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The Voyage(s) of the Cormorant, Part 2

Christian Beamish  /  October 1, 2014  /  6 Min Read  /  Surfing


When the pintle snapped I felt a moment’s disbelief and then something like panic spark down in my belly. But I tamped that feeling with a long drink of water and a pep talk, noting to myself that I was not injured, that I had plenty of food and water, and that the conditions were calm. Johnson’s Lee, a good anchorage on the southwest corner of the island, was about five miles down and I draped a sarong over the top of my ball cap and tucked it in to my long-sleeve shirt for sun protection, then leaned into steady pulls on the oars with the thought that I might meet someone at the anchorage who could help me.

Editor’s note: In case you missed it, catch up with Part 1. Photos: Christian Beamish

Coming in close along shore I had a good view of desolate beaches and the scrub canyons that led upwards, the water below was aquarium clear and revealing sand one moment, rock reef and kelp the next. At a corner of rock shelves and low dunes, two big elephant seals pushed against each other chest-to-chest without much enthusiasm for the fight, their percussive groans having no effect on the females in deep slumber further up the sand. I kept on, steadily rowing, not wanting to squander the momentum I had gathered. But I stopped occasionally for water and to shake the numbness from my hands. When a light breeze started up a couple of hours later I raised sail and steered with an oar, Polynesian style.

Everything was going fine, the light breeze picking up as I neared the corner of the island, the water deep cobalt with wide fields of healthy-looking kelp shinning green in the sun. With the centerboard up and only the tip of an oar blade in the water, Cormorant skimmed the top of the kelp forest, running straight before the wind. But rounding the point brought the wind across the aft quarter, and I realized that I was no longer controlling the ride as the boat roared along wallowing, the oar bending back against the strain. Releasing the main sheet let the sail run out wildly, and I swung the oar on board in a flash then scrambled forward to drop the main. I tried continuing on with only the mizzen, but could not turn Cormorant before the wind again. Sliding now across the kelp and heading for deep water in the increasing blow, I grabbed the last strands like a man might grab for a bush as he slides towards a drop-off, and holding there, afraid that the two thin tendrils in my grasp would snap off, I carefully fished another handful together and then tied off with the bow line in two places.

One little pintle, a lot of trouble: Attempting to bend the piece back, it snapped off clean.
Hunkering down on the floorboards with the hood of my Stormshell jacket pulled up against the wind I felt even farther away than I had before, the horrid feeling of impending capsize passing now that I was safely kelp tied. But a nagging thought remained—that I was playing with forces that I would never understand well enough to make these voyages anything but a slow-motion wipeout. A workboat came powering around the point and I hailed them on my handheld Vhf, but heard only a scratchy reply, “We can barely read you…” as the vessel continued on without me. I was hoping for a tow into the lee of the point as I was well out in the wind and could not row in this blow. Blades of kelp flapped on the surface and whitecaps rolled hard a little farther off. I sat and read the interviews in The Paris Review as the wind and the island carried on their longstanding conversation.

The wind laid down towards evening, and I undid my kelp ties and then set to oars, again coming in close to shore as I worked down to a cove that had a fun little set up for surfing. Swells washed hard against rock walls in the late evening high tide, and I rowed mightily across the steep backwash, catching side-waves and cutting well the last mile of water to my destination. In deep dusk I reached the cove exhausted but determined not to let the day slip passed without at least a wave to my credit. I pulled my wetsuit on and grabbed the thick, little three-fin thruster I’d shaped, then hopped overboard to nab a few in the last 30 minutes of light.

It’s a neat little nothing of a wave, a wedging peak with a cutback section and then a slow roll onto the clean sand of a cove. I rode a wave all the way through and walked back across the beach that I hadn’t seen in a few years but knew like an old friend—the water canyon that winds down to reed beds, the big cobble boulders that form the wedging peak, the sandstone bluff that surrounds… all of it so ancient, so abiding. It was practically dark when I returned to the boat and I peeled off my suit, stowed the board, and took a sip of water before rigging up the boat tent. Once I got the tent arranged, I laid down without a thought for dinner or anything else but a lonely feeling of missing my wife and daughter and our little life together. Then I slept.

Morning coffee and granola while listening to the NOAA forecast started the next day and I soon went to pull anchor, anticipating many hours rowing and sailing the 10- or 12-miles the rest of the way around the island to Becher’s Bay. My plan was to stow Cormorant there and catch the Island Packer’s boat to Ventura carrying the rudder and its broken pintle. But the anchor wouldn’t budge—a whole column of kelp wrapping its way to the surface up the anchor line. There was nothing for it but to get into my wet wetsuit, grab my faceplate and knife, and swim for the bottom to see what was going on. The chain was looped around a boulder, the anchor lying on a patch of sand, that thick kelp climbing to the surface. I swam the anchor and chain back up to the boat, and then went down again to cut the kelp free. Although I wanted to get sailing as a light breeze had come up that would allow steering with an oar, I decided to go for a quick surf since I was already in my wetsuit.

Then—as on Cedros Island in Baja years before, and at Punta San Carlos, and at Punta Santo Thomas, and in San Clemente, California, and on Vancouver Island, British Columbia—help arrived. Three guys showed up on the beach in a pickup, and after some coordinating on the radio, I landed in the cove and they helped me roll Cormorant up the beach on the inflatable rollers I have. They were with the Parks Service—Derek Lohuis, and Jeff and Greg Senning, the sons of the Head Ranger, Mark Senning. After stowing Cormorant and leaving a note explaining what had happened, we piled in the truck for the drive back across the island. It happened that the Island Packers ferry service was running that same day, and not fours hours later I was back with Natasha and Josephine.

Now all that remained was to order a new rudder pintle from the UK, fix the ruder, and get back to the island….

A well-timed beach landing, two inflatable rollers, and some National Parks Service manpower gets Cormorant safely ashore on Santa Rosa Island.
(Continue reading with Part 3)


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