Monday, November 21, 2011

My Life in the Water

Since even before I can remember, I have always been happiest in the water. I spent the first four years of my life in Holland, where my parents used to park me in the bow of a sailboat as they sailed up and down Holland's many canals. They describe the bliss on my face as I sat in the front of the boat. We didn't have to be going anywhere for me to be happy; it was sufficient just to be at the dock. The gentle rocking of the waves and the feeling of wind in my face was enough.

Moving forward in time, the family moved back to the States in the Boston area. In the summertime we would head down to Cape Cod and my love affair with water continued. I learned how to bodysurf, and I would spend hours diving over or under waves, and riding waves in to shore on my belly. The temperature of the water did not deter me. In June and early July the water was still very cold but I would stay in there until my hands turned blue and I was dizzy from hypothermia. Then I would stumble to shore and lie down in the sand and sun to warm up and do it all over again. During high tide the waves would break on the shore. One of my favorite games was to lie in the water and get thrown into shore with the waves and get sucked back out into the oncoming breakers. I learned how to avoid getting smashed and just relax like a seal or a walrus as the waves pushed me in to shore and pulled me back out again. I would drift over rounded stones that looked to me like small planets with their rings of colors. Then I would stand several feet away from where the waves break and plant my feet. As the water rushed past my feet and retreated back to the ocean, my feet would get buried farther and farther into the sand. I liked to watch the different patterns of foam the swirling water created. I never got tired of these activities even during my teenage years.

In my twenties I didn't spend much time in the water. I lived in the city and often lacked the transportation to get to the Cape. The Boston Harbor was not too clean at that time so the closer beaches like Revere Beach and Nantasket didn't really appeal to me. But in the next decade my mother bought an old 25 foot Hunter sailboat and I acquired sailing fever. I just loved the fact that you could anchor in the most beautiful shorelines and call them home. It was like having unlimited waterfront property. I also felt connected to the ancient explorers as I sailed by chart and compass to various destinations like Nantucket, the Elizabethan Islands on Buzzards bay, and various bays and harbors on Martha's Vineyard. On occasion I would sail through pea soup fog having charted courses from one buoy to another and was always amazed how accurate a compass can really be. Often times I would almost hit the buoy head-on even though the last buoy was miles away.

I loved the sights and sounds of New England harbors: the multitude of portuguese fishing boats traveling back and forth from New Bedford to the Grand Banks, the oil tankers and shipping boats coming from all over the world, and the beautiful sailing yachts speeding past my heavy-keeled, slow boat. I loved the ringing bells of buoys, the cries of seagulls, and the splash of waves against the side of the boat. Even sounds that would annoy some are music to my ears, like the clanking of metal within the masts of sailboats as they rock back and forth in a mooring field.

Eventually my mother moved to San Diego leaving me with the dilapidated Hunter named “Moonshadow” whose keel was in danger of falling off. I drilled lag bolts into the lead keel and hoped for the best. I continued to have adventures and misadventures, sailing every weekend that weather permitted. My sister and I would coordinate our vacations so that we could spend a week or two on the boat sailing around the Vineyard Sound and Buzzards Bay. We had several favorite destinations, and we usually set a route that would hit them all in a specific order. The first was Cuttyhunk, a small Island between Buzzards Bay and the Vineyard Sound. It was always a thrill to see the masts of other sailboats that had ventured across the bay to this small island become visible above the horizon. We would tie up to a mooring and row into shore, which was difficult in the rubber dinghy with the winds and currents. There was a long jetty heading into Cuttyhunk harbor and inside the harbor were pilings that looked like partially submerged telephone polls that we could tie up to, although at first we opted for the cheaper option of anchoring outside the harbor near the mooring field. However, we often slipped anchor in the middle of the night and luckily woke up to find ourselves drifting fairly rapidly toward a six-figure boat and having to pull-start the motor on short notice to avoid a collision. After a couple of these episodes we decided to pay the thirty dollars for a mooring.

After having breakfast and exploring the small island, we would row back out to the boat and head to our next destination which was was Tarpaulin Cove, a small bay cutting into Naushon Island on the Vineyard Sound side, where the first Revolutionary fleet had its beginning, and where previously many pirate ships and privateers had taken refuge from bad weather. It was a very calm cove and a nice place to anchor. In the morning we would row into shore where there was only one small farm house off to the side and a beautiful white sand beach lined with sea grass and rose hips. Then we would head across the Sound to Menemsha Harbor on Martha's Vineyard, which is a pretty little harbor but treacherous to get into due to an undocumented rock that was just below the water's surface. If the tide was high enough you could pass over it unscathed. We always had to ask locals where it was when we wanted to get around it. Eventually I did hit the rock, but luckily it was rounded like a whale's back and didn't even dent the thick fiberglass of my boat, though I did get stuck there until the tide came back in. Unfortunately the incident occurred right across from the Coast Guard station, but luckily I didn't get boarded and fined for not having the proper safety equipment. Some nice people in Zodiacs formed a chain and helped my boat get unstuck.

Menemsha Harbor is located at the narrowest point of the Vineyard near Gayhead and leads to a small pond that goes all the way to the beach on the south side of the island. We would usually dock on the fuel dock, get some fuel, eat breakfast, and sometimes walk over to Gayhead on the southern most point of the island. For the rest of the vacation we would sail down the Vineyard Sound stopping at various harbors along the way, and ending in Edgartown harbor. This is my sister's favorite spot, in part because the flat ferry boats going back and forth between Chappaquiddick and Edgartown remind her of the video game “Frogger.” The famous Black Dog restaurant is there and there are pay showers which is fortunate because we tended to get pretty salty and grimy by that leg of the trip. All cleaned up, we were ready for the long sail home through Woods Hole into Buzzards Bay and across Buzzards Bay to New Bedford where I had a mooring.

I finally gave up the boat when I realized how much money I was spending on moorings, “haulouts”, winter storage, and repairs. But another reason I gave up the boat was that I was not entirely convinced that my lag bolt remedy would hold the keel in place. I had a hard time figuring out how to get rid of the boat. Ethically I couldn't sell it knowing the keel could fall off at any second. I tried donating it to charity but nobody wanted it. I even considered sinking the boat but realized that would not be very responsible. I eventually gave the boat to someone with the stipulation that they would not put any children or people who couldn't swim on the boat and that they would never sell the boat to anyone. I hope they stuck to their promise.

Several winters later, I decided to move to California where most of my family now live and where I have nephews. I moved to lovely San Diego, which is a water lover's paradise. I then found the perfect sport for someone who loves the ocean: surfing. I was surprised, however, how difficult surfing really is. You can't be a casual surfer or you will never learn. I think many people give up surfing after renting a surfboard and realizing they don't have the upper body strength to get beyond the breakers. When I first started, I would use up all my energy at first just getting out to where the waves broke. Then after paddling hard enough to catch a wave I would be too tired to push myself up to stand on the board. It took about six months of obsessive surfing before I was decent enough to catch a wave, stand up, and go left or right following the break of the wave. But the first time I did the thrill was unbelievable. I was riding along the glassy surface of a wave looking down as the wave curled up and broke right behind me. I could only achieve this wonderful result inconsistently at first, but after about a year and a half, I could consistently go left on waves. Going right was still a challenge as the wave faced my back.

Surfing helped me get to know the ocean and its many moods so much better: the calm glassiness of morning before the wind kicks up, the choppy bumpy water of midday, the inky gray color of the waves as they reflect the overcast marine layer, the pinks and purples of sunset – you can see them all so much better when you're way out there among the waves, dolphins, and seals. There are sharks too, but I have never seen one, and I try not to think about them. If I see a dolphin I feel protected because I know sharks don't like to be in the same area where schools of dolphins are. If I see only seals, I'm a little worried because seals are shark food and with my black wetsuit on I can look like a seal or probably more like a walrus. Nonetheless the ocean is my home and I feel safe there. Even though the ocean is dangerous I feel like it protects me, that it appreciates my love for it. It is in the ocean that I want my ashes to be spread.

Fast forward to the present time: my next stage of ocean adventures is just beginning. I am moving onto a 34 foot Columbia sailboat equipped with all the essentials for living. I will be docked at a slip and have all the amenities for living, but I can pull away from the dock at any time and cruise up and down the coast of California and the Baja peninsula or up the coast to Oregon and Washington state. I plan to get a captain's license so that I can move other people's boats up and down the coast. So it is back to sleeping on a boat with the gentle waves lapping against the side, supported and buoyed by the salt water, and connected to every ocean in the world.