As community sailing centers go, the Orange Coast College School of Sailing & Seamanship is quite a bit more than the ordinary. Now, however, it is time to begin a long goodbye to a centerpiece of the program, round-the-world race winner Alaska Eagle, a boat that in its second life has defined long-distance schoolship/adventure sailing for three decades.
Nicole Carbone Harris says that passagemaking on Alaska Eagle "shaped my life."
Jean Marie Scott says that her passagemaking on Alaska Eagle "Was transformative. It gave me a new sense of purpose."
And when a boat and a program have impacts at that level, it is no wonder that the boat cannot be sold without one last hurrah, a crew reunion to be held July 27 at Southern California's Newport Harbor Yacht Club, across the harbor from the dock where Eagle still rests at the School of Sailing and Seamanship.
In any discussion of this sort, someone will eventually point out that it's about the people. To that, Hawaii crossing veteran Mike Trujillo says, "Really, the boat has been Rich and Sheri's ocean-going salon."
Meaning Rich and Sheri Crowe. Meaning a lot. Rich and Sheri are longtime leaders of expeditions to far-off ports of call. They've achieved legendary status, but they are now ready to move on, after 30 years with Alaska Eagle, to a life ashore. Others have skippered the boat, successfully, but year-by-year the Crowes provided the anchor that made student sailing work on a big, stout beast of a boat that can seriously hurt you, or, if used as directed, take very good care of you. Trujillo relates, "Either Rich or Sheri was on deck every hour of the day, 14 days, running their salon, all the way to Hawaii."
As Director, Brad Avery has guided the school's development into a powerhouse institution, and knowing his affection for Eagle, and knowing that the boat has been maintained to something close to perfection, I was surprised to hear that it was going up for sale. I asked why. And I can't exactly quote the man, but the answer started with Rich and Sheri's plans to move on after 250,000 miles on Alaska Eagle, and then it went something like, Where else do you find, in one package, a master craftsman [Rich almost singlehandedly created the school’s handsome library], master mechanic, master seaman, shipping agent, paramedic, educator, den mother, negotiator—soulful on all counts— tried and capable of representing your interests in foreign countries and, occasionally, in the flat-out wilderness, with stuff going wrong (does that happen?) and bringing it all back home, the boat no worse for the experience, the people much better?
OK, I get it.
When the reunion convenes on July 27, there will be a lot to talk about.
THE ORANGE COAST COLLEGE SCHOOL OF SAILING AND SEAMANSHIP
To be a visionary, you don't have to see colors. You don't even have to see the whole vision. Norm Watson was a Southern California school chancellor in 1954 when he noticed an open stretch of sand, already a rare commodity on the shoreline of Newport Harbor. Watson pursued the land, outflanked a high-end private developer, struck a deal with the county and won.
What grew from that small beginning—today's Orange Coast College School of Sailing and Seamanship—is one growing community sailing program. The school now teaches 5,000 students a year, with an ocean-going arm that, in 2011, ventured as far into the Pacific as Easter Island, then around Cape Horn to isolated South Georgia, a realm of albatross, penguin, and ice flows running to the horizon. As for Norm Watson, "He had no idea what he was going to do with that stretch of sand," Avery says, "he just knew it was a good thing to nab. Then he nabbed a history professor and asked him, 'Do you know anything about college rowing? Well you're going to learn.' Add a couple of Lehman 10s and you had sailing. Stick a couple of telephone poles in the bay, and you had a dock. Sort of."
There was a bright morning when I arrived at 1801 West Coast Highway to find that a class of beginners had just hit the docks for their very first, heart-fluttering session. They were discovering how boat parts fit together and (whoops!) how tippy a little boat can be when you step in the wrong place. Occasionally, someone would wander off a short way and gaze closely at a very large sloop, gently tugging at her lines, the essence of the romance of the sea.
As directors go Brad Avery is diffident about his school's success, pointing out that because of its location in a high-end, major sailing center surrounded by a huge population, and because it is part of a college, it enjoys advantages many community programs lack. I get that. He’s right. But I'm of the opinion that none of this was inevitable, that only inspiration, a series of good choices and perhaps a touch of serendipity have made this work.
The name has evolved. Let's call it OCC Sailing. It was cranking right along in 1982, when two of Avery's friends crewed the Whitbread Race Around the World on Alaska Eagle, winner of the previous race as Flyer, and then the boat became a donation. Rich led the delivery team that brought the boat from Europe, and "Eagle arrived at the dock," Avery recalls, "and we had a celebration. Then we looked at each other and said, Now what?"
The answer, halcyon days. A voyage to Honolulu as the communications vessel for the 1983 Transpac proved the trip could be replicated, with paying students. Alaska Eagle has been part of Transpac ever since, and there were new voyages each year. Certification for a route to Tahiti was denied by the Coast Guard, then eventually granted, then New Zealand, same thing, then Easter Island. Avery relates, "Finally, they said, in effect, 'We'll certify you for the whole danged world, just stop bothering us.' For the announcement of our 1988 schedule, 240 people showed up, and we filled every leg. California to Australia we've done in 16 legs, 10 students per leg, and we had to fill every leg to make it work and it did work.
"These days, people have less time, and more opportunities and that would be 160 people paying to go to sea. It's harder than it used to be."
Having a big boat completes the school's offering pyramid. A student can learn basic sailing, then move to advanced sailing, coastal cruising, navigation, diesel maintenance, ocean voyaging and Coast Guard certification to achieve any level of skill. And it never hurts to have a flagship with an awe factor (in case you haven't guessed, it was Alaska Eagle that called our first-time sailors across the dock to dream). Students today comprise a mix of college students on weekdays and adults in community education courses primarily on weekends. For college students, the 1 unit “Introduction to Sailing,” costs $36 for a 32-hour course, which works out to $1.13 an hour. The fee for a beginning course in the community education program is $145. Since no college funds are available for boat maintenance, new sails, etc., it's income from the Community Education courses that keeps the fleet in good repair.
Later, as Douglas Kent's beginner class returned to the docks—22 people, 11 Lido 14s and two instructors in two whalers—the students were walking about six-and-a-half inches off the ground and Douglas was grinning ear-to-ear. He enthused: "Teaching beginners is … the… best. They're scared. You use humor to get over that hump. In a four-hour first day, they're in the classroom for 45 minutes max to get them organized, and then they're on the water and they're thrilled. The clean-up lecture is half an hour. It's a little about teaching, and it's a lot about making sure they come back. These people—heck, next week, they'll probably show up early. I've worked in sailing schools that didn't have much spirit, but even the people in the front office here are great at keeping people pumped up."
Donated boats still come in—a large motoryacht in 2011, also the cant-keeled ocean racer Magnitude 80 that in 2012 was reconfigured for the Newport-Bermuda Race—but with the value of the tax write-off diminishing, OCC Sailing is innovating. Courses in motorboat operation expanded the offering and led to a contract with the Navy to train SEALs. Through the college there now is a professional mariner program leading to jobs on working craft. Mary Griffith Menninger (her daddy George Griffith is the patron saint of Cal 40s; her kids sail more-than-well) worked with industry advisors to develop the curriculum.
These students don't come in as mariners, Menninger noted. "When we tell them on the first day to jump into the water they say, 'Are you kidding me?'"
So it goes. Avery says, "We have 12 full-time and 50 part-time employees. The school handles payroll, human resources, audits, insurance, things that most community programs have to sort on their own. That's a lot to have going for us. We have an affluent, generous community around us. We have five million potential customers cooped up to landward, and you know what? It's still a challenge."
Nicole Carbone Harris was a student at Orange Coast College in 1994, sailing FJs with the team and studying celestial navigation, when she won a scholarship—for celestial navigation students—to sail California-Hawaii. "I had always wanted to go offshore," she says, "but I could never have paid for that. Now I've done about 20,000 miles, and each time out, I still do sights.
"I remember there was a moment when the head of the spinnaker ripped away, and Rich went up the mast. Ninety feet. With Sheri tailing. Right there I got the immediacy of it. That trip launched a new part of my life."
Oh, and did we mention, on that voyage with Nicole Carbone and her 19-year-old self there also was a young man named Hank Harris who established, shall we say, a long-term connection?
Nicole and Hank now live on the North Island of New Zealand (she's a commercial boat captain), and there is an annual voyage to the Kingdom of Tonga aboard a double-ended William Atkins 30-foot Thistle built years ago by Hank's uncle, and there is no more concern about time at sea. "When I left California for Hawaii on Alaska Eagle," Harris recalls, "I was wondering whether I would be OK on that boat for such a crazy-long time. I learned that when you're out there, all you're thinking about is weather and food, and the longer you’re out there, the longer you want to be out there."
Jean Marie Scott came to Alaska Eagle as an experienced sailor, an experienced educator and an administrator at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with risk-management responsibilities. And yet, "The first time out, my stomach was in knots," she recalls. "I remember being at the helm and Sheri just standing beside me, not saying much, just giving me confidence. The experience is not just the sailing but in the way they wrap sailing into a holistic learning experience."
Scott made six trips in six years, with stops in Hawaii, Tahiti and Easter Island, with skippers including Crowe and Karen Prioleau. In those miles there were steering failures, a headstay failure, water system issues and blown sails, all managed in ways that increased confidence rather than diminished it. "Never with any of the crew did I feel the experience was less than it could have been or should have been," Scott says. "That’s true on Alaska Eagle, and it’s true of their programs ashore."
Sheri Crowe thirty years ago, "Was dating the right guy at the right time," when Alaska Eagle was donated to the school. She says, "I tagged along with Rich to Europe to pick up the boat and was invited along as cook for the Atlantic crossing, then on to California. It was my first offshore passage. It turns out, a lot of my life has been spent on that boat.
"The voyaging programs began with babysteps and became more structured as sail training developed, with certifications, and we were fortunate to be at the forefront of that," Sheri remembers." Brad has a vision of how to share a boat, any kind of boat. For Rich and me, our good fortune was to spend time in Polynesia when hardly anybody was going there, or the Tuamotus or Glacier Bay, and to do it on a boat that doesn’t need a commercial harbor—Alaska Eagle can take care of herself—and yes, it's big and powerful enough that you have to make sure the students don’t get hurt, but there is comfort in knowing that an accidental gybe won’t bring the rig down.”
To make their transition complete, the Crowes have listed the third of three boats they have built, their lovely 44-foot Tabu, with Ardell. They plan to build a house in the California wine country region of Sonoma. If it is anything like the library that Rich built for the school, or anything like Tabu, that will be one heck of a house.
AS THE WORLD TURNS
The world of cruising has been transformed in the last thirty years, from not-so-many to almost-anybody-who’s-got-the-gumption. A fair number of the people who are now "out there" got their start on Alaska Eagle.
I figure that anyone who can will join the reunion on July 27 to talk about this passage, or that passage, which in some way was also a life passage.
And I have it on good authority that Brad Avery has no intention of letting the Orange Coast College School of Sailing and Seamanship abandon its offshore training program. There's a new boat out there, somewhere, for that day when the old warhorse really is no longer at the dock, and it is time to ask once again, "Now what?"
Top image courtesy of OCC Sailing.