At the end of the most recent episode in this sorry tale, the boat’s captain Roy and I were sitting on a 50-foot sailboat, watching the first light of dawn strengthen. Overnight, we had just finished successfully offloading ten thousand pounds (4,500 kg) of foil-wrapped compressed one-kilo bricks of Thailand’s finest herb. Block by block, we had taken it out of the hold of the boat and stacked it on deck. From there, the two-man Zodiac crew helped us load it into the Zodiacs. Then they had run it to the beach. People on the beach had offloaded it. Another group carried the bricks across the beach and loaded them into rented truck after rented truck. As each truck was filled it was sent down the highway to safety. Here’s the offload site. Our boat was anchored up between Fish Rocks and the nearest beach.
Which was a huge accomplishment, ten thousand pounds offloaded … but we’d started out with twelve thousand pounds of what made Thailand famous. So Roy and I were sitting on top of the final two thousand pounds of compressed vegetable material that was still in the boat.
We talked the options over with the owners of the boat and the load. There were two groups who had come together to do this run. And of course, there were two top men, one from each group, the owners. They’d put up the money for both the boat and the load.
The owners insisted that we had to take the boat back offshore. They really didn’t want it sitting inside the 12-mile limit, which was actually observed back in the day. As long as we were more than twelve miles offshore, at that time, we were outside American law. At least until we came in to offload again.
Roy and I were not thrilled. Not one bit. We’d been 116 days at sea. We wanted to lock the boat up, watch it from shore, and offload the last bit that night. We didn’t want to put back out to sea. It was already September. Both of us had a lot of sea time on this coast, and we knew it can get rough. Plus there were only two of us on a boat with an old-timey sail rig. It was a gaff-rigged staysail schooner, a rig like on the boat in the photo below.
There’s a reason they don’t use that particular setup these days. It’s a pain in the differential. It’s heavy and clumsy and requires a good-sized crew. You’ve got a big heavy piece of wood, the “gaff”, way up in the air. Plus, we didn’t have an engine to help us claw back out to sea if strong winds were driving us onto a lee shore … and only two guys to keep watch.
But I’d signed on for the full cruise, and unlike Long John and SEALboy, neither Roy nor I were quitters. So we told the owners we’d deal with it, we set the radio schedule time and frequencies for upcoming nights, and we got ready to move the boat.
First, of course, we had to pull up the anchor. With an engine and a windlass, you just turn on the windlass, put the boat in gear, and idle forwards toward the anchor. The windlass starts pulling in the anchor line. Then when it gets over the anchor, the windlass pulls the anchor out of the sea floor, and finally brings the anchor up to deck level.
With no engine and no windlass, it’s a totally different game. You have to sail the boat off the anchor. I’d done it with a small sailboat, but never a fifty-footer. So Roy explained to me how it was done. I’d be on the foredeck handling the anchor, and he’d be in the cockpit.
Here’s a diagram of how it’s done, pretty much as he explained it to me in the morning half-light, to be read from the bottom up. The “anchor rode” is the combination of rope and chain connected to the anchor. The trick is timing it so that when the anchor comes up off of the bottom, the boat is pointed away from the rocks and the shore … we were in very tight quarters there in Havens Anchorage. If we screwed up and were pointed towards land when the anchor came up, we would almost assuredly put the boat on the rocks.
Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned, Roy was a consummate seaman. I called out the state of play from the foredeck as I grunted and groaned to pull in the anchor line. When he made the final tack, I took a turn of the anchor line around a cleat to hold it. When the rode came taut, the momentum of the big boat yanked the anchor right out of the sea floor. I pulled the corner of the foresail by hand to the other side of the boat to force the nose around. We started forwards, towing the anchor underwater.
As soon as we were clear of the shore, Roy nosed the boat into the wind almost to a standstill. With the water pressure from the movement gone from the anchor and the anchor rode, I was able to bring it in hand over hand. Roy helped lift it on deck. We lashed it down, trimmed the sails, and headed offshore.
Now, we had a radio schedule with the owners for that night. We figured we’d go back to Fish Rocks, fill two Zodiacs with the remaining two million dollars worth of what is now legal in California, trade places with the relief crew, and go to shore. Done.
No way, the owners said. There was already talk around the waterfront cafes in Gualala that a big boat had come and gone overnight, along with lights and commotion … that offload spot was well and totally burned, flambée.
OK, we said … so what’s next?
We’ll get back to you on that, they said. Over and out.
And thus began an endless time of waiting for the folks on shore to centralize their fecal material. The first week, it was understandable. They had no plan B. Hey, Roy and I had no plan B. And there was no way to plan for SEALboy. But still … the folks on shore should have had their fallback plan at least roughed out. And we could have made sure they had a plan or at least prodded them. But they had nothing.
So there we were, adrift off the coast of California without an offload plan. In order to not look like we were coming from Mexico, during the day we’d put up an absolute minimum of sail and point the nose of the boat to the south as if we were coming from Canada.
Then during each night, we’d turn around just after dark and start slogging upwind to get back to where we started.
And just before dawn, having returned to our original location, we’d turn the boat south, run downwind on our merry way from Canada once again, reduce sail to an absolute minimum, and get ready for the day.
By the second week, Roy and I were getting seriously concerned. How hard could it be, we asked the owners? Put the Zodiacs in the water somewhere. Meet us at sea. Load the Zodiacs at sea, we’d done that before on the way in. We get in the Zodiacs, relief crew gets on the boat. Run in to somewhere different from where you put the boats in the water. What’s the problem?
Excuses … and meanwhile, the unending insanity of sailing miles and miles each day only to end up where we started. We laughed that we were becoming faithful followers of our fearless leader, Sisyphus.
About that time, the gasoline for the small generator ran out. You might remember we put spare gas into the Zodiacs, which in SEALboy’s case saved his life. However … it left us with almost no gasoline on board when we left. And if we couldn’t charge the batteries, we wouldn’t have a radio connection to the shore.
Roy solved the problem. He said the generator would probably run on kerosene once it got warm, and we had lots of kerosene. But try as we might, we couldn’t get it to start on kerosene. Ray’s solution, after he thought about it for two days? We pulled the air cleaner off of the generator to get access to the carburetor intake. He took a hand propane torch, and he opened the valve without lighting the torch.
He put the torch nozzle into the carburetor intake so the propane would go into the engine, and I pulled the starter cord.
Astoundingly, the generator fired right up, running off a hand propane tank. And even more amazingly, when it was warm we opened the fuel valve and let the kerosene gradually take over. Then after it was happening, Roy removed the torch and the generator kept running. How off-the-wall is that? We had the world’s only propane/gasoline/kerosene generator in captivity. And that solved our power problem.
But we were still running hard just to stay in the same place.
In the third week, it got seriously “nautical”, as fishermen say about bad weather. There’s an unusual weather phenomenon that occurs off of the coast of California called a “fair-weather gale”. It has to do with heating in the California Central Valley, in Southern California, and the Mojave Desert. When those huge areas get hot, winds sweep in from the Pacific to replace the rising air.
And this creates a wind that can last for several days or longer, a wind that is blowing at 40 knots and gusting to 50 knots … yikes. There are some curious things about the fair-weather gale.
First, as the name implies, there’s often not a single cloud in the sky. Blue sky is everywhere, and the sound of the wind in the rigging is going off the scale from the windspeed. Very strange.
Next difference between storms and fair-weather gales, most waves at sea come from storms. A storm is basically a moving point source of waves that radiate concentrically outwards from the storm center. As the storm moves, it generates cross-waves to the waves it made earlier. Since all storms move, the everyday sea waves tend to be chaotic.
But in a fair-weather gale, the wind is moving everywhere in parallel over a huge area. This generates a very different kind of waves. These waves are giants, thirty feet (9 m) and more.
Next, each of these waves extends in a single straight unbroken line from horizon to horizon. Craziest ocean I’d ever participated in. From the wave tops, we looked out over ridge after ridge of successive waves, all running exactly parallel to each other, each one dead straight horizon to horizon.
Looking along any ridge we were momentarily atop of, we could all around the horizon. At any instant, we could see that the wave was breaking in several places along the ridge. Some places breaking by just crumbling down the wave face, but other places breaking in towering overfalls, where the lip breaks free of the wave below …
On the other hand, looking out from the bottom of the trough a few moments later, it was a huge die-straight canyon with towering walls on either side that were periodically breaking and falling into the canyon.
The final difference of a fair-weather gale is that a storm lasts a day or two. A fair-weather gale can blow for as long as a week, no problem. It doesn’t get tired. It just blows.
Not much to do in that situation but heave to, lash everything down, go down inside the boat, and hope for the best. You want to keep the pointy end of the boat headed into the wind. You don’t want to run with the wind, very bad idea. If you have to go with the wind, you risk shooting down the face of the wave and burying the nose of the boat in the sea. Then the back of the boat swings around, the boat goes sideways to the wave, and rolls over … it’s called “broaching”, it’s killed lots of boats and people, and it’s ugly. Don’t want to see that. Go upwind.
When the wind gets kinda strong, you can hear the rigging, which is all the stainless steel wires that hold up the two masts, start to hum. And as the wind increases in speed the rigging hum turns into a higher-frequency note … then to a kind of loud squeal … and finally, above forty knots of wind or so, the rigging will be emitting an endless shriek that is headed up towards the ultrasonic range. In a fair-weather gale, it’s at that level most of the time.
We put on the mickey mouse over-ear hearing protectors we’d gotten for working in the engine room. That made the shrieking and caterwauling of the wind at least bearable. We stayed below. Waves battered the boat from time to time when it chanced to break where we were.
I found out a curious thing in that awesome endless fair-weather gale. You can’t stay terrified forever. At some point, whatever is going on has been going on long enough that it loses its threat. It’s no longer terrifying. It’s not a question of bravery. You become inured to the danger. No, not inured, that’s not quite right. But reasonably concerned, not terrified. Shrieking wind and giant waves booming against a mostly empty boat? Boat tossed off the crest of a wave? We got to where it was “No problem, hadn’t noticed it actually, it’s like that all the time around here …”
At least, you’re not terrified until something goes wrong. Roy and I were enduring the second or third day of the fair-weather gale below decks. We’d just finished dinner when there was the most horrible sound, a loud SNAP followed by the sound of a sail going nuts and flogging itself to death. We raced up on deck to find an amazing sight.
It was a couple weeks after the offload. We’d done the offload in the dark of the moon for obvious reasons. So the moon was nearly full. And oh, dear friends, the sight of those huge waves in the moonlight, stretching out in a straight line from horizon to horizon, each wave breaking in a number of places, was mesmerizing.
And from time to time the waves were breaking directly on the side of the boat. When that happened, the breaking wave hitting the boat drove a wave of spray vertically. For a moment it hung there, glowing milky-white in the moonlight, then it was blasted across the deck in a cloud of white spume and froth.
But we had no time for sightseeing. We looked forwards to where the madness was. In the moonlight, we could see that the jib, the frontmost triangular sail, was attached at the top corner to the top of the mast, but loose and flapping around at the bottom corner. We also saw that the roller furling gear had broken off, and was still attached to the bottom corner of the jib. It was swinging like a giant warclub. Double yikes!
The roller furling gear is a kind of metal winch that is mounted out at the very end of the bowsprit. The bowsprit is the pole that sticks out from the front of the boat in the photo below. That’s not our boat but it is the sail rig of our boat—a gaff-rigged staysail schooner. Here’s a photo of a roller furling gear in its native habitat, attached to the bottom of the jib sail at the forward end of the bowsprit. Its the slotted silver drum and the black piece at the right of the photo. Except ours forty years ago was bigger, cruder, and heavier than this 2019 counterpart.
See that big threaded stainless steel connector right below the slotted stainless drum?
That’s what had snapped. Busted off right at the start of the threads. So the roller furling gear was still attached to the lower corner of a sail … a very large sail that was flailing that heavy roller furling gear around the foredeck. At times it was snapping that big weight like a giant’s bullwhip. Terrifying.
I had no clue what to do. Fortunately, Roy did. I mentioned in an earlier episode that he had an amazing quality. The wilder that the world around him became, the stronger the wind, the bigger the waves, the calmer he got. In a very loud but calm voice he explained what we would do and what would happen. I did exactly what he said.
As instructed, I took a rope up forward and tied one end to the base of the mast. Solid plus. I grabbed the loose end of the rope and got ready. I signalled Ray.
Then Roy turned the boat until it was going straight downwind. It’s a dangerous move, because it puts you in the trough of a wave. It needed to be timed, and he timed it very well. Once he did that, the mainsail “blanketed” the jib sail, meaning it shielded the jib sail from the wind. That slowed the motion of the jib sail, taming the swing of the roller furling gear. I stayed back, watching the flailing of the jib in the moonlight.
I saw that several times the movement of the jib would kind of “bounce” the roller furling gear, where the weight would fall, then it would stop for a brief moment in the middle of the deck before bouncing away again. I took my heart in hand, timed my move, skittered out over the wildly plunging foredeck, and during the momentary pause in the motion, I threw two quick loops around the roller furling gear. As fast as I’d gone out, I went back. Until I got the free end tied down, it could yank the rope hard. So I jumped double quick to the cleat I’d identified earlier, just like Roy had told me, and I cinched down and lashed down the free end of the rope so the roller furling gear couldn’t move at all.
Then, working on the sloping deck, I lowered the jib down from aloft, still blanketed by the mainsail. I fought the wind to stuffed the yards of canvas down the hatch into the boat. Then I raised up the staysail, to give us the ability to heave to once again.
I was working the foredeck alone because Roy was keeping the boat going straight downwind in strong winds. If he let the boat swing off course to the wrong side, if he lost focus for just a few moments, we could easily lose the mast or roll the boat.
And finally, I gave Roy the sign that the sails were set. Again with very nice timing, Roy turned the boat to one side, navigated the trough, and headed the boat back up the coast. We backed the staysail so the boat would heave to and steer itself, went below, and went to sleep.
Next day, the fair-weather gale was still blowing. And the day after. No chance of any offload. We stayed inside and pumped.
Oh, man, I haven’t mentioned the pumping. Probably wanted to forget it. Turns out the upper part of the sides of the boat’s hull were only water resistant, not water proof. So coming across the Pacific, we pumped after every watch, which was every three hours. No problem, each guy pumped twice a day.
But with two guys, and with even more leakage due to the insane pounding of the giant breaking waves against the side of the boat, well, pumping every couple hours 24/7 gets kind of old, you know. Gave me arms like Popeye, which I seem to have mislaid somewhere along life’s path, but in any case, I was SO tired of seeing the same giant ocean waves and pumping the same bilges and ending up right back where I started, pumping the same Pacific Ocean from inside to outside where it came back in again so I could pump it out again …
So we laughed about it instead. “What’s showing at the movies today?” one of us would ask. “They’re still showing ‘Victory At Sea'”. Or The Caine Mutiny. Anything to laugh.
At times, it seemed like we’d been forgotten. Once we had a radio schedule with the bosses and no answer from either one of the two! Very upsetting in an illegal enterprise. Had they been busted? Were we on our own? Especially irritating when they said oh, they were playing with the kids and forgot about it … dude, we’re living on the edge out here and you forgot?
The good news? Nothing lasts forever. Eventually, the fair-weather gale blew itself out. And it was followed by a notably calm period. The owners said the timing was good. They’d lined up a local fishing boat to meet us offshore. We’d raft up in the calm, pass the load from one boat to another, swap boats and crews, and go our separate ways. Total time with boats together and visible to Coast Guard airplanes? Maybe an hour max.
And finally, a couple days later, the day dawned when we were to meet up with the fishing boat. It was our 142nd day at sea. Four months and three weeks without touching land. We were in radio contact with the fishing boat. It showed up about nine in the morning. Looked plenty big enough to take the load. The guys waved. We waved.
There was only one small problem.
Overnight, the wind had started up again. And in turn, the wind had kicked up a nasty short chop with closely spaced waves maybe six feet tall, a couple meters of ugly. And there’s no way that two wooden boats can raft up together in that kind of a sea. You’ll bash in the sides of both boats. We were totally out of luck on that front. No rafting up possible.
Grrr … what else can go wrong on this voyage, we wondered? Were we cursed? Were we going to end up like the Flying Dutchman, with a crew condemned to sail forever? From an 1803 description:
The crew of this vessel are supposed to have been guilty of some dreadful crime, in the infancy of navigation … and are ordained still to traverse the ocean on which they perished, till the period of their penance expire.
To be continued until the period of my own penance expires …
Best to all on what here is a lovely spring day.