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!



Sailing Lessons: Changed in a Moment

It was time to start home but that was going to be a challenge. We had been blessed with strong winds blowing from the north to push us south on our journey but now we needed to sail north – against the prevailing winds – to get home to San Diego. On top of that, the cold California current runs north south and we would have to fight that too. It seemed like our best bet would be to use our tiny 35-horse power engine and scoot north during the night after the winds have died down.

Poor Jan was so excited she didn’t manage to get any sleep the night before at all so when I woke up at midnight, she was already awake. Ensenada had been a wonderful stopover. The people were so friendly and the food was delicious. A half-moon was just rising when we untied from the dock. The water in the harbor was mirror calm. The dimly lit green buoys were on our right and the red buoys on the left marked our channel out into the bay. Once there, we were greeted with large, slow swells that had traveled from distant shores. The boat began to corkscrew uncomfortably. We couldn’t see the approaching swells. Back and forth. Up and down. Side to side. It grew darker and darker. The motion was nauseating.

Dawn was welcome. It didn’t make much difference in the motion of the boat but at least we could see what we were up against. It was going to be a slow bash northward. At one point our speed dropped below three knots. “We’re walking to San Diego,” I complained. Jan was exhausted and I was green – very green. Soon I had the opportunity to enjoy the fine fare of Ensenada over again – and again.

We love sailing but not this part. I had to have a break from five hours at the helm and somehow Jan and I were able to trade positions behind the wheel on the bucking bronco without anyone going overboard. “I hate this,” Jan replied. I went below to check on the little diesel engine and try to find some relief. The way things were going, this was sure to be our last voyage!

Suddenly, I heard Jan laughing and squealing like a little girl. I popped up on deck just in time to see “Sally,” a 45-foot blue whale. (I knew she was at least 45 feet long because our little boat only measures 40 feet from stem to stern!) She was just a “biscuit toss” away and keeping pace with us. (Yes, she had to slow way down.) “I’ve named her ‘Sally,’” Jan announced triumphantly. Sally rolled up on her side and looked us over before crossing our bow and swimming down the other side. She seemed to shake her head as if in wonder. “What are these crazy people doing?” and then she sounded. Her massive fluke swung high into the air and she seemed to leave a hole in the ocean as she slipped beneath the waves. In one magic moment everything had changed. All of our troubles were forgotten and we were left with a sense of wonder and awe.

I can’t help but think it will be that way for Christians when we meet Jesus. All our troubles will soon be forgotten. Maranatha – Come Lord!