I don’t remember if we smoked any more of that cannabis on our trip around Catalina Island in wintertime 1967.
This lapse could be a result of the weed. Or it could be a slight slip in the continuum that is the past and the so-called present. Sometimes, memory has a mind of its own.
At any rate, after our first night anchored at White’s Landing, Jon Webb and I decided to take Ogress on a circumnavigation of the island. Maybe this had been the plan from the beginning. Again, I’m not clear about it. Maybe we used the marine radio to call home and discuss what were doing. I don’t remember that either. I will never forget that the radio was screwed into the bulkhead next to a brass plate my dad had affixed to each of his boats. In raised letters it said: “Oh, God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.”
This was not something we had done much, this circumnavigation. I remember only one other time when I was younger and we had slower family boats. The Mister Robert’s was a 27-foot converted Navy whaleboat, a double-ender lifeboat in its previous incarnation – unsinkable, but with a hull speed of only about seven knots. Its successor in the 1960s, the Good Grief, was a slightly bigger surplus liberty launch (a WWII-era ship-to-shore taxi, essentially), with a hull speed in the same general range. My dad worked all week, so we were limited to Saturdays and Sundays on the boat, with an occasional head start on Friday evenings. Catalina is a big island, 21 miles long and nine miles wide at the widest. Getting around to the backside, the windward side, took too much time out of a typical weekend. It didn’t help that there were only two protected anchorages over there; the rest of the coast was rocky and windswept compared to the relative sanctuary, and the sand beaches, of the leeward side.
But the Ogress was a different beast. She had a Volvo inboard-outboard motor and a chined fiberglass hull that could get up and plane at 20 mph, or better if the sea was calm. She was only 17 feet long but was beam-y and had an efficient little cabin in the bow. Jon and I probably figured we could circle the island in three or four hours, where it would have been a long day, more likely a couple of days, in the Mister Robert’s.
I can picture us in the morning flying along in the glassy lee of the island heading for the West End. There might have been flying fish, foot-long silver slivers, fins beating furiously like ducks taking off from a pond, finding a moment of glide and then crash landing into the next swell.
Rounding the arrowhead West End, we’d have been heading momentarily for Hawaii, then, past the point, coasting with the wind and whitecaps behind us. I’m quite sure I would have steered us into the deep, protected slot that is Catalina Harbor. I loved Cat Harbor as a kid. It was the quietest anchorage anywhere on the island, cut to within a half mile of Isthmus Cove on the other side – the island’s pinched waist. There were remnant ball fields on this rare pitch of flat ground, left over from the decades when the Wrigley chewing-gum family owned the island and brought their team, the Cubs, cross-country out of the Midwest snow for spring training.
I also loved that there was a shipwreck at Cat Harbor. I want to say it was a Chinese junk, maybe used in a Hollywood movie. Its ruination was a mystery, but its barnacled timbers jutted up out of the shallows like a fantastic work of juvenile fiction.
I surely wanted to show Jon Webb the wonders of Little Harbor a few miles farther on, but I’m not sure we took the time. This is a pocket cove, barely protected from the prevailing weather and with a surge-y anchorage. But it has the only sand beach on the backside, and a seasonal spring. The Gabrielino Indians lived there at least part time for thousands of years.
My dad and I dove for abalone in Little Harbor in a ritual we couldn’t have known would end a decade or two later with the virtual disappearance from Southern California of the iridescent mollusks. We pried them from their rocks, sliced and pounded the muscle with a wooden mallet, then breaded the steaks and fried them in butter. A boy doesn’t know about the ambrosia of physical love, but those bites of abalone were as close as I’d come.
On a bluff above the beach, the Gabrielino left a midden of glittering, broken abalone shells that must have been 20 feet thick.
On board Ogress, Jon and I raced past Little Harbor, past these memories (they wouldn’t have meant much to Jon, had I tried to tell him) to a wilderness I’d barely seen and never steered around. For mile after mile there were no harbors, no beaches, no other boats, no civilization onshore. Only the roaring cliffs of the Palisades where veins of quartz, like lightning bolts injected into the rock, crashed directly into the surf. How close should we get to shore? Were there reefs? The water churned a strange milky turquoise color. The unfamiliar brought an unformed dread but also a kind of hyper focus.
At last we rounded Seal Rocks on the East End and turned for Avalon, the one hill town on the island – very Mediterranean – surrounding its crescent bay. We may have spent the night there. I’m not sure. I’m pretty sure we radioed home. I know we did that. Or rather, I did.
I don’t remember if it was my mother or my father I talked to. I was still their innocent son. But I was different. Within the year I would go away to college. I would discover the blues. I would get a girl pregnant. I would make other mistakes and register a few triumphs. I would smoke more marijuana.
Maybe it was the awkwardness of radio-speak: “Yes, Mom, we’re heading back in the morning. Over.” “We’re fine. Over.” “No, we won’t be able to see the coast. We’ll have to use the compass. Over.”
I’m pretty sure I realized, but I probably didn’t articulate even to myself, what an act of kindness that trip had been. Their letting me take the boat and go. To trust me like that, to give me that kind of responsibility. I thought the big deal was that they were letting me ditch school. But it was a great gift to a young man in his last year at home.
The sea off Newport Harbor was a silvery gray. Not a ripple of wind marred the humping line of swells that rolled through the Catalina Channel.
Between the sea and an overcast dawn sky, the outline of Catalina Island sketched a long recumbent figure on the horizon 27 miles away. It was February, not bitter, but not exactly warm either. I tried opening the throttle all the way on Ogress, my father’s white fiberglass, 17-foot, ocean-going inboard outboard. But the swell was a little too big, or the interval between waves a little too short. At top speed of around 20 knots we were slamming the troughs with a keel-shuddering thud. So, I backed off the throttle until Ogress found a smooth pace, nose up, not quite planing over the glassy undulations.
I pulled the cellophane off a celebratory package of Tiparillos, chucked the wrapper into the endless ocean, and offered one to my classmate and new friend Jon Webb. We stood together at the helm, feet spread for balance, smoking those nasty, cheap things with the white plastic tips, kings of all we surveyed. (more…)