As we motor through a stream of brown foam and styrofoam coffee cups that lead to San Diego's entrance channel, a Coast Guard cutter arrows toward us. The boat circles our boat La Cuna, setting her bouncing in a tumult of wakes, then stops parallel to our port side and holds its position by gunning and reversing the powerful motor. Two men balance legs wide on deck and order us by bullhorn to, "Stand ready for boarding."
An unseen driver behind opaque windows jockeys the cutter next to La Cuna with only a slight bash, and two men step aboard. A third stands by with a big gun in the bow of the boat, which backs off and surges at the ready.
The men are uniformed in dark blue, have a clipboard, and wear the kind of sunglasses and shoulder holsters that discourage idle chat. Captain Ken greets them and answers their questions about last harbor, destination, number of people on board. He shows them La Cuna’s Coast Guard documentation and other papers, and tells them our purpose in San Diego.
"We’re planning to re-provision and check out for Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. We’re on our way around the world."
One of the blank faces asks to come below. La Cuna’s cabin is small—about fifteen by five feet, and only high enough at the center for a six-footer to stand erect. The man kneels and looks into the bilge, no doubt observing that there is not much space for contraband. He points to buckets stored in the pilot berth and asks what’s in them. I wrestle out two and show him our stores of almonds, flour, dried foods, and padded shells.
"We keep picking things up," I say wryly.
"No problem," he says.
Surely he is trained in drug enforcement and can see by now whatever signs communicate that we are not smugglers, at least at this moment. He climbs out, fills out a boarding report form, and hands us the yellow copy. Then the pair stands at a sort of attention on deck. The driver guns up alongside, clashes a bit with our varnish, and the men step back onto their own boat. Their man in the bow never moves.
"So," I breathe out as they roar away, "Maybe our last time being boarded in the U.S."
Ken runs his hands over the varnish where the cutter banged. "I wish they’d let us put fenders out."
This whole incident is not a surprise. We have found the Coast Guard to be increasingly military as we have sailed south from Oregon. This side of Point Conception, we were hailed and boarded twice, even in our short trip. The Guard seems to function more as drug agents here than as allies in times of trouble. We wonder idly why they picked us to stop from the hodge-podge of traffic passing outside the entrance to San Diego, but we know there is really no telling. In the gypsy world of cruising beyond the protections of privilege, we are getting used to the idea that human systems can be as unpredictable as the sea.
We enter San Diego's long, wide, hectic channel and find one of the coveted spots at the Police Dock open. We make arrangements to stay three weeks and thus become part of the Southern California paradox. Paradox: Seeming opposites, both true at once. The optical illusion that looks like two faces one moment and a chalice the next. City and sea—seductive and ruthless, both.
On one hand, Southern California offers everything both novice and expert need on water. Long Beach and San Diego are international shipping ports for the entire U.S. The Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado is the center of operations, training, and support for most west coast Navy units. From our position tied up at the Police Dock, we can walk to every marine supply store serving this wide market, arrange for deliveries of hydraulic equipment, rent a welding kit for a day, relax on the pier and fish, and hop a bus to car rental agencies when we need to travel elsewhere for Immigration and family business.
On the other hand, Southern California spawns some of the worst so-called "sailors" in the world. These are people with enough money to buy and fit out a sailboat and pay for an expensive slip, who then leave them to go off and make more money. Everywhere from Santa Barbara south, we have seen marinas packed, bristling with sailboats and no one near them.
When these owners do board their boats, they have few skills and little time. They are used to cars and roads, to driving into a garage. They rush to the marina on weekends and drive out of crowded harbors. They enter random coves and line up cheek by jowl with others, as though they were in a parking lot. Oblivious to current and tide, wind shifts and drag angles, they drop an anchor and head to shore for adventure. We see manned and unmanned boats break free in small winds and drift down an anchorage. Their loose hooks snag someone else’s anchor, one boat gets tangled in another’s lines, snuggles in, and scrapes away alongside.
On another hand, offshore Southern California can be one of the most pleasant sailing environments in the world, full of whispering surf and green turquoise waters. Healthy kelp forests and bright animals thrive where the open sea brings nutrients into warm shallows. Snorkeling is a pleasure and fishing can be good. The winds are often brisk but only occasionally wild, perfect for sailing.
On another hand yet, San Diego shrieks its welcome to those coming in. The Navy provides the thup-thup-thup of helicopters, the revving of rocket engines, the long, low rooomp of slow-flying mine-sweepers being gunned up the gears. Commercial jets whine in and out of the international airport. A steady stream of traffic rides the water—destroyers, cruisers, aircraft carriers, supertankers, and the hospital ship Mercy, while tugs and pilot boats rush to assist each of them. Every vessel thrums a propeller signature through La Cuna's hull, occasionally punctuated with the killdeer sound of sonar.
The pros and cons go beyond paradox, jostling one another like air masses and condensing in a San Diego fog. Watery air hangs on your eyelashes and everything seems to blur. The distance fades then disappears in a wash of white. The surface of the water reflects nothing, gathers light into itself and turns pearl. You feel that you see nothing within this soft universe, and yet the smallest kelp bubble or drifting fish bobber stands out, perfectly etched on pale luster. Any other day, the flash of reflection and shadow would overwhelm these tiny forms. But in the fog, where you cannot see a ten-foot buoy at twenty yards, you see mere details to perfection.
If we keep our eyes on the details and let the city blur into the background, we count ourselves lucky in San Diego. After our greeting by the Coast Guard, we never experience any of the official hassles we have heard about—police harassment, high fines, restrictive rules, and unrealistic time limits. We walk and provision, enjoy our safe moorage, travel to say goodbye to relatives, and share quality conversation with our neighbors on the Police Dock, Sam and Door.
* * *
Both Sam and Door have worked with boats all their adult lives. Sam is a wooden boatbuilder who made or helped make nearly all the classically-styled wooden boats and replicas around San Francisco for ten years, and repaired the rest. He and Door built their own copy of the boat that inspired Ken's dream of sailing around the world: Joshua Slocum's famous Spray. They named theirs Spray XV.
"There're probably more than fifteen replicas of the Spray, but no one's taken us to court so far," says Sam who rolls his own cigarettes, lives for planking and rigging, and is full of human feeling, at the mercy of small boys who offer fishing tackle for sale.
Door rolls her own, too (lots of them), wants to be a writer, and occasionally invites Sam's small tackle salesmen onboard, lets them climb around the rigging or feeds them pizza. Her birth name is Doris, but she grew up around brothers. Until she and Sam decided to retire and sail the Spray XV to Panama, she was a purveyor for cruise ships in San Francisco Bay.
"You want it, I can find it," she says, "at least in San Francisco. But I draw the line at breaking the law."
Sam and Door are the first cruising couple since Portland that we spend enough time with to get beyond surfaces. Sam and Ken bond the way guys do, exchanging expertise and doing tough jobs together, sharing an infinite capacity for discussing what makes a good boat. Door is happy to gam about ideas when she pauses for a smoke. We often find we have arrived at similar conclusions, though she has come to hers by observation and experience. rather than by reading books. She has had less to unlearn than I do and enjoys taking pot shots at my abstracted path to understanding. She gets plenty of chances.
In our first conversation, I asked if she and Sam had trouble making the shifts required to move from living at a dock to sailing offshore.
"Ye-us," she said in a tone that had of course, you idiot thinly buried inside. "You mean getting used to a new routine, right?"
I had to laugh.
"I guess I thought if I could make the mental shift, everything else would follow. But my mind seems to move quicker than other parts—you know, habits and feelings."
She smirked, but I persisted.
"It doesn't seem to happen the other direction, going from sea to shore."
"It might," she said, "when you stay out long enough. But basically land is where we're born. We've had more practice."
"Like, you never lose your birth culture," I mused. "Your native language is always on the tip of your tongue, no matter how long you speak something else."
"Si, señora," she said, pulling a small tin out of her shirt pocket and stubbing out her roll-up, carefully replacing the cover. Guarding against fire on a wooden boat, I realized.
Later we talk about political choices our country is making between harvesting resources and protecting animals. In Oregon, it was cutting old-growth forests versus protecting owls. In California, it was harvesting sea urchins versus protecting sea otters. Door points out that being able to choose at all is an elite privilege.
"A person has to be well educated or have a lot of guns to think they have any real choices on earth," she says. "Poor people, any minority knows they don't have much say about how things work. Rich folks like to pass laws, but they don't have as much control as they think. Hurricanes and earthquakes take cities apart all the time. Like, an earthquake caused the San Francisco fire. The only difference is the rich can afford to rebuild. All the people who pass down stories about how to live in a place, all the Native people, they'll tell you. In the long run, you have to work with nature. You only get to choose from what's possible where you are."
"Like setting your sails for where you want to go but knowing you may not make it," I say.
"Yeah. Or, if you're lucky, getting to stay at anchor on bad days. Now, everybody likes motors so they don't have to do that, but then they have to work with something else—you know, oil rigs and steel mills. Like Ken down there with his welding kit."
We both remember the day—just an ordinary one, really—when he cut out La Cuna's old metal steering system to install a hydraulic auto pilot. He rose up from the hole without a shirt, covered in sweat and grime.
"Heat and flame shooting out of that torch and those spooky welding glasses. He looked like Vulcan," I say.
"Yeah," says Door. "He did. Sam won't touch stuff like that. He thinks you should be able to make everything on your boat yourself like Slocum did. Of course, that's not what we do. Slocum bought nuts and bolts. We have metal shrouds, metal fittings on the sails. We sure didn't weave our own sails! And we won't say anything about his tools and all the varnish and oil. But it's good to think about. People don't think much about what it takes to make paint, to get metal and work it. Folks in California argue about sea urchins or sea otters, but I'll bet they don't think twice about digging up a mountain to make copper wire. You have a steel boat. All that mining and cooking and chemicals back in Pennsylvania. That's Vulcan, all right."
"I know," I say wistfully. "People think we're so self-reliant, living off the grid and all that. But we're really very dependent. I make yogurt and bread, we dry fruit and fish in the sun. But we rely on someone else for milk and flour. We buy canning jars and fish hooks and rice."
"And you know the poisons we use," Door adds. "People have no idea. We worry about shipworms. What do you worry about?"
"Rust, of course, and barnacles," I say. "When we hauled out a month ago, the hull was covered with them. They’d worked their way through paint that’s supposed to slough them off."
"In San Francisco, the water by where boats get their bottoms scraped and repainted is some of the most toxic on earth."
We're supposed to be the people who live close to nature, I think, and we travel into wild harbors shedding poisons as we go.
"I guess people are like that. Whatever makes life easier they'll do, no matter what the long-term cost."
"Yeah," Door grins. "Americans are like that, anyway. But comfort isn't control. We're still at the mercy of natural forces. Lightning is natural. Uranium is natural. They're just very dangerous to humans. Nuclear power is completely natural—stars and the sun are nuclear powered. But, like you say, they're unhuman."
I nod. We pick up our coffee cups and return to our chores in silence. I do not call her back when I think of a beautiful paradox I read in a book by Rabindranath Tagore:
The water in a vessel is sparkling; the water in the sea is dark.
The small truth has words that are clear; the great truth has great silence.
* * *
Excerpt from a memoir in progress,
Sailing Between Sea and Sky: What I Learned from the Ocean about Life on Earth
by Phyllis L. Thompson
Sailing Between Sea and Sky: What I Learned from the Ocean about Life on Earth
by Phyllis L. Thompson