I left Ali Wai Harbor alone at about 4 AM headed for Ventura Harbor and by evening I could no longer see the Hawaiian Islands. ‘Alone at last’ I thought to myself. I was really looking forward to some peace and quiet. I needed to make this solo voyage across the Pacific even though it meant putting everything on the line. I needed to prove to myself that I was the person I believed I was. I had been feeling overwhelmed from day-to-day doldrums for the longest time and I needed something to challenge my normally sedentary lifestyle. I feared I was becoming the antithesis of the person I wanted to be. I was becoming depleted from within.
I sailed at a close reach heading in a northeastern direction. The first few days out were fairly uneventful and I made good time. In the first three days, I had already gone through all the bags of pretzels and soda pop I had brought along and was quickly on a steady diet of canned meats, fruits, and vegetables.
At the end of the second week, I decided that I needed to lower the mainsail because I could see there was some significant scalloping between the slugs that hold the sail to the mast. The scalloping can cause the sail to lose wind and not work as efficiently as it should. I tried to tighten the sail using the halyard but it wouldn’t go up all the way. I decided to lower the mainsail and then hoist it back up and see if that could resolve the problem. Once I got the sail lowered I tried to hoist it back up. One of the slugs got stuck in the track it slides up through and I ended up trying to hoist myself up high enough to free it. I couldn’t get high enough and so I ended up having the sail only two-thirds the way up the mast. Not only did this reduce my speed, it also made a lot of noise as the sail material flapped in the wind. In order to reduce the flapping, I used the cringles to reef the mainsail. Because I had to lower the mainsail to where the cringles were, this reduced my speed and it also through the boat off balance as the 120% genoa jib was overpowering the front of the boat. I ended up putting up the working jib to compensate.
Two days later the skies became dark and it began to get windy. I heard on the weather channel that a low-pressure trough was in my vicinity and so I pretty much knew a storm was probably going to hit soon. There was little I could do other than ride it out.
During the storm, I spent much of my time in the cabin trying to stay out of the harsh winds and would occasionally go on deck to check on the sails. Fortunately, they remained safe as I had reefed my mainsail down to its lowest reefing point and was using my storm jib. Even being reefed down to minimal sail exposure, I now was sailing at a pace close to my hull speed. I didn’t get any sleep that night.
The next day, after the storm had passed, I decided to yank on the halyard and see if the mainsail would go up. When I did, the halyard that pulls the mainsail snapped and the mainsail was all over my deck.
I was too big to be climbing the mast and so I just took the mainsail down and stowed it. I still had plenty of power as I had changed over to the 120% genoa jib. The drawback from this was that my windvane was now unable to work properly and I had to man the tiller and steer by hand.
I tried to catch fish by trolling a line off my starboard-side using the wench. I rigged my line with an old lure that my dad had purchased when I was still a teenager. I had been using it for a bulkhead decoration but I had been eating nothing but canned foods and I now wanted to eat something fresh. I was able to pull in some mahi-mahi that evening and was excited about my catch. I had a propane BBQ attached to the aft pulpit and it made for a gourmet meal that night. I eventually lost the lure after hooking a huge shark. I decided to just let him have the damned lure rather than pull him on deck and stick my hand in his mouth.
After two days of manning the helm with just the genoa jib, I heard a woman’s voice on the ship-to-shore radio. I clasped my hand over my eyes and I could see a vessel off on the horizon. The woman was asking for a radio check. I took a good hard look and I knew I had seen this yacht before.
“Whiskey Tango Golf 3974, this is the sailing vessel Mens Room off your starboard bow about two miles, you’re coming in loud and clear, five by five. Over.”
“Mens Room, this is the vessel Queen Mary IV, thank you for that, how you doing today? Over.”
“Doing pretty good. Is that you Mary? Over.”
“This is Mary, who’s this? Over.”
“Remember coming into Ventura Harbor late last year during a storm? I was the guy at the fuel dock that helped secure you to the dock. Over.”
“Oh yeah, Is it Stan? Over.”
“Close, it’s Sebastian. Over.”
“That was one helluva storm. Thanks again. Hey, would you like some fresh provisions? We have some fruit, ice cream, some cold beer maybe? Over.”
“Oooh! Over.” My eyes lit up with that. I craved anything cold.
Within a few short minutes, the Queen Mary IV was pulling up alongside me. I had been invited aboard the Queen Mary IV last year after getting her secured to the fuel dock during a storm. She was a beauty. At the time she had come in, there were no available guest docks large enough to accommodate her. She was a sleek wedge-shaped 90+ foot world-class power yacht.
As she pulled up to my port side, Captain Mary appeared at the aft end. She was a heavy set woman in her forties with long blonde hair and a pleasant smile. With her were two younger male deckhands. They were certainly a sight for sore eyes.
She asked why I was only sailing with a jib. I explained that I had broken my mainsail halyard and couldn’t hoist the sail.
She laughed and said, “Look what we have.” She pointed to two large davit arms that were used to raise and lower jet skis and a dinghy from the upper deck. Within a few minutes, one of the deck hands was able to run a new halyard line through the pulley at the top of the mast and I was once again functional.
Juxtaposed to the Queen Mary IV, the Mens Room was tiny in comparison. Mary had rigged a bucket on a rope attached to the davit arm and lowered down a variety of goodies. She informed me that I must be crazy to be out in the middle of the Pacific in a 36-foot sailboat by myself. I confirmed her psychiatric diagnoses and thanked her for the luxury provisions. In just a couple of minutes, she was powering up her twin turbines.
Over a loudspeaker, Mary called out, “Godspeed my friend.” I waved and thanked her for that. From the time I spotted the Queen Mary IV and her departure, the whole event took place in probably less than about 20 minutes. In less than an hour, she had completely disappeared into the eastern horizon.
Mary was the skipper, and I assume the owner of the Queen Mary IV. I’d love to run into her again and hear her story. I checked out my booty. She had provided me with the better part of a huge cooked rib roast, a couple of melons and some grapes, a half-gallon of ice cream and several bottles of good German beer. A note was attached that read, ‘Bon apatite.’
Because I had no refrigeration, I decided it was best to eat all of the ice cream immediately. By the time I was done later that evening, I felt completely bloated. Later that night, I ended up heaving it all overboard. I just hoped the fish enjoyed it as much as I did.
On the third week of my return trip, I was once again met with high winds and torrential rains. This was just plain bad timing for a storm to come in. I was coming closer to the California shore which meant busy shipping lanes. This also meant that I had to stay at the helm throughout the entire storm. I once again reefed the mainsail. This time I didn’t take it down to just a small triangle like I had previously. I wanted enough sail up to make good time. This meant I was going to be at the helm throughout the entire storm.
After a few hours, I decided to take down the storm jib because there was entirely too much wind. Southerly gale forces were whipping me around like I was nothing. I was going up and down waves like I was on a roller coaster. Up and down, up and down… By morning I was once again totally exhausted.
After a couple of days of comparatively calmer seas, I could finally see land. It was a large island and I could tell by the shape it was not Santa Cruz Island. I suspected that I was positioned just above Santa Rosa Island. As I drew nearer, I was able to hail a sailboat in the area to confirm. This was like being in my own backyard. Santa Rosa Island is one of California’s Channel Islands and is situated just north of Santa Cruz Island. This meant I was about twenty or so nautical miles north of where I thought I was.
Early that afternoon I came within a mile of Santa Rosa’s shore and followed the coast down. I had decided that I wanted to moor at Santa Cruz Island for the night. I knew that since it was Saturday night, there would probably be plenty of people I knew partying in Smuggler’s Cove.
I was right. When I reached Smuggler’s Cove it was already dark. I could see that there were more than a dozen or so sailboats tied together in a star shape with all of the bows pointing out. This was done so that all of the cockpits of the various vessels made a circle. People would go yacht hopping all through the night sharing food, drink and whatever.
I tied in with some friends and joined the party. It seemed strange at first because I hadn’t seen anyone since I had encountered the Queen Mary IV a few days before. Now, all of a sudden I’m among people and everyone’s in a festive mood.
I was the talk of the party and people kept asking me if I was crazy. I explained, “Yes.” I further explained that the whole voyage was spur of the moment and that once I had reached Hawaii, there was a change of original plan and that I wasn’t about to leave my sailboat in Ala Wai Harbor. I drank several beers and had a good time. I stayed awake as long as I could and then nodded off in my cockpit. I woke up at about two in the morning when some young, wet naked woman crawled into the cockpit and fell over on me. I looked up at her and she said, “Oh, sorry, wrong boat.” I bid her goodnight as she dove back into the water. I took that opportunity to go back to my cabin and crawl into my own birth to continue my well-deserved slumber.
The next morning, I felt revived and went for an early morning swim. I was bobbing in the water between the Mens Room and my buddy’s boat when I hear a young lady on my buddy’s boat comment, “Uh oh, that egg is rotten.”
This was followed by buddy saying, “Oh well. Too late now.”
I didn’t think too much of it at the time and had completely forgotten about it by the time we were sharing breakfast. A couple of hours after breakfast I was pulling up my anchor when I started to feel the effects of that rotten egg. I got the anchor up and secured it. I set my sails and hooked up the wind vane. After setting a course due east to Ventura Harbor, I began to feel nausea coming on. My stomach was churning so I went below to use the head.
I was sitting on the head feeling absolutely miserable when all of a sudden I felt the vessel heal radically to one side. I hurriedly went topside trying to pull my pants back on and as soon as I stepped into the cockpit I could see that the mast was bending. Then… kaboom. My mast had snapped and the boom hit me vertically across the face and chest. I was immediately dazed and in pain.
My mast, boom and all the rigging were now in the water. I felt the mast hit the hull hard as it floated next to the vessel. Instinctively, I grabbed a life vest, put it on and then dove into the water and started pulling the mast up alongside the vessel and started securing it to the starboard side. I knew that many a boat had been sunk after being dis-masted after the mast slammed into the fiberglass hull and punctured it. As I tried to pull the rigging in and secure it, I felt severe pain in my chest from where I had been hit by the spar. I suddenly realized that there was blood all over the place and it was coming from my nose. I had lost my glasses and, being nearsighted, could only see what was right in front of me. After much difficulty, I was finally able to pull myself back on board.
My next instinct was to get on the ship-to-shore radio and put out a distress call. After attempting several times to make a mayday call, I got no response. After several minutes, it occurred to me that my antenna was at the top of the mast, which was now in the water. I looked at the base of the mast step and saw that the antenna wires had been sheered off. I then focused on looking to see if there were any other vessels in sight.
Without my glasses, I was unable to see anything in my immediate vicinity.
I then leaned over the side of the boat and started pulling the sails in and removed them from the spars and stowed them below. I did everything I could think of to preserve my rigging. Rigging is made of stainless steel and very expensive to replace. I decided that the next prudent thing to do since I didn’t have my glasses and couldn’t see was to get out a flare and see if I could signal another vessel in the vicinity. I had three flares onboard and ignited them one after another. After the flares were gone I took one of the orange life vests and started waving it. After just a few minutes I could see a commercial fishing vessel was approaching.
As it came closer I thought I recognized it. After another minute I realized this was one of my regular customers at the fuel dock.
“Yo, Cap’n Jack,” I called out as he tossed me a line.
“Geez, what the hell happened to you?” he asked.
“I came around the point and got hit by gale force winds,” I replied. “Snapped my mast and I can’t use my radio.”
“You want me to call vessel assist?” he asked.
“Naw, I’d prefer it if you put in a call for the Coast Guard Axillary,” I told him.
“Okay, I’ll call em. Hey, you want a shot of this.” He then produced a bottle of cheap whiskey.
“No thanks,” I replied. “Maybe another time and place.”
He laughed and got on his radio and requested that a coast guard axillary vessel come out to assist a vessel in distress. The Coast Guard Axillary are volunteers who can assist with minor emergencies. I wasn’t sinking but my emergency was that I was hurt and needed to get to shore ASAP. That qualified me for their assistance. In my mind, the real emergency was that I really couldn’t afford vessel assist. It would have cost a small fortune to have vessel assist come and tow me in. Vessel assist was an absolute last option.
While waiting for the coast guard axillary vessel, I had plenty of time to think about what had happened. I figured that while I was traversing the south side of Santa Cruz island, the winds were only about 15 to 20 knots. I was on the head and was relatively close to the shore as I went past the easterly most tip of the island. When I came around the corner I was suddenly exposed to gale force winds while under full sail. With the winds blowing at an angle to Santa Cruz Island, they hit the steep shore and continue down the coast like a cannon blast. This would explain why there were only gale forces at the sharp corner where the south coast shore breeze abruptly turns into the northerly winds and creates a blast effect. The end result is a funneling effect that condensed both winds and made them stronger at the point where they became conjoined.
I’ve never considered myself rich and the boats I’ve owned, such as the Mens Room, were previously owned. One of the risks that go along with previously owned boats is that an older mast may be prone to metal fatigue. The mast on my boat was over ten years old and had been fatigued by more than seven almost consecutive weeks of constant stress. Its number came up and it snapped. In law school, one of the concepts that you’re taught is the assumption of the risk. I had assumed the risk of an inferior mast when I purchased a used boat instead of a new boat.
After a while, I was still feeling sick to my stomach. I’ve never been seasick in my life so I knew that I had probably developed a minor concussion from being hit in the face and forehead with the boom. I was cold and wet and covered with blood. The wet clothes made the blood look ten times worse. I later threw up several times and managed to get it all over my bloody clothes. I was truly a mess.
An hour or so later, now covered with dried blood and puke, I saw the Coast Guard Axillary yacht as it arrived. It was older, nicely maintained 80 plus-foot custom made Stevens yacht. There were two older couples onboard. Each of the women had a cocktail glass in hand and were dressed in smart looking yachting outfits. The two men looked like a couple of rich executive types. Both were sporting their yacht club emblems on their navy blue blazers.
They threw me a line and one of them asked what my hull speed was. I told him that it was about 7 to 8 knots. This made me feel secure that they knew what they were doing. If a vessel is towed beyond the hull speed, it can easily sink. I already had enough problems.
They towed me from about a mile off of Santa Cruz Island all the way to the entrance of Ventura Harbor. The tow took about three and a half hours. I was really grateful for their help. But, being covered in blood and puke, I felt out of place, like I was a vagabond having my wreck of a car towed by a Mercedes Benz. People that own boats are different from people who own cars. It’s more of a brotherhood and one takes pride in helping another at sea. Not so much on the highway.
After we arrived at the harbor entrance, they told me that the Axillary Coast Guard had an agreement with local vessel assist companies that they wouldn’t tow vessels beyond the breakwaters into the harbor. They asked me if I wanted to have them call vessel assist to tow me the rest of the way. I declined. I instead thanked them as profusely as one can while tossing them their line back.
Sometimes I think about all of the good people I’ve met in my association with the sea and I can’t help believing that boat people may be one of the last sovereigns of decency and camaraderie. I’m not saying that all boat people are any better than others per se, it’s just that they have a code they believe in — the code of the sea. For the most part, they are usually willing to help and often take pride in doing so. These people, who didn’t even know me, helped me with no expectation of reward as I have done the same many times in the past myself. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to live any other way.
After they set me loose, I was bobbing in the waves at the harbor entrance. This is when I really regretted not having my outboard engine. I saw an oil boat was coming up behind me so I grabbed my tiller and started pushing it from side to side to scull the boat in. This was a slow process and to make things worse, it was a Sunday afternoon and the harbor promenade was packed with tourist.
Covered with dried blood and puke, no mast, my rigging spewed all over the deck and my mast secured to the starboard side, I slowly sculled my way back to my slip in front of ten thousand tourists. As I finally pulled up to my dock, several of my friends helped me to dock. They also helped separate the spars and lines from my deck and secured them on the dock for me.
To my friends, I’m sure I looked to be an absolute mess. I was exhausted and could barely move. Just about all of my supplies had been used up and my boat was a mess. While I may have looked like I had just survived a major disaster and in really bad shape, it couldn’t have been further from the truth. It would not take much to make the necessary repairs to the Mens Room and after a day or two of rest, I was no longer exhausted. All that was important, all that really mattered, at least for me, was that I was no longer feeling depleted from within.