My Boat is so Small, and the Storm is so Great
Ever since sailing a few times with my roommate in college, I had wanted to get back into it and really learn. In those days we would take out his family’s “L-36” from Los Angeles, sail down to Laguna, anchor in the bay and swim ashore for the weekend. Although it was a distant ideal, I never had the opportunity to follow up on it until my retirement friend, Rudy, began inviting me to go sailing with him out of Avalon Harbor on his “Catalina 22”.
On Wednesday, April 25th, under blue skies and bright, warm sun we left Avalon Harbor going northwest to Campus-by-the-Sea. Because of the recent rains, the island appeared lush and green as we passed the many small coves along the way. There wasn’t much wind that day, so we were motoring, but enjoying it hugely. I wanted to look over the beach slope because of a future project there. After a lazy circle through the tiny bay, we headed back along the coast towards Avalon.
About halfway home the wind began to pick up nicely, so we steered out into the Channel to try for some real sailing. I was heading towards a place on the mainland coast just south of Saddleback Mountain. At a certain point, a few miles out, the air temperature dropped quite noticeably, making us scramble in the cabin for jackets. We went out about twenty minutes or so, then came about into the southeast wind, hoping for a straight shot into Avalon Harbor. We had done this several times before. However, we were being driven by a wind which was freshening considerably. We were moving fast through the water, and we both enjoyed it!
I found myself looking up at the mast, and I was amazed at how much we were healed over. I looked down through the cabin windows and remarked to Rudy that the starboard rail only looked a few inches above the churning ocean. At this point, we were getting near to the Harbor and needed a quieter place to get the sails down. We headed towards Descanso Beach, but the wind was becoming harsh and was blowing hard all the way to the beach. I noticed a kind of fog on top of the water because the wind was actually picking it up. It was also shifting directions suddenly as I tried to pull the sails down. We got closer and closer to the shore at Descanso….with no calm possibilities anywhere. Because I was trying to get the sails down, Rudy was piloting the boat (luckily!).
Suddenly, up on the bow fighting the sails, I noticed that we were heading directly into the near-vertical rock cliffs at the West end of the cove. I looked back at Rudy and saw that he was using all of his might to push the rudder over. The outboard engine was roaring and turned all the way, but we continued advancing towards the rocks. At the last second, the boat began slowly, slowly turning back towards the mainland. At our closest point, we were no further than twenty feet from the nearly vertical cliff there.
However, this narrow escape only preceded the next danger: extreme winds which pushed the boat over until the rails on the port side were under water! Actually, at one point I noticed that the capstan was under water and it was pouring into the cockpit! All of this was happening very fast, and I was not frightened, but I was amazed that the sailboat didn’t simply push all the way over and put the mast in the water. Rudy continued to pilot us towards the harbor and I had the sails partly down. However, the strong winds put us in danger, so Rudy asked me to call the Harbor Department for assistance on the Marine Radio Emergency Channel. They responded right away with a few brief questions, then said they would send help.
We continued limping along, being quite battered. Finally I got the jib bagged up and the mainsail mostly down but various things went wrong. The boom was hanging down into the cabin. The “slides” which attach the sail to the mast, began popping loose. The knurled thumbscrew, which keeps them above the widened part of the sail track, had come loose and they were flying away from the mast. Several simply broke off, freeing the sail to blossom out.
By this time we were almost into the harbor, but still having a tough time because of the strong West winds coming straight down Avalon Canyon into the harbor. Rudy asked me to contact Harbor again to try to get a mooring in the open so that we wouldn’t have to try to navigate into the tight spaces where we originated. Even in the harbor, we had surprisingly little control over the boat! The Harbor Department assigned us to Mooring No. 73 (Storm Maker III), but it became obvious that we weren’t going to make it that far. The Harbor Patrol boat then directed us to the nearest mooring for very large boats. At this time of year, they were mostly all open, with nothing nearby.
Because of the wind, just even getting tied up—fore and aft—proved to be a challenge!
Well, “long story short”, we made it and were wearing big smiles! We took the mainsail off the boom (very unusual) and got it bagged up for repair. As we worked, I thought how amazing it was that Rudy was just three months away from a heart attack and open heart surgery to replace two valves! He offered to help clean up the mess in the cabin, but I wanted to get him home and warm as soon as possible! It had been cold in that wind.
The cabin was knee deep in upside down gear: books, pots and pans, cushions, clothing, foodstuffs, etc. Unfortunately, the lid came off the Quaker Oats cereal tube, so everything was freckled. One of the mysteries of the trip was: where did that lid go? It was not in the cabin afterwards!
Sailing Lessons Learned
1. Before heading out, check the cellphone for extreme weather alerts (there had been one early that morning, before there was even a thought of sailing!)
2. Tighten down with pliers the thumbscrew which keeps the sail slides in the sail track which comes down the mast
3. Always lower the keel before raising the sails
4. Before every anticipated mooring, get out the boat hook and have it handy
5. Before leaving the mooring, clear the cockpit of any excess gear
6. Get out life jackets and have them within easy reach
7. Put the emergency signaling horn in the cockpit “glove box”
8. Have a handheld VHF radio in the “glove box”
9. Eliminate, or secure, the gear in the cabin.