San Miguel Island Map

“Every September on the full moon, ” he announces, “I sail to San Miguel Island for the weekend with a group offriends and students. Would you care to join us this year? ”

“Sure, ” I say without much pause, “I’d love to. ”

Swells and exams come and go. Nearly every weekend I compete in a surf contest somewhere on the California coast. The last one of the season is the NSSA Nationals and I manage to snag the win. I ponder a path toward professional surfing, but decide that my competitive thirst has been quenched. I much prefer the thrill of exploring for waves, like I’d done on summer breaks from school in Baja, Barbados, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Hawai ‘i. Dad pays my tuition, so all year I can scrimp and save for traveling.

That summer I stick around to polish and clean on the megayacht in hopes of landing a permanent crew position for their upcoming voyage. September rolls around, and a week before my last quarter at UCSB begins, I’m surprised when Mom calls to tell me that a certain Dr. Schuyler from the Environmental Studies department just called to invite me on a sailing trip. I’m surprised; he hadn’t even written down my name or number.

I don’t know anyone else in the group. It could be awkward. But I’ve never been to San Miguel Island and hear it’s majestic. I call him back and confirm that I’d like to join them.

Dr. Schuyler stands happily at the helm on our way across the Santa Barbara Channel. The boat is equipped with an autopilot and many able hands, but he clearly enjoys steering us toward the island in the distance.

San Miguel Island Map Photo Gallery

When he tires, he sits down beside me. “Tell me, Lizzy, what are your plans after graduating? ” he asks, without taking his gaze off the sea.

“I want to go sailing, ” I say. “I want to go on a long voyage across the Pacific, maybe even around the world. ”

He peels his eyes from the horizon for a moment and looks at me earnestly. “I also dreamed of an extended voyage, but between raising our four children, my career as a high school teacher and college professor, and writing my PhD thesis, I never went. Plus, my dear wife, Jean, much prefers horses to sailboats. ” He draws in a deep breath, and looks back out to sea.

“You, my dear, most certainly should go. Don’t wait until life’s responsibilities anchor you. ”

Mark, Shannon, and I sit atop massive sand hills on the far side of Santa Maria after making it six hundred nautical miles down the Baja coast. We admire the mountainous desert landscape encircling the large bay. The same wind that pushed us here created these voluptuous dunes. Gusts softly push sand up our ankles. Swell swings back and forth on her anchor on the far side of the sheltered bay. We’re the only sailboat here. The long silence is rare for us, but from time to time Baja’s stark natural beauty and undeveloped expanses hold us in a spell.

This desolate stretch of coast has provided plenty of challenges, but I’m learning every day. The first test of my mechanical savvy had arrived the morning after nearly hitting the sandbar. Ready to raise anchor, I turned the engine key, but nothing happened. I tried again: nothing. After half the day thumbing through manuals, troubleshooting, and nearly electrocuting myself, I placed a satellite phone call to Mike, my mechanic friend. He helped sort out the mystery of the neutral safety wire, and we continued down the coast.

Blustery offshore winds on that passage called for constant sail changes reefing (lowering) and raising both the main and headsails as the wind fluctuated in strength. It made for good practice, but one gust overpowered Swell, pinning her down on her side when the jackline a fixed line that runs the length of the deck got sucked into the roller-furling winch. Hours later, we straggled into our destination, frazzled and wind-chapped, with only a few rays of daylight to spare. But to our delight, a thick northwest swell was arriving, too. Waves peeled into the horseshoe bay, and some friends we’d planned to meet waved madly from their campsite on the point. The surf pumped and bonfires raged for an unforgettable three-day rendezvous.

We dodged lobster traps and long-line buoys on every passage, executed several tight, tricky double-anchor maneuvers, plowed through breaking waves on harrowing dinghy landings and launches, and escaped a near collision with a Carnival Cruiseliner. Mark and I panicked one evening when a bright light on the horizon appeared, until we realized it was Mars rising over the sea, not a northbound ship.

Amidst the firsts and follies, I have started to understand how Swell sails and anchors. Even though neither have much sailing experience, Mark and Shannon gracefully mitigate my high stress and respect my overly rigid rules like requiring hourly updates to the logblog on watch duty, and, no matter the weather, wearing a harness clipped to the jackline to go out on deck underway. Despite fatiguing watches, culinary challenges on passage, limited opportunities to bathe, cramped quarters, pulling ropes and wrestling sails, my crew has remained positive.

Still seated together on the dune, I break our thoughtful silence by slipping a handful of sand down Mark’s pants. He chases after Shannon and me, and we all roll down to the bottom, choking on sand and laughter. After dashing into the cold sea to wash off, we pack up our gear and head for the dinghy. On the way, I come across a perfect, saucersized sand dollar on the low tide flats. I pick it up and stash it in my bag to send to Barry from the next port. Now that my nerves are settling, I’m beginning to comprehend the enormity of what he’s done for me.

I tire of staring at the ceiling in my brother’s apartment and roll onto my side. The clock in the kitchen reads 1:30 pm; I am still horizontal. I’ve been in the States for almost a month, after sailing away as crew on the Tamara back in December. To my shock, the megayacht turned out to be owned by a commune of sorts, and the seventy-two-year-old leader of the more than fifty members hoped I would join his on-board harem of seven childbearing “wives. ” I jumped ship in the Bay of Acapulco, happy to join a solo captain I knew on his thirty-four-foot sailboat. For four months, Rick and I sailed south looking for surf and adventure (and we found plenty), but at the same time he discouraged me from helping sail the boat, preferring I cook or clean. He whittled away at my confidence and I came home convinced that I’d never be able to captain a long voyage on my own.

My dream is broken. A tear rolls down my face. I feel so lost. My friends are starting at corporate jobs; just that thought makes me feel numb. Since the election of George W., I’m more and more disappointed with the direction the United States is headed. I mean, refusing to comply with the Kyoto Protocol? Dismantling the Endangered Species Act? Gutting the Clean Air and Water Acts? I want off this bus. But how? I’m completely out of money.

Despite my pitiful state, my brother has welcomed me graciously. My things are in the back of my car, so as not to clutter his small apartment. As he leaves for work each morning, James endearingly pats my head as I remain on his couch, staring vacantly up at the ceiling’s thick beige drywall spackle.

“Why don’t you go down to the beach today, Lizzy? ” he encourages.

“The surf is small, ” I muster.

“You know, getting a job isn’t all that bad. You can still have a life outside of work. ”

I can’t rally a reply. Silent tears run down my face and I squeeze his hand tightly, hoping he feels how much I appreciate his care. He kisses my hand before heading for the door.

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