Casting Shadows




Marc Revere


 
© Copyright 2022 by Marc Revere


 

Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash
Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash
  
We were paralleling history, slicing through placid ebony waters under a moonless sky at seven knots just off the coast of Santa Barbara County. But, not near the City of Santa Barbara, or its pier, or the gaudy tee shirt tourist traps or bars, nor the University or the offshore scourge, the brightly lit oil platforms, but miles away in pitch darkness. We are on the very western edge of the county. It is so remote here there are no inhabitants and no lights, albeit a rotating beam every 30 seconds of Point Conception Light.

Our course of 095 degrees is one hundred yards windward of the kelp forest, a navigation aid that follows the shoreline down the Pacific Coast 7200 miles to Tierra del Fuego. Archaeologist call it the kelp highway, used by the ancestors of the first people after crossing over Beringia, the Siberian land bridge about 20,000 years ago. Even the Spanish used it for 240 years for their galleons returning from Manila. They’d sail across the Pacific at higher latitudes, 38 to 40 looking for kelp as one factor that they were nearing shore. Then, by keeping the kelp to port, they worked their way to Acapulco.

The sloops library had several books on mythology. Each outlined common quests among all cultures. Beginning with the stories of creation, good versus evil, life, death, and the afterlife. They are embedded within the timeless fables of the Greeks, Egyptians, Japanese and Norse, the land of my ancestors. But there were others, lesser known, like the Chumash in California whose territory waters we are sailing. And all these mythologies have one thing in common; Dolphins.

My first encounter with a dolphin came soon after my grandfather took a pen out of a plastic pocket protector in his shirt pocket and wrote “left” on my four top knuckles and “port” just below. I was three years old. Then he lowered me into a sabot, a bathtub size sailboat, with a forward mounted mast, easy to sail, hard to capsize. He taught me to sail in the back bay of Newport. There I was, master of the vessel, traversing the seven seas, scanning the shimmering waters looking for pirates. I was so supremely confident in my skill, but it startled me to see a silver blue body raise its head level with mine. A dolphin!

That experience piqued a lifelong fascination. And like many of the close encounters with dolphins over the following half century, regardless of where I was sailing in the world, or the type of boat I was on, they all occurred in the same place, at the bow of the boat. Sometimes within reach while always bringing a smile. And after each encounter, once back on terria firma, it was another trip to the library or bookstore to read more about them, including their place in mythology.

Fifteen hours earlier, on the mid-morning watch, I sighted what I was looking for. A sailor’s sign of good luck. A pod of dolphins were loitering off the coast of San Simeon, due west of Hearst Castle. Soon the water was bubbling with other pods, gathering into a super pod, at least 500 or more. They initially started swimming together, then broke off in all directions as a group of 20 swam near and surfed in our wake.

Common dolphins travel in groups of 20 to 200 in these waters. And if there is enough food in the area, they will form a super pod, taking advantage of the strength in numbers in pursuing their prey, mainly anchovies.

There are countless stories of dolphins saving sailors from drowning while also helping them into the afterlife. In roman literature, there is a story about dolphins carrying souls to the “Island of the Blest’ for safe passage into the afterlife. The Greek gods named them hieron ichthys, sacred fish. And Plutarch, a Greek writer, described them the best when he wrote. “Though the dolphin has no need at all of any man, yet it is a genial friend to all and has helped many.”

*****

Forty-eight hours earlier, my old friend Mark Baker, like myself a retired fire chief, met Nickoay Alexandrov, a Bulgarian transplant and boat delivery skipper, at the San Diego airport. I had not actually met him; I hired him through the internet. They both flew out of Lindbergh Field to San Francisco. Our goal was to sail to the extreme southwest border of California, leaving the bay area’s three seasons, winter, spring and fall, no summer, for San Diego’s year-round Mediterranean climate, with its endless summer.

Arriving at the dock in Sausalito and a quick handshake later, Alexandrov, who was helping us reposition my 42-foot sloop, Windswept, had me tearing apart the boat. The one I had neatly packed and organized days before. He examined the engine, transmission, shaft packing, fuel tank, water tanks, bilge, steering chain and cables, batteries and wiring. Every panel and floorboard, including beds, bunks and couches, were dislodged, along with cushions scattered everywhere. He told me of passages that were the most memorable for him were the ones that had the most maintenance issues. His goal was to make this a non-eventful, unmemorable voyage. We were at a cross-purpose on this very significant point. Mark and I wanted to make it memorable for other reasons, for both of us thrived in leading firefighters into harm’s way, operating in the maelstrom of chaos. We excelled at it. Thinning hair, wrinkles and our age was a façade to the fact that we were still adrenaline junkies and loved to sail in heavy weather.
 
Captain Alexandrov proved to be worth his four-day bill in his first hour dockside. I learned more about preparation from him in an hour than I did in 50 years of offshore sailing.

When he finished, I proudly showed him the waterproof paper coastal charts for our passage, which I had laid out on the nav-station desk for his use. His comment was succinct. “Nice.” Then he placed his iPad with an integrated chart plotter, GPS, and AIS (automatic identification system) right on top of my charts. Then said casually, “I have not seen paper charts in a long time.” Suddenly, I felt old and obsolete, like my charts.

Mark, never missing a chance to get a jab in, said, “did you bring a sexton too?” And so it starts!

Good enough for the U.S. Navy, good enough for me,” I fired back, nodding with my head toward the cabinet under the nav-station. Mark looked at me in disbelief and I just smiled. He had fired the first salvo, which I couldn’t let pass. However, he should have called my bluff. In that cabinet, I had a handful of Cuban contraband in a humidor. Truth be known, I wouldn’t know which end of the sexton to use.
*****

In silent darkness, thirty-six hours later, south of Point San Luis Light, we past the entrance of Avila Bay, San Luis Obispo County. We were sailing south to the northern waters of Point Conception, planning to round that landmass and the mystical body of water that most Californians have never seen.

The words ‘Point Conception’ are often heard only by California sailors listening to NOAA weather reports. This is where a computer-generated voice will state, “the waters from Point Conception south to the Mexican border. Expect an extended period of moderate to strong Northwest winds with gales and large seas focused across the outer waters and adjacent to the Central Coast. Northwest winds 10 to 15 knots, becoming 20 to 30 knots with gusts to 35 knots. Combined seas 12 to 15 feet dominant period 12 seconds.”

This is where the cold turbulent waters of the Pacific current moderating the coastal temperatures from Canada to San Luis Obispo County work their way south down the coast. However, there is an imaginary line somewhere around latitude 34 (Point Conception) where these cold currents and prevailing winds are disrupted. This is exactly where the coastal mountain range disappears, thus allowing cool ocean air to be drawn into the interior, sucking in like a vacuum. And nature abhors a vacuum, and she’ll do anything to fill it. Thus, the winds here can often exceed 40 to 50 knots, making a normally turbulent ocean into a tempest with 20-foot greybeards, Point Conception rollers, rogue waves and jumbled swells. And it’s where Mother Nature tests the prepared and will crush the confidence of the foolish, who aren’t.

Rounding Point Conception can be a brutal experience. The weather can go from near flat seas and calm winds to 30 plus knots in a timeframe not calculated by intervals measured in minutes or seconds, but by two basic psychological emotions, calm and panic. A sailor’s normal cautious foreboding anticipation sailing around the Point can reach the emotional equivalent of witnessing a priest give the last rites to the living. Or watching Poseidon, Lord of the Sky and Winds, and Zeus, King of the Gods, get into a cosmic argument. Zeus wins. Always! He forces Poseidon to disrupt favorable seas for sailors, causing them to sail 40 miles out of their way around the tempest or turn back and find a safe harbor. It can be that dramatic. It’s for those reasons we sailed through at night, when the gods slept.

In 1834, after a harrowing passage in gale force winds, Richard Henry Dana, Jr. called Point Conception “the Cape Horn of California where it begins to blow the first of January and blows until the last of December.” He, of all people, should know. He sailed through both.

Earlier this evening, I purposely took both the 11 to 2 watch and the 2 to 5 for our nocturnal passage around Point Conception. And though that sounds magnanimous, it wasn’t. It was selfish on my part. I figured everyone would be up anyways as we rounded the Point, clipped in, reefing, trimming sails, heaving over the side, praying and shouting obscenities in force 8 winds. I would not miss this and you’d have to pry my fingers off the wheel to take my spot at the helm!

*****

On my second watch, we entered the tranquil waters of the Santa Barbara channel. Two thousand years ago, while Christ walked and fished on the other side of the world, Chumash fishermen paddled wooden planked boats up and down these waters. In “Two Years Before the Mast,” Richard Henry Dana recounted his passage here, “fires could be seen from large prominent villages”. However, tonight east of Point Conception and south of Hollister Ranch, the shoreline is dark and there are no canoes, no fires, and no villages, just an enormous expanse of darkness.

As my fatigue set in the impenetrable black night unhurriedly transformed into murky lifeless clouds outlining a dull brownish gray shoreline below, both without definition. There were deep shadows inside the sloop as well, with only the reddish glow of the navigation instruments visible. But soon, in contrast to their steady illumination, flashes of crimson darted across the eastern sky, revealing a merlot-currant gloom. The sun was exerting its authority.

Watching the morning unfold, I recall Humqaq “The Raven Comes” a part of Chumash mythology. The Chumash traditionally regard this area as the Western Gate, a place that the souls of the dead could pass between the mortal world and journey across the sea to the heavenly paradise of Similaqsa, the mythical Land of the Dead. I often wondered what the Chumash must have thought when they saw Juan Cabrillo, who unwittingly reversed this order in 1542, sailing in from the sea, from the very place where they sent their dead.

Quietly motoring east, with the main up to sustain Windswepts' balance, and the jib furled, we are eerily alone. As the bow effortlessly knifes through the stygian waters, there is a phosphorescence blue-green glow in our wake , thanks to unseen, but slightly agitated algae by our hull.

I occasionally look, but I know there will be no dolphins out and about in the diminishing darkness. They are still asleep, called logging because they resemble a floating log at night. Sleeping or when catching catnaps during the day, they do so with one or the other eye open. Thus, resting half their brain and body approximately 20 minutes at a time.

*****

We are south of California’s most sparsely developed coastline, paralleling a deserted Hollister Ranch Road and the vacant shoreline below along the edge of the kelp highway. In the Golden State, there is a law that allows for coastal access for anyone anywhere along the states 840 miles of coastline except here. So, to get ‘exclusive’ access like the landowners to the 8.5 miles of pristine beaches, which surfers mostly use, is done by boat.

In the darkness, I can see the glow of a cigarette above the shoreline. Scanning with my binoculars, it’s a security guard sitting on a four-wheeler above Arroyo San Agustin. Probably a wannabe cop or former one or a fired disgruntled one, glassing me at the same time. I shake my head in disbelief. There is a man a mile away who probably has a Remington Bushmaster AR-15 slung over his shoulder, protecting 14,400 empty acres of fallow and fertile fields, not to mention 136 hundred-acre parcels, mostly vacant lots.

Going below to get a cup of day-old firehouse coffee, my watch alarm goes off. It’s programmed to do so every 10 minutes during night watches, just in case I nod off. It signals for the ritual to begin again, the checking of cockpit gauges, displaying their data in a ghoulish green glow. Followed by glancing below through a cockpit interior porthole to the high-definition color screen of the chart plotter displaying the ocean floor, its depth, the compass heading, projected course, and latitude and longitude. Then, after completing a 360, and satisfied that some rogue freighter won’t run us down from behind, I take a sip of coffee, then quickly spit it out. The only thing that could save it would be a healthy dose of Bailey’s liqueur. The coffee had the same viscosity of 90 weight oil tasting like burnt tar.

A couple of hours later, after a leisurely crew breakfast, somewhere in-between Refugio and El Captain State Beach, we motored into Santa Barbara harbor to the fuel dock.

Later, navigating out of the small harbor, under the warmth of the morning sun, we set the main and unfurled the jib. It didn’t take long before we were on a broad reach with a mild Santa Ana building, with a dry offshore wind. The reflection on the clouds, kelps, browns and greens with splashes of the entire spectrum of blues had a kaleidoscope effect. Mark pointed out a couple of dolphins dancing about to starboard. They raced through the boat’s wake and darted straight ahead, clicking and squealing back to us as if they were beckoning us to follow.

When Mark ambled off below, I heard him and Captain Alexandrov discussing Soviet, U.S. relations. I think Mark is going to lose on what will become a disagreement on either fact or ideology. I have found that Europeans know more about their history and ours than we do.

Looking up at the telltales on the mainsail, I glance further beyond to a jet overhead. I envision someone at a window seat traveling 500 knots, glancing down at me and wondering where are we going. The person probably wishes they were on board as well, with the wind in their face and no hurry to get anywhere. As a million-mile flyer with United Airlines, I have some empathy.

Enjoying the moment alone on deck, as the debate go’s on downstairs, I noticed a small pod of dolphins, a hundred yards out, between Port Hueneme and us.

Suddenly, something overhead eclipsed the sun and cast a shadow across the boat, stretching all the way to Santa Cruz. I recall another Chumash’s legend, the Earth Goddess Hutash. She created the first people on Santa Cruz Island. According to legend, the island became too crowded, so Hutash decided some Chumash would have to travel to the mainland. They would use a rainbow as a bridge that stretched from the tallest peak on Santa Cruz Island, all the way to a mountain near Carpentaria. Unfortunately, some that walked across got dizzy and fell. Hutash felt badly and not wanting them to drown, she turned them into dolphins.

Shading my eyes, I see the shadow is from the contrails, ice crystals from a jet heading to LAX, probably from SFO or from the Orient. I have sailed with skippers who often told me prior to GPS they’d use the contrails as a navigational aid when ferrying boats across the Pacific. Improbable? Not really. If you do the calculations using United flight guide for all their flights, it’s easy. Simply apply some basic math you learned in the fifth grade… a jet traveling at 500 knots, leaving point A to point B…. I have learned it is hard to get lost in a vast empty ocean if you’re paying attention to floating kelp patties, birds, depths, swells, the kelp highway and United Airlines.

Spying a larger pod of dolphins a hundred yards off our bow, a glint of light catches my eye further east. Both images triggered a faint recollection I couldn’t put my finger on. Something occurred here? Then, while trimming the jib, a bombardment of forgotten memories suddenly paralyzed me. Contrails, dolphins, jets, flashes from shore and I remembered two parallel events that happened here. One mythical and one real.

After another quick 360, I stepped downstairs, worked my way aft to where the paper charts were stored. Captain Alexandrov was now giving Mark a history lesson about Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. Finding what I was looking for, but not before learning that Bulgaria dated back to 681 AD and as interesting as their conversation was, I had some unfinished business on deck.

Unrolling the chart out of the wind behind the dodger, I saw it! The X I’d penciled in when planning the voyage months ago and we were fast approaching it. A bolus of data washed over me like a wave breaking over the stern. It was here; I said to myself. Latitude and longitude: 34° 3′ 30″N, 119°20′48″W.

I quickly located the source of the flickering light on shore with the binoculars. However, I knew it without seeing it. It was a giant sundial at Port Hueneme. Santa Barbara artist James “Bud” Bottoms designed it. But, not designed to keep time or set your watch by, but designed to cast a shadow on a specific time and a specific date. It is accurate only once a year on the date and time of the passage of souls, 88 of them.

On January 30, 2000, around 1600 hours, Captain Ted Thompson and First Officer William “Bill” Tansky had just dropped out of the sky. Literally. In an extreme “nose-down” position, a nosedive, and plummeted from about 31,500 feet to 23,000 feet, in what must have been a terrifying 80 seconds for the pilots, not to mention the passengers. In a superhuman effort to regain control, the pilots eventually stopped the 6,000-foot per minute descent.

This event occurred just north of Catalina Island, when the pilots took the plane off autopilot to prepare for their landing at San Francisco International Airport. That’s when the jackscrew for the stabilizer jammed. Then, as luck would have it, they were able to unjam the stabilizer. But no good deed goes unpunished. Moments later, the jackscrew failed completely. The aircraft rapidly pitched over into a dive and, unable to raise the nose, the pilots attempted to fly the aircraft upside-down. This was the genesis for the movie ‘Flight’ starring Denzel Washington.

Inverted and nose-down, 81 seconds later, Flight 261 impacted the Pacific Ocean, 14 miles off the coast between Port Hueneme near to Anacapa Island, a few seconds before 16:22. There were no survivors. Today Alaska Flight 261 no longer exists.

The names of the passengers and crew are engraved on individual bronze plates mounted on the perimeter of the sundial. Dolphins at the base support the bronze arms of the sundial that cast a shadow darkening a special plaque on the sundial’s face at 16:22 every year on January 31. It is a memorial to honor the dead, while convening hope and meaning for the living.

Once again, there was a murky shadow on the water directly overhead, perfectly in line with Santa Cruz Island and Carpentaria and, whispering in disbelief, I asked. “The rainbow bridge?” Then a gust precipitously snapped both the jib and main taut. Quickly easing out the mainsail, I wondered if spirits were pushing us through the shadows to that exact place? The place that began the sacred narratives about origins of the first people? Could it be distant ancestors of the Chumash that actually became dolphins? Falling off the rainbow bridge? And was it the very spot where 88 more, separated by time, culture and reality, fell from the same sky to join them?

I recalled that on the first anniversary of the crash, family members were ferried to the crash site and reported, “a pod of approximately 1,000 dolphins surrounded them.”

In utter amazement, I witnessed the shadows above dissipate, replaced by scattered beams of light streaming down from the heavens to the oceans surface. Could mythology and reality coexist? It was a rhetorical question and didn’t require an answer. But I got one anyway. A mega pod of dolphins appeared, their silver blue skin simmering in the sunlight, fins high in the water, splashing and jumping in and out of the swells, swimming straight for us. I set the auto-pilot and worked my way up to the bow and yelled to the crew below. Windswept was heeled over fifteen degrees. Mark popped his head up over the dodger and yelled. “Need help?” After yelling back no, he ducked below before I could point out the dolphins.

Leaning into the jib halyard, I watched yet another encounter with the largest pod of dolphins I had ever seen. It was pure joy. I didn’t want to pull my eyes away from the water, but I had to know. I glanced at my handheld GPS hanging from my neck. Latitude:34° 3′ 30″N,Longitude:119°20′48″W.

It was here! I said to myself. The merging of reality and mythology and the assimilation of souls. More wind filled our sails and Windswept heeled over near 20 degrees. Looking back at the empty helm, she was close to rounding up, but I couldn’t move. I knew the sails would flog about, the autopilot would disengage, and the dolphins would swim past. However, I was mesmerized by looking down through the bow pulpit; the ocean rushing along both sides of the hull, forming a wake as the dolphins raced through. Watching in awe, their presence moved me. Then, remembering the words of the Earth Goddess, “… and not wanting them to drown, she turned them into dolphins”, I wondered who they were?



I am a Harvard Fellow and served as a Fire Chief for sixteen years, with 37 years in the fire service and a past President of the California Fire Chiefs’ Association.

My passion is sailing, the fire service, and storytelling of historical events involving both.



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