WanderingDan’s Weblog

Helms alee!
September 29, 2008, 7:35 am
Filed under: Uncategorized



I approach the bus stop a little after 7 with my forty pound pack…ten of those being my laptop!  A lot of people are waiting for the same bus.  No surprise, since it’s rush hour in Los Angeles on a Monday morning.  The bus arrives, and the crabby driver yells at the commuters to move to the back so more people can get on.  Most of the riders are stoic, either lost in the world of their i-pod, or detailing other commuters like birds of prey.  I transfer buses at UCLA’s campus, and am pleasantly surprised by how pleasant the driver and passengers are on the second bus.  Even the bus itself is of a higher caliber.  What a difference between Santa Monica’s and L.A.’s bus systems!

After walking a mile and a half from where the second bus let me off, I make it to the school’s office.  Several people are already there, waiting, looking over books and other paperwork.  Most of them are around my age, a couple are older.  I check in, and re-experience the deficiency of customer service I endured last week.  Only this time it’s not from the receptionist, but the owner!  Whatever…I am determined to have a good experience learning to sail…I’ve been wanting to learn for years now.  I join the loitering group of men waiting for our instructor, chit-chatting a bit, but mostly just observing.  Soon Bob arrives, introducing himself as our instructor.  I don’t know what to think at first.  He is old…72 I will come to find out later.  Soon I can tell he is an endearing old man, not a salty crab-ass like my first bus driver this morning.  I take a liking to him right away.

I step onto a sailboat for the first time in my life.  We begin our sailing course going over basics terminology.  There are six of us in the class, which seems like a lot for one boat, but….whatever. Forrest and Steve are older…40’s and or 50’s, and Adam, Felix, Robert and I are in our 20’s and 30’s.  Bob is thorough, teaching us what the ASA requires, then what he thinks we really need to know.  Very pragmatic, and with 40 years of sailing experience, mostly here in Santa Monica Bay, I am all ears.  Asking Bob questions is difficult, since he is so hard of hearing.  You really have to yell.  It is a gorgeous day today, in the 80’s, sunny, light winds.  After going over some boat handling drills in the harbor, we head out to the ocean.  The winds pick up, and it is even a little chilly!  I have a grin glued to my face…this is soooo awesome!!!  I am at the helm of a 35 foot sailboat on a sunny day in southern California!  Wow!  We get back to the harbor, practice docking, stow the sails, clean up…day one is over.

Adam, the 27 year old firefighter from Seattle, and I go to happy hour at a place called Mercedes Cafe. Their enchiladas are incredible, up there with the best I’ve ever had.  We cruise down the boardwalk of Venice beach, which are stewn with tattoo parlors, beachwear and t-shirt vendors, and the smell of pot every few minutes.  One lady is standing mid-boardwalk with a clipboard trying to get us to go upstairs of an adjacent building and get our state medical marijuana card…we decline.  The sunset is gorgeous…I love California!

Adam continues to Santa Monica, but I decide to head back.  The combo on boat’s lock doesn’t work!  What?  For ten minutes I try to get the damn thing open…and start getting frustrated.  Finally I decide to crawl through the hatch we left cracked open, and into the dark cabin of the boat.  When I get inside, and finally figure how to turn the lights on, I look at the paperwork, and realize Bob gave us the wrong combo…he was one number off, mistaking a 7 for a 1.  I have to climb up back up and out of the boat and back around to the cockpit to open the lock…it opens…what a relief…now I don’t have to dismantle the entire locking mechanism!


Pete has been our instructor for the last two days of the first two courses.  His style is way different from Bob’s, and he filled in the gaps of questions that Bob couldn’t answer.  After taking and passing both ASA 101 & 103 tests, we go out for an afternoon sail.  As we approach the breakwater, we see big ground swells, bigger than anything we’ve sailed all week.  The boat feels like a floating rubber duckie in a rambunctious toddler’s bathtub as soon as we hit open sea.  With the wind pushing 15 knots and sailing on a beam reach (wind perpendicular to the boat), we are heeled over (tilting of ‘da boat to one side) quite a bit as well…close to 20 degrees! It is a wild ride!


The most amazing part of our trip out to Catalina was sailing through a pod of dolphins…at least a hundred of them.  They swam all around and underneath the boat, jumping playfully along side us…what an incredible sight!  No sooner does our new 104 class pull the Benettaeu 38′ into ‘Cat’ Harbor on the west side of Catalina Island do we start drinking.  I guess it’s sailor training as well?  Jason, our 32 year old teacher, tells us after our five hour motor-sailing trip from Marina del Rey, we deserve a beer…which turns into two…three for most everyone else.  I abstain, not that I’m opposed to states of inebriation, but just not a big fan of beer.  We finish off the drinks and take trips in the dinghy to bring everyone to shore.  Isthmus harbor is an unusual place for being only 30 miles off the coast of Los Angeles.  Harbors on either side are the parking lots…only a couple cars, but mostly people just walk to their destination.  Admittedly there aren’t really many destinations here…a restaurant, scuba rental shack, general store, a few homes, hiking trails, and a road leading up to Avalon, Catalina’s only ‘real’ town.  Perhaps it is this state of relative simplicity that lends Isthmus its peaceful serenity…sort of like a YMCA or boy scout camp for grown-ups.  The lone restaurant and bar is packed.  We opt to sit in the bar area, because it’s open to the outside and less stuffy.  A dozen or so people are dancing to a DJ when we arrive.  By the time the six of us put away our first drink and the food starts arriving, that number doubles…and keeps growing until the dance area is packed.  The DJ is pretty good, playing a nice variety of songs you can actually dance to.  After three drinks…five if you include the two beers on the boat, I’m getting a little happy.  Normally I don’t get up and dance if I don’t know anybody, but as soon as the DJ plays ‘In the Mood’, I make a bee line for the dance floor, and find the first lady who looks like she wants a dance partner.  Once upon a time I knew how to swing dance to some relative degree of proficiency, but not so much anymore.  A few basic moves, further inhibited by alcohol-impaired coordination, and I am no more than a happy, bumbling soul awkwardly spinning Julie (so she says her name is) around the dance floor.  I’m not exactly Rico Suave here tonight, sunburnt face, ragged hippie clothes, with a bandana.  Yeah baby!  Given what must be my scary appearance, Julie ditches me after a couple dances back to her group of friends celebrating one of their birthdays.  I stagger back to my seat, and before long realize someone is ordering me another drink…okay.

We thought it was a bunch of crap that the office put 6 guys in a 38 foot boat for the weekend. Being somewhat claustrophobic, I opt to sleep outside on the deck, under the boom.  Fortunately my sleeping bag is sufficiently warm, and the stars are incredible!  I haven’t seen the Milky Way this clearly in years.  It is like camping…on a boat!


Jason split us up into two groups after breakfast, taking turns going to shore and getting a thorough class on the boat’s systems.  Adam, Mark, and I are in the first class, while Klaus and Alfie go ashore.  We spend a couple hours learning about the plumbing systems, diesel engine, blah blah blah.  We finish a bit early, and decide to motor offshore 3 miles to dump our holding tanks, because apparently whoever chartered the boat before failed to do so, and we didn’t know it was literally full of decaying excrement until after pulling into Catalina last night.  On the way out of the harbor we see a middle aged couple in a dinghy right next to what looks like an overturned catamaran…wait… that’s not a catamaran, it’s a 40 foot power boat that is just about done sinking into the harbor!  Holy crap!  The bow pulpit is barely poking up…oh man, that really sucks!  Mark says he remembers seeing it last night when we were coming in, and admiring its aesthetics.  Whoa, how often do you see something like that happening.  After this incident, we all start buggin’ when on the way out to empty the tanks the engine starts getting very hot.  Jason looks concerned that the temp is pushing 210 degrees.  On the way back after dumping the tanks the engine temperature alarm goes off…a constant high-pitched squeel.  I can see Jason is freaking out a bit.  There is no wind today, and our engine is ready to crap out.  We are all crossing our fingers the boat will make it back to the harbor.  Before arriving we have already…okay, more Jason than we…started trouble shooting what is wrong.  First suspect is a bad impeller in the raw water cooling system.  We take it apart, expecting a gnarly, corroded blade, and are surprised to find it is brand new.  I am closest to the engine compartment, so Jason has me check the raw water filter…looks clean.  My next task was to take off the hose from the filter to the valve at the through-hull.  I finally get the damn thing off, fighting both a hose clamp and a bunch of silicone adhesive.  Inside the hose is full of seaweed…mystery solved!  After handing Jason a handful of seaweed, I start trying to get the rest out of the valve area.  I use a bent coat-hanger wire…helps a little, but not enough.  I recommend clearing it from the outside of the boat.  Jason digs around a little while and comes to the same conclusion.  “Okay” Jason says “who wants to volunteer to dive under the boat and clear the blockage?”  Understand, last night before we went to bed there were talks about sharks patrolling these waters (at night), and sea lions which can be nasty as well.  “I’ll do it!” says I…always up for an adventure.  We don’t have a mask on board, so Adam gets in the dinghy and sees if one of the neighboring boats does.  In the meantime I have changed into my swim shorts and try doing it first without the mask.  The water is not cold like Oregon water, but not super warm either…maybe 70 degrees.  I try, but can’t see much opening my eyes under the water.  Adam comes back with a mask…unfortunately they are prescription goggles!  Oh well, I put them on and dive back under the boat…this time finding the seaweed filled hole and successfully clearing it.  There is much rejoicing.  We laugh at the irony of this experience of troubleshooting a real engine problem on the day we are scheduled to learn all about the diesel engine.


Aside from dodging huge freight ships in the shipping lanes, the return trip from Catalina was pretty uneventful.  I am back in Van Nuys now…and it feels kind of strange.  Being on the water the last 8 days felt so natural, and now being on solid land is a little foreign.  When I sit down the room sways back and forth.  There is a serenity to the sea that can’t be duplicated.  I want to go back.  I want to keep sailing.


2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Looks like you’re having a great time!!! You guys didn’t use a ‘danforth’ anchor did you?

Comment by Dan

we did actually, in the last class!

Comment by wanderingdan

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