The Round Years: 30

A signature story.

Dan Wallace lived in a sailor’s ghetto on the Oakland Estuary where the current turned in sluggish gyres like the Sargasso Sea, laden with flotsam and debris, oil slicks and algae blooms, light bulbs, McDonald’s wrappers, and spent condoms. At the bottom of the Estuary the berthing was cheap and Wallace was tight as any Scotsman.

There were certain liabilities associated with a cheap berth in the bottoms. Bums tended to squat on the tidelands and forage on the docks, rotted planks splintered underfoot, and a strong southwester pushing a plus tide could lift the docks higher than the short pilings that anchored them. Large rafts of docks with boats still attached were sometimes set adrift on the Estuary.

On the San Francisco Bay, there are micro-climates drawn as distinctly as a line in a school yard. Cross the line and the playground bully is likely to knock you ass over tea kettle.

Wallace was a BMW (Boat Maintenance Worker), a sanitized term coined by Latitude 38 to replace one more colorful but less printable. He was good at fixing boats which was how we met. I needed boats fixed. I was the maintenance manager for Club Nautique’s charter fleet. Since I’ve always been mechanically inept, Wallace was a valuable resource.

He also became a friend. His caustic sense of humor and fondness for rum were endearing. And we tended to dislike the same people, especially Fast Freddy, the owner of NorCal Yachts.

Wallace bought Freya, a wooden pinky* 30-something feet long, and moved onboard. As mentioned, Wallace was a frugal bastard and he never threw anything away. He still had report cards dating from grammar school. It was a challenge for him to stow all of his stuff in a small wooden boat with a narrow beam. The report cards ended up in the bilge.

 The fact that Freya’s maiden voyage was on my 30th birthday was coincidental but meaningful—Jung’s definition of synchronicity—but, 25 years later, I have yet to puzzle out the meaning.

The boat’s engine didn’t work so we sailed her from the slip, short-tacking out the Estuary until we reached open water and the East Bay. By the time we sailed beneath the Bay Bridge we had broached a bottle of Mt Gay rum and were feeling well-pleased with ourselves. Then the wind filled in.

If you’ve never sailed the San Francisco Bay, there are micro-climates drawn as distinctly as a line in a school yard. Cross the line and the playground bully is likely to knock you ass over tea kettle.

Turns out that when a wooden boat is left out of the water, it shrivels like an old lime forgotten in the refrigerator—or the manhood of a San Francisco sailor.

One of those lines is drawn between Yerba Buena Island and the San Francisco city front. In other words, the Bay Bridge. On one side of the bridge it’s warm and embracing, like drinking a mellow Chardonnay in a hot bath. On the other side it’s likely blowing great guns and small arms and cold enough to shrivel your manhood.

Neither Wallace nor I knew much about wooden boats. Turns out that when a wooden boat is left out of the water, it shrivels like an old lime forgotten in the refrigerator—or the manhood of a San Francisco sailor. It takes some time sitting in salt water before a boat rehydrates. Appropriately, the process is called pickling.

When the wind first struck Freya, the boat flinched like a wounded animal, the hull groaned, and the seams between the planks gaped. The hull was subject to conflicting forces. It was like a taffy pull. No doubt we would have been more concerned if we had been less drunk.

At the time we were preoccupied with keeping our feet and fighting the atrocious weather helm. Wallace had his sea boots braced against the cockpit coaming and the tiller beneath his chin trying to keep the boat from rounding to weather. I was handing sail like a washerwoman.

“I’m no expert but I think we’re sinking.”

When I finally did go below for another tumbler of rum, I could see daylight between seams on the weather side of the boat. Sea water was flowing down the inside of the hull to leeward. The cabin sole was awash. Wallace’s grammar school grades, parking tickets, love letters and restraining orders were surging back and forth on a rising tide. Even his sleeping bag was sodden.

“Yo, Wallace,” I shouted from below decks. “I’m no expert but I think we’re sinking.”

The pumps were able to keep up with the incoming water for a while until they clogged on paper pulp. Wallace’s history had become an amorphous mushy mass sloshing across the cabin sole and fouling the bilge pumps. He took it hard.

“Christ, man” I said unkindly. “Why are you crying like an old woman? I’m the one that’s 30 years old.”  

*According to The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea, a pinky is one of the oldest types of New England fishing and trading vessels. Built with a Baltic hull form having a pointed stern similar to the bow over which a false stern was carried beyond the rudder like a square counter.

 
Example of a pinky with false stern carried beyond the rudder. Freya looked much like this but without the gaffs.

Signature stories are those we continue to tell throughout our lives, the stories that define our history and shape our future.

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