I had forgotten about the sea. In the last few years I have become quite a landlubber. Really, a true and unabashed lover of the land. I have finally developed an appreciation for, come to love the land; the landscape, the dirt and rocks themselves. My travels in the western desert have shown me geology, land naked without vegetation or topsoil, and it is beautiful. You can see millions of years back into time and in the same glimpse see the processes that took place in those eons. Not to mention such mundanities as the colors, or the fantastic shapes, or the colossal size of certain land forms. Camping has taught me that it is not unpleasant to get dirty, and climbing has let me feel what it is like to be on top of the world. This love of the dirt from which I was made is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. In some ways I view it as the announcement of my maturity, my turning the corner from unreflective youth to the wisdom and understanding of adulthood. But somewhere in this transformation I had forgotten about the sea, the primordial soup, the salinity of which is the same as that of my bloodstream.
Scott asked me to help move his boat from Corte Madera down to his new slip in Sausalito. I said "Yes. Of course." Elisabeth tells me that actors blithely wish each other luck before a performance with the traditional call: "Break a leg!" She asked me what sailors say before a voyage. I thought for a moment, and was surprised to find that the only authentic historical reply was not jocular, but very serious indeed: "They have from time immemorial invoked their gods." After I said this I thought it was perhaps too solemn, over dramatic. Further thought along secular lines yielded only "A fair wind and a prosperous voyage," which I find to be too commercial for an afternoon's sail on the bay. Perhaps sailing IS a serious business, from the Roman's incense and burnt offering to that little plaque featured in most any twentieth century yachting supply catalog that goes "Thy sea is so big and my boat is so small."
So Monday, the fifth of July, the free day that Mr. Scrooge inexplicably allowed us to take off (albeit without pay), I found myself driving into a marina parking lot and beginning to remember all the old things. Like salt air. Like the yachting types who hang around marinas. Stanford, daddy's money (daddy's boat!), wearing all the latest gear, straight from the West Marine catalog. Something foul one has to make ones way through before finally getting to the egalitarian sea which, like its maker, is no respecter of persons. Then I'm out on the dock, and it's the plink plink plink of lines against masts in the wind. This audible cue releases memories of calm, in port before the voyage and after the happy return.
Here's Scott and his crew, two colleagues from work. After the obligatory warning label/joke ("I hope you know you'll be in the boat with three lawyers") we start hauling the gear down to the boat. The Boat. Small, but beautiful. Sweet lines, just enough deckhouse to be properly proportioned. Schooner lines in miniature. Not oversparred like a lake boat (and a damned good thing this is on the bay, as today's voyage will prove!). I begin to remember how long fitting out can take. Without proper organization the preparation can take longer then the voyage. Indeed, Scott had called my attention to it earlier. He and the crew had gone into the grocery store for victuals. I said I had my grub already (a box of crackers from the camping supplies, waterproofed in a giant Kodak aerial photography film can), so I stayed in the parking lot, adjusting the straps on the oversized orange life vest we had just bought to fit me. After a long time Scott reappeared with a bag of groceries, but without his crew, who were still wandering about in the store. He said that the ship's company had apparently reached that critical size where it requires a bosun to keep it together.
Once on the dock, I turned to and began to stow the gear, something at which have always been good. Scott detailed the crew to the wire seizing of the stay turn buckles. They were a restive bunch, jokingly informing me that they were to be admiral and captain, and that Scott was at best Lieutenant. This seemed unlikely, but I am content to be the deckhand; hand the lines, enjoy the voyage and not bother my head with the officers' direction of the ship. In fact I am not to be trusted with captaincy, for it is a known fact that when I am given the helm, the wind dies.
Scott began work on, of all things, an anchor. I was a little impatient with this, for I did not see the need of a anchor for such a small boat on such a short voyage, but remembering my place, I said nothing and continued about my duties. The anchor was a small Danforth, perhaps eighteen inches long and a foot across the flukes. Scott shackled to it a great length of chain, and then got out a real fid and eyespliced the three-strand line onto the chain! And seamanlike marlinspike work it was, too. I never could splice a rope, and I admire the lost art when I see it.
We ran a new mainsheet, then readied the sails. The roller reefing gear on the mainsail boom had been jammed by the previous owner. Rather than disassemble it then, Scott decided to take the first reef in the mainsail the traditional way by tying the gathered belly of the sail in the reefpoints, which we did there at the dock, before running the sail up the mast. The wind had freshened and, once we were out, getting the sails up was going to be chore enough, let alone reefing back down.
Last of all was the motor. It was a Seagull, another traditional thing. A small head with a big shaft, two stroke, hand cranked, parts available around the world. I looked askance when Scott said it was British, and nearly choked when he said it had Whitworth thread fasteners! I have owned two British cars, and though they were sweet to drive, they required daily repair. One of the great neglected research topics of the twentieth century is the role played by British engineering in the fall of the Empire. Scott must have had similar thoughts, for he volunteered that it would inspire more confidence if, instead of "British Seagull" the nameplate read "Nissan Seagull" or "Honda Seagull".
Finally it was time to shove off! I cast off the bowline, gave the bow a strong shove out into the channel and ran back to handle the stern line. When the boat had turned far enough, I loosed the last mooring line and jumped aboard. We puttered out of the marina under the power of the Seagull. The wind had been freshening all morning. The piece of the bay into which we were motoring is very shallow, and the wind had raised quite a swell. Our course lay along the waves, in the trough of the swell. We got the jib up, and it laid the boat right over! We were afraid to put up the main, for we appeared to be making quite a bit of leeway, in addition to the extreme heel the boat was showing. It is a pity we didn't want to go across the bay to Richmond, for that was where we were going, fast! The waves were high, and the boat met them in grand style. I had forgotten the exhilaration one feels when the bow pitches up, the spray flies, and the vessel noses down into the trough. I laughed aloud with recognition and joy, as when you see a long absent friend come smiling toward you. To leeward, off in the distance, two or three miles, was a tanker, headed north. Scott called my attention to it, asking what I thought her intentions might be. I said she might be going to the Standard Oil docks, at the foot of the Richmond bridge, but I couldn't see why Scott cared, for she was so distant as to be of no interest to us. Five minutes later I looked again, and the tanker was HUGE! We were almost up on it, so much leeway had we made.
We both decided that the boat would be more controllable if we could get the mainsail up. The halliard was old and stiff, and the crew did not haul as smartly as they might have (I was standing on the foredeck, feeding the sail up the track and keeping the battens out of the shrouds), but we eventually got it up, with a single reef. The boat steadied up and began to sail right sweetly, indeed. We could now point well into the wind, and Scott set a course for Raccoon Strait.
Raccoon Strait is named, not for the mammal, but after a British navy brig which visited the bay in the early nineteenth century. It is known for its swift current, its variable winds, which range in a few feet of open water from dead calm to strong, and for its heavy small craft traffic, for it is the entrance to several yacht harbours. We started down it, the wind dead foul for our course. We tacked many times in this narrow passage between Angel Island and the Marin peninsula. This stretch revealed the difference between Scott's sailing style and mine. I am one to quickly alter my plans in light of the developing situation. I am excitable and active. I do not like to wait. I like a lot of seaway between myself and a lee shore, or myself and another craft. Several times we would fetch up on the starboard tack so close to Angel Island that I would begin to get nervous, shift the lines in the cockpit in preparation for the tack I would long ago have commanded, clear my throat, otherwise call attention to myself and my anxieties. But Scott is a true stoic. He had planned his course, picked the point where he would make his turn, and he stuck to his plan with coldblooded determination. We beat inexorably down the channel. The wind began to die. As we lost our forward motion, each tack became harder and slower. I found myself talking to the boat: "Please, come around. You can do it! Come on! Come around!"
At some point Scott offered me the helm, but I declined. In the seventies I crewed on the bay on a Laser, a 15" lake boat, for a man who blasphemously referred to me as Jesus Christ, for whenever he turned the tiller over to me the wind would die and the sea would calm.
We plugged on, tack after tack. The wind came up. The traffic thickened. We thrashed along on the starboard tack in company with some forty foot sloop, headed straight for Angel Island. As we approached the optimal point for our tack, the big boat did not give way. Scott said "Let's wear ship." (Here I would like to interject an observation concerning hierarchy and discipline. Though at the beginning I told Scott I would rather he as captain just gave orders, the press of events being such that there might not always be time enough for politeness, I must say that he always found the right tone, so that for the first time I sailed in what I thought was not a standard captain/crew relationship, but a cooperative effort that successfully avoided the pitfalls which traditionally dog the efforts of an indecisive captain who is too polite to his crew.) Anyway, we dared not tack across this fellow's bows, and the lee shore was coming up quick, so Scott said "Wear ship." He put the helm up and the boat came around. I could tell from his tone of voice that he was wary of jibing the mainsail, having read of the hazards which accompany this move. But I was ready, and at the right moment I grabbed the boom, shouted "Jibe ho!", swung the boom overhead, with my arms cushioned its swing until the sheet took up the tension, then pulled the jib smartly over onto the new course. We passed neatly under the forty footer's stern, with a clear course into Sausalito yacht harbour. Scott took me completely by surprise by congratulating me on the competence and success of the jibe, something he has never done before, even when I have, on some hiking or climbing expedition, saved him from serious harm.
We headed up the dredged channel on a close reach. His new slip was all the way up the inlet, past the anchor outs, at the last marina. He started the Seagull. We doused the mainsail. The motor died. Scott thought it might be out of gas, or perhaps flooded. He fooled around with it for a moment, but things were happening fast in the long, narrow yacht harbour. His inattention to the tiller caused us to broach, and we bore down on the lee shore with amazing rapidity! We really needed a crew of three (the "crew" of lawyers was by this time comatose with sun exposure and fatigue, or shivering from incipient hypothermia), one person to steer, one to handle the sails, and one to diagnose the motor, but we had plenty of way on the boat with just the jib, so Scott resumed steering and we ignored the motor for the time being.
There were long stretches on the port tack, interrupted by short, quick pieces of starboard tack to keep away from the lee shore close in to starboard. It became more and more difficult to hold our course. Several times I suggested to Scott that he lay the boat up against one of the pieces of telephone pole that marked the edges of the dredged channel, that I would moor the boat to one of these pilings while he worked on the Seagull. He greeted these comments with silence, and finally quelled them altogether with a command to prepare the anchor, just in case. This I did, cleating the hawse and faking it and the chain down on the foredeck. There was a near thing as we wound our way through the anchor-outs, as people call the dilapidated junk houseboats which are too rundown and disreputable to be tied up to any respectable dock. The city of Sausalito is always trying to get rid of them, and now I know why. They are dead in the middle of the yacht channel and a decided menace to navigation! Finally we got all the way up the inlet. We lay downwind from our new dock, It was only a few hundred yards away, but it might as well have been miles. The foul wind was like an invisible wall which we could not penetrate.
We tacked vainly back and forth. Instead of making progress toward the dock, we actually drifted backwards, toward the lee shore! I had forgot about the sea. On land, when you are lost, or hurt, or things just aren't going right, you sit down and rest, think about it, gather strength and sort your gear for a renewed effort. But at sea you can't stand still. Inactivity does not mean cessation of motion. You may be idle, but the sea is not. It moves you and the boat inexorable onward, this time onto the lee shore. Each time we tacked, the boat came around slower and slower. It would hang up in irons, and as it drifted to leeward I would invoke my God: "O God, please make this boat come round!" They say there are no atheists in foxholes. I am certain there are no atheists at sea. The hand of the higher power is made too manifest in the clearly visible forces of nature to be mistaken or ignored. I looked to leeward and there on the rocks was a thirty foot sloop, laid over on its side! In honor of the fourth of July a fresh copy of the stars and stripes flew from its listing masthead, but as Scott and I looked at it, then at each other, we had a vision of our imminent fate, and we did not even remark on the sight.
After another hopeless tack, Scott said "Anchor." Silently I blessed his forethought in preparing the anchor for service, retracted my objections to the time spent back on the dock, and heaved the thing overboard. And just in time, too. There was less than a fathom of water beneath us. I pulled the rode up short, and a quick bearing showed that the anchor held, that we were no longer drifting downwind. Again I pleaded: "Please, God, make this motor start!" And whether due to divine intervention or Scott's efforts, it did. I pulled the boat up to the anchor, shouted "Straight up and down!" and yanked the anchor free of the mud and shellfish.
We puttered triumphantly into the new slip, tied her up and stepped ashore. Scott must have been more relieved than I was, for he grinned and actually shook my hand!
There followed the tearing down and washing up. The anchor and its line had deposited a great deal of ooze on the foredeck. We finally got everything cleaned and stowed, shipshape and Bristol fashion. I even coiled down the mooring lines in neat circular shapes. When I finally fished my watch out of the big waterproof film can and looked at it, I was amazed. I had forgotten how, at sea, one looses ones sense of the passage of time. I thought it was, perhaps, four o'clock, and here it said seven thirty! I remembered the watch I took on our trip to the Virgin Islands, how the week after I returned it stopped altogether, and how when I opened the case to have a look, it was just a green mass of corrosion! I remembered how the night had once crept up on me on the bay, and I found myself in the dark, still wearing my sunglasses. I had not thought to bring the others. I am functionally blind without glasses, and was forced to keep the dark glasses on in order to see anything, though I made a poor lookout indeed as we nosed our way among the mud flats of San Pablo Bay in the moonless night.
It was not until I got home that I found how much I had really forgotten about the sea. All evening I found myself still under its spell, elated, not reliving, but actually still experiencing firsthand the exhilaration of danger, faced and overcome by courage and sound planning. I found that I had forgotten the hidden scrapes and bruises that are revealed as one strips off the sodden clothing. And I had forgotten feeling sore. Sailing may not appear to be a very active exercise, but the willingness instantly to perform contortionist moves with agility and rapidity, spurred on by the fear of death, leaves one with muscular fatigue not unlike that felt after an afternoon of rock climbing, where you find you feel tired muscles that you never even knew you had.
And finally, as I stood in the bathroom, I found I had forgotten about my sea legs, for though I stood on solid ground, just for a second the floor heaved and settled; the sea reminding me that once you have tasted it, it is never really out of your blood.