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The Eye by Barbara King

Heeding the water's sweet siren song

Yacht, sailboat or canoe, it's about an intimate relationship with the water.

August 07, 2003|Barbara King

Every day, sometimes twice a day, I walked the Carmel beach with my dog. Nothing stopped me, not even a ferocious storm that devastated the shoreline and sent everyone home except me and the French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose dog Tucker (pronounce it Too-care) had for some reason attached himself to me and forced me to attempt some very bad francais which then forced Belmondo to take flight in his rented Mustang convertible.

I stayed on, fighting the winds. Who needed Belmondo, when they had all this? The trees leaned, the sands swirled, the waters raged. It was high romance.

I was there for that beach, was in California, in fact, for the water. I had traded a desert for an ocean. After three land-locked years in the dryness of New Mexico, I wanted moisture. I wanted a coast, I wanted a different horizon, I wanted "the genius of the sea," as the poet Wallace Stevens once wrote (perhaps meaning something entirely remote from my reading of it). And so I packed up and drove as far west as I could drive, across the Mojave, on into Southern California, up Pacific Coast Highway, through Big Sur and finally to Carmel, where I rented a house walking distance to the ocean.

Occasionally I would see a boat way off in the foggy distance, and, after dark, its lights. Nothing so provokes the allure of mystery and adventure than the misty outline of a boat in the very mist itself. Before long, I was sailing again, taking the helm of a 30-foot boat that belonged to a new friend and steering it at thrilling angles and speeds across the waters of Monterey. Years earlier I had taken a sailing course in Florida so that I could join another friend in his 19-footer for a monthlong trip along the western coast of Mexico. After three weeks, I grew disenchanted with the monotony of the unbroken sea and the constant, precisionist details of sailing, but never with the feeling of spirited abandon that took over when I was whipping across the waves. It was like being a wild horse.

Boats have come in and out of my life in a casual way since I was growing up in south Louisiana: I've taken small motorboats on bayous, larger motorboats in the Gulf Coast, riverboats in New Orleans, schooners to the Caribbean. Motored the lakes of Maine, sailed the islands of Greece. Sat for hours in a wooden boat in a cold Alaskan drizzle fishing for salmon. And, except for my New Mexican interlude, I've always lived in a state that bordered water: Louisiana, New York, Texas, California.

And for me, there is no body of water more enrapturing than the Pacific Ocean. It's like a great big open mind. Just looking at it makes everything seem possible; being on it or in it makes everything seem not only possible, but likely, if not imminent. It holds the great cosmic promise: enter it as one thing, the lesser you; leave it as another, the essential you. Watching July 4 fireworks shoot off into the limitless night sky from the prow of a boat in the limitless waters of the Pacific is as close to a godlike drama as I ever need to witness.

But in lieu of an ocean, almost any body of water will do, and so will any boat.

For two consecutive Augusts, I stayed on Bainbridge Island off Seattle, as much because I adored crossing back and forth on the ferry as I adored cool, wooded isolation. And I'm as happy -- happier -- in a gondola as I am aboard a yacht.

Not that I can claim to have been on very many, nor can I claim to have been-there, done-that when it comes to boats of such startling dimensions and grandeur as so many in Newport Beach -- those portable mansions of the waves, capable of provoking envy in the best of us. Envy is that tawdry emotion one never becomes totally immune to here in L.A.; at any given moment, most of us have our noses flat-pressed against one windowpane or another. Everywhere you turn, there's something or someone bigger, better, more beautiful. There's always a blonder blond, a buxomer babe, a hotter award on the mantelpiece. Multibillionaires eclipse billionaires, billionaires eclipse multimillionaires, multimillionaires eclipse run-of-the-millionaires.

Palaceboats eclipse plain old houseboats. If living on top of the water is what a person aims to do, it doesn't get much more exalted than Newport Harbor. I can enjoy being curious from many steps away about these ultimate boat interiors, but when it comes to water vehicles and the water itself, I prefer to keep my actual experience more down-to-earth -- or, should I say, down-to-sea. The stinging spray in my face or the oar in my hand. The taste of brine. Driftwood at my feet.

I'm after the intimate interaction with the water, much the way a sports car gives you the intimate interaction with the road. For that, a kayak is just about perfect.

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Barbara King, editor of the Home section, can be reached at barbara.king@latimes.com.

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