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Sailors' souls fed by the sea

June 17, 2003|MARY McNAMARA

Daily, they walk among us, and it would seem that they are like us, but they are not, though there is little now to give them away. Sunscreen prevents the ruddy brown that once marked them, polar fleece pullovers have replaced the navy blue wool coats with two rows of buttons the size of half-dollars. The squint is often still there, though -- even the costliest shades can't compensate for hours spent gazing at a sun-spangled horizon.

Daily, they walk among us, thousands of them, tens of thousands, and it seems they are experiencing the mundane and the poetic moments of life in this land in much the same way we are, but they are not. Because land is not truly their home.

They are sailors, and their lives on land are spent in anticipation of the next time they will watch the shore recede into the white noise of wind and water and circling birds.

People live in L.A., live in Southern California, for many reasons, but for some there is only one: to be near the sea.

"Out there it feels so clean, so wholesome," says Bert Ohlander. "Sailing is such a quiet and calming thing. It can be work, yes, it can be work, but I love the sea. I have always loved the sea."

Ohlander is a retired Porsche dealer. He was born and raised in Finland, but for the last 13 years he has lived on his boat, which he keeps in a slip of Long Beach's Alamitos Bay Marina, just across from Naples Island.

It is a lovely spot, away from the crowded Long Beach Marina. A small, quiet beach spreads out in front of wide-windowed, candy-colored houses, some with turrets and balconies and the occasional crow's-nest, the sort that line waterways all along the coast.

Ohlander likes it here well enough, but mostly he likes his boat. Loves his boat. It is a wooden Robb 35, built by Cheoy Lee, a thing of beauty, a fine, light sculpture that's almost entirely teak, with hand-carved detail work and a cedar mast, the sort of boat they don't make anymore. Below deck is more lovely wood; the seats and bunks are leather. A small, brass wood-burning fireplace is attached to one wall, a television set lurks sits in a cabinet beside the small galley.

Ohlander has had the boat, Simba II, for almost 16 years, and he has spent the last month stripping and refinishing; everywhere you look the honey-hued teak shines as if glazed with sugar. "No leather-soled shoes," he says. "No black-soled shoes either." He is sockless inside his topsiders, as a sailor should be, with a white beard and a baseball hat.

A life of solitude

In a few weeks, if he can rent out his slip, he will go harbor-hopping along the coast, or go out to Catalina for a few weeks. He knows a lot of folks in the two-dozen marinas in Southern California, but Ohlander lives aboard his boat alone. He was married for a time a long while ago, but his wife, he says, did not share his love of the sea. "She wanted a house," he says, shivering slightly. "Always she wanted a house."

Falling in love with a sailor is almost always easier than living with him -- and sailors, at least the ones who register boats, are still almost all "hims." Like any interfaith marriage, one between land and sea requires compromise and adjustment.

As a young woman prone to seasickness, L.A. novelist Diane Leslie swore she would never set foot on a deck again. Then she met Fred Huffman and fell "madly in love." She spent the next 20 years on the water as much as she was off it, raising two boys who didn't know until they were grown that there was anything else you could do during the summer and most holidays except go to sea.

"I thought it was a great way to be a family, away from other people," she says. "And really, as long as I had enough books, I was fine."

One of her sons inherited the sailor gene, the other did not. And about 12 years ago, Leslie got off the boat. "It is very time-consuming if you don't love it," she said. "It came down to do I want to be a writer or a sailor, and I wanted to be a writer."

Nowadays, her husband, who is a professional sailboat rigger, often takes trips without her. He is gone a lot of weekends -- and weeks -- which can be difficult on a marriage. But Leslie married a sailor. "If he weren't a sailor," she says, "he wouldn't be the wonderful person he is."

And so think hundreds of thousands of spouses and children and siblings and friends whose land-loving lives are continually rearranged by sailors. There are almost 900,000 boats registered in California -- close to 200,000 in L.A. and Orange counties alone. Thousands of other people who don't own boats still find other ways to get to the water -- they borrow, they rent, they offer to sail the vessels of the rich from harbor to slip. If all else fails, they will stand on the end of the longest finger of a marina, or fish for hours at the end of a pier, gazing at the horizon, imagining what it would be like to be out there.

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