Gratitude Sails South

Sailing vessel Gratitude was underway with three crew by fifteen hundred hours on March 25th. In the first hours the Hylas 46 motored westbound with the ebbing tide toward the Golden Gate Bridge. An overcast sky began to open up and beyond on the Pacific Ocean there appeared the telling detail of a faint blue clearing dusk sky.

Steering desire south

An hour beyond the Golden Gate the flood tide met and forced the ebb into turbulent surrender. Sailors mark the moment their boat breaks free of the San Francisco Bay’s tidal influence, now 12 miles west of Emeryville we make the turn, now the sailing vessel Gratitude is southbound.

By sunset we were 24 miles from home port off Half Moon Bay. My first watch would begin during the early hours of tomorrow, I was to report by zero-three-hundred, this sailor was off to his bunk.

Each of us would stand our watch alone in the darkness of night on a pitch black ocean to spend these hours keeping our other crew safe from mishap or surprise.

Coffee was waiting, I checked the chartplotter to fix the vessels position, heading and speed. On deck secure in the center cockpit I began my watch in water between 3500 to 6500 feet in depth.

South by sailboat

On the Monterey Peninsula Point Pinos Light was visible— every 4 four seconds the oldest continuously operated lighthouse on the west coast flashed through its original Fresnel lens— this crucial mariner’s guide was first placed into operation in 1855— Steinbeck would be proud.

Above were the stars and planets, on the shore Point Lobos was veiled in darkness, a fog bank hung above on the Carmel Highlands and then between was rising a crescent moon that soon vanished into fog.

Our seas mood shifted with the arrival of fog, into this our vessel plunged into an ever colder darkness, the stars vanished, dew dripped from the rigging and canvas, two distinct ocean swells followed us, one from a western edge the other from the shore, together the stern of our boat would swing side to side, then up and down, a kind of corkscrewing without a full turn.

By zero-six-hundred-hours dawn was grudging in its muted arrival, the chill of morning was the worst damp kind of cold, this the kind that cuts through shoes and gloves, nothing could keep out the bite of the ocean air.

The skipper stirred and checked the chartplotter, course is important to confirm, position and speed confirmed Gratitude remained on schedule— speed and distance told us this coastal passage would take 46 hours.

A safe passage for the sailing vessel Gratitude meant our being off the water and in port before a western Pacific cold front whipped its tail and churned up seas and wind into small craft warning chaos.

Our course kept us 20 miles from shore. The continent hidden by fog was more theory than fact, we knew land was there, but the clouds had veiled the steep Santa Lucia Mountains of the Big Sur Coast.

Radar set to 25 miles indicated we were alone on a raucous building sea. A boisterous Point Sur would have its say, it is quite the talker this one— Gratitude and crew followed the rules of self preservation and listened to her every word. Crew do not leave the safety of the cockpit for any reason other than to trim sails, and then we clip on with a tether, every duty attended to was concentrated on keeping the boat speeding south— the self steering system, the sails, no detail went overlooked, first among first’s keep the boat moving at speed, do not tempt the mighty Sur, not here, do not linger for muse, be respectful, bend to this coastal contour and give this untamable lion of the west coast room to roar, we pass southbound through her domain, eternity has left its signpost here, there are no do-overs, you get to be with her then go north or south with eyes wide open.

Best of all the wind was off our stern, blowing us southbound, the worst of it was the sea state was disorganized and unruly, moving about on board took care, there would be no quick recovery, here was this exquisite place to do what you must without error or misjudgment. Motorcyclists know what I mean. These are moments when self-preservation is in play, and that is a good thing for those who can observe fates unbending rules.

Our daylight hours ended as we passed well offshore of Morro Bay. From here the coast veers eastward, the course south was our plot and sailboat’s storyline. Night gripped us again. Winds had subsided, seas began to grow less turbulent, again into the night the vessel Gratitude’s bow cut its way south sending its wake into as inconsequential a wake as a butterfly’s wings upon a garden’s pollen saturated air.

Crew ate supper. Each member took his turn at watch, when off you curled up in your sleeping bag to get warm.

I woke in time to see our vessel approach Pt Arguello. Seas were near flat but a southerly breeze swept up along this piece of coastline from Point Conception. My skipper remained on watch to steady his second mate’s nerves. To our west the oil platforms stood lighted in a dark night. Vessel traffic targets appeared on radar. Gratitude would make quick work here of transiting between these two infamous coastal landmarks.

We made our turn west for Santa Barbara. The gods would not be done with Gratitude quite yet, there was still meddle of nerve and nautical judgment to test. Seas were not sizable but they were to our disadvantage, and in the sailor’s vernacular described as square. Square waves two feet in height and two seconds apart hit us right on the nose, in this instance we would tussle with waves growing to 4 feet, short steep surface chop, the short intervals gave the waves a great advantage over our ability to make our way.

Wind was expected to pickup after sunrise but remained in the high teens with gusts to 26 knots, the gusts were seldom, we placed the fate of our plan in the wind remaining somewhere around 18 knots. Setting our sails on either port or starboard made little difference, on one tack or the other the square waves slowed the boat just when all due speed was hoped for.

Crew and skipper tinkered with various pointing strategies, the boat pounded against the waves, progress was hard to make, crew was uncomfortable and Gratitude was struggling to move with efficiency. Outbound 40 hours now we were not more than six hours to our destination if we could solve this puzzle of sea state and wind.

Decisively we pointed west toward the Channel Islands and for more than an hour tried to make our way west doing our best to not to let the hull pound against the rising sea. We tacked back over to starboard, this time pointing south and west trying by steering to not let the waves beat on the hull, here is where a good helmsman earns his bowl of soup and chest sized tattoos.

By noon of Sunday we were one hour from the 46 hours we would need to complete our 300 miles south to Santa Barbara. Calls were sent to the Santa Barbara Yacht Club. A guest dock was secured, by zero-thirteen-hundred-hours the vessel Gratitude’s crew tied her lines to the dock.

Centered in image is Gratitude in Santa Barbara

Safe and in port tucked behind the breakwater we took showers then to nearby restaurants where we could eat warm food, taking a nip now and again, awaiting the arrival of Monday’s storm.

Wednesday we sail bringing Gratitude home to the California Yacht Club, this will be her new berth in Marina del Rey. From this harbor Gratitude will be set to sail to Santa Catalina Island, a whole season of warm weather sailing round trip, first to the island then back to the mainland, most sails will be on winds that allow the boat to reach at speed more often than not upon tranquil seas.

Summer nights out on Catalina Island aboard Gratitude, they come earned by passage— then that moment arrives and warm soft island air lights upon your skin— you are the one place you never had counted on missing, like lost love, like the end of your childhood, like the first time you rode your bike with just two wheels, like swallows, by instinct there is this winged return, and return again, it is in this cove on this island where you can’t miss and most want to belong.


Jigger of Gin Lessons

Sipping wine on the foredeck as an afternoon sun settles into the mists of the San Francisco skyline. Commuters bound home from work to scatter about in the East Bay and further. Bill Evans playing with his trio, recording from 1959 connects long ago to a less frantic present day.

List of chores is short. I’d had to do some cleaning of my battery terminals; electrics aboard keep a sailor busy. Then a walk along the shoreline. The walk is for our health, the shoreline views for a place to cast our imagination. I’ve been upping my game trying to walk 5 miles a day. Breaking it into two helpings.

On mooring ball at Avalon

Some days I’m gassed, other days there is not enough time. Then there are those other days where not a lick of ambition can be summonsed. Fixing the little things today, nothing too challenging please. Deck and topsides are ready to be washed. Next sunny day a coat of varnish over my teak rails, there is not much brightwork and with a few new coats next week I’ll be good until late summer.

I’m crewing south aboard a friend’s sailboat— it is a Hylas 46’ we depart as weather allows at the end of March. We’ll run off the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The only must stop while sailing south is Santa Barbara. Not stopping would be an injustice to self-indulgence. True we remain stuck in the tricky terrain that the pandemic has wrought. That bit of misfortune may well be in a lull by then, perhaps all of us might be able to venture out, maybe the worst will be behind us. It’s not just harbor hopping but then there is the lost art of the pub crawl, a slice of pizza and liar’s dice.

We received much needed rain and snow last month. A few inconsequential days of drizzle since. Water managers can only hope it keeps raining. So far since, that has been all hope. Sailing in winter is spotty. San Francisco can be clear and calm, the dead of winter, not a breath, not even a wisp, sailing is futile. We’ll motor over to Clipper Cove to anchor out overnight. On anchor is where we do our best sleeping. A sailboat rocking with its hook set sure will induce the deepest sleep. Other times it can be a burden, the wind kicks up and you’ve got to get out of your bunk to be sure the anchor is holding. San Francisco Bay is mostly mud and anchors dig in easily, but there is eel grass in some spots and cutting through and getting the anchor to bite then hold can take more than a few tries.

Smuggler’s Cove dead ahead

Once untied from the dock the boat is your responsibility to sail, anchor, to get from one harbor to another, one island to the next, up the coast to the next port, down the coast where you might drop the hook in a shallow protected anchorage. The reason sailors keep such a close eye on the weather is to avoid being punished by cold rain or gale force winds. The rain is just miserable a full gale can become existential. Dodging squalls and other nautical hazards requires less due-diligence in this the modern era of satellite weather imagery. Then, up and down the coast the telemetry comes in from the US Coast Guards weather buoys strategically placed off the coast. Forecasting is something apart from current conditions, but there are plenty of marine weather forecasters to choose from, and as ever be careful, choose wisely.

The sail south in the Hylas I expect will go off without a hitch. I know the boat, know what maintenance the boat has been given, what parts replaced, what safety equipment she comes fit out with. I know the skipper, he’s an experienced ocean sailor, by training an engineer, his passion for sailing means that he gives a lot of time to the sport. His navigational skills are first rate, his understanding of his own sailboat is comprehensive, and the skipper needs to be on top of his boats many systems, a Hylas 46’ is a much more complicated machine than my 36’ Jeanneau sloop. Gratitude is a cruising sailboat, she’s outfitted with a big headsail, then a staysail and a roller furling main. If it gets nasty nobody need risk working up forward on the deck. With little effort sails can be furled from the safety of the cockpit.

Morning coffee at Prisoner’s Harbor

Off the coast we’ll steer a course south that keeps us well off the shoreline by 10 miles or more. In reduced visibility of night or fog we’ll run radar and the Automatic Identification System (AIS). Both show up on the chartplotter display. If we feel it prudent the AIS gives us the name of the vessel we are approaching and if need be we can hail them on the marine band radio to confirm our course and that they can see us too.

If you get too far off the coast, you’ll end up in the shipping lanes where the big craft are transiting north and south along the coast. Best to steer clear of the commercial traffic as the craft move much faster and there is risk of collision. Having a 500-ton container ship closing on you and not knowing if they see you or not is one of sailings least pleasant vulnerabilities.

All four crew will be responsible for standing watch. The boat will steer itself with the autopilot, but then there is confirming the boat is remaining on course and that there are no vessels nearby. Sometimes the wind kicks up and a sail change is necessary. That usually involves getting the skipper on deck as it is his decision how the boat’s sails are set.

Once off watch there is food to make, reading to be done, and sleep to be had. The sound of water parting at the bow and then the wake rolling off through the swells. I like the sense of harmony that is provoked, how the boat works and strains against the swell and wind, how the simple task of moving a boat from one harbor to the next satisfies some kind of sailor hunger for netting breeze into a sail, departures can be mundane where almost always the arrival portends some measure of contentment.

Anchoring alone off the Channel Islands is always evocative of arriving at some place time has been kind to, something far from ordinary, something simple yet rare, so distant from the mainland it has been left unmolested, it is raw and less altered, this wildness is a distinct pleasure of a kind.  

Planning is underway to bring a sailboat from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to San Francisco, California. I have been following along as the sail plans are drawn up. There is some piracy off Vietnam, that’s one hazard. Typhoon season isn’t a concern. Still, to cross the Pacific a sailboat would sail north 3000 miles to Japan and then go further north and west nearer to Alaska than Hawaii for another 5100 ocean miles to San Francisco.

A Seawind 1260 is a 41’ performance catamaran, the speed is calculated to average about 8 knots. Portion of this sail are upwind; this is harder adding time and distance to the passage. Crunching the numbers, it looks to be at minimum 40 plus days and more likely at least 50. I’m enjoying viewing the planning of this trip while far more likely to be tied to a mooring ball in Avalon off Santa Catalina Island waiting for the catamaran’s arrival in San Francisco.

Avalon Santa Catalina Island

Sailing the North Pacific Ocean in summer is the right time, but low pressure systems are common up at these higher latitudes, then there are gale winds and tall seas that make for an arduous time at sea. Usually, smaller craft either deploy sea anchors, a device something like a horizontal parachute, or a device called a drogue that is dragged from the stern to slow a speeding boat being pushed too fast by a strong blow. All of this is ordinary blue water sailing. A skilled crew would have its work cut out, at sea for 50 days plus your odds are good that you will be overtaken by squalls and gales, seas in the North Pacific would be mountainous at times, you would definitely know you had been to sea and lucky to have made it through.

Sailing off the coast of California means you might be underway for 2 to 4 days, sailing closer to shore if weather deteriorates you can run for shelter at the nearest harbor where you can wait out the heavy weather. Full on ocean passages are another level higher in difficulty. Then there is the reality of being out to sea for nearly two months and that is for most sailors of small craft a very lengthy period of time. I know I’m more than qualified to sail to Avalon, and I do make a pretty good martini, shaken not stirred, prefer it up not over, use more vermouth than the average slinger. I could go, but it might be the wiser thing to let the wilder younger rascals have at this. I’ll make a martini now and give this halfway around the world passage further consideration. I’m not unaccustomed to dropping everything, packing my suitcase, grabbing my sleeping bag and signing up for a year on the road with a circus, and that was a whole year, this would be done start to finish within two months, give or take a brush with death or in fact actually being killed by unforeseen circumstances─ now, where did I put that jar of olives─


First timer goes North

Avalon August 2018

Avalon kept tugging at my wanting. How balmy tranquility tucked into a snug harbor on a mooring ball becomes a summer fling you cannot jilt. Before dinner we motor to the dinghy dock and walk Pebbly Beach Road out and back to Lovers Cove. We slip into the Lobster Trap for dinner and drinks. After we take the dink back to our sloop and dig into our bunk. This is how the want of a never ending summer on Santa Catalina Island ruins a good for nothing sailor.

Long range weather forecasts were pressing on my timeline. I had purchased the services of Passage Weather to route my 1997 Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 36.2 north to San Francisco Bay. The professional router advised moving north 100 miles to Santa Barbara to take advantage of a window that once closed he warned may not open again for weeks.

From Avalon our first leg was north to Marina del Rey. We dropped guests off. The following morning, we motored west to Channel Island Harbor. Late in the afternoon we hoisted sails and powered into steep chop, motoring would have been arduous. Pushing off from the guest slip after getting groceries we sailed to Santa Cruz Island taking a route south of Anacapa Island. Running out of sunlight we set our anchor in Prisoners Harbor. A rookie mistake by the way, I’d passed Smugglers Cove, while here there was a swell wrapping around the headlands making the night uncomfortable. For all that bit of hell on anchor at sunrise we aimed precisely magnetic north to Santa Barbara. Every mile north is hard earned.

Eileen returned to Los Angeles by train. That late afternoon a crewmate arrived to help bring the boat back to San Francisco. Provisioning as men without spouses are wanting to do is accomplished without the divine guidance of our better halves.

After dinner I was on the phone back to Passage Weather confirming forecasts remained unchanged and that I should depart at dawn and point west up the coast to Cojo Anchorage.

Afternoon breezes filled in, the last 8 miles the sloop beat into a raucous windblown whitecapped chop. A sunny blue sky brushed with brilliant white clouds aided morale, the pounding against the sea was met with good cheer.

Point Conception, fortress like, impermeable, impassable, almost impossible loomed in our worried minds. Banging into a blustery afternoon to anchor at her entrance acting out a dress rehearsal for the big show that was schedule to open at dawn tomorrow.

The weather router followed our progress tracking us with the AIS transponder aboard. Connectivity in Cojo is plenty good. That evening my router texted, “Sweet Seas, departing first light, no matter the conditions hoist anchor and be underway by 0600.” 

The weather router had urged me in Santa Barbara while speaking on the telephone to put trust in his sailing instructions and depart as planned, to not freeze up and remain on anchor in the morning at Cojo. I remember his last words, “Conditions may seem extreme when you depart, but they are forecast to moderate before increasing in the afternoon when a small craft advisory is scheduled to go up. You must leave as planned. Is that understood?”

By this time in the trip, I had put 800 coastal miles under my keel. Near all had been sailed reaching and running. Ahead, the uphill challenge, saving the stoutest part of the voyage for the end, forced to confront the Pacific Ocean dead on the nose, addicted and softened by lulling about in Avalon I had time to imagine all manner of sailing catastrophe, seasickness and profound regret for having ever dared to believe I could get my moderate displacement sloop safely north to home port. “What were you thinking?” I could never quite shake off the bite of doubt.


Former Emeryville Yacht Club commodore Linny Martinson and her husband Marty aboard Perspective had been on a mooring ball north of us in San Luis Rey Harbor. As we arrived in Cojo they departed south for Santa Barbara. Winds in our rigging were howling, the noise kept me awake, I was up and down in my bunk, I tracked Perspectives progress by AIS and when they arrived off Point Arguello radioed Linny about 0300 hours, to get an update on sea state and wind pressure. Marty was asleep below. Linny at the helm running downwind reported 30 knots with gusts even higher. Making good progress by 0500 hours I stood on deck spotting their navigation lights as they passed running downwind bound for Santa Barbara.

I ate a bowl of oatmeal, another cup of coffee, I swallowed more Dramamine. My routers voice ringing in my ears, “no matter the conditions, hoist anchor, you must leave as planned.”

At first light, 0600 hours we got the hook up, trimmed the shortened sails to close hauled heading west out like lambs into the teeth of Point Conception. Never tacking, sails drawn in tight, traveler eased. By 0830 hours we were eighteen miles offshore careful to stay away from the oil rigs. Chop was short and steep, swell was to 6’, winds had been easing all morning and now blew steady at 22 knots gusting enough to test my faith in what a clevis pin could withstand. Crew had found their sea legs, we were holding up, we remained tentative, on guard but in good spirits. Tacking over now we headed north for the first time since Santa Barbara close hauled the bow pointing high in the gusts, enough I could tell that we would clear Point Arguello. By noon we were making our way back to San Francisco in the firm hand of a fair blow and lively but manageable seaway.

Northbound with Crew at Helm

All the morning Sweet Seas had sped close hauled to her homeport at over 6 knots. Much of the afternoon was spent reaching toward the Bay of San Luis Obispo, sheets were eased by Lompoc, the boat rising and falling, a hefty steepening swell on the beam, the trim sloop plunging ahead romping, on this point of sail she was making good progress, a steady 8.5 knots.

Taking a mooring ball at San Luis Rey Harbor by 1600 hours we had completed the 60-mile passage in 10 hours. Exhausted but exhilarated, I recorded in my log that Sweet Seas had been generous to her crew providing us with an unforgettable day of high intensity sailing.

A weary but chatty crew spent the night drinking a bit of the Irish, making dinner, raving about our days sail, going over the charts, preparing for tomorrows 24 mile jump north.

As the most experienced sailor aboard, I had to be the skipper of record if my claim to bringing my boat north was to hold up, if I could prove by firsthand experience that I could muster the skill and stamina. I would need more time at sea with her to learn more, to grow my confidence, to test our relationship. The boat is a good one, this sloop wants the same as she gives—treat me with skill, pull on my lines, I will take you where you wish, I’m eager to go, I’m fresh and fast, today you made your boat happy, today something has changed, I won’t soon forget…   (Pause)

Books · Performances

Don’t Cry for Me, Catalina

Catalina Four

Paddle Board- Bikini- Beach

Sailing from San Francisco to Avalon, this was the long planned passage, a tribal escapade, journeying to the harbor of the living-breathing Santa Catalina Island—- a offshore destination where exists an alter paced island ambience— the much admired oak barrel aged amber liquids bottled and called booze, in all things swaddled in near nothingness called a bikini; mingling amidst the sun-gilded bronzed visitors and residents who have by happenstance roved here to this storied island— separated by nothing more than mist and fog bank—- one half-day’s sail from the buzzing Southern California megalopolis— where by arm’s-length from the mainland reside the formidable sum of forty million of western civilizations quirky and traffic hazed.

Catalina Six

Running with the Big Dogs

I pet my peoples dogs, admired their dinghies. I relished the glorious knowing transcendence, our group-oversharing, our unyielding sanguinity— a fair-weather native birthright, people tested in gridlock but unbent (until fenders have clashed,) a citizenry resplendently aglow with a can-do- window tinted willingness to rise against all ill-tempered obstacles identified as too hot or too cold. All our thermal moderation, all evidence of material insufficiency, all former physical attributes once celebrated as character traits vanished by American Express fueled scalpel and suture. This is not self-help on steroids, this is what only a modern day banking system- financialized surgeon enhanced imagination can buy. Chins, cheeks and noses are chiseled into appealing compliance. Veneers for teeth, fitness centers for a cursory quick do over of gut or bicep. Hair and nail salons are cheek to jowl from Yreka to El Centro. My people start the day in circuit training end the day on a yoga mat. Kale salad and our first of two hibiscus infused martini’s are sipped at sunset with more often than not a second or third present-life-partner. The brilliant oranges and atmospherically moody ozone and carbon enhanced reds bring to climax another Left Coast Topanga Canyon sunset.

Lacey in July

Performing the Mightiest Little of Dogs

My sailing began on the Alameda Estuary. In 1980 I had come off the road from constant touring. I had weathered five years out of state crisscrossing the nation chasing dates playing my juggling act to infinitesimally diminutive audiences. I heard the call of home. Born in Oakland and raised in the Bay Area. Northern California of the seventies and yet to be written eighties was fern bars, funk bands doused in magnums of Napa sparkling wine. We were the world’s glitzy, garrulous— glamorously libidinous. A person born in California tested the complex multidimensional iterations of the sprawling romantic endeavor described more or less as love.

Catalina Seven

Summer Winds

Decades, children, homes all came and went. Some vanished, some were sold and some simply moved out. All the while I was playing the streets of Fisherman’s Wharf a swelling population compounded like some interest bearing retirement account. The long wet winters are memory. A dryer and warmer climate has taken hold. We don’t much like to do dreary, wet or cold. It’s so awful we invented Palm Springs to help the most averse among us to not have to ever have to suffer such inconvenience.

Catalina Two

Cozy Lagoons Nestled in Hillsides of Prickly Pear

And to this leading edge of all that is left of the era of enlightenment, as we all sort through the digital catastrophe, the computer chip disrupted economic rollercoaster madcap E-ticket ride to mostly rags or in some few circumstances riches here at this island outpost I arrive to take measure of my fellow countrymen. I am here to shoot my curiosity arrows into the heart of others minds, to gauge temperament, to discern what remains of what we have in common. In less than one year three historic sized conflagrations have leveled thousands of buildings, terminated the lives of good people helping to shape the expectations of what Tesla, lithium and solar panels can bring to our fragile future. Dusk is spent rocking gently at anchor. I see you fellow citizens. I see your spirit, I see our challenge. I want to shake your hand, hold you in my arms and convince you that we can do this. Together, we can do this, starting here and starting now. Come September and my return to my harbor… it is time.

Edited Red Star