Sunny San Diego
This time, that you're a seventeen year old English girl who's on a remittance to send her to an American university. You get the money through a bank, but, apart from the letters you write home, no one will really know what you're doing.
Southern California may have boringly paradisical weather, but it has a wonderfully varied system of higher education. In addition to the usual, rather stuffy, things, there are colleges of herbal medicine, rotational meditation, obscure sorts of yoga, and non-standard love-making. Some have exotic names that would give the game away, but some have fairly ordinary names. You choose one of these latter, one that meets only three nights a week and charges modest tuition. That leaves you a comfortable little income.
In San Diego, the cheapest and best residence is a boat in one of the many marinas. Since the marinas are also the most attractive and best located places in the city, it's almost too good to believe. As you visit one, you find that, in addition to many hundreds of slips for pleasure boats, there are commercial fishing vessels. The smell of fish overcomes any Hollywoodish perfume that might emanate from the more plutocratic yachts.
Living in a marina is a little tricky. Some charge live- aboards extra, and the nice one that you first approach prohibits the practice altogether. However, one old boy you meet by the docks tells you,
"Don't ever mention the possibility of living aboard to anyone, but then go ahead and do it."
The owners of most of the boats in the marina only go out in them a dozen times a year, if that. After the first flush of pride of ownership, which includes, and is almost exhausted by, having their friends for drinks on their boat, these people return to their roots on shore.
Having made out checks to the marina for a couple of years, it does occur to some of these land-bound yachtspeople, usually with the active encouragement of their spouses, that they might as well rent out their boats. You luck out by answering an ad posted near the marina office and lease a twenty eight foot sloop for hardly more than the rather modest slip rental. The only condition is that the owner, unlike most others, would like to go out sailing "about once a month."
At the marina office you meet an attractive Dutch lady who sizes you and your situation up almost immediately. She also seems to take a certain amount of protective pity on a young lady on the loose so far from home. It is quickly resolved that there will be no drugs, no excessive drinking, and no loud parties. You know that she also means that there shouldn't be too great a frequency and variety of male visitors. That's fine with you. You aren't a party girl, instead preferring only the occasional quiet little get- together.
The sloop is old, but good, and needs only some cleaning. There's an amazing amount of storage room in a dozen different places, and you find everything from wine glasses to a flare pistol in the course of your exploration. There's also a quantity of duct tape, and you know from your conversations with Americans that this silvery gummy stuff can be used to solve almost any problem.
The first night on board is rather interesting. There's a dirty comforter and a dodgy looking pillow on the large V- berth in the bow. You find that you can cover the pillow with a jumper from your travelling kit. The marina seems a safe place, so you leave the hatches open in order to enjoy the sounds of the sea lions and the glimpses of night sky. The motion of the boat, restrained by the dock lines within the slip, is soothing after so much travelling. You stretch out comfortably.
You have just begun to go to sleep when there's a loud horrid noise almost above you. You jump up, hitting your head on the deck above, and eventually emerge part-way out of the companionway. You are there confronted with a large bird whose picturesquely petulant look is so exaggerated as to be comical. It later turns out that this is Theodore, the local black-crowned night heron. He gives another of his loud bizarre squawks, and you begin to understand.
The boat has been unoccupied for some time, and you previously noticed a large accumulation of white guano on deck right near the mast step. This bird has taken possession of the sloop and he isn't sure that he wants a foreigner aboard. You set about staring him down, at which point, he flutters up to roost on the cross-tree half way up the mast. Just as you're feeling victorious, he drops a load on deck. Since boundaries seem to have been set, you return to your berth confident that you have a medium altitude early warning system in place.
After a restful sleep, you repair in the morning to the marina ladies' room, and find it full of young "live-aboard" ladies preparing to go to work. Their work costumes vary from jeans and hard hats to high heels and miniskirts, evidently reflecting the range of employment opportunities. Yourself content with shorts and a T-shirt emblazoned with a large red lion, you set about procuring a rowboat.
A Sevylor 280 is a rubber boat with a difference. It's a big boat, nine feet long, and weighs some fifty pounds. It isn't nearly as portable as a little two-person boat, and it wouldn't be of much use without modification. It comes with silly little oars, the result being that you'd be blown helplessly all over the place. Captain Joshua Slocum once remarked that, when the wind blows hard enough, you go the way the wind goes. True, but you don't necessarily want to go the way a fifteen knot breeze goes.
The saving grace is that you can build a rowing frame on to such a boat. For the time being, it will be a simple one of 2 x 4 constuction. It can be improved later, but it will get you out to sea.
You take the bus to a nearby Home Depot for the lumber and other materials. Having bought a small saw and hand- drill, you do the carpentry right in the parking lot. You have already discovered that a young woman with an English accent is assumed by Americans to be an aristocrat, and is allowed almost any eccentricity.
The two-by-fours are cut and bolted together, and short sections of two-by-six are bolted to the frame, to be later connected to the boat's original oarlocks with large screw- eyes. These oarlocks are already reinforced, and will now support a good part of the weight and thrust of the frame. In order to make sure that the cross pieces won't chafe unduly on the boat, you plan to wrap them with towels from the Target store next door. You choose red ones for the bow and violet for the stern to give the boat a festive jazzy appearance.
Having put the frame together with wing nuts, you partially disassemble it and stand in the parking lot with a hand-lettered sign saying, "Briton would much appreciate a ride." This sort of thing always works, and you are soon back at the marina and afloat. You still don't have oars, and have to paddle with a board, but that's only a matter of another bus trip and a modest outlay of your tuition funds. You determine that eight-footers are the best length for your boat.
At the first pull of the oars, you seem to whiz along the channel between docks. That sense of speed is a little misleading, since you don't actually go much, if at all, faster than in an ordinary rowboat. But it does surprise everyone who sees it that such an apparently makeshift arrangement rows so well. You're so thrilled that you cross the harbor and move into the channel that leads from Mission Bay to the ocean. This passage proceeds between two parallel stone jetties of the sort you're used to from the English Channel, and allows you to enter the ocean without launching through surf.
You cover the l.61 miles from your slip to the end of the jetties in a little over thirty minutes. There's a sandbar there, and the seas do bunch up a bit before crashing against the jetties, particularly when the tide is going out, as now. You bob right over the waves, and you're out in the big blue Pacific. It's a lovely warm day in early September, and you row parallel to the beach toward a point you assume to be LaJolla.
The big rubber boat, unlike the little ones, doesn't routinely take on water. It will have to get a lot rougher than it is on this day before spray will hit you in the back when rowing into the wind, and it will have to be a whole lot rougher than that before any water is taken green over the bow or sides. The tourists on cruise boats take pictures of you in your quaint craft as you row back up the channel, and you do wonder idly, and without real satisfaction, how many home movies will feature you. When you get back to the sloop, you find that the rubber boat can conveniently be lifted and lashed to the stern railing.
Since the sloop has a big flat deck, it can easily accommodate a kayak, or even two kayaks. It turns out that the kayaks most frequently seen in the area aren't the closed sea kayaks of some sixteen feet so popular in Britain, but sit-on-tops ranging from about ten feet to fourteen or so (a little more for some of the doubles). One of the reasons is that they surf well.
California belongs to surfers. Most of the year, most beaches are well peopled with them, and you soon find out that they set the tone for the youth of the area. If you don't surf, there must be something wrong with you. Even if you're an English aristocrat. Of course, there are old people over thirty who don't surf, but old people don't matter anyway.
The obvious thing is to rent a board and give it a try. You do try, and you get thoroughly trashed. There has to be a short-term solution. Kayak surfing. The surfers may sniff and snarl, but it can't be helped. You rent an Ocean Scrambler and take it out on Mission Beach. Even though you have previously paddled a sea kayak in England, Mission Beach trashes you a second time. But this time, there's a ray of hope. No one is asking you to stand up on the damned thing. Moreover, just by going full speed ahead, you find that you can sometimes get out through the surf. The surfers waiting for a really good wave aren't welcoming, but there isn't room to carry a weapon on a surf board.
In the midst of this operation you encounter a wild-eyed and quasi-coherent senior citizen on a kayak who only half knows what he's doing, and who has some spectacular wipe- outs. He is, however, a little more experienced in kayak- surfing than yourself, and he has one DO and one DON'T. The former is that, when you're at an angle with a wave, particularly if you're broadside to it, you edge the boat sharply toward the wave, the bigger the wave the greater the tilt. It often feels as if you've tilted the boat to ninety degrees as the tremendous force of the water pushes you sideways at great speed. Purists want to coast down the tunnel of the wave and disdain side-surfing, but it's fun and you can stay in your boat.
Now the DON'T. You brace into the wave with your paddle in either the low position (elbows above the shaft and hands down) or the high position with the hands high. But the elbows must remain as close to the body as possible. In particular, if you've lost it by rolling the boat too far into the wave, don't try to recover by reaching out with your arms and pushing down. If your paddle catches on the sand, your shoulder dislocates quickly and decisively.
The senior citizen says that he has done exactly this. The San Diego lifeguards are no longer allowed to snap dislocated shoulders back into place, and so, it's off to the Emergency Room. Once you get there, forms have to be filled out endlessly.
Despite your doubts about the s. c.'s underlying sanity, you heed this advice. Whenever something goes wrong, you wipe out. It's rather fun to go flying through the air, particularly if you roll so as to avoid coming down on your head. It also, as you later discover, attracts the guardedly favorable attention of the California youth on the beach.
On your morning rows and paddles out in the ocean, you notice that there usually aren't any other rowers or paddlers. Practically every person you've met on shore has been prompted by any mention of rowing or kayaking to tell scary stories about sharks, particularly the Great Whites which breed up the coast. These are often very old stories, from which you conclude that the attacks are rare. But you suspect that such tales are keeping people close to shore, if indeed, they venture into the ocean at all.
Still, you do eventually meet some people in kayaks and out-riggers, and some people lying prone on boards and paddling with their hands. They're hard to see because there's always some ground swell, sometimes a good deal kicked up by distant storms. The result is that people in little boats often don't see one another until they happen to be on top of swells at the same time. Even then, the rowers are looking only backwards, the kayakers only forward, and the paddle-boarders mostly down. Hence, an actual meeting a few miles off shore is an event which prompts chit-chat as you go along on parallel courses. A number of these people are themselves builders of kayaks or boards, and there is sometimes an oceanic exchange of business cards.
No one who is actually out on the ocean seems to talk about sharks, but they do talk about races, and about hairy experiences they've had with winter weather. It seems that the big seas in February crash hard on the jetties defining the channel, and almost all the people you meet eventually tell you of almost being slammed on the rocks in such circumstances. They are, nonetheless, a jolly group who seem to accept you quickly even when you're in your eccentric- looking rowboat. It does seem, however, that you'll have to wait for February to see what the Pacific is all about.
Your social life also shows promise in another direction. The marina is surrounded by a colony of low buildings covered with bright red bougainvillia. It was once a tony little shopping center which didn't make it for some American reason, but it's now mainly a wedding place with ceremonies out on the grass and catered dinners inside. There are as many as eight or ten weddings on a weekend, many running simultaneously. In addition to the sit-down dinners, there are groupings in the patios with waiters passing out food and drink. These would be easy to infiltrate, and, in the unlikely event that one were questioned, one could say,
"Coo! I must have the wrong wedding!"
There is a board posted with the names of the brides and grooms every week, useful information for the infiltrator. The Dutch lady catches you studying it and smiles.
All you need is the right costume. You gather up the heavy British clothing you no longer need, and head for a shop you've noticed which trades clothing. You can even go in, trade the clothing you have on, and emerge in something else. In this case, you come out in a pretty party dress with only the most inconspicuous stains. You also find some high heels which aren't too bad on the feet.
The next Friday evening goes nicely. The stand-up food virtually constitutes a meal, and you meet all sorts of people. Many of the married men want your telephone number, possibly because you forgot to get a petticoat to go under the rather revealing dress, but you make up numbers freely. When one man complains that you have one digit too few, you simply add another.
The next morning, you notice some lingerie behind some bushes, probably left over from a post-wedding tryst, and you now have a slip. The telephone number problem has then to be resolved. Going to the outdoor phone, which miraculously still has a directory, you call single women and ask for Melody. Most are quite polite in informing you that they have no Melody there, but one Vanessa Schwartzkamp responds,
"Aw fuck off!"
You note down her number for future use.
That evening, you visit three weddings whose canape- passing-out phases are staggered just right. You meet and chat with the Dutch lady, who compliments you on your dress. She even guesses where you got it. There are also a lot of young men, single this time, but there are none you want to take back to the sloop. So you give them Vanessa's number.