Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Aug. 29
- Community Blog
- Tales of Adventure
The Cult Of The Laser
Note: Story first appeared in 1993, but this is the original unedited version. I always wanted readers to experience this tale of adventure in its entirety, so here we go...
---------------------------THE CULT OF THE LASER------------------------------
Blessed by unique geography and Mediterranean climate, San Diego Bay and environs constantly offer choice opportunities for recreational sailors. These opportunities are best exploited by small craft sailors, who can wear nothing but shorts year-round while plying waters inaccessible to mariners aboard larger craft. Among the numerous sailboat classes under twenty feet in length, one class excels in a combined course of maneuvering, planing, surfing, beaching, shoal navigation and island exploration. At the opposite end of the nautical spectrum from fast multihulls, carbon fiber trifoilers, ULDBs (Ultralight Displacement Boats), International America's Cup Class contenders, and undeniably bad-ass Formula One racers, this fourteen-foot craft is a modest fiberglass monohull known as the Laser.
Unlike many of its larger cousins, the Laser is ubiquitous, and it can be found on the grounds or docks of any local marina. It is the world's most popular sail training craft, and hull production is rapidly approaching the two hundred thousand mark. No wonder the class is involved worldwide in over one thousand racing events. The ultimate victory still lies ahead: when the Laser becomes an Olympic Class in 1996, this humble design will finally achieve the recognition and status it so richly deserves.
Designed by Bruce Kirby in 1969, the Laser prototype was originally named "The Weekender"---since it was intended for recreational use by working-class blokes unable to afford larger craft, high maintenance costs, slip fees, etc. After slight modification and an expedient name change, the Laser appeared on the market and began to receive the attention of sailors and distributors around the globe. Kirby and his colleagues never looked back, and the gradual rise of the Laser is simply another aspect of nautical history.
Why did this little boat become so popular, and why is it the ideal choice for local sailing conditions? Low cost, low maintenance, and relative ease of handling are the primary reasons for the Laser's success in San Diego. Although the Laser is designed for the solo sailor, it can also accommodate a thin date, thus an aura of romance contributes to the boat's appeal. Aspiring sailboat racers are drawn by an established class, while destitute intellectuals are attracted by the modern, ultra-hip, scientific name.
A new Laser can be purchased for $2750 at "The Boat Shop" on Canon Street. This cost can be reduced by scanning the classified sections of local newspapers, or by checking the billboards at marina clubhouses from Chula Vista to Oceanside. Somewhere in San Diego County, there is sure to be a Laser for sale. Good secondhand boats with trailers usually run between $750 and $1500. Some boats without trailers go for as little as $350, as recorded in local rags.
Once the initial purchase is made, the low maintenance phase kicks in and puts a smile on the new owner's face. No boat is easier to maintain than the Laser. Fiberglass hull and aluminum spars keep labor to a minimum. Even the most careful Laser sailor will spend more time rigging and derigging the boat than pulling tiresome maintenance, including the periodic weeklong overhaul, which is generally reserved for winter or early spring. A logical and rather pleasant consequence of small craft ownership, since less maintenance means more time spent on the water.
All of this information becomes irrelevant the minute a sailor puts his Laser up on a fast plane, for then the boat becomes a living thing and skims across the surface at phenomenal speed, accelerating like a bullet as it leaves the chamber and rises in its trajectory. Here is exhilaration, here is euphoria, here is a mental and physical sensation which nearly rivals orgasm. Here is the reason why one becomes a dedicated Laser sailor, willing to forgo elaborate creature comforts in order to attain boat speed and elemental purity.
Some sailors can't handle the minor discomfort and wetness associated with Laser sailing, and so they rightly choose other craft more suitable to their tastes. Some prefer to crew on board larger boats, an option which is acceptable only to those who are willing to abandon independence, surrender responsibility, and take orders from rich clueless wanks who don't know their @$$es from holes in the ground. Some sailors move on to fast, high-tech multihulls and trifoilers, which absolutely blow doors on stinking monohulls, UNLESS they happen to be carving bottom turns in head-high surf at Little Waimea. Speed is of the essence, of course, but NO multihull or trifoiler is going to make the drop quite like the Laser, which surfs better than ANY other sailboat in existence.
Seafaring types who can appreciate such subtle yet incredibly important characteristics usually stick with the program and become hardcore Laser sailors, ever striving for nautical perfection on this side of the grave. These are neither racers nor clubhouse kooks; these are men and women who relate more closely to the harmonious natural aspects of diehard Laser sailing. Constituting a class within a class, they are unconventional agents of a spiritual subdivision which can only be referred to as "The Cult Of The Laser."
So much for the popularity of the Laser as a class. Now let's examine the popularity of the Laser as an individual by tracing the history of one particular boat: Laser # 2069, a sweet craft known for her good karma and impressive record of successful party voyages. # 2069 is this Laser's true sail number, which corresponds with the hull production number; thus, she is the two-thousand-sixty-ninth Laser built, discounting the prototypes. When Laser production reaches # 206900, humble # 2069 will belong in the first percentile of all boats constructed worldwide to class specifications.
Laser # 2069 was built in 1972 at the Peterson Yacht facility in Newport Beach, CA. From there she was shipped to San Diego, where she was purchased by Captain Newgard (USN) for his young son Jesse. What Jesse thought of her when he first saw her is beyond my imagination, for her hull was an ugly puke-green color which detracted from the beauty of her gleaming white deck. F#%$&g puke green, of all colors.
After many years of hard use, Jesse sold the boat to my brother Aidan, who paid $600 cash under the condition that Jesse let him keep her on the dock at Coronado Yacht Club. Aidan paid the monthly rack or storage fee and sailed the boat extensively for several years. He and Jesse remained close friends throughout this period, and they often sailed together aboard the Laser. They took turns at the tiller while exploring the bay and pounding cheap domestic beer; this meant they habitually returned to the dock in a collective state of inebriation which lay somewhere between a proverbial "good buzz" and a solid migraine headache. Thus Laser # 2069 endured a substantial amount of abuse every time she was hoisted from the water and placed upon her rack.
Every Laser sailor knows the joint between mast step tube and deck is the greatest pinpoint stress location on board the boat. All of the drive created by the rig above is transmitted directly through this joint, therefore the fiberglass is prone to cracking and subsequent disintegration. If the crack is not repaired immediately, "glass rot" sets in and spreads like some insidious disease, ultimately destroying the entire joint and rendering the boat useless until a thorough repair is made. Laser # 2069 developed a severe case of glass rot after my brother cracked the joint and continued to thrash hard. It was only a matter of time before the boat was decommissioned and brought to our house for dry storage.
Eight years into my nautical career, I was working at the Naval Amphibious Base Marina in 1983 when I first took interest in the Laser in our back yard. I asked my brother why she was there and he showed me the rotten joint. I told him I could fix it, no problem, but he expressed doubt as to whether the task could be done, since it involved grinding away a mass of rotten glass before "laying in" or creating an invisible compound curve.
"Fix it and you can have her," he said.
I assured him I would fix the joint, but I refused to change the name on the certificate. Having agreed upon this arrangement, we transported the boat to the marina and I began the tedious grinding and glassing process. The original glass was really rotten; after grinding away the trash, I had to reconstruct the top four inches of the mast step tube, a circular area of deck perhaps seven inches in diameter directly above the aforementioned tube, and the now invisible compound curve which normally formed the actual joint between mast step tube and deck.
Anybody who has done this work knows that it can be a royal bitch. In order to attain maximum strength, the compound curve had to be reconstructed with alternate layers of fiberglass matt and cloth. Resembling a late abortion, the first two layers I threw down barely followed the original curve. Once a rude approximation was achieved, the curve was rebuilt by laying in countless thin strips which rose vertically from the mast step tube, bent 90 degrees, and radiated outward to form the deck. Each strip was impregnated with resin before being laid upon a wetted surface. An occasional large patch of cloth bearing irregular slits was plastered to the underside of the deck and wrapped around the tube. Most of this work was blindly executed by reaching through a nearby inspection hatch while crouching beneath the boat, which was topside down on two sawhorses in a suitable work area. Once the internal work was done, the boat was righted for more grinding and completion of external and cosmetic work. The external work was fairly simple, but the internal work was a pain in the @$$.
An absolute pro working full-time probably could have finished the job in two, three, maybe four days. Working on company hours and using a great deal of my spare time, I finished the mast step in less than two weeks. To prevent any reoccurrence of cheesy glass rot, I made the joint and surrounding surfaces well over an inch thick. No air bubbles, no bullsh!t, just an ugly compound curve of solid glass tapering away on all sides. The work wasn't pretty, but to this day, despite constant use, that joint remains as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar, with no indication or promise of glass fatigue and stress cracks within the next century. The damned thing has developed special meaning for me; perhaps, when the time comes, the joint, like Thomas Hardy's heart, can be cut out and buried with my corpse in a watery grave.
After reworking the mast step, I decided to spruce up the Laser by totally sanding, prepping, and repainting the hull and deck. I refused to be seen sailing ANY boat with an ugly puke-green hull; the sh!thouse color combo had to go before I took this craft out on the water. I painted the hull a rich royal blue, topped with a gleaming white deck which made my little girl look like a million dollars. Slapping on some new CF numbers, I was finally ready to take her out for a sea trial. Naturally, this meant patrolling the beach on the seaward side of Coronado, my home town.
There's only one way to patrol the beach, and that's by riding the ebb out to the harbor entrance, rounding Zuniga Point, sailing inshore, repeatedly cruising the length of the beach (while pounding beers, eyeballing women, and pissing off the lifeguard kooks by violating the 500-foot offshore limit), sailing away once the tide has turned, and ultimately riding the flood back up the channel. This program works best with a high tide around 0800; when the breeze picks up two hours later, the current is moving well and the time in transit to Zuniga Point is shortened considerably. Spring tides are favorable, for the respective ranges of the ebb and flood are then greater, and the currents move much more swiftly than they do during neap tides. If a sailor reaches Zuniga Jetty in good time, he can raise the daggerboard and rudder and glide over a submerged section of the jetty with inches to spare, thereby saving an additional twenty or thirty minutes on the approach. This is exactly what I did during the sea trial. The boat exceeded all of my expectations, and I returned to the dock secure in the knowledge that she was completely seaworthy.
From that day on, I exclusively sailed the Laser with a passion, for she obviously could perform , she had good karma, and she seemed grateful to her new master for her restoration. We developed an intense relationship during the years which followed; I took my little girl out hundreds if not thousands of times, for I longed to know every subtle characteristic of this sweet boat which I had brought back to life. Sometimes I sailed solo, and sometimes I invited a passenger, for the presence of another person on board allowed a better distribution of live ballast in a stiff breeze. There were days when I deliberately chose to sail solo for therapeutic reasons, but I also enjoyed sharing the nautical experience with a friend or date. I can't possibly remember every cruise, although certain situations and events remain clear in my memory.
I remember tying up to numerous Bay Bridge piers as a youngster and burning fat ones while stretching my legs and wandering around like some f#%$&g tourist. Having already burned Da Kine buds on the catwalk above, I found these strolls upon the piers to offer refreshingly different perspectives. It paid to keep one's weather eye open for the Harbor Police, who undoubtedly would have warned me off or cited me for trespassing. Needless to say, they had no clue, and I always split the minute a waterborne Donut Boy appeared in sight.
Jimmy Howard and I were sailing beyond the kelp beds one day when a California Gray Whale surfaced three or four boatlengths ahead. I honestly admit it scared the sh!t out of me, but after quickly tacking away I felt privileged to view such a magnificent creature at close range. Although I originally was close-hauled on the starboard tack, the whale naturally assumed the right of way under the obscure "Law of Gross Tonnage."
Another close encounter occurred prior to the New Zealand Challenge in 1988. I was sailing with a girl named Mikki, otherwise known as "The Loose Nut." We were slipping past the Submarine Base, just inside Ballast Point, when I spotted a large California Sea Lion basking on a nearby channel buoy. I alerted Mikki, who begged me to alter course and sail right by the buoy. No problem. The sea lion was sleeping, of course, and it neither saw nor heard our approach. As we glided past, Mikki unexpectedly reached out and patted the creature's back.
"Nice doggie," she said.
The 500-lb. animal immediately reared up with a deafening roar of shocked surprise. I thought he was going to leap aboad and sink the f#$%&g boat, but fortunately the moment passed and there was no need to abandon ship. What the hell, it was good for an adrenalin boost, and my date gave me the full t!t press during the critical phase.
Later that day, we saw Dennis Conner as he sailed the Stars & Stripes Cat, and I praised his ability to constantly keep the boat in perfect trim.
"I don't like him," said Mikki. "I've seen him sh!tfaced in public, and I think he's a fat alcoholic."
Minutes afterward, Dennis bent on the knots and the craft's weather hull rose imperceptibly, barely clearing the surface as she streaked past. It was an impressive sight.
"Yay! Go, Dennis, go!," screamed The Loose Nut, shaking her fist in the air.
"Don't you mean 'Go, Dennis, go, you fat alcoholic f#%!'???", I asked sarcastically.
Taking this remark to heart, my date moved forward and didn't speak to me for at least fifteen minutes. She probably thought this was some form of punishment, but in reality it was a blessing. Little did I realize the worst was yet to come.
We were making our way back up the channel when the wind died completely. Our boat speed was reduced to a snail's pace, and we made little headway even though our destination was in sight. The Loose Nut grew anxious and irritable, b!tching and moaning about my supposed influence on the afternoon weather. I told her there was nothing we could do except ride it out, and she responded with a most ludicrous accusation which I remember to this day.
"You planned it this way, you @$$hole! What are you going to do now, rape me?!?," she cried, in a petulant tone.
Not likely, you ignorant bi-yatch. I might strangle you and dump your stinking carcass overboard, but RAPE??? I don't think so. Another hour passed before we hit the dock, and during that time I solemnly swore I would never deal with The Loose Nut again. I saw her on the street a month later and she tried to act as if nothing had happened, but my memory puts an elephant to shame, and I wasn't having any. She asked about our next sailing date, and I told her she should have been a comedienne.
I recall a classic moment when John Burnett and I were running up the channel after an excursion to Ballast Point. Gliding along close inshore at four or five knots, we were approaching Pier Juliet-Kilo on North Island Naval Air Station when a Star & Crescent cattleboat overtook us on our port side. With downhaul slackened, boom vang set, and daggerboard raised, the Laser ran quietly and efficiently in perfect sail and ballast trim as John and I laid diagonally across the deck in opposite directions. John was catnapping in the warm sun, and my eyes were mere slits as I lounged hard with my head on a life vest and my hand on the tiller extension. The f#$%&g tourists aboard the cattleboat couldn't believe we were actually sailing; they thought the Laser was sailing by itself while John and I were fast asleep.
"Look, Dad! They're SLEEPING!," one voice said.
"They CAN'T be sleeping," replied another, in a mystified tone.
"They look kind of CUTE," said a third voice, which belonged to an eligible female tourist who probably possessed the intelligence quotient of a garden vegetable.
Without moving my head, I scanned the cattleboat through eyelids which were apparently closed. The starboard rail was lined with gawking fools who obviously had never seen a Laser sailed in this fashion. After years of baring our @$$es, wagging our peckers, and shouting abuse at boatloads of clueless tourist wanks, it felt good to keep this load guessing by pretending to be asleep the whole time.
At one point in my sailing career, I kept the Laser at my house and went through a cartopping phase. On one hot summer day, my brother dropped me off at Glorietta Bay Park, where I began to rig my boat on the beach in preparation for the day's sail. I had a date with some dirty rotten hook, and I was supposed to pick her up at 1200 on the public dock in front of that Peohe's dive. Just as I was ready to embark upon my voyage, the unbelievable happened: a caravan of cars and trucks pulled up and disgorged an entire sorority from San Diego State University. Fifty girls in string bikinis threw down their towels in neat, geometric rows on the grass. I asked one girl why the group was there, and she said it was "Rush Week," this was the first day off, and the entire sorority wanted to get away from school, boyfriends, etc. I had to laugh at the cruel and bizarre twist of fate which brought fifty girls to the park just as I was preparing to sail away and pick up my stinking date.
Being a man of my word, I left the beach and sailed to Peohe's, where I arrived on the dock five minutes before the appointed hour. Naturally, my date was nowhere in sight. I told myself I would give her until 1205 to make the appointment, and if she didn't show by then I would return to Glorietta Bay Park to suss out the fifty righteous bathing beauties. Minutes passed like hours before my watch read 1205, at which time my date was still nowhere to be seen. I felt liberated from my previous commitment, so I immediately cast off and sailed back into Glorietta Bay. My date arrived on the dock by Peohe's at 1210, or so she said later, but by then I was safely out of sight around the nearest bend.
Beaching fifteen minutes later at Glorietta Bay Park, I found the sorority situation unchanged. Now I was faced with the thorny problem of inconspicuously approaching a large crowd of girls, many who were exquisitely beautiful, not to mention "legal." I pondered my predicament while chugging an ice-cold wine cooler and slowly circling the crowd, as a shark circles before going in for the kill. My chance arrived when a girl rose and walked toward a bench piled high with refreshments. As she cracked a cooler and reached for a cold beverage, I slipped alongside, the "Master of Low Profile."
"Pardon me," I said softly in my most civilized tone, "but how do I ask one of you to go sailing with me without insulting the others?"
She laughed and turned toward the group of girls, who remained unaware of my presence.
"WHO WANTS TO GO SAILING WITH THIS GUY?!?!?!?!?," she shouted at the top of her lungs, much to my dismay.
Forty-nine heads swiveled in my direction and gave a collectively cool appraisal. Seeing that my tactful approach was blown, I boldly took the initiative and stepped forward into the crowd. My eyes fell upon the best-looking girl of the lot, an absolutely gorgeous blonde who could have graced the cover of any international fashion magazine. In the words of adventurer John Long, she was a girl who could "make a bishop cry and kick through a stained-glass window."
"I want to go sailing with YOU!!!," I said, rudely pointing at her in order to leave no doubt as to my selection.
"Well, okay, but you'll have to take my friend too," she replied, motioning toward another girl sitting beside her.
"I don't know, that's pretty rough, I might have to think about it," I quipped. This was good for a few laughs from the surrounding crowd.
With a sigh of relief on my part, the girls and I embarked upon an enlightening half-hour voyage, during which I suffered painful retina burnout while ogling the blonde through my cheap Vuarnet sunglasses. Alas, all good things come to an end, and this voyage was no exception. I beached the Laser and thanked the girls for the pleasure of their company, and then, deciding not to push my luck after doing time with the hottest-looking girl in the group, I prepared to embark once more upon a solo excursion. I was sliding the boat into knee-deep water when I heard a voice directly behind me.
"Are you going sailing again? If you are, can we go with you?"
I turned to see two other girls standing at the water's edge. Nothing like the blonde, of course, but what the hell, beggars can't be choosers.
"Sure. I'm just heading up toward the clubhouse at CYC. Climb aboard if you want to come along," I said.
They did, and I ended up shuttling them back and forth across Glorietta Bay. After dropping them off at the beach, and having had enough of the sorority scene, I hastily shoved off to avoid a reoccurrence of the cheesy shuttle service. The original blonde was sweet, I'll admit, but this was my Laser, not some stinking San Diego Transit bus.
As I sailed away from Glorietta Bay Park for the fourth time, I witnessed a ridiculous scene in the elbow of the channel. One hundred meters ahead, two boats were converging on a collision course. An orange Sabot with two little girls on board and a chumpish rental Catalina which had seen better days. Both boats were close-hauled; being on the starboard tack, the Sabot was the priveleged vessel. However, instead of falling off and dipping under the Sabot's stern, the ignorant kooks aboard the Catalina held their course and forced the girls in the Sabot to luff up and lose all headway.
I was following a course directly in the wake of the Catalina, and the Sabot was still in irons seconds later when I passed ten feet to windward. I was hiking out in a moderate breeze, and my sail and ballast trim were perfect. I couldn't resist giving the girls a sound piece of advice.
"I think you should report that wank," I said in my most polite and cultured voice.
The girls simply stared, not knowing what to make of my remark. Their clueless expressions were so humorous that I HAD to whip a sharp tack, fall off, enter my wake, and come reaching back in the opposite direction. When I again passed ten feet to windward, I fired my second shot.
"You DO REALIZE that you had the right of way?," I inquired.
This question was answered by a burst of unintelligible and possibly profane language. Shortly thereafter, I headed up, tacked, and resumed my original course. Having had enough fun at the girls' expense, I nobly vowed to leave them alone by sailing past a third time without saying a word. Alas, my plan was doomed to failure, for as I sped past the girl at the tiller shouted across the intervening gap.
"Will you take my friend sailing aboard your boat?!?!?," she hollered.
After dealing with sorority girls who, if nothing else, were at least eighteen years of age, I was not inclined to accept the offer of a screaming adolescent. However, I thought the two were in trouble, so I fell off, gybed, and came alongside. The girl at the tiller was a blonde, and her passenger was a redhead. Without any further ado, the redhead scrambled aboard the Laser and the two boats slowly drifted apart. Getting under way and following separate courses, we returned to the CYC dock, where the blonde secured the Sabot and came on board the Laser in order to try her hand at the tiller. Casting off, we set sail for the dock by Peohe's.
I introduced myself to my new crew members, and thus I learned their names and ages. Courtney J., the blonde, and Candice M., the redhead, both aged thirteen years. Two adolescent girls, one partially-hammered adult child raised on hardcore punk trash, and an ice-box still one-quarter full of chilled wine coolers: a recipe for trouble if ever there was one. Since Courtney was busy at the tiller, I asked Candice if she wanted a wine cooler. Wild Berries or Peach, my favorite.
"Sure," she said, her eyes widening at the sight of the forbidden fruit.
"You'd better not," countered Courtney, the sensible girl of the pair.
"Suit yourself," I replied, while lounging hard and sipping my beverage in the hot sun. There were no other drinks available, not even water, since my former passengers and I had already guzzled all nonalcoholic fluids. I reckon the girls developed a thirst as they watched me pound coolers, but I made it up to them by purchasing two quart glasses of iced lemonade at The Old Ferry Landing. After chugging their lemonade on the dock by Peohe's, the girls set their glasses down on the finger pier and clambered back on board, ready to go.
"Are you leaving these for the help?," I asked, pointing toward the two glasses so recently abandoned.
"YEAH!!!," they said simultaneously, cheerfully flashing their best smiles.
I couldn't bring myself to rag at them for littering, and I couldn't be bothered to walk up the dock and deposit the trash in the nearest bin. I rationalized the misdemeanor by concluding that the City of Coronado and the Port District had lagged hard when they failed to place an appropriate trash receptacle on the dock, while the glasses were anchored by their respective weights of ice and would definitely stay put until an employee arrived. Slipping the bowline off its cleat, I cast off and directed Courtney to return to CYC. We miraculously completed the voyage without capsizing, and I bade the girls farewell before shoving off and calling it a day.
Several days later, I decided to work the tides and patrol the beach with "Willie the Wanker." We set sail with a fat spleef and a case of Heineken bottles on ice. That voyage was absolutely incredible, probably one of the best excursions of my life. As we sailed down the center of the channel with Zuniga Jetty on our port beam, we were rewarded by a magnificent sight which I shall never forget. We met the full-scale replica of Sir Francis Drake's "Golden Hind"---which just happened to be reaching up the channel under easy sail. With the exception of a small escort tug hidden on the far quarter, we were alone with this spectacular craft. We might have been transported back through time to witness the actual "Golden Hind"---which illustrious ship circumnavigated the globe over four centuries ago.
"Right on, Francis, you bloodthirsty f#$%g privateer!!! You won't find any richly-laden Spanish galleons to plunder, but you might run across several boatloads of tourists before you hit the Embarcadero!!!"
After sussing out this grand spectacle at the closest possible range, we rounded Zuniga Point and ran toward the beach, which was thronged with thousands of people enjoying the late summer weather. We sailed close inshore and ignored the lifeguards while slamming cold beers and shouting abuse. I don't think I've ever seen as many tourist f#%s on the beach at one time as I saw on that day. Center Beach was thoroughly packed with countless beachgoers kicking and splashing in the warm shallows. As we sailed past the lifeguard tower, I heard a thin, high-pitched voice scream my name...
"E---! Wait! E---!!!," cried the mysterious voice.
"WHAT THE F#%?!? WHO IS IT?!?!?!?!?," I shouted, unable to discern the speaker amid the deafening roar of the crowd. A small figure on a bodyboard was paddling toward us, and this proved to be the source of the noise.
"E___!!! WAIT!!! IT'S COURTNEY!!!"
And so it was. Out of a throng of thousands, she alone had recognized me and come forward. I couldn't believe I even heard her voice in the din, especially after pounding beers and burning a big fat delber. While patrolling the beach, no less. Absolutely incredible...
I remember another occasion when Vince M___ and I were sailing down the channel toward the beach on Shelter Island. We were quietly minding our own business when I noticed some clown aboard a Laser altering course to intercept our boat.
"Look at this f#$%g idiot," I said. "He obviously wants to race. Well, let's not disappoint him. Shift forward, Vinnie, and lean inboard a hair."
I then devoted my full attention to the rig above. Although the moderate breeze favored the solo sailor, our superior sail and ballast trim enabled us to pull away from the challenger. We widened the gap to a quarter-mile before sailing "Polynesian Style" right up onto the beach. Vinnie sparked a victory spleef as the bewildered challenger bore away and gradually disappeared. So much for the impromptu match race... "LATER, D!CKWEED!!!!!"
I love watching a good sailboat race, but I abhor participation. I entered my first and last sailboat race at the age of fifteen; it was a fleet handicap held on South Bay, and I won first place in my division after beating some serious competitors by eleven seconds. It was exciting, but I already knew that racing wasn't for me. As a hostile, antisocial teenager, I regarded sailing as a sacred form of spiritual expression which should not be ruined by the introduction of a material element such as competition.
Would a person who loves to drive a convertible on scenic country or mountain roads willingly forgo the experience by limiting his driving to rush hour traffic on the freeway??? I think not. I don't mind watching a world-class skipper like John Bertrand kick @$$, but I'll be damned if I waste my valuable time in cutthroat competition. I usually go sailing in order to get away from that sort of thing. Good friends, cold beer, Da Kine buds, and the occasional date will be more than sufficient to maintain a smile upon my face.
I went through a bad financial patch in the summer of 1990, and I did the unthinkable... after years of hard use, I sold my Laser to Terry S___ of South Mission Beach. By this time, the boat was completely thrashed, with a broken vang eyestrap, cheesy rigging, and several incipient open seams at the base of the daggerboard well. I sold her for $450, and considering her condition I probably received the better part of the bargain. Terry was kind, however, and he even told me I could sail the boat from South Mission whenever I felt the need.
I accepted his offer twice during the next eighteen months, first to take some blasted hag sailing off Pacific Beach, and later to sail down solo and patrol familiar waters off the beach in Coronado. The second voyage was quite satisfactory, and I returned in time to enter Mission Bay Channel as a fiery red sun slowly dropped beneath the horizon. It was spectacular, even though I was on "Sewage Bay."
I was working as a deckhand aboard the "Golden Swan" (our crew called it the "Golden Swine"), a cattleboat of the first water, when the America's Cup Series began in 1992. The Australian wanks who owned the boat were paying $2000 per month for my services, which included pounding ice-cold bottles of Broken Hill Lager and Old Australian Stout while watching the races and mingling with female passengers on company time. With a bit of spare cash in my pocket, my thoughts turned to the Laser and to all of the wonderful adventures I had shared with friends on board. With a twinge of regret, I vowed to purchase another boat in the near future. The following Saturday, at 0800, I was lying in my bed listening to punk trash on headphones when I suddenly received a cosmic message.
"Call Terry S___," a voice said, clearly audible over the sweet strains of Black Flag's "Bastard in Love."
I instantly picked up the phone, which I normally wouldn't touch on Saturday morning, and dialed Terry's number. Terry answered, and without hesitation I asked him if he was interested in selling the Laser.
"Yeah, I just mailed the ad yesterday. It probably hasn't even reached the newspaper yet," he said.
"I'll buy her," I told him. "I can give you a hundred bucks now and pay the balance with my next check."
Although I didn't understand why at the time, I now realize the cosmic message was sent for a reason far greater than mere sailing pleasure. I shall explain this reason in due time; for the moment, it will suffice to say that all involved (including myself) were baffled by my timing. I phoned Terry within twenty-four hours of his mailing the ad, which was probably still in transit at the time of my call. Terry's wife was especially curious with regard to my knowledge of the impending sale.
"How did he know?," she asked, after I rang off. "HOW DID HE KNOW???"
Bizarre coincidence aside, Terry proved his worth once more by reserving the boat for me. When I went to pick up my little girl, she was in a deplorable state. The seams had opened up and her hull was water-logged, while great patches of ugly green gelcoat glared through peeling paint. Due to the boat's increased hull weight and ugly green color, Terry had nicknamed her "The Incredible Hulk." A blow to her pride, perhaps, but she was now back in my hands, and I silently swore I would restore my baby to her former glory.
After hauling her back to my yard, I used a blow dryer to thoroughly air out her hull before grinding and reglassing the seams. Then I sanded and repainted her in a different color scheme; her new dark blue hull was topped with a gleaming white deck, and new fittings added a special touch to her dazzling beauty. Once again, my little girl was ready for beach patrol. I moved her down to a small cove on Glorietta Bay, where, if she isn't sailing, she remains on shore, ever available to this day.
Shortly after I refurbished my boat, my employment situation took a turn for the worse. Operation of the "Golden Swine" proved to be unprofitable, so the owners wanked hard and decided to reduce every crew member's salary. This decision didn't sit well with me, as I was the only crew member hanging over the side in slings and harness, performing tasks no other crew members were willing or able to do. The ensuing squalid scene only served to piss me off, thereby reinforcing the old underlying hostility toward my "fellow man." By the time the America's Cup Finals rolled around on my friend's sixty-inch big-screen television, I had been unemployed for some time and I was in a deeply antisocial frame of mind. My tax refund arrived shortly thereafter, and I vowed to burn some cash in an effort to "get away from it all." Little did I realize how intense my brief vacation would be.
My great adventure began on Wednesday, May 27, 1992. Armed to the teeth with gear and provisions, I set sail for South Island of Los Coronados, where I spent the night with a handful of Mexican sailors and marines. They were stoked because I brought a bottle of rum and two packs of Marlboro 100s ("Ain't no likka sto' on THIS island, pal!!!"). I rose early the following morning, traversed the length of the island, and burned a fat one on the summit. It was unreal, the raddest adventure in a year which was otherwise uncommonly dull.
One week after I returned to San Diego, I thought of writing a story about my experience on South Island. I sat down and hammered it out in twenty-four hours, and I subsequently sold the piece for $500. The piece appeared in print under the name of a former acquaintance who paid me an additonal $200 to use his name, solely because he wanted to impress some girl he was dating at the time. For those who question the morality of my action: morality is great, but it doesn't pay the bills. Furthermore, my name appeared in the only place it really mattered: the check.
Now I knew the reason why I'd received the cosmic message to call Terry S___. I was MEANT to be reunited with my boat so we could make the voyage to South Island together. I was MEANT to make the voyage so I could later write a humorous tale of my experience. Writing that story was a milestone for me: for the first time in my miserable life, I was paid to do what I enjoyed most. I believe the Laser provided an extra burst of motivation to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. It would have happened without her, no doubt, but it definitely happened sooner with her. She was the catalyst, and for this I am eternally grateful to my sweet little girl.
In the course of restructuring my life to better pursue my objective, I fell desperately short of cash and decided to sell the boat again, this time to San Diego State University student and aspiring sailor Ward G___. There was a catch: the boat stayed where she was, her spars and gear remained at my house, and I continued to sail frequently as if the certificate had never changed hands. I promised to teach Ward how to sail, and he is making progress toward this lifelong goal. I think he knows that, when the time comes, I will buy the Laser back from him. Two days ago, he told me he was merely holding her for me. The paperwork shuffle allows him to enjoy the thrill of owning his first boat, while it gives me the freedom to cut loose and sail when necessary. The boat's good karma has contributed to a better understanding of friendship between us.
Ward lives on San Juan Court in Mission Beach. He called one day to ask if we could sail the Laser up to his house. No f#$%g problem. I called Terry S___, who kindly gave us permission to store the spars and gear overnight in his yard. ("Thanks, bra'!") Ward rode down on the bus, and we rigged the boat at 1245. The voyage went without a hitch, and we placed the spars and gear in Terry's yard just before sunset. Strolling up the boardwalk to Ward's house, we proceeded to get baked and hammer a few beers while sitting on the balcony and sussing out "The Flesh Parade."
Retrieving the boat at 1000 the following morning, we sailed out of Mission Bay and headed north to Crystal Pier. Ward wanted his roommates to see him sail past his house; this was our morning mission, which we executed in style. Upon reaching Crystal Pier, we reversed course to blow back down the coast. Ward had to work that day, so when we sailed past his house again he simply leapt overboard and swam to shore. He didn't have very far to go, since we were barely outside the impact zone.
Standing out from the beach in order to gain sea room, I rejoiced in the brilliant sunshine and spectacular solitude. I was BORN to sail away from the thundering herd, and this was my element. How sweet the return voyage to Coronado, with a friendly sea lion to escort me almost halfway up the main channel. Just curious, I suppose. Biologists say that wild creatures can sense hostility or friendliness in man, and I have always been an animal lover in tune with my environment.
My most recent sailing adventures have been some of the best. Rumors of a decent swell sent me to the Point, where I caught the longest ride of my entire sailing career. Surfing the Laser can be dicey; the trick is to match the speed of one's boat to the speed of the peeling wave. Too much speed and one outruns the break; not enough speed and one gets swamped, capsized, or killed. One must study the break and its direction relative to the wind before even attempting the most pinner drop. Better to do a trial run out on the shoulder than risk serious damage to oneself or the boat. Words of wisdom from Wade W___, master of the inflatable scene in head-high surf at Little Waimea. Nobody surfs the Point like Wade in an inflatable with an "egg beater" mounted on the transom. I ought to know, because I've ridden with him, and it is a wild ride.
I've ridden the Laser on the shoulder of sizeable surf at Little Waimea, and it can get pretty gnarly in a big ol' f#$%g hurry if one isn't totally clued in to the situation. I prefer something in the waist-to-shoulder-high department; a nicely peeling break, not too big and not too hollow, with a wide, smooth shoulder, is ideal for the Laser. Bottom turns and gentle carves are well within reason, but cutbacks and similar maneuvers are obviously out of the question. Beginners are advised to attempt only a straight course down the line. If all else fails, one should clasp his hands, bow his head, and pray for a speedy recovery.
Sailing on South Bay several weeks ago in a stiff breeze with minimal surface chop, I put the Laser up on a fast plane which seemed to last an eternity. There I was, tearing along at incredible speed and laughing my f#$%g head off... I guess it was the adrenalin, for there weren't any drugs in my system on that particular afternoon. Laser # 2069 might be a little heavier than the newer boats, but she still knows how to get up and go whenever conditions are favorable. Planing in the Laser is always a rush and should be prolonged for maximum duration. The key is to not make any tiller movements, which instantly create rudder drag and bring the boat down off the plane. Slight changes in sail and ballast trim are sufficient to imperceptibly alter course and maintain boat speed.
When the Star of India sailed on Saturday, August 14, I was there to witness the event at close range. I reckon I had the best seat in the house when I met the Star off the tip of Point Loma and led her back up the channel. Maintaining my position on her port bow, I could see and hear every maneuver and evolution as it occurred aboard the ship. I had to smile when crew members were sent aloft to man the yards; having previously boarded the ship with a friend late one evening to ascend the mainmast and stand upon the main royal yard after pounding sixteen beers at a raging party in Pacific Beach, I was well aware of the risks involved in going aloft while the ship was under way.
Thankfully, I was well ahead and clear of the "power wanks," who filled the air on both quarters of the Star with their noxious, stinking fumes. Everybody knows cabin cruisers were designed for those who don't know how to sail. Knowing that most powerboat operators don't have a clue about the "Rules of the Road," I wisely avoided the clusterf#% and kept to myself, at least until the procession rounded the bend off Shelter Island. From that point on, I had to make like Linda Blair in "The Exorcist" and constantly swivel my head to keep an eye on the f#$%g jerks around me.
Tugs, warships, freighters, etc., don't fall into the "power wank" division. I always give a wide berth to these working craft, especially when they sail under the ensign of the United States. It's not difficult to time one's tacks in order to steer clear of such ships. Only an absolute moron finds himself smack in the middle of the channel with a 50,000-ton warship or freighter bearing down and sounding five angry blasts. There's no excuse for this sort of f#$%g stupidity.
I recall timing two short tacks to get a good, close look at an ugly car-carrier steaming up the channel. As I passed a small skiff manned by commercial divers on lunch break, I noticed that the car-carrier was flying a Korean flag. As her monstrous hull loomed a cable's length away, I turned to the divers with my best impression of a Fast Attack Submarine Commander:
"Whaddya think of this boatload of cheesy Korean automobiles? Shall I send her straight to the bottom, OR WHAT?"
Naturally, I was in perfect position to fire a tactical warhead and blow the ugly rust bucket out of the water. The divers laughed and indicated that I should follow through with my plan. As far as I was concerned, that ship was already artificial reef material.
One excursion late this summer may have been the perfect sailing adventure. The tides were favorable, so I pulled the routine beach patrol, effortlessly gliding along in ten or twelve knots of breeze. Developing an appetite, I sailed back up the channel until I reached the Embarcadero, where I secured the Laser to the dock at Anthony's and hopped a cab to Filippi's on India Street. There I washed down an entire Special Pizza with a pitcher of beer. Strolling back to the dock with my tiller in hand, I casually stepped aboard, cast off, and sailed back to Coronado in the mellow evening light. I beached the boat just before sunset, which happened to be spectacular. The day had been absolutely perfect, and I derigged and rode home with a warm feeling of serenity.
Not all excursions go so well, of course. I was having a "Bad Day at Black Rock" years ago when I decided to dock at Anthony's and make my usual round trip to Filippi's. The wind had backed by the time I returned over an hour later, and my poor little boat was now grinding hard on the weather side of the dock. Getting under way with a solid buzz proved to be difficult. I suppose the scene afforded entertainment to the stooges who lined the rail above me. No big deal, since most of them were friggin' tourists anyway.
Sometimes, if I'm sailing with a passenger and the weather looks suspicious, one of us picks up our Special and brings it back to the Embarcadero. This way we can keep an eye on the boat while sitting on the wall and gorging ourselves. There's nothing more intimidating to tourists than the sight of obviously local hooligans grinding pizza and guzzling beer while leering at young women right down on the waterfront. A scary situation at best, and one to avoid at all costs. The crowning moment occurs when we stroll down the dock, board our craft, and sail away, leaving the clueless tourist wanks gaping in wonder at our method of departure.
Enough of the pinner tourist scene, which pales in comparison to life's hardcore adventures. All of the incidents described in this story constitute an infinitesimal percentage of the bitchin' memories associated with sailing Laser # 2069. Over the years, the boat has had a profound impact upon my life, therefore it has also had a profound impact upon the lives of my friends. Through constant use of this particular Laser, year in and year out, my friends and I have gained a better understanding of the spiritual nature of this craft. I know that, whatever else may happen, the boat will always be there for us. I still dream about sailing around the world one day, but if I sail coastal waters solely aboard this Laser for the rest of my life, I shall remain supremely happy, for I shall be in my element.
John Steven McGroarty, former Poet Laureate of California, once wrote a poem entitled "The Bay of San Diego" which appeared in a small volume of his collected works published in 1933. The essence of recreational sailing aboard the Laser is summed up by two exquisite lines in the first stanza of this poem:
"The sea was bathed in glory in a sweep of swirling fire,
And I wandered with my soul in the Land of Heart's Desire."
Such dreamy verse rings perfectly true, for the Laser will let you wander as you've never wandered before, far from the darkest recesses of your conscious and subconscious mind.
Therein lies the beauty of Bruce Kirby's craft. It doesn't care whether you're rich or poor, male or female, black or white; it is a classic test piece of seamanship, and nothing more. It will strip away all other aspects of your reality and force you to focus upon the task at hand. In the simplicity of its functional design, it will leave you no excuse for piss-poor handling. As you strive for every aspect of nautical perfection, it will constantly inform you of the need for improvement in sail or ballast trim. It will challenge you, it will f___ with you, and it will occasionally piss you off, but it will also reward you in subtle ways as no other craft can.
If you choose the Laser as an instructional device, it will do much more than merely teach you how to sail. It will put you right down on the surface of the planet and give you a whole new perspective. It will demonstrate the clean, efficient use of abundant natural power. It will foster brief yet intimate relationships with friendly creatures of the sea. It will enable you to personalize Noah Webster's excellent definition of "harmony." It will ease your tension, clear your mind, and liberate your soul. Another class of boat may serve this purpose, but none so well as this modest craft. If John Steven McGroarty were alive today, he would be a Laser sailor.