Tag Archives: sailing

Escape to Santa Cruz!

On Sunday, September 16th, my wife and I took a quick day trip to a whole new world: from our suburban home in Woodland Hills to the island of Santa Cruz – the largest of the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. Santa Cruz lies in the Santa Barbara Channel a mere 67 miles from our home in the western end of the San Fernando Valley.

The 42-mile drive to the harbor in Ventura took us less than an hour. We arrived at the Island Packers dock where our boat was waiting to carry us to Santa Cruz.

Victoria took a seat on the upper deck of the Island Packers boat, gazing out at the collection of vessels in Ventura Harbor.

We headed out of the harbor shortly after 2:00 PM. I’ve sailed out of Ventura Harbor many times, but not often aboard a boat of this size.

The pilothouse on the upper deck of the boat with the captain at the controls.

As we raced across the Santa Barbara Channel, a thick marine layer cast a hazy shroud over the islands in the distance. Santa Cruz is 25 miles off the California coast, and we covered that distance across a flat, grey ocean in less than an hour. (See map above.)

As we neared Santa Cruz, the foggy marine layer was burning off…

…and the island was finally revealed in brilliant sunshine.

The closer we got to the island, the more the colors came out. The water became more blue and the island more golden and inviting as we approached the cliffs near the Scorpion anchorage on the eastern end of the island. (See map above.)

The Island Packers crew prepares to dock at the Scorpion anchorage.

The approached the dock at the Scorpion anchorage, where a pair of metal ladders stood ready for us to disembark.

A short dirt path leads from the anchorage to the former sheep ranch buildings that now serve as the visitor’s center and headquarters for this unit of the National Park Service. (Yep, the 5 westernmost Channel Islands are a National Park!)

A couple hundred yards from the anchorage, the building of the former sheep ranch came into view.

Old rusted farm equipment provides mute testimony to the brief agricultural history of the island. For about 150 years from the 1830’s through the 1980’s, sheep ranching was the dominant industry on the island.

Victoria stands next to the old farm building that is now the National Park visitor center.

Victoria and I pause along the trail that rises above the visitor center. We only had about 40 minutes to explore before the boat was scheduled to return to Ventura. (We could have taken a much earlier voyage out of Ventura, but inspiration hit us too late in the morning.)

The trail rose quickly and the view was stunning. You can see our boat waiting at anchor below the cliff.

Victoria marches up the trail. Behind Vic, the mountains give a sense of low large the island is: 22 miles long and from 2 to 6 miles wide.

Victoria pauses at a particularly picturesque overlook to – what else? – take a picture.

Here’s another view from Victoria’s perch looking east above the Scorpion anchorage.

Heading back to the boat, Victoria spotted an island fox: a species that is native to six of the eight Channel Islands. (Vic earned her merit badge for the day.) I managed to shoot some footage of this cute, red-hued predator as it made its way through the chaparral.

We lined up on the dock to board the boat for our return trip – along with dozens of campers and day-trippers. It would be a far more crowded ride back to Ventura.

As I waited on the dock for everyone to climb down the two ladders onto the boat, I had plenty of time to study the gorgeous coastline.

Take a moment to enjoy the gentle lapping of the waves on the pebbled beach.

Now, take another moment to enjoy the hypnotic swaying of the kelp and other ocean vegetation along the coast.

With the boat’s cabin crowded with returning campers, hikers, snorkelers and kayakers – Victoria takes windy refuge on the bow of the boat.

It was a great trip to Santa Cruz Island: a brief excursion to a whole ‘nother world that’s not too far away.

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The Matey’s Log: The Hardway 2011

From the time that man first fashioned craft to ply the deep waters, hardy folk have braved the dangers of the sea for sustenance – risking the roiling waves for the bounty the oceans provide.

Others have taken to the sea for exploration and conquest, striking out for unknown shores to discover new lands and plant their flags upon them.

Others go down to the sea in ships for sport, to test themselves against the fickle and ferocious elements of wind and water, to ride the exhilarating edge of speed and danger in a fast boat, sails full of howling wind, the taut rigging straining, cracking on, bow waves drenching the gunnels as they race through the swell.

Master Eric and his father Joe the Ancient Mariner in Santa Barbara Harbor.

The men of Misfit number themselves among the latter category of sailors. And that is why Captain George Moll, Master Eric Schlageter and a crew of six intrepid adventurers gathered on the dock at the harbor in Santa Barbara, California on the morning of Saturday, May 14, 2011: to take part in The 31st Annual Hardway Race, sponsored by the Pierpont Bay Yacht Club.

The Hardway Race is the first installment of the 12th annual Island Series, a set of three races that feature voyages to the nearby Channel Islands.

To go “The Hardway” means to race from Santa Barbara to Ventura Harbor by going around Santa Cruz Island – a journey of 67 nautical miles.

Master foc'sl'man Claude enjoys a celebratory cigar before we shove off.

I’ve been living in the Los Angeles area for two decades, and I’ve raced with Captain George in the Santa Barbara Channel for several years now – but I’d never sailed around the backside of Santa Cruz – so I was excited to be in this race. It’s wonderful to be able to explore exotic, unseen lands so close to home. I’ve sailed around Santa Cruz’s nearest island neighbor, Anacapa, many times. Anacapa is always a stunning sensory treat with its jagged shoreline, steep, rugged cliffs and zillions of seabirds. But going around Santa Cruz was going to be something special. Somewhere I’d never been before.

We motored toward the starting line, where the other boats in our class were jockeying for position prior to our 11:00 am start time. At 35-feet long, Misfit was among the smallest of the boats contending in the spinnaker class that had chosen to go “The Hardway” around Santa Cruz. Indications were that the wind would be up, so the Captain ordered us into our foul weather gear from the jump. When you see Eric’s dad, Joe the Ancient Mariner, donning his foulies, you’d best follow his veteran example. If Joe thinks we’re gonna get wet – we’re in for soaking.

Master Eric steered us to a great start and we got off the line, neck and neck with “Dr. Laura” Schlessinger’s magnificent racing vessel, Katana. With her much longer waterline, Katana soon began to pull ahead, as did another larger racing yacht, Prevail. But we could tell by the pace we kept with those longer boats that we had a chance to win this race if the wind – and our luck – held. (Wind and luck being the two biggest critical variables in sailboat racing.)

Within two hours sailing, we neared the western point of Santa Cruz Island at a speed of 8-10 knots. Luckily, a huge container ship crossed our bow about a half-mile ahead of us. At least one of the leading boats was not as lucky — and had to diminish speed to steer around the container ship.

We had a similar experience with an oceangoing barge approaching Anacapa on my first Hardway Race two years ago, so I was glad to see that container ship pass safely in the distance.

As we made the Santa Cruz headland, I was greeted with a sight I had not expected: there were two more islands in the distance beyond Santa Cruz: Santa Rose and San Miguel. I’d never seen either of these westernmost Channel Islands before, and it was a thrilling discovery.

I had not realized that the western end of Santa Cruz’s backside was actually a channel between two islands, and the choppy and confused currents that bounced and swelled between the two islands is known to local sailors and fishermen as “The Potato Patch.”

Once out of The Potato Patch, the northerly winds died a little as we passed under the lee of the imposing cliffs and mountains of Santa Cruz.

Between jibes, as we sought the shifting winds, I got a good look at the magnificence of Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz was once the largest privately owned island in the nation, but now its jointly owned by the National Park service (which owns 24%) and the Nature Conservancy (which owns 76%). 22 miles long and from 2 to 6 miles wide, it’s the largest of the eight islands in the Channel Islands chain.

Steep, sea-battered cliffs, surf-filled caves, and a few sandy beaches make the coastline of Santa Cruz well worth the voyage.

Rising above it all is the high ground known as Devils Peak, the highest prominence on the island at 2,450 feet.

Geno in the cockpit with the sea cliffs of Santa Cruz rising behind him.

Archaeologists tells us that humans have been visiting (and living on) Santa Cruz Island for at least 9,000 years – most notably the Chumash Indian tribe, who lived on the island and traded with the mainland Chumash population.

The Chumash had it to themselves until Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo showed up in the Channel Islands in 1542, planted the Spanish flag, lost his leg, and died. Cabrillo and his crew did not come ashore on Santa Cruz, though he named the island San Lucas.

Sebastián Vizcaíno led the last Spanish expedition to check out the Channel Islands in 1602. Vizcaino’s map named Santa Cruz the Isla de Gente Barbuda (“island of the bearded people”), and in 1822, the last of those “bearded people”, the Chumash, left Santa Cruz Island for the Catholic missions on the mainland.

We were just about to leave the vicinity of Santa Cruz ourselves at about 4:00 pm, flying a spinnaker and ripping along at 12 knots with the Eastern headland of Santa Cruz in sight – when nautical hubris got the best of us, and we were overpowered, rounded up – and knocked down!

For those who are not salty enough to appreciate what it means to be “knocked down” — here’s a simple illustration.

This is the normal profile of a sailboat, heeled over in the wind, at a slight tilt relative to the waterline. This is what you want to achieve when you’re racing a sailboat.

This is the profile of a sailboat that has been “knocked down”. If it gets any worse than this, the keel will come out of the water and the boat will capsize.

Here’s approximately where we were on the backside of Santa Cruz when we were knocked down.

What was I doing in the moments before we got knocked down? I was trying my best to capture the thrills and glory of our 12-knot surge through the swells with my iPhone. Here’s the footage I took in the moments before the knockdown.

Seconds after I stopped filming, we were overpowered and knocked down. The dramatic moment was captured on Captain George’s GoPro camera affixed to the end of the starboard stern rail. (You’ll note The Matey in the foreground – at the stern of Misfit – filming with my iPhone just before the critical moment. You can also see that, despite the calamity unfolding around me, I take great care to get that iPhone back in the pocket of my foulies.) The craziest thing was that when the starboard rail first disappeared into the sea, and the bottom of the boat suddenly became a wall rising on my left, as I clung to the stern lifelines, I was still trying to get a good shot of the ultimate dramatic moment. Damn my clumsy hands and the iPhone’s tiny controls…

Moments later, at Tom’s authoritative urging, I tucked away my iPhone and clambered over him to get hold of a portside stanchion. The fact that I was lying on top of Tom for a period of time before Misfit was righted led to the sort of off-color jokes that one comes to expect in the company of sailormen. I’ll say no more.

Here’s what Captain George’s GoPro saw…

Once the boat was righted – and kudos to Eric, Geno and Reed for their seamanlike reflexes in a crisis – we made for Ventura Harbor on the last leg of the race. As dangerous as the knockdown was, it was also an undeniable thrill. An adrenaline junkie’s fix, for sure. Our spirits were aroused and our senses engaged, as we sank Santa Cruz behind us and raced the setting sun into Ventura Harbor.

Hours before we rounded the Eastern end of Santa Cruz, our master of the fordeck, Claude, had expertly gauged the wind and waves and predicted that we’d finish just as the sun set at 7:45 pm. As we splashed our way toward Ventura, Claude’s assessment would prove to be dead on.

His assessment of the cetaceans that cavorted in our path along the way was not as correct. Seeing a pod of dorsal fin-less dolphins frolicking alongside our boat, Claude declared them to be porpoises. Just hours after the race, ever the conscientious oceanic naturalist, Claude would correctly identify them as northern rightwhale dolphins.

Despite the screaming winds, Captain George and Master Eric desired more boat speed as we flew toward Ventura, and they called for us to fly the larger Code Zero headsail. But while Claude and Geno and I did our best to fly the Code Zero, conditions got the better of us, and precious time was lost. Still, we hurtled through the channel, pointed toward the red whistle buoy that marks the entrance to Ventura Harbor.

The last hour of the race saw a constant drenching of the rail meat, as the geometry of boat speed and the direction of the swells added up to lots and lots of salt spray showering the benumbed human ballast — as Misfit tore through the waves like a trail horse smelling the feed bag.

We crossed the line moments after 8:00 pm, completing our voyage from Santa Barbara to Ventura by way of the backside of Santa Cruz in a little more than nine hours. The sun was down as we eased into an open slip, tied off at the dock, and got our nautical thoroughbred Misfit squared away for the night.

Finally, Captain George and his crew gathered at the PBYC clubhouse for a beverage and the last of the lasagna.

There we learned that Misfit had finished a mere 4 minutes out of first place — and just 20 seconds out of second place. Clearly, the knockdown off Santa Cruz and our struggle with the Code Zero on the homeward-bound leg may have cost us the race.

But, all in all, it felt like victory.

The boat performed gloriously. The Misfit crew did, too.

The Island Series is within our grasp.

Next up: The Milt Ingram Trophy Race, July 16, 2011.

Get your foulies on, mates — and unfurl as much canvass as we can!

Crack on, Misfits, crack on!

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The Matey’s Log: A Birthday Voyage. Newport to Ensenada 2011…

I spent my birthday this year sailing southward along the Pacific coastline to Mexico in the annual Newport to Ensenada Race. It was the third time I’d been honored to be a part of this grand 125-mile overnight adventure – and what follows is a photo essay of the experience. The photos were taken by my good friend and fellow crewman, Brad Hall. Somehow, Brad managed to snap great shots at all angles and stay on board the boat.

Brad and I drove down to Newport on Thursday, April 14, to meet the rest of the crew and get another good look at our boat, Misfit – a sleek 1D35 Racing Sailboat. Brad and I had yet to sail aboard Misfit, which had only recently been acquired and modified by our Captain George Moll and the ship’s Master, Eric Schlageter. I’m no shipwright (I’m barely a sailorman) and I cannot describe everything that George and Eric did to re-build and re-design Misft (which is all really cool if you understand these things)– but you can find out by clicking here.

Misfit under construction. It was like the Manhattan Project, only more expensive.

By 4:00 pm, the Misfits (as we would be known in Royal Navy parlance) had gathered at Newport’s Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club for the “Send-Off Fiesta” – a bayside Bacchanal at which…

Then again, you had to be there.

Next morning, we were all at the dock to prepare Misfit for the race to Mexico. Off the back rail, we flew “The Jolly Claude” flag in tribute to our mighty master of the foc’s’le, Claude Dubreuil, who could not voyage with us that weekend. With Claude in our hearts though not on deck, our sturdy crew of eight was a foursome of matched pairs. (It was easier for me to group us this way while counting heads over the next 24 hours: kind of an unofficial buddy system. You don’t want to find out too late that someone went overboard. Especially at night.)

Captain George Moll and Tom Webber. Misfit is George’s boat, but I’m used to George and Tom being co-Captains. These guys are a classic odd couple. From the moment we hit the water, George is giving Tom grief and Tom is looking for a sandwich. But don’t let their Laurel & Hardy act fool you. These guys are real sailormen.

Joe and Eric Schlageter. Joe is Eric’s dad. They are two of the saltiest guys you’ll ever meet. I’d sailed with Eric many times, but I’d never met Joe until this race. Eric has forgotten more about sailing than I’ll ever know – and Joe knows even more. This is why I love sailing: the opportunity to get to know great characters like Joe and Eric.

Shaun Plomteaux and Geno Beville. The youngsters. The hotshots. They were born in water, of course, but appear to have slid right out of their mothers’ wombs into the Pacific Ocean. Watching them on this race would be a revelation. As hard as they worked, I think Captain George should move them up from midshipmen. Provided their sextant readings were correct.

Brad and Paul. A surfing Santa Barbara boy, Brad’s at home on the ocean, and has been sailing since his youth. As for me, I was born on the west side of Cleveland, and as a kid I built some model boats. We’ve shared many adventures together – and this would be another great one.

As Misfit pulls out of its berth at the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club and sails out of Newport Harbor, Eric checks in with the race committee boat. “Sail number 35010 checking in!”

As we motored past the harbor breakwater, we caught our first sighting of that wacky photographer in his crazy taxi boat — the most unseaworthy-looking craft I’ve ever seen on the water.

Eric at the tiller negotiates our course at the start of the race. We got off to a very good start. Only one boat in our class got off to a better start. But there was a long race ahead.

The boys and me are on the rail early in the race. A sailboat like Misfit needs a lot of human ballast to keep her balanced as she slices through the water. I, for one, am especially suited to the “rail meat” role.

Shaun, Geno and Eric are in control in the cockpit early in race. Eric is steering with the tiller. At this point, you can clearly see that most of our competition is behind us.

Captain George relaxes against the lifelines as the sun starts to set. We were making a steady 6-8 knots in light wind – and our hearts were full of hope. Misfit was proving to be very nimble boat.

As the sun continues to drop down toward the horizon, the Matey shows off his brand new Newport to Ensenada hat. We’ve been sailing for about 7 hours, and we’re less than a third of the way to our destination.

Young Geno takes a turn at the tiller, steering the boat while sipping a Bloody Mary in an improvised cup. Oh yeah, the cups. Tom forgot the cups. Actually, I was one of the guys who made the run for sandwiches, vodka and Bloody Mary mix before the race. But nobody told me about cups. (George insisted that he reminded Tom about the cups.) Finally, someone got the idea to make cups out of empty water bottles. It would not be the last instance of MacGyver-like ingenuity on this voyage.

Several Bloody Marys later, Geno is still at the tiller as sun has just about set.

In the waning moments of sunlight, Shaun trims the headsail. At this point we were flying a spinnaker, still averaging 6 knots in light winds. As far as we knew, we were among the leaders.

Gorgeous colors paint the water as the sun starts to dip below the horizon. This is the kind of scene that makes sailing so addictive. The beauty and the constantly changing color and character of the water are indescribable.

As the sun comes up next morning, it’s clear what gets some sailors through the night: Red Bull and energy drinks.

Joe, “The Ancient Mariner”, greets the morning light, still snug in his foul weather gear. It was a cold, damp night – and once you get cold, you’ll never warm up again. So, foul weather gear at night is a must. You don’t take your “foulies” off until the sun comes up — and you start to sweat.

It’s clear that Tom got some sleep during the night, since he looks about as good as Tom can look.

Taking a nap on the deck, it’s clear that Captain George didn’t get much sleep during the night. But George’s nap posture is nowhere near as uncomfortable-looking as Geno’s was at one point during the night when he was out cold, face down, lying in front of the companiomway. (Red Bull can only get you so far.)

The Matey celebrates the morning of his birthday, April 16th, dressed in his groovy hippy hoodie. The hoodie went on sometime during the night as another layer under my foul weather gear, At that point, I was wearing two t-shirts, the hoodie, and my foulies. I was still a bit cold.

The Matey scans the Mexican shoreline as Misfit sails toward the finish line, coming into Ensenada.

Eric is at the helm as we approach the finish line. At this point, it was hard to tell how we’d finished. There weren’t many boats ahead of us – and a half-dozen could be seen behind us. Hope springs eternal.

Brad and Tom celebrate surviving the long, cold night and arriving at the finish line in fine, seamanlike style. A hot shower was now just an hour or so away!

At this point, a marlinspike was all that held the boom vang to the boom. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, as the winds died and our boat speed slowed to 2 knots and less, the fluttering of the mainsail caused the boom to bang back and forth – and the bolt that held the boom vang in place was lost. This was the second MacGyver-like bit of ingenuity. (Claude would have been proud.)

On the Sunday return trip, as we motored north to San Diego, Shaun was all about tending to the cordage. It was like something out of a Patrick O’Brian seafaring novel to see Shaun fixing, splicing and braiding the frayed ends of every bit of rope on board.

Eric caught the cordage bug from Shaun and started splicing and sewing, too. I was too busy enjoying the ride to San Diego. Besides, as rail meat, such refined maritime skills are way above my pay grade.

Shaun’s handiwork. I didn’t think anybody did this kind of work since the days of the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic wars. Someone should introduce Shaun to scrimshaw. Then again, better to save the whales.

Captain George relaxes as we arrive in U.S. waters. Misfit can motor at between 6-7 knots – and we were lucky enough to have a “following sea” the whole way. (That means we were moving in the direction of the swell.) If we’d been motoring into the waves, it would have been a very wet and bumpy ride.

Joe also relaxes, enjoying our smooth ride home. Note Joe’s bare feet. He and Tom rarely wear shoes on board. I find that amazing. These guys are really salty.

Since U.S. Customs won’t allow us to bring fruit back into the country from Mexico, George helps out by eating his share of the contraband apples.

The Matey looks a bit weathered and grizzled as Misfit makes her way into San Diego Harbor. It’s been a wonderful weekend of adventure: my first birthday on the Pacific Ocean.

Eric deals with the Customs agents at the U.S. Customs dock. I guess everything was okay because they let us all go. Luckily, the drug-sniffing dog didn’t give a damn about Red Bull.

The Misfits pose before a celebratory meal at the Southwestern Yacht Club in San Diego. (My wife Victoria snapped this photo.) We look none the worse for the wear. Next year, we want to see our shipmate Claude in this photo with us!

And now, here’s a little film that Brad edited from footage he shot during the race – with the same camera he used to shoot those photos! It’ll give you a better idea of what it’s like to be on the water aboard Misfit. Ahoy!

BTW — We didn’t win the race. But I doubt anybody had more fun — or more laughs.

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2010: The First Year In Review

This snapshot by Rob Mendel (above) appears to have been taken at The John Lennon Auditorium at 703 Howard Street in Evanston, Illinois on what looks to be New Year’s Day 1982.  (Note my Beggars’ Holiday hair and beard.) My 18-month old daughter Maura appears to be grasping a champagne bottle in her right hand, the stage looks as though it’s set up for a Rockme gig, and the numerous empty beverage containers and crumpled gift-wrapping all suggest a big holiday party the night before. (Maura certainly didn’t close the party, so this must be the day after.) Of course, I’m on clean-up duty. (I trust the amazing Rush Pearson will let us know if my photo analysis is correct.)

30 years after this picture was taken — and just one year ago — I started this blog.

So far, it’s been a fine voyage.

As of this writing, Paul’s Voyage of Discovery & Etc. has attracted over 22,250 views. I’ve made 73 posts and readers have contributed 565 comments. That’s a pretty healthy start — and I’m grateful for everyone’s interest, enthusiasm, and participation in this admittedly idiosyncratic forum.

This is not the real subscription sign up box. The real one is further to the right. And up a little...

I’m especially gratified by the 63 subscribers who have signed on to have my posts automatically delivered to them via e-mail. (And when Mark Lancaster gets his e-mail address straightened out, we’ll be back to 64.) Are you a subscriber? If not — just look to your right at the photo of the saluting Matey, then look below the photo and follow the simple instructions to “Hop Aboard!” I know most of us just can’t get enough e-mails stuffed into our inboxes, but I promise my posts will be at least marginally more entertaining than the daily onslaught of Viagra ads, MoveOn broadsides, replica watch ads, and assorted unrelenting spam you’re already inundated with.

My posts on this blog largely stuck to the main topics I established at the outset: history, adventure, politics and rock & roll — including a four-part history of The Practical Theatre Company. And to what type of posts were readers of this blog most attracted? What follows is a list of The Top 12 Posts of 2010, listed in order of the most views. Taken as a whole, they represent a sort of oddball Year-in-Review.

THE TOP TEN POSTS OF 2010

Note: Just click on each the title of each post to access the original article.

1. The Saints Come Marching In…

The New Orleans Saints got 2010 off to a great start by winning the Super Bowl. So, why does a man who was born in Cleveland, went to college and met his wife in Chicago, and moved to Los Angeles twenty years ago care if the New Orleans Saints finally won a Super Bowl after decades of epic gridiron failure? Simple: my daddy was New Orleans born and raised. Who dat say what about dem Saints?

2. All About The Rockme Foundation

It’s not possible to write everything about Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation in one article, but I tried my best in this post to tell the basics of the band’s ongoing legend. A spring reunion gig at SPACE in Evanston was the catalyst for telling the story. The band is making plans to play SPACE again this year. Rockme-mania lives.

3. The Practical Theatre Co. Part 1

One of my goals this past year was to tell the story of The Practical Theatre from start to finish. (Is it ever really finished?) This first chapter covered the period from the company’s founding and the establishment of The John Lennon Auditorium  — to just before our 1982 comedy revue, The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee, brought the PTC to SNL.

4. Baseball Season Opens: Of Mud Hens & More…

Readers loved those Mud Hens. What was written as a tribute to The Practical Theatre Company’s contribution to the Chicago Theatre 16-inch Softball League became a post that hundreds of Toledo Mud Hens fans found online, attracted to the info and photos of Toledo Mud Hens history — especially that picture of Jamie Farr. Go figure. Cluck! Cluck! Cluck!

5. History & Honeymoon: Part Three

20 years ago, my wife Victoria and I went to Gettysburg and other Civil War battlefields on our honeymoon! It’s true. I needed no other assurance that I had married the perfect woman. On our 20th anniversary we returned to Gettysburg. Now both students of the battle, we walked the battlefield on July 1, 2 and 3, 2010 on the 147th anniversary of that critical conflict. My four-part account of our battlefield tramping became one of the most popular items on the blog.

6. The Vic & Paul Show

After more than two decades off the stage, Victoria and I once again wrote and performed in an original musical comedy review, The Vic & Paul Show, in June at PUSH Lounge in Woodland Hills. It was the most fun we’ve had in years. We hope to bring the show to Chicago sometime in 2011. If you’re curious about what the show looked like — there are a series of clips on my YouTube channel. Click here to get there.

7. “I have not yet begun to fight!”

History and politics are two of my greatest passions — and this article combined the two. I’m gratified that so many people have continued to find it and read it since it was first posted on January 20, 2010 at the time of President Obama’s first State of the Union Address.

8. Le Salon de Crawford

I wrote this tribute to the incredible Crawford family early in the year — and I feel as though I must already write another. Ron and Sydney Crawford and their fabulous children are a gift that keeps on giving. I cannot imagine what this blog would have looked like in 2010 without all those wonderful Ron Crawford drawings lifting each post into the realm of true art. We love Ron & Syd. And we can’t say it enough.

9. Will California Buy a Used CEO this Election Year?

In an otherwise bleak mid-term election for progressives, California turned back the conservative tide by rejecting the self-funding, millionaire ex-CEO candidates, Meg Whitman for Governor and Carly Fiorina for Senator. Instead, liberal Democrat Barbara Boxer was returned to the U.S. Senate — and former “Governor Moonbeam” Jerry Brown was sent back to the California governor’s mansion (where he refused to live back in the 70’s). Maybe Jerry will pass on the mansion again. But thank goodness California passed on Meg and Carly.

10. The Practical Theatre Co. Part 3

This installment of my Practical Theatre history covered the insanely creative and productive period from the aftermath of the PTC’s headline-making success in 1982-83 to the closing of The John Lennon Auditorium in 1985. Looking back, it’s hard to believe a bunch of inexperienced, counterculturally-inclined twenty-somethings accomplished so much in so little time. That Practical spirit lives on today — and I hope this blog has helped in some small way to keep it alive.

11. The Matey’s Log: Sailing Season Begins

This blog has a nautical theme for one reason: Captain George Moll, who invited me to sail with him some years back, and instilled in me a love of the sea that had first been aroused by my reading of the entire Patrick O’Brian canon. I am grateful to Captain George for allowing me to serve as a crewman aboard his fleet of racing sailboats — and my accounts of several of our races proved to me among the most popular series of posts on the blog this year. And did I mention we won this year’s TGIS Series Championship? Hats off to Captain George!

12. A New Day of Glory for the Great (you heard me right) Cleveland Browns!

Great football teams bookend this list. When my beloved Cleveland Browns upset the defending Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints in the early part of the 2010 NFL season, I was moved to write this remembrance of the Browns’ glorious past. Otto Graham, Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly, Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar are just a handful of the memorable stars that made history with the Cleveland Browns. Now, it’s up to Colt McCoy and Peyton Hillis to write the next glorious chapter.

So, that’s the best of 2010. Stay tuned. Subscribe. Post those replies!

Here’s to another fine voyage in 2011!

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The Matey’s Log: Newport to Ensenada

Photos by Brad Hall (Except where indicated)

The Newport-to-Ensenada International Yacht Race, which runs 125 nautical miles south from the shores of one of Orange County’s wealthiest enclaves to the historic, struggling Baja port town, is billed as the world’s largest international sailing event. And while I don’t have the experience to know whether it’s truly the “largest international sailing event”, it sure is the biggest sailboat race I’ve ever been in. This was my second year racing from Newport Beach to Ensenada, Mexico with Captains George and Tom and the crack crew of Curiosity — and once again, it was the kind of adventure that inspires men (and women) to go down to the sea in ships.

The Newport-to-Ensenada race was founded in 1947 as a just-for-fun competition for sailors coming out of World War II. And as big as the race has gotten over the years, you get the sense that, for most of the racers, it’s still “just for fun”. (Though certain hyper-competitive, edge-seeking boats with their flaunting of ratings and their profusion of high-tech sails, can take the fun out of “just for fun”. But that’s just the crabby old salt in me talking.)

In the first Newport-to-Ensenada race (called at the time “The Governor’s Cup”) 117 boats paid $22.50 each to race on April 23, 1948. Winds were estimated at 25–35 knots, and only 65 boats finished the race. 62 years later, Captains Moll and Webber not only paid a lot more to enter the race – but high winds would NOT be a problem. If any sailboats failed to finish in 2010, it would be because they eventually fired up their motors in frustration.

A record 675 boats entered the race in 1983, but with the economic slump in 2009, there were only 270 entries. This year, Curiosity was among 217 boats jockeying for position among the crowd of sailboats at the start of the race. As we tacked back and forth in the light air before our 11:00 am start time, our relatively Hollywood-savvy crew was not aware that icons like Buddy Ebsen, Humphrey Bogart and Walter Cronkite had competed in the race. I simply can’t imagine the thrill of racing to the starting line against Bogie and Bacall aboard Santana.

As is our habit in recent races, we managed to get off to a good start – crossing the line among the leaders of the nine boats in our spinnaker class. I have no idea how they rate and organize all the boats into the various classes, but I do know the difference between a boat rigged for a spinnaker and one that isn’t. Thus, of the 217 vessels in the race, we were only competing against 8 of them: Elixir, Paradise Found, Tranquilo, Escapade, Zeus, Dela, Bonnie Belle and Arearea. Chief among our rivals was Elixir, whose higher rating meant that we had to give her time, but whose collection of high-tech sails gave her a distinct edge. In last year’s race, we’d kept Elixir in sight most of the race. However, with Curiosity’s rating hanging around our necks like an albatross, we’d have to finish well ahead of all the boats in our class in order to win. The whole rating thing hurts my brain.

Crewmen Michael, Wiley and Eric, early in the race, headed to Ensenada.

The winds were fair and we managed 6-8 knots of boat speed for much of the way that afternoon. In a long ocean race like this, where you’re simply racing from point A to point B, there’s not a lot for the crew to do between maneuvers – and as we were pointed on a good heading to Ensenada, and conditions were calm, we proceeded to do what sailors often do under such circumstances: drink, smoke cigars, and tell tales. Of all the joys of sailing, none surpass the camaraderie among a crew of jokers and raconteurs on the deck of a fine vessel making way on a brilliant blue sea. And, as late afternoon flowed into evening, our lead bowman, Claude, helped lubricate our merry maritime festivities by supplying his crewmates with a hearty ration of grog. Thanks to Claude’s knowledge of Royal Navy mixology, not a one of us would suffer scurvy on this voyage.

Claude makes his grog in the traditional way: with Pusser’s Rum, according to the English Royal Navy recipe.

— 2 parts water

— 1 part Pusser’s Rum

— Lime juice to taste

— Dark cane sugar to taste

I don’t think Claude actually used dark cane sugar, but he did squeeze plenty of fresh limes by hand.

The cockpit brain trust: Eric and Captain George.

Grog has been a naval staple since it was introduced into the Royal Navy in 1740 by Vice Admiral Edward Vernon (nicknamed “Old Grog” because of his grogram cloak). Grog served two purposes. Not only did it water down the sailors’ rum ration (“what do you do with a drunken sailor?”) — it also warded off scurvy by virtue of all that lime juice. If, as Winston Churchill was reported to have said, “The only traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy, and the lash” – then, after 1740, in the interest of accuracy, you’d have to replace “rum” with “grog” on that list.

Seeing (and tasting) a good thing, the Continental Navy also adopted the twice-a-day grog ration. But while the relatively- teetotaling American Navy ended the ration on September 1, 1862, the Royal Navy went on swilling watered down rum with lime juice and sugar until July 31, 1970 – when the last call of “Up Spirits” was heard in the Royal Navy. There was no last call on Curiosity that evening, as the grog and the laughter wore into the night.

The Matey in repose. (Photo by Sebastian J.)

At some point in the darkness, we crossed into Mexican waters. I was catching a few winks belowdecks at the time – until crewmate Brad Hall awakened me at 4:00 am to help perform one of the trickier evolutions on a sailboat – jibing the spinnaker. As I came up on deck, it was still dark, though illuminated by moonlight. Normally, jibing the spinnaker is a pain but, as the wind was merely a breeze, Brad and I were able to get the job done easily. It would have been much harder to wrestle that spinnaker if a stout wind was filling it.

And that lack of wind soon proved to be our undoing in this race. For most of the next 5-6 hours, we were becalmed. As much as sailors love the word “grog” — “becalmed” is a word we dread, as it means “to render motionless for lack of wind.” And that was our situation, bobbing up and down for hours on a perfectly flat (but terribly beautiful) ocean off the coast of Baja, Mexico.

Sebastian, Tom, and the Matey in the early morning calm.

Captain George, becalmed. (Sebastian J)

How bad is it for a sailboat to be becalmed?

Let us remember that the ancient Greek king Agamemnon sacrificed his lovely daughter Iphigenia to the gods so that his becalmed fleet would have the wind it desperately needed to sail to Troy.

Extended periods of calm made for madness and mutiny aboard sailing ships throughout the centuries. Witness this ominous passage from William Clark Russell’s seafaring adventure, “An Ocean Tragedy”…

Brad, Michael, George, Tom and Wiley in the calm. (Sebastian J)

Captain Tom, Eric and Claude, becalmed. (Sebastian J)

But, for the crew of Curiosity, there may have been madness, but there was no thought of mutiny. We were confident the breeze would pick up at some point during the day – though we saw a couple boats closer to shore give up, turn their motors on, and proceed under power to Ensenada. We were determined to finish the race in the right way, and our resolve was rewarded when the wind picked up late in the morning – and we saw the whales!

Claude was first to see their spouts: two grey whales (or were they humpbacks?), a mother and her calf, cruising side by side, headed north, from their breeding grounds in and around the Sea of Cortez to their northern feeding grounds in the frigid waters off Alaska. The whales were a welcome sight for our slightly exhausted and frustrated crew: a good omen for the rest of our voyage.

It was nearing 1:00 in the afternoon as we made our final spinnaker run to the finish line in the port of Ensenada De Todos Santos. By now, we were cracking along at 8 knots, a respectable speed, and leaving other boats in our wake. It wasn’t the screaming 12-knot final kick we enjoyed last year, but it cheered us all to bring Curiosity handsomely across the finish line. Our passage from Newport to Ensenada had taken 26 hours, but we had no clue when our 8 competitors had crossed the line.

Pulling into our assigned dock at the marina below our hotel, we noticed that our rival, Elixir, was already in her slip. Elixir had sailed further out into the ocean and caught wind when we, closer to shore, were becalmed. We made our bet, stayed inside, and the wind gods were not with us.

A final toast from the Matey. (Sebastian J)

So, there was nothing left to do but enjoy our one night in Ensenada. The hotel was in a festive mood, with mariachis playing in anticipation of a big wedding that night. Showers were taken, a few more drinks were served – and we all headed to the race headquarters to check out the results. Alas, after times were corrected, taking each boat’s rating into consideration, we finished next to last. But as we toasted Captain Moll that night over a fine dinner, we all felt like winners. It had been a fine voyage, a safe passage, and another great adventure. Here’s to many more!

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The Matey’s Log: Of Wind & Fog

On Wednesday July 23, 1896, The New York Times reported…

Nearly 114 years later, on the other end of the continent, another sailboat race fell victim to fluky winds, fog and calm…

As the crew of Sprit Decision gathered on H Dock in Ventura Harbor to prepare our boat for the third race of the Pierpont Bay Yacht Club’s Spring Series, there was only the slightest suggestion of a breeze. As we rigged our sails and made ready to get underway, we all knew what that anemic zephyr meant.

Light air.

Sprit Decision, a 32’ 9” Beneteau First 10R, is a relatively heavy boat among the contenders in the Spinnaker A class — and she’s not her best in light air. Her advantages of size and design come into play with about 10 knots of wind, and she truly enjoys filling her sails with 15-20 knots, so unless there was going to be a dramatic and unforeseen shift in the weather, Sprit Decision and her crew would be hard pressed to succeed.

As the boats met at Mandalay buoy for the start of the race, the sea was flat and the wind barely a breath. You know there’s very little wind when, from across the water, you can hear people talking in conversational tones on the other boats.  If anyone had been listening to the conversation aboard Sprit Decision as we moved sluggishly through the glassy water, they would’ve heard Captain George suggest that it might be a “Brophy’s Day” – by which he meant that if there wasn’t going to be any wind for this race, we might as well motor back to the harbor and enjoy a drink or two at Brophy Bros seafood restaurant. None of us took him too seriously. Captain George is always the last man to quit a race.

The start of the race was postponed as race officials chose a new, shorter course for the race. On this day, there would be no grand sail out across the Santa Barbara Channel and around one of the oil platforms. Instead, we’d race a less ambitious course, from buoy to buoy, closer to the coast.

As we jockeyed for position in the light wind, waiting for the five-minutes-to-start warning to sound, our veteran bowman, Claude, looked to the south and saw a line of fog approaching some distance from the south. “That’s not good,” he told me, but he didn’t explain why. That I would learn later in the race.

Bowman Claude sees the fog to the south.

After being surprised with only a one-minute warning prior to the start, we managed to get across the line slightly behind the leaders, and proceeded to the first mark, a buoy to the north of us called “Fish Sticks”. We were making 4.5 knots of boat speed with just 5 knots of wind in our sails. That’s pretty efficient sailing for Sprit Decision.

We rounded Fish Sticks in the back half of the pack – our smaller, less-heavy foes having the advantage in lighter air, but after deploying our spinnaker in a most seamanlike manner, we were soon running back to Mandalay buoy, plowing through the gently rolling seas at 6 knots in 6 knots of wind. We chased down one of the smaller Olson 30’s that had gotten ahead of us, and were hoping to overtake a couple more boats as the wind picked up and our boat speed increased.

As we got to within 200 yards of Mandalay bouy, we could see the fog rolling up toward the buoy from the south. By the time we got to within 50 yards of the mark, it was already getting hard to see the leading boats rounding the buoy in the fog. Soon, we were inside the fog ourselves, and as the fog moving north met the weak air current moving south – they cancelled each other out, the wind stalled, and Sprit Decision rounded Mandalay Buoy at a crawl.

For more info on the how and why of wind & fog, click here.

At that moment in struck me how drastically conditions can change in the Santa Barbara Channel. One moment, you sailing along on a sunny day in light wind on a gentle following current – and the next, you’re becalmed in dense fog on a flat ocean. And you’re watching the sudden, dangerous circus as boats try not to collide with each other while approaching, rounding, and leaving the mark – with little wind to give them power or control.

If you’re a sailor, you may find it interesting to know that we jibed the spinnaker as we rounded the mark and were still flying our kite as we ran northeast back to Ventura Harbor. (I’m still a bit confused as to how these things happen.) What I do know is that within ten minutes, the fog cleared, the wind picked up, and we got across the finish line in Ventura Harbor just as the wind was dying again.

Captain George called me that evening to say we’d finished 5th out of 10 boats in the race. And while we weren’t going to take home any trophies for our effort that day, it had been the best day of light air sailing we’d ever enjoyed racing Sprit Decision.

Our next sailing adventure is the Newport to Ensenada race on April 23rd. I’m hoping that the words “light wind” and “fog” will have no place in the account of that race.

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Sailing with the Tsunami

“So foul and fair a day I have not seen.”

Macbeth (Act 1, Scene 3)

Shakespeare’s doomed, regicidal Macbeth was a soldier, not a sailor, but had the bloody Thane of Cawdor been racing a sailboat in the Santa Barbara Channel on Saturday February 27, 2010 – he could not have described the dichotomous conditions better: fair and foul. And one of the major factors that contributed to this strange day on the water was put in play in a faraway South American country more than 12 hours before the race began.

At 10:34 PST on the night before our second sailboat race of the 2010 season, there was a magnitude 8.8 earthquake in Chile — one of the largest temblors ever recorded.

The head of the University of Chile’s Seismology Institute said the quake was “50 times bigger than the one in Haiti.” That might be true, but luckily, compared to Haiti, Chile was well prepared for such a huge shaker. Only 300 people died according to early accounts – but a seismically triggered tsunami was sent racing halfway around the world.

And some 4,900 nautical miles northward toward Ventura, California.

About nine and a half hours after the Chilean quake, Brad Hall and Darroch Greer arrived at my house at 8:00 AM to carpool out to Ventura Harbor for our race. The network weather witches had been heralding a series of storms sweeping down from the north, and indeed, we drove west on the 101 Freeway in and out of patches of rain. We discussed the quake in Chile – but we had no idea it would affect us that day.

We were more concerned about another factor that would make it an odd race. Our supremely capable and experienced lead bowman, Claude Dubreuil, would not be among our crew that day. That meant that leadership of the foredeck would devolve to me. As I’m a relative nautical neophyte — happier to follow orders than give them.

Captain Tom Webber. (Photo by Brad Ball)

I had apprehensions that had nothing to do with the weather. Getting the headsail up and down, rigging, flying, and dousing the spinnaker, these were the maneuvers that occupied my mind. I knew we’d get wet. That was a given. I was hoping there would be enough wind – but not too much. I was hoping I could do my job, not screw up royally – and manage to stay in the boat.

When we arrived at Ventura Harbor, I noticed that the water in the harbor was as muddy and murky as the Mississippi River. Usually, as you walk down the ramp onto H Dock, you can see the harbor bottom. I figured the murk must’ve been churned up by the storms that were already passing through.

Captain George & Michael on our way out of Ventura Harbor. Smooth sailing so far. (Photo by Brad)

Brad's set to haul the jib halyard.

The weather lifted as we pulled out of our slip and sailed out of Ventura Harbor toward the starting line at Mandalay Buoy. There was a heavy swell that promised a wet afternoon — but on our way to the line, we did a pretty good job of getting the headsail up and deploying and jibing the spinnaker, etc, without Claude’s veteran leadership.  Despite the choppy conditions, I managed to stay in the bow and roughly approximate what Master Claude would have done. The few mistakes that I and the foredeck crew made were soon remedied – and we were all feeling pretty good as we approached the starting line

The strangeness began at the start of the race. We were among the first boats to cross the starting line in a crowded, chaotic start. I expected to hear the crunch of fiberglass. Shouts and curses were heard – but miraculously, there were no collisions.

We were among the leaders as we raced toward the first mark, Platform Gail, sailing in and out of a soaking rain.

A cold, soggy Darroch and The Matey on the rail. (Photo by Brad)

The promised storms had arrived on cue, drenching the crew most miserably – but also helping to drive our boat, Sprit Decision, at an average speed of about 8 knots to windward. We were sailing on a direct line to Platform Gail – and aside from the rain – it was a great day so far.

It was a good omen when a pod of playful dolphins starting racing alongside us, darting back and forth across our bow.

Alas, our good fortune would not last.

When we got within a quarter mile of Platform Gail – which we would need to sail around before returning to the finish line at Ventura Harbor – we were suddenly becalmed.  The wind and water both became eerily still. What we didn’t know was that, about this time, 12:24 PM (PST) – a 3-foot tsunami surge from the Chilean quake was arriving in Ventura. It had taken these waves generated by the 8.8-magnitude quake 14 hours to travel from the temblor’s epicenter to our patch of the Pacific. And somehow, the effect was to leave us slack-sailed and drifting in the lazy swell.

Captains Tom & George consider what to do to get our becalmed boat moving again. (Photo by Brad)

Eventually, we got enough of a puff to push us around the oil platform and fill our spinnaker for a downwind run home to Ventura Harbor. As we approached the harbor, our cell phones began to ring with calls from our wives concerned about a tsunami warning. What tsunami warning? We didn’t feel any tsunami…

Then, as we got within a few hundred yards of the harbor mouth, a Coast Guard ship ran out to intercept us. A Coast Guard officer on a bullhorn advised us that we could not enter the harbor because of a surge that was coming out of the harbor.  In my three years of sailing in Ventura and Channel Islands, I’ve never heard of a surge coming out of the harbor – the surf and the tide is usually pushing toward the shore – not out to sea. But the tsunami surge from Chile was hitting the coast and bouncing back out, back and forth — and the two currents were smacking into each other just inside the harbor’s breakwater. It looked like the confluence of two mighty rivers. Strange conditions, indeed. In fact, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department reported minor damage at the harbor from several buoys getting washing away.

After about 10 minutes of waiting outside the breakwater, the Coast Guard (timing the surge interval) gave us the okay to proceed into the harbor. It was weird to sail into the harbor against such a strong current. And it was yet another lesson in how small – and interconnected — the world is.

As we pulled into our slip, the rain had stopped and the sun was coming back out. Foul was fair again. It was as odd a day on the water as I’d ever experienced.

And I loved every moment of the adventure.

What follows are more photos that Brad Hall, our loblolly boy, took on our voyage.

The Matey (that's me) as we sail out of the harbor. So far, so good.

Foredeck mate Darroch is clearly not wet and miserable yet. Is he thinking about his sandwich?

Captain Tom is also all smiles in the early going. Doubtless, he's thinking about a sandwich!

Tom doesn't look so smiley now, does he?

All's well that ends well.

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