Part 7 — Dropping Anchor off Catalina

Ros de Vries
Mar 2, 2020 · 9 min read

Nathan, Dave and myself were taking our breakfast at the Long Beach Cafe, a teal-and-pink confection of a diner, splashed together in the 80’s and bleaching under the hot California sun ever since. We were waiting on our fourth passenger, Dave’s friend Paul, who Dave had coaxed into joining us for an “adventure”, professing that Paul was the kind of young guy who didn’t really do anything in his spare time. Paul needed this chance.

Punctually enough, Paul appeared, smiling, but slightly wary — understandable for someone who was meeting new people, while not entirely confident with it.

“Hi Paul, it’s good to meet you. ”

“Same.”

I beckoned for him to sit in our booth.

“Well, have you sailed much before?”

“Uh, well no — there was this one time, and I was very, very seasick.”

We were to set off to sea that morning.

One evening, a friend of mine invited me to a little dinner party on his boat, an Ericson 38 berthed in Richmond Marina. From the group of 6, I knew everyone, except one — an older fellow called Tony, who I liked almost immediately, given the ease with which he held court and conversation. Tony had been a longtime member of the sailing club through which most of the guests present had met one another, however he had pursued sailboat cruising far beyond the horizons most people care to draw for themselves. After outfitting a retired club boat over the course of 5 years, he went on to circumnavigate the globe on it. But that conclusion was perhaps the least interesting part of the narrative; what had our little crew hooked was how he did it — and why.

How — five years of preparation, including the purchase of nearly enough spare parts to build an identical boat. Heavy weather outfitting — however, he never had to use his storm jib, nor trysail. Careful passagemaking and perhaps just an ounce of good fortune.

Why — Tony likes cruising for the “inherit coolness of turning up to a weird port”, the idea that adventures unfold, when you have no real inkling as to what they could be.

Even for sailors in familiar locales, the “weird port” phenomenon can still take hold. For me, it was late October and I was making course from Long Beach, to Two Harbors, Catalina Island. My friends and I had chartered two boats, mine a Beneteau 31 and the other, a Hunter 36 — skippered by Will, who maintained no lack of enthusiasm, despite our previous misunderstandings and misadventures. Expecting a slow trip over, we got going at around 10am from Harborlight Marina — and finding that we couldn’t point high enough to make a direct course to Two Harbors, plotted a more realistic sail plan towards Avalon first.

I was with my husband, Nathan, our friend Dave — all three of us Aussies and well accustomed to one-another — and our new friend, Paul. Despite both the wind and swell being non-existent, almost the moment we left the Long Beach breakwater, Paul was crippled by seasickness. He made pleas that he was “okay” and “having a great time”, but I felt extremely sorry for him, especially as he couldn’t bring himself to take even a sip of water. It seemed extremely cruel that such a rare adventure would come at the expense of his health, happiness and weekend time. The rest of us played songs, told jokes and did our best to preserve the holiday mood, but I couldn’t help but look at him with profound pity, slumped over the gunwhale and staring silently at the featureless horizon.

The trip from Long Beach to Avalon usually takes about 4.5 hours, but with the wind on-and-off, we had taken considerably longer. By the time we were 2 miles off Avalon, the sun had started to descend upon the peak that looms over Catalina Island (Mt Orizaba), turning everything a lovely golden hue.

Not wanting to make poor time and with little wind left to work with, I fired up the diesel engine and started motoring north. The rumble of everything vibrating and the smell of fumes always makes things less pleasant… But goodness, circumstances were about to get much worse.

I had left the helm to the boys for a moment, to fix up a little something in the galley. The swell was intensifying, the hull axeing down on the waves as we quartered upwind. It was when I was still down below that I heard something strange and familiar — the sound of chain rattling and rolling free out of the anchor locker.

“Oh, shit shit shit…” I said to myself, launching out of the companionway and towards the bow. “Shit”, I said, my hands lunging out to grab the rode, which was spooling free towards the seafloor. A finger was red, skin peeling — I had gashed it on the bow roller. But I had arrested the rode and cleated it off, all adrenaline and instinct and the taste of fresh blood. The safety pin on the bow roller had disappeared — and thus, our anchor had gone over the front and into the black, glassy water. We had “dropped anchor” off Catalina.

Except that the water beneath us was a thousand feet deep, much too deep for us to hit bottom. My first concern was that whatever rode was beneath us, could get caught in the prop. I cut the engine, uncleated the rode and started to pull desperately.

Nothing moved. I had the boys try. Nothing. The sun was setting and the boat, without steering, rocked, veered, took the swell abeam. Nothing. It looked like in a short and unholy time, the rode had wrapped itself around the boat’s fin keel.

I had all aboard don their life jackets, not liking the swell, nor the dark, nor our chances if the prop got fouled. But, given that the anchor and chain was likely pulling downward at a steep angle and that we still had a chance at this, I worked with the guys to fire up the engine and circle, circle, clockwise then counter-clockwise, trying to free the rode as I pulled upward.

Nothing. No progress could be made.

It was at this point that I hailed SeaTow for a little counsel and companionship. This vicious circling had made all of the boys ill, the anima leaving them, their faces serious and grey. SeaTow Santa Barbara advised that they would come out in a real pinch, but it would take hours and I was better off talking to SeaTow Avalon. SeaTow Avalon advised me that no-one would come out in these swells and well, that was it. I ran through options, Avalon hum-hawed. A considerable time into our call and on the very edge of cell reception, we reached the conclusion that freeing the anchor was all we could do. I put down the phone, and with marlinspike in hand, crossed the holy trinity. This was it. I walked grimly to the anchor locker.

Watching the remaining rode zip out of my hands felt like like a sullen sacrifice, an offering to this angry sea. It just went and went — and while I didn’t feel so bad about the loss of a part, I knew it presented another potential problem. Would the keel give it up, or would there be over 200ft of rode trailing the boat as we continued to make way to Two Harbors? We gave it all ample, exaggerated time to sink. This was our weird port, not knowing what was under the waterline and whether, as we entered the channel, our anchor would suddenly gain purchase on the Catalina sand — and spin us around like a ball on a string.

Will was ahead. I sent him a text. He was trying to hail me on VHF — but we were just out of reach. It was fine, I said. We were doing our best and were getting back underway. At this point, I was quite certain that Paul was dead.

Avoid motoring into a port at night — and especially into an unfamiliar one. I had visited Two Harbors before and knew my way around the mooring field, but in the dark, it felt claustrophobic, like there were boats everywhere. Will had come through with the news that that there was a free mooring ball beside his Hunter. He also had a pot of spaghetti waiting for us. Really, it was all I could think about.

I was relieved that the anchor had let itself go. We had revved up again, near idling at first, then up to cruising rpms. Thankfully, we maintained the same speed as before — important, as my theory was that with anchor attached, we’d likely lose a knot or two.

I was exhausted. The boys were exhausted. I motored down the fairway, thinking that I had run through the drill of picking up a mooring. I told the boys to head to the bow, then as we slowly approached, to grab the mooring spike, keep grabbing, bring the mess of float-and-line all on deck — whatever it took to stop the boat.

The boys grabbed the spike, then almost immediately let it all go. They were confused. I was confused. I circled around. They tried again, then again.

I heard the sound of water against the beach. In the dark, I saw a little white buoy approach us, what looked like a crab pot marker. A small wave lifted the boat onto what felt like a shelf of solid ground. I felt a jarring bump through the wheel, that horrible thing. I revved the engine, the boat lifted again and was off. We surged forward. I bit down hard as we made another pass at the spike. This time, the boys grabbed true and pulled it up, pulled up the line and fumbled with cleating it off. I left the helm to secure this whole mess of slime line, leaving brown muddy streaks on the deck, mud on my hands, mud on my jacket. I pulled, pulled and finally cleated off at the stern. We were secure. I breathed cautiously, smiled…

Then heck, started whistling some jaunty tune. I don’t remember this, but Dave does — sometime later, he mentioned it in a long, Odyssey-like text message to his girlfriend. Hell, I was a true blue Captain Ron.

As promised, Will motored over in his dinghy with a pot of pesto pasta. I remember the boys sitting in the salon, staring at it blankly. Paul had long passed out on the lounge, his arm draped over his face like a baroque figure. I dug in with a few encouraging words, it was delicious, yes, shouldn’t we all eat up? The boys mumbled about a lack of appetite. Then, there was Will’s excited chatter — what had happened out there? What did we do? What did Channel 16 say? It was all getting cloying and the others just wanted to sleep. I thanked him for dinner, walked him out to the swim ladder and agreed to join him later for breakfast. With typical Will bravado, he motored back a way, waving and shouting all the while a reference to Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast”:

“You’re a born Kanaka! You really are! Really! Goodnight!”

The following day, everyone was too worn out to sail. We never made it to my favorite anchorage adjacent to Goat Harbor, so all the boys saw was the one-road town of Two Harbors. They were also too tired to go hiking.

Nathan was annoyed that I had gone ashore — early and alone — for breakfast. Later, we barbecued a little with some late-season powerboaters; they told us about a Two Harbors festival we had just missed: ooh boy, it’s wild! Buccaneer Days, oh people get naked! It’s rowdy as hell! You gotta be here for that!

The anima never returned to the boys.

Postscript

Dave relished that we had given him this chance at theatre — he read his text message account many times over, to audiences of friends in his home and in the beer garden, friends that listened intently like it was the Gettysburg Address. I would stand there as they side-eyed me and nodded, the living witness to the calamity off Catalina.

Nathan, however, needed a while. I was reckless, he said — and in retrospect, yes I was. He hated his inutility on the night, hated saying that he didn’t know what to do. But in the months that followed, he faced that issue by throwing himself wholly into seamanship. That will be the subject of a few stories to come.

I tell my friends and colleagues that I have only one success metric — and that’s that nobody dies. In that regard, it was a very successful trip.

At Close Quarters

True sailing stories and salty tales by Ros de Vries