myself. One memorable afternoon we pushed off from the dock and Rich, watching my every move,  hurried me to get the sails drawing in the unusually light air blowing. I leapt across the cockpit like a mountain goat, expertly trimming the main sail, dashing to the tiller to keep us from driving into Aldo's landlubber diners, and then finally as we passed the crowded lunch deck at the Crow's Nest I pulled lustily on the halyard to raise the foresail -"Faster!" called Rich encouraging me to put on a good show. A round of cheering and applause arose from the Crow's Nest restaurant where it was immediately apparent that the trainee had set the foresail briskly but had hauled the triangle of cloth into plain sight hopelessly, ineptly, upside down. Much laughter from the philosopher Rich snugged down in his corner of the cockpit. I have never forgotten that lesson: pay attention and do it right, with care. Soon enough both Tim and I could push off from the dock, raise sails and charge out the harbor to the Mile Buoy, sail around the mark and return to the slip with barely a palpitation. We were sailors! Yay! My divorce came through and I was happy as a clam to be single. I bought a boat and became a harbor rat with my community of neighbors and friends and sailors and a way of life all romantic and piratical in the harbor. I could live on a boat where I could not live in a hang glider!
Tim is still there in Santa Cruz living aboard a Cheoy Lee, sailing and still a witness to our early endeavors together to find a new way of life for two formerly landlocked lubbers: