The Last Watery Waltz

I have just one rule about writing.

I only write when I can’t stand not writing, when the ideas roiling around in my head cry out to be put down on paper.

And this is that point, where I stop thinking and start writing about how as I described in my last post, after 142 days at sea, I got on board a fishing boat that we were offloading to, only to find that the fishing boat was sinking.

When I stepped off of the companionway ladder into calf-deep water, there was a clutch in my guts. I shouted for the two relief crew to stop everything, grab a bucket, and bail like mad.

After the first adrenalin rush, however, I wasn’t much afraid. I had my wet suit on. I had an inflatable tied alongside. I had the main rope over to the sailboat.

No, I wasn’t afraid, but man, I was ANGRY! I was raging, shouting that there was no way that the pinche pendejo ocean was going to get the best of me! I was not going down with the ship, no way, and the ship was not going down, not on my watch. NO!

Here’s what I found out. If you want an efficient pump … three guys with buckets can move a whole lot of water pretty fast.

I asked them if the boat had a bilge pump. They said they didn’t know. They were hired to drive the boat. It was rented. If it got busted the owner would claim it had been stolen. Bilge pump? Vacant looks.

So I ripped up the floorboards and looked underneath. Under a couple of feet (60 cm) of water, there was indeed an electrical bilge pump, with a “float switch” to turn it on when there was water and off when the pumping was done.

rule float switch.png

But the float switch that should have turned the bilge pump on and off was jammed. I cleaned around it underwater and worried the float loose, and the pump kicked in. That turned the tide. We continued to bail until the water level got back below the floorboards. The pump made short work of the rest.

Turns out that, like a few other boats I’ve been on, the propeller shaft didn’t leak at the dock, when it wasn’t turning. But when the boat was running, it leaked a reasonable amount. Normally the pump with the float switch would have taken care of that, but the switch was stuck in the off position. It had been leaking ever since leaving port, but the relief crew hadn’t noticed.

I said further bad words.

I showed the relief crew where the switch was, and where it pumped overboard so they could see if it was pumping.

Then I got back into the inflatable, pulled the inflatable hand over hand to the sailboat, gave the Captain the news as we loaded up the inflatable. I pulled it back to the fishing boat.

After a few trips, he and I traded off again. He put on his wet suit. I took off mine. We loaded the inflatable, he got in, and so on … and after while we traded off once more. I got into a very clammy wetsuit and continued shifting the load.

And after what seemed like forever, every single last silver brick was offloaded. The sailboat was totally cleaned out. One of the relief crew came across to the sailboat. We brought across their gear. The Captain and I went around the boat, explained whatever we could. Both of us had on wetsuits. With no load, we could both get into the inflatable. We went hand-over-hand to the fishing boat. The other relief crewman got in the inflatable and pulled himself and his gear to the sailboat.

Then after he’d gotten there, and after they pulled up the inflatable on deck, we cast off the main rope. They turned south, the plan was to take the boat to LA.

We turned towards the coast.

Our goal was to go in and anchor up in Drakes Bay, which is protected from the weather by Point Reyes.

drakes bay 1.png

The scale in the lower right, 5.5 nautical miles (NM) is 6.3 miles or ~10 km.

There is no small-boat harbor of any kind in Drakes Bay. But as you can see in the chart below, you can get in where your boat is protected from the normal summer wind out of the west or northwest.

drakes bay II.png

The scale in the lower right, 1.8 nautical miles (NM) is about two miles or 3.3 km.

The point of land furthest to the west (left) in the chart above is Point Reyes. The anchorage is in the blue-colored shallow water inside the “hook” of land. It’s always calm in that corner.

Now, the offload at sea had been about fifteen miles offshore. The fishing boat would do about eight miles an hour. So in what was our shortest leg of the voyage, a mere two hours, we were dropping anchor in the shallows just above the word “TOWER” on the chart above. There were a dozen or more other fishing boats anchored up right there, it’s a popular spot for the commercial and sport fishermen alike.

We gathered up every evidence of our existence. We unstrapped the small dinghy from the front deck of the fishing boat. We piled our meager possessions into the dinghy. The Captain rowed. I sat and marveled at the view and the smells and the world.

And finally, the nose of the dinghy ground against the sand of the beach. We staggered out. For the first time in months, we were away from the load, and not actually committing a crime. And we were on land. True, the land definitely felt like it was moving. We sat down on the beach. Just a couple of guys enjoying the afternoon.

Soon, our ride showed up, along with the final offload crew. That night, they would take the fishing boat about 120 miles (200 km) south for the ultimate offload by Half Moon Bay. We gave them the fishing boat keys. Told them about the bilge pump. Wished them well. But that was still to come, and it was their adventure, not mine.

So the Captain and I got in the car and rode away. It was a clear day, and from a hill near where the boat was anchored we could see all the way back to San Francisco …

point reyes back to sfo.png

I can’t begin to explain to you the effect of things like seeing the textures of the hills was when for months all I’d been looking at was boat and ocean, ocean and boat.

And that was the end of the trip where I was invited overseas.

What’s left to write? Let’s see. Things I learned. Sights I remember. Mistakes I made. Oh, and the money, of course.

Biggest mistake? I’d say the second biggest mistake was about midnight one night in the Philippines. We were motoring along the coast of Luzon Island south of Manila. We’d left Manila headed back to a small bay we’d been anchored up in. Roy and I were both navigating, using the radar. We both thought we were at the mouth of the bay. We turned it. Realizing our mistake, we turned to leave … and put the boat up solid on the reef.

We were doubly fortunate. There was very little swell where we were, and we hit right about low tide. The tide is not too large in the Philippines, about three feet (one meter) or so. But it was enough that we could “kedge” the boat off.

“Kedging” means you take the ship’s anchor in the skiff. Run a ways offshore, and drop the anchor. Then you can use a windlass to pull on that anchor to drag you off the reef.

The Captain knew all the tricks, though. Instead of just pulling on the anchor line, he ran the anchor line through a pulley at the top of the mast. That way, when you pull on the kedge line, the boat tips over somewhat … and when that happens the boat doesn’t extend as far down underwater. So after waiting about ten hours for the tide to come in, plus an hour heaving and pulling, we finally got it off the reef. Happy but chastened.

Another mistake I made was thinking I’d get back again. I told my friends in both Hong Kong and the Philippines that I’d come back to see them … never been back to either place. I learned to live for the moment and to enjoy people when I’m with them.

Biggest mistake? Not having a Plan B for the offload. Huge error.

What did I learn? I started the trip as a man who had spent lots of time at sea, working as a commercial fisherman as well as sailing.

I ended the trip as a true blue-water seaman, thanks in large part to my teacher, the Captain.

I also learned, kids, don’t try this at home … after I got back, I told a sailor I knew about the crazy adventure. He thought “Good plan!” and sailed off to give it a try. Sadly, he wasn’t as careful or as fortunate as we were. He wandered into Cambodian waters, was picked up by Pol Pot’s Coast Guard, and died in the Killing Fields … no bueno.

I learned that one thing that SEALboy told us was true. He’d sailed across oceans before. He said when you crossed an entire ocean and finally hit land, you realize that you are changed forever and that anything is possible for you.

He was right. Having done what I’d done, 142 days at sea, storms, frustrations, endless boredom, broken plans, fair-weather gales, and a boat doing its best to sink out from under me, after pushing through all of that with nothing but an unbreakable determination to make it all work … after having overcome all of that, I knew that no task would seem too large.

Sights I remember? The Aberdeen Harbor on Hong Kong at night, when everything is an oriental fairy-tale … the sea of waterspouts … the island called “Lot’s Wife” … too many to mention, I spend my life with my eyes drinking in all the wonders of this world.

And that brings me to the money, which in turn brings me back to my friend Antonio. I mentioned at the beginning that he was the one who hired me to go overseas. He was a kind of heavy-set New York Italian guy who had fantasies that he was in the Mob. He loved “The Godfather”, he’d seen the film dozens of times and liked to quote lines from it. He always wanted us to call him “TonyB”, he thought it sounded Mafia-like … but nobody did, everyone just called him “Tone” or “Tony”.

Anyhow, Tone was the main man, the brains, the deal-maker. After a couple of weeks, I went to see him, to settle up. I was expecting something around half a million dollar payday for my 10% share of his half of the deal. But noooo … just a fraction of that, and not a big fraction either.

When I asked for an explanation, he said first off, some of the vegetable matter had suffered from being in the sea … yeah, I said, your relief crew didn’t notice that their boat was sinking. But OK, that would cut into your profits.

Next, putting that amount of Southeast Asian herbal material on the market all at once depressed the prices.

And that made sense as well … but it didn’t explain anywhere near everything.

As for the rest?

Well, while I was floating around off the coast saying bad words, Tone had been offered a great opportunity to buy into another boat deal. However, he’d been short of the requisite ready cash. Long story short, he figured I wouldn’t mind investing with him so he put the rest of my money into that deal, every penny …

… a deal which, as these things often happen, never did happen.

End of story. So instead of walking away wealthy, I got to walk away with OK money.

However, I got to walk away, which is worth a lot.

In closing, let me say I’ve held fast to my big swear that I made to not be a bad swabbie again. I’ve done no more work as a boat-borne customs and excise facilitator, none of that.

And as for the fate of my money?

As the old swabbie’s saying goes,

“Most of it I spent on whiskey, women, and boats … the rest, I fear I wasted.”

Or as the poet laureate of sailors, Jimmy Buffett, once wrote:

I’ve done a bit of smuggling
And I’ve run my share of grass
I made enough money to buy Miami
But I pissed it away so fast …

Yeah, that’s definitely what happened to my money, and before I turned around twice I was once again commercial fishing to keep the wolf from the door … but I was not the same fisherman I’d been when I’d cast loose and left for Hong Kong …

And to complete the circle, “A Pacific Penance”, the post where we started, the post listing all of the chapters of my hejira, is here.

Best regards to all my old and new friends out there, enjoy the sunshine, keep the hammer down, drink in all the wonders of this most mysterious planet, and thanks for coming along on this strange voyage.


18 thoughts on “The Last Watery Waltz

    • Thanks for the kind words, Rob, and even more so, thanks for your service. The Coasties are ever and always the friend and the salvation of commercial fishermen like myself, you guys are definitely among my heroes.



  1. I, like many of your followers have been waiting with bated breath for the sequel, whew, it’s good to be able to breath again! Loved the whole story. Your description of Hong Kong took me back to 1977 and my only visit there.

    I lived briefly in Sausalito and traveled on MtnBk over and around Pt. Reyes, Mt. Tam, China Point, breathing in the air and loving the smell of the sea in it. My only real adventure on a boat was sailing, briefly, a lovely thing which had come in third in the Galveston-Vera Cruz race back in the 70’s. I was astonished to discover that when the sails were properly set and the boat heeled over it felt like a sports car at the wheel. Wow!

    I can only imagine with the help of your verbiage what I missed by not taking several roads less traveled.

    Thank you for all your stories. I’m now a confirmed voyeur of life via the written word.


  2. Your friend Tone had a gift to select right friends. You did not even think of a ’45.

    I wish I could write half as well as you do. Thanks, and a happy Easter, a little late.


    • George, I actually did think of my poor old single action 45 automatic … but I figured Tone would die of laughter if I showed him that.

      Funny story about that pistola. I kept that single-action 45 for a year or so. Then a couple that were friends of mine were going to do a scam in South America, driving down and back. They asked if they could take the gun for safety. “Sure”, sez I.

      So they go down, drive from San Francisco to Panama, put their VW bus on a boat to South America. They fill up the empty spaces in the VW with over a megabuck’s worth of Colombian marching powder, and they start back north.

      They get as far a Guatemala, where they stop at a small-town store. They park right outside the store, and they both go in to buy a few things.

      When they come out ten minutes later, the VW, the single-action 45 automatic, and well over a million dollars retail worth of blow are gone, gone, gone, never to be seen again. Well, at least not by them.

      Of course, they couldn’t go to the cops …

      They got on a bus north and showed up a couple weeks later, very shame-faced, with no VW, no pistol, and no million bucks worth … the people who had put up the money were not amused, but it made for a good tale around the campfire. Here’s Jimmy Buffet again …

      “Ah, the stories we could tell
      And if it all blows up and goes to Hell
      I wish that we could sit upon a bed in some motel
      Just listen to the stories we could tell”



  3. Willis, I enjoyed every word of your long adventure and am very glad you made it through safe and sound to entertain us the exploits.


  4. So when Netfilx makes the movie (or series) Wiiilis, who will play you?
    Jude Law?
    Daniel Craig?
    Chris Hemsworth?
    Russell Crowe?


  5. Awesome story!!! Thanks for keeping us entertained, in suspense, and laughing too.

    It’s been awhile since I’ve visited here, finally got the email under control, unsubed from lots of things. And I’ve been a Twitter warrior mostly over the last few years. I’m going to post some links to this story soon. It’s too good not to share more widely.😎


  6. Old saying this side of the pond, “The best pump is a frightened man with a bucket.”
    Best to you and all of yours, Willis, and thanks for all the tales.


  7. The best yarns are the true yarns, man. And this has been a cracker, by a master yarn-spinner. So good…

    Yesterday here was 25 April, Anzac Day. Bride of fifty years and I marched in the Dawn Parade in the tiny Hauraki Plains village of Kerepehi, about 40km from Herkinderkin’s Heaven. The were about 70 folk of all ages marching in the darkness, in a thick, surreal must. A solitary drummer beat simple time to steady we civvies. We halted by the war memorial hall. A brief simple service, followed by the heartbreaking bugle calling the Last Post. Then the Reveille call, and we marched back along the street , now with two buglers playing “The Maori Battalion”, lifting our spirits.

    In honour of my father, I wore his WW2 campaign medals. He had on for Greece, where he fought not only as a soldier but in the resistance with the partisans after he had escaped from the POW camp. The other was from North Africa, where he fought in the battle of Alamein.

    I have a strong feeling that he learned the same lesson as you did in your journey, one I can appreciate but will never know as viscerally as he did, and as you do.

    PS Kerepehi really us tiny. 70 people is probably half the population. That’s impressive. After all the overblown publicity about a raised terror alert level, it’s great that ordinary people just say bugger that, and carry on.

    Thanks for telling us about it.


  8. “Most of it I spent on whiskey, women, and boats … the rest, I fear I wasted.”
    All righty, then. A worthy redemption.
    I was starting to squint a baleful eye…


  9. Pingback: A Pacific Penance | Skating Under The Ice

  10. Pingback: Floating Through Life | Skating Under The Ice

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