They say you never forget the first time. For me, cruising offshore began back in 1976 onboard Azulo, a 20-year-old, 31-foot Mariner ketch. Three friends—Dave, Karl, and Allen—and I set out to follow the path of 19th-century writer Richard Henry Dana, up the California coast. A motley crew of four young sailors off sailing the high seas!
I kept a journal during that first cruise, and I still have it today. “Until now,” I wrote, “my longest time at sea was a 10-hour sail from Oxnard to Catalina Island. I’ve been longing for a taste of real cruising and decided my first time should be a leisurely port-to-port crawl from Marina del Rey to San Francisco.”
The first leg, to Santa Barbara, was a pleasant motorsail with the Channel Islands to our left and the rugged California coast to our right. But from Santa Barbara northward, the going became substantially more challenging.
We left Santa Barbara at dawn and sailed north toward Point Conception, which has been called the “Cape Horn of the Pacific” because of the heavy northwesterly gales frequently encountered there. If Point Conception was true to form, I’d soon be getting my first taste of heavy-weather sailing.
By 1900 we were definitely in the vicinity of Point Conception. The wind was over 35 knots, and the seas were growing. I crept cautiously out onto the bowsprit to furl the jib, perched over the bow like a figurehead as the boat plowed through the waves. One swell lifted me up, up, up to such a height that it seemed we were pivoting precariously on the boat’s transom like the fishing boat in the movie The Perfect Storm just before those onboard met their doom; another foot and the boat would certainly topple over backward, or so it felt.
The wave suspended me there for a moment, dangling in mid-air and clutching the bowsprit. All at once the boat came free-falling through the air with a crash. I was engulfed by water as the bowsprit stabbed into the ocean like a dart on a dartboard. Without my harness, I would surely have been pitched headlong into the turbulent seas. And this was only the beginning of our bout with Point Conception.
Dave took the helm, and I went below to get as much sleep as possible since it would take all night to round the point. That was a frightening experience. I’d never been seasick, but I felt the first pangs as I made my way around the cabin. Lying down with my eyes closed felt like being on a bad drunk with bed spins.
To take my mind off the bouncing world in which I was entombed, I thought about my girlfriend back home. As I entered that never-never land somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, I swore I could detect the sweet smell of her hair. I could see her face. I could hear her angelic voice speaking to me: “Mike.” First it came softly, like part of a fog-filled dream, then sharply: “Mike!” It was Karl shouting my name from the cockpit.
Karl was at the helm, cold and wet and more than ready for me to relieve him. Had I really been asleep for six hours? I sat up and was immediately thrown out of the bunk, crashing into the galley table with an awful thud. The noise awakened Dave, who mumbled, “Hey man, are you all right?” I assured him I was, though I wasn’t sure it was true.