Adventures in Sailing, Part 1 – Stuck in the Middle with You

Adventures in Sailing, part 1

Photo by Tatiana from Pexels

“Everyone in the water. Let’s go!”

The captain gives the orders, and the crew obeys. That’s the law of the sea. But in this particular instance, the order seemed fraught with danger. Captain Mathias, unshaven for a couple weeks, portly, in his shorts and flip-flops, and flimsy t-shirt in the mid-80s degree tropical weather, stood on deck, chin thrust out, holding a .22 gauge shotgun, presumably looking for sharks.

The crew, all 11 of us, high schoolers and a few young college students, from age 15 to 22, dove into the still blue waters to scrub the bottom of our 42-foot trimaran, Columba. Equipped with snorkels, fins, and masks, and a scrub brush each, we dove to clean the bottom of the algae, kelp, and barnacles that naturally occur when sailing. We sought any advantage we could and didn’t want any drag on the boat. We weren’t in a race and we certainly weren’t making great time with the zig zag course of our collective novice helmsmanships.

We were stuck in the doldrums.

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels (The doldrums were calmer than even this photo.)

Yes, the doldrums are a real thing. And we found them… it. There was not a whisper of wind. The surface of the ocean was dead calm. There were no clouds. Nothing floated by. No rising and falling swells. It’s as if the Earth had stopped spinning, an episode right out of The Twilight Zone.

We were sailing to Hawaii, an early high school graduation gift for me, and a great adventure for us all. I had been to Hawaii 5 years earlier, hitchhiking with my hippie brother — a story for another time — but we had taken conventional transportation and flown to Hawaii. Our plan was to sail from Ventura, California across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii, tour the islands, and then head back to the mainland near the end of summer, arriving somewhere near San Francisco and then heading down the coast to home port. Thirteen of us started the journey. Only 5 of us would make the entire voyage. I was one of the crew who would not complete the trip.

The captain estimated that it would take 2–3 weeks to get to Hilo, Hawaii, our first stop. According to our progress on the nautical charts, we were already behind. And now we were stuck.

There was simply too much ocean to cross to resort to starting the engine. We needed to save our fuel in case of a real emergency or in case we somehow overshot the islands.

In the doldrums, our position was somewhere half way between Ventura and Hawaii, just about the farthest point on this Earth that you can get from land.

The Pacific Ocean is vast. And in every direction there was blue — the blue of the sky, the blue of the ocean, and not a single object in view, not a bird, or another ship, not a cloud. There was very little visually to help us see where the blue began and the blue ended — except for Columba, our home at sea, and each other.

We dove 4 or 5 feet below the ocean’s surface scrub the fiberglass hulls free of dirt and grim. Never one to like even the smallest inkling of cold at the surface of the water, I reveled in this warm water, a welcome change from the beating sun.

But the water grew immediately cold just below the surface. What I didn’t anticipate was the high concentration of salinity in the middle of the ocean. As I dove down, the salt water hurt the inside of my ears. It felt like pouring salt on a wound, or getting citrus juice on a cut, except deep inside my ear. I kicked to the surface and found I wasn’t alone. Gary, who was 15 and the youngest crew member on the boat — I was 2nd youngest at 16 — also couldn’t stay below due to his ears hurting. We tried several times to dive deep enough to scrub, but it just hurt too much.

We made our way back on deck via the rope ladder hanging at the stern of the boat. The captain was not pleased and ordered us back in the water. We declined, explaining that the water hurt our ears. He scouted for sharks while the rest of the crew scrubbed for a while.

Once everyone was done with their assigned sections, the crew assembled on deck. Captain Mathias addressed the crew:

“As you can see, we’re stuck in the doldrums. By my reckoning, we’re about half way to Hawaii. It’s too soon to use any fuel. But until everyone does their assigned work, I will not use the engine to get us out of the doldrums. Here we wait.” The captain’s word was final.

And that was that. The captain’s word was law. There was some grumbling under breaths, and Gary and I got some dirty looks. But we dug in and were not going to sacrifice our ears and hearing for scrubbing the boat in the middle of the ocean. The captain seemed to pout at his commands being ignored.

For the next 36 hours, we sat in unmoving waters. The year was 1980, before personal headsets were common, and one crew member played The Kinks over and over again on his small boombox. Most of the crew sunbathed and read books. A few of us began a marathon poker game.

My parents enjoyed gambling, and I had learned most card games much earlier than other kids. I knew how to play poker, but only the mechanics of how it is played. I wasn’t a good player. I found that out quickly when I lost a couple hundred dollars. Yikes! That was my spending money for when we got to Hawaii. I made a rookie gambling mistake and kept playing to try to win it back and lost even more.

I was skinny, and the 1st mate nicknamed me “Lee-Bones!” and “Riverboat Gambler!” due to my boasting about knowing how to play gambling games. I don’t know if I got swindled or taken for a ride by better poker players. I just remember getting lousy cards and never catching a break.

At some point during our three-day visit to the doldrums, a couple of the crew grabbed their snorkel and masks and a couple of scrub brushes and scrubbed the section that Gary and I had not. They weren’t happy about it, but they were less happy sitting in the middle of the ocean and not making any progress on our trip.

We tried to explain about our ears to the captain again, but he wasn’t really interested in excuses. He was the captain and wanted his orders followed. Captain Mathias was a laid-back man, former Merchant Marine turned High School football head coach (he was actually John Elway’s head coach in our high school — Granada Hills High School — Elway was two years ahead of me and had graduated the year before). But something had happened in the two short weeks of our trip. He was cursing, drinking coffee, gambling, and losing patience — not what one would expect from a Morman. The open ocean frees most men from the shackles of civilized life.

Gary and I made an agreement with the captain that we would scrub the entire bottom of the boat in the marina, once we made it to Hawaii. That seemed to please him.

After a day and a half of sitting in the water, we started to notice a slight rise and fall of the ocean, as if the Earth were slowly breathing. The tackle began to clank as the boat swayed in the small swells. We put up the sails, which mostly just hung there, to catch whatever wind we could.

At one point, with most of us sunning on deck or relaxing down below, we heard a creak and then the boom swung over with a crash!

“God dammit!” the captain yelled. The accidental jibe could have seriously hurt or hit a crew member sending him or her overboard. “All hands on deck!”

With the movement of the boom across the centerline of the boat, we knew we had enough wind to at least set the sails. We could detect movement now. Seafoam floated by and the small swells gently rocked the boat. In the distance, wispy clouds swirled in the sky. The wind was close.

Captain Mathias started the engine and put his best helmsman at the wheel. We would find the wind within a few hours and started sailing again.

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