From where Roy and I sat in the cockpit of the 50-foot (15 m) sailboat, we looked across a couple hundred yards (meters) of rough offshore ocean at the fishing boat we’d met up with. We’d been going up and down the California coast since our almost-successful offload of ten thousand pounds more than three weeks earlier. It seemed like we’d been on the ocean forever.
The plan had been to transfer the final two thousand pounds of Thailand’s finest hemp to the fishing boat. Then we’d swap the crews between the two boats. They’d run the finally-empty sailboat to Mexico, and Roy and I would run the fishing boat in to the shore. When we got there, we were to anchor up behind Point Reyes with what usually were about a dozen fishing boats anchored there at that time of year. Safety in numbers, and I knew the anchorage from when I used to fish commercially in the area.
But that morning, the ocean was far too rough to put the two boats side by side as we’d planned. The sides of both boats would be bashed in.
We’d been 142 days at sea. We were about twenty miles (thirty-five km) offshore. We hadn’t even seen the shore during the 26 days since the almost-successful offload.
Roy and I racked our brains to come up with a method to transfer the load. There was no way either one of us was willing to spend even one more night on the sailboat. After what we’d been through, this wouldn’t stop us.
Here’s what we came up with.
We had a small inflatable boat. It would hold maybe three hundred pounds (a hundred forty kg) plus one person. We rigged up a rope yoke to the inflatable.
Then we got our longest nylon line, nylon because it stretches under strain. We attached a float to the end of the line. We let it trail out behind us. The guys on the fishing boat picked it up. We arranged a sliding loop so that the inflatable could slide along that main rope.
We tied the inflatable alongside, and filled it up and lashed down the load. Roy put on his wetsuit.
The fishing boat, tied to the far end of the long nylon line, just kept a little tension on the line. Roy got into the inflatable. He cut loose. As he pulled hand over hand downwind along the line, the inflatable slid down the main rope to the fishing boat. When it got there, the two guys on the fishing boat and Roy tied it off and started offloading.
As soon as it was empty, we ran the procedure in reverse. The fishing boat moved upwind, with the nylon main rope angling back downwind to the sailboat. Roy cut loose from the fishing boat and hand over hand, slid downwind down the main rope to the sailboat. We refilled the inflatable, the fishing boat slid back downwind of us, and again Roy slid the inflatable down the main rope to the fishing boat, unloaded, and slid back down the rope to the sailboat.
The reason for moving the boats was so that loaded or empty, the inflatable was always moving downwind. That made it much easier to pull the inflatable from boat A to boat B.
At some point Roy and I swapped jobs. He took the sailboat and I took the inflatable. I put my wetsuit on and took over. When the inflatable was loaded, I jumped in. It was plenty bouncy, but as long as I kept my weight low it was ok. I’d ridden boats that could buck worse than that inflatable.
At the fishing boat, I stayed in the inflatable, handing silver bricks up to the two guys on deck, ready to cut loose. Time was critical. This whole operation was happening on a clear day. I did NOT want to show up on some photographs from a Coast Guard plane …
The fishing boat started moving upwind. When the line to the sailboat came tight I cut loose, slid downwind along the main rope in the empty inflatable, and immediately Roy and I started loading it up again.
As soon as it was full and the boats were in position, I slid hand over hand down the line to the fishing boat again. I stayed in the inflatable boat until it was unloaded. Then I wanted to check on the load in the fishing boat, to make sure it was packed right. I went on board.
But the fishing boat felt strange. After four months at sea I was attuned to all the motions of a boat. This boat felt, don’t know how to describe it, maybe “mushy”. The motions of the boat weren’t crisp.
I went below decks to see what was going on. I stepped off the bottom step of the companionway ladder into … cold sea water up to my calves.
The !@#$%^& fishing boat was sinking! Water was up well over the floorboards. It was so outrageous it took a moment for my brain to accept it.
The. Boat. Was. Sinking.
After four months at sea, I’m standing in a sinking boat.
I lost it. I howled at the sky. I raged and screamed.
“MORTAR-FRACKING CORK-STACKER, WHAT MORE CAN HAPPEN ON THIS INSANE VOYAGE? GRAB BUCKETS AND BAIL FOR YOUR LIVES, BOYS, SHE’S GOING DOWN!!
Gotta love the ocean … builds your character … expands your vocabulary …
More to come, I gotta grab my weed wacker and go mow the winter grasses …