We had been under sail for the last hour, at meager speed, hugging Point Loma. Just as we passed the point and finally crossed over from San Diego Bay to the Pacific Ocean, we picked up a lot more wind and we were soaring. As the wind changed, so did the waves. Big rolling waves we hadn’t felt in a long time. It was glorious. Our bow was pointed due south. I turned to Fredrick and said, “I don’t ever want to go back.” There was nothing but blue ahead of us.
Not long after, I made the mistake of going down below to grab something. It was wild down there. She was on a starboard tack, and though none of our belongings had slid even an inch, my world was sideways. I had trouble getting myself down the companionway steps and up again. By the time I was back above deck, my stomach was swirling. As I sat down in the cockpit and waited for it to pass, Fredrick told me to focus on the horizon. The horizon doesn’t move. That place I longed to reach just minutes ago would stabilize me now.
When we noticed the time, we decided to turn around. It would take us at least another hour to get back, and we wanted to be sure to dock under sunlight. By now I was back at the helm, my normal position, as Fredrick manned the sails to tack. Coming back into the bay, I had us much farther east now, away from Point Loma and closer to Coronado. As we came in, we heard the foghorn channel marker and spotted the partially submerged jetty directly to our east. No problem, I thought, I’ll stay away from it, and I turned the wheel a bit to the left to move us west. All of a sudden, we stopped moving. It was like the wind had been stolen out of the sky. Baffled, we looked around for another sailboat to study their sails. No one was close by.
We sat there for a moment trying to figure out what to do. Turn? Tack? Remove the reef in our mainsail? As we looked to starboard, we saw ourselves drifting closer to the rocky jetty. So we said screw it and decided to fire up the motor.
Our Jenny is a 1980 sloop and she has her original motor. The motor fires on the first try every single time. The day of our sea trial in October and every time since. But last Sunday, at the mouth of the Pacific, as we were drifting towards a giant pile of fiberglass-slicing rocks, it failed. We couldn’t get the motor to start.
Now we’re both in a panic. Heart racing, I stayed at the helm, continuing to press the start button, while Fredrick jumped down below to get into the engine room. Even with his hands on the motor, we still couldn’t get it to start. I looked to my right and the jetty was right there, inching closer. Fredrick grabbed the radio and called the Coast Guard on channel 16. He asked for vessel assistance and the operator told us to drop anchor. Why didn’t we think of that? Fredrick ran to the anchor locker at the bow, while I grabbed the retractable boat hook in case I needed to push all 20,000 pounds of us off the rocks. All I could think as I stood there, totally out of control, waiting for the inevitable — my home, my home, my home. I thought we were about to lose it all.
Boom. As soon as the anchor hit bottom, sprightly Jenny swung around a full 90 degrees counterclockwise. Our sails filled with wind. Instinctually, Fredrick pulled the anchor and we smoothly sailed away from the jetty, back out to sea. It all happened in an instant.
He radioed the Coast Guard again and told them we no longer needed vessel assist, that we would anchor on the Point Loma side of the channel and try to fix our motor. As we sailed in that direction, Fredrick was visibly shaken, nothing like his even-keeled self, as there was no way we’d be able to get home under sail power alone.
And then something strange happened to me. I relaxed. Not in the we-just-narrowly-escaped-destroying-our-home kind of way. Not relief. But a calm. I am not a calm person, but in this moment I was. I said out loud, softly, “We have to be missing something. This motor always works. We’re letting our panic get in the way.” Time stopped then. All fear disappeared. My vision narrowed to only what was directly in front of me. The wheel, the controls, the gauges. I quietly scanned for something out of place, any small detail.
That’s when I saw it — the gear shift. It looked like it was in neutral, but I shifted it just a millimeter and felt something. I don’t remember who hit the Start button, Fredrick or me. But suddenly we heard the roar of the motor. We were in business!
The Coast Guard radioed us again. Fredrick said all was well and we were headed in. He dropped the sails and I pointed us in the direction of home. We coasted back through the channel, back to the familiar, turned into our harbor, then into our marina, and then slid back into our slip. Fredrick tied us up, and we were home. Unscathed.
Soon after, over a couple beers, we debriefed on what had gone wrong. We need to be in neutral for the motor to start. Duh. It looked like we were in neutral, but apparently we weren’t. We’ll need to better mark it, since the label that was once there has worn away over the decades. And what had caused us to lose sail power while we were near the jetty? Unwittingly, I had pointed us NW, head to wind. When a sailboat is pointed directly into the wind, there’s no way for the sails to use the wind to propel forward, so you stop dead. Fredrick teaches me that this is called “caught in the irons,” and I think of the irony.
The biggest lesson of all: panic had gotten us into trouble, and calm got us out of it. We discussed ways for us to both stay calm and present in future situations; to not allow one other to spool the other up, but rather to stay grounded and aware to keep the other the same. We cheers’ed to our partnership, and can’t wait to go back out there, whatever comes.
Maybe next time we won’t turn back.
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