Chapter 1 Leaving San Francisco and the Storm
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!
My nagging fear had been replaced with a sense of calm. I hadn’t noticed the moment of change but my turmoil about our little boat in this beautiful and horrendous play, began to soften. Around midnight, I had time to think about how and when the serious situation that we now found ourselves in began.
Teri and I met while sailing on San Francisco Bay on my classic wooden sailboat – a gaff-rigged, Friendship Sloop Galatea. I was living aboard and working in Sausalito, where my business partner and I owned a small satellite TV business. The Galatea and I had been back in Sausalito for one year having spent the previous year sailing in Mexico.
Banderas Bay in Puerto Vallarta was my favorite place in Mexico. It was also Galatea’s base. The 3000 mile round trip, between Sausalito and southern Mexico was Galatea’s second trip. Although small, she was seaworthy with 150 years of proven design.
I was anxious to sail back to Mexico, but I needed to replenish the cruising kitty and help my ex-wife with our two teenage sons who were beginning to be a handful. I was glad I could help, but I still kept Galatea sailing on San Francisco Bay at every opportunity. A core group of local friends would gather at 5 pm and go out for a late afternoon sail, bringing the party with us.
It was on one of these night sails that Teri showed up, invited by a mutual friend and carrying two bottles of French wine. We became fast friends and started spending more and more time together. Several months later when I announced that I was getting ready to leave again for points south, she blurted out, “I want to go too.”
Many thought that Teri, just divorced and, with an enviable, established acupuncture practice in desirable Mill Valley, shouldn’t drop everything and sail off to wherever, on a small, antique wooden sailboat with a man with a reputation, she had known only for one year. They cautioned that this was a very “Pie in the Sky” idea. Others thought it was brilliant and were ready to go themselves.
Politics in 1986, with its Reganesque trickle-down theories and the Over Doneness, of what was then the U.S., made us want to find something better. Compared with the simplicity and beauty offered by sailing and living on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, it was an easy choice to make. But the biggest reason was that we wanted to cast our fates to the wind, looking for that Perfect Place. We wanted to rely on what we knew were our strengths – self confidence, creativity, and experience.
We felt confident we could create a living along the way. We took W.H. Murray’s quote seriously.
— “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.
Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:
that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too.
A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way.”
Having had several California –Mexico Sailing trips on different sailboats over the past decade, I had the experience to know the importance of timing. I wanted to sail the several hundred miles south into Mexican waters, in mid-November. This is an ideal time. However, serious improvements to the Galatea’s standing rigging, kept us in Herb Madden’s Sausalito Marina for another three months.
We spent all the money we had, preparing the boat and acquiring tools to be self sufficient. We loaded the boat with a tough and versatile, hand cranked Phaff 130 Sewing Machine, lots of Sunbrella fabric, clear plastic window material, straps and snaps, grommets and hand tools. We had just finished making a dodger for the Galatea, and felt we could do that and other canvas tasks, along our way.
Teri added a thousand needles from her acupuncture trade. The available secure storage space for all this gear left little room for living. Our little 30-foot Galatea’s waterline was soon lost beneath the surface.
Our preparations took us deep into winter, a bad time to venture into open waters. Nevertheless, we were intent to leave, regardless of the cautions. On a cold, clear morning in Mid-February, 1987, we finally sailed under the Golden Gate and bid farewell to the Rat Race.
We were on a slow boat to warmer weather, clear inviting waters and the openness and smiles of the Mexican people.
The weather was crisp and clear and the wind from the NW, pushing our little over laden gaffer southward at a good speed.
We spent a day and night in Monterey acting like tourists. On our third day at sea, passing point Sur, the wind and seas began to build…
The skies remained bright blue with no clouds in sight. The increasing wind and wave height forced us to shorten sail so we secured the jib and ran with a staysail and reefed mainsail. Reefing usually improves a boat’s motion dramatically and so it was with the Galatea.
The motion of our over-laden boat was comfortable, but required the helmsman’s full attention to the seas coming at the boat’s stern from the north.
The scene was: Teri down below with all but the top companionway boards in place and the sliding hatch secured. Precautions in case we should take a wave over the stern. We didn’t want water down in the cabin.
I could talk to Teri and she could pass me snacks and things from the galley. She was reading Shirley McLaine’s “Dancing in the Light” and was content.
The boat was riding well with the big gaff mainsail, with one reef in, was boomed out full with a preventer rigged forward in case of an accidental jibe.
The small staysail was also out on her boom and fairly blanketed by the Main. As there had been no weather warnings about a storm from the Coast Guard, I was content to continue on with one reef.
As the day progressed, the wind and accompanying seas continued to rise and now in the early afternoon, I wished I had put another reef in when it was still possible. The situation and conditions now made taking another reef difficult as I couldn’t leave the wheel to go forward to handle the sail and Teri lacked the heavy weather experience to be helpful and safe under these conditions. The boat was flying!
The seas would barrel down on us from our stern quarter and each time the “Galatea” would raise her stern allowing them to pass beneath her.
The boat certainly showed her heritage of being a tried and tested Northeastern fishing boat from the 1840s, long before motors.
Galatea was the first Friendship Sloop built on the West Coast. Nick Roth built her in a chicken barn in Marshall on Tomales Bay, just north of San Francisco. She was launched in 1964 and was built of mahogany on oak frames, bronze fastened and very strong and fast for her size, just over 30 feet on deck. I had sailed her to victory in class in the ’84 SF Master Mariner’s Race.
This was her third ocean trip down to Mexico. The last one – a 1500 mile return north to Sausalito, was done without a motor! Not easy against May’s winds and seas.
All this confidence in the boat’s design and construction was further heightened due to the new rigging that held the sail and spars together. Although it had made us late in leaving, it was sure a comfort to see how everything was behaving.
I couldn’t rely on looking at the shore as we were out of sight now some 20 miles off the coast. That afternoon, most of my attention was on each oncoming wave as I wanted them hitting the boat on the stern quarter, not on the beam, or dead astern. The swells were estimated at 30 feet and what you saw was several feet of white water on the top of most of those waves.
I drank a lot of wine in those days and my son Brad showed up a day before we left wishing us Bon Voyage. He had come carrying a box of red wine. Not your little supermarket box but an industrial/restaurant box! There wasn’t room down below so we put it in the rear corner of the cockpit behind the wheel.
Up to now, I had been able up to bend down between waves, turn the valve and let some red wine into my cup. I was wearing my foulies and a harness, tethered to a strong U-bolt in the cockpit. But, as I raised the cup to my lips, a wave washed over my head and into the cup and the cockpit all at once.
Thankfully, the last board in the companionway was in place so no water got below. It would have filled the cockpit before draining out through the self-draining scuppers.
Teri would separate the top two boards a few inches to talk. The sound of the wind and the seas was loud enough to make us have to shout to be heard. Teri wanted some comfort so I told her that all was well, I wasn’t tired, and wasn’t this exciting!
I didn’t let her know that we were in a serious situation, one that I had no solution for except to hang on and, as they say in the Caribbean, “Sail the Boat, Mon”. The seas were too big and close together for us to turn into and reduce sail, so we were stuck with what we had.
Teri wanted to know about the storm. Her view from down below was all sky and water out the small portholes. She asked about the Coast Guard. I told her that she could talk with the Coast Guard – if she wanted to. Just to check in with them and give our position. But I told her to say no more. “Let them know the boat is not in danger, and all is well”. So Teri made contact and kept in touch with Monterey USCG throughout the night, and into the next day.
At some time during her conversation, the Coasties offered to send a boat to help us. I assured Teri that the last thing we needed, just then, was an over-eager coast guard cutter looming over us in an attempted rescue. One that I had hoped we’d never need.
But, we had too much sail up, and the last clear before-dark look at the mainsail revealed a sobering sight. Two reef points tied at the end of the boom had parted. As each wave passed beneath the boat, it would strike the end of our long boom, causing water to be splashed up into the sail. This looked like a bathtub’s worth of water, trapped in the folds of the now unused portion of the sail. Every few minutes, the boom was jerked by the sea, sending a shudder up and down the rigging, the mast and my spine as well.
There was no easy solution to our problems.
The Galatea didn’t have an autopilot, not that you could trust one to steer in those conditions anyway. We always steered by hand and stood real watches. I had been at the wheel, since leaving Monterey that morning. It was now early evening and Teri was secured down below with Shirley’s comforting prose. It was dark, with no moon to light up this noisy scene and it became increasingly difficult to keep the boat in the right attitude to the oncoming waves. Feeling the motion of the boat and anticipating the next wave became more automatic. But about every nine seconds or so, I braced for a breaking wave to envelop the helmsman (that’s me!) in the cockpit.
I saw that parts of the cardboard wine box were disintegrating and bits were threatening to clog the cockpit drains. So quickly I peeled the remaining box away from the real wine container, a thin silver, spigoted Mylar beach ball. Now, freed from its confinement, it was able to roll around the cockpit. Chasing and containing this ball with my boots and legs, finding the spigot, and trying to fill a cup between soakings and swallowing before lowering my head to prepare for the next soaking provided some comical relief. Did I mention that this was happening in mid-winter and very cold? Later, when we read about the storm, we saw pictures in the SF paper showing the rail yards there at sea level, covered with snow.
Teri tried to feed me by passing a sandwich through the small opening in the companionway boards. She was still talking to the Coast Guard and they had asked her to keep calling on the hour. They informed her that this was a whopper of a storm and due to get much worse! The seas at harbor entrances were 22 feet and much larger 20 miles out where we were.
They again offered to send a cutter to our aid. She told them that the Captain had stated that no help was necessary but it was a comfort knowing that they had an idea of where we were. They gave us some numbers of wave height and wind velocities which were growing by the hour, and cautioned, in passing, that their cutter would take at least three hours to get to us. Not much solace!
Water was getting into the boat and Teri reported it was sloshing over the floor boards. I told her to run the pump in short intervals to control the levels but everything else, seemed to her to be ok. She had the lee canvas up to wedge herself into our bunk to keep from being thrown around. Occasionally a wave would be joined by another, coming at an angle to the usual direction and slap the side of the boat, knocking the Galatea over with the force. The boat always recovered and found her balance quickly.
If it weren’t for the growing pain in my shoulders and neck from looking backwards and steering, it wouldn’t have been too bad. As the night passed, pain, staying awake, and keeping salt water out of my wine, kept me in a dream-like state. However, I did have time, to question my motives, qualifications and decisions that got us into this deadly serious situation we now found ourselves in.
We would never have left Monterey had we known of these serious weather conditions coming our way. But this particular weather pattern was not predicted by the Coast Guard as it came from out of nowhere. We heard four boats were lost in this storm. We were lucky!
The state of the noisy ocean around us was chilling. I have sailed all my adult life and I had never seen anything like it. On top of the waves, all was blowing spindrift and white water. Our mast was well below the tops of these looming monster waves and when we were in the valley we estimated them to be well over 40 feet high. A survey, taken from my position in the cockpit, showed the boat was holding up pretty well, considering the conditions.
The loose reefs and bathtub full of water at the end of the boom was a big concern, but the renewed standing rigging held up to the jarring shake that accompanied each dip of the boom end into the froth of a wave top.
Wind velocity was now a constant 40 to 50 knots with higher gusts when riding on the top of one of these giants. Once the wave passed beneath us, Galatea would drop down at astonishing speed to the bottom between these bruisers, only to be born up again on the next one and into the maximum winds again and the accompanying soaking. Froth and spindrift was blowing off the breaking tops and resembled a blizzard. The volume of noise was surprising and constant.
By ten o’clock that morning, with the winds still increasing, I knew that we had to get the Mainsail down completely, as the violent motion would surely break something soon.
I yelled for Teri to prepare herself to slither out of the companionway, which could be open only for the briefest moment, into the cockpit, and to take the wheel, so I could go forward and lower the sail. In order to do this, she would not only have to steer each wave perfectly but also needed to pull in on the mainsheet to pull the boom in so it landed on the deck, or cabin top at least, and not into the seas while I lowered the sail.
A gaff-rig is cumbersome with a long boom and a gaff boom that holds the top of the sail. In essence, two large flailing poles that could have easily knocked me into the ocean.
Teri performed her task admirably and although I gashed my hand, spraying blood all over the place, we did manage to lower the sail and secure it, with its boom and gaff on the cabin top. Greatly relieved, the speed and motion of the boat improved dramatically and for the first time in many hours, I felt things were, more or less, under control. Now we had time to deal with, what turned out to be, a rather superficial cut to my hand.
We were now running before the storm, with only our staysail. Our speed through the water was more manageable and our spirits lifted. At around noon, on the top of a very large wave, I thought I caught a glimpse of the top of cooling towers – could that be San Luis Obispo, and the reactor of their nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon? What a relief! That says it all!
After a few minutes we rose again on a giant wave, this time, straining my salt-burned eyes, I looked carefully in that direction. It appeared again, abeam of us, to the east. Now it was a race to change course, without being rolled by what were now beam seas, and make it to calmer waters. This we did with the help of our newly rebuilt little Albin diesel engine. After an afternoon of trying to clear the southern point, we finally made it into San Luis Bay and more protected conditions.
After what we had been through, it was amazing that 12 foot seas and 30 knots of wind should feel like a millpond but it did! In fact, 12 foot seas never did seem large or threatening after that. We arranged to pick up a mooring and the Harbor Master came out and gave us a lift into shore. It turned out we were celebrities! He and his staff had been monitoring Teri’s conversations with the Coasties all night and since another boat was also in trouble out in the storm, it made for exciting listening. One chuckle they got while listening is when Coastie talked to Teri and she said that “the Captain had spotted two cooling towers and assumed it was San Luis.” He responded shyly and somewhat clumsily, “Did they look like, ahaa, did they look like a lady’s brassiere?”
Our boat was now safely at a mooring. The Harbor Master gave us a ride into town to a dry motel room, and a Laundromat to wash & dry everything from the cabin. Once dropped off at the town’s motel, we entered our room and closed the door. There to see framed on the inside, instruction on what to do if certain alarms sounded! Instructions governing an accident at the very close Nuke Plant! Talk about out of the pot and into the frying pan!!
We were both exhausted after a 36 hour battle and were soon sleeping the sleep of the dead.
The next day was beautiful, the seas having calmed greatly, clear and cold with a good sailing breeze, and it was with a clean and dry boat that we struck out again. We rounded Point Conception and sailed into Santa Barbara to have lunch with Teri’s Dad.
We had many changes of weather on our trip down the Baja, many stops at anchorages to enjoy, now that we had arrived in warmer waters. The days and nights were full of wonderful sights, catching fish, seeing many whales and the daily accompanying dolphins. The memories of the pain and fear of that first storm were now only a clouded memory.
We arrived in Cabo San Lucas at the tip of the Baja and had those promised birthday drinks at the Suicide Bar of the Finestere Hotel. It had been a couple of years since my last visit and I was amazed at the changes that had taken place in that short time, condos, new hotels, and a modern marina had sprouted up. It was a far cry from the sand streets and cobbled together shops, bars and restaurants of just a few years ago. Nothing in Cabo was of interest to us and we were ready to cross over to the Mexican Mainland and Puerto Vallarta. A two day and night sail in most weather, our sail was uneventful if you didn’t count the tuna and Dorado caught along the way, or the hundreds of turtles we passed while they slept floating on the surface of an unrippled sea. Barnacles the size of tea cups adorning their shells. Approaching the mainland past the prison islands of the Tres Marias, we could see the entrance to Bandaras Bay. We could also see a white Navy boat apparently waiting for us as it was barely moving. We didn’t want to be stopped mainly because it was late in the afternoon and I wanted to anchor in day light in a harbor still hours away.
Stopped and boarded we were: a double ender carrying several young heavily armed Mexican Navy sailors and their equally young ensign banged into us as most scrambled aboard. We were still sailing toward our goal so Teri went down below to gather our papers. The sailors, not used to small, cramped quarters were anxious to search for drugs and return to their large and comfortable ship. One showed up with a shotgun shell which caused a sudden flurry of excitement until I produced a permit we bought at the Mexican Consulate in San Francisco just after buying a use shotgun at the S.F. gun exchange before leaving. The sailors finally left and we were free to make haste for our 1st Mainland anchorage, La Cruz, 10 miles from Puerto Vallarta.
The Storm from Teri’s View Point
“What would we do if a huge wave crashed over the whole boat?”
This is the question I asked Don the minute I saw his eyes blink open one morning in those January weeks before we left on our trip.
“What if the whole boat was knocked on its side?” I added.
I have a very vivid imagination and I had started to realize that we were heading out into an adventure of unimaginable proportions. Sure, we had been sailing the pants off the boat with all kinds of friends and colorful waterfront characters for the last year on San Francisco Bay – one of the more challenging bodies of water in the world… but now we were getting serious about sailing off “’round the world” or so we thought.
“It would bounce right back up like a little rubber ducky”, Don would patiently answer. In fact he got used to my many morning questions as the hugeness of the undertaking set in with me. Morning and night, my mind was full of ‘what ifs’, wanting to know in advance what the solutions were so I could mentally file them away, relax and feel safe.
“You can rely on the proven design of the boat” he would explain still lying in bed on those cold fall mornings. Although she was only 30 feet on deck, she had ample head room for 6’1″ Don and a wide, short cabin down below with a huge bunk that was soon to be my cocoon in the days ahead.
Since Don and I had known each other for just over a year, I was apprehensive about whether this adventure would turn out ok or whether I would be back in town in a short while trying to pick up the pieces of my abandoned acupuncture practice.
Of course, my father warned me against such an impetuous closing of my practice. I had done many things to create the practice I thought I had wanted. Then, after 11 years of practice, I was seeing patients six full days a week. It was exactly what I had worked hard for and yet, a few years into this “success” I had found that I did not like being so bound in.
So many years earlier, right out of college, so many of my friends were traveling with Arthur Frommer’s book, Europe on 10 dollars a day, that I thought I could do it too. So back in 1970, I went to Europe by myself, flying Icelandic Airlines as we all did in those days. I had started in Amsterdam and worked my way solo down through Italy and Macedonia all the way to Greece – before returning to England and then home.
So I had tasted freedom outside the US and knew how wonderful it could be to wake up on the beach of Ibiza or see the sunset from Mykonos, or visit the Impressionists in Paris. Now that I was in my late 30’s, I was starting to reminisce about adventures I had had in my early twenties, just as my second marriage was starting to fall apart.
My soon-to-be ex-husband and I had decided to have a summer apart while he measured river flows in Montana for his PhD and we were on our last bike ride together when we ran into a friend of his who invited me to join Don and his wild, friendly crew for a warm summer’s night sail on San Francisco Bay.
Adventure with a capital ‘A’ was what I found that first night that I went sailing on the Galatea. I had a ball that night, drinking red wine and smoking a bit of marijuana with the gang and laughing and dodging freighters crossing back and forth across the shipping lanes that separated Sausalito from the gleaming lights of San Francisco’s famous waterfront. It was all like a big, wonderful dream after living in a Zen Practice Farm with its monastic lifestyle that included silent breakfasts and 4 am meditations for last few years. The change was so startling that I felt reborn with a sense of adventure I had not tasted since my travels to Europe 16 years earlier.
Don, an attractive blonde with the kindest blue eyes and a distinguished manner was quite the ladies man in those days. Soon several different girlfriends would come and go but I just kept going out for sails on The Galatea as Don and I were “just friends” and it didn’t matter to me who else came along. I loved the freedom of those night time sails, the wind in my hair, and the excitement of sailing along the waterfront haunts I knew so well by land. The Marina area with the San Francisco Yacht Club, Ghirardelli Square and Fishermen’s Wharf, Pier 39 and The Ferry Building all seemed to sail past us although we sailed past them with the Grateful Dead singing, “We may be going to hell in a hand basket, but at least we are enjoying the ride.”
When my Zen husband returned from Montana after a whole summer apart, our break up was inevitable. I moved out of the house in Mill Valley and shared a place with my dear friend Jennifer. We had met in Acupuncture School 12 years earlier and still couldn’t get enough of talking about acupuncture and healing patients and trying to figure out the whole world of Chinese Medicine. Again, a huge change of pace that was to portend of a deep shift in my life to come.
Free of my second marriage, I decided to take the plunge and asked Don if he would take me along when he sailed back to Mexico in the coming year. Closing my “successful” practice that was making me feel very bound in, seemed to be just the right thing to do. We were, after all, just friends and seemed to laugh at the same things and be able to finish each other’s sentences. “Great minds think alike” we would find ourselves saying a lot.
After knowing each other for just over a year’s time, we had flown down to Puerto Vallarta and then driven down to Zihautenejo and back in a rented car for a couple of weeks to see how we traveled together.
We had a relaxed vacation and stayed in some very primitive motels on that road trip along Mexico’s coast – there was so little tourism there in the mid 80s. We explored and ate and drank our way along and ended up calling back home to extend our trip another week, we were having a much needed rest and it was so easy to be together.
I think that was the start of my opening up to a part of me that Don called “B-a-d-d-e”. Yes, having tried to be “Good” my whole life, this was a step into the unknown. It was liberating to just be. Teri, the good girl, the high achiever, was being given permission to buck her upper middle class upbringing and go for broke.
And broke is what happened – because outfitting and repairing the boat for the sail down was what we spent most of our money on before we left.
We were glad that we got the brand-new ‘Sat- Nav’ navigation system and redid the standing rigging, which holds the mast in place using guide wires. It turned out to be our salvation to have her in such strong shape. But it meant that we left with very little cash because we could not face having to go back to work to make more money.
We felt we were talented enough to figure out something once we got to Mexico. After all, we had plenty of acupuncture needles and boat related sewing materials to use for our new ‘sail repair business’. Little did we know how few dollars we were to make from what we thought of as our “two new money-making ideas”.
When we arrived in Cabo San Lucas, which lies at the southernmost tip of Mexico’s Baja peninsula, I was anxious to try out my new acupuncture service to boaters. I used the Cruiser’s Net to announce my services to the fleet. (In most foreign ports where American cruisers tend to collect, the majority of the boat owners turn on their VHF radios at the same time every morning to greet each other and share information. Topics like: Who has just come in, who’s leaving, questions about local facilities and where is the Immigration Office for checking in? All questions were answered by other cruisers.
At the end, cruisers will offer their services like outboard motor repair, etc. When I made an announcement in 1987 that I was an Acupuncturist and happy to see people on my boat or theirs, there was the longest pause. No one ever came back on the radio to speak with me. I think that it was only about 10 years after the newsman James Reston had his experience in China with acupuncture and people were still unsure of this ‘new’ technique. In fact, the most common first question in those days was “Does it really work?”
Would I have just spent three years of training and eleven years in practice at something I didn’t believe really worked? What a question!! But I would be very patient and kind in my response that ‘yes, it really does work’ and then the next questions were invariably, “does it hurt” and “why don’t you bleed?”
Acupuncture is now so well accepted that I never hear these questions today. Hard to imagine we have come so far as to no longer call this beautiful, profound system of healing people for more than 5000 years, “experimental” or to wonder if it really works…
Don and I pay a lot of attention to “signs” that seem to portend of good luck and the Spirits watching over us. So as we sailed out The Golden Gate that cold February afternoon, we considered it a sign of good luck when the four fragile wine glasses, in unison, lifted out of their hanging holders on a very steep wave, all landing completely unscathed in the stainless steel sink three feet below. “Yes, you’ve done the right thing” we thought the Spirits were saying to us. “Freedom, here we come!”, as we headed out into my first day of ocean sailing on the Galatea, southward bound to Mexico and parts unknown.
There we were out beyond the Golden Gate Bridge and my imagined rough sailing did not materialize, just gentle swells like large meadows of water moving us gently towards our goal of relaxation and exotic points south.
After we spent the night at dockside in Monterey Bay, we headed out into some sloppy waves and the sea sickness I had been dreading seemed to threaten and so I lay down to read the book my Mother had sent me for the cruise, Shirley McLaine’s book, Dancing in the Light.
As the waves started to build, Don seemed completely in his element and to be enjoying the ride. You could tell that he was glad to be heading back to warmer weather again after a year and a half in San Francisco. Dolphins were leaping and we were happily making sourdough bread as we went along.
We had talked of wanting to visit the northern coast of Brazil and the Healers of the Candomble religion but we were taking it one day at a time. Don had promised me a Special Birthday Drink at the “Suicide Bar” at the Finisterre Hotel in Cabo San Lucas. I had just turned the Big 4-0 in January and we had planned to celebrate my “mid-life crisis” with great gusto.
The waves started to build more and more and Don said that we needed to close the boat up so that we would not take seawater into the cabin below. This meant placing three boards, stacked one on the other to make a ‘permanent’ wooden barrier between us. Those boards being lowered into place were to mark the beginning of my ‘being by myself’ for the duration of the storm…the next 24 hours that would take us through the whole night and into the next evening.
We could communicate a little but the storm became so loud, as it built, that normal conversation was reduced to staccato telegrams like “do you want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” I would have to press my ear up to the tiny space I could make between the boards to hear his answer – so having an ongoing conversation was out of the question.
The boat was at a 30 degree angle by now with the port side of the boat seeming to be “way down there” on the left. With the sloshing sound of the waves hitting the wooden hull right next to my bunk, I knew that we were moving extremely fast!
With no one to talk to or commiserate with, I put my full concentration into reading Shirley’s book. The one passage I will always be grateful to her for was about the Eastern view of life and fate. She reminded me that when you look at life through the concept of Fate, that nothing can kill you if it is not your time to die and also, nothing can save you if it is! This can be oddly reassuring in such dire circumstances. There’s a surrender that takes place and you can relax into it.
There we were in a washing machine of chaos and breaking waves and yet it seemed to put my mind at ease to read such a simple concept. I never did feel terrified. In fact, Don was not upset by such severe weather pattern so why should I be? He acted like this was all very common. Could it be that this is how it would be for the whole trip to Mexico?? As time went by, the waves had built to unbelievable proportions and I tried to relax into the knowledge that the boat would perform like the little rubber ducky Don had predicted months before. It was probably a blessing that it was so hard to crawl up to see out the little portholes. With the boat at such an extreme angle, I could only glimpse the sea conditions for a moment at a time.
From my perspective the ocean waves looked like the water equivalent of the rolling downs of mustard fields outside of Stratford on Avon. They were Rolling Meadows made of dark green water and they seemed to tower at least 5 stories above our boat as we approached them from the bottom of the trough.
The waves moved towards us from behind, from the north, so I was not to see what Don was dealing with in the cockpit. Thank God for that! When we were at the top of these huge monster seas, there was so much space between us and the next cresting wave to the south that we could see vast distances down into the maw of the valley between the waves. It looked like our little wooden ship would go too fast to stop at the bottom but each wave would pick us up at the bottom and send us straight up into the steepness of the next wave. Unbeknownst to me, the waves at the top were breaking ON Don and the cockpit but I could not tell this from the cabin below and Don was so nonchalant in his conversations with me that I thought all was well and good, just very rough.
I tried not to look out too much at the sea conditions before it went dark. It was far more comforting to go back to Shirley and her inspiring prose about her life and Indian philosophy.
Don encouraged me to talk with the Coast Guard on our VHF radio and to apprise them of our location and the conditions. They could not have been friendlier and more comforting than they were. They verified that we were just where ‘Sattie’ said we were. When this system, now known as GPS, was in its infancy, it relied on just a few satellites to give you your position on the globe.
In those days, we had to wait hours for the next satellite to come up over the horizon far enough to register our position. Satellites were often hours apart and the waiting for a new position could be tense.
As Don said, he encouraged me to stay in touch with the Coast Guard but made sure that I had been precise in my wording to them that “The Captain was not requesting assistance at this time”.
These were the very words that I used when speaking with the Coasties each time that I would call them. They had encouraged me to request assistance as they said the storm was building and restated that it would take them at least three hours to get to our location, using their 95 foot cutter to come to our rescue. They asked me to stay in touch and call in every hour or so which I was thankful to do. It was very supportive to know that someone knew where we were and what was happening to us. The newspaper from the next day said that four boats were lost in that storm that dumped snow on the top of Mt. Tam and shut down the Bay Area in the rarest of winter weather.
Don explained that there was little that the Coast Guard could do for us in the situation we were in. He said that he didn’t want some young guys coming out and taking over our little wooden boat with its long bowsprit. One false move and the bowsprit, an eight foot pole sticking straight off the front of the boat, could be snapped right off in an instant and require repair in southern California.
In the late afternoon, the Coast Guard let us know that a huge commercial ship was nearby and would be willing to stand by if we wanted the help. They thought that the ship could create a protection from the wind for us but this didn’t seem reasonable to us considering the severe conditions we were in.
We crested a wave and we both saw the ship way down in the trough of the waves. She looked like she was about one foot long because she was so far away and dwarfed by the towering wave above. We were lucky to be able to sail right behind her stern and not have her be a hazard to us. Had she been a little slower we might have had a difficult time not running into her side. As we got closer we could see she was over 600 feet long so we were dwarfed by her as we slid by her stern. Whew!
The most memorable event for me down in my little world below decks came as a big surprise to me. Because the boat was heeling over to her left side, as the angle became more pronounced I would take things down from the right side of the boat and wedge them down on the ‘low side’ to secure them. It went on for hours like this, the boat leaning severely to left, with books and things hunkered down on that side.
Then suddenly the boat seemed to bounce and all that was down was now UP! The left side that I thought would be down forever was now way up in the air and all the things that were secured ‘down there’ were now falling on me and the new ‘lower right side’. The most dramatic image was the box of wooden matches that had been held on the wall in an old fashioned, cast iron dispenser, open and upside down. These matches, now free, were all doing cartwheels in slow motion through the air headed my way.
I was not hurt by any of this drastic rearranging of our possessions in the cabin but this “being thrown on our beam end” was to teach me a very important lesson we would come to repeat many times over the next few years in Mexico, “you never know what’s going to happen next”!
Now, in our new position, the water that was on the floor seemed to disappear under the floor boards and I was able to brace myself by sitting on the wet floor, so that I could make a fast peanut butter and jelly sandwich for Captain Don and send it out through the space made between the boards to this hungry man.
Somehow I was able to sleep fitfully through much of the night and would awaken periodically with a start, wondering where I was and then call out to see if Don were still outside steering the boat or whether he had been knocked overboard and I was now alone in a raging sea. There was always that pause until he answered that took my breath away until I would hear him shout back over the waves that he was still there at the helm. Thank God!
Don didn’t seem the least bit concerned and so I wasn’t feeling panicky in any way. I had been just hoping that this would come to an end sooner rather than later and that this would not be how the whole trip south would be. I was afraid to ask.
As day break came, Don hollered for me to dress for the cold, put on my sea harness and come out to take the wheel so he could lower the sail and get the boat under a little more control.
Like little Eva in the song, I crawled on my belly like a reptile and slithered my way across the cockpit floor and actually reached up from the floor to hold the wheel steady while he moved to the side of the boat.
I prayed this part would be over soon so that I could return to the safety of my bunk but there was another job I had to fulfill. As Don was lowering the sail, besides holding the wheel steady, I had to reach out and pull in on the line that brought the boom into the boat so that the sail would not drop into the sea as he lowered it. This line was woven through a series of blocks that enabled me to handle such great force from my position on the cockpit floor. I never realized how much line was involved until I had to pull it all in these wild conditions. All I was thinking about was how quickly I could go back down into the cabin and be out of the cold and wet that Don had just spent the last 24 hours in without respite or relief.
As I looked up at his pulling in the bathtub full of water that had gathered in our sail at the bottom, all I saw was a huge breaking wave coming for our cockpit and then a burst of bright red blood that seemed to cover the whole back of the boat with its unexpected brilliance. Don had somehow, in the chaos of it all, gotten his hand in between the boom he was lowering and another hard surface and caused a huge blood blister which then popped. What a show of RED. It gave me an immediate start to see such blood in a landscape of blue; luckily it turned out to be not serious and was easily managed after we got the sail down and the boat calmed its motion.
As soon as Don took the wheel from me, I unhooked my lifeline from the hook and headed back down into the cabin, luckier than Don who had to continue to steer us to each wave so that the boat was not swamped by the tops of the breaking waves.
He had many hours more to be at the helm that whole day but at least it was daylight and we were no longer overpowered by our large sail.
As it was going dark again for the second night we pulled into Avila. We were tired, soaked to the bone, all in the cabin was wet with sea water and of course we were very hungry. What an ordeal!
As we were headed to the motel, I asked Don the biggest question on my mind “Is it always going to be like this?”
It was years later, overhearing Don telling the story of the storm at a party that I learned that this was the worst storm Don had ever been in in his 40 years of sailing!! Glad I didn’t know that at the time!!
Had I seen what was really happening, I would probably have been quite alarmed. Don’s easy going manner was to set the tone for the whole voyage.