In 1986 I dropped out of college. I was 2 years into a meaningless attempt at a degree without a major. I lived in Los Angeles and attended L.A. Valley College taking 12 units of meaningless general education, swimming 4000 yards from 3-5pm every day trying to get in shape for water polo tryout at UCLA.
I was 19 and, like most people my age felt bewildered and lost. Or that’s what I wanted to believe. I was pissed off at myself for screwing up when I was in high school and I got to visit my friends at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, UCSB, Pepperdine, Occidental, USCD… and go to the parties thrown by people who’s lives were on track towards… somewhere.
I bobbed around. Swimming, studying, surfing… adrift.
That’s what you keep on the boat when you’re out at sea: one hand, at all times, holding something. Preferably not another person – you want the wheel, a railing, or a hand-hold. When the boat moves it won’t ask you first.
This becomes painfully clear when your motor’s dead and the seas are corking you about: hold on to something, always, and stare at the horizon. Your world becomes rather immediate and small, the imperatives are simple: don’t puke and don’t panic.
I look over at Grant, who’s staring at the throttle as I was. It’s his brand new boat – a 26 foot Trophy Fisherman decked out with fish finder, GPS, counter-rotating stainless props, a brand new chevy 350 big block engine… and right now it shares more with a cork then a boat.
We’re driving it home from Oahu to Kauai; a 110 mile trip from Wai’nae harbor to Hanalei on the North Shore of Kauai. We’re 60 miles into the trip with a dead engine, and all I’m thinking about are dolphins…
The phone call was brief – strangely brief for something so important:
We’d love to have you – when can you start?
It was the Glendale YMCA. They ran a camp on the lee side of Catalina Island called Camp Fox and I had been there a few times when I was younger. I loved the place, dearly, and a friend told me they had a position for a winter caretaker… just like The Overlook. I jumped at it.
My job was simple: I cleaned up after snot-nosed Indian Guides who clogged the toilets, I fixed broken lights, and once a week I crossed the 26 mile channel to San Pedro to pick up supplies.
I left at 7am sharp every Wednesday morning and headed exactly 1 degree North – that would put me into San Pedro 1 hour or so later. I drove a funky diesel-powered cargo boat called “The Foxy Lady”, and I didn’t know a single thing about boats.
One bright, clear winter morning I was 12 miles out and couldn’t see land in any direction as the fog hadn’t yet lifted for the day – and in front of me I saw hundreds and hundreds of “Common Dolphin” surrounding me. Not quite like Bottlenose (Flipper) – a bit smaller, but a lot more jumpy.
I was so taken by it, I stopped the motor in the middle of the sea and climbed on top of the front console to watch them. The sea was glass, the sun was just coming through the fog and I was alone for miles and miles around, save for the dolphins…
Grant is a mechanical wizard and his head is deep in the engine well surrounded by the gut-punching fume of gasoline. He’s re-routing the fuel lines, trying to figure out which of the fire triangle has been violated. We have fuel, we have oxygen, and we have spark…
He pulls back and his eyes are squinted, staring up at me with a bit of a weary look. My feet are planted firmly on the deck, riding the teeter-totter motion of the wild ocean that surrounds us on all sides for miles and miles.
I think I might need a break pretty soon, he says.
I’m an OK mechanic, but I can’t do what Grant is doing. Pieces of boat engine are rolling around the deck and I look over at the radio – wondering when to make the call.
Are You a Fucking Moron?
By the 8th trip across the channel I was pretty good at navigating the ocean waters between Los Angeles and Catalina island. The morning was always the most fun: that’s when the dolphins would come and jump all around the boat. Hundreds and hundreds of them.
I brought my wetsuit with me and after we loaded the boat up with supplies for that weekend’s camp, I would put it on, knowing that the ride back was up wind and very, very wet.
I had just put the wetsuit on and was lazily winding my way through massive oil tankers and car freighters anchored in San Pedro harbor when I heard a siren call. It was so out of place that I ignored it – I’m on a boat, not on the freeway…
And there it was again – but closer. I turned around and, sure enough, I was being “pulled over” by the San Pedro harbor police. I didn’t know there was such a thing being 19 and incredibly stupid – but I was to learn a lot that day.
I slowed and “pulled over” and they tied off to me. They asked to come aboard and see a number of documents – none of which I had, or even knew if they existed. A toxic combination of my young stupidity, mixed with a boss that didn’t bother with “silly details” – led to me being in very, very big trouble.
No life jackets, no working radio, no flare, no fire extinguisher… the list went on, and on. The policemen went from incredulous, to pitiful in a quick turn and pretty soon just flat out asked if I was a “fucking moron”. I told him I didn’t think so…
They wanted to tow the boat in, but decided against it since it was full of perishable Indian Guide food. They let me go, but made sure I understood that I was in massive trouble.
I drove straight back that day, and quit 2 weeks later. I started at UC Santa Barbara 3 months after that – graduating in 2 and a half years with a degree in Geology and a love of writing computer programs…
It Doesn’t Stop
Grant took a break for a bit, and I looked over his shoulder – out to the north where the next stop was, literally, Alaska. I remembered the last time I was in the middle of the ocean, feeling helpless…
In 1990 I took part in Semester At Sea – a round the world ocean voyage where you visit countries and learn about life. We crossed the Pacific and outran a major typhoon, and I remember standing on the top deck of the ship, staring to the north to Alaska which was 2400 miles away.
I can’t swim there. I can’t swim anywhere…
The ocean doesn’t stop. It keeps going as far as your eyes can see and your mind can conceive. It moves in every way imaginable and it will drive you insane if you try to understand its movements.
There comes a point, when you’re out there alone, that you’re forced to ride it and take what it gives. To shut off your expectations, swallow your fear and carry on.
Or you can puke. And never stop puking…
Give It All We Got
I asked Grant if there was anything I could do to help aside from running for tools. “At this point… call in a few favors from whatever you believe in I spose.” Not terribly reassuring.
I made the choice to come out here and I embraced the risk. It brought some excitement to my life of staring at computer screens all day. I didn’t think we were in mortal danger, but it was a safe bet we wouldn’t be home that night as we drifted slowly into the backside of Kauai, sick to our stomachs.
The Coast Guard won’t come out unless you’re in immediate danger – something like drifting out to see or Boat on Fire. We were neither – just slowly being pushed by the trades and swells into Nawiliwili harbor 50 miles away.
We would land around midnight.
Let’s give it all we have. Burn up the starter and the battery – let’s just see if we can turn it over. Then we’ll make the call and let the wives know we’ll be late.
So I did. I turned the motor over for about 2 minutes straight. The battery was strong and kept pushing the motor… driving it to start. But I could hear the revs start to slow…
And then it kicked. And kicked again – the motor caught and pushed, and pushed once more… and then boom: it started.
I backed away from it slowly and Grant yelled “don’t touch it!” as he ran forward. Slowly he revved the engine … and we were back to life, and on our way.
I thought over these stories tonite, and I was wondering what they said about me as a person. I’ve been piecing together the next This Developer’s Life (which is taking me forever) and it’s made me think a lot about things that motivate us from time to time.
Something that seems to pop up for me at certain points in my life is being, literally, Lost at Sea. There’s tranquility there, mixed with immediacy and the truth of your small existence. I hadn’t noticed it until I was putting together the audio for our show.
I don’t think there’s much to say about it, other than it’s a pattern – or perhaps a “theme” to my life. A need to dissolve the noise and distractions and feel as if… there’s nowhere to swim to. I don’t think it’s destructive, per se, it just… is.
As I close this story I’m thinking about the next time I’m “Lost at Sea”. I know it’s coming because, typically, there’s little you can do to change your nature. I want to “wrap it up” somehow – to offer a point or some kind of “and therefore” – but I don’t think there is one.
Sometimes the beauty is in the narrative – the things that come between our summations and “therefores”. I think I tend to forget that, occassionally.
I’m sure I’ll remind myself again someday. I’ll probably think about this post as I’m staring north, towards Alaska…