Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Small Craft Advisory that Wasn’t and the Gale that Was: Highlights from Mer’s 3-Day Micro-Cruise

Some folks have asked that I write up something about my little cruise, so here it is, some ramblings about what I made happen and what simply happened to me.

“I don’t usually pick up hitchhikers, but you look safe,” said the 40-something man in the spanking new black Volvo station wagon. “So do you,” I responded as I clicked into my seat-belt. He wore a green polo shirt and plaid shorts and he did not scare me one bit. On our short ride towards town Mr. Volvo prattled on about how there are no good restaurants in the whole of San Rafael, something I found hard to believe. But he finally recommended Sol Food, a Puerto Rican joint with “good energy.” He dropped me off at the edge of town and I made my way to the main drag where I found, to my delight, the farmers market in full swing. I meandered through the crowds of moms, dads, Marin hippies and slow-walking old folks buying fresh berries and kids eating pizza and cotton candy. I stopped and listened to a Jamaican man playing and singing an acoustic version of Amazing Grace. This alone made my night. The rest was just extra goodness.

I ate at Sol Food, and Mr. Volvo was right, it had “good energy” with a Puerto Rican band playing outside next to the hodge-podge chairs and tables. Dinner was a heaping pile of rice, onions, and spiced meat, a yummy salad, and water with lime. I couldn’t help but wiggle in my seat to the beat of the band. Then like a sliver of iron grabbed by a powerful magnet, I made my way across the street to the local dive bar and ordered a Stella and sat contentedly and listened to more local musicians play folk songs and blues, a scrappy ol’ gent skillfully commanding a slide guitar, a lead singer with an Irish brogue. I talked to no one, but was happy as a clam and finally grabbed a cab back to the marina and snuggled into my v-berth with my alarm set for 7am. I needed to be in the channel out of the marina at 8am to ride the high tide out to deeper waters. So ended my first day.

The day had begun with a NOAA marine forecast for a “small craft advisory, winds 15-25 knots.” After a big breakfast (as there could be no lunch underway), I packed the Mini with a cooler and gear, cruised to the marina, hauled my shite onto the boat, and reefed the main sail before cranking the engine. The sail north through the San Francisco Bay to San Rafael was uneventful and the winds were calm, 10 knots tops, no 15-25 as predicted. I finally relaxed a little and shook out the reef to get the Donna Clare moving another knot through the water. It was a peaceful afternoon as I made my way some 12 nautical miles north through the Bay. After 3pm I was motoring up the San Rafael channel where the water was too shallow for comfort, the depth sounder showing 4’8” at one point, the exact depth of my keel. I didn’t hit the mud (thank Poseidon!) and finally crept up to the dock where John from the Loch Lomond Yacht Club caught my lines and we moored the Donna Clare. John insisted I come into the club so he could buy me a beer and we talked boats, marine engines, and how the channel desperately needed dredging.

Coming to Loch Lomond was a sort of full circle thing for me as this is where my boat was docked when I bought her 12 years ago, the place I lived aboard for a year and a half. I asked John about Bobby’s Fo’c’sle Café where I would eat greasy eggs and bacon on the weekends and listen to all the old salts yimmer-yammer, some of them drinking their first Coors of the day with breakfast. John explained that Bobby’s was gone, suffered a fire, couldn’t get things sorted with the landlord and had moved to town, and a month ago had closed, becoming another casualty of the recession. I was sad to hear it. I had planned on greasy eggs and bacon for breakfast, for old time’s sake, listening to the locals and whatnot. It had been about ten years since I had been back to this place. Things change.

Back on the boat, I did the usual coiling of lines and cleaning up, putting my gear away. I then attempted to make dinner but the winds had kicked up and I couldn’t keep the BBQ lit. So I threw on my jeans and walked to the highway, stuck out my thumb, and hitchhiked into town.

The next morning was still, cool and crisp, and the water was glassy. I quickly readied the boat and cranked the Yanmar and we were off with plenty of water, the depth sounder reading ten feet. With no wind I decided to motor straight to Angel Island and tie up to a mooring ball in Ayala Cove and have a restful day. Whenever anyone shows up to loop into a mooring ball in this little cove, the other folks in already securely moored boats, sit in their cockpits and wait for the show. The way the wind and currents work in this cove, mooring is always a challenge, even more so when you’re alone. I made two unsuccessful passes on the mooring ball, trying to secure my bow first only to be blown off it before I could loop the line. I finally got it looped on the stern and then jumped in the dinghy to get the bow tied off. I got tangled in the long line, had to undo knots, got blown around a bit, rowed in circles, but finally got the old gal tied off and had a good laugh at myself…mine was a decent show, although not the most dramatic by any stretch. I have seen much more entertaining.

After tidying the boat and coiling my lines, I jumped into Chicken, the dinghy, and rowed to the island for a late breakfast at the Cove Café. There were groups of school kids excitedly yelling and horsing around on the docks as teachers scrambled to keep them focused as they came off the ferry. After paying my mooring fee and chatting up the Ranger about State Park budget stuff and the incompetence of the California state legislature, I headed back to the boat for some reading and hammock time. I hoisted the hammock up my forestay and shroud and settled in.

In the afternoon I rowed back to the island and hiked the perimeter trail which offers some of the best views in the whole Bay Area. I sat and shelled and ate peanuts at a vista point offering a stunning panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, San Francisco, Oakland, and the Berkeley Hills. There was no one else on the trail, I had the whole south side of the island to myself, far as I could tell.

Because I had, while packing up at Loch Lomond, inadvertently thrown the propane regulator to my BBQ overboard into the bay water (hey, it happens, more than one likes to admit) I had to improvise dinner. I sautéed potatoes and yellow peppers on the stove in olive oil and butter (I am not afraid of butter) and then added the chicken. I sat in the cockpit at sunset eating my unexpectedly awesome dinner. I somehow lost my corkscrew so I had to use a screwdriver and channel lock pliers (as a hammer) to punch the cork into my bottle of pinot. After dinner I retired to the hammock once again and watched the lights emerge on the Tiburon peninsula. Words fail me in trying to describe the lighting and peace at anchor in calm water after dusk. I am sure, if it exists, this is what heaven is like. I heard some guy in the distance on another boat, say with delight to his wife, “hey honey, look at that guy, in the hammock.” People readily assume if you are single handing a sailboat you have a penis. I smiled, knowing that I do not. Silly man.

A pair of sailors on another boat cruised in and moored next to me as I enjoyed their show, watching them scramble, hearing the skipper bark orders and the first mate yell that he was out of line, they regrouped, added extra line, another sailor came over in a dinghy to help and within 10 minutes they were secure and coiling their lines. I lit the paraffin anchor lamp and hung it on the end of the boom and settled into the cabin for the night, listening to and singing along with my favorite sad songs (that don’t make me sad) and writing in the ships log.

I read all the old entries and smiled, laughing at the one my old pal John had made years ago after he panicked at the helm when I was at the mast. He back winded the jib in 25 knots, suddenly heeling the boat and nearly flinging me into the Bay near Alcatraz. I remember hugging the mast, screaming at him to steer into the wind as he looked at me terrified and saucer-eyed. He copped to the fuck-up in the ships log and we laughed about it all over beers, anchored up at the island. John and I spent a lot of time together, fishing, floating rivers, on boats in the Caribbean and Mexico. John was a good mate and I felt a little sad as I thought about losing him in the divorce, him being Jordie’s brother-in-law. Neither of us made contact after Jordie and I split and I know with certainty in my heart it’s because it would just be too damn sad. Better to just hold the memories and love, and let go. I loved him like a brother and perhaps someday we’ll find our way onto a boat together again.

I brought my harmonica (which I play very poorly and only when I am alone) and played a few songs and then finally snuggled into the v-berth for a boaty nights sleep under an open hatch and a clear sky.

Morning was warm, calm, and clear, and I boiled water for some instant coffee and had a cranberry scone and fresh strawberries in the cockpit. As often happens, occupants on nearby boats noticed me, a woman alone on a boat, an anomaly. They watched me reef the main sail and ready my lines, tie off the dinghy, tidy-up the cockpit. I put on my foulies and listened to the NOAA marine forecast which predicted 10-20 knots of wind. I had a gut feeling they were under-predicting and I was more right than I wanted to be. I headed east around the island and hoisted my sails in the lee and got ready to shoot the slot, the unobstructed area of water where the winds barrel in through the Golden Gate. As I passed Point Blunt Angel Island, the windiest place on the Bay, the gusts came big and hard. Over 25 knots and we were off, bucking across the slot. I was committed and held on as the wind and waves built. After about an hour and a half of spirited sailing, we got behind the City and things settled down, although there was still good wind (see pic of sailing by the City on a calmer day). I kept south under sunny skies and enjoyed the city skyline, getting spanked by an occasional ferry wake. After a couple of hours of mellow sailing I turned north again with the intention of taking the easy way back under the temporary shelter of Yurba Buena Island.

As we approached the island the winds increased dramatically and I grabbed the binoculars and could see the slot was a mess, big white caps and all the boats were heeled hard under reefed or short sails. I knew things would be messy after I cleared the other side of the island back into the slot, so I decided to drop my sails in the wind shadow and motor home. Taking down sails on my boat alone in high winds is an adrenaline pumping experience. When I crossed under the Bay Bridge and cleared the island I got pushed east to the edge of the shallows by a yacht race. This meant I was more exposed to the dramatically increasing winds which I had to take on my beam, the most uncomfortable way to get pummeled by the 4-5 foot waves which were hitting hard and crashing into the cockpit. Helming was tough and after I cleared the racers I turned a bit into the wind to quarter the waves and get some relief.

The winds were howling. Ten to 20 knots my ass, I knew I was seeing winds near 30 knots (later I learned the winds were gusting to 35 at Point Blunt). Without the sails up the boat was not counter balanced and we were tossed around like a cork. Finally clear of the shallows I headed east toward the marina channel which was still a half an hour away. I thought about the fact that I had less than a half of a tank of diesel, a condition that increases condensation and the chance of the fuel lines getting clogged, especially with the boat (and tank) getting violently tossed about in the waves. I had drained a good deal of water off the separator that morning and prayed she wouldn’t fill and stall the engine before I got to the marina.

The winds continued to build and the waves kept coming bigger and faster. At one point, I noticed Chicken, the trusted dinghy that I was towing behind the boat, was riding up on my quarter to the port side of the boat. The violence of the waves had snapped off one of the towing-sling lines so she was off balance. I grabbed the safety line and pulled with a lot of muscle to cleat her off. She settled in line and I hoped she would not capsize with only one line towing her.

Now here’s the truth, in these situations, I get scared when I am sailing alone. Not a curl-up-in-a-ball-and-cry scared, but a scared that acknowledges that if I fuck up it could go real bad, real quick. A few small fuck ups have gotten sailors dead in the Bay. I know enough about what might happen if things go wrong, if the engine stalls at the wrong moment, if the waves get too violent and crash the keel into a shallow unseen shoal. Fear is a relative thing. I know many other sailors would think me a pussy, yet I know many folks who think I am crazy to sail my boat alone, my old boat with no roller furling or lines leading aft. But my truth is that in these situations I am pumped and scared, not just by the conditions, and I have seen worse, but the having to deal with it all alone, no one to bark an order to, no one to notice if I go overboard or hit my head. So I held onto the helm, dampened the waves with the rudder best I could, and prayed that my fuel lines stayed clear and my Yanmar kept kickin’.

After the wild ride into the channel, we made the last turn towards the marina, the short stretch where we were again abeam to the waves and winds before the relative calm of the harbor. Engine dies here, and there’s about 10 yards to the lee shore and going aground, not much time to react. The last 100 yards of vulnerability but we made it. I backed off the throttle and let out a couple of “fuck yeah”s and putted towards my slip. My muscles relaxed and I became aware of just how jacked-up I had been. I was exhausted as I pulled out the boat hook and grabbed my mooring lines off the dock. Home sweet fucking home. Me and the Donna Clare had made it safely back to port one more time. I jumped out of my foulies, put on my shorts and plopped down in the cabin for a “holy fuck” moment with myself. I laughed, laughed with relief. And then I cranked the stereo and cleaned up the boat and rinsed her off. I collected my stuff and headed home, feeling part triumphant sailor and part lucky fool.

All sailors know humility and any sailor who tells you otherwise, is a liar.

NOTE: The next day I watched a couple of episodes of The Deadliest Catch and felt even wimpier! It’s all relative.


Anonymous said...

great post! and I STILL wanna sail with you! lots of love from your friend in france, also not afraid of butter.

Tracy said...

Merski, you are brave as hell. I'da been freaked out. Glad you made it home safe. Love from your wimpy cruising friend in Chicago....

breedamc said...

Wow - your writing is captivating!