April 11 -- Viewed from the deck of a sail boat, Santa Monica
could be a town in Southern Spain. Squint your eyes in the morning
haze and you can pretend you have just slipped past Gibraltar, and
are making landfall at Cadiz.
From this distance, out on the water, the whole city comes alive in miniature.
Toy cars crawl along PCH and up the California Incline; Lilliputian joggers
move along the bike trail.
All of this happens in near silence. At sea the only sound is the rush of water
against the hull and occasional riffle of a sail.
Captain Rob, sturdy and sun-baked by much of a life out here, is
at the helm. He is guiding his 28 foot sailboat - which also serves
as his permanent home - over the gray-green swells. We are moving
along at only three knots, which on land is about traffic jam speed
but which out on the open ocean feels like you are soaring.
The Lens is trolling a small lure behind the boat with a fishing rod, trying
to tempt a barracuda to strike. All the while, I try to imagine
what the bottom of the ocean looks like.
Oceanographers tell us it is basically an extension of the topography, only
under water. Captain Rob’s electronic depth finder charts an ocean floor
much like pre-civilization San Fernando Valley: hills, bluffs, deep gulleys,
Occasionally we pass clumps of free floating kelp trailing their emerald green
tresses through the water. These are small oases where fish often congregate.
I retrieve the lure and cast it towards the kelp hoping something will bite.
Captain Rob tacks his boat, the Alomar, into the wind, going out as far as
we can without having to run the gauntlet of massive container ships heading
for Long Beach, and then tacking us back so close to shore that we can make
out the occasional honks of cars.
We converse and debate as we typically do: about books, politics, bio-diesel,
World War II history, the current presidential race and conspiracy theories.
Captain Rob is one of the smartest, quickest, best-read men I know, and a delightful
raconteur, and he runs entertaining rings around me.
But most of the time we listen to the small rhythmic sounds that you can only
get while sailing out on the Bay.
Around midday, Alomar comes across what at first looks like a black surfboard
resting upside down just below the surface of the water. We glide past the object
and discover it is a blue shark basking in the sun. Startled by our presence,
the six-footer dashes to the depths with a single swerve of her tail.
Later, Captain Rob points to what looks like a handful of cellophane candy
wrappers scattered across the water. In fact, it is a pack of transparent, gelatin-like
vellelae, among the very smallest of jellyfish.
They are no larger around than daisies, and they don’t swim; they sail.
Each has a dorsal fin designed to leverage the wind. The position in which this
sail develops determines whether the little creature will spend its life being
blown across the surface of the Pacific Ocean by a clockwise or counter-clockwise
By late afternoon the wind has picked up, and spray is hitting our face as the
bow of the Alomar digs into the chop. Other vessels – big, expensive sailing
yachts, rumbling power cruisers – cross our path, disappearing and reappearing
behind large swells. Captain Rob decides it’s time to turn back to port.
On the way in we can make out the crowd on the pier, but we can’t hear
them. We can only hear the screeches of squabbling seabirds, perhaps
a good mile away, and the small hush of waves hitting the bow.