Sailing Santa Barbara

Barry estimates it will take about a year to prepare the boat for the voyage and assembles a team of local experts to help. I spend my days working alongside Mike the marine mechanic, Marty the rigger, James the electrician, and Bennet the sailmaker, learning all kinds of tips and tricks about tools, glues, resins, metals, hardware, rope, sail material, knots, wood, backing plates, wire, and ways to build, fix, troubleshoot, customize installations, and transform what was old and rotten into something strong and durable. Four to five evenings a week, I bartend at a restaurant in the harbor, squirreling away my tips for the voyage.

Sailing Santa Barbara Channel Islands

Barry and I meet in the parking lot of the Santa Barbara Yacht Club once a week, where we walk arm in arm up to the dining room on the second story. We stand near the window for a moment and look quietly out at the sea; I feel our mutual dream on my shoulders. After we ’re seated, he pulls out a manila folder containing an assortment of pertinent article clippings, and a small stack of blogs with the pages carefully marked. We read through the items while he regally sips white wine. We both intend to keep things simple, but it seems no matter how hard we try, overhauling the boat for the voyage becomes more and more involved. The list of refit “to-dos” and purchases quickly expands. When our food arrives, we dig into discussions of current projects and dilemmas.

Sailing Santa Barbara Island

The outfitting process becomes all-consuming. We often dig into one repair, only to find three more. Each decision is a compromise in a forty-by-eleven-foot space. The boat will be my home, my transportation, and life-sustaining capsule. If I want to carry more water, I have to sacrifice a second fuel tank. Building a small navigation table means losing the port-tack sailing berth. Which do I bring, a spare mainsail or my beloved 5’9” squash tail surfboard? The choices seem infinite and there is never one simple answer.

Where safety is concerned, do I need an EPIRB and a life raft? Manual and electric bilge pumps? A storm drogue and storm sails? Life jackets? Fire extinguishers? A flare gun and flares? A saltwater still? A backup GPS? Overboard bag? Is the electrical system grounded properly? How will I receive weather information? Is there redundancy in all the major systems? Is my tetanus shot current? Do I need a strobe light? Jacklines and harnesses? A bilge alarm? First aid kit? Underwater epoxy? What about a lightning rod? Emergency scuba gear? Bolt cutters for cutting away the rig if it falls?

Sailing Santa Barbara Channel

Barry helps me keep focused. We know that the boat needs a sound hull, strong standing rigging, and a reliable engine. He has her hauled to assess the underside. The leaky deck rail is ripped off and glassed over. Mike checks over the engine, reinforces the rudder shaft in case of a collision, and donates a stronger boom that’s been sitting in his workshop. The rigging cables need replacing, so once the boat is back in the water, Mike teaches me how to measure, cut, andfit the new wires. I haul myself up the mast to replace them one by one.

Sailing Lessons Santa Barbara

Marty makes dozens of changes to adapt the boat for my size and strength. He carefully rerigs the inner workings of the new boom with heavy purchases to make sail adjustments easier, and equips the boom’s exterior with small winches and sturdy blocks to aid in reefing. He reworks and upgrades the components at the mast head, installs high-visibility navigation lights and a removable Solent stay for a storm jib. He meticulously reinforces every possible point of weakness in the rig, replaces all worn-out halyards, sheets, and hardware, and also teaches me useful knots and clever leverage tricks. Self-tailing winches are installed in the cockpit and on the mast.

For long-distance voyaging, a self-steering wind vane is fixed onto the stern. Bennet fits a spray dodger and sun shade in the cockpit. The main windows are replaced; hatches resealed; and a long-distance SSB radio, VHF radio, GPS chartplotter, and new navigation lights installed. James adds a small watermaker, and bigger deck cleats, too. The mainsail and furling genoa are in decent shape, but the bow anchor needs new chain and rode. Plus, this kind of voyaging requires a stern anchor setup, backup anchors, extra rode, extra chain, shackles, swivels, line leads, and chafe guards. There won’t always be a local chandlery or someone to call to make repairs, so I also need spare parts, equipment manuals, and tools to fix and maintain the vitals. Our projected year of preparation stretches into two.

Sailing Santa Barbara Photo Gallery




For living on anchor, James installs an extra water tank, and a new battery bank with a clever setup of solar panels that integrate a small davit to help raise and lower the dinghy’s outboard motor for passages. Water and fuel pumps are added, along with interior lights, a refrigeration compressor, and a 110-volt power inverter for charging camera batteries and laptop computers. He builds a new switchboard with monitors to display battery and charging levels, and replaces most of the boat’s old wiring and fuses. The cooking stove is still in good condition, but the propane storage has to be moved from the foredeck to accommodate the new life raft. My carpenter friend, Jaime, builds a permanent navigation desk with shelves. On a weekend visit from my father, we plumb in a stowable shower on the aft deck and a macerator pump for the holding tank.

My “deal” with Barry becomes a subject of controversy in the harbor. Some question my capability, others argue over refit solutions. Many claim I’ll never leave. It’s a constant challenge to orchestrate multiple projects, navigate egos, and disregard doubters, but Barry’s confidence in me never falters.

“What do you think about self-defense? ” Barry ponders one afternoon. I pause and think for a moment. A gun? No. Mace? Couldn’t hurt. Pipe wrench? Machete? Bow and arrow? Nunchucks? Voodoo dolls?

“Martial arts classes could be a good idea, my girl. ” I add it to the list.

Another day I ask him, “What about Swell?” In spite of the seafaring superstitions around renaming a vessel, this boat’s name has already been changed numerous times. I feel a new one will be nice, in honor of our quest.

“Swell Swell hmmm it has a nice ring to it, reminds me of Slocum’s Spray. And it certainly holds meaning for your surfing pursuits. ”

“Plus meaning happy, good. And to grow and expand. ”

“True, ” he ponders. “Andyou won’t have to explain it. I like it. Swell it is. When shall we rechristen her?”

Two and a half years pass in a blur of boat work and bartending before departure finally nears. Lying on my back, I stroke my brush over the last exposed corner of the forward cabin, completing the final coat of paint on Swell’s interior walls and ceiling. I rest my head for a moment, staring up with satisfaction, then crawl out to look at the clock. Only six minutes to get to the restaurant!

I plunge my brush into the cup of thinner and sprint up the dock to exit the heavy steel marina gate. Dashing for my car, I extract some cleanish work attire from the mess of clothes, boat parts, receipts, and surfboard fins scattered over the backseat, then look around to see if anyone is watching. All clear. I drop my jeans and pull on my work pants, peel off my paint-stained T-shirt, and slip the wrinkled restaurant uniform over my head. After swiping deodorant under each arm, I close the car door and take off running toward the white, two-story building in the northwest corner of the harbor.

“Lizzypants!” my boss Mikey calls from behind the bar as I stride through the double doors on the secondfloor.

“I finished the interior paint today!” I tell him, simultaneously informing the patrons at the far end of the bar.

“You smell like it, too, ” Mikey says with a smirk. “We need limes cut and there’ll be food ready for table 250 in about ten minutes. ”

“And I need another margy, Lizzy, ” Jimmy says, smiling from his favorite seat at the north end of the bar. “Same glass. ”

I love my coworkers, the regulars, Barry, the boat experts, and this harbor community, but the pressure to leave is mounting. It’s already a week past the date I’d told the local newspapers I would set sail. I slice limes into drink garnishes, and think about how much I’ve learned: I can now switch out a drill bit in seconds flat and drive a screw without stripping it. I can make a mean martini, and also mix epoxy and drill through stainless steel. I’ve witnessed that with the right tools and a little creativity, almost anything is possible. Still, I wonder if I’ll be able to solve new problems once the masters are in my wake?

I dart down to the kitchen to pick up the food order, then set it down in front of one of our less charming regulars.

“Shouldn’t you have sailed away by now, Liz? ”

I pour his beer, and manage a half-smile as I set it in front of him. The mounting fear behind my confident faqade is the reason his question bothers me. Though I know that Swell’s new systems are designed for my strength and size, we haven’t had time to actually test them at sea yet. What if I can’t handle her long boom and large mainsail in strong winds? Will I be able to lift an outboard with the davit? What if the doubters are right?

And then departure day arrives. I drive up to Barry’s home to say goodbye and find him in his small, boat-like office off the garage, where he’s penning a letter to a friend. Rolls of charts hang from the ceiling and a well-organized library of nautical blogs and environmental references fill the blogshelves.

“Well, my girl, it’s been quite an adventure already! I bid you the fairest of winds and the finest of company. You will be dearly missed. ”

“Likewise, Barry, I’m going to miss you so much. ”

“As the great Emily Dickinson said, ‘Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell, ’ ” he says with a wink. I smile, tears filling my eyes as I struggle to find words to express my gratitude.

“I sure wish I could come along. ” He smiles mischievously and follows me to my car with his walker.

I hug him tightly and look into his fiercely twinkling eyes. “Thank you for everything. ”

In a ceremonious cadence, he repeats his usual parting words. “Carry on, my dear. And don’t give up the ship!”

My crew of friends and I only go twenty-five miles south to Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard that day. With fewer visitors and less distraction, James, Marty, and I spend another grueling month finishing up the installation of the electric autopilot, mounting the spinnaker pole at the mast, reinforcing the anchor cradle, and more.

The next two months in San Diego are even busier. I try to relax and enjoy the holidays with my family, but the lists and uncertainties make it nearly impossible. I had motored nearly the entire two hundred miles from Oxnard because of slack winds, so I’ve still had virtually no practice sailing Swell. But waiting another nine months until the next sailing season seems too long, and I know that nothing major has been overlooked.

With my dad’s unwavering help, I make the final push. Only details remain, but there are still so many things I need from a dinghy and outboard motor to more medical supplies, an outboard bracket, charts, cruising guides, fishing and diving gear, and a proper quiver of surfboards. Camera gear, binoculars, zincs, jerry cans, oil filters, a soldering kit, fiberglass repair materials, caulking, bung plugs, flashlights, lee cloths, and courtesy flags. A few good luck charms couldn’t hurt!

The day before my departure, I sleep at my parents ’ home instead of aboard Swell. I dread the dawn. This is it. Remaining projects or purchases can be accomplished along the way. I have no more excuses. My crew is ready. The boat is stocked with food and topped off with fuel and water. A small group of friends and family cast off the lines, and I maneuver Swell out past the same

An orange glow gradually appears on the eastern skyline silhouetting the mountains while Swell continues steadily south. Mark pops his head out of the cabin around 6:30 am and Shannon shortly after. We reminisce about our 800 miles of southbound adventures.

As the late morning sun ascends, the air hints of warmth for the first time. We gladly strip off the stinky jackets, boots, and beanies that we’ve lived in for eighteen days. When the iconic arch at the southernmost tip of Baja comes into view we hoot and high-five, pull down the sails, and shove each other into the open sea for a celebratory swim.

I don’t tell them how relieved I am to have made it here, or how much their supportive company helped me get through that intense first leg. I’m sure they know.

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