It was late afternoon. After three and a half months at sea from Manila to California, we were due to offload twelve thousand pounds of Thailand herbal matter on the coast a ways north of San Francisco that very night. We were running a little behind time because the wind had died off a bit in the afternoon. And at that point, the US Coast Guard Cutter “Point Chico” came up over the southern horizon.
Long John and SEALboy were off somewhere in the two sixteen-foot (5m) inflatable Zodiac boats, each hauling a thousand pounds of compressed Thai greenery. Roy and I looked at each other. It looked like the Coast Guard boat was coming to look us over. I suggested that we drop a sail so the Coast Guard would pass us at a greater distance. Roy said instead we should just spill wind from our sails. From a distance, it wouldn’t look like we’d altered our speed. So we did that. Didn’t want to slow down at all, we were a couple hours behind schedule, but “Needs must when the Devil drives!” as the saying goes …
Soon, Roy and I started in the first stage of pre-arrest grief … denial. “Doesn’t really look like it’s coming for us, right?”
Then as they kept approaching, the second stage … anger. How could they? After all that we’d gone through! At the very end of the trip, that’s unfair!
Then, the third stage … bargaining. As sometimes happens at sea, I swore a big swear. I find that swearing a big swear is often a mistake, but it’s what I did. I swore that if the Coast Guard just kept on going, I’d never move things of dubious provenance at sea again.
When the Point Chico got closer, we could see that she was well up at cruising speed. So it didn’t take long before the boat was even with us. We had the binoculars out. We looked at them. They had binoculars. They were looking at us.
Then without slackening speed at all, they were past us and heading for the northern horizon. We found out later that there had been a vessel in trouble up north of us, so the Coast Guard boat wasn’t stopping for anything. Good on them.
And true to my big swear to the Coast Guard, I haven’t moved any problematic substances by sea since then … and especially not from Thailand. Funny, that.
When the Point Cruz got past us, we adjusted the sails so they were drawing again, and set sail for the offload destination shown by the red pin in the upper left corner of the map below.
Darkness was falling. We should be anchoring up right about then, but we were behind time due to light winds and slowing down for the Coasties. We still had about 12 miles (20 km) to go. We pressed forwards.
Around sunset, we called the guys on the two Zodiacs on the radio. Roy and I figured that we could have them run in and hang out just offshore of the offload point. They could go in as soon as the onshore crew said it was safe. And by the time the onshore crew finished unloading the Zodiacs, we’d be anchoring up.
So we told them to go ahead and run on in just offshore of Fish Rocks and get in touch with the guys onshore. They both said fine.
Roy and I kept sailing, until finally, just before midnight, we very carefully and cautiously and slowly sailed up and dropped anchor in Haven’s Anchorage, between Fish Rocks and the nearby beach. No fog, but no moon, so very dark. Only a two-man crew, so very shorthanded for this kind of thing. We had charged the ships batteries so we could use our radar for the final run in, radar made the inshore navigation very easy.
Roy was behind the wheel. I was on the foredeck, ready to drop the anchor. Roy was a consummate sailor. He brought it up to just the right spot. When we stopped moving, he gave the order, and I dropped the anchor.
Now, dropping the anchor is only the start of the anchoring process. Then you need to “set” the anchor by dragging it over the bottom until it bites into the bottom and won’t move. You can feel it bite because to boat kind of jerks to a stop as the anchor line goes taut.
I can’t begin to tell you the relief that I experienced when I felt that anchor take hold. I was shocked by the feeling of shedding a lot of weight that I hadn’t even noticed I was carrying.
After 116 days of constant, unending motion, the boat was stopped in one place with no sails up. I had no responsibilities to the boat. I took a deep breath, and for the first time in months, the air smelled of the land. I breathed deeply of fir trees and rotting wood and pines and brooks and streams. It was intoxicating. I wanted to dance, I wanted to scream! I was done, the job was done! I’d made it across the Pacific and back to land!
But I had little time to enjoy it—the offload still remained. As soon as we’d anchored up and verified that we weren’t dragging anchor, we got back on the radio and told the onshore crew the agreed code phrase “The Eagle has landed, repeat, the Eagle has landed”.
Now, for the last hour or so while coming in to anchor up, we’d been totally involved in bringing a big boat under sail into an unknown anchorage at night with only a two-man crew. We didn’t have time for anything else.
So when we came up on the radio and said we’d anchored, they were stoked. Great news, they said … but there was bad news too. Long John had come in on time about an hour before we anchored up. He was offloaded and he was on his way back out to us as we spoke.
SEALboy had kept saying he was almost there … but he hadn’t shown up. After all of his boasting during the voyage about what a great seaman and navigator he was, he’d gotten lost and was floating somewhere offshore in the inky blackness.
We got on the radio to him. I asked him to describe what he saw. He said he could see two buoys. One was where he was, a red buoy with a whistle. The other was a white buoy, flashing, just as we’d told him over and over before he got in the Zodiac. White buoy. Flashing.
I told him, head for the flashing white buoy, you know, the very buoy we told you abou… never mind, I said, just head for the white buoy and turn right.
Now, I can do math as well as the next guy. We’d figured a forty-five-minute turnaround to load a thousand pounds of Thai herbal material into a Zodiac, start the engine, run it into shore, offload it, restart the engine, and return. With two boats, that’s two thousand seven hundred pounds per hour. So twelve thousand pounds would take five hours. Easy money.
But now, with only one boat, that’s one thousand three hundred pounds per hour. SEALboy was miles away. 12:45 AM. Long John showed up in the Zodiac. We loaded it and he left for shore … we sat and waited. No second Zodiac. Eventually, Long John showed up again. 1:30 AM, we filled his Zodiac again … and sat and waited. Repeat at 2:15 AM. Offload speed cut in half. Long John gets back out to the boat at 3:00 AM …
Here’s the difficulty factor. We have a drop-dead time of five AM. By six in the morning, the first commuters are going to be out on the highway. No bueno. We’re far too visible, too much activity, too many vehicles—the coast is sleepy up there.
Here’s the math, and no, there won’t be a test. Total load—twelve thousand pounds. Delivered so far—Long John’s original load plus three more, so four thousand pounds. Still on the boat—eight thousand pounds. Time—three AM.
At that point, we had two hours to go … no way the boat would get unloaded now even if SEALboy showed up right then with the other boat. We got in touch with the beach boss on the shore and gave them the bad news.
SEALboy finally showed up about three-thirty AM. He went directly to the beach and they offloaded his Zodiac. He didn’t even have the albondigas to come out and face us for the rest of the offload, so he sent the Zodiac out with someone else at the tiller. But at least now, finally, we had two boats to unload with.
But it was too little, too late. The night had slipped by. Far too soon, we began to see the first early cars going by on the highway. Time was running out fast, We filled up the last Zodiac and sent it to shore. The east was starting to get the very first faint light. And we still had about two thousand pounds (900 kg) of Southeast Asian vegetable materials in the boat … a ton.
I got on the radio to the bosses on shore. They said what we all knew, “It’s too late to unload it all.” We allowed as how we knew that already.
And they added, “The boat will have to go back offshore or we’re all busted.”
I said “True, send out the relief crew”. We knew that they had a relief crew of four men waiting on shore so we could get off the boat with the offload, and they could take over and sail the boat far, far away.
There was a long pause … “Hello?” I said.
The boss came back on, kind of embarrassed. “The relief crew refuses to get on board”, he said. “They signed up to sail an empty boat, not a boat full of reefer madness”.
I could understand that. I mean, even with four guys it’s kinda hard to make the case that you have two thousand pounds of sinsemilla for your own personal use … so you’ll be charged with dealing and the penalties are large.
I talked to Roy. “OK”, we told them, “just send Long John and SEALboy back out with the Zodiacs. We’ll fall offshore, and come back tonight with the Zodiacs to unload.”
Another long pause … then:
“Long John and SEALboy don’t want to come back out. They say they’re done. You’ll have to take the boat offshore without them”.
Now, as I said, I could understand them all wanting to stay on shore. Hey, I wanted to stay on shore.
And I’d like to say I took the bad news like a man, but in all honesty, I must confess … I lost the plot. I said very bad words quite loudly in a variety of languages, impugning the ancestry and describing the anatomically improbable sexual habits of relief crews, Long John, bosses, and especially SEALboy.
I looked at Roy in the dim but strengthening light. Roy looked at me. We knew what happened next was up to us. Neither of us knew what to do. Try to get the anchor up and sail off with just two guys in a 50-foot boat into often-rough North Pacific ocean waters in September? Just getting the anchor up is a tough trick with no power and thus no anchor windlass.
That didn’t thrill us at all, it didn’t seem like too brilliant a move.
Or just hang out on the boat for a day, say lots of prayers, hope that no fishermen come by? Didn’t like that one either.
Or leave the boat anchored up for one day, lock up the boat, take the small inflatable skiff ashore, hide out on shore, hope nobody notices, come back to the boat at night and unload it? That seemed like the best plan, although it had problems as well.
And as we dithered, the predawn light was waxing, the day was coming on apace …
More to come, of course, and best wishes to everyone,