“I really don't know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it's because... we all came from the sea... all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea - whether it is to sail or to watch it - we are going back from whence we came." - John F. Kennedy, remarks at the Dinner for the America's Cup Crews, September 14 1962
On the third day we got a slow start. Greg ate leftover pizza for breakfast and I mixed some yoghurt with walnuts and homemade Meyer lemon marmalade. I took one last dip and then we got underway. Only one boat had intruded on our dominion over the bay. A man, his wife and their toddler sailed in the previous afternoon and then sailed out again as I was preparing dinner. We’d seen a few people on the beach. Otherwise, it was like we owned the place.
“I like Little Harbor,” said Greg as we weighed anchor and raised the sails, “I would definitely come here again.”
The breeze lasted a few hours, carrying us along at a decent clip to one of several points we had to clear that day. We were headed around to Avalon, and along the way we saw one whale, several dolphins and some sea lions. As we neared Church Rock at the island’s southernmost point, the waters clogged with fishing boats. Close in to shore, we saw a trimaran, half-submerged, it’s mast a-kilter, like someone had pulled it onto the beach but then forgotten about the tide. A speedboat passed us whose driver was dressed like a naval captain, complete with an admiral’s cap, and at his side sat a bikini-clad girl.
“I guess we’re closer to Avalon than I thought,” said Greg.
I made my second welcome drink of the trip, a combination of gin and my favorite blood orange soda, and minutes later we were rounding the bend into Avalon Harbor. We were assigned a mooring right next to the quay, and within minutes Greg was in the water, exploring.
Avalon harbor is enclosed on three sides and it faces north while the prevailing winds run west to east. You’d be hard-pressed to find a safer haven in southern California – except when a Santa Ana comes bearing straight down on it, which it did on New Year’s Eve. That night, with the harbor full of celebratory boaters, Avalon experienced even bigger Santa Ana winds than the ones Greg and I got caught in. Boats broke free from the moorings, at least one sank, another large motor vessel was beaten up against the breakwall and a harbor patrol officer lost his life trying to steer it clear. This is the account Greg forwarded me a few months ago from the Ericsson yacht forum.
We’ve discussed this situation several times: what would we have done in the same situation? It’s harrowing to think about.
Greg surfaced about a half hour later with some sort of Garmin electronic device in his hand. We stared at it like it might hold the key to a past civilization, or at least a story. Under the pilings Greg found large pieces of fiberglass from the boats that had been torn up, remnants of a dinghy and an engine. Now in cell phone range, Greg googled the name of the mysterious device. It was a dog locator. We laughed.
Lots of sailors fear – and even assume – that they will die at sea. Joshua Slocum, the first man to solo circumnavigate, was lost at sea. Eight of the 22 men onboard the whaleship Essex survived, but most of them died from… well, what is politely known as “the Custom of the Sea.” The indefatigable Tristan Jones, who holds nine sailing records and sailed more than 450,000 miles, assumed he would die at sea, but he did not. It’s a crapshoot, really.
I’m a big fan of sea survival stories like Adrift. I feel like every one of them teaches me some extra skill that may come in handy. I love the story about the lobsterman who fell off the back of his boat and managed to survive for twelve hours by using his rubber boots as a floatation device, and for that reason I often keep my rubber boots on at sea.
“What a horrible way to go,” said Greg when I told him about it. (He meant, if the lobsterman hadn’t survived.) But I’m not so certain. I’d rather be swallowed up by the sea, or, in my most romantic visions, by a whale – to me this sounds like ecstasy in comparison to a death in a small, airless hospital room surrounded by white noise.
That morning during dishes I read a passage from The Sea and the Wind that Blows by E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, who was a lifelong sailor and who, coincidentally (because I discovered it just before publishing this) who wrote part of J.F.K.’s obituary for the New Yorker.
“When does a man quit the sea?” White asks. “How dizzy, how bumbling must he be? Does he quit while he’s ahead or wait until he makes some major mistake, like falling overboard or being flattened by an accidental jibe?”
White contemplates selling his boat, because he says he’s gotten too old and even tired of the wind. He writes up the ad, but then questions that he means a word of it. “I know what will happen,” he continues, “there will be the old uneasiness, the old uncertainty, as the mild southeast breeze ruffles the cove, a gentle, steady morning breeze, bringing the taint of the distant wet world, the smell that takes a man back to the beginning of time, linking him to all that has gone before. There will lie the sloop, there will blow the wind, once more I will get underway.”
The rest of that day seemed to pass quickly and before we knew it, the sun was setting. Still full from lunch I made us a plate with fancy cheeses and crackers. It was a warm night. Only the faintest breeze ruffled the tops of the palm trees. We sat in the cockpit in the dark, eating the little panna cottas I had pre-made for dessert, looking out at the crowds of people walking along the breakwall where disaster had struck only a few months before.
At random times, the bells from the church on the hill would chime. To the right of us a couple on a powerboat ran their generator most of the night, and to the left a group of young men sat on their boat playing guitar and drinking. I longed to be back in Little Harbor, or getting underway for a longer voyage. The one thing I did not want was to go home.