A passion for sailing
How on-the-water adventures get one hooked

Compiled from published articles
and log books kept over a 22-year span


I had not been on a sailboat since 1977 at the Mission Bay Aquatic Center while I was at San Diego State. Sometime in the fall of 1997, I discovered Journeys by Sea. It is still advertised as “specializing in gay and lesbian yacht charters, since 1991,” but a message on its web site today tells me they have “gone sailing around the world.” Something I always wanted to do, since my first trip afloat off the Cape Peninsula in 1974, but have slowly given up on ever achieving.
Through Tony B., I was hooked up with ‘Raffles’, a schooner of about 70-feet operating out of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I had never even considered the Caribbean, but it sure looked exciting, the legendary location for R. L. Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” Having a gay couple for hosts was definitely appealing.

My first experience under sail was on assignment for the Cape Times, the morning daily in Cape Town, where I was a cub reporter. I was to cover and write about a sailing academy for youth operating out of Simonstown, home of a major naval base near Cape Point, the southern extreme of the Peninsula.
I joined the square-rigger for a seven-day cruise to Cape Agulus, the southern most tip of Africa, about three days sail from the base. My most vivid memory is that we were becalmed five of the seven days, the stinky, noisy diesel motor the only way we could maintain forward motion.
It could have been a major disappointment, but the fresh salt air, camaraderie aboard, the waves, the gentle motion of the swell … were enough to pique my interest.
When I arrived at San Diego state University to study journalism in 1977, I was delighted to discover the school has a marvelous aquatic center on the fabulous man-made Mission Bay. I enrolled in a credit class and learned basic keelboat sailing on the wettest of all vessels, the 13-1/2 foot Laser.
It is a narrow, one-person, centerboard hull, barley larger than a surfboard. It is overpowered by sail, making it really fast (8 to 10 knots easily) but also prone to capsizing. No matter, by standing on the upturned centerboard it was a piece of cake to right the craft, but of course one would get wet doing so.
In the more advanced class I got to try out a 16-foot Hobie cat, and marveled at the stability of its twin hulls, and incredible speed. One can reach 16 knots quite comfortably in a moderate wind, but to keep the boat upright the sailor must fly trapeze: You hang from a guy wire suspended from the top of the mast, with a harness around your waist. Plant your feet firmly on the side rail, and lean over backwards, your head six inches from the water skimming by beneath.
It’s a breathtaking experience.
I’ve never since seen the world from quite the same angle – upside down, with the spray hitting the back of my head just inches away from the water rushing past.

On an early December night 20 years later, I took a red-eye flight to Ft. Lauderdale, changed planes for San Juan, P.R., and then a puddle jumper to St. Thomas. Fortuitously, it was the first week of the season, so for about half my seven-day cruise I was the only crew member aboard.
There were berths for eight, plus the host couple’s quarters. I was ensconced in a rear cabin (an overstatement, actually, not much more than a closet), and we set sail for Tortola, capital of the BVI but across the U.S. border.
The hosts had been married in the Netherlands, the only place on earth this was legally possible in ’97, and lived year-round on Raffles. In the summer, they spent time at home in Europe, because hurricane season was not a time to be anywhere near the Caribbean.
Soon, I became enchanted with the magic of the inside passage; only once did we venture across open ocean, to Anegada.
The weather was ideal for sailing: soft, predictable breezes, strongest after noon; cloudless, deep blue skies; the temperature a constant 78 degrees or so, barely dipping at night. The ocean water was almost as tepid as bathwater – certainly warm enough to swim in during the middle of winter. I did, frequently.
Our itinerary included a stop at Jost Van Dyke island, where we took the dinghy to the beach and just above the high tide line we found several thatched bars waiting for thirsty sailors like us. How convenient. The rum drinks, a Caribbean specialty, were ever so creative and thoroughly inebriating. A couple of those and I had to really watch my step.
An evening stopover at Norman Island brought us into the romance of “Treasure Island” from which the Disney spinoff “Pirates of the Caribbean” was adapted. We ate gourmet dinners several times aboard; they were expertly prepared from clearly the finest ingredients. Libations were plentiful. Many an evening we spent lounging around on deck, marveling at the Milky Way, so many stars visible in the equatorial darkness that enveloped us. We played Backgammon or Scrabble, drank in the aroma of the ocean at night, went swimming naked in the dark, walked on moonlit beaches … it’s beginning to sound like a cliché, but it was every bit as wonderful as any travel brochure could ever make it sound.
Ever since, I have proclaimed that the BVI is the only place I’ve ever visited that is actually an improvement on the picture postcards. Cliché be damned.
When they dropped me on the dock at Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas on my way home, I was hooked. I made a secret vow: next time I sail the Caribbean, it will be as the skipper of my own charter. This vow was publicly nailed into concrete on Aug. 4, 1999, in the Glendale News-Press. Read it here:
Skippering a cruise on the bay is a breeze

After my trip to the Caribbean in late ’97, I began to explore how to become a certified skipper. (Certification is generally required to skipper a bareboat charter.)
Two years later, I took my first lesson at California Sailing Academy in Marina Del Rey. I bought the book and studied “Sailing Fundamentals” even before I took the Sabot out of the slip. Points of sail, right of way, names of all the moving parts on a yacht, stuff one could learn from a book. Then there was a test: on-the-water (could I maneuver the skiff as instructed?) and in the classroom. Halleluja! On July 2, 1999 I earned the Certificate of Achievement from the American Sailing Association for certification level 101: Basic Keelboat Sailing.
Levels 102 (Basic Coastal Cruising) followed quickly. By mid-summer I had taken the course for ASA 102: I had to perform what I thought were sailboat gymnastics around the buoys in the MDR basin, and was one step away from my goal.
ASA level 104, Bareboat Chartering (intermediate coastal cruising) certification, required an overnight coastal cruise. I wasted little time. According to the detailed log book I was required to keep and present to the examiner, for practice I sailed ‘Free & Clear’ (a 32-foot Freedom brand) to Malibu State Beach on July 5, with Rob, Jim and Keith T. crewing. Three weeks later, I skippered ‘Seamist,’ a San Juan 34, again to Malibu with Rob and two others; and on Aug. 8 took the Cal 36 ‘No Ka Oi’ to Abalone Cove with six guests.
I was so excited by my new passion I wrote about it in “It’s a breeze: New technology helps make sailing accessible even to couch potatoes” published Aug 4. in the Glendale News-Press. It greatly impressed Suzanne Raffetto, proprietor of Seamist Skippers, my charter host, who appreciated the publicity. Read it here:
It’s a breeze

On Aug. 28, I was ready for my big test. With Rob, Jim and Bjorn aboard, at 0900 we headed ‘No Ka Oi’ out to sea from MDR heading for Emerald Bay on Catalina Island. The log is detailed: “Since it was foggy all morning, I was forced to navigate by instruments.”
A few weeks earlier, I had purchased a primitive handheld GPS unit (none were pre-installed aboard yachts then) that I still have and use today.
“... there were no visible reference points,” my log entry states, “until about 1600 near Catalina … by the time the fog cleared, we were less than 5 miles off Emerald Bay, almost dead ahead.” I was proud as a peacock, and it was a great confidence builder. However, my confidence proved to be slightly premature.
As we entered the anchorage, I spotted it was jammed with other yachts. There were few empty moorings, and I had never picked one up before. There was no time like the present to learn.
First we approached what we saw as a vacant mooring, and struggled to tie up – I came in too fast; learning a most important lesson: boats have no brakes! The flag we were supposed to grab was lying flat in the water, but showing presence of mind and his experience, Rob jumped into the dinghy as we sailed past the mooring and grabbed the apparatus, bringing the mooring rope aboard.
We were just settling in with a beer when the Harbor Patrol arrived. This mooring had been reserved. We were admonished to radio in prior to arrival next time to get an assignment, and were instructed to move to Bravo 2, in the second row from the beach (the first was Alpha). As I approached upwind from the rear, we saw it was occupied. A little flustered, I decided to pick up the nearest available mooring, Bravo 3. “…but I approached it much too hot, and Rob lunged (over the side, trying in vain) to grab the flag as we simply cruised on by!” according to the log.
“Yes, I did hear the audience watching from neighboring boats laughing at this Chaplinesque maneuver,” I duly noted. I again radioed in, and we were reassigned Bravo 10. Third time, a charm. I definitely heard the applause this time as we tied up.
For more details about this final examination, read
Novice skipper’s first offshore cruise

I passed the test, reporting in with 106.5 total hours and 27:05 under way. I had earned my ASA 104 certification, a necessary step on the way to navigating some of the grandest, most desirable yachting destinations on the planet. I was ready to cast off.