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November 7, 2005
"The keys to your jail cell are in your pocket." Ron Barrett
Live in a house cloister yourself behind dark walls if you wish, if you must - but you should live near the water … and get to a boat often. The tangled mind is cured by an afternoon of sailing on the water or even a simple sunrise walk along a beach. Here on the delta the tiniest river voyage creates an inner peace. Take this boat out, anchor somewhere and sleep on deck beneath the stars. At morning twilight when the stars are gone look over the rail, and you’ll see a thin fog layer resting about two feet above the water. At exact sunrise the beginning heat of the day gently evaporates the mist. The warmth energizes turtles to creep along logs, and egrets to lurk about the reeds. It’s quiet; it's peaceful; you are warm. You are feeling closer to mother earth, and that’s where we belong. Even dogs find the river and the ocean a joy. You know, I’ve never seen a despondent dog at the seashore. Live near the sea, a lake, a river or even a mountain stream for that insures good health.
To live on a boat, first you have to throw away at least half of what you own. Have no fear! Lighten your pack, lighten your load and you can stand up straight. You will feel good for there is no explainable reason to die with the most toys. Materialism, the art and science of accumulating stuff or having the most toys, is actually a galling burden. Caring for our stuff takes great effort. As we focus on our desire to buy things, I believe we lose imagination. We are cleverly sold manufactured, ready-made products subtly designed to appeal to us and we then, seemingly proud, hoard them. We don’t make things. We buy things. We collect stuff. And we then need big places to store our stuff.
Our culture is media hawked and hyped to buy larger TV’s, kitchen gadgets, huge houses, room after room of unused furniture, virtually useless new car frills … all ready-made trappings for what we call success. We work so hard to do that accumulating of un-necessary necessities. When I was a kid, I made things. It was a time for me being imaginative. I’d take a car apart and rebuild it, I’d make a crystal radio from scratch and I’d build a boat. I read the Boy Mechanic and Popular Science. I made batteries, electric motors and small steam engines. Cedar wood boat planks, car engine noise, free flight model airplanes sent my mind reeling and dreaming. I thought I was inventing something. Creating those things separated me from a teenager’s worries. Around Antioch there are newly developed housing tracts where there are no model airplane fields, there are no hot rods and there are no tree houses. Kids can’t play in the streets. There are boats in this marina that the harbormaster will give away, yet there are no takers. No kid around here wants to fix up an old boat, bend on a sail and imagine a voyage. Why? These kids are structured and highly organized. With their life planned from the right pre-school to the right college their “free time” is organized time. Busy Moms and dads leave for work in the morning, and upon arriving home they stop to watch from the sidelines as their kid, coached by someone else, plays a game of soccer. There’s never an after school game of Peggy-on-the-Bounce played in the street. There’s the swim team, the soccer league, the little league, band practice and homework.
In the suburban tracts all of the homeowners submit to an architectural committee as they sign a book of CC&R’s the legal guide for arranged neighborly conduct. The committee-enforced, strict rulebook insures commonality. Change the black address numbers on the front of your house to brass numbers, and you’ll be told to change them back to the approved color. You can’t change the garden’s ivy for campanula without the approval of the garden committee. Don’t plant a tree or add a window without permission. The color of your house is pre-determined by the board, and it’s a numbing plain vanilla. So, there lives he, the poor shore-side devil with his feet fully cured into the basement concrete of his very expensive California starter castle.
Some of Antioch is trying to maintain its hold on its old river-town character, and there are some very admirable restoration efforts. But they’re losing to that real estate developer. Young families clamor for the new development’s cookie cutter homes ignoring the one-hour drive they’ll have to make to work. The slash-and-burn developer’s approach has cleared the grassy hillsides and sprouted a disfiguring rash of suburban tract mansions all fed by a jammed six lane highway. Row upon row of beige stucco, two-story, tile roofed tract houses have a sameness that will soon age and evolve into the “row-houses of the 2000’s” or a morphed Palmacia Village. New homeowners here carry a mortgage for a half-million to one million dollars and then park two newly leased luxury cars in the garage. Bearing up to the mortgage, the bills and the taxes, both mom and dad will try to raise a family by working at least two jobs. This is debt-overwhelming. Add in the problem of other monies owed and the weight of accumulated unnecessary-necessities and you foster an unimaginative molded mind that amazingly - may even feel affluent, secure and safe while shrouded within this system.
There’s a last bastion for those in retreat here in Antioch. At the end of old Sommersville road now developed and ‘affectionately’ renamed Auto Center Drive there’s the intersection with the old Antioch-Pittsburg Hwy. It’s within walking distance for us. There rests a 1950’s classic -- a drive-in restaurant. Well, sort of. Hazel’s used to have car-hops that’d bring a Coke, french fries and a hamburger to your car window. The old restaurant’s sign still sits proudly, high on a wood tower that has large bold letters spelling out “EAT”. Now I find that direct, simple and understandable unlike the three-story high, computerized advertising blight that marks the Auto Center Drive car dealerships. Those signs speak the computer-processed message, “Come into my parlor says the spider to the fly.” Behind the rounded front of the old drive-in are a few mangy shade trees. Above the trees drapes the rest of the tower signage - diagonally spelling out “Hazel’s”. Drive in at night and park in the front semicircle; your headlights flood the inside dining tables and patrons sitting behind the waist-to-ceiling glass windows. Someone will be there eating the Willy Burger made with a ten-inch bun and “mayo-ket-must” on a one-pound (16 oz., maybe a little less) hamburger patty. Add lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion and feast while sitting at the formica topped tables or at the counter on a vinyl-topped stool. As Harry Stoll, staff writer for the Antioch Weekly Press stated, “… the big round of tomato, the crunch of the pickle, easier crunch of the lettuce, the slide of the may-ketchup-mustard, and the juice of the meat all form a symphony that sings, “This is Friday night and you’re in America eating a real hamburger.” ” Add in a very thick milk shake made with real scooped ice cream. Sure, it’s a symphony that sends your cardiologist into a conniption fit, but that’s imperturbable old Antioch. This harkens back to a day when nobody owned a credit card, mom had dinner ready at 5PM and the family’s only debt was the house mortgage. Add in El Campaniel Theater (featuring “A Streetcar Named Desire”), the Queen B’s Quilt Shop, the Ghost Cycle Harley Davidson store and a fine panoramic view of the river. This is Old Rivertown Antioch with its tree-lined streets, and you just can’t bulldoze this stuff under.
I would have done best living out west in the late 1800’s when there was still an uncontaminated, uncivilized horizon. Sailing a small boat around the world would still be an achievement. There’d be little government, no taxes. There’d be fair pay for your hard work. I mean productive work that teaches a child to read, work that builds a bridge, a house, a boat; work that helps a sick person get well; work that grows food. There’d be no slip-slidin’ wheeling and dealing where people get rich by fast talk, slick manipulation and inflation’s funny money. I’d probably build a boat - out of wood like my father did. With Ellen’s help, I’d sail off for some fanciful long distance cruising, or maybe I’d just wander the California coast. Not now, however, the fantasy has weakened before this older person’s growing sense of caution and fear. Sailing for weeks at sea, sailing on long voyages no longer appeals to me. I still maintain my youthful fondness for boats along this river waterfront by cruising aboard “Love of Liberty” - if only somewhere along this meandering San Joaquin River. A back Delta anchorage or a fresh breeze on San Francisco Bay still compensates me.
We’re berthed in the front slip of Antioch Marina and are close to Humphrey’s restaurant. “Love of Liberty” is on display, so to speak, to dock-walkers and restaurant patrons. Rounded-out after a big meal and a bottle of wine, they leave the restaurant and mosey about the mini pier that surrounds the harbormaster’s office. They comment on the varnished wood, the fair lines and this cutter’s gentle beauty. Some get closer, bend over and look under her dinghy to see her transom - like someone peering under a horse to determine its sex. I know what they’re doing: they’re checking for her name and hailing port (as to the sex, they should know all boats are female). Dock-walkers are always curious about the name and hailing port. Spelled across her transom is Love of Liberty in waving red, white and blue stripes with “Annapolis MD” about a foot beneath in gold letters. The fallout of this innocent peek begins an intermixing of fantasy and reality. In some little way those transom names trigger their imagination about what the boat could do if they were her owner. A beguiling name, a distant calling port and so quickly their “conservative self” is teased. You’d think they were teetering on the edge of a chasm. They look up with a distant gaze, eyes focused on infinity. I suggest that they throw away what they own and move aboard a boat. Thumb under chin they answer, “When I retire ….”; “My wife doesn’t like it …..”; “How could I get dressed for the opera on that …”; “I’m making too much money on my house …”.
In mid-day 90° Delta heat, there’s no wind and a strong ebb current as Ellen and I cast off - moving Love of Liberty out of her slip, aiming for the San Joaquin River. There are barely two or three feet of clearance at the bow and a foot-and-a-half beneath the keel in this cramped harbor. It’s a maneuvering problem solved by our newly installed bow thruster. In effect we have a tug boat at the bow, for now a push of the toggle switch at the helm makes the transverse supplemental propeller just beneath the forward waterline pivot our boat within her own length. A few seconds of thruster application this time, and I move the bow just 90 degrees to port. I ease our way outward dodging other boat transoms, protruding outboard motors, jutting flagstaffs and projecting booms.
Clear of the marina jetty, we head southerly for 47 miles and burn less than a gallon of diesel per hour. Suisun bay, Honker Bay, Benicia, the Carquinez Straight, the C&H sugar factory where my father once worked, San Pablo Bay, San Pablo Straight, then the East Brother Light Station. I passed this light in the 1950’s. At the time I was hiding under the boat’s cuddy - moaning. My father wanted to sail the Vallejo Race from San Francisco to Vallejo Yacht Club in his newly launched, garage-built-by-himself, plywood 21-foot sloop. The Ruth E was a trim little hard chine boat designed by Barney Nichols and obligingly named after my mother - who never even put a foot aboard. Dad had Rick, a West Coast sailing champ, along as skipper. I was a kid on my first overnight boat race, and I was cold, wet, scared and had moved down out of the wind into the cuddy. The winds increased right there -- at the Brothers Light Station in San Pablo Straight. Running before the wind my dad’s little boat rolled and pitched. Up on the island’s rocks I could get glimpses of the East Brother Light House and safety. Up there the people watching at the fence were dry and warm. Spray came over the bow, the boom dragged in the water, and there was shouting between the closing boats. Finally, Rick told me to just shut up - while he and my dad went on to win the race in our class. My dad and I spent the night at the Vallejo Hotel while Rick and his buddies got drunk at the yacht club. The next morning the incoming tide lifted the boat free of the mud, Rick stuck his head out of the cuddy and we got underway for the race home. An inauspicious start to my very amateur racing career.
The East Brother Light Station has a diaphone fog signal that was put into commission while my uncle Leslie was a Captain for Matson Lines. A Canadian invention, the diaphone was first introduced in the United States in 1915 and by the 1930s had come into widespread use. The two-tone sound as described by my father was beeeeeoooooooRUMP. Compressed air powered this device that was superior to the contemporary steam whistle. Because of its unusual sound it was less likely to be mistaken for a ship's steam whistle. It required only minutes to activate and could be heard five miles away. As there was no need to build up steam pressure light keepers liked it. There was no shoveling of coal and no boiler to monitor. There was also a diaphone installed at the Golden Gate when uncle Leslie Vick captained a Matson cargo ship as it approached Fort Point from seaward in near zero visibility fog. The ship, moving dead slow, was passing the narrows as they listened for the echo of the ship’s steam horn off the north wall. They could hear the diaphone off the bow but the timed echo of the ship’s whistle helped them judge the ship’s position and hazard clearances. After a whistle blast Capt. Vick said they heard a short echo that suggested they were too close to the rocks. Another steam whistle blast from the ship and again, a short echo. Captain Vick and the navigator listened until prompted by a crewman, “Sir, that just don’t sound right.” The crewman was right; they were mistaking the bark of a sea lion on the rocks for the echo. The ship was dead center as they safely broke into clear sunshine a quarter mile inside The Bay.
Still under power we enter Racoon Straight in the afternoon. The straight is only a half-mile wide, and its westerly alignment helps funnel the incoming winds of the Golden Gate toward the Delta - where this cold coastal air replaces the rising warm air of the hot Sacramento Valley. Steep short waves kick up as the ebb current meets the incoming winds. Water and spray lift over the bow and a few waves tumble over the cockpit sides. I’m ready to stop for the night. We’re finished with this cruising day and are where we want to be - between Tiburon and Angel Island. For a moment I gaze about remembering much about sailing this bay. Pt. Blunt, Harding Rock, Hospital Cove, Blossom Rock, Knox Buoy, Pt. Bonita and Mile Rock conjure up old memories and emotions of joy, fear, anger and great happiness. Steering slowly inside the wind-blocking, steep bluffs of north Angel Island we enter the calm water of Hospital Cove (also called Ayala Cove). Until the 1930’s this tree covered island was an internment camp for Chinese immigrants and was a place of no joy. The old structures are being rebuilt, and the Chinese writings on the walls are being restored. In the 1960’s and 1970’s we used to anchor in this cove for free … until the State Park Service placed mooring buoys all about and found a way to extract money from the boater. Tonight we’ll pick up a mooring buoy and an armed Park Ranger will come around to collect $20 for “mooring use”. If there were a hundred coves like this about The Bay, the system wouldn’t work, of course. Because it was and still is one of the few suitable “anchorages”, I resolve myself to pay the Park Service. It’s a far, far cry from the limitless coves of the Northwest, but Ellen and I still enjoy sailing The Bay, for it is home with all its fog, currents, winds and views ... and my old friends and memories.
After three weeks gunkholing our Bay cruise ends. Before sunup I brew some strong coffee, cast off lines and set a reverse course for Antioch. The Bay waters are still dark and flat calm. Ahead of us the string of Bay Bridge lights show even though the city lights are going out, the sun rises and so another day begins. On the water we have been free of the constraints of Bay Area culture, we’ve had clear air, warm sunshine and good food. Our speeds have been well below 6.5 knots, a speed that allows one to think. Only those who walk get about that slowly. We have avoided the city noise, inner-city violence and overall energy of the eight million people surrounding us. We’ve sailed beneath the Bay Bridge where above us was the roar of cars and trucks - stressed beings inching one way, then the other. We’ve moved peacefully about by the force of wind on sails, and I’ve been compensated again by this simple lifestyle.
Passing The Brothers Light Station we pick up a warm following wind and fly our huge spinnaker up San Pablo Bay to Carquinez Straight and beyond. At 7:30 PM we arrive near River Town Antioch, moor in Antioch Marina and begin our prep for winter, for Sarah's wedding and for Ellen's surgery.
Terry and Ellen