Adventures in Sailing, Part 6 – Hawaii Bound – But First, The U.S. Navy

Photo by Darren Nunis on Unsplash

Adventures in Sailing, part 6

Our 12 person crew on the 42-foot trimaran Columba, headed to Hawaii, were off to a slow start as we rounded the southern edge of Catalina island on our 2nd day. The winds accelerated and we headed to San Clemente island at the end of our 3rd day. The skies grew gray and a red sun set ahead of us. San Clemente loomed in front of us. As the seas grew rougher, I wrapped myself in my wool blanket, staving off seasickness as best I could, hunkering down aft as the waves soaked my blanket. It was a miserable start to our trip, but I hadn’t given in and gotten sick yet.

I had KP duty after dinner, and being down below made me queasier than ever. Our dinner of green beans cooked in salt water upset most of us — what was the cook thinking? She was trying to preserve our limited supply of fresh water, but the salt water ruined the dinner and most of the crew got sick. I still held out, knowing that the second I got sick, I would be sicker than I ever had been at sea.

On our way around the southern tip of San Clemente island, a noted restricted area as the island was used for bombing practice by the U.S. Navy, we saw two boats ahead, one a smaller vessel and the other large. As we approached, we heard a loud blast — BOOM! followed by another and another. We heard the whistle of a projectile sail overhead, and we were close enough to hear the thud and see the explosing erupt on the island — live ammunition. And then they stopped.

We were sitting directly between the island and a U.S. Navy battleship. When the projectile whistled overhead, the captain muttered to himself, “Goddamit!” We were a day’s sail from the mainland, and our radio wasn’t working properly. One would think before we headed to Hawaii, that we could return to land and make sure that the radio was in working order. But that was the Captain’s call to make.

The bombing was spectacular, even if frightening, but it stopped as quickly as it started. The smaller boat, a PT cruiser, approached and yelled to us.

“What are you doing? You’re in restricted waters and must leave immediately.”

Through yelling and pantomime, the captain made it clear we were headed toward Hawaii. Personnel on the PT boat pointed for where we should go — he pointed back toward the mainland. Not one to argue with the U.S. Navy, the captain ordered a change of direction, and we set the sails to head toward San Diego.

At this time, I finally succumbed to my seasickness, barfing over the stern of the boat, over and over again, wrapped in my striped wool blanket, hanging my head over the back of the boat. I wasn’t going to move for anything, and I was witness to the entire scene.

After about an hour, the PT boat approached again and said, “I thought you said you were headed to Hawaii. Go that way!” He pointed west. Again, not to argue with the Navy, the captain ordered a change of direction again, setting our sails for Hawaii.

When we cleared the southern end of San Clemente island, the waters had grown rougher and the winds increased to 40–50 mph. Our boat was tossed but this was no 3-hour tour. Our weeks’ long voyage was just starting. We saw two battleships once we got around the southern tip of the island. They sat some distance from each other, at 9 and 11 o’clock from our bow with the island at 3 o’clock. We sailed into the rough night.

After we had gained some distance, we heard the first of several loud booms! The whistling of the projectiles was in the distance now and not directly overhead. We saw the explosion on the island, the flames erupting with the explosion, and then we heard the noise. And then the power of the U.S. Navy was on full display. Once out of their way, the battleships unleashed a fury on that island that I had only ever imagined. It was the greatest fourth of July spectacle I have ever seen — bombs bursting in air, or rather on the deserted island, a wasteland of artillery shells.

I watched with awe at the power of the unleashed fury, moaning that I wanted to go home, not from fear of the Navy but from the overwhelming seasickness as the rough seas grew. I remained perched in the stern of the boat all night, soaked through in my rain gear under my wool blanket. Moving wasn’t an option, and I had nothing left to throw-up, just bile.

Morning brought light but no sun as the day remained gray and the waters rough. We made good time, 9–11 knots, but the cross currents kept me sick. I couldn’t get anything down and I struggled to swallow pills. The captain finally gave me some coca-cola syrup for my stomach, and the first mate gave me some pills for seasickness—I wrote down “Boukleden” but I don’t know what these miracle pills were — which I managed to swallow. I tried to sleep as the rest of the crew went about their assigned chores and watches.

In the afternoon, I felt better. The skies cleared and I adjusted to the seas, which grew calmer but with steady winds. It grew warmer too as we headed south and west.

In the late afternoon, we were buzzed by a navy reconnaissance plane, flying slow and low and snapping pictures to see who we were, the trespassors of the restricted zone from the night below. Somewhere in Washington D.C. or the vaults of the Navy in San Diego is a picture of the sailing vessel Columba and its crew of 12 heading to Hawaii, June 24, 1980.

This auspicious start to the trip was met with one thought — maybe they could stop and pick me up and take me home. Seasickness is the worst. As anyone who knows who suffers from seasickness, dying isn’t enough. Compared to seasickness, dying is the easy way out. Kill me twice to put me out of my misery.

Cloud’s miracle pills and coca-cola syrup helped, and in a day or two I finally gained my sealegs. I suffered from a headache for most of the rest of the trip, but I persevered and saw the trip through. I had no choice. There are no Motel 6s between California and Hawaii.

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