My Daddy Was A Sailor – Part 8


We were cruising on Pandora along the Baja Coast. I think I last left us anchored at Isla San Martin, about half way down the coast of Baja California to Scammon’s Lagoon. We only stayed one night at Isla San Martin, as I said, my dad was determined we would make it to Scammon’s Lagoon this time. So, we upped anchor and continued on down the coast. Our next stop was Isla Cedros. We were required to register at a Port of Entry, so we dropped anchor and got the Whaler down and motored into the landing at the town on the island. I don’t remember the name of the town, but it was the only major “city” on the island, and there was a wharf, and we were anchored in the harbor there.

The Mexican “Officials” who greeted us at the Port of Entry spoke no English. This time, being the only one on our boat who could speak even rudimentary Spanish, I got to translate. That’s a pretty large task for an 11 year old, but I made it known to them why we were there (vacation) and then told them our destination. They smiled and laughed because the little kid was translating I think, and then they stamped our paperwork and off we went. Isla Cedros, is actually off the largest peninsula on Baja. This peninsula sticks out to the west from the main part of the Baja peninsula, and Isla Cedros is a large island (roughly 20 miles long) sitting just off that peninsula. If you study a map, perhaps I can post one, you will see that the island is far enough south that we were basically at our destination now. All we had to do was sail back to the mainland, find a place to anchor and then we would be able to visit Scammon’s Lagoon.

It’s funny how things work out though, we never quite made it to that Lagoon – again! Anyhow, the stay at Isla Cedros was more memorable than anywhere else for one reason: The kids. While we were anchored there, in the afternoon, a bunch of kids rowed out in this decrepit looking rowboat and they started shouting to us as they came along side. I think I told you all that we had a bag of candy on board for the children, so we started handing some out to the kids. Then, my sister and I asked our dad if it was OK to give them the bags of clothing too, and he said yes. So, we went below and got those and handed it to them.

What was so memorable, was there was this one kid, obviously the leader of the bunch, and he grabbed everything from us, and handed it to somebody else, and then he told them to stash it so that they could wait for later when they were back on land and then he would “divide” the loot with everyone. It was so amazing to see a kid my age “in charge” of a bunch of other kids, and not even thinking twice about it. Nobody questioned his authority or anything. He was just “El Jefe” which is Spanish for “The Chief.” We were so enamored of these kids that I took a picture of them. It was one of those pictures that just “came out.” For whatever reason, some pictures work and some don’t. I just happened to capture that group of kids on their boat with the leader standing up and smiling and waving to us.

I had that picture for years, I took it everywhere with me, and kept it as one of my “treasures.” I don’t know where it is now, but it got water damaged at one point and part of it became somewhat obscured. You could still see “El Jefe” though, and most of the other kids in their rowboat. It’s like I was saying earlier that if you take a picture of a “thing” when you go somewhere, you just have that thing. Now, if somebody tells you a story about that thing, then you have that much more to remember about it, and it becomes more meaningful. But when you meet people, such genuine people like the Mexican people 40 years ago, then you remember them, and seeing the photo of them can take you right back to that time and place. It’s an amazing quality of our brain and how it works, no?

Of course, it works both ways though (good and bad). For example, when I was six years old, I swam a race. It was one of those times when I happened not to improve my time. So, I got out of the pool, checked with the timer (they used to have people sitting there at each swimmer’s lane with hand held stopwatches in those days) and learned that I had not improved my time. I was so worried that my dad would be disappointed so I decided to try and “pretend” that there was no problem. I skipped all the way back to the bleachers where my mom and dad were sitting. My mother was filming the entire thing with our movie camera you see, and every time I watched that scene it took me right back to that moment and the dread I felt at not “pleasing” my father. His retribution was terrible I guess, at least I felt that way when I was six years old. He was never physically abusive, but the emotional pain that I suffered when I “screwed up” was very real all the same and probably worse in the long run.

I have written about how I called my father “Der Kapitan” when I was in my teen years. I was sort of being mean, but it was somewhat true as well. He always expected obedience when he gave an order and he was darned willing to humiliate you verbally if you didn’t do it, or didn’t do it right, to his satisfaction that is. He would always say “If it’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing right.” He was correct too, but his methods were somewhat like a Drill Sargent, not appropriate for young kids in my opinion. Be that as it may, I grew up in spite of it, but had “issues” I think when I got older. It led to that extreme rebellion of my teen years. Some people say that Alcoholism and Drug Addiction may be genetic. I’ve never been sure about that. I think anyone who drinks or uses could cross the line, it’s just a matter of “if” it happens, and whether or not they have the need to self-medicate to the point of numbness as I seemed to have had.

Another interesting fact, and I don’t blame my mother for this, but she told me one time after I was grown that Doctors now (whenever that was) recommend that mothers not smoke or drink when they are pregnant. She confided to me that she had smoked and drank like a fish when she was pregnant with me. Coincidence that I became an alcoholic? I’ve never been sure, and I refuse to speculate. We are who we are, our parents did the best they could with what they knew. In the 1950’s there were an awful lot of Thalidomide babies too, remember? They came out with shrunken or missing limbs and so on. I was fortunate our Doctor refused to use experimental drugs like that. He was a “sensible” man, and like I think I said, he dated my mother some years later after my dad was gone. I liked him too, just not as much as the man who became my step-father later on. But, that’s another story.

Anyhow, that’s just an aside to help us all remember how powerful pictures are at evoking emotional responses that “take you right back.” We stayed only the one night at Isla Cedros, as I was saying, we had only really gone there to check in with the “Port of Entry.” I’m not sure why Ensenada is not considered a Port of Entry, but I guess it wasn’t back then for whatever reason. We sailed for the mainland the next day, but I think the waters of Scammon’s Lagoon are protected such that boats are not allowed (not large boats anyhow). We decided to try for an anchorage that is near where the lagoon is just to the north. My memory is failing me, I cannot remember the name of the place, but there is only one place likely where we tried to get into.

The name is not familiar to me, but that’s probably just my memory: “Guerrero Negro.” Back 40 years ago I wonder if it might have had some sort of different name on a nautical chart? That may be what happened. Our charts may have been old as well, I’m not sure. Anyhow, it was a sleepy little place back then, with only a few fisherman, and the chart we had said the “channel” into the lagoon was not well marked, and shifted constantly. It said to follow the buoys which when we got there were non-existent. We sailed around for a while, then my dad decided to try it. He decided that the center was likely the best place to find a channel, so we headed in, slowly. We were motoring now, not sailing, and we kept an eye on the fathometer – closely.

If memory serves, I was the one watching that fathometer like a hawk, calling out depth changes about every 10 seconds or so. The water just kept getting shallower and shallower until it finally got to 12 feet. We had this wonderful old fathometer, and it was very accurate. Pandora had something like a 10 foot draft, she was deep, that keel I told you, was a battleship keel, and it went down pretty deep. So, when I called out 2 fathoms (12 feet) my dad decided it was no good, he turned around, and just as we did so, this eight foot wave comes up on us and it was like “Whoosh!” We went up and over this sucker, and looked back under our stern and saw a bunch of sand kicked up by our propeller off the sandbar that we nearly landed on. That was CLOSE!

We went back out to the main entrance of this “harbor” and motored back and forth awhile, and then my dad and Bob Watt decided it was no good. Yes, it was a harbor, but without a pilot or somebody who knew the channel, we were never going to find it. We could have spent literally days going around and around the entrance trying one spot and then another, it was about a mile wide at the entrance to this inlet, so we finally gave up, and they decided we would head to Bahia de Tortugas (Turtle Bay) on the other side of the peninsula from where we were. It was only about 50 miles away so it seemed like a decent locale from which to do our exploring of the area. Turtle Bay is a well known anchorage, with a thriving community, lots of fishermen, and deep water, well protected. It was also only about 20 miles from Scammon’s Lagoon, directly on the other side of the peninsula where we were. So, off we went.

We got to Turtle Bay as evening was coming, we sailed into the inlet, this time it was well marked, and we found a number of boats anchored there. There were some fishing boats, also a large pier with fuel and such, and quite a few pleasure boaters. Some were “Gringos” like us, sailing down along the Baja coast, and there were others, a few even heading on quite long voyages. Turtle Bay is a nice place to be since it is so well protected. The waters were fine, and swimming and other sports are greatly enjoyed by both the locals and the visitors.

We stayed several days there, not entirely by choice however. One afternoon, probably the first full day we were there, Bob decided he wanted to water ski. He had brought his ski equipment along with us for just such an opportunity. Even though the Whaler was not an ideal boat for towing a skier, it did work. The 40HP Mercury was plenty strong enough to tow a skier along at about 25MPH. That’s a pretty nice mellow speed, decent skiing too! Bob got all set, Ron Marshall decided he would drive the Whaler for this excursion. The trouble started because we didn’t rig up a “balanced” tow line, rather we just tied the tow rope off on an eye that was on the port stern of the Whaler. There were two of those eyes, one on either side of the stern, and we should have been diligent and tied a balanced rig, but we were on vacation, lazy I guess. I didn’t think about that until afterwards, and neither did anyone else, hindsight is 20/20, eh? Always!

So, we were towing Bob with an “unbalanced” tow line. No matter, Bob was a good skier, he got right out of the water, and we were cruising around the anchorage, weaving in and out of the boats. That was likely our 2nd mistake, we should have been out in the open water beyond the anchorage. Anyhow, I was in the whaler as the spotter, I don’t think we even had the flags to raise to let folks know we had a skier in the water, or “down” as that’s the time you usually raise your flag, so I just held my hand up. There weren’t any other boats moving at the time though, so it wasn’t a concern. There were maybe 30 boats total in this anchorage, and it was a fine day, so nobody was thinking too much about those kinds of things.

As we were cruising around the anchorage, Ron brought us around 180 degrees as we had been heading east and had reached a point too near the other shore, so we came about and were going to go back through the anchorage. Bob made the best of that big turn, and he was pulling and leaning hard, and spraying a fine spray of water behind him. Ron came out of his turn, this particular turn was a turn to the left, and he ended the turn, unfortunately headed for another large boat. So, he corrected, turning a little to the right which probably would have been fine, we had been going in and out of the boats for 15 or 20 minutes already, but then he changed his mind. Bad decision!

Ron decided he didn’t want to go inside of the other boats in the anchorage this time, but rather decided to turn back to the left and go outside of them. What happened was, that since we had come out of a large left hand turn, and then turned right, and then turned left, all this time with Bob back there leaning full out on the right hand side of the boat and pulling as hard as he could, and with that tow line pulling on the left hand stern of the Whaler, the “harmonic” that we accidentally setup pulled that poor little craft a little too hard and we flipped! I was sitting on the left hand side of the Whaler which now became the “high” side and I was catapulted about 30 feet through the air. It all happened so fast that I just all of a sudden was flying, then I hit the water, and I coughed some water out of my mouth and looked up in time to see Bob coasting to a stop about 10 feet from the now upside down Whaler with a horrified look on his face! I can still see that look on his face in my mind’s eye!

Ron came sputtering up and was treading water there next to the Whaler, and he and Bob kind of looked at each other with this quizzical look on their faces. Ron knew he screwed up, but we all had really screwed up, so nobody ever took to “blaming” anybody for what happened. Least of all my daddy. He was doing something on the stern of Pandora at the time of the accident, and he looked up and saw me flying through the air and he dropped what he was doing apparently, and was walking across the stern towards us in case he needed to jump in and save anybody, and he forgot that he had been getting stuff out of the Lazarette (storage) on the stern. Consequently, since the cover was off the Lazarette my dad, well, he suffered the only injury during the incident, he stepped right into that open hatch and took a good chunk out of his shin. Ouch – down he went!

As I said, that was the worst injury, other than our pride. What a dumb error to flip that Whaler! What a rookie mistake! We all felt so foolish, especially poor old Bob Watt. He was just stricken for a couple days after that happened. The only thing “good” that came out of it was not so comical at the time, but funny afterwards. We had already been to town, and we met the “Jefe” in Turtle Bay. I don’t know what his name was, but I can still see him, and everybody simply called him “El Gordo” (the fat one). He was in charge of this town and everybody knew it. I don’t know if he literally threw his weight around, or whether the title was mostly about his generous anatomy. But what happened, as I said, was kind of mean at the time, but it shows you how some folks are always looking for an “opportunity.”

It only took us a matter of minutes to right the Whaler (remember they don’t sink?). Then we bailed some water out and paddled it back to Pandora. We lifted it out of the water, and a few minutes later Bob was tearing into the motor to clean the salt water out of it. The motor had been running when we flipped so there was salt water in everything – yuck! That was a nasty mess to deal with, perhaps not as nasty as the diesel fuel Bob had been sucking on a few days prior, but there was more cleaning and such to be done this time. Smaller engine, but that meant smaller parts to work with, and more fittings and such.

So Bob had just started looking at that Mercury engine when this boat pulls up alongside. El Gordo sent his boys out to offer us $50 for the engine! He must have got a good laugh at that, and like I said, we all did later too, but when it happens to you at the time and you’re the butt of a joke, it’s not very funny. It took Bob a good day and a half to tear that engine down, clean it and put it all back together. Like I said, my dad was very fortunate to have somebody like Bob around on these trips. Doing that mechanical work was not fun, it certainly was dirty and nasty and grimy and oily and there really wasn’t much reward for doing it, it just simply had to be done so he did it.

That pretty much ended our plans for doing anything else on this trip. We spent a couple more nights at Turtle Bay, then we upped anchor and left. We never did get an opportunity to head overland to Scammon’s Lagoon from Turtle Bay. It’s only about 20 miles I think, and there were probably cars for hire (taxis) in Turtle Bay to take us there, but following the “incident” with the Whaler, we pretty much just hung out and fished and walked a bit in the town. Ron bought himself a turtle shell that we brought back home. I’d never seen a real turtle shell, it was large, about three feet long, maybe two feet wide, and whole (top and bottom parts still connected). We stuffed it into one of the sailbags when we came back across the border and entered the U.S. again at San Diego. It’s illegal in the U.S. to have turtle shells I guess, or to support the turtle trade. The Mexicans in Turtle Bay hunted them though, and they ate them. Turtle soup is supposed to be a real delicacy, but I never tried it.

Anyhow, we headed back north again, not really with our tail between our legs, just somewhat dampened by the incident at Turtle Bay. Things always happen, you just simply have to accept that nothing ever goes completely according to plan I guess. We headed back up the Baja coast and we stopped at a couple places along the way. I remember one place specifically because it scared the heck out of us. Punta Colnett (Point Colnett) was quite eerie when we got there. It probably did not help that it was a gray overcast day. But we decided to anchor along this point, on the south side, not really a great anchorage, but OK for the night. But along the shore of this point there was a sailboat, about 40 or so feet long, washed up high and dry on the rocks – up against the cliff. The boat appeared to not be damaged, she was sitting upright on the rocks, leaning against the cliff. I’m sure she wasn’t seaworthy either though. She was so high above the waterline that you could see her entire keel, the bottom of the keel was above the high water mark, so she must have gotten beached in a storm. It was just scary to see that and think how vulnerable you can be in the ocean!

We stayed there just the one night and then proceeded north again. We stopped at another place that was a bit more sheltered. This time, we took the Whaler down and went ashore since there was a great beach along this particular piece of shore. I don’t remember the name of the place, or where exactly it was, I just remember we were walking along that beach and we kept stepping on these strange looking “growths.” We could not figure out what they were, until we bent down and started digging one up and then figured out that the “growth” was: a bit of algae attached to a clam shell. These clams were as big as softballs! They were HUGE! We dug up a five gallon bucket full of them, and then headed back to Pandora. Boy did we have some good clam chowder that night! I don’t remember ever having eaten clam chowder before that, but I can still taste that batch! My mom made it from scratch and it was just to die for! Every clam chowder I’ve ever had since has had to measure up to the batch we had that night.

Folks always say that food tastes best when you’re camping. Well, I guess the food we had on our sailboats was always “the best” in my view since it was sort of like camping. My mother was a great cook. One of our favorite meals on these sailing trips, and we always ate it at least once every trip, was spaghetti. Mom would cook up a batch of sauce that she made from scratch (I assume, because this was prior to the days of Ragu and such) and then we’d boil up the pasta and DIG IN! Remember, I was an athlete as a kid so I always had a tremendous appetite. I could eat with the best of them, and still I was this skinny kid (not scrawny). It’s funny, since I was a swimmer I never had those “bulky” type muscles like some athletes get in various sports, I had these long lean type muscles since I put hours in swimming each day. Long, lean muscles are associated with endurance sports.

I used to love eating my mom’s cooking, and eating big meals on one of our boats was always a special treat! I don’t think I mentioned where the galley was on Pandora – it was forward. Just aft of the forepeak, forward of the two salon cabins. The galley was quite large too, as galleys on sailboats go. It was large enough for two cooks to be working in there at a time. The reefer (electric refrigerator) was large enough to hold a side of beef!

Pandora had quite an assortment of other electrical gadgets too. I mentioned the fathometer that we had in the “Dog House.” There were other pieces of gear, including a radio direction finder, there were some other large pieces of gear that I cannot quite remember what whose were off the top of my head. The fathometer had a simple dial readout. It had a whizzing gizzy that went around and the light would be played out on the dial at whatever position corresponded to the fathoms that told the depth of the water where you were at. As such, the dial on that instrument went up to 120 fathoms I believe (720 feet).

My favorite piece of equipment was always the recording Barometer. That thing looked like it came off a battleship! You have to be a sailor to appreciate a barometer, especially a beauty like this one. Years ago, prior to satellites and such, weather forecasting was done with barometers and observations. That’s where sailor’s sayings come from “Red sky at night – sailor’s delight; red sky at morning, sailor take warning!” A barometer is a wonderful tool for a sailor though, apart from any other observation tool it could help tell you what kind of weather was coming. A falling barometer means you are headed into a low pressure (or it’s headed for you, same thing); a rising barometer meant high pressure ahead. Steady barometer means more of the same.

I learned to work with those old analog barometers and love them. Most barometers are simple analog dials where the needled is connected to a simple spring mechanism and some sort of pressure sensing device attached to the needle and spring such that it could “detect” variations in air pressure. I’ve never taken one apart, but I understand the theory as to how they work. Since they are analog, you usually need to tap them to get a “current” reading. Tapping the device would tell you instantly whether pressure was steady, rising or falling, and then your reading on top of that told you whether you were in stormy or fair (or somewhere in between) conditions. I still, to this day, have a barometer in my house and read it every day (almost every day).

Now the recording barometer was a wonderful tool. This thing had a roll of paper in it about 12 inches wide, and when you turned it on it would record a tick on that barometer paper about once every minute or so. It was fascinating to “read” the paper and try to determine what it was telling you about the weather you encountered. I remember my dad telling us that if the paper recorded a “W” on it, then you were headed into a hurricane, or more properly, a hurricane was headed at you! That must be because there are pressure fluctuations in the “arms” (or bands) of the hurricane and as you cross these bands, you will be going into alternating lower and then relatively higher pressure areas. Thus, the recording of that on a recording barometer took on the shape of the letter “W.”

Fortunately I never sailed through a hurricane, I don’t think I’d want to. The closest I came was, as I wrote about before, when we were on the Ericson on our Thanksgiving cruise that one year. We sailed through a full gale, and that was plenty rough enough weather for me! Anyhow, that recording barometer was my favorite piece of gear on board Pandora.

I think I learned a lot more about navigation on that trip, especially at night. Dad would quiz us about the lights we saw, and ask us to go plot our position. “Taking a plot” based on lights that you see at night is easier than taking your position with a sextant. That’s because, assuming you have up to date nautical charts, the lights are posted on the charts, with their frequency of flashing, color and so on, so that if you can see two or more recognizable lights and can take a bearing on them (with a hand-held bearing compass) then you can draw two intersecting lines on the chart. The point of intersection of those two bearing lines drawn through the lights from which they were taken is your position. It’s so simple that you literally cannot forget how to do it, I never did forget that means of navigation at least. It works in the mountains too, if you can identify a couple peaks and get good bearings off them, then you can plot your position on a map.

Pandora had a plethora of other electronic gear on board. We had a stereo too, and that stereo had an 8-track tape player! It was nearly state of the art in those days. There were speakers all over the boat, and we played the 5th Dimension and Herb Albert and The Tijuana Brass all the time! My folks raised me on that kind of music, also show music was very popular. I heard lots of Rogers & Hammerstein (South Pacific), Lerner and Lowe, The Music Man, and so on. You could say that I had a good appreciation for music because my parents raised me with good music. Those were good times and I still listen to all that same music today. Not as much to be sure, but Cheryl and I have lots of musicals, and we have Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass and such. It was the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and music was a big thing. It still is of course.

The number of pieces of electrical gear on board required Pandora to have a generator. We had not had a generator on board the Ericson, I guess smaller boats use an alternator like a car. But Pandora was large enough and had enough electrical gear that we had an Onan generator on board, in the engine room. I was taught how to monitor battery state, and to run the generator. I was versed in the electrical panel, and could operate pretty much all the electrical equipment on board, including the all important bilge pumps. Pandora had two pumps, as the bilge was divided in two parts (fore and aft). There must have been a bulkhead or something in between. I remember the masts were not stepped on deck either, but ran all the way down into the keel. That was how I knew they were solid, you could pound on them, and it made no resonating sound, even below decks.

Anyhow, the bilges on Pandora pretty much ran the length of the vessel, that is, since she had a battleship keel that ran the length of the vessel. Let me calculate the length of the keel for you. She had a clipper bow, which means the “point” of the bow where the bowsprite emanated was probably about 6 or 7 feet off the water, and her lines swept back from there to the water, so where she entered the water was probably about 6 or 7 feet aft from where that “prow” was. Thus, a clipper bow. She didn’t have a blunt nose in other words. Now, picture that angle on the bow continuing underwater until you get to a depth of about 10 feet, and then run that backwards the length of the ship, at least to the rudder post. The rudder post terminates the keel on any vessel pretty much. On a ketch, the rudder post is aft of the mizzen mast, on a yawl, the rudder post is forward of the mizzen mast. That will become important later, when I relate to you stories of Baruna.

Suffice it to say, if you continue the angle at which you came down from the “prow” of the bow, to the waterline, and then about 10 feet below that, and then back to the rudder post, you come up with a keel that is at least 50 feet long! That entire keel was filled with lead (Pandora, as I said before, was HEAVY), and it was thick, almost a foot thick at the very furthest parts of it below water. Of course, that was made into a “V” shape on the forward portion of the bow and keel, but down under water, on the bottom of the boat, is was flat, and nearly a foot thick. I know, because again, I dove under there and cleaned growth off the bottom of that hull many times and I saw her out of water more than once too. The cleaning was a constant process with sailboats that were kept in the water year round. And something you just had to get used to was swimming down there with a push broom and scraping the sides off. You had to be a bit more careful with a wooden hulled boat than with a fiberglass one, but not too much. Those old boats were pretty tough!

And that pretty much describes the end of our second trip (my last sailing trip) to Mexico. It was an interesting place for a young boy to experience for sure! As I keep saying, those adventures we had helped define my perspective on the world. The memories have lasted a lifetime (40 years and going strong for the most part). The best part is that I get to share it with others now as I’ve found the opportunity to write them down as the book I’ve been writing about my daddy. He was an interesting fellow as I like to say, I never saw him “lose it” in any of these circumstances, rather he kept a cool head and tried to find the best way out of any particular bad situation. He taught us and he schooled us in various disciplines, the type that would help with life in general. Things like how to find your way in the dark, how to meet people and communicate even when you don’t speak the same language.

I cherish those memories of those days on our boats. There’s probably a few other things that I’d like to talk about, memories I’d like to share, and I’ll try to work those into the next chapter. There is one other thing I need to write about my father and growing up on sailboats. It’s going to be difficult to talk about and you’ll see why.

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