Sunday, November 4, 2007

A Coastal Navigation Day

Yesterday I had the first half of sailing intensive course number 3. Normally, these courses fill up an entire weekend (about sixteen hours worth, each), but scheduling constraints divided this one up into one half yesterday (Saturday) and the second half next Saturday. I am happy it was this way, because with all that is going on at work, it is too exhausting to give up an entire, should-be-restive, weekend on intensive learning. Additionally, I could have signed up for the three-day Catalina cruise (course number 4) which would have followed the Saturday after next, but I would have had to take a day off from work to do it (which I can’t really spare) and also I felt like it was just too many given-up weekends all in a row. I need time to process what I am learning, plus I feel behind in my learning. I still need to take the first certification test, which normally would have followed the first course, but you sign up for it whenever you are ready and I notice that most taking these classes really procrastinate on taking that. For me, the issue has been finding time to study all the materials, which would use up yet another weekend. Then there is another written test that is supposed to follow the course I am in now, plus a two and a half hour “solo” check-out. So it all seems like just too much right now.

Full time work (MORE than full time work) really gets in the way of the rest of your life, you know? But without it, how would I be paying for all this?

I’d probably be ready for course number 4, which really does sound like a lot of fun, in about a month or two, but apparently they don't come up all that often (I think the next one will be Februaruy 2008). I wonder if I should have pushed myself a bit more?

Did I already write before about the four of us who took course number 2 agreed that we would "try" to take course 3 together? (These courses come up on a hit or miss basis.) It seemed to me that it would be a miracle if that managed to happen, since everyone is on a different time track, so to speak. Melissa, for example, as near as I can determine, is more or less "independently wealthy" (or at least has some kind of income that isn't dependent upon a standard full-time job) and it is apparently her immediate goal to head on off to Tahiti as soon as she and her husband get their boat fully outfitted. She lives right across the street from the sailing school. Anyway, she took the course before any of the other of us even knew one was being offered.

Norman, who plans to buy several boats and open up a sailboat chartering business, is also pretty much in a hurry, although he is on a serious Captain's licensing track which will take him approximately a year to complete. Norman already wrote us that he was signing up to take a mid-week course 3, which had become available. Since I work Monday-Friday, a midweek course was not a good option for me.

Paul, the movie producer, director, and script writer, has an availability dependent upon his production schedule. He, apparently, had not yet taken course 3 ahead of the rest of us.

I got a phone call from the sailing school's manager who told me that she was putting together a course 3 and indicated that she was trying to schedule Paul; since I said I was available for it, I figured Paul would be in the class. So hooray, I thought, at least one of the other three would be in the same class.

As it turned out, there was no Paul there, yesterday, but there was Norman--the mid-week class had fallen through! So I was very glad to see him there.

However, unfortunately for me, Norman will be taking the upcoming course number 4, so he will be ahead of me after that. But it was good to meet somebody new, Shay, who was in this class. Norman had taken course number 1 with Shay, so Norman got to take this class with two other previous course-mates. But, alas, Shay will also zoom ahead of me, as he has signed up to take the upcoming course number 4, also. But Shay told me he was more interested in flying than sailing. He considered sailing a slow way to travel, plus sailing gets to only water-edged destinations, but I considered sailing to be a great platform from which to enjoy beautiful destinations. Sure, you're not going to sail to Colorado or Albuquerque, but you're not going to enjoy "anchoring" your Cessna at the Papeete or Nadi airport!

Ideally, one would have both. Probably the ultimate travel arrangement, in my view, was the one enjoyed by the late Malcolm Forbes and his yacht "Highlander IV" (his fourth yacht in his "Highlander" series). Malcolm Forbes, as you may know, was the publisher of Forbes Magazine and he lived, as they say, very well. I may have missed an estate or two, but Forbes owned an island in Fiji, a chateau in France (along with a hot-air balloon made in the shape of his French chateau), a penthouse across Fifth Avenue from Central Park in Manhattan, and an estate in New Jersey. And this immense yacht, which was probably as large as, if not larger than, a Seabourn "boutique" cruise ship. Carried on the deck of the yacht was a pontoon helicopter, so Forbes was not limited to whatever port he went to; he could fly the helicopter inland and land on either land or water. And as if that weren't enough, he had a Harley-Davidson motorcycle on top of each pontoon, so that he and one other traveller could "fine tune" their land-based adventures.

For his part, fellow student Shay is in the process of building his own airplane.

We also had Peter, the man who had been our instructor in the previous two courses. Peter has what I think of as a great and romantic vocabulary for the joys of sailing and he really makes you look forward to what you can have once you are competent enough to have the world's seas open to your adventures. He keeps his own forty-foot sailboat, not in Marina del Rey, but down in La Paz on the Sea of Cortez, in Baja California Sur. He and his family fly down there whenever their sailing months arrive. For shorter day or weekend local sailing, I guess that Peter has all that he wants via the sailing classes he teaches.

The sailing day was quite fun, I thought. The more I learn, the more fun it gets. The growth curve is quite steep (which means you learn a lot quite quickly), although I sure don’t feel anywhere near competent enough to take a boat out and sail by myself out there on the ocean. But I suppose I am not too far from that, though.

As a quick aside, Norman is seriously in the market to buy a sailboat right this minute and he found two for sale (that he decided he didn't want), “fixer-uppers”, that were right there a few slips over from us—one, I kid you not, for $100, and other, for $1,000. He showed them to me on the outside (and I peeked into the windows), very dirty and very much in need of reconditioning. Neither one had working galley equipment. The $100 one had a gasoline engine, which would have to be replaced (gasoline engines are too dangerous due to the explosion potential of gasoline fumes), the $1,000 one had a diesel engine that needed a lot of engine work (I definitely want a diesel). The main reason these were being offered at such low prices was that the slips they took up were more valuable than the boats, which meant that if you bought one of them, you’d have to find a place to put it. Peter said that if you knew how to refurbish these boats yourself with your own labor, you could end up with boats worth in the tens of thousands of dollars, but if you had to pay somebody to do it for you, it would be more cost-effective to buy a boat that didn't need so much work.

Emotionally, I wasn’t the least bit tempted by these boats, even though it looked like a person could “get a boat right now!” for virtually no money. But I don’t really know enough to even know exactly what it is that I want in a boat. Intellectually, though, it seemed stupid to pass them up. For that little amount of money, it would be cool to have a “knock about boat” while you were still learning (you could go out as often as you wanted and not have to rent a charter boat), and then, as Shay said, you could “simply sink it when you want to get rid of it.” Oh well, I think I’ll pass.

The main point of yesterday’s lesson was an introduction to coastal navigation, that is to say, sailing on the ocean within sight of the coast where there are recognizable landmarks that are shown on the sailing charts. You need to be able to do this so that you can know where you are, how fast you are going, how to plot a course to get where you want to go, and how to figure out how long it will take you to get there. I really enjoyed the navigation. One of my favorite "things" in the world is maps--every kind of map. And yesterday was the first day I had ever used an "ocean" map.

You use a scoping compass—you sight the object you want to scope (in our case, we used a particular buoy) and look through the lens and read the compass bearing; this will tell you on which compass point that object is from where you are on the water. You find that same compass bearing on the chart and then draw a line that conforms with that bearing from the object on the chart out to sea. Then you do the same thing with another charted feature (in our case, we scoped a smokestack on a power generating station on the coast way up ahead in the direction we were traveling) and draw a conforming compass bearing line on the chart from that object out to sea. Where the two lines cross, that is where in the ocean you are. You write down the time you took your position.

Then to figure out the course you need to take, you draw a line from where you now know you are on the chart to where you want to go. Then see what compass bearing that line is, and that is the course you need to take. When you have the helm (are steering), you can follow the compass that is right there in front of the wheel. When I had the helm, I had to keep our heading between 172 and 180 degrees. It’s not as easy as that, as the boat is bobbing all the over place due to the waves and the swells, but that’s the general idea!

After you have been traveling for an hour (or some other period of time), you repeat this exercise with two other objects (we did this with that same smokestack, behind us now, and then a church spire up ahead), and the two new crossed lines will show you where on the chart you are an hour (or however much time has passed) later. Using the distance scale on the chart, you can measure the distance between the two points in nautical miles and that will tell you how fast you are going, which in our case was 5.4 knots, which means 5.4 nautical miles per hour. (Not very fast, really, but the winds were light and the day’s sailing was very pleasant!)

Nautical miles, by the way, are different from land-based miles. Nautical miles are based on the meridian line around the earth's equator. The equator meridian is divided into 360 degrees, which is divided into 60 minutes per degree. One nautical mile is one of these minutes, which I think is pretty cool.

Once we knew how fast we were going, we could figure out how far down the coast we could manage to get in the time we had. We had hoped maybe we could make it down to King’s Harbor at Redondo Beach, but we could see that if we did that, we would not be able to make it back to Marina del Rey by 5:00. So we just enjoyed the sail for itself, not for any particular destination.

You could, by the way, figure out your location with a GPS, and it is highly recommended that you have a GPS, as well. But you need to know how to navigate without one, in case yours stops working. The woman who manages the sailing school told us that a recent former student actually got a job as a navigator on an oil tanker sailing out of the South China Sea, where they specifically wanted an old fashioned manual navigator, not someone who could read navigational instruments. I'm presuming that was actually a highly paid job.

"There aren't many available who know how to do that," she said, "since nowadays with so many instruments, ships have become dependent upon them." But apparently this shipping company had some problems with the instruments going out or having some inaccuracies, so they wanted a manual back-up. I kept thinking Valdez oil spill, although I have no idea how that particular accident happened to happen. Anyway, it is much better to understand how things work even if you do normally use modern technology to do all the work for you.

Going on this sail took me out into a whole new world. There are serious dangers in Santa Monica Bay that I never would have known about, or guessed. For example, there is an immense underwater sewer pipe that is shown on the charts, but otherwise invisible to sailors. If you didn’t know about this or didn’t have a chart, you could run into this pipe and damage or break off your boat’s keel. There are also areas with rocks and sunken boats (honestly, I wouldn’t have known that there were sunken boats out there—maybe that would be quite fun for scuba divers to explore). Decades ago, there was an amusement park, POP (Pacific Ocean Park), now gone, but there are still underwater pier pilings in that area, another danger for sailboats.

Our instructor was seriously filled with warnings about the danger of fog (we had to start late yesterday, due to heavy morning fog)—how can you safely sail when you can’t even see, and of course, all this compass scoping and taking bearings on coastal landmarks would be impossible in fog. But the biggest potential danger for a boat following the route we were on was what our instructor called “the Mine Field”. Dangerous, yes, but quite fascinating, otherwise. The “Mine Field” is where there is a long line-up of oil tankers and cargo ships, waiting for their turn to enter into port to unload and load. There is a travel and tie-up corridor reserved for them. I don’t know how long a ship has to stay there in that line-up, but I gathered it could be several days, because they looked “well-tied-up” to me. They not only are heavily anchored with two anchors, but are also tied up to several white-painted tie-up buoys with numerous cables (six or eight or so) that are spread out in all directions. These cables are longer than the ships themselves and not easy to see if conditions aren’t good, and this ship tie-up corridor spreads out for miles.

You not only want to keep away from the ships and the cables, but you also need to watch to see if they are getting ready to move. When I was at the helm, we were going up and then around the first ship in the line, a very long oil tanker. When we got so that we were in front of it, the instructor said to me, “How would you like it if this were coming at you?” I looked at it, this time we were where we could see its bow, and I burst out laughing, this thing was so FAT! We could see that the ship was long but it wasn’t until we were looking down its bow that we could see how WIDE it was, too! I said it was almost as if the ship were a ROUND tank instead of elongated. It really was very funny and yeah, I wouldn’t want it coming toward me!

Since that ship was at the head of the line, there was also a bell buoy there, marking the head of the ship tie-up corridor. That place was sea lion heaven! You could hear them barking about twenty minutes before we actually got up there and then when we were close, it was a three-ring-sea-lion circus with maybe twelve or fifteen sea lions all swimming around there. They’re among the cutest of animals anyway, but their antics were amazing as they played “king of the mountain” on that buoy. Some of the bigger, stronger, or more dominant sea lions had found places for themselves on the three stacked “shelves” of that buoy, but that didn’t mean that others weren’t attempting to replace them. Lots of barking and growls and sleek black bodies slithering up and down the metal of the buoy. It’s impossible to imagine how they managed to get up to the top layer of the buoy—can they leap up shelves like cats?

Shay, one of the students on the boat, wondered out loud exactly what I had been thinking, “what did the sea lions do before mankind invented buoys?” I think sea lions are mammals, which means that they are air-breathers. They definitely seem to like to climb up on objects that are above the surface of the water, where they can rest and relax and breathe. Shay wondered if they simply had to come to shore, instead, to do that, yet we don’t have hordes of seal lions resting on the shore in Santa Monica Bay. I’ll have to do a little bit of research about sea lions; they’re an amusing figure out there in our waters and I realize that I know far too little about them!

Another part of this “different” world our sail yesterday took me into is a clear view of how extremely crowded our coastline is. You can’t quite imagine it when you are driving on the streets in the middle of it (can’t see the forest for the trees), but out there on the ocean and looking inland, houses piled upon houses, it’s very sort of “Chinese” or “HongKongesque” in my view. The kind of off-shore view I crave is not Hong Kong, not a termite-hive of houses and humanity, but the Marquesas—lush, verdant, volcanic islands in the South Pacific.

Well, someday!

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