Closing a Chapter

Santa Teresa under sail
Santa Teresa under sail

They say the two happiest days in the life of a sailor are the day he buys a boat and the day he sells it. That might be true for some boats, but not for Santa Teresa our old, wooden sailboat. As Jack Aubrey says in Master and Commander, “There’s enough of my blood in the wood to make her a near relative!”

Jan and I have moved to Groton, Connecticut (think “Mystic Seaport” as in Mystic Pizza) to serve a delightful, little congregation with big plans, but it’s too far to bring Santa Teresa with us. It would take nearly six months to sail her through the Panama Canal and up the east coast, or it would cost over $14,000 to truck her there. Neither one is a good option, so after all these years, we had to sell her last weekend to two wonderful new caretakers. (You don’t sell wooden boats. You find someone who will love her and adopt her as we did.)

Today, I am sailing her for my last voyage across San Diego Bay from the Public Docks on Shelter Island back to her mooring ball by the Coronado Bridge. It is bittersweet. People have asked me if we plan on buying another boat. After all, we sold our first boat, a 22 foot O’day named Wanda Sue to buy Santa Teresa, but, if we do, it will take a while. The little church in Groton is going to take all our attention for now. If you’ve ever lost a treasured pet, you understand how we feel. Do you immediately replace her or do you need to grieve a bit first.

As I sit in the cockpit waiting for the last part to arrive to finish the repairs, I am looking her over and reliving some of our adventures from the last twelve years. I think about the first voyage through the Channel Islands and down to San Diego. What vivid memories! Or I treasure all the memories of people we have introduced to sailing. Some of my best memories were just tied up to the mooring ball in the bay listening to music by the light of the oil lamps and dancing with my sweet wife on our tiny ballroom floor in the galley. Yes, there were storms and ghastly mistakes, but those disappear with time and leave us wiser. I think about diving off the cabin top into icy water; climbing back up the ladder and doing it again.

I think about all the lessons God taught us on that boat: faith is leaving the sight of land and following the compass until the island appears on the horizon just as promised. Unity: each of the strands of a rope are terribly weak by themselves, but bound and intertwined, they cannot be broken. Annoying drips need to be attended to immediately before something worse happens. Trust: Be sure of your anchor! Above all there was a feeling of the presence of God as we sailed through the night, our way lit by stars as we were carried along by wind and wave.

Fair winds and following seas Santa Teresa! We will treasure you in our hearts.

View from Santa Teresa
Bathing Lucky after she fell off Santa Teresa into the bay.
Davey, Tom, Brett & Rob
Anchored just south of the Mexican Navy station


Just a Day Sail

SpreadersSpring is officially here and to celebrate we took a lovely day-sail on Santa Teresa. Yes, the rails need to be sanded and varnished. Yes, the brightwork needs to be sanded and varnished. Yes, there are a thousand and one things to fix, replace, and adjust, but sometimes you just have to put down the brushes and tools and go sailing.

On Friday Jan and I unmoored and sailed up the bay to the docks on Shelter Island to wash Santa Teresa down, top off her batteries, water and fuel. I spent the night aboard and four friends — and a puppy — joined me for a delightfully relaxing day on the water. I don’t believe we topped 4 knots, even with all the sails set, but the sun was warm, the air fresh and the water was clear.

Davey, Tom, Brett & Rob
Davey, Tom, Brett & Rob
Coco & Tom
Coco & Tom

No, there aren’t any good sea stories to report. Nothing broke or caught fire. No sign of pirates or vicious marine life to report, just a lazy spring day with good friends and an unhurried afternoon. Life is good!

Santa Teresa's Bow
Santa Teresa’s Bow

Isla Coronado Sur

Anchored just south of the Mexican Navy station
Anchored just south of the Mexican Navy station

Jan and I celebrated Memorial Day with an incredibly relaxing visit, just across the border in Mexico at one of our favorite anchorages on the east side of South Coronado Island. It is always surprising to us that more boaters don’t take advantage this nearby treat. The islands are a nature preserve so it’s true that you can’t land but there is a feast for the eyes. Over sixty species of birds are reported to call the islands their home and there are several varieties of seals and sea lions. The water is incredibly clear and from the number of commercial fishing boats visiting for the day, there must be something for them to catch.

We left our mooring beside the Coronado Bridge at noon on Monday and motor-sailed out of the bay before catching a fair wind south. The seas were very calm and we made about five knots to the anchorage. We anchor on good sand bottom in thirty-six feet of water. I made a dumb mistake and let the anchor chain get away from me with the handle still attached to the windlass. Fortunately I had the good sense to stop it with my left wrist — shattering my watch and seriously bruising my arm. Fortunately the pain dropped me onto the anchor line arresting the run away chain with my rear end. Fortunately my howling sounded very much like a bull seal looking for a date which brought two harbor seals out of the water onto the rocks beside us for Jan to photograph. Then she got the first aid kit to splint my arm. We went to bed early and I got out of doing the dishes!

Watching the Wildlife
Watching the Wildlife

Tuesday was a long leisurely day filled with snacks and barbecue. I managed to reel in an amazing piece of seaweed after “fighting it” for nearly an hour. I was sure it was a record breaking halibut, but fortunately no fish were harmed during our vacation.

The anchor came up on Wednesday much easier than it went down on Monday and the winds had shifted fair for another downwind run back to San Diego.

I suppose what keeps most sailors out of Mexico is the paperwork. Yes, you need your passports. We also have our Mexican import permit, fishing licenses, our VHF marine radio station license, and our annual U.S. Customs inspection tag, but it is well worth the trouble in our estimation. We have never felt in danger, nor have we had any bad experiences in Mexico. In fact, it has always been just the opposite. Of course my arm is in a sling and I need a new watch, but the only real damage was to my pride.

Ryan Gunnells’ Time Lapse Photography

Ryan Gunnells is an incredibly talented photographer. If you’ve followed my blog, Ryan took the picture of the lost bird who joined us three miles out to sea on Santa Teresa. That picture is also in my first book, Changing Tacks: Lessons I’ve Learned from an Old Wooden Boat. Ryan then created the cover picture for my second book, The Wind from the Shadows (both books are available on as well as the author picture on the back of the book.

Last fall Ryan helped me take Santa Teresa for her annual inspection and a little day sail on the bay. I knew he was up to something when he disappeared up on the bow with a camera and a bunch of bungee cords. Now he presents his amazing short film, a time lapse series of pictures strung together in a really fun video.

Thanks Ryan! You are welcome aboard anytime. I’m glad to not only call you my friend, but also my brother.

Need a photographer? Check out his website:

Santa Teresa Relaunched!

Thanks to our wonderful children, Santa Teresa was hauled out, stripped and repainted over the last ten days. She looks (and runs) better than ever! Here is the video:


Special thanks to Paul and Charlotte Bentz, John and Jennifer McKeel, Rachel and Lucy, Holly and James, and Judith Smith (along with Lincoln and Sequoia who barked their encouragement). Driscoll’s Boatyard in Mission Bay was great and the birds were amazing, but next time we paint the decks, I’m going to ask for Santa Teresa to be put in a “No Fly Zone” — (Don’t ask.)



There’s a Fountain in My Boat!

johnCleaningHullI had never worked so hard in my life. Jan and I had our beloved sailboat, Santa Teresa, hauled out and put in the boatyard. Then we proceeded to strip off forty years of old paint to take her down to bare wood. The mahogany was magnificent and it seemed a shame to cover up such beautiful wood but once the inspections were over, we put on fresh paint and had her put back into the bay. The only problem was; the seams on a wooden boat are filled with “oakum,” a fibrous material that swells up to ten times its size when exposed to water. The swollen oakum then keeps the water out of the boat.

However, after Santa Teresa had been sitting out of the water in the boatyard for three weeks, the seams had dried out. That meant when they lowered our boat back into the bay, water jetted through the seams! When I went below, it looked like the Bellagio Fountains inside. Water was shooting up through the seams between the planks and the bilge was filling up fast!

“No problem,” I thought flipping the switch to turn on the bilge pump. But then nothing happened. It was a brand new bilge pump – the largest one the chandlery sold – and it wasn’t working. I grabbed the pump handle for the manual pump and rushed up on deck to begin pumping furiously. Meanwhile Jan and the cats were rolling with laughter and videotaping the whole fiasco. Finally I realized when I installed the new electric pump, I had installed a one-way valve backwards so it would only allow water in and not out. Equipped with a swim mask and a screwdriver I jumped in the bilge and fixed the offending valve. Jan flipped the switch and the problem was solved. The water went back into the ocean where it belonged and we were safe. A few hours later, after the oakum had soaked up enough water, the seams were sealed again. The only thing injured was my pride.

That night we drank a cup of hot tea and thought about the oakum. When it’s dry, it’s just so much frail fiber. For it to do its job, it needs to soak awhile. Christians can be the same way. If we don’t take time to be with God – especially in worship – we dry out and become brittle. No wonder the Hebrew writer advised, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching,” (Hebrews 12:22).


Feeling dried out? Come worship with us at the Canyon View Church of Christ this Sunday at 10:00.


Drips and the Meaning of Life

chasing dry rot I love the sound of the rain drumming on the cabin roof as our sailboat gently rocks on the bay. The oil lamps cast a golden glow and the stereo quietly fills the cabin with music. It’s a great time to recline on the settee and read a good book or just meditate. That is until I began hearing the inevitable drip.

It’s so quiet I’m tempted to ignore it. Just focus on the rain or the music. Don’t listen to the drip … drip … drip. Try to think about something else. Concentrate on the book, the story, happy memories; anything but the drip … drip … drip. It’s not like the boat is going to sink. It isn’t a flood pouring in. No canon ball has pierced our hull. It’s not like we hit a rock and I’ve got to spring into action and man the pumps. It’s just a … drip … drip … drip. It won’t work. I’ve got to hunt it down, mop up the mess and put an end to it. There will be no peace until the drip is silenced.

There are some questions in life that are like that too. We can pretend they don’t exist. We can try to drown them out or ignore them but eventually we have to face them.

“Why am I here?” “Is there anything after this life?” “Is this all there is?” “Does any body care?” These questions don’t seem as urgent as say taking out the trash or getting new tires put on your car but eventually you’ll have to face them. We don’t have the “pig’s advantage.” (Mr. Pig doesn’t realize he is piggy today and bacon tomorrow.) As human beings we must ask these questions.

My Humanist friends dismiss the questions as “irrelevant.” “So what? It doesn’t matter,” but I say that it does. If life has a purpose then it follows that for me to get the most out of life, I should discover that purpose.

“But life doesn’t have a purpose John!” my friend might object.

“And how do you know that? The very fact that we can ask the question hints that there is an answer.”

“Then I decide what the purpose is. I give my life meaning!” he shouts.

“That’s noble in a John-Waynish-kind-of-way but it sounds more like you’ve put your fingers in your ears and are trying to avoid the hard work of finding the answers.”

The sun has come out and the drips have gone away but that doesn’t mean I can ignore them. It’s time to get out the calk and seal the leaks. Likewise isn’t it time to begin the quest and discover the purpose in life? But, of course, if you are a Christian, you’re already a pilgrim and well on your way to the grand discovery.

raising the sail



The Christmas Whale

It has been a long watch Christmas Eve on the passage from Ventura to San Diego. An hour before sunrise, a blood red, full moon slips below the horizon foretelling the storm that has been chasing us southward. Catalina is somewhere off the starboard bow and we barely move on a flat, windless sea.

I really should wake Jan for her watch. I am so tired I can barely sit upright behind the wheel. It is bitter cold and the wool blanket on my lap and the one wrapped tightly around my shoulders just makes my watch tolerable. I can’t bear to wake her, so another hour passes before Jan wakes me with a start, “John? Are you okay?”

I mumble something and bolt upright. The eastern sky is pale and overcast. “I’m fine honey. Merry Christmas,” I add.

“Merry Christmas John! Would you like some hot tea?”

“I’d love a cup.” Still the sails hang limp. The northern skies look menacing but the radio says we still have another day before the gale will arrive.

We were scheduled to leave Ventura on Monday but the starter had to be replaced and the myriad of tiny chores proved to be nearly insurmountable. Beautiful day followed beautiful day but we were still trapped at the marina. “Jamma” took her sewing machine home on Monday and our dear friends, Gordon and Glynna, stretched their vacation until Wednesday to help us prepare. The weather closed in on Thursday but we slipped the lines on Friday and roared across the channel past Anacapa Island with a rail in the water on only the jib and mizzen sails.

“According to sailing lore, voyages that start on Friday will surely end in disaster,” Terry the salty old diesel mechanic at the marina reminded us before we left. His words haunted me all through my first overnight passage as did the dictum repeated as the moon sank before dawn, “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.”

“Merry Christmas sailor,” she chimed handing me a steaming mug of tea. Catalina Island finally appeared in bold relief as the edge of the sun crept above the horizon. Birds began their search for breakfast and a playful pod of dolphins frolicked in the distance. My joints ached as I stood to stretch. Jan dutifully slipped behind the wheel and I wrapped the blankets around her. There really was no need to steer. There wasn’t a hint of wind but the slow, ocean swells continued to move us south.

Christmas at sea! The kids have all been raised and there weren’t any grandchildren to share the holiday with. It was just the two of us born along on our magical sailboat. Santa Teresa is a fine old classic wooden ketch. Sailboats are more than a mode of transportation. They speak to you and shelter you. She is full of life! The giant, plastic, powerboats – the yachts of fiberglass and chrome, electronics and egos – are objects of conspicuous consumption, but a wooden boat powered by wind and wave seems to define your place in the universe. It is almost a mystic experience. You learn your location from the stars. You change your location by cooperating with nature. Your hull sprang from the life of ancient trees instead of a chemistry set.

We sat, sipped our tea and meditated on the morning. Then I went below and re-emerged with our foot tall Christmas tree. I put my crudely wrapped package for Jan under the tree and she gave me a kiss producing a beautiful leather bound journal for me. Then we heard it. The sound of the sea as a thirty-foot whale, a Christmas whale, broke the surface and spouted beside our boat. He was only there for a moment before rolling down again, his giant fluke pointed towards the sky. Merry Christmas world! We hugged and laughed like children.

Elsewhere there are wars and rumors of war, chaos and calamity, pain and pollution but for two lone sailors born along in a beautiful wooden boat, life is good. Merry Christmas indeed!



Night Passage

This is an old article I wrote many years ago as Jan and I began sailing. We made a multi-day passage from Ventura to San Diego and we still remember it as one of our favorite trips.


Against tradition, we started our voyage on a Friday. A salty old diesel mechanic at the marina foretold doom and tragedy for us but it looked like we finally had enough of break in the weather to run down from Ventura to San Diego. We went through the checklist one last time, topped off our tanks and said good-bye to our friends. Clearing the harbor buoy, we hoisted our jib and mizzen and soon beat to Anacapa Island with a rail in the water.

The sun began to set as we turned south at our first waypoint. Jan heated water for tea and made a pot of soup. I tried to lie down in the quarter berth when she took the first watch but mal de meer and excitement conspired against me. When I finally gave up and came back on deck the sky was dark but the moon was brilliant.

December is cold, even off the coast of southern California but we found a wool lap blanket and with another wool blanket wrapped around our shoulders, sitting idle at the wheel was tolerable. Our ensemble was accented with watch caps and gloves and we soon learned to appreciate our tall sea boots and wool socks. The old backpacker’s adage, “Dress loose and in layers” was apropos. A sweater over a wool shirt and long johns worn under a Gortex parka was perfect

As the night wore on I realized I should have fixed the light on the compass before we left. While it was a simple matter to steer by the stars it was a completely different affair when the clouds rolled in. We quickly used up a set of batteries in the GPS because we had to keep the backlight on almost constantly to help us find our way.

Five things were always by our sides through that first watch: a mug of cocoa kept warm in a stainless steel commuter cup, a bag of munchies (Jan preferred pistachios and I snacked on Cheetos), a wonderful pair of Fujinon 7 x 50 binoculars, a flashlight and our antique brass ship’s bell. We had a night vision scope but found the binoculars worked better. Night vision scopes are not binoculars and we really needed to check out distant navigation lights and enlarge shapes more than we needed to cut through the darkness. For a flashlight, we found a simple “mini-mag” light wouldn’t destroy our night vision when we checked the compass or searched for a dropped cookie. We had a huge spotlight handy for signaling or illuminating our sails but we never had to use it. The old bell was great for rousing help from below. The thick walls of our wooden boat absorbed sounds, including cries for help, but the bell never failed to call up another set of hands.

Later, Jan explained the night watch wasn’t at all what she expected. She thought she would be lonely and feel vulnerable all alone at the wheel during her watch. She was surprised to find that wasn’t the case. Instead, the ship was a snug cocoon wrapped in a blanket of stars. The sea was far more interesting than menacing. It was ever changing and almost hypnotic. The occasional sea life – a pod of playful dolphins or the exhale of a whale – broke the monotony. Far from boring, her first watch was enchanting. When I came back on deck, she was as tired as she would have been after a long horseback ride. She curled up content in her down bag and fell fast asleep.

The full moon set blood red an hour before dawn. We’d have to keep ahead of the storm that was chasing us to San Diego but Christmas morning found us passing Catalina just where we should have been. Jan made more cocoa and hot cereal while I set a tiny Christmas tree in the cockpit. We huddled together behind the wheel watching the new day dawn. That first night passage was the best Christmas present two sailors could have asked for!



Will Your Anchor Hold?

N 32 24.7, W 117 14.5 Isla Coronado Sur

It was a troubling night. The wind had been howling all afternoon and the only anchorage recommended by the guidebook offered little (if any) protection. I put the anchor down in 30 feet of water and paid out 100 feet of chain and 50 feet of nylon line. The rode was bow tight but felt solid. There was no vibration in the line to suggest she was skipping across the bottom. We were a “biscuit toss” from the rocky shore which concerned me. If I let out more line to allow the anchor a firmer bite on the bottom, we would be in danger of swinging into the rocks if the wind shifted to the east. I guess life is full of compromises so after sorting things out on deck, refolding the sails and coiling all the lines again, I finally relaxed enough to take a nap.

It would take a while to sort out all of the sounds. Each of the shrouds made a different sound. The water rushing down the side of our wooden hull and the rudder rocking with the wheel made another. My ears would catch a sound, catalog it and then, satisfied, relax and move on to the next sound. Finally, when they were all sorted out I drifted off to my nap only to wake to the anchor alarm – we had drifted twenty-five feet south. It was to be expected. The faithful anchor was just digging herself in deeper, getting a firmer bite on the island as she dug herself deeper into the sandy bottom. Still, my mind wouldn’t rest so I had to spring out of bed and check for myself. We weren’t headed to the rocks and nothing was in danger of chaffing through. I wrapped some more protection around the anchor line where it rubbed the bowsprit just to be sure.

The winds were howling now: steady at 16 and gusting to 25 or higher. I climbed back into my bunk but my mind ran over the calculations again. 3:1 – three feet of anchor line for every foot of depth – is a good “lunch hook.” 5:1 – five feet of line for every foot of depth – is minimal according to the book. 7:1 – seven feet of line for every foot of depth is recommended. Let’s see, I thought trying to fall asleep. I put out 150 feet of anchor rode in 30 feet of water. That’s 5:1. It’s holding my best anchor, a CQR 35 pounder, with 100 feet of chain and 50 feet of nylon. Not bad, I thought as I drifted off again.

Then the anchor rudely woke me again. We had drifted another 25 feet. With the winds blowing us south, we were in little danger of swinging west into the rocks so I climbed on deck and let out another 30 feet of line making it 6:1. I drifted off to sleep again.

In the morning, the wind had died down to a whimper and as Jan made a great breakfast in our little galley, I thought about anchors. No one can sleep soundly if they are worried about their anchor holding. Is the same thing true on a day to day basis? What is your life anchored to? Do we trust our 401K will be there when we retire or, worse yet, Social Security? Do we trust in our good looks, intelligence, or luck?

For a Christian the ultimate anchor is trust in God. We believe God is real and He cares about us. In fact, we even believe he cares about you.