It’s been nearly 3 months since I sent out my first “Migrations.” As I write, I’m anchored at Isthmus harbor in Catalina after traveling 1600 nautical miles –about 900 of them solo -- since I left in early June (see chart at bottom). In two days I’ll be back in Long Beach for a brief 4 weeks. There is much to do to prepare for the next phase of this adventure. But for now, here’s what Migration and I have been up to.
I left San Francisco for the Delta on 1st July. I had a long trip ahead of me so I raised anchor at 5:50AM. It had been years since I’d sailed the Bay and I’d forgotten how challenging it can be: currents, ships, islands, bridges, fog and wind. And cold! But 3 hours later I was sailing through the Carquinez Strait where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers enter the Bay. The sailing was fantastic. Every few miles I got to remove a little more of my cold weather clothes while the westerly wind from the Bay, along with the flood tide, pushed me smoothly upriver.
It was challenging navigation and I had to keep my eye out constantly for the next buoy or marker. Occasionally large ships would pass. One came downriver just as I was passing the Pittsburgh ship docks. With a docked freighter 50 feet to starboard, the downstream ship passed only 100 feet to port. I sailed between the two waving up at the crew. I wasn’t nervous at all.
The Delta is a thousand miles of waterways in the triangle formed by Sacramento, Stockton and the San Francisco Bay. Levees were built in the late 1800’s and farmland created as the water was drained. It is slow-moving, sunny and hot in the summer; a world most people don’t even know exists. Funky marinas, little islands, lots of shallows, ski-boats galore, but also quiet sloughs where you can anchor in the shade of trees and pick wild blackberries from your kayak.
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The Hilton family owns a home on the San Joaquin River and sponsors a huge fireworks display at Mandeville Island. An entire barge of pyrotechnics is anchored off the island and it is a very popular party spot for the 4th of July holiday. When I arrived, there were already hundreds of boats – soon to be even more. It was a bit of a zoo but people tended to behave pretty well. There are water fights and every kinds of watercraft imaginable. Plus, people mark their anchors with inflatable toys so alligators and ducks and penguins float off of many sterns.
Being alone is not one of my strong points so, the next day, I decided the easiest way to make friends was to go spinnaker flying. This a great “sport” which I’ve been doing since me and my friend Steve first tried it when we were 16. You anchor the boat from the stern so you are facing downwind. Then hoist the spinnaker (those colorful balloon-like sails) with it attached only to the top of mast. Then you sit or stand on a line strung between the bottom corners. The wind carries you forward and up and, in the gusts, it can be very surprising how high you go. Surprising used in this sense means scary.
I set everything up and, though slightly stupid to do without someone manning the safety line onboard, I started flying. It wasn’t long before I had about 20 people onboard all wanting a go. I met a great group from a houseboat named Big Dog. Many were in a band out of SF called Finding Stella (www.findingstella.com). They invited me to several dinners, to watch the fireworks and to play games. It was blast.
The fireworks were on the 3rd since that gave people the 4th to travel back to their homeports. By the morning of the 5th, I was one of only 5 boats left. That was a shock. After diving with Loren, traveling up the coast with Riley, and making new friends in the Delta, the aloneness was strong and foreign. I didn’t like it. But I didn’t have much time to dwell on this as the next day I was heading to Napa.
Up the Napa River from the San Francisco Bay is the Napa Valley Marina and Boatyard; just 5 miles south of the town of Napa. It is usually difficult to find a yard that can haul out a trimaran because they are so wide. I had hauled at Napa in 1999 since they specialize in multihulls. It took me two days to ride the ebb down the San Joaquin and then sail with the flood tide up the Napa. By the 8th, Migration was high and dry.
Many of you know about the early years of my relationship with Migration. It wasn’t pleasant. We spent far too many hours in the boatyard in Ventura (where I bought her) finding horrible surprises and spending huge amounts of time and money to fix them. History molds our perception and, thus, I never look forward to being “on the hard.”
Sure enough, there was a nasty surprise. The fiberglass had been cracked on the port ama when she was last hauled in La Paz in 2001. Water had seeped into the wood and a large section needed to be replanked and reglassed. But better to find this now than in the middle of the ocean! Besides (I kept telling myself), it is only time and money.
If you have to work on your boat, Napa is the place to do it. It is a beautiful spot and sitting in the cockpit after a hard day’s work, I could watch the sunset on the Napa hills
There were geese and ducks – even a strange pair that took up residence under the boat.
And the good thing about a trimaran is that, in the 90 degree weather, much of the work can be under the wing decks in the shade.
Ten 10-hour days later, we were back in the water. Migration was replanked and repaired, her rudder had been stripped and refiberglassed, new thru-hulls had been installed, old thru-hulls plugged, the rudder tube remounted, the shaft and propeller pulled and serviced, and new bottom paint applied.
I had another fine sail from Napa to Alameda near Oakland. My cousin Lana, who was sick with cancer, lived there and I wanted to visit her. I also did some boat projects (of course) and taught a workshop at Berkeley Morris. Then, it was back to the Delta. My friends Ella and JT came aboard for this trip. We set off early to catch the flood tide and had a spectacular sail up the Sacramento river to Steamboat Slough.
Ella likes sailing even more than I do and gets quite miffed if we turn on the engine. It was a treat to slowly coast up the narrow slough in the dying evening breeze—barely enough to keep the sails full. The only sounds: the birds and the boat sweetly flowing through the water.
Ella’s 9 year old son JT loves the water and we swam and kayaked and fished and swung on the halyards for several days. JT and I found that kayaking when it is over 100 degrees makes Big Stick popsicles taste better than anything in the world. Then it was to Coyote Point (near San Mateo) as Ella had to be back at work.
I stayed in Coyote Point for 5 days doing boat projects. It is often said that cruising is working on your boat in exotic places. Unfortunately, Coyote Point is not that exotic. But JT hung out with me on the boat and it was nice to spend time with friends.
My next trip was back to the Delta with the Jensens: Steve and Shirley and their 3 boys, Josh, Dan and Ellot (16, 13 and 9). We arranged to meet at the Berkeley Marina and Ella and JT sailed with me up the Bay.
Berkeley is due east of the Golden Gate Bridge. The area inside the Gate is called “The Slot” because the wind rips under the bridge, around Alcatraz and across the Bay. The Berkeley dock I was staying at for the night was 90 degrees to the wind. Migration, with 3 bows, has a lot of windage, so it can be a challenge to moor when the wind is blowing away from the dock. As we approached, I shifted into neutral to let the boat slow a bit. As I started to shift again, the lever flopped loosely in my hand. We were stuck in neutral with 20 knots of wind pushing us sideways; still moving forward and dozens of docks and boats just 100 feet away.
I grabbed a knife, ran to the bow, cut the anchor safety line and had the anchor on the bottom in less than a minute. It was another long minute as I payed out the chain praying the anchor would set. She did and Migration spun into the wind and rode nicely just a boat length away from the docks. Oh, wow. That was kinda scary.
The problem was, as I suspected, a broken cable. I had an old cable I’d saved and an hour later we raised the anchor and docked perfectly. This life is exciting.
The Jensens came aboard that night and I certainly wasn’t lonely. It is amazing how much food three boys eat. The next day we provisioned, did laundry, and bought a spare shift cable. Then we anchored in Aquatic Park in front of Ghirardelli Square. That night we walked to China town for Peking duck, North Beach for tiramisu and, just so we could say we did it, walked up Lombard Street.
The next 4 days gave us another great trip to the Delta. Fantastic sailing in the sun, swimming, blackberry picking, and lots of halyard swinging.
Also a bit of adventure as the old shift cable I’d used as a replacement broke (!) just as we were going under a drawbridge. A quick jump into the engine room to shift by hand while Steve steered and we were safe. Good thing we had purchased a new cable. Now I’ve done the broken cable excitement part of these trip. I can move on.
We returned to Alameda and I caught a plane to LA for the board meeting of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and for some consulting at my old firm. I was happy to be back on board a week later.
A few more days in the Marina doing, what else, boat projects, and then I had to get out of there before I went crazy. I sailed around the bay for a week and half: Paradise Cove, SF, Sausalito. Did some racing (on a friend’s sailboat, not Migration), Morris danced. saw friends, tried to mend a broken heart, caught a cold. Did I mention San Francisco can be chilly?
On 27 August I pulled up the anchor, headed out the Golden Gate and turned north. I was on my way to Tomales Bay. This a beautiful bay north of Pt. Reyes and south of Bodega Bay. It’s 12 miles long and only about a mile wide. Not many boats visit because the opening faces north – into the prevailing wind and waves – and a bar across the entrance has only 8 feet of water above it. That means in any kind of weather there can cause breaking waves. Not something you want to be sailing through.
I timed my entrance for the morning of the 28th – high water, slack tide and before the winds started. No problem getting over the bar but once inside it was navigating by Braille as my charts didn’t match the narrow and shallow channels. Luckily it is soft mud and sand so I went slowly and when I went aground I was able to back off without damage. After the first mile it’s much easier and I continued to White Gulch, a small inlet about a third of the way down the bay.
I spent 4 days in Tomales Bay. Many friends came to visit, some spent the night. So much happened in only a few days: I made new friends, watched elk on the hillside, hiked an island covered with cormorants, explored the entrance bar in Plover, hitchhiked to Pt. Reyes, prepared great meals, ate oysters, drank beer and sipped wine.
Then it was back to San Francisco via Drake’s Bay. The weather was cold and grey – no wind, just a flat lumpy sea. Sailing through the Gate, the wind picked up and by the time I got to the Oakland Bay Bridge I could shed my foul weather jacket and fleece. A few minutes later I was in t-shirt and shorts. Sailing the Bay keeps you in good shape if only from putting on and removing clothes.
I docked in Alameda again. My old dance team, Swords of Gridlock, had a performance the next day and I was invited to join in. We had three shows at the Scottish Highland Games on a fine springy stage with appreciative audiences. Yes, I know, it is so strange to wear bells and leap about and clash sticks. But it is very fun and my mind has perversely convinced me that it’s cool, too.
My cousin Lana had taken a turn for the worse and the next week was spent visiting her during her last days, doing what I could to help the family and then a 3 day trip to LA for her funeral. Her memorial service was wonderful. I love hearing others’ perspectives on someone I know well. We all have many facets, yet few in our lives see more than one or two. It is usually only at a moving memorial that we learn of the complexity, and blessings, of the many ways we have touched others.
In my journal that night, my lesson for the day was: “Remember what is sweet and loving and good about those you know.”
When I returned to Migration, it was time to head south. It was fitting to spend my last night in SF Bay at Aquatic Park, the same place I anchored when I first arrived.
The next morning, 12 September, I sailed under the Gate and turned left. It was, of course, cold and gray but soon the breeze came up and I had a fine sail to Half Moon Bay. I checked my old log and surprisingly found that it was exactly 6 years and 1 day since I had last headed south out of the Gate.
Alone this time, I worked my way down the coast, stopping at Capitola and Monterey (where I stayed for several days to get over a bit of bronchitis). The 80 nautical miles from Monterey to San Simeon is the longest passage on the trip. In order to arrive at San Simeon by nightfall, I left Monterey at 3AM. The fog was thick and it made for slow going. Thank goodness for radar. Unfortunately there was little wind that day, though lots of fog.
But the day became remarkably memorable when a blue whale accompanied me for about five minutes before sounding, his great tail rising 20 feet in the air just 75 yards from the boat, and then slipping slowly into the sea. A half hour later I was still saying, “wow…”
A day in San Simeon, a stop to visit a friend in Port San Luis and then around Points Arguello and Conception. It was windy but not nearly as bad as it could have been. The points are surrounded by Danger Zones controlled by Vandenberg Air Force Base. “Control” came on the radio and announced that several of the danger zones would be closed in the afternoon. I contacted Control and asked if that meant there was going to be a rocket launch. The answer was yes and that meant that after I anchored in Coho just south of Conception, I sat for 2 hours freezing my butt off in the cockpit staring at a spot where I knew, 12 miles to the north, the gantries stood.
It was worth it. The rocket launch was exciting and cool, and beautiful. What great timing to be in that spot on that day.
Passing Point Conception meant I was officially in Southern California and to prove it I was able to sail the next day without long underwear. Actually without any underwear. It was beautiful.
A quick stop in Santa Barbara to rest and see friends, an overnight at the east end of Santa Cruz Island and now, here I am in Catalina – a day’s sail from Long Beach. I’ll pick up my Morris team there and then return to Catalina for the weekend where we have a gig providing entertainment at Buccaneer Days (drunken hordes dressed as pirates actually make appreciative audiences).
It will be nearly 4 months that I’ve been sailing, a drop in the bucket compared to solo sailors that have traveled for years circumnavigating many times. But it has been quite the adventure. I’ve learned a lot about myself and my boat. I know that bouncing from friendship to aloneness is difficult and that joy and misery are often only separated by what goes on in my mind. I know loving makes you feel alive even when it is unrequited… but it can be torture. I know that the sea can change as quick as my emotions and often does. I know that I’m incredibly lucky to get to do this and have no idea why. And thinking too much doesn’t necessarily help.
So that’s the story for now. Mexico calls at the end of October.
P.S. I forgot to mention in my last email that my latest book COWS GOING PAST was released in May and if you want to buy it then please go ahead and do that. <This advertising space was purchased by Hungarian Ducks, Ltd. a wholly owned subsidiary of Bruce Balan and the cost was his mortification at putting this in his Migrations Update because it seems so crass, yet at the same time, he would like people to know that he has a new book because some people do want to know and if lots of people buy it then he can keep cruising for longer and he’ll be able to write more Migrations which some people enjoy so in a way it all comes back… and if that isn’t a lot of rationalized crap, I don’t know what is. Simply put, sorry for being so, I don’t know… commercial.>
1,668 nautical miles since June, 2005
This site was last updated 08/03/08