Muddling Towards Golden Gate Page 2

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,
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I stumbled around in the dark cabin, doing a sort of dance while trying to pull on my boots and foul-weather gear, when I suddenly realized I was stepping on Allen, who had passed out on the floor in a seasick stupor. Sidestepping him, I climbed out the companionway, hitting my head on the sliding hatch, and got myself to the wheel. We had only the storm jib up and the engine was on.

On deck alone in the black of a moonless night, I felt the boat pitch and plunge. She’d heel far over and waves would crash on us, filling the cockpit nearly to my knees. Salt spray burned my eyes so at times I couldn’t see anything at all. And if I looked away from the compass for only a second, we’d bounce and leap off course, 30 to 40 degrees in a single bound. At one point I found myself heading almost due north instead of due west, then a moment later we’d jump back to the proper heading.

It was tiring and very, very cold. My hands felt as though they were frozen to the wheel, my feet were numb, my cheeks and chin were raw from the wind. I was nauseated by the violent motion of the boat, and I was absolutely loving it! Fulfilling my dream of ocean cruising and learning, first hand, about sailing in heavy weather, I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

As morning came, the fog was so thick that the only evidence of dawn was the gradual lessening of darkness. Veiled daylight was preferable, though, to rockin’ and rollin’ in total darkness. At 0630 I woke Dave for his watch. Relieved, I took off my wet clothes and dove below into a damp sleeping bag. I didn’t open my eyes again for three hours, when we were approaching Port San Luis, a welcome patch of tranquillity where we dropped the hook and spent the rest of the day drying out.

We zoomed into Morro Bay the next day, swept along by the 5-knot current that flows down the channel, and grabbed a mooring. We departed the following morning just as the sun began to rise. Lots of stars and a full moon were still visible in the sky, as were several large sharks in the channel. It was creepy observing those dorsal fins and tails slicing the glassy surface of the water. Yet by noon I was sitting out on the bowsprit, watching more-comforting dolphins swimming and frolicking beneath me.

With Point Sur nearly abeam, we headed almost due north with the reefs shaken out, just screaming along, burying the rail. I was enjoying myself, as if racing some invisible competitor. Heeled over, the wind and spray in our faces…this is what sailing is all about!

As nighttime darkness fell and shipmates went below to rest, I couldn’t help but appreciate how wonderful it was to be alone in the cockpit, the only sound made by the sea against the hull, the moon casting its shadow on the sea. Several hours later, however, that sense of peace gave way to concern that bordered on fear. Just goes to show, you shouldn’t get complacent when you’re out at sea. I noticed something dangling free on the leeward side, revealed by closer inspection to be a lower main shroud. Uh oh! I lashed the dangling shroud to a lifeline and continued on, hoping for the best.

Then, at around 0430, I got lost. I knew that, on our present course, we should be approaching Santa Cruz and I should be seeing land soon. I scanned the horizon in every direction for a light on shore, but saw nothing. By 0500 it was no longer dark, and we were engulfed in a heavy gray fog. The wind and seas had calmed considerably, but in the limited visibility I saw no sign of land.

My concern was increasing; we could be washed ashore if we weren’t careful. Finally, Dave popped his head up through the hatch and asked if I’d seen any lights. I told him that I hadn’t. In short order, he was searching from the foredeck as I stayed at the wheel. Just as he’d dropped the mainsail and I’d started the engine, I spotted a light. “Gawd! Turn around...reverse heading!” Dave shouted. I could tell from the panic in his voice that I’d better be damned quick about it.

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