A SPLENDID GALE
Late fall in 1991, I anchored off the quarry at the East end of Catalina for the night. This is a tricky anchorage because you have to set up right on a small plateau situated on a steep slope. Night fell as a typical fall evening, still and quiet. Around midnight I noticed telltale flashes of lightening on the distant southern horizon. I listened to the radio and there was no mention of imminent weather, so I fell back to sleep. Somewhere around 4 am I was awoken by a very sharp swell. I could still see the lightening but could hear no thunder, the sky was clear and the wind was calm. I was coming off of a 2 day trip and was to head home later in the morning anyway, so I stowed the gear and headed back across the channel.
Just after sun up and about 7 miles off the island I felt the first blast of wind at my back as the cusp of the wind and seas over took the skiff. Within minutes I find myself surfing down 6-8ft seas with a 40 or 50kt southeasterly wind at my back. Severe following seas are to be avoided if at all possible, so I turn the good skiff around to make my way back to the island for shelter. The good skiff has a tiller so there is no console to protect from the wind and spray. Every time the bow touches, spray would explode over the boat. Within minutes my clothes are saturated and I am wet to the skin, standing in 3 or 4 inches of sloshing water. The wind driven spray was so intense that I couldn't breathe from my nose and my eyes and face stung too much to even look in the direction that I was to head. The sky was clear and I was able to get an occasional glimpse of the silhouette of the island which helped greatly with the navigation.
As I pressed on it was getting increasingly difficult to hold the tiller and articulate the throttle which was critical to controlling the boat in the these conditions. I was shaking uncontrollably form the onset of mild hypothermia and had to get out of the wet clothing. I knew that when I let go of the tiller the bow would swing from the wind; but how would she take the seas from the transom? I had no choice but to find out. I shifted the engine into neutral and turned off the ignition. The transom went straight into the seas and she up and over 'ed each swell with no problem. I switched on the bilge pump and frantically bailed with the bucket for a few minutes. After most of the water was out of the boat, I took off the wet clothes and put on the wetsuit. Better! I start the engine and proceed but I am still blinded by the spray. I stop once again and put on the mask and snorkel. Much better! I have a 2,000 GPH bilge pump to protect the nights at anchor, but when underway the water rushes to the back of the boat and is unavailable to the pump. I make note of it as I press on.
Suddenly a Coast Guard helicopter appears and hovers directly above, diver in full regalia standing in the door. I was very relieved to see them! I know that this sneaky bastard easterly had caught everyone by surprise. I quickly give him the semaphore signal for 'all is OK.' Luckily for me, it was the only one I knew. He waves in acknowledgment and they quickly moved off. The body is much warmer with the wetsuit on so I focus on avoiding the cresting portion of the waves ahead. The routine is established and I am maintaining fine now. Power up the face, cut the throttle just as the bow reaches the peak so it gently 'drops' down the back of the wave, power thru the trough and up the next face, wave after wave. A large commercial vessel that I had seen earlier on the horizon graciously comes over to check on me. I pat my heart and wave to them, they wave back and move on.
I relish the intensity of this moment! It is a rare occasion when the seas grant you such a splendid ordeal of mind and senses. When the wind blows, it shrinks your world, draws you into yourself. Another chance encounter between man and soul. This day we meet again under crystal clear skies and roaring seas! Hello old friend, how you comfort me... But this won't last, I know that later I will be safely at home and this moment will be irretrievable, but for the memory. I look at these hands for a long moment, then I press on.
As I make slow and steady progress toward the island, I see bait fish everywhere. The boat scares them out of the water and the wind is so strong that it rolls them across the surface before they disappear. That is very amusing for some reason. Three and a half hours and 7 miles later, I reach Avalon. I see a number of people along the jetty and the dock up ahead. I wave to them as I enter the harbor. Big lump in my throat as I see many caring arms wave back. The Harbor Patrol boat edges out to meet me and asks if everything is OK. I tell him that I am fine and he directs me to a buoy. Somewhat embarrassed, I have to ask how to tie up. I change into dry cloths, tend to the boat and nap for a couple of hours.
When I awake, the event is over and the winds are calm. I make the run back across the channel. Later that night as I sit in the living room, cat purring in my lap and a cup of fine rum in hand, I am maudlin. For a few precious hours there was a respite from the mundane comforts and trivialities of day to day existence. Life was rich! Full of the reality and bigness that connects your heart and soul straight to the earth we live on. Fate granted yet another opportunity to live and dwell in the realm of stark survival on the beautiful ocean that I love so much. There is nothing like the feeling of utter security on a tumultuous sea ... and until the next time, I will miss it so.