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Jack Smith

One day before the mast--and two days before the masthead of the Sunday Times

September 02, 1986|Jack Smith

Monday morning, as our boat bobbed gently in Catalina Harbor, my older son cooked hamburger, eggs, broccoli and noodles for breakfast. In the clean, fresh air it was excellent.

Our friend Graham Smith washed the dishes and stacked them, along with a plate of leftover hamburger and eggs.

The others went ashore while I finished reading the Sunday paper. It's a two-day job.

About noon we began the tricky ritual of recovering our anchors in preparation for getting underway. When we were ready, my older son tried to start the motor. It failed us. We put up the sails and began the long, tedious business of tacking around the western tip of the island. It was almost a two-hour maneuver.

At one point, the boat heeled over to port and the stacked dishes, together with the plate of leftover hamburger and eggs, went crashing to the deck. A minor disaster.

Meanwhile, my younger son fished from the cockpit. We heard his reel spin and watched him haul in a mackerel. It thrashed on the hook, shining green and silver gray in the sun. My son cleaned it in the galley on a board, and that thing of glittering beauty was soon reduced to two filets.

Later he caught a corvina, only slightly different in shape, size and color from the mackerel, but much tastier, I am told.

It wasn't until 2:30 p.m. that we rounded Eagle Rock and the west end of the island and set our course for due north. My older son was at the helm. Graham and my other son set the sails. I confined my efforts to complaints, dire predictions and now and then a beer. The patriarch has some privileges.

Besides, in climbing from the dinghy to the deck the night before after returning from dinner, I had lost my footing and was catapulted clear across the cockpit, landing on my back on the cushioned bench on the other side. As a result, I had a sore back that excused me from duty.

The wind was from the west, and stiff. We sailed at seven knots until the island fell away in its own mists and Palos Verdes Peninsula appeared.

At one point, in mid-channel, we saw a flag on a pole on our port beam. I was napping in the cabin at the time and had no idea what was happening when I heard the mainsail boom go over and I realized we were tacking. I rolled out of the bunk and went above.

I saw the flag. We seemed to be making a great circle in the opposite direction.

"What are we doing?" I asked.

"That could be a man overboard flag," my younger son said. "We have to go."

He was, by unspoken assent, the skipper. We tacked again and were headed straight for the flag.

"That was a strange maneuver," I said.

"Well," he admitted, "we made a tactical mistake."

In a few minutes we reached the flag and saw that it was a naked dancing girl on a dark gray background. Three or four orange and yellow floats bobbed in the water around it.

"It's a lobster trap," my son said.

We reset our course, having lost about 20 minutes in our fruitless rescue mission.

"We had to do it," my son said.

If only the captain of the Californian had been that alert and conscientious, I thought, hundreds of those who went down with the Titanic might have been saved.

Later, when we imagined we could see the peninsula blocked out in the mists, we saw what appeared to be a long, white, oblong building on a dark base.

"It's a cargo ship," our skipper announced a few moments later.

Then we could all see that it was indeed a ship, and that we were on a collision course with it--or so it seemed.

"What do we do?" I asked.

"Keep going," he said. "It's going a lot faster than we are. It will probably cross us."

The ship loomed larger and larger and finally crossed our bow with hundreds of yards to spare. It was an enormous, white, squarish, ugly ship with a box-like superstructure, open gates in the stern, and a Japanese flag on the hull. It was riding high.

"It's an automobile carrier," Graham said.

"And it's going back empty," my younger son said.

It was a symbol of our trade deficit. The ship had come here with a load of Toyotas, Nissans and Mitsubishis, and it was going back empty.

After it crossed our bow it turned southwest, which made us think it had held its course at due west until it had cleared us. We felt noticed.

The skipper cooked lunch--tortillas and melted cheese--which we ate with the remaining beer.

Off Manhattan Beach our wind dropped. Our speed fell to four knots. The skipper wanted to go on in under sail, as a matter of pride; but it was getting late. He tried the motor and it caught. We powered in.

When we cleared the breakwater there was hardly another boat in sight in the channel. The thousands of weekend sailors were back at their desks and their boats waited faithfully, like tethered horses, at their slips.

We turned easily into our slip, tied up and began unloading and cleaning up.

To the entire trip I had contributed nothing but the night out at the Isthmus restaurant, and my wisdom.

Which is of course impressive, but not of much use in a navigational emergency.

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