Isla San Martin was a beautiful, nearly completely unspoiled place in 1969. Humans had been there for some time, but there were no permanent structures, and it appeared that nobody had ever lived on the island. There was this perfect anchorage protected on three sides open to the North, with what appeared to be a natural breakwater. The island is relatively small, probably only about a square mile. We got there and anchored, and then relaxed for a bit. My friend Billy and I decided to get the skiff down and head to shore. There was a nice sandy beach in the harbor, perfect place to land and explore the island.
We took off, perhaps the girls went with us, I don’t remember now. But we headed off to the other side of the island – barefoot. That was a huge mistake! There were no real trails to speak of on the island, since there were no large animals (and no people), except the marine mammals that we were about to find. There were birds everywhere too.
For some reason, that year had a particularly nasty red tide. I remember it well, and in the red tide, there were these large shrimp like critters. They were all over the beaches, and floating in the water. I think they were some sort of krill. My memory is not exact on that, but we knew they were not shrimp. They were about 3 inches long, and bright red. The birds were gorged on them because they were everywhere, I’m not sure if the whales were eating them or not.
Anyhow, these things were all over the beach, and it was pretty nasty so we headed directly across the island pretty quickly to get away from that mess. The problem was, there being no trail and all, and this island being pretty “wild,” there was cactus everywhere! We came back from our expedition with many cactus spines stuck in our feet, our toes, our ankles and so on. But heck, we were kids – what did we care? We were exploring!
As we approached the opposite side of the island, we heard seals barking. As we got closer we found a nice little lagoon, with a rocky barrier on the outer (ocean) side, and a small inlet through that rock wall. The inside of the lagoon was a beautiful pool, about 100 yards across, and a beautiful beach on one side of the lagoon. There were perhaps 200-300 seals there when we “intruded” and they all quickly headed for the water. But, there were 2 enormous elephant seals as well, and they just sat there blowing and being lazy on the sand.
I had seen pictures of elephant seals, and plenty of regular seals, sea lions and so forth. Remember, this was my third year on our boat, and I was pretty “experienced” at sea by now. So there’s these two amazing creatures sitting there, with their large, unmistakable proposcis’ drooping down over their mouth. They could care less about us!
There were probably several elephant seal females around, it was difficult to tell them apart from the other seals and sea lions that were there. We never got close enough to the others to identify them precisely. But it was amazing to watch them. The seals and sea lions played in the surf outside the lagoon. The waves would break on the rocks, and the surf was perhaps 6 feet, so you could clearly see these fellows body surfing those waves. It was just the coolest thing to watch!
Eventually, we had to head back to the boat, and our mothers took us to task over going barefooted across the island and coming back with all those cactus stickers in our feet. But, like I said, we had been exploring so we didn’t care! We fished there some, caught something we were able to eat, and some things we could not eat. We pulled up a line that had been up on the bottom for awhile and there was an octopus on it. He was just a small fellow, but neither of us had ever seen one before.
A description of our stay at this island would never be complete without telling you about the Pelicans. There were lots of them there, perhaps it was the abundant food around the island. Perhaps they were migrating. While we were there though, there were probably a couple hundred hanging around the natural harbor where we had anchored. Let me stop for a moment and tell you that my mother’s favorite animal in the whole world is the Pelican. She has porcelain pelicans, pictures of pelicans, paintings of pelicans, and she had that old Limerick about the Pelican framed and I think it was hung on the boat in the main cabin (salon).
So, my mother was in ecstasy since we had a ring side seat to the Pelican hang out “extraordinaire.” And oh did those birds put on a show! When you see them at the beach where I grew up, and at the harbor where our boat was moored, you see them in small flights, perhaps 5-8 birds, flying along, wing-tip to wing-tip, low over the water, skimming the swells and the waves. In a sense, the Pelicans ride the surf and appear to do it for the pure enjoyment of it. We couldn’t really see them doing that here on the island where we were, but we’d see the flights come in off the surf into the cove, and then they’d do something that I can only describe as one of those things you see in nature that makes no sense whatsoever, but it makes you laugh and ponder why God made these birds the way they are.
The birds would approach the beach, then suddenly they’d decide to simply “tumble” into the water. I never have been quite sure what that was all about. We think they were bathing, but this incredible display of an awkward “Ass over tea-kettle” landing was simply fantastic! We laughed hysterically every time a flight would come into the beach, and one by one, they’d simply keel over in mid air and commence their bathing ritual. I’d seen plenty of pelicans, but never before had we witnessed this odd display. It’s just another one of those things you witness and the memory of it is so vivid that it stays with you for your entire life.
The Pelicans were the same California Brown Pelicans that we have north of the border with Mexico and back then, the numbers were down quite a bit due to DDT spraying. Perhaps this was all “normal” behavior for the birds, and we had just never witnessed it due to the relatively small numbers of birds existing in the United States at this time. We stayed a couple days at the island, and we were so impressed with it that we returned there several years later on our next boat. But, that’s another chapter.
And, as far as I remember, that was as far south as we got on that trip. Originally, as I said, we had planned to get much further south, but for whatever reason, we made that our “final” destination and headed home after those couple days there.
I don’t remember much at all about the trip home. One thing stands out. We were cruising along one afternoon heading north and we came across a school of seals. I had no idea that seals traveled in groups like that, but we soon found out why. We saw another killer whale not 5 minutes later, clearly following the “school” or pack of seals. I guess occasionally seals get caught out at sea while they are feeding, and then they become the hunted. All we could tell was those seals appeared “agitated” and they were moving fast, probably 20 knots. We only saw the one whale, but we were pretty sure there were others. Killer whales hunt in packs, and it’s likely much more productive to hunt seals in this manner.
As I had said, this was the first of our “long” trips. I make it to be nearly 700 miles, in just about 10 days of sailing. Since our original destination was another 200 or so miles further south, it shows that you have to be somewhat conservative on your estimates when sailing. You become experts at “winging it.” You must be flexible because there are so many variables when out at sea like this. I’m sure those lessons my daddy learned on that trip helped him and were applied to all his future sailing endeavors.
Oh, and I was going to tell you all about my first experience firing a gun. We had a pistol on board, a .22 semi-automatic with a long barrel. I just remember it felt like about 10 pounds in my hands! My daddy and his friend Bob drilled those lessons into me that every kid should learn at some point: 1.) Never point a gun at anyone unless you intend to shoot them; 2.) A gun is always loaded (even when it’s NOT loaded!); 3.) Always keep the weapon pointed in a safe direction.
If everyone just learned those few simple rules about gun safety, we’d have far less accidents with guns. Anyhow, they let me handle the gun, learn how to put the safety on and off so it was ready to fire. Then, they threw some bottles overboard and “Bang!” I shot one! First shot! Dang! I shot a couple more, but then made the tragic mistake of turning around with the gun pointed at the deck. That was it for my shooting that day (and that trip). It was sure fun while it lasted though!
I’ve got a lot of “catching you up” to do still. There are several more chapters to cover in this story about my daddy. I’d like to devote at least one chapter to his military career, and then a couple chapters to other trips on our boats. My daddy had two other boats while I was young. There were lots of trips on those boats, as well as some amazing adventures to relate. So – stay tuned!