A friend of mine told me a story about her friend, an experienced river rafter, taking another friend out on a particularly rough river. At one point in the trip, the seasoned boater asked the friend, “Are you having fun?” His response was, “No, but I’m making memories.”
That statement is universally applicable. It is the hard times that stick with us most, that teach us lessons, that are the bases of our best stories, and, as cliché as it is, make the good times better. We don’t remember the details of the perfect, smooth days, but we remember with excruciating detail the difficult days. The climbing community often talks about the three levels of fun. Type 1 fun is an activity that is fun while doing it: bike-riding the boardwalk, a non-strenuous hike with consistently beautiful views, margaritas. Type 2 fun is an activity that is not enjoyable while doing it, but the accomplishment of it is enjoyable: an ultramarathon, alpine climbing. Type 3 fun is an activity that is neither fun while doing it nor in its accomplishment. It is the activity that is described with the phrase “I’ll never do that again.” Still, many of us undertake activities that skirt the line of Type 2 and Type 3 perhaps because, over time, the Type 3 activities become the memories we treasure the most—the ones we regale others with around the campfire or at the pub.
Sailing can span all three types of fun, and our last passage pushed through the threshold of type 3.
We casually set out from Morro Bay, California, in the early afternoon. The sun was shining and the wind was blowing at 10-to-15 knots, giving us an easy push in the right direction. We enjoyed the peace of the engine’s silence and a steady 7 knots towards our next destination, Santa Barbara. We passed through hundreds of dolphins jumping and splashing, from our boat to what seemed like the horizon. The wind started to drop in the evening, so we powered up the engine. As we approached Point Conception, ominously described in our chart book as “the Cape Horn of the Pacific,” the engine suddenly revved. We instinctively slammed it into neutral and assessed. Seeing nothing obvious, we tried putting it back in gear and pushing on the throttle. It revved extremely, and we saw that the propeller was not turning. Before leaving Morro Bay, Rob had told me to make sure he changes the transmission fluid when we get to San Diego. He started blaming himself for not doing so earlier. The only thing that made sense was a transmission failure.
Luckily at that moment, the wind picked up (with the waves) and we slammed through the water with mother nature’s throttle. As we rounded Point Conception, that throttle went to zero and we were left bouncing around the swell with no engine and no wind power. With 50 miles left to Santa Barbara, all we could do was hand-steer the boat in an effort to keep it pointed toward our destination. Our speedometer flashing between .56 and .00 knots. We put out a “sécurité” call on the distress channel of the VHF, notifying the Coast Guard and other boats that we were dead in the water, meaning we could not maneuver out of another boat’s way.
The bobbing, .00-to-.56 speed persisted all night as we took turns at the helm. Boats do not have steerage without speed, because it is the flow of the water over the rudder that forces them to turn. With no speed to speak of, we had to harness the swell and current forces in a feeble attempt to direct the boat to the compass direction that put us on the most direct course. The helm position was a concentration test: staring at the compass direction number on a digital screen and gripping the wheel to make minute adjustments, while engaging all core muscles to counter each drastic rock of the boat in the swell.
At sunrise, we started calculating how long it would take to get to Santa Barbara. Both delirious because the continual slamming over the swell shook us awake each time we closed our eyes while off-duty, we guessed 40 hours or more. We had plenty of food, and the current seemed to be pushing us in the right direction. But the forecast showed no wind for several days. The whispers of wind we felt continually shifted, so that anytime we tried to put up our sails, they just flapped back and forth. Our true threat was extreme exhaustion. Facing 40 plus hours without sleep, taking turns to desperately hand-steer the boat toward our destination, seemed inconceivable.
Another huge pod of dolphins swam by. We called out to them, still able to joke, “Hi, guys! Can you give us a push?” With that, Rob decided to reevaluate the engine in the morning light. After several minutes he popped up, and exclaimed, “We are going to drive this boat!” It was not the transmission after all, but the piece holding the drive shaft to the transmission. A special “key” required to hold the two together had somehow sheared off, but Rob was confident he could make a new one that would temporarily work. His first attempt was very temporary, lasting only five minutes before a squeaking noise exploded into extreme revving of the engine. But Rob was not dissuaded.
On his third attempt, we decided to drive the boat slow, where the squeaking noise did not develop. We were left traveling at 2 knots under engine power. It was still not enough to overcome the swell playing with us like a cat plays with a toy, and it required that we maintain extreme attention at the helm to stay on course. But we were traveling more than twice as fast as before. We continued like this through the day and into our second night, fearing the return of the squeaking noise, taking shifts, testing our ability to focus, and failing to sleep. I sang songs to myself, but all of the lyrics were the same: “Stay together, stay together, hold tight, get us to anchor tonight.”
Finally, we saw the lighted buoys marking Santa Barbara Harbor. The anchorage was just past that, and we turned in. Yelling at each other about boats and buoys in the dark, we found a spot and anchored. But we felt too close to the boat next to us. We decided to raise anchor and try one more time. As Rob put the boat into gear for the second attempt, the engine revved loudly and he yelled, “just drop it here.” But without use of the engine, we could not properly set the anchor. Fearing the worst in a passage that seemed to be ruled by Murphy, we offloaded our dinghy. Rob stood in the dinghy as I lowered its outboard motor from Mapache’s deck. The swell caused the motor to swing wildly from the line that was holding it. Rob grabbed on, and in the trough of a wave, I quickly lowered the motor. Rob attached it before it could be swallowed up in the crest of the next wave.
By midnight, Rob was towing Mapache against her anchor to set it as well as we could. And by 12:15 we were both asleep for the first time in almost two days. That passage was not fun, and its accomplishment was not fun, but … we made memories.
You may be wondering how we get off the anchor or how we repair the engine. That deserves its own log, which will post next.
Hundreds of dolphins swam and jumped around us as we approached Point Conception.
This broken key prevented our engine from turning the drive shaft and the propeller.
Rob worked on a temporary engine fix at sea. This is a view through our companionway stairs. Rob has to work from the space underneath the cockpit.
The sunset was beautiful on our second (unplanned) night at sea.
The morning after, we were happy to have made it to sunny Santa Barbara.