LEISURE LETTER 51: WEST-NORTHWEST - PART 1
There is a sailboat that lives in San Pedro, California at Cabrillo Marina, a trim thirty-five footer built way back in better days. It enjoys the waters near Long Beach because the wind kicks up real good around there, a relentless afternoon blow that comes down from out by the Channel Islands, along the coast, through Malibu, past Venice and all the rest. You can get going pretty quick on wind like that. Wind like that will have you docked at Ensenada, Mexico in no time, eating fish tacos by the malecón. In the words of Gianni Agnelli, true sailors “...like the wind because you can’t buy it”.
Now you might anticipate in a story such as this that there be some mention of the sailboat’s name. The names of boats from stories are often as important as the names of people. I have spent entire centuries of my life reading the names of boats moored about in harbors here and there, each a story of its own. As for this boat and its crispy sails, I will refrain from any and all designation. This boat drifts along the plane of the platonic ideal, sailing on the savage winds of my imagination. The boat I am referring to belongs to Santo; and Santo belongs to the sea.
My name is Johnny. John for short. But everyone calls me Johnny. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot of Johnny’s out there . . . a lot of really fine Johnny’s. But I just might be the finest. There is only one other Johnny for whom I maintain tremendous respect, who will not be mentioned till later. You’re gonna like this Johnny.
Before we get there, I must talk about what happened . . . So let’s go back . . .
Here I am sleeping in bed, drooling on myself, dreaming about some beach down south. Suddenly I am awake, with my eyes open; I cough three times. Then I look out the window: nine o’clock. Very good. I yawn and scrub my eyes and dimly perceive this annoying ringing sound that I can’t quite pin down. The noise turns out to be my phone. I answer.. It’s Santo and he’s mumbling about something.
The mumbling, like most of his mumbling, is about sailing. He’s saying something about help, sail, San Pedro: “It’s been moored in Dana Point the last couple of weeks, don’t ask why . . . Can you help me sail it back? . . . I could use the extra set of hands . . . the wind’s looking pretty good . . . But Hey – I’m thinking about sailing it to Catalina first. Avalon, baby.”
“Avalon!”– and just like that I am up and out of bed, hopping across the floor like a kangaroo, snatching up loose articles of clothing and stuffing them into the trusty leather Keepall bag.
Avalon . . . a legendary seaside shanty. Catalina – home of those wild, wild horses. The Chewing gum family, the Wrigley’s, came in and built the Escondido Ranch; it hides untouched near the middle of the island. There they bred some of the finest horses on historical record – Arabians – the fastest horses on this good earth! In the last 7000 years of its known habitation, Catalina has been home to pirates, smugglers, cowboys and indians, ranchers, thieves, hermits, saints, cowards, heroes, princesses, jesters and kings alike. And soon it would be mine.
I met Santo at the whale-watching gazebo overlooking the guest mooring slips. We drank black coffee and bought some provisions for the crossing. I also bought a shark tooth puka-shell necklace, for good luck. It was a giant, gaudy looking thing that nobody in their right mind would ever dream of wearing. But I loved it, and that was that.
Thus, with the courage of pilgrims, we happily approached Santo’s trusty thirty-five. There it was afloat at the slip, sails furled and swaying subtly with the tide. The pelicans stood guard nearby; and a big, blubbery gray seal slept like a giant grease stain at the end of the docks, snoring. The whole world smelled of harbor stench and big adventure. Such was the spirit in which we left.
Out past the breakwall the wind began to howl, as expected. I went to work on the sails – first by raising the main, followed by the unfurling of the jib. Santo went to work on the trim while I manned the helm. The boat began to drive, to tilt, as I held the wheel firm against the push and pull of the rudder, doing the utmost to keep the bow aimed 290° west-northwest. Whhhhooooossshhh the wind took us; and for a long time we made our way just like that, smashing through swell after swell . . .
. . . Up until the wind all but died. We had made it a little more than halfway. The sails, now deflated, had this sad, slack look about them. “Furl up the jib, Johnny” ordered Santo, as he disappeared below deck, creating a loud, crashing commotion. Far off in the distance, through a weak haze, I could just barely make out the pale, jagged section of the southern Catalina hillside – Avalon quarry – which has fed rock to many a jetty, bulkhead and breakwall along the mainland. Finally Santo returned, carrying with him a stout fishing rod and tackle kit. “Today we become members of the elite Catalina Tuna Club,” he said. “Admittance to such a hallowed institution requires we drag up from the depths a tuna of at least two hundred pounds. Then we will be members for life.”
This got my heart racing. The largest tuna I had caught up until now was a thirty pound bluefin a few miles outside the harbor. Peering into the depths with my high definition, designer Japanese fishing glasses, I saw thousands of sparkling fish, porpoises, jellies, and what I thought to be a shark of dizzying proportions. Somewhere down there was our tuna. “Santo! Take a look at these fish, man . . . they’re everywhere!” For his part, Santo saw nothing. “They’re too deep, Johnny. Your eyes are playing tricks on you.” He rigged the rod with a bright flashy lure. “This oughta catch his eye,” Santo winked, handing me the rod and starting up the engine.
The engine coughed to life. The lure was dropped, the line let out, trolling, as the electronic auto-pilot carried us onward in the direction of the island. In no time we would have our award winning tuna. At The Club they would greet us like heroes, handing us our shiny trophies and cold sweating drinks. This daydream persisted for another mile or two, with the line dragging far out behind us, luring the glorious fish that would change both of our lives for good. Or so I imagined.
As fate would have it, old King Neptune had other plans for Santo and Johnny and their vessel of this vintage. The auto-pilot, faultless until now, went absolutely haywire, sending the ship spiraling in a starboard trajectory, the bow spinning back toward the mainland, now toward the island, toward the mainland again . . . We lost our footing . . . became dizzy and delirious. In the confusion Santo managed to get his hands on the auto-pilot box, frantically working the dials to shut it off and restrain this madman of an autopilot. Nothing seemed to work, so he did the next best thing and killed the motor. Alas we came to a halt, waylaid in the middle of the shipping lanes, where the titanic container ships threatened to send us to oblivion.
Having briefly collected ourselves, we realized in a moment of mutual terror, that in all of the spinning we had become tangled up in the fishing line, rendering the propeller useless unless said knot be undone. Santo was in the water first. I watched nervously as he disappeared under the hull, surfacing a full minute later, breathless. “This line is giving me hell,” he yelled. “Get down here!” Assuming a near-tragic countenance, I slipped into my swim trunks, picked up the diving knife and, biting down hard on the cold metal blade, I dove into the cool dark water. Swimming beneath the ship, I looked into a deeper, colder abyss than any I had ever seen; in those deep dark fathomless depths swam monsters I could scarcely begin to dream of. Thus, vowing to never look so far down again, I went with a shuddering in my bones to cut the propeller free.
To be continued...