My Daddy Was A Sailor

I’ve been wanting for a long time now to sit down and write about my Daddy. He was an unusual fellow, not by the standards of his day perhaps, but by today’s standards he was definitely unique. He lived life to its fullest, worked hard, played hard, valued relationships with his friends, and above all, tried hard to understand where he was in life and where he wanted to go.

When I was born, my father was already a Captain for American Airlines. Most of my earliest memories center around activities with my mom and dad, especially going out to the airport to pick him up or drop him off for a flight. We lived in Los Angeles, and there’s not many more excellent places to view jets landing and taking off. Apparently, my folks got worried about me because after I babbled a little as a child, I shut up for a few months. Maybe it was a bit longer, I don’t really know. But, then one day I blurted out “Let’s go pick up dad at the airport!” My mother said she about fell over. I have no idea if we actually needed to go out and pick up my father or not, it just must have been my favorite thing to do.

Because my father was a pilot, we had money. I never knew when I was young what it was like to not have money. We always had plenty of things, and we lived in a very affluent neighborhood in LA down at the beach. I had no idea that I was not “ordinary” it was just the way things were. In reality, I was spoiled – badly – by both my parents. I’m not quite sure why I was spoiled so badly, I remember I could manipulate my mother quite easily in the supermarket if I wanted a toy or some silly thing. As I said, I had no idea I was not “ordinary” that is just how things were.

Eventually we all grow up, eh? But, this story is not about me, but about my father. Because my parents had both been married before they were married to each other, they were a bit older than average when I was born. I was born in 1959, so my mother had to be 32 when I was born. My father would have been 33. My mother had no children from her first marriage, but my Daddy had three children: Gary (the oldest), Fred and Beverly. Beverly, oddly enough, is my mother’s name. Coincidence? I’ve never been quite sure on that.

But now, let’s go back a bit further. I never knew much about my daddy’s past, except occasional references to his service during World War II down in the South Pacific. I do know that he loved it down there, and learned how to fly in the Navy as a radio operator in a PBY (Catalina Flying Boat). He said that everyone on board the aircraft had to learn to fly in case the pilot and co-pilot were killed, and he probably did more flying than the rest since the radio compartment on a PBY is right behind the cockpit. And, I know he loved it. But, he was a sailor first and I’m getting to that part of the story.

We always had boats when I was growing up. When I was real little, we had a Flying Dutchman in our garage. A FD is about a 6m boat class if I remember correctly, about 20 feet long, on a trailer with an open cockpit, auxiliary flotation in the form of a couple inflatable tubes up under the “deck” in the bow, centerboard and deep swing down tiller/rudder. The FD is a fun little sailing craft, and I remember they took it out pretty often in Los Angeles Harbor (San Pedro) back in the 1960’s when I was growing up. I remember they always wore their Foul Weather gear since sailing a FD can be a “wetting” experience. They’re quite fun to sail and since there’s always plenty of wind in one particular part of LA harbor, I imagine they had a good time sailing that Flying Dutchman.

That small boat was far from my Daddy’s first boat however. I didn’t learn about any other sailboats that he had until some years later, but there were a number of them. If you had met my father, you would understand him better. As I said he was a Captain for American Airlines when I was born, and people called him simply “Beau.” But, he was a Captain, and he acted like it. He had been in the military, accustomed to taking and giving orders. He did better at giving orders I think, and that was his preferred role.

Years later, when I was a rebellious teen, and on into my 20’s I called him “Der Kapitan.” It was my way of thinking of him as a jerk I guess. But, partly it was true since my father’s favorite saying was “When I want your opinion I’ll tell you what to say.” He meant it too, at least some of the time. He was arrogant and proud, and selfish and self-centered. He was a typical chauvinistic “man” of the times however, he expected to come home and find dinner waiting on the table. My mother was subservient to him, but only to a point. She stood up from time to time, and I do remember quite a number of arguments between the two of them. But, that’s mostly another story.

Let me go back to the earliest story I heard about my daddy and you’ll get a better picture of who he was. At his funeral, his sister Fredricka related one story that I thought was very insightful into his personality. She said he was 4 or 5 and had heard about Admiral Perry going to the South Pole. He made up his mind that’s what he was going to do too, so he started gathering things in his red wagon. He gathered food, blankets and other stuff together for his “expedition.” I doubt he ever left home, but that adventurous spirit carried on with him through his entire life.

His best friend Bruce Meyers related another tale at the funeral that I was glad to hear. Bruce said he was older than my dad, but only about a year or two. They were fast friends as kids, and did everything together. When my daddy was 10, they saw an advertisement somewhere or other for plans to build a boat. They decided that’s what they wanted to do. The plans were going to cost them $10 (that was a LOT of money in 1937!) so they got busy and figured if they sold newspapers and got a penny for every paper they sold, then they’d need to sell a thousand or so papers to get the money. They worked at it and worked at it and finally saved the money. Then, they started to work on the boat and finished it. I’m guessing that first boat was a simple rowboat, but it got them both started into boating, and manufacturing which Bruce took up with a passion later in life.

So my dad built his very first boat when he was 10. He told me another story that when they were teens, he and Bruce built a catamaran (two identical hulls for the non-nautical out there). This one was a sailboat with something like 12 foot hulls he said. They had a bowsprit of sorts rigged up so they could have a taller mast. He told me that they also had a bowsprit like structure on the stern so they could have a very tall mast. The end result was a tall mast on a small catamaran sailboat giving them a very large sail area relative to hull. It was a bit crazy actually, it sounds like anyhow, and I’m sure it was a bear to sail!

But, they did get it into the water, they sailed it around and decided to race it in the Ensenada race. Ensenada is about 90 miles down the Baja Peninsula from San Diego, about 160 miles south of San Pedro (Los Angeles harbor). The race was from San Pedro, and they left on an afternoon around 2pm I believe he said. There was a strong wind that afternoon, perhaps a storm I think he said, and their catamaran was cruising along at 15+ knots, and probably closer to 18-20 knots! Back then, that was quick for a small boat – especially in the ocean.

They sailed on into the night, were far out at sea on this thing, but they got to a point where they were both exhausted, sometime after midnight I gathered, and they took the sails down and drifted until first light. When it got light they looked out and saw Ensenada! They’d made it to Ensenada in just over 8 hours of sailing! That’s very fast if you don’t know anything at all about boating. They would have won the race easily if they’d been able to enter the harbor at the time they actually got there. I do not know if they actually “officially” had entered the race or not, perhaps they were just racing for the fun of it. But, that was my Daddy, he’d race just for the fun of it.

It was the way he was, he liked to argue too just for the fun of it, and he’d take either side in the argument! I’m not sure where exactly he learned all he learned. His parents, George and Florence, were already gone when I was born. His daddy was a plumber I think, and my daddy was his mother’s favorite I gathered. Dad was born in Oakland in 1926. We have his Christening picture at my mother’s house, he was raised a Catholic, and after going to Catholic school he never wanted to have anything to do with “The Church” ever again. He didn’t to the best of my knowledge.

My daddy actually went to school with my mother. They were childhood sweethearts it seems. I’m not sure how old he was when he met my mother, but they both lived in Hermosa Beach. My mother was actually born in Hollywood in 1927, but her folks were so poor during the depression that they sent her to live with her grandmother down at the beach in Hermosa. Back then, you could go anywhere in LA for a nickel on the trolley lines. There were the two lines, the Yellow Cars, and the big red cars. Life was a lot different back then and public transportation was _the_ thing!

My mother’s grandmother was still alive when I was born, and I remember her pretty well. I think she finally passed when I was 5 or 6 years old, I’m not exactly sure. But the house she owned was one of the original “beach bungalows” in Hermosa beach. The place didn’t even originally have indoor plumbing. It was built sometime around 1905-1910, and that would have made it one of the 3 or 4 earliest buildings in Hermosa Beach.

The city hall in Hermosa burned down during the 1930’s and all the city’s records were destroyed so there was no proof the structure was historic thus nobody could ever get it declared as such. The big church next door pestered my mother for years about that property and my mother, as she had inherited it from her grandmother when she passed away, finally gave in and sold it to the church. They bulldozed it and put up a parking lot. That has been a sore subject with me ever since! But, it is also long in the past, and far from the story I’m telling now.

So, my father and his folks, and his brother and sisters (he had two sisters and a brother) must have moved from Oakland to Los Angeles in the early 1930’s. I know my father lived above the “Green Store” in Hermosa Beach, a place that still exists. It’s at the corner of 22nd and Hermosa Ave. My mother told me that’s where he lived when he was growing up, at least at one point while he lived in Hermosa Beach. My inference is that they went to school together from those early years onwards. My father learned how to swim, and in fact, worked as a Life Guard at the Saltwater plunge they used to have in Redondo Beach. He also did other typical things, he played baseball, and being a “beach” kid, he learned how to surf.

Surfing was still in its infancy in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. I remember seeing a scene in the movie “Pearl Harbor” where the character “Goose” is planning to afix a fin to his surfboard. He states he’s going to make “tons of money” off the idea. Well, he might have if it hadn’t been for the fact that surfboards back then barely resembled the ones we see today. Today’s surfboards are built on foam blanks, with layers of fiberglass on top of that and fins and so on. Back then, during my daddy’s surfing days, the “boards” they used were in actuality boat hulls. They were single hulls from a catamaran like boat, they might even be likened to outriggers from canoes or trimarans. The point is, and I have pictures of my daddy’s “board” that he used, that they were long (about 15′) and they were hollow (like a hull) and they were triangular shaped (again, like a boat hull). They had no centerboards, but they were flat on top. You simply paddled it like a paddleboard and stood up on it when you were riding “in” the wave.

It was much more like the Hawaiians riding their canoes in the surf than it is like riding a modern surfboard. I’m sure it was ridiculous to think about riding one of those giant “logs” in the big waves. The surfboards of my father’s day were for quiet surf at Malibu and such, where the waves come in these wonderful long rides and are gentle (3-4 feet) and are quite predictable in how they break and so on. An interesting point though: My daddy did go to school with some of the early pioneers of the modern surfboard. I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t one of those fellows (Bing, Jacobs, Weber) who actually invented the modern surfboard.

I have a picture of my daddy sitting on his “board” in the water – I assume at Malibu – in about 1941 or 1942. He’s wearing his “Captain’s” hat too. Like I said, he was quite a fellow, and giving him the label “Original California Surfer Boy” should not surprise you a bit either by now. “Surfing” was a challenge though, as I said. That surfboard of his weighed about 150 pounds and it took 2 people to carry it and get it into the water! That’s the main reason I’m sure they didn’t bother to try and ride the “big” surf. It would have been literal suicide to try and ride one of those giant logs in the big waves.

So yes, my daddy was a surfer, and a pilot, and a sailor. I always think of him as a sailor first for whatever reason. It’s probably more about my memories than his life but that’s the way it is I guess. At his funeral, I used a picture on the handout where he was wearing a sweatshirt and sailor’s bogie. It was pretty typical of how he looked back then in those days. When it got to be that part of his life, he spent a lot of his spare time on his boat or with his boating pals. But again, I’m getting ahead of the story.

It was about 1968 I think, and my folks sold the Flying Dutchman and my daddy decided he wanted a bigger boat. I don’t know what the decision making process was, his money more than anything else dictated that he wanted _bigger_ things, better things. I would venture that he always did want a big sailboat though, that’s a given too. When it all comes down to it, we probably all want a big sailboat, it’s just not practical for most of us. Cheryl and I have a canoe, that’s all we can afford but it suits us just fine.

Anyhow, my father went looking for a boat. He found a 41 foot Ericson that the owners wanted to get out of – they were building their dream boat at the time, and needed to get rid of the Ericson. It was called the “Green Hornette.” It even had a picture of a green hornet on the stern next to the name. She was relatively new, fiberglass, plenty of teak topside, with a gigantic wheel at the helm, and room for about 20 people to go out day-sailing. There were bunks for 10 or 12 people, I cannot remember exactly, but she had plenty of room.

All my earliest memories of sailing are on that Ericson. Los Angeles is normally what I’d call the “Armpit of society” because of the number of people jammed in together in that basin, but there are parts of Southern California that are very beautiful and still somewhat wild. In the 1960’s Catalina Island was very beautiful and unspoiled. We used to go over there pretty regularly. We’d load up supplies on the boat, take off on a Friday afternoon and head over for the weekend. It only took about 3 or 4 hours to sail over, even from King Harbor in Redondo Beach. My daddy used to sing the song “26 miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is the place for me…”

Dad would get us out of the harbor, and then he’d start school for us kids. I was working sails from the first time I ever got on board a sailboat. I learned the names of the sails, the parts of the sails, the names for the various parts of the sailboat, and all about sailing. He taught us all kinds of things, most of which I haven’t used in probably 20 or so years. But I still remember those days with great fondness. He’d also drill us, much like a military drill, we’d be sailing along and he’d throw a can overboard and say: “Whoops! I just fell overboard.” Then he’d walk away from the helm, and we’d all look at each other until we realized it was a “Man overboard drill.”

As soon as the realization hit us that we were expected to “rescue” the can, we’d all get started. Sails had to come down, somebody had to “watch the can” and someone else had to be in charge of getting the rescue gear ready. Somebody had to take over the helm, turn us into the wind (to stop as quickly as possible and so we could get the sails down) and then we’d start the engine and motor back and get the can. He taught us well. I don’t think we ever lost a can.

Now I was a pretty good sailor, I paid close attention when my daddy taught us, and it meshed well with my Engineering mindset I think. I always enjoyed trying to get the sails nice and “trim” and see how fast we could get the boat moving. It was a thrill to be moving along, heeled over, with spray coming over the bow and so on. We spent hours and hours sailing along with no other goal than sailing. It’s an interesting way of life, like no other I would say. It spoiled me in a way that I cannot stand going in fast motor boats. It seems like such a waste to me to simply “go fast” and miss the sights and the sounds of the water moving past your boat. Sailing is a quiet pursuit, one that takes time, one that you must learn to relax and enjoy. It has little to do with “instant gratification” that is so popular these days.

My oldest brother Gary, my daddy’s oldest son from his first marriage, grew up with us. Gary was a fisherman. I remember Gary could sail too, but his real passion in life was and probably still is fishing. Gary and I would take our dingy out in King Harbor to go fishing. We’d fish all day long for bonito and mackerel. We fished with live anchovies, and I’ve never seen anybody so skilled at baiting the live bait and then casting out right where he wanted to catch the lead fish in a school. Bonito travel in schools near the surface of the water. They’re quite easy to spot because their dorsal fins often break the water and leave wakes behind them. We’d be sitting in the dingy tied up to a buoy close to the harbor entrance, and you could see the school enter the harbor from there. The lead fish was always a big one, sometimes a yellowtail. Gary would see that fish and cast right in front of him and “BAM!” Fish on!

We always fished with light tackle. It was tremendous sport. You really had to be a fisherman to land a 3-4 pound tuna on 6 pound test light tackle. Gary was the best. Some of those fights lasted over an hour. Fish running in directions, needing to turn them to avoid other buoys and lines and boats. It was really something. All that time the 2 of us sitting in this little 8 foot boat with no life-jackets or rescue gear of any sort. We never took that kind of stuff with us. I could swim like a fish and I think Gary could too. We were water people and had no fear of the ocean, at least not that part of it in the harbor, and in fact, the thought for safety never much entered our minds I don’t think. Heck, it was just fishing.

I was 10 when I saw my first dead body. We found a dead man floating off the Coronado Islands south of San Diego. Those islands are on the border with Mexico, but they are US territory. We had left Redondo Beach the night before, and it was a bit of a storm out that night. We cruised all night and were in the islands first thing in the morning on our way to Mexico. It was our first really big cruise on the Ericson. There were 8 of us on board, my mom and dad, Bob Watt and his wife Joan, their son Billy, my sister and me and one of her friends too. I cannot remember exactly who the friend was right now, it will come to me. Maybe I’ll ask my sister if she remembers.

There we were cruising along in the early light of morning and we come upon these islands. Already, by 7a there were plenty of fishing boats all around. We passed close to this one island and went by and there was something floating in the water. It looked like a lobster pot, but it had a life-jacket on it. The orange color reminded us of lobster pots though, but then my daddy’s best friend Bob says: “Beau, I don’t think that was a lobster pot.” We turned around and passed a little closer to the floating object and sure enough, there was a bald-head attached to the life-jacket, and the poor fellow was floating face down – dead.

That’s a bit of a shock for a 10 year old, but it was quite a learning opportunity too. We called the Coast Guard and waited for them to show up. We knew better than to touch the body, even after such a short time as that, bodies often fall apart if you try to pull them out of the water. We found out that he was a fisherman. He and his buddies had left San Diego to go fishing overnight to the Coronados. Unfortunately, the storm had capsized their boat and it sank. All 3 men died, the other 2 were found later that day.

That was my first real wake up call to let me know that the ocean is dangerous! Prior to that, as I said, we had not a care in the world nor fear of the ocean. I guess I was just a dumb kid up to that point, after that, I was a bit more cautious I think. For me personally, that was my first real “life lesson.” That was the first time I remember thinking about my own mortality in that way, and that I should have some thought for my own (and others) personal safety. We had done the drills on board the boat up to that point, and we’d had other experiences that might have me to think about death, but that was the first time I remember it so poignantly.

This is getting too long for a single blog. I’ll need to continue this later.

(to be continued…)


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