My Daddy Was A Sailor – Chapter 5


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So far, I’ve only mentioned one of the big(bigger) sailboats my daddy had when I was growing up. Actually, there were three large sailboats that he owned in his lifetime (and mine). He didn’t purchase the last one until I was 20 I think. I was in college at the time and he had just gotten married to his third wife Donna. That was a sailboat named Baruna.

Baruna was a Sparkman & Stephens design racing Yawl, built in 1937 on the east coast somewhere. She was something, let me tell you! She’s still around, for sale I think (big boats like this are always for sale aren’t they?) in Marina Del Rey in Los Angeles area. Anyhow, I will write up more about her and the adventures I had on board Baruna with my dad later.

There was another large sailboat in between Baruna and the Ericson 41 that we had, her name was Pandora III. Pandora was a Bugeye Ketch, built in Solomons, Maryland in the teens I believe. I cannot find any information about her on the Internet, I hope she’s still around. She was a beautiful old wooden boat, with lines to die for! I do have some pictures somewhere, perhaps at my mother’s house. Those pictures will need to be digitized and so forth and then I can upload them. Having not found any other information on her, that will be important documentation to have some day.

But, I wanted to relate one more tale of our adventures on board the Ericson. We actually had several trips that are noteworthy. I should start telling the tales and finish this chapter out with “The Big Thanksgiving Trip.”

As I mentioned before, the Ericson was named “The Green Hornette” and we sailed her pretty regularly to Catalina (or Santa Catalina) island. We spent a lot of time hiking over there, and fishing, and swimming and so forth. I did my first serious skin-diving off that boat, with my friend Billy Watt. He and I would take the dinghy and go cruising all around, from one side of the Isthmus to the other.

We would fish out by Bird Rock, or Ship Rock, or the reef, and we’d take and motor all the way up to Emerald Cove. Back then, I think I mentioned before, there were not so many folks over there on weekends. There were weekends when we would practically have the entire place to ourselves.

A funny thing happened one weekend, we had about 8 kids on board, and we all decided to go and sleep on shore. There is a Boy Scout camp at Cherry Cove where we usually stayed, it’s the outer cove of the three anchorages at the Isthmus, but it’s also the least crowded usually. Back then, there were probably 40 or so buoys to tie up to, maybe a dozen suitable for a vessel of 41′. So, we were tied up there, and the kids all 8 of us decided to sleep on shore as I said.

It was winter I believe, or late fall perhaps, and the docks that would normally be floating had been pulled up on shore, and so we slept on those docks. It was a good thing too, because in the middle of the night we heard all this grunting and such around us. Catalina island is one of the few places in California where there are several varieties of wild, or feral livestock. What we heard were wild pigs! Nasty critters. If we’d been dumb enough to sleep on the ground, those pigs probably would have made life pretty miserable. As it was we were pretty scared, but they couldn’t really bother us up on those docks. The docks were about two feet tall, with floats that extended probably another 18 or so inches below that, so we were almost four feet off the ground. That’s pretty much out of piggy range thank heavens!

There are buffalo (bison) on the island too, and I’m sure glad we didn’t see any of them! There’s wild goats somewhere on the island as well, and maybe even some wild burros. It’s kind of an interesting place, and I think they’ve managed to keep it pretty wild even up to the present day.

While skin-diving one day with Billy, we used to take the ab-iron with us so we could get Abalone if we found any. We found a big one under a rock and Billy poked at it with the Ab-iron. Unfortunately, all he did was puncture the poor critter, and it started oozing some sort of stuff into the water. Pretty soon, we had a good cloud of ooze around us, and the next thing we knew we were staring face to face with about a six foot Moray Eel! Yikes! We both kind of screamed underwater and backpedaled the heck out of there in a hurry!

We surfaced and said to each other “He can have _that_ abalone! The first time I ever tried to catch a lobster was pretty memorable too. We saw one, a decent size “bug” sitting on the sandy bottom near some rocks. He was probably about two pounds. I remembered thinking “He doesn’t look like a lobster” because he was brown, not red like they get in the pot when you cook them. He didn’t seem to react when we swam up to it, so I reached out and grabbed it. When you grab them, they react pretty fast by compressing their tail in their “getaway” maneuver, and I kind of freaked and let go of him. I probably could have held on even though I didn’t have gloves on, but I reacted by letting go instead. Oh well, my first lobster got away.

We always had lots of fish to eat when we were there at Catalina, and we always had lively adventures cruising in the dinghy or hiking on land. There wasn’t much to see at the Isthmus, but usually there were a few Bison hanging around there, because it was somewhat flat and grassy there. We’d hike over to the other side, called Twin Harbors, and see who had braved the windward side of the island to be on that side. Sometimes there were no boats on the far side, and sometimes just two or three. It was never crowded on that side.

We had our first “flying” fish adventure at Catalina as well. I guess at some point I have to talk about what the older folks did on the boat, especially at night. They drank and partied. Not that it’s such a bad thing, and drinking was as much a part of being on board a sailboat while I was growing up as anything. It’s just, well you need to understand that I am an alcoholic, and a drug addict. It seems the 1970’s when I was growing up became known as the “permissive” generation. I’ve never been quite sure how I became an addict, when my parents smoked and drank seemingly every day and it never seemed to bother them.

I guess I mentioned before how my daddy had learned in the Navy how to drink and be a man. Well, on the boats we had, it seemed to be a way of life. I’m not sure I remember my dad, or any of the men on board for that matter, ever drinking anything else than beer. They drank hard liquor too once in a while. Oh, OK, I guess I can say that they drank only in the afternoon and evenings and at night. In the mornings, they drank coffee and Hot Chocolate. I think my daddy even had juice and so on with breakfast. So, it wasn’t all about drinking.

I need to state that clearly that I am an alcoholic, but I never thought my daddy was an alcoholic. He drank every day of his life, especially towards the end, but I was never going to take the step and _call_ him an alcoholic. To me, he was just a heavy drinker. He learned how to drink in the Navy, and that was all there was to it. He drank hard, played hard, worked hard, supported us as a family for at least the first 12 years of my life and he functioned as a highly successful individual in our society.

The 1960’s were a very promiscuous generation, and my folks were no different I don’t think. Partying was part of that. They’d learned to appreciate the shortness of life during WWII, so the general feeling was that you partied hard and did whatever you liked. My mother was raised in the early part of her childhood in the Presbyterian Church, but she told me some years back that she was just a little girl. When she was 5 or so, she remembers the Elders from the church coming to the door of her father’s house in North Hollywood and demanding the $0.10 per week for my mother’s Sunday School. This was during the depression, and these men wore suits she said, and they terrified her!

We all have a reason it seems for not going to church, I was fortunate enough to find out my mother’s reason directly from her. I probably have not related yet how my parents never took me to church when I was growing up. I had no concept of God whatsoever in my life. Sometime during the 1950’s after Dr. Spock had published his famous work, my parents read that and decided to raise me (and my sister) as intellectuals.

Anyhow, I won’t pass judgment on my daddy or mother for their behavior at this time of my life, rather I just write it down so that you the reader can see what life was like when I was growing up. My dad was a sailor in every sense of the word. He drank like a sailor, cursed like a sailor (when he needed to) and he demanded action like a sailor when it was needed. He also would put you down right to your face, and ridicule you into the ground. It was just part of his way of training you into being a better person I think. That was a skill he must have picked up in the military somewhere along the way I think.

So, where was I? Oh, I was talking about sitting on the boat at night at Catalina. Invariably, the adults would all be playing cards, and the kids, some of them, playing along. When you hang out on a boat long enough, everyone starts talking like pirates, it’s just a way of life. There were lots of “Har!” and “Yar!” and other pirate sayings happening all the time. We usually had music too, my daddy always had his Ukelele with him.

One night we were all sitting around the dinette table when all of a sudden “Wham!” Something hit the side of the boat. Then, it started flopping around on deck. What the heck? We rush up on deck with flashlights, and there’s this flying fish on the deck flopping around. Apparently, these fish, as are all fish, are curious. So, the fish saw the light through the port holes on our deck, and “flew” through the air towards the light to check it out. He hit the boat and stunned himself pretty good. We tossed him back in the water, they’re too small to eat generally. There were a bunch more that night, there must have been a large school of them around us that night. It happened other times too.

After that, sometimes I’d notice the flying fish during the day, flying next to the boat. They were quite fun to watch. Normally on our “cruise” back and forth to the island, we’d see porpoises at some point. They do like to ride the bow wave, even on small boats, and it’s just the most amazing thing to watch. I could watch them for hours, and we did. My friends and I would spend hours and hours watching the porpoises, scanning the horizon for schools of porpoises and so on. Usually if we saw them first, we’d steer towards them. If they saw us first, we’d see that they were already turned and heading towards us. They’re friendly critters.

Now let me tell you about our famous “Thanksgiving Trip” from about 1970. I think it was 1970, I think I was still 10. Maybe it was the following year, I may have been 11. It was somewhere right around this time that my daddy “traded” the Ericson for the Bugeye Ketch we had for a number of years (Pandora III). Anyhow, we had decided to take a trip over Thanksgiving weekend on the Ericson. My dad decided he wanted to goto Anacapa Island. Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands are together, just off Ventura, a little ways south from Santa Barbara. It’s a pretty good sail from Redondo Beach in other words, perhaps 45-50 miles. So, we decided to leave nice and early in the morning of Thanksgiving Day.

The only thing somebody forgot to check was the weather. My dad was a good sailor, I think I told you, he’d handled himself in storm conditions before, so he knew what he was doing. The only thing you don’t have control over are mechanical things on your vessel though, it can be quite dangerous if something on your boat breaks, and as I’d already learned, it can be deadly. The night before, my mother had gone to the store to get all the “provisions” for the trip. I think we had 11 people on board, including my sister and her friends, and me and my friends, it was a large group. My daddy’s best friend Bob actually had three kids, Roberta, Susie and Billy, and all were on board with us, along with myself, my sister’s boyfriend, and I think another friend of my sister’s – Carol.

Anyhow, there were a bunch of us on board, that’s what I remember. Still, on that 41 foot Ericson, it was not “crowded” except in the cockpit. We all had jackets and coats, you always need to be prepared for “weather” on a sailboat, but we weren’t quite prepared for what we ran into. My mother had gone to do the shopping as I said, and she had a whole basketful of stuff. She finished the shopping, loaded the stuff in the car and was about to leave the supermarket parking lot when she noticed a cart that had a gallon of Red Mountain wine sitting on the bottom of the cart. She looked around, there was no car near it, and she thought about it she said, and decided, oh well, I guess we’re going to have a gallon of wine along for the trip!

We finished packing all those provisions on the boat, and as it turned out, there was no place to store that gallon of wine. So, my mother and Bob’s wife Joan, they decided to drink that gallon, the entire gallon, the night before we left on this big trip! Gads, what a mistake that was! But, they only knew it was a mistake the next morning. Red Mountain is a very cheap wine, barely one step up from Ripple. I think it was made by Gallo, but in the early days of California wine, it was not such good wine. It was cheap, which meant the alcohol content was high (15%) and it got you drunk, but it gave you a horrible hangover (headache, sick to your stomach and all). But they sure had fun drinking it the night before we left!

The Ericson had one large stateroom, and the dinette area folded out to become another large sleeping area. There were bunks in the bow for 4 or more people, and there was a settee in the rear under the cockpit, where I usually slept because it was rather small. I remember going to sleep that night before we left with the party still going on, and waking the next morning, at sea, going up and down, seriously up and down. Way up, and way down. I went up on deck, and we were going through some serious swells. I mean SERIOUS! They were huge! It was still dark, and Bob was at the helm, it was a bit rough, so they didn’t want any of us kids taking turns at the helm, too rough for kids to try and steer.

As it got light, we noticed two things, everything was gray and wet (it was raining pretty hard) and as we looked behind us, there was nothing. Whoops! We had started out towing the dinghy, we pulled up the line that had been attached to the dinghy, it was broke. I don’t really know if my dad ever got scared, but here we are with 11 people on board, and no dinghy. Gulp! Bob was probably a bit scared too. Now, my mother, and Joan, remember they had decided to drink that gallon of wine the night before? They were already sick, but now we’re in these seriously big, 15-20 foot swells, and they’re majorly sea-sick on top of that!

We found out later that the swells at Redondo Beach when we left King Harbor had been 12′ at three o’clock in the morning. They had been building steadily until about dawn, where we were somewhere about due west of Santa Monica, about 6-8 miles out at sea, the swells are now 15-20 feet. That’s big! But, that wasn’t even as big as they were to get that day. The swells just kept getting BIGGER! By now, the boat is surfing down the backside of each swell, and then climbing up, up, up and … over the top of the next swell. This kept going on for hours. It was pretty scary, and miserable. We were taking blue water over the bow at the bottom of every swell, and we were in serious danger in case anything mechanical had failed.

In the midst of all this, can you believe we had some comic relief? My mother and Joan were so sick, they were puking their guts out all morning. We kids had to keep bringing them fresh puke buckets and trying to get them some water to drink. The two ladies were by now holed up in the stateroom, with the door closed, and they were both moaning and griping how they’d never drink Red Mountain again! We kids thought that was hilarious! In the midst of this storm, we had two hungover ladies who couldn’t even get out of bed to save their lives! I guess in retrospect, it’s a good thing we didn’t have to get them out of there, because they would have drowned for sure.

Then, on top of that, adding insult to injury, Joan has to get up and use the “head” (nautical toilet). If you’ve never had the pleasure of using a nautical toilet, then you don’t know what you’re missing. Sitting in a calm harbor, the things are hard to use. Now picture Joan going in there, in 20-25′ swells, trying to pee and then flush the darned thing. To flush a nautical toilet, you must manipulate the valves in the correct order, and the pump action normally supplied by a tank of water on a land-based toilet is activated by the user with a two foot long handle and some mechanical force.

Using the toilet consists of: 1.) Do your business in the bowl. If you’re smart, let a little water in first by opening the “inlet” valve and then closing that valve; 2.) Now, let a little more water into the bowl, which can be tricky if you’re moving as you may have to open the inlet valve and pump the handle to get water in; 3.) Open the thru-hull valve to allow the contents of the bowl to be pumped out; 4.) Pump all the contents of the bowl out through the thru-hull valve; 5.) After pumping the contents out, you should really repeat that to make sure the bowl is clean for the next user; 6.) When fiinished, make sure that the “inlet” valve is closed, and the thru-hull valve is closed. Missing any of those steps, or doing anything in the wrong order can lead to messes, and or a sunk boat (if you leave either valve open).

Now, picture Joan trying to do all this with a massive hangover, with 20-25 foot swells! You got it – disaster! We think that what Joan forgot to do was to open the thru-hull valve when she tried to pump the contents out. So, she was pumping and pumping and pumping, and the bowl emptied into the line that goes to the thru-hull valve (from the bowl), but the valve was not open, so the pressure kept building and building, and finally, the little seal at the bottom of the bowl gave out and the pressure fired the entire contents of the line back out through the bowl and right, you guessed it, into Joan’s face (because you gotta lean over the bowl to pump the handle)! Yuck! It was a very crappy mess what with all the other odd contents of the line “firing” at once in her face. Poor Joan!

All I knew is that we heard this blood curdling scream “BOB!” We all rushed down there to see her in this ridiculous predicament, there was crap on the ceiling not to mention all over her. It was so funny, you couldn’t help but laugh at her, and I think she was eventually able to laugh about it as well, but not on that particular day. I think it made her sick again, but Bob did help her get cleaned up, and back to bed. Then we all helped clean the “head” and put it back in working order. On a large boat that only has a single head, with that many people on board, if it’s not working you are in serious trouble!

So, we sailed on. There were very few other boats out. By that time my daddy had the radio on. I’m sure he’d contemplated we might need it at some point. We’re listening to the broadcasts between various boats and the Coast Guard. There were quite a few boats in trouble. We were in trouble, but us kids were too ignorant to know it. Our log showed we were making about 6 and a half knots, but as we were going up and down so much, there was really no knowing how fast we were going. We had to gauge our distance traveled by taking bearings off objects on land. We were making progress, but slowly.

By now, we could see Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands pretty clearly however, so we were getting near our intended destination. Billy and I were sitting on the deck in the cockpit with my daddy, Bob and a couple other people. It was cold and wet, but we were water people so we didn’t care too much about that. We were watching towards the land side though when we saw this marlin jump straight up out of the water about 20 feet in the air. He was a big sucker too! Fish are curious and I’m sure this one was wondering “What the HECK are those stupid people doing out here in weather like this?”

I cannot remember if we saw any whales or such on that day, all I knew was it seemed to be getting rougher if that were possible! I think what happened was we were finally getting closer to the islands, and there is a channel there between the islands and the mainland, and the swells were even larger in this channel than they had been out in the “open” sea. So now, those swells appeared to be about 30 feet high! The tops were actually breaking on them, and we were somewhat steering a course up and over each of them sort of at an angle, but more or less directly into them. You’ve got to keep your bow headed into them when they’re that large. If you get broadside to a swell that large, you’re in danger of getting broached (rolling) and if you present your stern to a swell that large, then you can get pitch-poled (end over end).

We were in quite a dangerous predicament. On the radio we heard numerous distress calls by now. There were vessels sinking, there were vessels in trouble all over. At Santa Cruz Island, there was a large sailboat loaded with Sea Scouts (Boy Scouts) that was in trouble with about 40 sea-sick Scouts on board. Not fun! The Coast Guard was attempting to deal with all these disasters, when my dad and Bob make a decision. We’re making little to no headway in this mess now, that’s obvious. We’re barely able to hold position. These swells are monstrous, and eventually we will be in trouble if we are not already!

Bob had gotten sick by this time. He had spent probably 8 hours at the helm, relieved off and on by my dad, but Bob had done the brunt of the steering duty. As I said, it was much too dangerous to have any of us kids at the helm, even though most of us were competent. We just weren’t strong enough, or savvy enough to keep that bow pointed in the correct direction of these swells without having one of those disasters I mentioned above happening. Those disasters can happen literally in a matter of moments when the swells are this large.

Anyhow, poor Bob had been at the helm all this time pretty much, sitting there smelling the diesel exhaust, and that made him sick. He didn’t normally ever get sea-sick, and it wasn’t really sea-sickness this time either, just that darned diesel exhaust. But he didn’t complain, and didn’t ask for relief, just leaned over the stern and puked his guts out.

I swear to this day that those swells built up finally to about 35′ and we were quite literally looking up at them from the bottom of a very deep hole when we were at the trough of each swell. It was all white water now, no blue or green water left anywhere. The wind was howling through the rigging. If I’d have been smart enough, I’d have been scared out of my mind. But, as my dad and Bob never showed a sign of panic, I was not scared either.

The decision my dad and Bob came to was this: Put the Mainsail up. It seems a bit crazy, but we decided to put it up and reef it (tying a sail to the mast at its reefing points presents only about 1/2 the normal sail area of the sail). So, they tell me and Billy to go up and get the sail cover off and get the sail ready to reef. Now Billy was a couple years older than I was and he was scared – genuinely scared. Here we are with no life-jackets on (we never wore them, we had them though) and no life lines, no nothing. Just us, the boat, the swells and the wind. Oh, and by this time, everyone knows we have no dinghy and no life raft – nothing. Billy was smart in my opinion, he was SCARED!

He and I kind of crawl our way forward to the mast and he grabs ahold of it and says “What are you gonna put this thing up for? It’s just gonna blow to shreds!” We all laughed and it relieved quite a bit of the tension, so he and I got started and we got the sail ready to put up. It’s quite a process to do even in calm conditions, imagine doing it with this wind and these swells! First, use the topping lift to get the boom out of the cradle. Remember to ease the main sheet while doing this (somebody in the cockpit has to do that). Then, tighten the main sheet back down so the boom doesn’t flop all over the place. Hang on while removing the cover and gaiters (small pieces of webbing strap tying the sail to the boom). Stow the cover. Get those gaiters all off, and keep them handy since you’re going to thread those through the reef points on the sail. OK, is the sail ready now?

Get the sail started upwards. On the Ericson 41, there is a winch on the main halyard. Try to keep the vessel headed into the wind (not too difficult in these circumstances as the wind is coming directly over the tops of these swells). The sail is really flapping about though due to the very high wind. Get the sail up to the reefing points, get the gaiters in there and tie it securely to the boom. OK, the sail is up, and reefed. The whole process took maybe 15 minutes. We were careful, no disasters. My dad and Bob had decided to change directions. They gave up the idea of making it to the islands. Most of the distress calls we were hearing were from vessels already at those islands, so they decided we’d head for Channel Islands Marina, about 5 or 6 miles we thought from our present position.

So Bob, now that the sail is up, eases the vessel into a reach off the wind now, and the boat literally heeled over, and TOOK OFF! I mean, we started sailing as soon as he eased onto that reach. It was a starboard reach, headed back to the mainland now, he killed the engine, but that boat was now MOVING! We were moving as fast as I’ve ever moved on a sailboat, and that with only 1/2 of the Mainsail up, which is really only about 20% of the normal canvas that sailboat was capable of using. That’s because a jib is usually larger than the Mainsail, but no matter, we were moving. He and my dad now, they did their best to estimate the course to Channel Islands Marina, and I swear, we were there and in the harbor in 30 minutes from the time we started sailing!

Sheesh – that was QUICK!

We got inside the harbor, the seas calmed immediately, and we took the sail down and motored over to the Coast Guard dock. We basically had nowhere else to go, there’s no anchorage inside this marina, and no buoys. They didn’t kick us off their dock, and allowed us to stay. We went inside where we discovered the wind to be blowing a steady 55 knots, gusting to 70-75 knots. That’s a Full Gale in layman’s terms, the next thing below a hurricane. Massively dangerous, and amazing that we survived intact, with nobody the worse for wear, except my mother and Joan, who by now, were finally getting over their match with Red Mountain wine.

As I’ve been telling you, my daddy was a sailor, and it was his skill, and Bob’s that got us there safely. Your margin of safety in the ocean is sometimes very fine, and you have to use all your wits to keep your head and not panic. Making a wrong move, or a wrong decision can cost you your life in a hurry, and the lives of those depending on you. Mechanical failures can be costly too, you must have good equipment. We were fortunate, all except our dinghy made it safely to Channel Islands Marina.

They found our dinghy, in 2 pieces on the beach there in Redondo, not 1/2 a mile from the harbor. Apparently, it had flipped over and swamped quite soon after we left the harbor (while it was still early and quite dark). That is what caused the line to part, and us to lose our biggest safety margin. Not that a 10′ dinghy would have been much use in those 30-35′ swells out there, but it might have been comforting to have it anyhow.

But it was an amazing adventure, and a good tale to tell. With that, I think I’ll move on to tales of Pandora III, the Bugeye Ketch. Hope you call can make it back for another chapter!

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One thought on “My Daddy Was A Sailor – Chapter 5

  1. Pingback: California Lobstering | Fine Maine Lobster

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