Sunday, February 7, 2010

Whales, Weather and Women who Wow!

January 30, 2010 Saturday - Departed Catalina Island for Alamitos Bay. The island is green from the storms that passed through. (See the photos in our slideshow.) Life is springing forth again, always ready to grow with encouragement. We had no wind, so motored east towards the mainland. Celeste had the helm and George read aloud from Richard Harvey Dana's book Two Years Before the Mast, which is set in these waters in the early 1800s. About 30 minutes out, Celeste suddenly slowed the motor and took the boat to starboard to avoid a pod of whales.

This was a lollygagging group, about half a dozen in number, also headed towards Alamitos. Every 10 seconds or so they would surface, exhaling in a puff that didn't result in a spout but was audible. They were large - about the size of a school bus - and dappled, grey and white. We'd never seen this sort before, so ran downstairs to pick up a book every Pacific Coast traveler should carry: Whales and Other Marine Mammals of California and Baja by Tamara Eder with illustrations by Ian Sheldon. With its assistance we identified them as Cuvier's Beaked Whale. These whales make deep dives of 20 to 40 minutes to feed on deep-sea fish and squid. (Sure enough, the squid are running.) We sat still about 5 minutes waiting for them to move on. Because of course we know that you are supposed to maintain a distance of at least 100 yards from any whales, for their safety as well as yours. The problem we've had is getting the whales to follow the rules. After they'd disappeared we waited another 5 minutes. Then, with George at the helm, we started off again towards Alamitos. No sooner had we started then they resurfaced, just ahead of our port bow.

For a moment, I was concerned they might have decided Nereid was a part of the pod. But eventually they did move on. About 15 minutes after they disappeared we saw a series of water spouts north of our position - like fountains at Bellagio, one after another spouting - almost certainly the same pod surfacing after a deep dive.

Seeing wildlife is a magical experience for both of us. Believing what we do about the imperiled state of our planet, moments like those are a reminder, a blessing and an encouragement to do what we can to be conservative in our use of resources and learn what we can about how to live in harmony with life on Earth.

Pulling into Alamitos is almost a familiar experience. We tied up on the end of Dock 15 and got set with water lines (Nereid needs a bath) and shore power (use of our hot water tank and refrigeration - no ice - on board would be our luxuries for two nights). Unfortunately, the reverse polarity warning light came on at our panel. This had occurred the last time we'd docked there, and we had called it into maintenance. We were sorry to see the same problem because it meant either going without shore power or requesting a change in slip assignment. We decided on the latter. There was just enough time for George to make the trek to the harbor master's office while Celeste started giving Nereid a washdown. Unfortunately (have I already used that word here?) a misstep knocked the long-handled brush down and sent it skidding over the side, where it floated lazily among the cormorants. What to do? Fortunately, I've learned to think for a moment before jumping in. I donned a wetsuit and waited dockside for George to return. (No cell phone access.) Unfortunately, (sorry, but we may as well state that "unfortunately" is our word of the day) George was delayed in returning. Our brush sank beyond reach. But George did return with a new slip assignment. We shoved off and motored around to Dock 12, where we had been assigned an end tie. There was a lovely 30' motor yacht (Whit's End) on the dock's west end so we headed for the east. Unfortunately, the wind picked up. There was no risk of hitting Whit's End, but we could not reach dockside despite having lassoed the cleats. George pulled away and circled for another attempt. This time the wind held its breath, but we still had a time of it. George stepped off to assist the owner of Whit's End who had come over to lend a hand. It was impossible! What is normally a simple job - gently pulling Nereid towards the dock - was made impossible by the extremely low tide that had just occurred 20 minutes before our arrival at Dock 12. We were aground, tied to the dock but 4 feet from it. George was on the dock and Celeste on the boat. "How do you feel about long distance Scrabble?" he asked. We contemplated ways of getting him aboard, but it was no use. Cruisers just don't carry gangplanks these days. George headed back to the harbor office to get a tide table. Unfortunately, the office only had one for February (and this was January 30) nor did the harbor master have a current table. George headed to the fuel dock. The attendant didn't have a table, but he resourcefully pulled one up on his cell phone. Yep - a minus 1.5'tide had occurred - exceptional for Alamitos. The moon was at perigee - "the point in the orbit of a heavenly body, esp. the moon, or of an artificial satellite at which it is nearest to the earth". Ah well, tides come and go. Within an hour, it had lifted and Nereid was snugged up against the dock. Although we were fatigued, we had dinner and then ventured out for the local bookstore. The journey to a bookstore is never too long.

Lin and Larry Pardey, a penultimate cruising couple, say that if you are going to cruise on a budget you must do three things: 1. anchor, don't dock 2. carry sails for light winds so you don't have to buy fuel 3. leave your wallet on the boat. We're aspiring to these. We've done well with anchoring and finding $5.00 moorings, we are looking for lightweight sails, and we are careful in our provisioning; but, provision we must. Alamitos has become our dock of choice in the Long Beach area because of its proximity to Whole Foods (aka Whole Paycheck.) Organic and gluten free foods are what we value though ("cheaper to keep toxins out than to get them out") and not available in a lot of places, so stocking up is imperative. And, we've recommitted to taking vitamin and mineral supplements as needed. Again, a personal value. So, we pulled out the debit card.

We have been very fortunate in our friendships. This is true in general, and especially in Bob and Chris, who befriended us in Avalon. In them we've found warmth, generosity, humor and a zest for life. Chris' parents live near Alamitos, and she phoned us Sunday morning to offer us use of their Toyota wagon. This made our trip much more affordable, and we gratefully accepted. Chris picked up Celeste, provided her the car and sent her off to spend the day provisioning. She also extended an invitation for us to join her on Tuesday night, for a dinner party in celebration of her mother's 86th birthday. We gladly accepted and made arrangements for another night in Alamitos. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday flew by, with George traveling to Costa Mesa to see the NUCCA (National Upper Cervical Chiropractic Assn.) practitioner whom he'd found in November. Soon it was time for the birthday dinner in Signal Hill, an enclave (city unto itself) completely surrounded by the city of Long Beach. We brought a bouquet and were warmly greeted by Chris, who introduced us to Barbara (the birthday girl), her son Randy and his wife, Dale. Randy and Dale own The Wine Country, a wine store in Long Beach and were supplying the drinks. We toasted Barbara's health and settled into conversation while vegetables fresh-picked from Dale's garden roasted. We were in the home Barbara had owned for 40-some years, the place where both Chris and Randy grew up, and the air seemed to glow with memories. After dinner, Randy serenaded his mother with a piano performance, tinkling the ivories of the upright Barbara had bought when he was just a boy. (He had gone on to become a professional musician for many years.) The constancy of this family home touched me; a site can become sacred when lives are well-lived upon it.

February 3, 2010 Wednesday - By 10:30 a.m. we were underway for Dana Point. This is the location where Richard Harvey Dana spent most of his time hide-droughing and curing hides when the land was still part of Mexico. Hide-droughing involved transporting them to the ships that would carry them to Boston. The hides were folded in half and dried so as to be stiff. At Dana Point (obviously so named long after his days there as a sailor) the cliffs are high and steep, so hide-droughing meant sending these stiffened hides off the clifftop, hoping they would waft to the beach without being caught in a crevice along the way. We have been reading Dana's book out loud to each other, and as soon as we saw the impressive cliffs we were transported to the image of those sailors at work. The harbor is lovely and quiet, with a replica of the Pilgrim - the brig in which Dana traveled from Boston. We had hoped to tour the ships but learned they are used during the week for educational purposes, with only Sundays being open to the public. We anchored about 150' off one of the replicas and set about preparing dinner. The sun was out and we could hear the educational program being conducted. It involved re-enactments of scenes from Two Years Before the Mast, with school children (probably 7-10 years old) being "taught the ropes" and introduced to some of the customs and rigors of sailing during that era. I thought some of the actors might have enjoyed their harsh roles a bit much (berating the crew) but the children all seemed to enjoy the show - offering up hearty cries of "Sir, yes sir!" when prompted. George and I ate dinner in the cockpit. The sun was setting, when we heard voices working in a call-and-response fashion: "Heave" "HO", "Heave" "HO". It was a rowboat full of children who couldn't have been more than 7, commanded by two actors. The captain stood in the stern, mug of coffee in hand, while the mate sat, rather huddled, in the bow. The children might have been rowing with teaspoons for all the traction they were getting. They were so tiny! We had to laugh. George said the captain had obviously learned to take a good size mug on these excursions. They rowed by Nereid and we hullooed, to which they asked where we were bound. "To see the world," we replied. "Do you need any crew?" they asked.

February 4, 2010, Thursday - George woke me at 7:00 a.m. ready to head for Mission Bay. This would be a long journey, but we wanted to make it into San Diego Friday, since I had signed up for a Women's Sailing Convention that would begin Saturday morning. I was a little vague on where the convention was being held, so I pulled up the program and typed the yacht club's name into our navigation system. Oops! Whereas I had thought it was being held in Coronado (near San Diego) it was being held near Corona Del Mar (north of Dana Point.) The good news was that this was only two hours from Dana Point - and there was wind! We motored out of the harbor at Dana Point and prepared to set the sails. George was on the foredeck and Celeste at the helm with the boat pointed dead into the wind and the engine in neutral. Suddenly, a Gray Whale's massive head popped up just off our starboard bow. It reached its long mouth high into the air as it surfaced then sunk beneath the foamy ring it had made. Celeste called out to George, who turned in time to see the whale's large fluke break through the surface. It was headed for us! Gently, I moved Nereid into a slow reverse. There was not much else to do but hold our breath and hope we would pass "like ships in the night." The massive form moved past our bow (photo at the top of this post) and passed us on the port side.

We had wind from the southwest at 13-16 knots and flew towards Newport traveling a little over half the wind speed and tacking twice for our destination. It was a lovely sail! We checked in at the harbor office and proceeded to the moorings, which are bow and stern but not well maintained. We had an awful time getting Nereid settled, but finally did so by assembling the dinghy and rowing our bow into place. We both were glad to be settled and George insisted on taking us out to dinner. We rowed the short distance onto Balboa Island and found a gem of a Mexican restaurant on the main street of this tiny community. We rowed back and settled in for what would be a full day of stormy weather.

Friday was wet and windy - very. I couldn't imagine what the coordinators of the Women's Sailing Convention were dealing with in preparation for Saturday. They had bad weather to contend with and 200 women ready to go out on the following day. All I had to do was dress for the weather and travel light - a few things in a plastic ziploc bag. So I spent Friday working (internet access at last!) at the local Starbucks, a regular haven for digital nomads. Saturday morning arrived without much change: heavy rains and winds. George and I bundled into our foul-weather gear, pumped out the dinghy, and rowed to the dock. Even the birds didn't bother to waste energy fleeing from us - the weather was just too much. We tied up and then trekked a good distance to the public showers. By the time we emerged, the rain had stopped and the clouds were beginning to break. It might be a good day for a sailing convention after all.

This was the 21st annual Women's Sailing Convention, organized by Gail Hine. It was being hosted at the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club, a lovely and friendly club, and sponsored by the Southern California Yachting Association. Here was an amazing collection of women: captains, crew and sailors. Capable women who have accomplished remarkable things and lived life with gusto. I thoroughly enjoyed the day, having signed up for 4 practical courses: Head Maintenance, Winch Maintenance, Sail Trim and Going Up the Mast. In every course I learned things valuable for George and me. And I made some new friends. Remarkably, two of my three instructors were from the Seattle area! Captain Nancy Erle, who has circumnavigated twice with all-women crew, and Captain Linda Newland, who has a long and highly respected list of accomplishments that include sailing solo from California to Japan. Both were excellent instructors, truly inspirations. For the first time, I am thinking seriously about pursuing a Captain's license.

It's now Sunday. A sunny, clear day. We've decided to stay two more nights. Then we'll head for San Diego. We still want to get in a tour at Dana Point, and we have to be back at Catalina Island before the 23rd. For now, we're setting out on a walking tour of Balboa and Lido.

Fairwinds, all.