It’s almost tradition with me now that these blog articles go several installments. I really suppose I’d like to be a writer. There’s nothing better than a good book or story, eh?
We had last been remembering the trip that we took on our boat to Mexico, our first long trip on our boat, on our 41 foot Ericson sailboat: The Green Hornette. I did some checking and you can still find those around, even the ones that were built back in the 1960’s like ours was. That’s a testament to the quality of the American sailboat industry more than anything else. Anyhow, to continue…
We were cruising all night, and I was pulling watches just like everyone else, even though I am pretty sure I was only 10 on this first trip to Mexico. I got the same watch duty as my dad, he and his best friend Bob, we had the early morning shift, from 4-8 if I remember correctly, as well as the other corresponding shifts. Watches were 4 on and 4 off when out at sea. You can’t get a great deal of sleep, but you’re not at sea the entire cruise, so it’s not that difficult to get your rest. We had stopped to watch over a body we found that first morning in the Coronado Islands. That was my first lesson into how dangerous the ocean really was.
This particular trip would be filled with plenty more lessons about life and danger and so on. The Coast Guard arrived after about 2 hours of waiting. That’s pretty quick really, we had breakfast and so on, and were ready to continue our cruise southward. We happily turned “custody” of the body over to them but instead of continuing southwards, I think we turned back to San Diego. Actually, I think I made a mistake in that last article. The Coronados are really Mexican territory, but because the fishermen who frequent the waters of the islands are mostly US citizens, I believe that was why the Coast Guard was able to obtain authorization from the Mexican Government to go there and retrieve the body we had found.
After finding the fisherman’s body, we decided to turn around and head into San Diego for the night. It was pretty depressing to have found the poor fellow’s body, so we were all in no mood to keep going at that point. The next day, heading southwards, we decided to stop in Ensenada for the night. I had been to Tijuana, and Mexicali before, but I’d never visited a Mexican “port.” My first impression was that it was a very dirty and rundown place. The water taxis were colorful, the people had the distinctive Mexican darker skin and the town was filled with small squatty buildings that appeared mostly rundown, but again, more colorful than their counterparts north of the border. There was more distance between buildings it seemed, space being not a premium in Mexico.
I remember we visited “Hussongs” famous Cantina while there. It seems obligatory for “gringos” to go in and have a drink when in Mexico. My folks and their best friends Bob and Joan all had a drink. It was interesting because it was daytime and they didn’t kick us kids out either. I don’t think we ate anything, and the beers they drank were bottled. I was already aware that you don’t “drink the water” in Mexico. We had water on board our boat, not excessive amounts, but I think that the Ericson had something like 150 or 200 gallons of freshwater storage. That’s plenty for a number of people for a week or so, and that’s about how long our trip was planned. We were to be gone I think 10 days total.
Still, Mexico is an interesting place for a 10 year old. We visited shops, and were amazed to see things I’d never seen before. Switchblade knives, fireworks of all types, other types of knives large and small, many and various colorful hats and dresses. There was Mexican art in abundance. Back in those days it was all very traditional stuff with fanciful depictions of birds and lizards, colorful curly-queues and flowers and such. Mexican folk art can be very appealing but definitely not on the basis of its “realism.” Still, it’s very pretty and is as colorful as their houses and the people.
I remember seeing small children on the streets carrying wooden boxes of “chicle” (gum). We call it “chicklets” gum, but south of the border in Mexico, it’s simply “chicle” which I believe also means literally “gum.” These children were very dirty, had no shoes and would simply mob gringos selling their gum: “Chicle! Chicle!” They’d yell at you. I don’t remember anymore how much it cost, but I had never seen that brand of gum before, so I wasn’t interested anyway. I think we gave them a few coins or something and they left us alone.
Bob and Joan’s son Billy and I went into a couple shops and bought ourselves switchblades and fireworks, then we went back to the boat. I bought some old rounds of ammunition that I still have to this day too: a .45 round for a semi-auto pistol, and a .30-06 round and something else too (.32 ???). It’s funny what we think is important as kids isn’t it? I was fascinated by guns, even though up to then I’d still never fired one to the best of my knowledge. I think it was on this trip that I first fired one.
I think that reason more than anything is why I remember my daddy as a sailor. I had so many “firsts” while being on board the various boats we had that it made permanent and lasting life impressions on me. Today, as I write, it’s Sept. 15, my daddy’s birthday. He would have been 83 today. As it was, he passed away in 2000, he was 73. I’ll get to his funeral, the whole story of his funeral eventually. It’s somewhat a delicate subject as there were many difficult emotions besides the grief to deal with. But again, I’m getting ahead of our story.
As I was saying, all those “firsts” I had on my daddy’s boats led me to have strong and vivid memories of those times. They were good times, some scary times, some funny times. All kinds of times! We were in Mexico, in Ensenada. We stayed just the one day in Ensenada and then we proceeded south. Our original destination was Scammon’s Lagoon. If you live on the West Coast, then you’ve probably heard of or maybe even seen California Gray (or Grey) Whales. We were going to try and make it all the way down the Baja Peninsula to the Lagoon which is about 370 miles south of San Diego, or nearly half way down the Baja Peninsula. That was pretty ambitious for this 10 day trip let me tell you!
So we started out from Ensenada, and the thing I remember most about that segment of the trip was the whales. I believe we had timed our trip to coincide with the annual migration of the Gray Whales southwards from the Arctic Ocean to Scammon’s Lagoon where they have their calves. The waters in Scammon’s Lagoon are relatively shallow, and warm, ideal grounds for introducing new baby whales into the world, eh? But their food source is the abundant plankton in the Arctic Ocean, so their annual migration is quite something to see. This was far from the first time I had seen whales, but it was definitely the most memorable whale watching trip of my life!
On this trip so far we had done most of our sailing at night, since the trip from San Diego to Ensenada is only about 6 hours or so, which we made easily leaving at first light from San Diego the day after our sad encounter in the Coronado Islands. So, here we are cruising along from Ensenada southwards, and we start to see whales. Not just a few, but lots of whales! Whales breaching, whales swimming in groups (pods). Whales all over the place! And the whales we saw were not just Gray whales either.
We were sailing along the first night, as it was just starting to get light on the horizon we hear this “SMACK!” on the water, followed by what can only be described as a churning of water. We had no idea what that noise was until it grew light enough to see. Then, about a half mile off our stern we see this Porpoise leaping out of the water (it looked like each leap was about 15 feet out of the water) and churning with all his might to stay out of the water, followed a few seconds later by the poor fellow hitting the water horizontally (the source of the smacking sound) but still churning with his tail with all his might. At first, we were perplexed by this, but then we saw the reason for his desperate, frantic attempt to move as quickly as possible.
About 50m behind this poor porpoise was the dorsal fin of a Killer Whale, steaming along about 25 knots. You had the impression the whale could keep up the chase all day long, and eventually the Porpoise was going to be breakfast. We watched them swimming along together, the Porpoise desperate to try and get away, the Killer Whale content to follow his breakfast until the former tired out and he would then close the distance. We saw them swimming along for about 30 minutes or so and then they were finally out of our sight. It was the first Killer Whale I had ever seen, it was HUGE! His dorsal fin was easily 6 feet tall, and it flapped from side to side as the Killer Whale steamed along after that poor Porpoise.
As I said, I had many firsts on my daddy’s boats, and this wasn’t even the last of them to happen on this trip! I believe we were able to get everyone up to witness that life and death struggle. It was very impressive and it certainly left a lasting impression on all of us. Those of you reading this who think the ocean is like some big bathtub, where you kind of go about and don’t ever see anything interesting are sadly mistaken. The ocean is filled with wonders, and lessons about life. It’s a wilderness of sorts, and there are all kinds of creatures that inhabit its waters and I have plenty more to describe as we go along!
The rest of that day was filled with more whale sightings, and we continued our sail southwards. I suppose we were making about 7-8 knots on average, that’s 24 hours a day so you get to about maybe 140-150 miles per day. As I said, we were heading to Scammon’s Lagoon, about 320 miles from Ensenada, so we come up to the morning of Day 2 south from Ensenada. That morning was one I will _never_ forget, and the event is so amazing as to be nearly indescribable!
It was early, about 5am. My dad, his buddy Bob and I were on deck. Since I was the “kid,” I did most of the menial tasks, fetching coffee, checking rigging and so on. I learned the foredeck responsibilities early, I have already told you that my daddy started teaching me sailing from the first moment I stepped on board a sailing vessel. That was probably when I was 7, so this, 3 years later, I was already an experienced crew member. Small and scrawny, I was still very strong for my size because I was a swimmer, and I worked out every day.
Anyhow, there we were the 3 of us on deck. We had seen plenty of whales up to this point on the trip, but never in my life have I seen what we were about to see. I don’t think we knew there were Sperm Whales in the area, but that is what we saw. There was no mistaking him. First, the three of us were sitting there at the helm quietly. Just sailing along. Next thing we know, in that early morning light, this shape comes up right next to the boat. OK, we’re on a 41 foot sailboat, this whale is about 20 feet longer than our boat! That ruled him out right there as being a Gray Whale, but then his head comes up out of the water, his snout, his eye. His head was square, just as square as could be, he was a Sperm Whale! And he was LOOKING at us and he was only 20 feet away from our boat!
We were all so dumbfounded, we could not even speak! The whole event probably lasted 10 seconds, but like I said, none of us could speak to call anyone else up on deck to see this magnificent creature who was literally checking us out! It was truly one of the most amazing moments of my young life, one that has never ceased to amaze me when I think back about it. We were so excited after it was over that we nearly tripped over each other to get to the hatch and yell down below to come up and see this amazing whale. But, we never saw that particular whale again. As mysteriously as he appeared, he vanished, never to be seen by us again.
There was just something about the whole incident that made it simply too much for words to describe adequately. The early morning light, the mist on the ocean, the gray sky, the gray color of the water in that early morning light, the amazing eye of that creature who looked us over. My impression of the whole thing was that he was checking us out to see if we were a threat or not. I’m not sure what the whale would have done if he’d decided we were not to his liking. I had heard stories of boats mysteriously vanishing at sea with no explanations. I wondered and I still do if these whales sometimes decide that you are a threat, or maybe a food item. I don’t think the food argument is really anything. The eye of that whale looked intelligent! It was just one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my life.
With that, I think I will end this segment. With a prayer that my daddy’s is in heaven watching me write this and the hope that I’ll see him again some day. No, I don’t know for sure that he’s there. I did talk with my daddy about Jesus after I got saved, and I gave him the book by Josh McDowell that abolished all the “intellectual” arguments I had about why Jesus could not be “God.” That book is called _More Than A Carpenter_ if you’re interested. No, today, I am convinced that Jesus _is_ God, and that my daddy, somehow or other, towards the end of his life had to wrestle with that decision about who Jesus is as well. I hope he came to the right conclusion and was able to accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior.
Happy Birthday Dad!
We’ll continue the next chapter with our stay at Isla San Martin.