Living the good life on a sailboat at anchor.
Thursday, October 12, 2000
831--Tales From The Area Code
If you can spend a perfectly useless afternoon in a perfectly useless manner, you have learned how to live.
In July, the sailor and I sailed out of Monterey Harbor, around Point Pinos and Cypress Point and past the White House--a mansion that, because of its showy prominence on the headlands, has become a navigational landmark--to Stillwater Cove, where we dropped anchor mere yards away from the Pebble Beach beach and tennis club.
We kept the mizzen up so the boat would stay pointed into the wind, put some salmon fillets on the barbecue, kicked back in the cockpit and waited for the sunset, aspiring only to the properties of a sailboat at rest.
Stillwater Cove is a popular destination for local boaters. "It''s the closest place in the Bay where you can go and be somewhere almost exotic," as one sailor put it. In the winter, the little cove is pounded by storms, but the rest of the year it''s protected, peaceful and entirely deserving of its name.
That weekend we shared the cove with only two other boats. The Pebble Beach links were crawling with the moneyed elite, golf balls floated in the honeyed air, and patrons of the beach club chatted over costly cocktails. None of this activity was very far away, yet the moat of ocean that separated us from the shore brought a welcome sense of solitude and privacy.
We opened a bottle of wine and poured ourselves two glasses to sip as we watched golfers tackle the front nine and fumble on the often-gusty 5th hole. Errant shots sometimes ended up in the Pacific. Occasionally the sleek black head of a seal popped to the surface and regarded us curiously, or a sea otter floated by anchored in a strand of kelp.
The breezes blowing in the rigging created a subtle cacophony of creaks and groans, fitting background music for the lazy afternoon. The sailor and I amused ourselves with cockpit sailing critiques of other boats sailing just outside the anchorage. We glared sternly at a launch that left us bouncing in its wake, at a sloop that cruised thoughtlessly over our anchor chain. And we watched with great interest as a new sailboat entered the cove and prepared to drop anchor.
The Annapolis Book of Seamanship calls anchoring "the quintessential seaman''s act." Gary Jobson, author of Sailing Fundamentals, takes it a step further, pronouncing: "Anchoring is an art." To me, there''s always something electrifying about the sound of the anchor chain unwinding. Jimmy Stewart was right when he called it one of the three most exciting sounds in the world in It''s a Wonderful Life. (The other two are plane motors and train whistles.)
Stillwater is infamous for the voluminous tangles of kelp that float on the surface. Of course, much of that slippery kelp eventually sinks to the bottom, making the cove a challenging place to set anchor. A small plow anchor, 45 pounds of galvanized steel, is all that tethers our nearly 10-ton boat to its circle of ocean. If the anchor doesn''t set--claw a purchase into the mucky sand--the boat could pull free and beach herself.
At sunset I sat on the bow watching the light fade from the sky. A soft wind stippled the water, making orange peel patterns on the surface. Then the wind changed and before we knew it we were downwind of nearby bird-covered Pescadero rocks. (A nasty rumor spread by a competing wine region likens the pungent avian aroma to the vegetal tones of a Monterey coastal chardonnay.)
We went below and lit kerosene lamps. There was a steady crackling sound all around the hull, as if someone were wrapping the boat in Saran Wrap. The sailor swore the sound was fish nibbling at the hull. I was skeptical. He revised his theory. "Popcorn shrimp."
In the quiet of night, I heard the deep metallic shiver of the anchor chain dragging along the bottom, 15 feet below the surface. I envisioned the catanary of the chain swaying in the murky depths, the anchor fluke buried in the sand, the dark knife of our keel looming above it. As the wind or the current clocked the boat around, the chain shifted too. The sound vibrated upward along the 100 feet of chain strung between the anchor and the hull like the string between two tin cans in a kid''s game of telephone. The guttural muted clank made me think of a ghost shaking its chains.
Late that night I awoke to an unusual sound. How to describe it? I can only say it was impossible to ignore, and as soon as I heard it, it was gone. I peered out a port. The moon was nearly full. About 300 feet away, a large flock of seagulls rested on the water, their plumage shining in the moonlight. The sound I''d heard was the multitude of gulls folding their wings in concert.
Before we weighed anchor the next day, we dinghied to the shore, where I strolled casually into the Beach Club affecting an attitude intended to show I''d spent my life strolling in and out of country clubs. In front of the large bay window was a lovely brass telescope aimed out at the cove. I stood on my tiptoes, leaned in close and peered through the eyepiece to get a glimpse of the good life that brings people to Pebble Beach. There, anchored inside the telescope''s perfectly circular field of view, was our sailboat.