Wednesday, October 26, 2011
There's such a Mediterranean feel here that you could imagine yourself in Italy.
Sometimes there’s a moment so perfect and shining that you keep it close, forever. In the heat of such intense moments, a sense of awe erases rational thought and you are, while it's happening, merely a set of eyes and ears and a heart for taking in an experience that will be pondered and marveled at later, mined for meaning and savored like a beacon in your brain, for the rest of your life.
Three days ago we had such a moment. We had left Catalina Harbor, on the island’s south side, for Avalon, on its NE side. Our friend Jim Morris aboard his lovely 46-foot ketch Silver Fog had rejoined us and we went along together, skirting a wall of fog. There were many rafts of flippers sticking lazily out of the water—sea lions thermo-regulating as they rested. Another group of dorsal fins revealed what we thought was a pod of four very large dolphins. That pod swam up to the bow of Silver Fog and accompanied it like a pod of dolphins would do, but when Jim M. went forward to look, he noticed the length of these “dolphins” went halfway down his boat! “They were Minke whales,” he said later, “At least twenty feet long. I never knew they liked to play like that under a boat’s bow.”
A little foray into a crowded but cool tourist town was what we expected of Avalon, and we haven't been disappointed. The wind died, so we motored along for a few hours, then raised the genoa when a bit of breeze filled in from the SE. But rounding Seal Rocks toward Quarry Beach, the wind died again, and the diesel chugged as we went about 300 yards offshore, past an ugly mining operation on the yellow cliffs.
We’d heard there were blue whales in the channel between Catalina and the mainland. I’d read about them in books, seen photos, and always wished I could see one. But they’re very rare, and the ocean’s big, so figure the odds. Blue whales are the largest animal that has ever lived on Earth. Twice the size of the biggest dinosaur, a hundred feet long, two hundred tons fully grown, the planet’s true Leviathan. They eat krill, tiny shrimp-like plankton (I tried one at the Monterey Aquarium, they're good.)
You can see a snippets of BBC photos and videos here. But blue whales were nearly hunted to extinction. Before whaling, there were an estimated quarter million blue whales in the Antarctic alone. Now there are about 2,000 in the Northeast Pacific where we are, and the same number in the Antarctic and Indian Ocean groups. There are also some blue whales in the North Atlantic and the Southern Hemisphere. News accounts said that a group of about 130 blue whales was swimming off the Southern California coast.
Our friends on Shannon, a 32 foot sloop, saw one off Newport Beach, and posted a photo in their blog. You could see its smooth blue back arcing out of the water. Lucky dogs, I thought, what a privilege to see that. So far on this voyage we’d seen lots of dolphins, but only a couple of whales (grays, probably). Now we were passing through an anchorage. Certainly there weren’t going to be any whales this close to such a crowded harbor; blue whales are pelagic, deepwater creatures. Nor would a blue whale come this close to land. But one did.
Off Quarry Beach I glimpsed something low, big and blue, shaped like a whale’s back, with a small plume of mist rising above it. Then it was gone. I rubbed my eyes. It had been right next to the shoreline, close enough to be practically on the beach. Much too close—but I saw something.
Hey, I think there’s a blue whale over there, I said to Jim, pointing.
How do you know it’s a blue whale? he asked.
Well, it was blue. And it doesn’t look like any other whale I’ve ever seen.
Are you sure?
No, I just got a quick glimpse of it.
We searched for what seemed like ten minutes and I was ready to concede that my over-eager mind had conjured it up. But there it was again, next to the beach! It surfaced three times, slowly moving at about 4 knots, breathing out a wispy plume each time, then sinking beneath the surface. It must be swimming in very shallow water, I thought. Maybe it’s scraping parasites off on the gravel, like gray whales do. In these photos the whale has moved well away from the beach to avoid anchored boats.
We slowed our speed so as to stay a little behind it and not get in its way. At least five minutes passed (it felt like ten). We couldn’t believe it would still be there after all that time. Is there any other animal that can hold its breath for that long? Then it surfaced again, just ahead and to our left. Three or four times. Its huge blowhole came up and opened like a mouth; an enormous whoosh of mist escaped and hung briefly in the air. The whale’s smooth, almost lapis-lazuli colored back arced and arced, showing us the small dorsal fin and the ridge of muscle and a bit of its sides. Then, a slight bending of the back and it propelled itself under the surface, so easily and slowly as to appear effortless. It never raised its tail flukes.
I angled the boat further out, away from shore to give it more room, and slowed again to keep out of its way. But the whale slowed, too. Five minutes later we spotted a long blue shape just under the surface, right next to us about 1 ½ boat lengths to port, gliding slowly. It was almost as if we’d been pacing each other, traveling comfortably together. It surfaced again, breathed, went under, and repeated this two more times. We were spellbound. I had tears in my eyes. Except for three amazed people on a couple of anchored boats, it seemed that nobody else saw the whale.
You can just see the blue whale under the surface in the photo above.
Sockdolager and the blue whale traveled comfortably and slowly along for about 40 minutes, moving west past anchored boats along the shore. When the whale crossed the opening of Avalon Harbor and two boats came out at high speed (they obviously hadn’t seen it,) I worried they might hit it. I began to feel very protective of this whale. But it submerged itself and probably glided right under them. We continued down the coast past Avalon Harbor, following rather than pacing alongside, then said goodbye to the whale as it surfaced, and turned back to the harbor to find a berth for the night.
Sometimes you get very lucky.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Monday, October 17, 2011
Southern California bluebird days! With lungs full of clean sea air and heads full of happy wanderlust, we entered frenetic but fun Los Angeles. The only tragedy to mar this voyage so far is the cussed unwillingness of even one measly California fish to take Jim’s delicious lures, offered lovingly and temptingly. We even have a herkin’ Coyote 6.0 lure, a gift from our B.C. friend Marty, who swears by it and who now (sensitively, thank you) types the phrase “I went f!$#ing” in his emails to spare us from having to endure reading the actual word. These California f!$# need some serious lure rehab or something. Perhaps a f!$#ing Swat Team. A lobster boat off Malibu perfectly named “Bugs” couldn’t sell us any lobster (regulations prohibit that), but they gave Jim some mackerel for bait. And, no, we did NOT have mackerel for supper.
Karen calls to Jim, fishing doggedly in the dinghy until dark: Are you using the Coyote 6.0 now?
No, he says, “I’m using Mackerel 1.0 and the fish still don’t like it.”
We realized then that there must be a sudden dislike sweeping local fish populations, for hooks baited with mackerel. On the advice of a friend we let the lure sit on the bottom for a couple hours as we visited his boat. Upon returning in the dark, Karen says, Oh yeah, better reel in the line or we’ll catch a ton of kelp again. She grabs it. Dang, too late, it’s heavy. Wait a minute, this kelp is wiggling! HEY! EVERYBODY WAKE UP! We got a FISH!
Jim reels it in, a big one, as Karen smacks her lips and says Oh boy, halibut here we come! But it was a 3-foot leopard shark. Oh dear, how do you release one of these babies? Verrry carefully.
But I digress; back to when we left Monterey for the Channel Islands, a few weeks ago.
Passage from Monterey: We motor-sailed in light wind and no swell down the beautiful Big Sur coast that we’d just driven through—it was a sunny, clear day and Pacific white-sided dolphins played around the bow. We took some footage and will post when we can get it processed.
Karen saw a lone, large, black-footed albatross and a (possible) juvenile Laysan albatross—is that possible? It looked like one, it flew like one, but it was much smaller than the Laysans Karen has seen in the Aleutians. Anyway, from 5 miles out at sea we raised a glass at sunset as we passed Nepenthe, where we'd dined and one of the finest restaurants anywhere. Sunset was clear; perfect conditions for seeing the elusive Green Flash.
We watched the sun go down in a calm sea with gorgeous colors. On rare occasions about half a second after it sets, there’s supposed to be, if you’re extremely lucky, a vivid flash of green right at the spot where the sun disappears. We stared at the blazing orb… get ready… there it goes… OMIGOD! I saw it! Did you SEE that? We high-fived, because although it wasn’t a big Green Flash (more of a Green Speck, really) it was unmistakably green. What a great portent for a 200-mile passage that turned out to be delightful. Into a perfect starry night we went, and by 0345 were sailing under main and genoa in a gentle northwesterly. In that 24 hour period we made 125 miles.
We’d decided to leave a day before the better winds arrived, because we wanted to make it all the way to the Channel Islands before the next storm system rolled in. This meant some motoring early on, but ensured that we had decent weather at the end. Here's a happy Jim, in need of either a barber or a double reef in his hair. And that beard? Hemingway-esque, eh?
A Gam at Sea: Karen spotted a ship coming right at us. We were on a collision course, so she called them. The R/V Raven had been angling over our way to have a look at us. Its captain just wanted to talk. So there we were, yakking happily over the radio about shipboard research out of Dutch Harbor (Karen asked them if they knew the ship she used to sail on, the Tiglax, but they didn’t) and about the weather, and all sorts of subjects. The captain fishes the boat in Alaska when he's not on contract to NOAA doing fisheries research. We talked for 20 minutes, the big research ship and the little sailboat, having a nice sailor’s gam out at sea. We asked where they were going, and the captain said after the next trawl they’d duck in to anchor under the lee of Point Conception. We told them we were heading for Cuyler Harbor on San Miguel Island, and the captain said in all the years he’d been in this area he’d never been in there, because he thought it was too rocky to navigate. After we discussed the entrance to the harbor with him and he had a good look at his chart, we bid them goodbye and sailed on.
Landfall: The passage went so well that we arrived early at the crossing point between our course and the Santa Barbara Channel shipping lanes off Point Conception, which meant a we’d have night arrival at San Miguel, the wildest, rockiest and most northwesterly of the Channel Islands. So here’s another unique challenge: slowing the boat down in a rising wind so as to not arrive off a rock-strewn harbor entrance in darkness. It’s not as easy as you might think.
We kept reducing sail until we had nothing but a tiny scrap of genoa out (there’s that meaty phrase again) and we were still doing 3 ½ knots when we needed to be doing 2. Winds were 15-20 and forecast to increase, and Sockdolager did not want to slow down! The seas were getting up, but we did some zig-zagging to increase the miles sailed and stretch out the hours until dawn. It worked.
Around midnight just under the surface of a wave, Karen saw a squid, glowing ghostly green. It was about two or three feet long, and aligned parallel with the waves. It moved quickly and diagonally underneath one wavetop to the next wavetop, but always just under the water’s surface, pausing inside each wavetop, as if hiding under a mountain peak. Squid are predators, and this behavior made us wonder: does being inside a wavetop instead of in flat water increase the chances of being undetected by prey? When the wind blows, is the change in sea surface texture actually a change in habitat that triggers different behaviors? If any of our scientist friends have any thoughts on this, we’d love to know. Here's a public domain photo that gives an idea of what it looked like:
Channel Islands idyll: We passed San Miguel’s outer reef at daybreak and anchored by 0800 in a completely deserted, mostly treeless semicircular bay surrounded by low mountains, sand beaches, surf-washed rocky outcrops, and, surprisingly, a march of sand dunes right up a hill. Around 10:00 the R/V Raven came in, anchored behind us, and we all waved. You can just see Sockdolager in this photo:
The weather was going to get windier soon, so we dinghied ashore (our first surf landing) and went for a short hike before going back to the boat to rest and plan a longer hike for the next day. The northern Channel Islands are mostly National Park lands.
But the winds rose to gale force and never allowed us to get ashore again for the entire 4 days we were there. Williwaws roared down from the mountain ridge and blasted the boat at night, with wind gusts going from almost calm to 40 in a few seconds. The swell curved into the harbor and we rolled a lot until we put out our flopper-stopper (a gift from Captain Peter Frost), which dampened the motion. Big surf put an end to shore excursions. But Cuyler was one of the most gorgeous, wild harbors we’ve seen since the Queen Charlotte Islands. Amazing to have such a thing within 80 miles of Los Angeles.
We mentioned in a brief post made via our ham radio that the herd of elephant seals (who have large snouts and larger attitude) sounded like a stadium PA system commandeered by a gang of adolescent boys holding a belching contest. You wouldn’t believe how far those low-frequency blubbering sounds carry. These seals can get to 16 feet long, weigh six THOUSAND pounds, and can dive 600 feet to eat sharks. Yeah. Sharks. In the marine world, these guys are the Incredible Hulks. Here's a couple dozen lazing on the beach:
Here is a public domain photo closer-up. These are smaller than the ones we saw, but we didn't want to get too close.
The largest males have a proboscis that looks like a short elephant's trunk. We stayed a couple hundred yards away in the dinghy so as not to disturb the herd sunning on the beach, but several large males began to get up, stare and belch in our direction. We then realized that the low burble of our tiny 2 horsepower outboard sounded EXACTLY like a six thousand pound elephant seal belching a challenge from out in the water. Our inflatable dinghy being rather round, large and gray did not correct the impression we were giving them, either. Uh-oh… What was our outboard saying to them?
Outboard: Hey! Fatso! Whatcha doin? You call that a belch?
Extremely huge male elephant seal: *Belch* Don’t make me come out there, weirdo…
On the way back to the boat we stopped to say hi to the Raven’s crew, and they gave us some fish! O! Heaven! We gorged on fish and chips for supper.
A small fishing boat came in, full of divers with hookah air hoses, and after a few dives they approached us and said YOU WANT SOME SEA URCHINS? Whaaaa? Karen replied, Um, we don’t know how to cook them, but then one of the divers shouted YOU DON’T; YOU EAT THEM RAW. THESE ARE A TREAT IN JAPAN. HERE, TAKE ONE! And he cracked open the bottom of a big one and handed it over, a ten-inch pincushion dripping goo. Um, THANKS, we said as they motored off. Peering into the gooey black and red slime inside the urchin, we spied the yellow roe, which is what you’re supposed to spoon out and eat raw.
Karen looked at Jim. Uh-unh. I don’t think so, he grimaced. You’re on your own.
Very well then, she said, and spooned out some roe. It tasted like… raw clams! I can see why otters love these things, she said. But the quivering Technicolor slime got the better of her appetite, so we slipped the bifurcated urchin back into the sea for other creatures to munch on.
Leaving San Miguel, we had a delightful 22-mile sail to Santa Rosa Island’s Becher Bay, an indent in its eastern side, but just as we rounded the corner into the channel nicknamed “Windy Lane,” the wind really piped up—to almost 40 knots! The mainsail was already double-reefed, and with the staysail and a tiny scrap of genoa up forward, we sailed to windward at 4 ½ knots to stay in another rolly anchorage.
Jeez, said Karen, that was a lotta wind.
I want to complain to someone about this, said Jim.
Maybe we should compose a letter then, said Karen.
It has come to our attention that excessive winds of late have made for very rolly anchorages, and today’s 35-40 knots just as we were trying to sail into harbor and drop anchor was rather like gilding the weather lily, don’t you think? In the future, we would appreciate it if you would refrain from doing that.
Next morning we left, and in utterly calm water were delighted by the sight of several species interacting off the SW corner of Santa Cruz Island: sea lions, white-sided dolphins, pelicans, gulls, and one or two other bird species. The birds circled and landed in among the mixed group of sea lions and dolphins, and we watched as the sea lions executed perfect dolphin-dives right after the dolphins did. They were so good at imitating dolphins that we did double-takes. In other parts of the West Coast, sea lions don’t do this, but here in the Channel Islands, where they evidently play with or at least observe dolphins, they dive like them, even when the dolphins aren’t around.
Next stop was the nice large Smuggler’s Cove (above) on the east end of Santa Cruz Island. We tried a couple of anchorages on the island’s south side, but with the large swell and the boats already crowded inside the tiny coves, we didn’t feel comfortable staying there. Sharing the anchorage with other cruising boats is a pleasure, and we met several of their crews. Here's a view of the anchored boats from up the hill. Those trees are part of an olive grove. Sockdolager is on the left:
Here's a view of Anacapa Island from the top of the hill.
The surf was pretty high, but we attempted a landing anyway and came close to flipping the dinghy. Karen injured her foot on the cobble beach, so to keep the swelling down Jim got a nice cold pork roast and laid it over her aching foot. It worked perfectly, and was delicious later as dinner. This was an average wave, but many were much higher:
Sunsets are spectacular around here. This is a view to the east from our cockpit as the sun set in the west. That's Anacapa Island in the background. It's one of the most important habitats for endangered nesting brown pelicans in the world.
We enjoyed swimming and snorkeling in the cold clear water, and Karen had a much-needed shampoo.
Hangin' with the stars at Malibu: Our new Smuggler’s Cove friend Jim Morris, a solo sailor aboard the 46-foot ketch Silver Fog, had told us of a great anchorage at Malibu, called Paradise Cove, so we decided to try it. As we sailed in, gawking at the mansions of movie stars on the bluffs overlooking the cove, we saw Silver Fog waiting there. Anchoring was easy, but there was kelp all around.
While visiting with Jim Morris after sunset, we were surrounded suddenly by close to a dozen dolphins, all diving and huffing, but the most amazing part was that the water glowed where they swam, so that in the dark we could see them as ghostly greenish dolphin-shaped streaks! It was a fabulous sight. Here's Jim aboard his lovely boat:
Next morning he picked us up in his dinghy (much larger and faster than ours) for a run through the surf to go have breakfast at the famous Paradise Cove Beach Café, where popular TV shows like Sea Hunt and the Rockford Files were filmed. Walking in, he commented, “You know, last night when I came in for a burger and gave them my credit card they saw my name is Morris and everyone suddenly went all ‘Yes sir, Mister Morris,’ and ‘How was your meal, Mister Morris, on me. Dunno why.” Then: “Oh look, there’s Britney Spears!”
Karen, who was within ten feet of Britney, immediately looked the other way so as not to invade the privacy of a famous person trying to sunbathe practically naked on the beach, and thus cannot absolutely confirm that it was actually Britney. But we’ll take his word for it. Here are a couple more movie stars enjoying Paradise Cove:
In the café, where if you walk in wearing a decent pair of sunglasses everyone looks quickly to see if you’re someone famous (Karen did this and enjoyed it immensely), we were seated near an actress who’d been in the movie Charlie’s Angels, who looked just like a normal person with no makeup. Our young waitress was rather inattentive, and Jim Morris whispered, “I think I’ll try something.” He turned to her and casually said, “I’m Jim Morris.” It was like she’d been cattle-prodded. She snapped to attention and was the picture of excellent service after that. Suddenly, a large smiling man appeared at our table.
“I’m Bob Morris, the owner,” he said, “Do I know you?”
Jim Morris blanched under his tan, nearly blurted “DAD!” but held himself in check and explained who he was (just a sailor from that boat out there.) Bob Morris was kind and funny, and gave us each a genuine Paradise Cove Beach Café Golden Sovereign coin!
Jim Heumann: Wow, is this legal tender?
Bob: Well, a guy broke a tooth on it.
Karen: I see it’s made of 100% unobtanium.
Bob: That’s right. Not many people notice that.
We laughed, enjoying the whole joke, and ate a fabulous, heart-clogging breakfast. Later, Jim Morris said he was sure Bob is an actor, too. Saying goodbye to Silver Fog next morning, we headed for Marina del Rey. After seeing the three hundredth (or so) huge beach mansion as we motored along Malibu in hazy calm, we came down with mansion fatigue. Here's Point Dume, where the biggest mansions are and the anchorage we stayed in:
Life at Marina del Rey: Our friend Bill Mooz, Grand Canyon River Guide Extraordinaire, picked us up shortly after we arrived, brought us to his home in Pacific Palisades, and pointed us straight at the showers (each to our own tiled and marbled bathroom). Then he took us to dinner at a little Italian café, where he regaled us with stories of people he’s met and places he’s been. He and Jim talked River Guide talk. We all laughed long, often, and loud. Then we stayed at his garden-secluded house and slept in a ROUND bed. With a mirror overhead. Yep. That’s enough of those details. But as host to a couple of tired and dirty cruising sailors, Bill gets our nomination for an Academy Award, a Grammy and a Pulitzer.
Jim, back at the boat: You know, I think a mirror might be nice over the bunk…
This is Marina del Rey. It's beyond huge.
Karen’s writer-friend Bill Neill, who lives nearby and is working on a maritime thriller called Rogues, roller-bladed over for a visit and we all spent the afternoon and evening talking about writing (huge fun for Karen), and what it’s like to work in television. He’s been a writer and Executive Producer for a number of popular shows, including Unsolved Mysteries, and has written and edited more than 400 hours of TV script, so his stories were fascinating and fun to hear. We can’t reveal anything about his upcoming book except to say that Sockdolager will be in it--Woot!
A character sketchy: It’s 9:30 on a Sunday morning in Marina del Rey, largest marina in the world. A twin-hulled, 40-foot cigarette boat with obscenely loud engines starts somewhere across the marina’s fleet of 8,000 boats. We hear a VROOM! VROOM! Ba-rumbarumba-cough-cough-VA-ROOOMMM! Ba-rumbarumba-cough-cough, etc. These engines are so insanely loud that you can easily hear them five miles away at sea. Anyway, the guy goes rumbling past our dock, so loud that of course everyone has to stop what they’re doing, say “What the…?” and go look, which is exactly what the lone occupant, a shirtless, deeply tanned middle-aged male, seems to expect.
He looks around to see who’s watching. Then he turns and looks back at his shiny engine cowls, as if reassuring himself they’re still there. Then, I swear, he looks down at his pants. Then another scan of the dock; another look at the engines; a downward glance you-know-where. Dock, engines, pants. Dock, engines, pants. Everything’s still there. Repeat until he gets to the fuel dock, where, because it’s full of boats, he VROOMs impatiently until there’s a space. This started at 0930. It’s after noon and he’s still parading throughout Marina del Rey’s length and breadth, treating everyone to the spectacle. Eventually he launches himself into suborbital velocity outside the breakwater, and all is quiet again. Later, a Bayliner goes sedately by with no fuss or rumbling, and I find myself actually appreciating Bayliners. This is the only explanation I can possibly come up with for this kind of behavior:
An octopus, a squeeze and the National Enquirer: We got acquainted with a nice couple on a sailboat docked next to us, and learned they’d sailed to French Polynesia on a 28-footer several decades ago “before GPS, I had to learn celestial on the way!” And therein lies a tale… some friends came to visit them in the tropics and brought a copy (of all things) of the National Enquirer, which they normally never bothered to read, but since they were news-starved in the boonies, Lydia devoured it cover to cover, noting with interest an article on performing the Heimlich maneuver in case someone chokes. The NEXT DAY, and I swear we are not making this up, her husband, while eating calamari, choked on a tiny piece of octopus tentacle (“you know how it tapers, right, well it tapered perfectly down my gullet and closed off my breathing.” Lydia thought, hey, didn’t I read about this in the National Enquirer yesterday? She spun him around did the Heimlich maneuver, and Pop! Out came the little tentacle! “I saved his life!” she said. Evidently word got back to the National Enquirer, and they featured a full page story on the Feldmans under a screaming red headline: “Couple Saved by National Enquirer Article!” Closure on a story doesn’t get any better than this.
We loved this moonrise shot:
And finally... We walked a mile or so to a ship's chandlery and Karen went to the front desk to ask if they had print-on-demand nautical charts of French Polynesia. They didn't and steered her to someplace beyond walking distance. Another customer overheard her and said, "We have charts all the way to New Zealand, would you be interested?" The next day we met Tim and Debbie, two very experienced cruising sailors, at Starbucks where we bought all of their charts and most of their cruising guides! Karen remarked to Tim, "This really was serendipitous!" To which he replied, "It'll be this way for the rest of your life!"
Sunday, October 9, 2011
The only negative so far is the the Pelicans are better fisherman than I am. They are diving into the water catching fish all around us and I haven't caught one yet!
We'll probably stay here for several more days before heading for Marina del Rey in Santa Monica.
This update sent via our ham radio.