Some of you may recall our Ridgway friend James “Bobo” Burwick’s mid-winter attempt to sail from South Africa to New Zealand across the Southern Ocean.
Alone. He didn’t set the single-handed record he was hoping to break. He didn’t even make it in one fell swoop as he had intended. A broken mast 500 miles south of Australia forced him to limp into port for a few months of rest and repairs. But he took off again May 24 from Fremantle, as autumn turned to winter down under, and made it to Nelson on the South Island of New Zealand on June 12.
He admitted to being nervous after the previous misadventure. He sailed conservatively, wanting just to make it without breaking anything. And, he wrote in his log, “I’ve been super homesick for Wyoming for some reason.” Emails from friends had described the Rocky Mountain spring: Tetons brilliant after a late snowstorm, neon-green aspen leaves, moose and grizzlies with new cubs.
Still, there were 50-knot gales to surf through (“zoom zoom”), goose-bump dawns on the Tasman Sea, and, at the end, the heartbreakingly beautiful sight of the New Zealand Alps rising straight out of the sea plastered with a fresh coat of snow.
I’ve been thinking about Bobo and the America’s Cup and the plans Ellen and I have to sail to Catalina Island in a couple of weeks. The 2007 edition of the America’s Cup was contested in Valencia, Spain, as the defenders from Switzerland raced the challengers from New Zealand in a first-to-five series of match races. The contest ended July 3 with the Swiss winning a very close regatta, 5-2.
I’m embarrassed to admit I follow the America’s Cup. It’s got to be one of the most ridiculous – most expensive and elite – games in the world. (“Release the hounds!”) Billion-dollar syndicates build multi-million-dollar, 80-foot-long, carbon-fiber sloops that are lightning fast and butterfly fragile – and obsolete the very next year. New hull designs are literally hidden behind curtains. Once in the water teams have been known to send scuba divers to steal the lines of a new keel wing. Louis Vuitton, the Paris handbag designer, lends its name to the challenger series.
It’s called the America’s Cup because for 130-some years following the first race in 1851, the trophy stayed in the U.S. No English or French or Italian or Aussi sailboat could take it away. And as a kid, back when America could do no wrong, I loved the ongoing dominance. I thought we deserved it. Like winning the most medals at the Olympics. Or having the most nuclear warheads.
Plus, growing up on the California coast, I saw a few retired America’s Cup yachts. They were far and away the sleekest sailboats in the bay. So that’s my excuse, anyway, and I’m sticking with it. Some things happen in your wonder years that you just can’t shake. Even after 35 years in the mountains. Even though the Cup, like a lot of measures of excellence, has slipped through America’s fingers in recent decades.
And that brings me to our impending sail from Marina del Rey to Santa Catalina Island with a friend on her new 27-foot sloop. She’s never sailed to the island. I’ve done it 60-some times, although most of those occurred between the ages of 8 and 18. Ellen’s been three times since we’ve been married, on the commercial ferries that whisk you to the island’s one town, Avalon. We’re each equally excited, I think – for different reasons.
Whitney because this will be her maiden voyage across the Catalina Channel and likely first time sailing out of sight of land. Ellen because she has never really liked sailing but had a kind of epiphany on this boat, Table Talk, when we went outside the breakwater for a few bracing hours in April. And me because both women are counting on my experience to get us there and back and, perhaps even more weightily, because Catalina represents my childhood at its most mythological.
Beginning in 1957, my dad and I made our first crossings in a war-surplus Navy lifeboat that he bought for $300. It was an oak-plank double-ender, 26 feet long, hull speed six knots – slow and rolly but unsinkable. We named her (all boats are girls) Mister Roberts, a play on my dad’s first name and the Henry Fonda movie.
We loved that boat and rode it on summer weekends to the largely uninhabited paradise (as the song says: “Twenty-six miles across the sea…”) that was Catalina. To protected harbors with clear green water, kelp beds, calico bass, and a few other adventurers anchored nearby.
Mostly it was blissful, but we weathered difficult passages, too: at night, in fog, in pounding swells and wind. We dodged mountainous freighters, listened to distress calls on the radio, and felt a tremendous shudder as a whale ran its backbone along our keel. We saw laid out on the Coast Guard dock the dead white bodies of three men whose cabin cruiser had sunk mid-channel.
My father took our sojourns on the ocean seriously, and it rubbed off. I’m looking forward eagerly to our trip aboard Table Talk, but I want us to be ready, and respectful. Like Bobo, I’ll be a little nervous as we cast off. My dad had, on all of his boats, a small cast-bronze plaque screwed to a bulkhead below decks that read: “Oh Lord, Thy Sea is so Great, and My Boat is so Small.”
I wonder if Bobo has one of those.