Nights on the Pacific Ocean were absolutely fantastic. The stars shone brighter than I had ever seen since the sky was free from any city light pollution. We practiced taking sights with our sextants. We were under strict orders to always wear our life jackets and to attach our hooks to the lifelines and always keep one hand on the boat, basic boating safety.
One night, on a late watch with the captain’s daughter, I could not keep my eyes open. I was so tired, partly because my bunk was used as the dining table through the day so I never had a comfortable place to nap. The deck was too hot and too noisy with the day’s activities. We had two hour watches and I remember not being able to keep my eyes open. All of a sudden, I got a slap across the face. It startled me awake and I turned to Christy, thinking she had hit me to wake me up.
In the cockpit was a flying fish. It flopped around at the bottom of the cockpit and I saw its wing-like fins. I had thought flying fish were just a myth, something adults tell kids. But here was one, saving me from embarassment as I was falling asleep on watch.
Another night, I was finally getting a good night’s sleep when I heard the ship’s bell calling everyone on deck. The wind had whipped up and it had grown cold. Our boat had far too much sail out for the strength of the winds, and we needed to act fast to reduce sail and manage the boat in these rough seas. The captain said this was merely a small squall. To me, it seemed like a mighty storm, the ocean turned to angry gray-black monster ready to swallow us up and dash us to pieces.
We worked as a team to pull the jib down, which landed in to the water, making pulling it on deck all the more difficult. The mainsail was much bigger but since it was in the middle of the boat attached to the main mast, it was in less danger of blowing around. Once we got the sails down and in their bags, the sailboat slowed. We still made 3 knots with just our bare masts, but it felt as if we could better control the ship. At the time, it seemed as if this storm would never end, but it only last a few hours, after which the seas seemed relatively calm. We put the sails up, reefed in case the storm returned, which was unlikely, and we began surfing the waves again.
I wasn’t the strongest kid, with my skinny arms, but I had great leverage and was able to pull my weight during this mini crisis. The activity made me forget about seasickness, and my adrenaline kicked in. It was definitely a highlight of the trip, though I can still remember feeling scared having never experienced a sea squall before. Later in the trip, we would be challenged again when making the 24-hour trip from the big island to Maui, but all in due course.
Oh to be on the water again, under those clear skies and those bright stars, in that warm air. The sea becomes a part of every sailor, and even though I was beset with challenges throughout this trip, the sailing bug crept into my soul and has never left.
The day-to-day in the boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean can become quite dull. Oh, give me that dullness all year long.
In the first part of this series, I described our encounter in the doldrums. But when we had wind, there wasn’t anything quite like sailing in the Pacific.
It grew warm quite quickly on our trip. It’s late June and we’re heading south and west from southern California to Hawaii. Take a look at a globe to see — yes, even you flat earthers out there can learn from a globe.
Our days were very regular. I slept on the dining table, stowed down to become a bunk. My bunkmate was Tonya, the skinny blonde hard rocker partier teenager a couple years older than me. We slept in our own sleeping bags, head to foot. At 16 and inexperienced in the ways of the world (euphemism alert!), I didn’t quite know what to do with myself on this crowded vessel. At any rate, we were saved by the daily schedule — table up at 6:00 am for a 7:00 breakfast, and table down at midnight for lights out. That gave us 6 restful hours for the night, 4 of which were taken up with my watches. I drew the unfavorable watches of 12–2 am and 4–6 am, due to my lapse from seasickness. Fair is fair — or since the captain made the rules and the watch and cleaning schedules, there was no arguing.
We had our meals at 7:00, noon, and 6:00 pm. There were also snacks through the day whenever they happened to be done. For chores, we each had to care for our own bunks, and then we were assigned chores: bright work (polishing anything metal), washing the dishes and cleaning the galley, cleaning the head and head compartment, scrubbing the decks and pilot area, and whatever other cleaning activities had to be done.
On our way to Hawaii, we had the wind at our backs, trade winds, and often we sailed wing on wing, with one sail out and the other out on the other side, like a giant wingspan. The wind was behind us, pushing us to Hawaii. The effect is that there was very little slapping noise of the water on the boat, and we surfed the waves. We’d reach the crest of the waves and then the boat would surf down into the trough and we’d repeat, gently, all day long. It was warm (sunscreen was absolutely necessary!) but we did a fair amount of sunbathing. If we got too hot, we could dunk a 5-gallon paint bucket into the water on a rope and haul it up and douse ourselves.
Our boat was a 42-foot trimaran with three pontoon hulls. Between the hulls up front, there was netting that could be lounged on. Also, there was a swing, and we could hook the swing up between the pontoons and swing into the water. On other days, we tied a milk jug to a rope and let it out the stern of the boat and had target practice. We each bought several boxes of bullets, .22 gauge. I had never shot a gun before, but this was great fun. We also flew a kite that we tied off aft and just let follow us.
There wasn’t much to see except vast amounts of blue water and blue sky with various configurations of clouds. Every once in a while, we’d see a large vessel some ways off, not close enough even to see us.
We spent time playing games — Scrabble, Dominoes, Othello, Backgammon, and cards. We read a lot and listened to a single cassette tape over and over by The Kinks — I still remember most of the songs and words. I read Tolkein’s Return of the King and books about Star Wars and Battlestar Gallactica. I must have had English major aspirations even then because I also read Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
After our adventures in the doldrums and my card playing fiasco, we began to itch for land. We still weren’t quite halfway there. The captain showed us the course he had plotted on the chart — a zig zag due to our collective inexperience at the helm that cost us a great deal of time. We also had a pool going as to when we would land. For most of the trip, we were on a course to make the date I had for landing, so I was excited that I would win some money to recoup my gambling losses. We settled into a fine routine.
One of the personal items we were asked to bring were snacks. The food situation didn’t turn out as well as he had hoped, so snacks were a premium required for us to keep going. But they also entered “the market,” a bartering system that could last days, especially with some of these stubborn sailors. I had the premium treats and had also bought quite a few boxes of bullets, which were great items to trade for food. At one point I had Almond Roca and See’s Suckers, which went for a premium. It took Dave and me 1/2 hour to come to an agreement: he would give me 3 pieces of beef jerky and 2 boxes of raisins for 1 almond roca and 1 See’s sucker. Then Dave traded a box of bullets for the rest of Cloud’s gorp. I loved that gorp, so Dave and I bartered some more. I remembered I had chocolate chips which I could put in the gorp, but Dave took the gorp off the market, but he wanted the chips. Cloud ran out of bullets again, so I traded a box and a half of bullets for his yogurt peanuts. All in all, bartering helped the time go by and was great fun.
We were getting closer to the islands all the time and waiting for the mountain peak to peek through the clouds. There was a heavy cloud bank in front of us, and we should have been seeing the islands, if our charting was correct. Or, we were too far south and would pass it completely.
Lazy days at sea with calm weather is something I remember fondly, though my journal betrays that I missed Big Macs, the Dodgers, and was unhappy at being picked on constantly. I was a dorky kid — 16 and still wearing a plastic Dodgers helmet (I had not yet discovered fitted baseball caps), and I was reading some 3rd rate sci-fi magazines and Tolkein’s first-rate fantasy.
There are still plenty more sailing adventures to share, including a brief scary squall, riding with the dolphins, and finally sighting land.
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.
At noon on June 22, 1980, we left Ventura for Hawaii, with a scheduled stop at Marina Del Rey to pick up Andrea, our cook. Friends and family saw us off on the dock and our actual departure time was 12:20 pm. I know this because I kept a journal. As I look back on this trip, my memory has merged and altered events and in some cases the images in my memory are more satisfying than the quotidian details of our trip. But truth and memoir are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Writing memoir is a lot like coloring. The truth lies in the sharp black outlines of the experience whereas the details can be colored in with different colored crayons, or pastels, or pencils as the artist chooses.
There were 12 of us, each with our nicknames: Captain Jack Mathias, Christy Mathias, Andrea (cook), Cloud (Ishmael — 1st mate), Dave (McGruder — 2nd mate), Don (Dandy), Sue, Karen, Linda (Lovelace), Tonya (Tucker), Gary (Geraldine), and me, Lee (Lee-bones, Riverboat Gambler). Sue and Karen were valley girls, thin and self-absorbed into sun-bathing. Andrea was a bit older than the rest of the crew, probably in her late 20s and I don’t remember her having a nickname. The three of them didn’t have nicknames. Gary, Christy, and I were high schoolers. The rest were 1st or 2nd year college students.
We spent three hours sailing against the wind and current getting to Anacapa Island, part of the Channel Island chain off the coast of California, heading south. We made our way around Point Dume near Malibu and headed inland toward Marina Del Rey where we were picking up Sue. We arrived just after midnight and then found a slip for the night.
We slept in and then washed the boat down in the day, went out to eat, had a visit from Mrs. Mathias and then headed off at 3:30 pm not to see land again until we reached Hawaii in the later part of July.
The trip out was uneventful. That first day, the winds died completely and the boat moved very slowly. In fact, we bobbed like plankton off the coast of beautiful Catalina Island. The sight I saw when I fell asleep was the same sight I awoke too. We hadn’t moved at all. The captain didn’t want to use the motor so early in the trip. In the sea, you live and die by the winds.
We spent the 2nd day merely bobbing next to Catalina, perhaps making 1/2 to 1-knot per hour. By the end of the day we began rounding the southernmost tip of Catalina and adjust our position to head more southwest than south. We were headed straight for San Clemente island, the southernmost of the Channel Islands.
San Clemente is a restricted island, used for Navy bombing practice. Our route took us directly into the path of U.S. Navy Battleship doing night time target practice on the southern end of San Clemente island, just one of the many mini-adventures of this trip. We would have a memorable encounter with the U.S. Navy.
After 6 months of rebuilding the 42-foot tramaran Columba, our crew of 12 held sea trials to prepare for our upcoming summer sailing trip from Ventura, California to the Hawaiian islands. We had taken classroom sailing courses, earned first-aid and CPR certifications, bought our personal supplies and sailing gear, and spent one weekend a month sanding, painting, cleaning, attraching, affixing, re-masting, outfitting and otherwise restoring the boat at the captain’s direction. Now was the time we were waiting for — on the water sailing lessons.
In Spring 1980, mere months from our departure, Captain Mathias split the crew into 3 components. He and the 1st or 2nd mate would conduct sea trials, training the rest of us in all the basics of sailing: shoving off, docking, changing sails, helmsmanship, man overboard drills, tacking, jibing, and anchoring. We learned how to use our floatation devices and to hook onto the lifelines when going forward. We learned how to avoid an accidental jibe and to give verbal and hand signals. We learned to avoid a boom that was crossing the centerline of the boat.
Sailing is a dynamic sport, and accidents happen suddenly, and often without warning. Being prepared and practicing safety first in all situations is paramount to survival, especially in the middle of the ocean without any land in sight. While exhilarating, being in the middle of the ocean without land in sight can strike terror into the novice sailor’s very being.
Sea trials were a learning experience, not a try-out. We had paid our money, and like it or not, we were going on this trip. Seasickness was a temporary inconvenience, not a reason to abandon an adventure of a lifetime. I would question the soundness of that reasoning a few days into the voyage, but for now, I would learn to sail along with the rest of the crew.
We were all novices, except the captain, his daughter, and the 1st and 2nd mates. While they had some sailing experience, and I had a little bit too, none of us were what you could call a sailor. We had minimal playtime lake experiences with boats. Better than nothing but not a foundation for ocean-going.
Our sea trials consisted of 4 or 5 of us sailing for several hours and then for an overnight weekend off the coast of California around the Channel Islands. This area is prone to relatively high winds (higher than San Diego, not as high as San Francisco). With the wind whipping around the islands and the currents coming into the mainland, sailing can be challenging. But our sea trials went very well. We practiced all the maneuvers and sail changing techniques that we would need in the open ocean.
One particular challenge, however, was the overnight trip. We had a pleasant day sailing even though the weather was a bit rough. The winds died down around dusk. We searched for a place to set the anchor and then had a quiet night. Sailing can be exhausting. The rhythms of marina and sea life are early on the west coast. Once the sun goes down, the winds die and activity at the marinas slow. People go to bed early and rise with the sun.
At sea however, there is no time-keeper. We spent the evening watching the stars and practicing taking sights with our sextants. There was always something more to learn.
I was assigned the forward berth in the middle pontoon hull for my sleeping quarters. Around midnight, the swells started coming in, 6–10 foot constant swells 1 to 2 seconds apart. It felt as if the boat would smash apart. The swells lifted the boat into the air and the boat would crash into the trough only to be lifted by the next swell. BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! It was distressing. But more than that, it was a test of our anchoring.
The captain went forward to check the anchor rode, the chain attached to the anchor, and the attachment points for the windlass to make sure everything was secure. Then he asked each of us to attach our life jacket to the life lines and make our way forward to see what it was like to go forward at night in stressful ocean conditions. Some of us had to crawl to reach the anchor rode.
The other challenge was seasickness. These swells were relentless, constant, with nothing in the world that could stop the motion. I had taken my dramamine faithful, but I had never experienced swells like this before, and the sound of the constant pounding of the boat against the water. I found myself mid boat, holding onto the lifelines, puking into the ocean all night long. I’m sure I dozed a little bit, only to be awakened by crew now and then to see if I was still alive. The forward berth in the boat is prone to the most movement, thus it wasn’t a good assignment for someone prone to seasickness.
The swells stopped sometime in the night, and we woke in the morning to glassy calm seas. Our trip back to the marina was uneventful.
Because of how sick I got due to the swells, I was assigned to the middle berth in the boat for the trip to Hawaii. Tanya and I would share that middle berth located where the dining table was, which was raised at 6:00 am and lowered at 12:00 midnight so that we could sleep. I wasn’t sure how this would work, but it played a big role in how the trip went overall.
With the sea trials concluded, we were one step closer to our bon voyage date. Pacific Ocean and Hawaiian Islands — here we come.
Eleven students signed up to sail to Hawaii from Ventura, California on a 42-foot trimaran for $800.00 apiece in 1979 money. That’s more than $2700 in 2019 monies. Actually, only 10 students signed up as the the captain’s daughter was also coming along and presumably didn’t need to pay. That $8000.00 would be enough to completely strip the boat, de-mast it, de-rig it, pull the boat from the water for 6–8 months, and completely reassemble it with all new hardware, paint, safety equipment, and sails. And other than the necessity for the boat be hauled at a boatyard, the captain arranged for all of us to do the work, one weekend a month, from October to our cruising date of June 1980. Somebody thought this through!
But first, Captain Mathias had 10 people who knew little to nothing about sailing or boat maintenance, so the time was short and the learning curve steep. We all had to contribute without fail as part of our commitment to the adventure. This boat, Columba, would be our home for the entire summer, June through August 1980. What better way for us to get to know it than to completely tear it apart and rebuild it.
The captain put together committees to tackle some basics: sailing lessons, first-aid and CPR certification, food and galley prep, and foul weather gear and equipment. We were asked about our own particular skills and boating experiences (some lake and river boating and a little sailing and some deep sea fishing, but mostly motion sickness chum provider for me). Finally, we were provided a costly list of items that we would need for the trip, which was in addition to the $800 fee. Included on that list were items such as an emergency kit with space blanket, snake bite, life vest with attached whistle and shackle, warm woolen clothes, wool blanket, snacks, games, cards, books, inflatable dinghy, toiletries and much more. The list was complete and personal gear must be weighed and not exceed a certain volume.
We all took sailing lessons. These book-and-classroom lessons emphasized the basics of sailing, the aerodynamics, the right of way rules, the vocabulary (port, starboard, leeward, windward, sail, block, bowline, reef, etc.), and all the culture connected with sailing and sailboats.
We took Red Cross certified courses in first aid and CPR. Our first mate, the blond German named Cloud, set out to find the best price for foul weather gear. In one of our monthly meetings just as we were getting started, he told a funny story in his German accent. “I called several stores to ask about the price of foul-weather gear. They asked my name, and I said ‘Cloud.’ One guy said, “Funny!” and hung up on me.” You can’t make this stuff up.
One of the three Mormans on the boat in addition to the captain and his daughter, Andrea was in charge of the food and the galley. As an Amway salesperson, she did her best to also sell us products to help her business. Three of us were high school students. Andrea was a bit older than the rest of us and a church friend of the Mathias family, but she was still on the younger side, perhaps in her mid-20s. Christy, the captain’s daughter, was in her senior year of high school. She was actually late graduating because the family had cruised in the Marquesas islands for a couple of years, so we knew the captain and she at least had some experience in the open ocean. Gary was a year behind me in 10th grade. I was in 11th grade. I believe that all the rest of the crew were 1st or 2nd year college students and/or family friends of the captain. Cloud was the 1st mate, and Dave was 2nd mate. Don, Sue, Karen, Linda, and Tonya rounded out the rest of the crew. More about all of them later.
One weekend a month, we made the drive from the San Fernando Valley where we all lived to Ventura, a sleepy coastal community where the boat was kept, about an hour’s drive north from Los Angeles. Sometimes we carpooled, but mostly we drove separately. I got my driver’s license in November 1979, and I got used to making the drive by myself to Ventura. We slept in sleeping bags on the boat, even when it was on a stand in the boatyard. They pulled the boat out of the water and then we took the boat apart — down to the bare bones. The engine was removed and all the shrouds and stays and lines, and the boat was demasted.
Once we had a clean hull to work with, we started the dirty work. We sanded. And we sanded some more. We sanded with handheld sanders and with bricks wrapped with sandpaper. And then we painted everything, white and baby blue. We applied no-skid surface to the boat deck, basically a kind of sand that is applied with an adhesive to certain panels on the deck and then painted over. It feels like walking on rough sandpaper, so in general, we didn’t walk around barefoot. That’s what boat shoes and flip flops are for. We installed safety lines and shrouds and stays. We threaded line through the mast to connect to the sails.
And then we did the bright work, which is another way for saying we polished anything that was metal. With the boat sitting near the ocean in Ventura, it didn’t take long for the brightwork to become dull from oxidation. So we spent a good amount of time polishing metal. Amway has (or had) a great metal polisher. When we were sailing, it was a common chore to spend an hour or so every day doing the bright work.
It took a good 6 months or more to remake the boat in its own image. It looked exactly the same, but it entailed replacing or refurbishing each part, buying a backup, and putting it all back together. The captain went up every weekend, while the rest of us were only required to go to Ventura once a month. However, there was always work to do, and I’m sure the captain got help from Cloud or Dave or both on off weekends. They had to pull the engine, and then reinstall it, including installing the propeller shaft and propeller. And we had to raise the mast and reinstall it. Much of that work required using hoists from the boatyard, which meant scheduling yard time. When it was almost complete, except for the interior cushions and the homey features such as curtains and decorations, we put the boat back in the water.
Once we knew all the components worked, we had a sense of pride in Columba from all the work we put in to our summer home.We were one step closer to taking off for the high seas. But first we had to learn to apply what we had learned in the classroom. We had to learn how to sail.
There are adventures in life that you might undertake that, afterwards, you might say, “What was I thinking?” Sailing to Hawaii for me was one such adventure.
I saw a flyer in my high school at the beginning of 11th grade, advertising for crew to sail to Hawaii the following summer 1980. It was intriguing enough for me to take the flyer home and talk to my parents about it. The trip was advertised at $800.00, enough money for the captain to completely redo his boat in preparation for the voyage. The captain was Captain Mathias, former Merchant Marine and current football coach at our high school, having just completed a successful year with John Elway has our quarterback.
My parents look at the flyer and then kind of laughed at me.
“But you get seasick!”
It was true. I get seasick. In fact, I got motion sick at just about every activity I did except for walking. I ruined every car we ever had. On trips to Sequoia and Yosemite, my parents had to drive very slowly or risk me throwing up. Whether I sat up front with my head out the window, sat in the back, or sat in the far back in the station wagon, nothing seemed to help. I couldn’t ride any amusement park rides that went in circles. Whenever my parents took me deep sea fishing, I spent my time throwing up over the side, fishing pole in hand, no bait on the hook, catching fish anyway. That’s possible when you chum the waters yourself. On airplanes, just a little turbulence, and that air sickness bag better be open and ready. Otherwise, it would be everywhere.
I had earned the nickname “King of the Barfers” in my family, and my motion sickness was legendary. Family friends drove me up to the cabin one time, determined to drive the road they knew well fast. I told them I would get sick, and they just said, “Oh, Frank’s a good driver. You’ll be fine.” There is nothing quite like a vehicle filled with the rotting smell of vomit. I could never hold it back like some people can. And I never was on to projectile vomit either. When I got sick, it happened quickly, without warning, a giant puddle at my feet.
So my parents were quite surprised when I came home with this flyer for a sailing voyage across half the Pacific Ocean. They enjoyed sailing, fishing, and any boating activites. In fact, we own a little wooden boat with an outboard engine that we took to the local lakes and the Colorado River. They saw this adventure for what it was — a once in a lifetime chance.
I was 16 years old, had never drank alcohol in my life, was a secret smoker, had just started working, and an honors student. I was legendarily afraid of heights and prone to motion sickness. What possibly could go wrong?
There was an orientation, a get-to-know you meeting for potential crew to meet each other and the captain, and for parents to ask questions. The trip would begin with preparing the boat through the year, one weekend a month from October 1979 to June 1980 and include in-class sailing lessons, first-aid lessons and certification, and on-the-water sailing trials.
My parents decided to call it an early graduation present. They gave me their blessing. What were they thinking?
I think back now how that adventure led to my love of sailing and years of living on a sailboat. But back then, this trip was more challenge than success. And afterwards, I didn’t think I would ever sail again in my life.
Grab a cup of grog, toss a bit of rum in there, and I’ll tell you what happened.
The captain gives the orders, and the crew obeys. That’s the law of the sea. But in this particular instance, the order seemed fraught with danger. Captain Mathias, unshaven for a couple weeks, portly, in his shorts and flip-flops, and flimsy t-shirt in the mid-80s degree tropical weather, stood on deck, chin thrust out, holding a .22 gauge shotgun, presumably looking for sharks.
The crew, all 11 of us, high schoolers and a few young college students, from age 15 to 22, dove into the still blue waters to scrub the bottom of our 42-foot trimaran, Columba. Equipped with snorkels, fins, and masks, and a scrub brush each, we dove to clean the bottom of the algae, kelp, and barnacles that naturally occur when sailing. We sought any advantage we could and didn’t want any drag on the boat. We weren’t in a race and we certainly weren’t making great time with the zig zag course of our collective novice helmsmanships.
We were stuck in the doldrums.
Yes, the doldrums are a real thing. And we found them… it. There was not a whisper of wind. The surface of the ocean was dead calm. There were no clouds. Nothing floated by. No rising and falling swells. It’s as if the Earth had stopped spinning, an episode right out of The Twilight Zone.
We were sailing to Hawaii, an early high school graduation gift for me, and a great adventure for us all. I had been to Hawaii 5 years earlier, hitchhiking with my hippie brother — a story for another time — but we had taken conventional transportation and flown to Hawaii. Our plan was to sail from Ventura, California across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii, tour the islands, and then head back to the mainland near the end of summer, arriving somewhere near San Francisco and then heading down the coast to home port. Thirteen of us started the journey. Only 5 of us would make the entire voyage. I was one of the crew who would not complete the trip.
The captain estimated that it would take 2–3 weeks to get to Hilo, Hawaii, our first stop. According to our progress on the nautical charts, we were already behind. And now we were stuck.
There was simply too much ocean to cross to resort to starting the engine. We needed to save our fuel in case of a real emergency or in case we somehow overshot the islands.
In the doldrums, our position was somewhere half way between Ventura and Hawaii, just about the farthest point on this Earth that you can get from land.
The Pacific Ocean is vast. And in every direction there was blue — the blue of the sky, the blue of the ocean, and not a single object in view, not a bird, or another ship, not a cloud. There was very little visually to help us see where the blue began and the blue ended — except for Columba, our home at sea, and each other.
We dove 4 or 5 feet below the ocean’s surface scrub the fiberglass hulls free of dirt and grim. Never one to like even the smallest inkling of cold at the surface of the water, I reveled in this warm water, a welcome change from the beating sun.
But the water grew immediately cold just below the surface. What I didn’t anticipate was the high concentration of salinity in the middle of the ocean. As I dove down, the salt water hurt the inside of my ears. It felt like pouring salt on a wound, or getting citrus juice on a cut, except deep inside my ear. I kicked to the surface and found I wasn’t alone. Gary, who was 15 and the youngest crew member on the boat — I was 2nd youngest at 16 — also couldn’t stay below due to his ears hurting. We tried several times to dive deep enough to scrub, but it just hurt too much.
We made our way back on deck via the rope ladder hanging at the stern of the boat. The captain was not pleased and ordered us back in the water. We declined, explaining that the water hurt our ears. He scouted for sharks while the rest of the crew scrubbed for a while.
Once everyone was done with their assigned sections, the crew assembled on deck. Captain Mathias addressed the crew:
“As you can see, we’re stuck in the doldrums. By my reckoning, we’re about half way to Hawaii. It’s too soon to use any fuel. But until everyone does their assigned work, I will not use the engine to get us out of the doldrums. Here we wait.” The captain’s word was final.
And that was that. The captain’s word was law. There was some grumbling under breaths, and Gary and I got some dirty looks. But we dug in and were not going to sacrifice our ears and hearing for scrubbing the boat in the middle of the ocean. The captain seemed to pout at his commands being ignored.
For the next 36 hours, we sat in unmoving waters. The year was 1980, before personal headsets were common, and one crew member played The Kinks over and over again on his small boombox. Most of the crew sunbathed and read books. A few of us began a marathon poker game.
My parents enjoyed gambling, and I had learned most card games much earlier than other kids. I knew how to play poker, but only the mechanics of how it is played. I wasn’t a good player. I found that out quickly when I lost a couple hundred dollars. Yikes! That was my spending money for when we got to Hawaii. I made a rookie gambling mistake and kept playing to try to win it back and lost even more.
I was skinny, and the 1st mate nicknamed me “Lee-Bones!” and “Riverboat Gambler!” due to my boasting about knowing how to play gambling games. I don’t know if I got swindled or taken for a ride by better poker players. I just remember getting lousy cards and never catching a break.
At some point during our three-day visit to the doldrums, a couple of the crew grabbed their snorkel and masks and a couple of scrub brushes and scrubbed the section that Gary and I had not. They weren’t happy about it, but they were less happy sitting in the middle of the ocean and not making any progress on our trip.
We tried to explain about our ears to the captain again, but he wasn’t really interested in excuses. He was the captain and wanted his orders followed. Captain Mathias was a laid-back man, former Merchant Marine turned High School football head coach (he was actually John Elway’s head coach in our high school — Granada Hills High School — Elway was two years ahead of me and had graduated the year before). But something had happened in the two short weeks of our trip. He was cursing, drinking coffee, gambling, and losing patience — not what one would expect from a Morman. The open ocean frees most men from the shackles of civilized life.
Gary and I made an agreement with the captain that we would scrub the entire bottom of the boat in the marina, once we made it to Hawaii. That seemed to please him.
After a day and a half of sitting in the water, we started to notice a slight rise and fall of the ocean, as if the Earth were slowly breathing. The tackle began to clank as the boat swayed in the small swells. We put up the sails, which mostly just hung there, to catch whatever wind we could.
At one point, with most of us sunning on deck or relaxing down below, we heard a creak and then the boom swung over with a crash!
“God dammit!” the captain yelled. The accidental jibe could have seriously hurt or hit a crew member sending him or her overboard. “All hands on deck!”
With the movement of the boom across the centerline of the boat, we knew we had enough wind to at least set the sails. We could detect movement now. Seafoam floated by and the small swells gently rocked the boat. In the distance, wispy clouds swirled in the sky. The wind was close.
Captain Mathias started the engine and put his best helmsman at the wheel. We would find the wind within a few hours and started sailing again.