The Voyage(s) of the Cormorant, Part 3
By Christian Beamish
“Check out that fin,” my buddy, Dillon Joyce, said.
And there it was, 50 feet off the stern, an unmistakable dorsal, weaving in a slow “S” through the water. Wasn’t the sharp triangle-shape of a whitey, and as we were five- or six-miles out from Santa Cruz Island on our long sail back to the mainland, my best guess is that we were seeing a rather large blue shark. Nothing fearful about a blue shark, even if we sat a mere foot off the water aboard Cormorant. And compared to the wild ride of the day before, we were content to enjoy the light winds and the sight of thriving sea life in the Santa Barbara Channel.
I’d ordered a new pintle, cast in bronze by Classic Marine in the UK, fixed the rudder and returned to Santa Rosa to retrieve Cormorant. It happened that Dillon, a young surfer from San Clemente with whom I’ve sailed the islands once before, was planning a hiking trip out there and we agreed to travel together. Solitude has its place, but the safety and company of a good friend is priceless. The ranger had offered to give us a ride out to the backside of the island, as hiking with all the gear for the return sail would be impractical, and he met us at the dock.
Above: A very simple arrangement: The haliyard runs through a hole in the top of the mast and ties off on a cleat—no stays, no fuss. Photo: Dillon Joyce
So it was a pleasant two days in the cove—Friday afternoon to Sunday morning—leisurely rigging the boat, surfing the funny little wave and combining supplies with the “Santa Barbara Five” for epic camp dinners. I waited a good while timing the sets once we got the boat down to the water’s edge on the inflatable rollers. There was a bit of swell running, and the boys gave me a good shove when a long lull finally came, and with a few oar strokes I got well clear of the surfline and then held steady waiting for Dillon to paddle out from the beach with the deflated rollers. Now that we were on the water it was time to see if I had ordered the right sized pintle and whether or not I had fit it to the rudder correctly, which were two details that had been nagging at my thoughts. Splayed off the aft end of the boat, the sternpost rudely jutting at my chest, I brought the rudder down vertically in line with the existing pin on the boat. Naturally, the rudder didn’t quite fit—one-eighth-inch too much bronze at the crown of the pintle preventing it from slipping down and sitting flush with the gudgeon. Still, the pintle went through far enough to secure the rudder in place with a downhaul I rigged using high-tensile-strength line. This arrangement would allow us to sail, even if it was less solid than I would have liked.
But sailing was a moot point as there was only the slightest southeasterly breeze, which was not favorable for our course, so I arranged the oars and took up an easy rhythm, pulling slowly along the five miles to East Point. Dillon took a turn, but it was slow going with neither of us having had much practice in recent seasons. I suppose I have muscle memory from the miles and miles I’ve rowed Cormorant over the years—one day in Baja on a sheet glass sea I must’ve rowed 15 miles well into night when I finally, literally, bumped into the island I was trying to reach. Out of sheer practicality I did the bulk of the rowing (not to take anything from Dillon, who is an excellent shipmate) and in the strange way of these trips—Is it mere luck?—we arrived at East Point and set the anchor with five minuets to spare before a powerful northwesterly wind came down.
Sunburned and tired, we put the boat tent up and cooked dinner then tried to sleep once the sun went down. The anchorage had a lot of swell rolling through it, with backwash off the beach, so the night’s rest was not so restful. All night the wind blew at 20 to 25 knots, the boat rolling sharply, tent flapping madly, and Monday dawned with even harder gusts to 30 knots through murky, grey skies. We were already behind schedule, as I’d hoped to have crossed to Santa Cruz and climbed up the channel to the northwest corner of the island Sunday night. My mother-in-law was watching Josephine and I was expected to pick her up, but with this wind we weren’t going anywhere. I considered our options, but there was nothing to do really but wait for better conditions. So we organized the boat, and put all the reefs in the mainsail in case we got a chance to set out, and by 10 a.m. the wind seemed to lighten up slightly, and then slackened even more as we pulled the anchor.
I kept all three reefs in the main, and in the light-but-steady wind we only made about three-knots across to Santa Cruz. But the wind increased incrementally until steeper seas began washing the rail of the boat. The corner of the island lay about two miles to windward, and we had to come about and run out once more for a better tack up the coast after we made the initial crossing from Santa Rosa. Now we were in it—a mess of wind-scoured sea and driving swell, the only makeable line a scallop-edge along the tops of the waves. Cormorant hums through the water when the conditions get bad, the lines straining too hard, sails too taut, the rudder pulling to leeward, making the boat flip in an instant were I to lose my grip on the tiller. Judging my way between a high rock island and looming sea cliffs, I kept on the only tack I could—that wave-edge line—foam rolling over the rail every third swell it seemed, Dillon bailing furiously, his face set in a fearful scowl. Just under the cliffs we had a slight respite, enough to round down into a tiny cove behind the barest knuckle of rock and then nose into a small patch of kelp. But once we were tied off, the calm water revealed an aquarium scene below, fish gliding through the kelp stocks while just outside the wind howled otherworldly and the sea poured across. We felt that fear, held up our hands to each other to show the shaking, and laughed out loud that we made it. It was Dillon’s birthday, 24-years-old, and I was only half joking when I told him that his present was that he got to keep living.
That kelpy grotto was a perfect hunting ground, and I donned my fishing gear—5-mil hooded suit, weight belt, booties, flippers and spear gun (a wicked little device that looks like an Uzi). Urchins dotted the rocky floor, clean pebbles and sand filling in crevices and the kelp swaying gently in the surge. Within fifteen minutes I’d pulled three big urchin and speared a pretty good sheephead, all of which I dumped in the aft section of the boat to boil up later with noodles and rice and little Asian spice packs. I then swam to the cliff wall and pulled myself up, climbing to the bluff top of Frazier Point in order to survey the ocean conditions around the corner from where we’d kelp tied. The infamous “Potato Patch” was a mile-square horror show of driving sea running just off the cliffs. While we wouldn’t want to sail that outer water again, I thought it might be possible to sneak by under oars, just off the rocks, and then sail down the inside of Santa Cruz once passed the West End. But it was too late in the day for all that, and I climbed back down to Cormorant to clean the fish and cook our meal.
Since I could only send a satellite message that gave our location and that we were OK, I thought I would send it out three times in thirty minutes—my logic being that Natasha would understand that we were staying put even if she wouldn’t know why. The stew was delicious, topped with uni and full of ocean nutrients, but Dillon didn’t like our anchorage at the edge of the world. He was shaken by the bad time of it we had sailing, and the little cove only barely kept us out of the fray. Clouds scudded overhead to lend a more ominous cast to our rocky berth, and the wind seemed to howl a little harder as evening came down. A tunnel, blasted out by eons of crashing waves, gave us a keyhole view of the jagged rocks beyond our anchorage and the raging sea, which did little to improve the aspect of the situation. But the reality was that we were in a safe little corner, ringed-in by reefs that cut the power of the waves and left them surging harmless beneath the hull.
One steep lurch that night had me upright in my sleeping bag, thinking that Dillion had spilled overboard, but all was well if only a bit uncomfortable. Still, somehow we slept, and the dawn oozed up grey amongst the black rocks and indifferent sea. Not wanting to waste any time before the wind would come up strong again, we took down the boat tent, stowed our gear and got underway with a only a drink of water for breakfast. It was tough rowing across thick swaths of kelp, Dillion reaching down from the bow to pull us along in places. I skirted inside a rock island, just off the point, battling the short, steep chop until I rounded the corner and could then cut across the general run of the swell rather than bash headlong into it. Fearing yesterday’s blow, as the marine forecast held for more of the same, I kept all three reefs in the main sail but the light winds made for slow going along the higher cliffs of the West End. By the time we rounded the corner the wind was slack, and Dillon took up the oars for the two-mile row down to Painted Cave.
It’s an inky sea off the plunging cliffs of Santa Cruz Island, and we rowed along slowly- slowly, just off the rock walls until every kelp fly in the vicinity had landed on the boat and began crawling over our faces and arms, licking salt, spreading disease (or so it felt). Desperate for wind and not wanting to be stuck out there for another day, I ran the marine radio for an hour, listening again and again to the area forecast, hoping that “10- to 15-knots, gusting to 20-knots” actually meant that a breeze would come. We nosed into the Painted Cave, just because we were there, but the bloated corpse of a sea lion didn’t help the mood. I was anxious to start the crossing and when the faintest hint of a breeze ruffled the surface, I rowed about 50-feet off, re-set the rudder and raised the sails.
A long day followed, sails set at 10:30 a.m. with all reefs shaken out to get the most from the wind. We saw the shark an hour or so later. We talked and then fell into long silences. Talked again. I should have had my radio on, as Natasha had interpreted my three messages from the night before as a malfunction, and called the Coast Guard. Fortunately, they did not launch an all out search, but radioed area vessels who responded that they had seen us and that we were in good shape, sailing for the mainland. Hours and hours later, the oil derricks six miles off Carpinteria showed as distant specks, and we shaped our course for them. When we got within cell phone range, some magic of being so far away dissipated, but I was able to assure Natasha that all was well, if only 24-hours delayed. I also called the Coast Guard to thank them for their vigilance, and the petty officer on watch said, “That’s what we’re here for,” and that felt good. And thanks also to the National Parks Service, as they are a real help out at the islands too.
Sliding passed the derricks at the “Hillhouse” formation, we ran straight in until I could see the houses I know well through binoculars. The sun fell below Santa Barbara in a pink glow, the wind laid down, and I went to oars, pulling hard over the last mile of smooth water until we landed on “our” beach, just down the street from our little house. It was 8:00 p.m., a mere nine-and-a-half hours after we’d started out from Santa Cruz—13 hours from our anchorage of the previous night.
There is nothing practical, after all, about this mode of travel.
Christian Beamish, author of The Voyage of the Cormorant (Patagonia Books, 2012), lives in Santa Barbara County with his wife and daughter.