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THE OLD(ER) MAN AND THE SEA
By Michael Matthews
July 8, 2009 -- Samuel Johnson, arguably the father of English letters, said that being on a boat was like being in jail--except that you could drown. A pauper for most of his life, Dr. Johnson was never in a jail or a debtor's prison. But I was on a boat for about three weeks last month and it sure seemed like jail.

Having just returned from this sailing adventure, let me put the journey in a context that modern-day frequent flyers can understand. Sailing as a crew member on a 2,600-mile run from Honolulu to San Diego is not nearly as comfortable as sitting in those narrow, non-reclining rear seats by the toilets on Southwest Airlines.

This story begins a couple of months ago. My neighbor at the local pub said he'd bought a 42-foot yacht and was going to sail it from Honolulu to San Diego. After my third Budweiser, I suggested that he might like me as a crew member. No matter that I was nearly seventy, had never sailed and the sum of my nautical knowledge was that boats float and have a pointy end and a blunt end.

My neighbor, whose alcohol consumption I hadn't noted, said that there was nothing to it. I could learn as we sailed along, he said. So with visions of a pleasant cruise, fine accommodations and good but limited food dancing in my head, I excitedly signed on.

On June 2, I flew to Honolulu, met the other two crew members and saw the boat, the Cactus Wren, for the first time. It looked tiny moored along the gin palaces at the Ala Wai Marina. I jumped aboard and nearly killed myself in the process. Then I was shown what was to be my quarters for the next few weeks: A bunk measuring 70x20 inches in a 90x80-inch cabin that was shared with the other crew members.

Needless to say, Dr. Johnson's analogy jumped into my head. In fact, no prisoner in an American jail would be subjected to a bunk of this size or a cell so small. The head (toilet to you non-nautical types) was even smaller, just a tiny commode and a miniscule washbasin. The galley (kitchen to landlubbers) had a small sink and two propane-fueled burners. That's where I was to cook some memorable (read: largely inedible) meals.

After five days of preparation--buying beer, rum and food in that order of importance--we were ready to set sail and had the Cactus Wren blessed by a kahuna. He is the Hawaiian equivalent of a priest, a medicine man and, I suppose, a guardian of hapless old men going to sea in small boats.

From my aquatic prison cell I kept a diary...I mean, a log. This written chronicle was done between something called "watches," which allowed me to view the stars from midnight to 600 hours and scan the skies from noon to 1800 hours. The object of being on watch is to constantly view the horizon for other boats while trying to stay on a course that would get us home. Not to star gaze or sleep.

Herewith some entries from my log.

07 June: We departed at 1431 hours. I took my seasick pill and a bunch of holistic crap. Big swell. I quickly learned that you have to be a monkey to navigate around the boat. "One hand free, one hand holding on," was the skipper's mantra. He then got seasick.

08 June: Bigger swells. Skipper still sick. I cooked Costco lasagna for dinner. Not appreciated by skipper.

09 June: I prepared oatmeal. It came out lumpy. Most was thrown overboard by an ungrateful crew. The generator went out. Its demise was unrelated to my cooking.

The third full day took us out of Coast Guard rescue range. I drank rum and beer to wash down the fried eggs that I'd rustled up for lunch. The first squalls came in late afternoon. We're making three knots. (That's nautical talk for traveling about three miles an hour.)

On days four and five, I calculated that, at our present speed, we would be lucky to arrive in San Diego by Independence Day. I caught a mahi-mahi and served sushi for dinner. I saw a plane fly overhead. Exciting.

On day six, I came on watch at midnight to find the previous watch (the now-recovered skipper) had fallen asleep and we'd done a 180-degree turn and were headed back to Honolulu. I seriously thought of not telling anyone. The autopilot is acting up and the skipper blames it for our reversal of course.

Day seven is a complete disaster: All the beer is gone. How could this have happened? The rigging snapped on the staysail, so we are down to two sails, the main and the Genoa (Ginny to those that know). The water pump burst, so there's no water in the head.

Days eight and nine seemed like we were sailing on a mill pond. We're not going anywhere. And with the head gone, it's buckets on deck when nature calls. A very difficult maneuver when the wind is blowing, the boat is at a 25-degree angle and your trousers are around your ankles.

Days 10 through 14 were uneventful--unless you count the fact that the radar quit. It kept telling us there's a fleet of boats ahead that we're about to ram.

A squall hit on day 15 and the rough-weather gear didn't work. I'm soaked through but I've caught another mahi-mahi. I made a salad, which was a hit. But the damned crew finished the rum while I was asleep. Bastards.

Day 16 and we're graced by a pod of whales, jumping and diving. Good luck? The swells are 12-15 feet and it's gotten very, very cold. Our latitude puts us level with San Francisco. We're making seven knots. Nine hundreds miles to go.

A quick inventory showed that we were out of nearly everything. Booze all gone. Food low. How much canned chili can one eat? Generator, radar, head and watermaker totally kaput. Winds 25-35 knots. It's rainy, wet and miserable. Only a few more days to go. People actually do this for fun?

I started reading War and Peace, an apt tile for the current interaction of the crew. Who else has tried to read Tolstoy in the middle of the Pacific while trying to stop the crew from killing each other?

Sunday, June 27, is a big-letter day. We sail into Avalon on Catalina Island to get fuel and beer. The fuel dock is closed, but Pedro's Bar still open. Beer at last! The crew is inebriated as we set sail again.

On June 28, we sailed into Mission Bay and refueled, then made haste to Shelter Island, San Diego. Our wives greeted us with Champagne at 1950 hours.

We'd made it! Dr. Johnson got it right, but, thankfully, all hands made it home without drowning.

From now on, though, it's those narrow, non-reclining rear seats near the lav on Southwest Airlines. I'll sit there and like it.

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ABOUT MICHAEL MATTHEWS Michael Matthews has managed and marketed fine hotels around the world for more than 45 years. He spent 14 years in Hong Kong building the legendary Regent International group. He has also worked with St. Regis, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood hotels. Matthews is currently based in Arizona. He began writing Do Not Disturb in early 2004.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Michael Matthews in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Matthews. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Michael Matthews.

This column is Copyright 2009 by Michael Matthews. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.