Summer Camp at Night

Last summer we sailed our boat to Catalina Island. After a week ashore, including three noisy nights in Avalon, we retreated to the island’s quiet northwest corner to prepare for our jump to Los Angeles.

We moored in Howland Landing with only one other boat, a red sailboat owned by a harbor patrolman. A few times each day he’d pull alongside in his Boston Whaler, take his break aboard, and then get back to work. But most of the time, we had the cove to ourselves.

To port, a slanted rock outcropping separated Howland from the island’s west end. Swells rolled in parallel to the shore and filled tide pools at the base of the rocks. Having just read John McPhee’s Assembling California, I was mesmerized by the crooked layers of rock. We took the dinghy to get a closer look, but I realized there’s not much a layperson can learn from looking at rocks.

A couple hundred yards behind us, a summer camp for kids was set up on the beach. We watched campers and counselors move around the camp, from cabins to beach to mess hall and back again. “Lucky kids,” said Michelle, who grew up at summer camp in northern Wisconsin. “How cool to come out here and have your summer camp on an island in the Pacific.”

Around 8pm, after dark, we were cleaning up dinner on the boat. I glanced astern and noticed bright lights on the beach. “Hey, check this out,” I said to Michelle.

We sat in the cockpit and watched. Was it a ceremony? A game? Were we seeing flood lamps illuminating the camp for safety?

One by one, more white lights appeared along the beach in a horizontal row. They were aimed our way. We weren’t blinded, but we couldn’t discern anything around the lights either.

Then the lights started to move. They bounced and wobbled and grew larger. What were we seeing? And then it clicked.

The camp kids were holding flashlights and walking into the water! We heard splashing and shrieking and chatter and laughter. The counselor’s raised voice echoed across the water, and we listened as she instructed the campers: put on your mask and snorkel, make sure your flashlight is on, don’t forget your buddy, watch your step.

The lights disappeared one by one into the water. But we had no trouble tracking the group as they splashed past our boat, just 50 feet from our transom, and toward the rock outcropping and tide pools. Lucky kids, indeed — night snorkeling was part of the program at their summer camp.

We were just about to go back inside when we heard the counselor’s voice again. She was speaking in that loud whispering voice, the straining way people talk when they want to be heard but they don’t want to be loud.

“Okay kids… Don’t freak out, but… there’s a baby shark swimming down near the bottom.”

The kids freaked out. Their flashlights bobbed and scattered. They kicked and splashed. They strained to get a look underwater.

I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing the shark didn’t stick around to see them.


Tsunami Watch

On September 16, 2015 we sailed into Channel Islands Harbor (Oxnard, California) with the SoCal Ta-Ta fleet.

That night, the Ta-Ta organizers and marina management threw a party on an empty dock. Burgers and hotdogs on a grill, potato salad, and a two-man pickup band playing classic rock covers. That sort of thing.

We were seated around the end of a long folding table, talking to some new friends. The music wound down and Richard Spindler, Latitude 38 honcho and SoCal Ta-Ta poobah, grabbed the microphone.

“Excuse me,” he said.

The chatter of 100-some people continued through the band’s break, as it often does when live music is the background, and not the center of attention.

“Hey everyone, listen up! This is important.”

Richard’s a mellow guy, so his tone caught our attention. The crowd became silent.

“So, believe it or not, there’s a tsunami warning for this part of the coast.”

Stunned silence, then uneven murmurs.

“There was a big earthquake in Chile… an eight point three… that’s really big. And they are saying the tsunami could reach California sometime tonight. I’ll read you the advisory here.”

Richard brought his phone close to his face and began to read from the NOAA website.

“Tsunami advisory in effect for… 45 miles southeast of LA to… 50 miles northwest of San Luis Obispo.” He broke out of his reading voice to add: “We’re right in the middle of that range.” He continued: “The tsunami may be hazardous to swimmers, boats, and coastal structures… recommended actions… Move off the beach and out of harbors and marinas.”

A wave of nervous laughter spread through the group. We were in a marina.

Then Richard continued onto the predicted tsunami heights. The group became silent again. This was the information that really mattered.

“Let’s see here… Los Angeles California… zero-point-five to one… foot. Santa Barbara California… zero-point-five to one foot. OK, here we go… Port San Luis California… that’s very close to here… zero-point-three to zero-point-five feet.”

A tsunami of less than one foot is not much of a tsunami at all. The worried looks left our friends’ faces, and tentative smiles began to appear. We felt relieved.

Still, we had never been in an tsunami before. We didn’t know what to expect.

Later that night, on the boat, I found a NOAA webpage where they published projected tsunami arrival times and heights for dozens of affected locations. As the tsunami arrived in each location, they added observed values to the webpage. It was like a bingo board of anxiety, hope, and destruction. I refreshed it every few minutes until bedtime.

Given our lack of experience — and my above-average worry level — I decided to set my alarm for 4:55am and wake up to witness the tsunami’s projected arrival at 5:04am.

At five to five, I woke up, dressed, and made my way on deck. I grabbed my phone and resumed checking the NOAA observations. The tsunami was arriving in California as predicted.

From my seat in the cockpit, I could see stars through the glow of the marina. I watched birds pass in the water and the air. Someone walked by on the dock. I heard a splash—then saw it was just a seal swimming by in the dark. It was a beautiful and calm night.

The projected time arrived, but the tsunami never did.


Spinnaker sailing


Aegea came with a decent sail inventory. Older working sails: a main and 95% jib. A 120% genoa for light-air sailing. A storm jib and storm trysail we’re unlikely to ever use. The most exciting sail was in a giant orange sail bag with “SABRE 38” stamped on the outside. It was a big purple spinnaker.

I love spinnaker sailing. I’ve flown the kite on E scows in Wisconsin, J-105s in San Francisco, and a Sunfast 3200 during the Newport-to-Cabo race. (The latter was a real sleigh ride. During the final night of the race, we hit 18 knots — in a 32-foot boat — while surfing a wave and actively trimming the kite.)

But until last week, we never flew Aegea’s spinnaker. Last summer, we hired South Beach Riggers to outfit us with proper sheets, guys, and all other necessary rigging. This was in preparation for a weeklong cruise down the coast (to Monterey and back). But we faced unusual headwinds during the part of our cruise that should have been downwind, and the spinnaker remained stowed.

Last Tuesday, the SoCal Ta-Ta fleet sailed from Santa Cruz Island to Oxnard. It was a beautiful beam reach in 8–12 knots of breeze. We hadn’t planned to fly the chute for the short 18-mile crossing. One by one, boats began to hoist spinnakers, and the fleet lit up with color.

I got quiet. I became dissatisfied. I was jealous. Michelle noticed.

“What do you think will make you feel better?” Michelle asked.

“Flying the spinnaker.”

“OK. Fine.”

I ran around the boat getting everything setup. Michelle made sure I wore a life-jacket while working on deck. I hauled the sail up the companionway and onto the foredeck. Michelle helped me lead the sheets aft. I dug out the tack line and tied it on. I connected the halyard and hoisted the furled spinnaker to the masthead. (It’s contained in a white “snuffer” tube until ready.)

Everything looked normal, nothing was wrapped or twisted, so I pulled back the snuffer and the spinnaker began to fill.

It was glorious.

We only got to fly the chute for an hour that day, but it was worth the effort. The next day we sailed under that big purple spinnaker for several hours on our way to Paradise Cove off Malibu.

I’m not sure when my next opportunity to fly Aegea’s spinnaker will arise. But as Michelle can tell you, if the conditions are right, I’ll be chomping at the bit.

— JZ

The people you meet

Last Friday, after we arrived in Santa Barbara, after we hosted an impromptu cocktail hour with Nick’s friends Paul and Ginger, after we had dinner at the yacht club, after we stumbled upon a high-school football game and watched the dramatic 4th quarter — after all that, we were walking back to the boat when a tall jovial guy came alongside and said hello.

He was drunk, but he was a happy drunk. Our new friend told us that he was crewing on a large powerboat heading north to San Francisco. They had come from Catalina, and on the crossing they caught some tuna. But they couldn’t eat it all and would we like some?

We walked back to his boat and met the rest of the crew.

In addition to tall jovial guy, they had a grumpy gentleman with curly gray hair. He razzed us for our yacht club attire. “If you’re sailors, where are your shorts? Sailors should be wearing shorts.”

There was a short guy with a ponytail. He talked a lot, and very quickly, mostly about food. “Hellyeah, give these guys some tuna. Been marinating since we caught it. Yeah, awesome.”

Finally, we met the boat’s owner. He was tall, lean, tan, and appropriately grave for the leader of an imminent ocean passage. (They planned to depart at 4am so as to round Point Conception near dawn.)

“Where are you taking the boat?” I asked.

“Up the Delta, near Stockton.”

“No kidding.”

I told him that Aegea has spent some time in the Delta; that we love going to Tinsley Island and exploring the area on our runabout. In fact, Aegea had been in the Delta earlier this summer. We spent nearly every weekend in May and June on Tinsley.

The owner went on: “I just bought a marina in Delta. I’m going to keep my boat there.”

“You bought a marina?”


You never know who you’ll meet.

— JZ

“There’s kelp on the rudder”

During our recent passage to Santa Barbara, the sail from Half Moon Bay to Morro Bay was quiet. We saw one ship, steaming north in the offshore shipping lane, and very little wildlife.

As we closed with Morro Bay, that changed. We talked to the harbormaster and a sailboat on the VHF radio. We saw whales, dolphins, fishing boats, and kelp. Lots of kelp. I switched off the autopilot and stood on the cockpit seat, scanning for kelp while steering.

(Kelp looks like wimpy seaweed, but it’s nasty stuff. Last summer we hooked a strand of kelp on our propeller shaft, and it formed a ball that reduced our propeller’s efficiency by more than half. Instead of 6.5 knots, we could only reach 2.5 knots at normal throttle. Pretty scary when you’re navigating a crowded harbor.)

Later that day, we entered Morro Bay and tied to the yacht club dock. A wicked current runs north and south inside of the narrow harbor. From the dock, we watched clumps of kelp float past the boat in one direction, and then the other.

On Wednesday morning, before departing, I noticed a long strand of kelp had caught our propeller and was streaming out behind the boat, held in place by the current.

Later, we completed our final pre-departure tasks and cast off. As soon as we left the dock, I noticed a lot of unusual friction in the steering.

I immediately told Nick we would return to the dock. I didn’t want to navigate the harbor and channel with problematic steering.

“There’s kelp on the rudder,” I said. The kelp I pulled off earlier was streaming behind the boat, but I knew that in the opposite current, a strand stuck between the rudder and the hull would stream forward, under the boat where we couldn’t see it.

I turned the wheel hard over to starboard, then back to port, twice. I felt for any reduced friction — any sign that the kelp was grinding down or dislodging.

“I guess I’ll have to go in the water.” Every sailor has to dive under their boat from time to time, to clear something off the keel, rudder, or propeller. No big deal. In five minutes I had my swim trunks and dive mask ready.

I sat on the edge of the dock, and lowered myself into the water. After the initial shock of 65°F water, I pushed myself under the boat’s hull and brought my face close to the rudder.

No kelp.

I came up for air, then dove on the other side of the boat to look for kelp there.

Nothing. I swam to the ladder and climbed onto the dock.

Nick and I began to discuss other sources of the friction. Earlier in the day we had pumped some grease into the space between the rudder post and tube (a normal maintenance item). Maybe the grease fitting ran dry? We re-packed it with grease and lubricated the post. No change. We visually inspected the steering gear below decks. Everything looked normal.

“How weird,” I said, thinking aloud. “What could be causing this? Nothing’s sticking or catching… there’s just a lot of extra friction…”

Saying it out loud sparked an idea.

I reached for the wheel brake — a device that clamps down on the steering wheel shaft so you can lock the wheel in position.

The wheel brake was on.

We burst out laughing. I was amused, but I was frustrated. What was I thinking? I should have checked the simplest possible causes first.

“Dammit, I should have known,” I said. “When troubleshooting something on a boat, you always start at one end of the system and work through it component by component.”

“Well, you did start at the end of the system,” said Nick. “It was just the wrong end.”

— JZ