They decided to huddle together for warmth. “If you kiss me, we’re through.”
On Sunday, May 29, 1983, two San Diego men purchased a sailboat in Newport Beach and set out to sail the eighty miles home to Mission Bay, what they were told was a day’s trip under normal circumstances. Their journey took three incredible days. Only the names have been changed to protect the would-be sailors from further embarrassment.
As they drove to Newport Beach with a friend, Rusty Fox and his nephew Albert Graves were delighted that the sun was shining after the preceding gray days so prevalent in Southern California in the late spring. When they arrived. Rusty quickly completed the purchase of the boat, a twenty-three-foot San Clemente with a single mast and outfitted with a mainsail and jib. They bought some cold cuts, fruit, beer, and wine, and boarded the craft with great anticipation. The dealer who had just sold Rusty the boat took the two on a trial run around the harbor, demonstrating the basics of sailing.
Rusty had never sailed before.
The forty-eight-year-old novice was confident, though, that Albert, who had spent much of his thirty-one years near the water and who had often navigated motorboats, could sail competently. They embarked on the journey with no compass, no radio, and without checking weather reports. The boat’s motor got them out into the harbor in the brilliant afternoon sunshine just after 1:00, and they were in high spirits as they joined other graceful vessels whose fluffy sails dotted the bluest of skies. The boat, the Shangri La, was a single man’s dream, guaranteed to provide the two bachelors many relaxed hours of weekend pleasure.
It would be a sure-fire attraction for fun-loving women. A slight breeze prevailed over the calm water, and Rusty and Albert soon stripped to their shorts to tan.
Rapidly gaining confidence in their sailing ability, they headed south, leaving the harbor behind. Things were going without a hitch and they started guzzling their beer, feeling exuberant. “This is a piece of cake. Next week Hawaii,” Rusty said. At the tiller, Albert nodded agreement. He was already making plans to take his girl sailing the following weekend.
As the afternoon progressed, the clouds accumulated and the two adventurers donned their shirts, then pants and jackets as the wind picked up. The skies were darkening fast now, and they felt real apprehension when it started to rain. The sea began to chum and they realized they could no longer see land. The boat pitched wildly in the swells, and the two amateurs and their provisions got soaked. Never once did it occur to them to take down the sails or put on life jackets.
“Want a sandwich? You have a choice of green cheese or wet bologna,” Rusty called to Albert over the howl of the wind.
“I’ll pass,” Albert answered without smiling. “What are we going to do? We may be going in the wrong direction.”
Rusty took inventory of the situation and recognized that they could well be headed out to sea now, as the wind and waves tossed the boat around like a toy. To wait to determine the proper course could be disastrous, he thought. Only two people back in San Diego — his girlfriend Dinah and Albert’s roommate — knew of their plans.
By the time either of them realized the men were still at sea, it could well be too late. “Let’s make an educated guess and go for it,” he said. Hoping they hadn’t been blown off course, they fought on through the turbulence. Rusty was sure that if they survived the storm and the cold, wet night, they’d be able to get their bearings when the sun rose in the morning.
Buffeted by wind and rain, they plodded on through the choppy black water. Better progress could be made, they thought, if they used the boat’s motor. But that soon ran out of gas — they had checked the fuel level back in Newport and assumed there was enough for their needs to get in and out of the two harbors on their itinerary. The sea gradually grew calmer, but the men were drenched and bone-weary. Rusty thought of his kids who live out of state, then of the Mission Valley bar he frequents. He wished desperately that he were there.
“Do you pray?” Albert asked at one point.
“Only in a pinch. I’m an atheist.” “Are you praying now?”
“Nah, this is an adventure. No sweat,” Rusty answered glibly.
He only took the tiller to relieve Albert for brief intervals when the cold made it necessary for Albert to change positions. The Shangri La had a sumptuous cabin, but they were afraid to leave the tiller, each feeling it was his responsibility to keep the other company.
In the early hours of the morning, Albert began to shake from the cold. They decided to huddle together for warmth. “If you kiss me, we’re through,” Rusty deadpanned.
The darkness dissipated and gradually became a somber gray.
The sky grew lighter, but to their dismay, the sun never became visible. As the glare increased, bouncing off the low clouds and fog, Rusty and Albert still couldn’t see the shoreline. Rusty’s heart sank. He’d been so sure that with morning they’d be able to locate east by the position of the sun. “Let’s just keep going in this direction,” he said, hoping they weren’t headed to Honolulu.
Late in the morning, he spotted the ominous triangular fins of sharks following them. “I think we’ve just had an invitation to lunch.”
Albert glanced at the sinister creatures. “No, thanks. I’ve seen the menu.”
The sun cutting through the fog created eerie patterns on the clouds, and they followed one dark line thinking it was the shore. After an hour, they saw that it was part of a cloud formation.
“This is Memorial Day,” Albert observed.
“I’m sure we’ll remember it.” Toward afternoon, they spotted a tuna boat in the distance, the only vessel they had seen so far during the trip. Albert had brought a pistol along on a whim, and they now fired it to attract attention. The fishing boat sailed out of sight. Rusty turned to his companion. “Maybe they thought we were pirates.”
On Monday afternoon the sun emerged at last. Miraculously, they sighted shore. They were going in the right direction! Blistered and exhausted from their exposure to the elements, they felt almost invincible for having survived the ordeal.
A passing boat supplied them with gas for the motor, and at 4:00 p.m. they cruised jauntily into Oceanside Harbor. Disembarking, they found a store and bought candy bars. Cokes, and two pieces of carrot cake. They wolfed down the repast, relishing the sweets in comparison to the mustard sandwiches and warm beer they’d survived on for a day and a half.
With their fear eliminated, fatigue disappeared. They walked back into the sunshine, drawing curious stares from passers-by because of their disheveled appearance.
Rusty laughed and clapped his hand on Albert’s shoulder. “We’re not far from home now and the weather’s beautiful. What do you say? Shall we try it?” And so, ecstatic about being alive and basking in the warm sun, the pair left Oceanside as soon as they purchased gas for the motor. They were certain only a few more hours of sailing remained (four hours, said the man at the gas pump — who assumed they were traveling by motorboat) and they would be home early that evening and at their respective jobs Tuesday morning, ready to regale their co-workers with the story of their harrowing experience.
Rusty and Albert found their spirits sinking with the sun. The cold they had briefly forgotten returned, and with it a deadly exhaustion.
They hadn’t slept since Saturday night, and kept nodding off. The lights on shore assured them they were still near land, but they had no idea how close to San Diego they were. They kept on sailing. The wind picked up again and the night dragged on as they silently cursed themselves for leaving Oceanside.
Finally day broke, another gray morning which did little to alleviate the cold. They could see the shore, however, and that gave them hope.
A drastic shift of the wind kept taking them farther away from it, and they maneuvered frantically to sail into the safety of the shoreline.
Back in San Diego, Rusty’s friend Dinah was irate. He’d promised to call her when he returned to town, and she hadn’t heard a word all weekend. She called his office on Tuesday morning. “He’s not here, Dinah,” she was told by Mark, his old friend and employer. “He wasn’t due in the office this morning. He’s making a business trip to Del Mar for me and had all the paperwork at home, so he went directly there.”
Dinah thought a moment. “Mark, he went to Newport Beach over the weekend to pick up his boat. He was going to call me when he got back and I haven’t heard from him.
Maybe I’m just paranoid, but could you check and see if they got back? You know how crazy he is.”
“Oh, my God. Rusty doesn’t know how to sail.” The revelation did nothing to calm Dinah. “Of course I’ll check, Dinah. I’ll call our Del Mar client.”
Mark hung up. The hair on his neck bristled with apprehension. The irritated Del Mar client confirmed his fears that Rusty had never shown up. Dinah had told Mark that Albert was accompanying Rusty, so Mark called Albert’s employer. He was told Albert hadn’t arrived either, and they’d heard nothing from him. The third call Mark made was to the Coast Guard. The search would present a problem, he was told, since they didn’t have a description of the craft or even its name. They immediately took action, sending out aircraft and a cutter to look for two men in a small boat on a big ocean.
The last call Mark made was to Rusty’s son in Las Vegas, who seemed undaunted. “Don’t count Dad out, Mark,” he said. “When we see him in his coffin, we’d better sit on it and nail it shut.” Mark was less confident.
Several times on Tuesday Rusty and Albert heard low-flying planes, but the clouds obscured them. The wind made navigating more and more difficult for the inexperienced sailors. They found themselves fighting it every inch of the way and exhaustion was making them irritable.
Albert looked at Rusty. His fair skin was burned lobster-red and his lips were painfully blistered. “You look like you’ve got a terrible case of herpes. No lady in her right mind will go near you for weeks,” he said.
“You don’t look so hot yourself.”
Twenty-five hours after they left the safety of Oceanside, they approached Mission Bay. They shouted with delight as they sighted the harbor and the few late-afternoon sailors drifting lazily around the area. Albert tried to bring the craft into the harbor, but found he couldn’t tack against the tricky wind. Frustrated, they shouted to every boat that came near. Those aboard waved back gaily and sailed on.
Throughout the journey, the Shangri La’s aging motor had plagued them. Now it was impossible to start. They made another attempt, pulling the rope over and over. In Rusty’s desperation, he pulled it right off.
Their inability to tack against the wind cost the novices three agonizing hours from the time they reached Mission Bay until they landed. Somewhere in the bay there was a slip Rusty had rented at which to dock his boat, but he wasn’t sure where it was. At 8:00 p.m. Tuesday evening. Rusty and Albert finally brought the Shangri La in, running her aground near Campland, north of Fiesta Island. They had spent fifty-six hours at sea.
Going to a nearby phone in the recreational vehicle park, Albert called his roommate. He spoke for a few moments, then his eyes widened. He put his hand over the receiver and spoke to Rusty. "The Coast Guard’s looking for us. Mark called them. And my dad’s on his way from Chicago.”
“Oh, God. We’d better call your mother,” Rusty answered. He put his hands over his eyes and shook his head, knowing how worried Albert’s mother, his own sister, must be. Albert’s roommate picked them up within minutes. Racing to Rusty’s apartment, they quickly called his sister in Chicago. “Annette? Rusty. Yeah, we’re okay.” Annette laughed and wept as she realized her vigil was over. Rusty spoke to her for a few moments, then turned the phone over to Albert and sank into his reclining chair.
After they had notified the Coast Guard of their safe return and Albert and his roommate left, Rusty dropped his weary body into a hot tub and fell asleep. He awoke as the water cooled some time later, and hoisted his aching bones out of the tub. He remembered he hadn’t called Dinah and did so, sprawling across the bed.
“Why didn’t you call me?”
Dinah nearly cried when she heard his voice.
‘I wasn’t near a phone. ” He briefly related the story, fighting to keep awake.
“Are you sure you’re okay? Do you want me to come over?”
“No, no, I’m going to sleep.” As she protested, he added, “Listen, honey. If Raquel Welch were here, I’d kick her out.”
Six weeks later. Rusty and Albert still sail the Shangri La, still take it out on the ocean. Albert is the navigator. Rusty is only a passenger. Neither has taken sailing lessons, but now they do have a compass aboard.