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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Our Date with Destiny

July 24 to August 3, 2012: 
What do we have in common with Preston Sturges, “Golden Age” movie mogul, Howard Hughes and John Wayne?

We all sailed Destiny, a 1934-built, 85’ wooden schooner.  Destiny was custom-built in 1934 for Preston Sturges.  Howard Hughes bought Sturges out.  John Wayne leased her to sail from California to Hawaii. Destiny’s current owners, Dawn and Mike Hilliard, got comfortable with celebritydom, too.  Dawn worked for “Animal Planet” and Mike’s linked to the entertainment industry through his grandfather’s pioneering work in cable installation.

Today, after 78 years, Destiny sparkles, thanks to the Hilliards to the tune of $2.7 million.  They spent 7 years lovingly restoring her.  Destiny’s prior owner quipped, “Destiny needed you like a drunkard needed a drink,” though, “as a parched, temporarily tea-totaling aristocrat needed a really, really good Bordeaux.”

We joined Mike and Dawn and their two rotund kitties, Rustle and Bad Ju-ju, as crew. Our fellow Milltown Sailing Club compadre, Diane Kissinger, completed the crew.  This was Destiny’s first ocean adventure since her rebuild and the Hilliard’s first open ocean sail. We’d sail over 1,000 miles, from Roche Harbor, San Juan Island, which is a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, to Santa Barbara, Southern California. 

We wanted experience working a watch (divvying up our time sailing 24/7) together in the open ocean.  That stretch, from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California is known to be one of the most consistently snotty stretches of ocean, worldwide.  Sailing it is considered a solid notch in a sailor’s belt; that too appealed.  Even though we’re hardly the star-struck types, how often would we likely get the opportunity to sail a schooner, the likes of something John Depp would sashay across in “Pirates of the Caribbean?” 

I did have a major concern, however, which had nothing to do with my relative level of sheer sailing ignorance and ineptitude…. After falling in love with the simplicity of our 27’ O’Day sailboat and getting accustomed to its small 27’ size, I feared a severe and nasty case of a near-ubiquitous sailing disease… bigger boat envy.  Instead of going from a 27’ sailboat up to a much bigger 37’ sailboat, we’d now be going down from an 85’ sailboat, with not only several staterooms (bedrooms), but also a hot shower, a near commercial-sized washer and dryer, a full-sized standing refrigerator freezer (in addition to a chest freezer), multiple deck loungers, Sunbrella cushions and coverings for nearly everything, and a state-of-the-art navigation system and overlapping alternative energy systems, to our comparatively Spartan 37’ boat, Journey.  Yikes!  “Destiny doesn’t hide,” chuckled Dawn, used to gawkers with camera, snapping away.

Regardless, we were determined accept our date with Destiny.  Door to door, getting to Destiny was an 8-part, 13-hour commute… a car ride to the train, Amtrak train to an Amtrak bus, another bus, another bus, a ferry ride, another car ride and a dinghy ride.  All that, just a few days after 3 weeks of sailing and a mad scramble to and around Portland, OR.

That night, Maggie, Mike’s Mom hosted us all to a fabulous home-cooked send-off dinner of salmon encrusted in a cinnamon and orange rub, salad, rice and a birthday cake for Mike’s Dad, Les, and their friend Katie.  Dinner was followed by a thorough discussion of boating safety and emergency procedures.  There were also some uncomfortable conversations where conflicting practices between contributions from standard unpaid crew and guide services.  In the case of the former, $10-20/day / person toward food is customary.  In the case of the latter, their wallets were smarting from a just completed $1400 Costco run and your average boat doesn’t offer $400 designer Thai silk settee pillows, long hot showers and washers and dryers on board.  Tip to prospective cruisers … initiate this conversation earlier and more explicitly with the captain.

The next morning we joined the Hilliard’s friends and family for a send-off celebration, paying careful homage to all sea superstitions…. Gifts, blessings, a good (un-regurgitated, for those who read the Port Townsend post) rum offering to Capt. Nemo, a clean axe cut of the dock lines and no bananas on board.  Success… under fair morning skies, we set sail.

Destiny was a floating home for the Hilliards, so their digs were not set up for bumpy seas and company.  We all did our best finding the right place for everything.  As is often the case, it seemed there was more stuff than right places, especially the dive tanks on deck, which left as is, would become deadly missiles on the loose.  Thus, we tucked into Reid Harbor overnight, a short hop from Roche, where there would be minimal distractions so we could more efficiently finish getting ship-shape and ship out.

We did, on yet another fine, sunny morning.  Unfortunately, as we headed south, and away from the coastline by a good 70+ miles, it ceased to be balmy.  We were mostly on the front edge of the storm the majority of our trip, sailing and motoring dead downwind, though at one point we clocked 42 knots per hour in gale winds.  Temps hung out in the low 50s, though no rain up until we anchored in Santa Barbara, where a got a brief but respectable downpour.  My foulies (nasty boating weather attire) got a good workout, and Dawn bailed me out by finding a spare pair of rubber boots, which, amazingly, fit! 

In the first part of our trip we were shaken, rattled and rolled pretty well.  One of the more amusing moments was watching one of the kitties, Bad Ju-ju, sway cross-eyed, drunkenly, with the rolls.  She got even, fully living up to her name, as she expressed her displeasure in a stream of cat pee, twice, on Dawn and her bedding, which was en route to the well-traveled companionway exit.  I discovered that I am much more prone to nausea from odors (like cat pee, cigarette smoke, diesel fuel and oil from fresh caught albacore) but that even an 80-ton vessel can have one helluva consistent swing on her back porch.  At least, in my more charitable moments, when I didn’t refer to her as  “a rolly b----,” that’s how I described having the ever-lovin’ s--- knocked out of us as the boat rocked a minimum of 10-15 degrees side-to-side and up to 27 and more degrees, with water regularly sloshing under the bulwarks (low openings in a rail just above the deck) across the cockpit, and once up to my waist and down my foulies.  Wave sets got up to 15’ tall, which may not seem like much unless your desk is low and you’re looking up at them from your position in the cockpit and they’re coming 6 seconds apart from several different directions.  Worse, our bunk (bed) was parallel to the waves, with one side getting soaked by a now spurting porthole (window – which in this case looked like the window on a washing machine in spin cycle) and the other side a hard fall several feet above the floor.   We relocated into the settee area to sleep, akin to sleeping in a U-shaped Denny’s booth.

The motion created other challenges.  Adams “oil on top” gallon-sized peanut butter is not pretty when it flies off the seemingly momentarily stable galley (kitchen) countertop.  Ditto bowls of salad and spaghetti noodles.  Crossing open areas on a lurch with minimal grab-holds (some boats have more than others and / or less open areas – Destiny at this stage, has less) is exciting at best.  Refrigerators are not designed to be kept closed by duct tape and contents within them don’t like being jarred rapidly in multiple directions when their door is open.  Bilges (below deck areas designed to collect water to before it drains out) on boats with lots of recent remodeling continue to wheeze and gasp as they struggle to expel the swirling bits and pieces of construction waste. Sometimes this occurs at especially unwelcome times, such as 2 am, shortly after a night shift.

Whether more sail or less sail and which sail(s) – we had 7 and 85 lines between them, more motor or less motor, back inland or sticking outside the shore currents were stressful daily decisions with ambiguous answers.  Is the head (toilet) only flush #2? Or always flush?  The seemingly obvious is often not so, and there are consequences to guessing wrong.  They are the bane of passage making. 

All was not doom and gloom.  We saw beautiful sunsets, magical moonrises, whales, and one glorious morning, a pack of about 125 porpoises frolicking in our midst.  Learning about the various boats – what they are, where they’re from, where they’re going, what their cargo is, how fast they’re going, their weight, width and length -- that crossed our path was interesting.  On and off watch was a great time for storytelling, sharing hopes and fears, really getting to know each other in a way most of us rarely do. 

More than anything, we were there to test our mettle.  And we did, and were even on speaking terms enough at the end to opt to stay an extra night to celebrate our safe passage over a phenomenal steak dinner we cooked together, wondering what the future Destiny and destiny, held for each of us, and where in the wide embrace of the ocean we would meet again.

All that, and, with all due respect to Destiny and the Hilliards, I am at least temporarily cured of boat envy.  As much we enjoyed our brush with fame, we’re much more comfortable quietly observing the scenery rather than being part of it.