The Perils of Pals

The Sea

Here is a tale–sadly, a true one–that I penned about twenty years ago. It’s a story not so much of sailing as of sailors, especially weekend sailors and the innocence they bear with them out to sea, where innocence is not treated kindly…. This is one of two comic stories in my collection of essays, Our Own Day Here, and provides a relief from the urban rhapsodies, political rants, and economic observations that comprise the rest of the little book. It’s a good collection, which some readers claim has changed their lives–for the better, I mean. Available on Amazon, of course, as well as other vendors kinder to the author and our communities. It’s long, but you’ll like it, I assure you! Prepare to laugh.

– – – –

The Perils of Pals
Being a True Account of the Dangers that Attend
those of Us who are Dependent on the
Kindness of Friends for our
Acquaintanceship with the Sea

Yes, it is true: there are those of us who love the sea and sails and who are yet unable to possess a boat. (We are speaking here in a legal sense, of course, as every sailor knows it is the boat that possesses you.) In fact, there are those among us who are so penurious as to be unable to charter, or even to rent, a sailing craft that is anything more significant than a lead-keeled dinghy. And yet someone, somewhere, took us out to sea, and we learned to love the drumming of invisible winds against the sails, to lose ourselves in the changing colors of the waves, to let the currents caress us through the sensuous pressures of the tiller or the wheel. In short, through no fault of our own, we were made over into sailors–sailors without a boat. And when you are a sailor without a boat, and you cannot get one of your own, there is only one thing you can do: find a friend of yours who has a boat and crew for him. And that’s where the trouble begins.

***

Trouble, in my case, took the form of two friends who both had access to boats but were otherwise as different as any two people you’re likely to meet. One, hereinafter to be referred to as Skipper Steve, was nervous, thin, intense, and intellectual, with thick black hair and dark eyes; the other, whom we shall call Bos’n Bob, was lazy, fat, and blond, with thinning hair. Their approaches to sailing were equally different, but equally disastrous, and unfortunately most of my sailing experience has involved one or the other of these gentlemen.

Steve was the first I sailed with. We had just gotten reacquainted after being out of touch for a couple of years, and when I mentioned that I had become interested in sailing in the interim, he mentioned that he had too, and that he had joined a charter club where he could get good boats cheap for day sailing. All we had to do was gather up enough friends per trip to make the cash layout tolerable to each of us, and that was easy enough to do–at least once per friend. A few weekends later we had a date at Ventura for a sail to Anacapa Island.

Everything went well at first: the boat seemed sound, the weather was clear, the wind picked up on schedule just as we were ready to cast off. Steve did nothing more extravagant than very formally plotting a course for the fourteen-mile crossing on a chart where the line for the same trip had been marked and erased already several times. We had to point about as far upwind as the boat could handle to keep our heading, but we could hold the course without tacking, and the boat felt strong and lively as the port bow bounced against the swells. The day was perfect for sailing, not too hot, not too cold, the sky blue, and only a bit of haze at the horizon to take the edge off the world. We made the island in good time and spent the day exploring cliffs and coreopsis enveloped in the peace that you can find only when you are far from crowds of your fellow humans. Lunch was properly devoured, and as the day waned we rowed back to the boat and left for home. Dusk was gentle and cloudless, and the night that followed full of cozy fellowship and the distant lights of shore. We soon picked out the blink of the harbor lamp, and an hour later put in behind the breakwater. And there, dead center in the channel, was moored a dredge that hadn’t been there that morning.

By now Steve had put us under motor power–he had a strange dread of mooring under sail, even in an open roadstead such as the one at the island, let alone in a narrow crowded harbor. So as we put-putted slowly in, we studied the dredge as well as we could in the darkness and the crossing shadows cast by scattered shore lamps, and it seemed to me that the mooring lines of the dredge reached pretty much to shore, at least at that state of the tide. Steve thought he saw some room to go around them, though, and asked me to watch the depthsounder while he tried it.

Now, we knew that this particular boat drew three and a half feet of water, so as our skipper steered around the mooring buoy, a group of us called out the depths to him from the other end of the cockpit. At eight feet, we were still pretty jolly. At six feet some of us started to get concerned.   At five feet we were all pretty nervous–except Steve. At four feet we were getting rather testy with the skipper, especially as someone from the barge was yelling frantically at us while he waved his arms and jumped around. At three and a half feet we were saying things to him that you should never, according to nautical tradition and Admiralty law, say to the skipper of a boat. Six inches later, we were aground, the keel stabbed deep into a gooey mud that the little one-lung engine made no pretense of being able to pull us out of. We let the skipper make the radio call.

When the Harbor Patrol boat arrived to tow us off the bank, we had the gratification of hearing some of our earlier comments reiterated by a Person of Authority. Skipper Steve, however, did not seem much bothered by the incident.

Later experiences have led me to believe that he might have gotten used to that sort of thing already.

***

Life, friendship, and sailing being what they all are, it wasn’t long before we had another date to meet at Ventura for a crossing to the island. (In fact, we couldn’t afford any longer trips than that.)   We had a different group of friends along for this trip, most of whom had never sailed before–and never will again. The outward leg was fine again, with everyone getting a good laugh out of the process of rowing in to the landing in Steve’s rubber rafts, which had the windage and directional stability of a beach ball. Except that one of the party was nearly breezed out to sea, the visit was pleasant and uneventful. Once again, we left in the declining hours of the afternoon and approached the harbor well after dusk. Once again, Steve fired up the motor once we were in sight of the breakwater. A friend and I took down the sails and stood up by the mast to enjoy the scenery.

As we approached the mouth of the harbor, we could see by the glow of the harbor lights that the very slight swell that was running in with us was breaking white water at the center of the entrance. Now, if a two-to-three foot swell is breaking, that generally means a shoal in the area, and this harbor is in fact famous for shoaling its entrance. Again, we were in a boat that drew about three and a half feet. It seemed like the deeper water was at the edge of the entrance. I called back to Steve at the tiller and described the situation to him. He nodded and continued put-putting on in. I called back to him again and reiterated my opinion in slightly more forceful terms. Steve responded by changing course to head us directly toward the center of the entrance. I prepared to inform him in greater detail of the particulars of the situation when a sudden lurch of the boat obviated the necessity of doing so. The keel was once again stabbed deeply into the muck.

So there we were, rocking gently with the motion of the swells, smack in the center of the harbor mouth, with the harbor lamps glowering down at us from the jagged rocks of the breakwater. There was a strange, enveloping peacefulness to the night. Only a hundred yards away were the shore lights of parking lots and restaurants, even a traffic light changing colors far away. And there were we, stranded at the edge of the immense invisible sea, just out of reach of it all.

Within a few seconds, a curious hubbub arose from belowdecks, and we remembered the rest of the party, which had retired to the cabin an hour or so before. Anxious voices jabbered as hatches flew open and shadows carrying life preservers scrambled out. The girl whom I later married stuck her head out of the main hatch and began to make indiscreet inquiries as to the nature of our situation. At that moment, my friend and I sensed a change in the darkness near us, and we both instinctively grabbed the mast as we saw a silent but considerable wave rise out of the sea beside the boat. Now, we were on the cabin roof by the mast, and the wave wet us to the waist as it broke over the boat. To the poor souls standing in the hatchways…well, you can imagine. They thought we were still at sea somewhere and were about to die. But the wave managed to float the boat over the sandbar and into the harbor mouth. We drifted past those aforementioned jagged rocks while Steve busied himself restarting the engine. It was well after midnight when we finished cleaning up the boat.

***

We have all experienced times in our lives when we seemed to have a flat learning curve. That epoch was one such time, both for Steve, in regard to sailing, and for me, in regard to Steve: for not much later there I was again, on a rented boat, with him in command. Not just once more, but several times. And it never got better.

There was the time we were crossing back from the island, at night, as usual, and Steve was at the tiller while I sat up forward with my future wife. Along about midway, I saw some unusual lights pretty close on the starboard quarter, so I went aft to ask the skipper what he thought they might be–there were numerous oil drilling rigs in that area of the sea, and their lamps were as lovely during the night as their girders were ugly in daylight. Steve awoke with a start and said, What lights? I restrained myself admirably and pointed to them, only to discover that they were no longer there. Then an immense shadow passed across the luminescence of the night behind the boat, and a minute later, we rocked in the wake of a container ship the size of a small Midwestern town. The skipper had slept the passage through the busiest shipping channel in the Pacific.

I shouldn’t need to point out that we had gone off course as well, with our admirably well-balanced boat simply following the changes of the wind. There was nothing to do but head for shore and hope to spot a landmark in the dark. We knew we were south of the harbor, so when we finally saw the shore lights and heard the sound of waves, we bore up northward, coasting till we made the harbor mouth–at three a.m.

***

Then there was the time we were coming up to Anacapa Island and the mooring buoys we usually used were both occupied by their rightful owners. I was detailed to go forward and drop anchor on command. Now, I have mentioned that the skipper had a morbid fear of picking up a mooring under sail–well, this applied to anchoring as well. So he started up the motor and headed up to his chosen spot–but he did not, in spite of my well-phrased suggestion, drop the sails. I believe his exact response was, “I’m in charge here.” So, like a good sailor, I went forward and did my duty. I paid out the rode, the mudhook grabbed, and the boat came round and filled the sails. Next thing you know, we were sailing merrily along, dragging the anchor behind us. So I hauled it up, and we motored round, and we did it all again. Exactly as we had before.

I know now how Popeye got those muscular forearms of his, and it wasn’t from spinach: because I hauled that god damned anchor and chain up three more times, which was the hardest work I’d done in a long damn time, and the most frustrating. In fact, it led to mutiny.

Excusable mutiny: I had piled a few million yards of anchor chain on the deck for the third time when I looked up for a breather–and saw that our rented hundred-thousand-dollar boat was drifting gently towards a jagged rock reef not twenty yards off our port beam. I voiced an analysis of the situation in easily-understood terms, ran aft, and dumped the sails myself. Five minutes later we were anchored. I received no thanks for my concern.

***

There was a comeuppance, though. One time my future wife and I were back on the boat at Anacapa waiting for the skipper to return from the landing where he had dropped off the supernumeraries. Now, it happened that I had to use the head, and it happened that, on this particular boat, the valve was stuck and would not feed to the holding tank. Since you can’t fool with Mother Nature, I was forced to commit an indiscretion. Imagine my dismay when I heard my girl shout from above, “Look–it does float. And here come the fish!” I was on my way up the ladder to make an evaluation of what could have changed the nature of bait fishing forever when I heard her add: “And here comes Steve!” And so he came, big, bold, and arrogant in his floppy rubber raft, innocently plowing through the noxious cloud.

Steve always did have a rather splashy style of rowing.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Eventually we came to our senses, and out of a love of life gave up our sailing trips with Skipper Steve. Unfortunately, it was not long after this that Bos’n Bob bought himself a sailboat–something for which I am afraid I am at fault.

I roomed with Bob for a few months once, in a shabby apartment not too far from Marina del Rey, and we used to go out to the water every other week or so and rent little sailboats for a couple of hours. Depending on how much money we had, we would either tack around the entrance channel for a while, or, if we were flush, we’d sail out to look at the seals on the buoy by the Santa Monica pier. It was on those trips that Bob developed his love of “sailing”–“sailing,” for Bob, consisting of leaning back against the cuddy half-asleep while yours truly sat aft with the tiller in one hand, the mainsheet in another, and the jibsheet in the third. It is true that Bob had tried to sail the boat a couple of times. However, he had the unfortunate habit of settling into a hound-dog-like state of semi-somnolence within seconds of getting the boat into any sort of reasonable trim. The results, in the crowded waters and irregular winds of Los Angeles, are too easy to imagine. So after several apologies, a near-capsizing, and innumerable spells in irons, we developed a workable arrangement: I would sail, and Bob would safely rest. And so he came to love sailing.

After I moved out, we sailed less often. I no longer lived near the water, and neither of us had much in the way of cash. Other Things began to occupy my time, as will happen, and Bob and I kept in touch with occasional phone calls.

It was during one of these phone calls that Bob let me know he had purchased a sailboat. And that to save money, he was going to live aboard it. And wasn’t it great that now we could go sailing whenever we wanted to for free.

Fool that I was, I believed it.

***

Now, I had lived with Bob, and I knew that Bob was the most disorganized person who had ever lived. His closet, for example, was the floor–any floor. And he kept his business accounts on brown paper bags, which littered the tables and counters of the apartment for several weeks during tax season. He could never remember to put milk back in the fridge, with the result that we had a veritable cheese factory going in the kitchen. And once, while cleaning the apartment–well, the one time we cleaned the apartment–we found a hundred-dollar bill under the sofa–he had never missed it while totaling receipts. And now Bob had a boat that he was living on, and I was going to sail it for him? I would have had to be nuts.

Of course, you have to be nuts to love sailing anyway. So of course we took it out.

***

The first trip was not too bad, when you consider that the skipper was lazy, stubborn, and completely ignorant of sailing, or of anything about boating or the sea at all. True, he had gotten a Nautical Clock set into a little helmsman’s wheel, and a Ceramic Pirate Sculpture to hang on the bulkhead, but he couldn’t tell a jibsheet from a bedsheet, or a capsize from a hat size. In spite of that, we managed not to get into trouble until after we had “untied the ropes.” Since the motor had broken down during the trip from the seller’s slip to Bob’s, the skipper was receptive to the suggestion that we sail it out of the Marina. I had done this numerous times from the next dock over with the fellow who had taught me sailing, so I wasn’t too worried about it: only I had forgotten that at that time I had had the benefit of one competent person at each end of the boat. Marina del Rey was designed to maximize rents, not to facilitate sailing, and there’s not much room between the docks. I asked Bob to take the easier task, which was to sit up on the bows and act as a human fender in case we drifted too close to the other boats before we picked up steerage way in the typical light winds of the area. This, I thought, was something within his capabilities.

It turned out I was being wildly optimistic, for I had forgotten about Bob’s amazing capacity for mental drifting. Or perhaps it was just habit: after all, to Bob, “sailing” meant leaning back against the cuddy half-asleep, and now we were “sailing.” (While it is true that, in this case, he was standing up, that has never precluded Bob’s being half-asleep.) So I innocently pushed the boat out of the slip, hopped in, ran back to set the tiller, trimmed the sails, noticed we were getting a bit close to the leeward slips, and shouted to Bob to get his legs overside and prepare to fend off. I had turned my attention back to the sails, the sole suit of which was rather heavy for the morning’s breeze, when I saw that we were drifting ever closer to the leeward slips and that Bob had apparently not heard me, so I reiterated my request a little louder–and got back to trying to get some air into the sails. A moment after, I looked up and saw that we were mighty close to putting a hole into someone else’s Very Expensive Yacht–probably a lawyer’s, at that–and so I again reiterated my request to Bob, this time with some new adjectives chosen to apprise him of the urgency of the situation.

Bob looked at me sternly. “You can’t talk to me like that,” he said. “This is my boat.”

In about fifteen seconds it was going to belong to some stranger, but I didn’t have time to educate him on the fine points of civil and maritime law. So I ran up and fended off myself, while Bob lectured me on my faithlessness as a friend. Apparently, the idea of a collision either never entered his mind, or it didn’t bother him if it did.

Nevertheless, we made it out to sea, and had a good enough time that we foolishly decided to do so again real soon.

***

That was when Bob had just gotten his boat, and it still looked like a boat. By the next time we saw it, it had started to become a Home. This included television, VCR, microwave oven, two revolvers, three phones and an answering machine, a large supply of potato chips, sliced bread, and mayonnaise, dirty clothes on the floor, clean clothes on the rest of the floor, dozens of brown paper bags for accounting, and whatever overflow of merchandise from Bob’s business that he couldn’t fit into his van. All this in a twenty-six-foot boat with a big cockpit and therefore a rather small cabin. There was also additional nautical paraphernalia, such as an Imitation Antique Chart of the Irish Sea, and a Brass Fish Plaque of undetermined species. In the holder where the winch handle should have been stowed there was only a small brass corkscrew in the shape of a naked cherub, with the corkscrew springing from his loins. Bob was ready to sail–already had his pillow picked out–so my wife and I resigned ourselves to fate and climbed aboard.

This was one of the weeks when the motor was almost working, and Bob wanted to get out to sea as quickly as possible, so after forty-five minutes of coaxing we finally got the damned thing started, and made an uneventful passage out of the slips and as far as the breakwater before we ran into trouble.

The marina advertises itself as the busiest small boat harbor in the world, and all the traffic that comes in and out of it does so at two small gaps between the jetties and the breakwater, gaps that are usually narrowed by shoals, as they are right by the mouth of a creek. Bob steered us to the narrowest part of the north entrance, and right there, where there was a space of perhaps thirty yards between the shoal and the breakwater, he cut the engine. Now, before us, behind us, beside us, and on out to the horizon, were hulls of every description, from kayaks to Zodiacs, cabin cruisers to canoes, Scarabs, sloops, and ketches and Coast Guard cutters, the ocean crowded like a county swimming pool on the Fourth of July, half of them trying to get in or out of the marina, and there we were in their way, dead in the water with the sails all furled up and the engine not likely to restart without a half-hour of pleading and a good deal of luck. I looked at Bob. He looked back and said, “Well…why don’t you put up the sails?”

There are times when it’s best not to say anything, and I decided this was one of those times. Oh, perhaps I said something anyway, but it was the short version, as I decided we would be in trouble soon if we weren’t already, and I had better do what I could about the situation. So I went to grab the halyards…

And I discovered that Bob had wrapped them around the mast a few dozen times, so that they spiraled down like the stripes on a barber’s pole.

His explanation, given later, was that they banged on the mast when the boat rocked in the slip, and woke him up. But by then I had already given him the information that I had, out of delicacy, withheld earlier.

***

We made it out of that one in one piece and without eliciting too much of either laughter or profanity from our fellow sailors, but it was the last time we sailed with Bos’n Bob. In fact, we had learned our lesson about the perils of palling with folks just because they can get you on a boat, and we haven’t sailed with anybody but ourselves since then. It’s cut down on our sailing a great deal, but we figure that it’s increased our longevity.

 

Rick Risemberg