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Setting Sail to Catalina on a Moody, Shifting Sea

February 26, 1987|THOMAS CURWEN | Curwen is a special sections writer for the Classified Department of the Times' Orange County Edition. and

Mothlike in mists, scintillant in the minute/

brilliance of cloudless days, with broad bellying sails/

they glide to the wind tossing green water/

from their sharp prows while over them the crew crawls/

ant - like, solicitously grooming them, releasing,/

making fast as they turn, lean far over and having/

caught the wind again, side by side, head for the mark .

--William Carlos Williams, "Painted Ships, Painted Ocean"

No doubt you could have seen us from Balboa Pier that Sunday afternoon. The day was hazy, the sun warm and the wind slowly building. We sailed by, just outside the breakers--a wooden ship with sails, filled like balloons.

You might have thought we had just crossed an ocean as we glided by so effortlessly and calm, and we had. It was an ocean of calm seas, terrible winds and foggy gray dawns, and like a creation of Melville, we had returned to tell of it.

We were a crew of six, and Debra was our boat, a 40-foot sloop, built more than 60 years ago. Finished in cedar and mahogany, with a mainsail as large as a rising moon, she is a siren, calling us to another era, a time of crafted design, simplicity and grace.

We had gathered the day before with 10 other boats, and the ocean was a millpond, covered with fog. We were to race around Catalina Island. At the start our largest and lightest sails hung motionlessly from the mast. Glassy swells rose and fell beneath our hull, then rolled away to crash upon the sandy beach.

But as the sun began to warm and the fog recede, zephyrs rippled the water around us. Sails filled, lines grew taut, and Debra cut through the water. The other boats also gained momentum, and as the westerly continued to fill, we scattered on courses across the San Pedro Channel.

Time then became a dream and the hours idyllic. The easy motion of the boat, conversation with friends and the warm glistening day let us relax and grow familiar again with the world, so rich and teeming. Insouciant pelicans flew over the waves. Ducks, cormorants and birds whose names we'll never know skirted over the seas, seeking some distant landfall. Others rested alone on a piece of kelp or a splinter of driftwood, a moment of rest before testing the winds again. A dead seal floated by, lifeless and bloated, undiscovered by sharks. Porpoises passed us three in a pod. Later we saw a large fin, resting motionlessly above the surface of the water.

Catalina, too, slowly appeared. Where once was haze and distance still to travel, now stood a vague silhouette of land falling precipitously into the ocean. The steep ridges and rugged chaparral became slowly defined, and Avalon, that island valley, could be seen where the casino overlooked a crowded harbor.

But keeping our course true, we continued sailing south and were soon becalmed in a stretch of confused water, where the island blocks the wind and currents oppose one another. We changed sails, tacked here and about but were for an hour trapped in this horse latitude, where no wind could be found.

In the distance, though, we saw the water darken with wind. White caps crested across the waves. We changed our sails and, with no other warning, were struck by a 25-knot wind.

Debra was momentarily knocked on her side, and water rushed along her gunwale. We braced ourselves and tried to keep a steady course. One sail ripped, and we scrambled to the foredeck, now completely awash and sharply angled. As Debra rose and fell, our feet left the deck. Barely secure, we wrestled down the damaged sail and strung up another.

Catalina wistfully receded, and its southern palisades became another silhouette. The wind continued to howl; the afternoon faded to night. As twilight began to spread around us, the fog made its ragged advance, blending water with sky.

We settled into a routine for the long hours ahead. Two stayed on deck for an hour shift, while the others tried to rest, but were unable to sleep, in conditions such as these. The boat heeled, was submerged by a wave, then rose fast, lurching suddenly ahead. Monotony and discomfort tested our patience; the compass proved our only friend.

We could see, scattered across the sea, the lights of ships, like stars on the horizon, and to the south where lay San Clemente Island, we could see explosions in the sky. Lights flashed, then dissolved. The Navy had its missiles to test on such a night as this, and we had our course to sail on such a night as this.

Past midnight, the wind eased, and the moon dimly glowed through breaks in the clouds. Ahead we saw the west end of Catalina and heard waves crashing upon its rocky shore. The closer we got, the less the wind blew; the current began to slue us sidelong. We tacked again and managed to slip by the flashing beacon, a lone sentinel.

Dawn broke sleepy, gray and cold. Our decks were wet with dew and salt, and as we quietly drifted, we could hear the foghorns of hidden ships, answering one another.

Then, like apparitions, two freighters emerged from the fog. We listened to the dull throb of their engines and watched as they passed nearby, pushing an enormous wave of white and furrowed water.

Through the shipping lanes, past buoys mobbed with seals, and oil rigs, so noisy with industry, we sailed toward shore. Fishing boats passed us; greetings were exchanged. And the ocean at one spot seemed filled with small red crabs, swimming like squid.

Soon the landmarks of home raised their heads above the lifting fog. We sighted the pier, a jetty and the power plant in Huntington Beach, with voluminous columns of steam rising into the air. And we passed the crowded beaches where the day was hazy, the sun warm and the wind slowly building.

You might have seen us as we headed home.

DR, RUSS ARASMITH / Los Angeles Times

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