Sylvia Repine: "I knew nothing about boats, let alone junks. But I had always wanted to live by the sea."
Sylvia Repine, government clerk, is sitting in a leaking dinghy bobbing beside one of the giant legs of the Coronado Bay Bridge. It’s seven o’clock at night. She shudders in the chilly, dank breeze. Every now and then she takes her flashlight and switches it on and off, trying to make an SOS. But no lights answer across the inky waters. None except the ones she sees when she looks up skyward, the evening commute of homecoming Coronadans.
"When I stepped inside through the Dutch doors, I saw the paintings. Chinese paintings on the walls! A pagoda in a garden on the front wall, a lady in a red dress, a very full dress."
Beside the dinghy her waterlogged 30-foot Chinese junk groans as it scrapes up and down against the massive bridge leg. She feels down her own leg. A large gash has bloodied her inner thigh. She got that a moment ago when she lost her footing on the bridge leg’s ledge and fell into the dark slopping water, scraping her leg on the barnacles as she fell into the darkness.
"Across the water from the anchorage there was a party going on at the Coronado golf course clubhouse. Rock and roll wafted across. I felt like dancing!"
She flashes again. No response. Just night, and San Diego’s Embarcadero in the background. If she hadn’t picked up that paper, she keeps thinking, that damned San Diego Union back in July ’92, she wouldn’t be here.
“Someone untied your boat and let it loose in the storm. It’s on the rocks.”
But she had picked it up. Her eyes had gone straight to the ad. That ad under “Houseboats.”
“$650. Chinese Junk. 30-foot. Live-aboard. Teak.”
“Something about it caught my imagination. I knew nothing about boats, let alone junks. But I had always wanted to live by the sea. I lived inland. I worked indoors — a clerical assistant for the City of San Diego. Suddenly the idea of having a place to go to sit on the sea grabbed me. I had visions of lying out under the stars, listening to the slop-slop of water, far away from my frantic, bureaucratic, Monday-to-Friday life.”
Sylvia telephoned her dad. He agreed to drive her down to where the junk was anchored out in Coronado’s Glorietta Bay to look at it that evening.
He was not impressed.
“He took one look at it and said, ‘Forget it,’” says Sylvia. “I should have followed his advice.”
But before her father could turn her around, the owner arrived in a motor skiff. “Actually the guy had never been on it,” she says. “He’d gotten it as part of a trade.”
The moment she climbed aboard it didn’t matter what her father said. “It was the smell. That’s what got me first. The wonderful smell. Salted wood. Like on the Star of India. And when I stepped inside through the Dutch doors, I saw the paintings. Chinese paintings on the walls! A pagoda in a garden on the front wall, a lady in a red dress, a very full dress, on the back wall. There were two more I didn’t spot till later — an old fisherman with a wispy, long beard, and a green lady carrying fish on a string. This was special. The stove, the basin with running water, the potty stall, the table, the tiny windows, the bed — it was all so quaint-looking. And you could live here, you could sleep. And it was dry; it didn’t leak. Okay, it wasn’t going anywhere — nor was I. I didn’t know how to sail anyway. He said the sails were in tatters. But all I wanted was to be able to sleep aboard, to walk the Chinese catwalks it had around its outside, to hold onto the mast....
“I asked if he could wait till Monday, but he said no, he wanted cash. Then and there. First come, first served. So somehow I managed to borrow the money — I thought, heck, a vacation’s going to cost this much — why not spend it on a new life right here?”
She took over ownership of the junk known only as “Wo Hing ’58” (named after the Hong Kong builder and the year he built it) on August 1, 1992. “Brad, the guy who sold it to me, threw in a dinghy. He warned me it was leaky but said it would stay afloat long enough to get me out there,” she says.
That first Saturday, she risked the dinghy leaks and brought out her sleeping bag, a cooler, a small yellow tablecloth (to match the yellow enamel stove), a prepared dinner, an emergency jar of peanut butter, and some books. “I just felt wonderful. I could hardly believe I owned a boat. That night I sat out on the roof looking up at the stars. Across the water from the anchorage there was a party going on at the Coronado golf course clubhouse. Rock and roll wafted across. I felt like dancing! The boat rocked a little when other boats went by, and I loved it. All I could think was ‘mine — all mine!’”
There was a moment of insecurity when she put her head down to sleep on the bed. “Every time I started to doze off to sleep, I started hearing this...chewing next to my ear. An awful gnawing sound. Something eating through the wood. I thought I was going to sink in my sleep.”
That turned out to be the snapper shrimp, like the ones that echo through the iron hull of the Star of India. But when she woke up next morning, she found that one oar from her dinghy was gone. “I couldn’t understand it,” she says. “It must have levered off when the dinghy swung against the boat. I guess I shouldn’t have left the oars in the rowlocks.”
But these incidents were nothing. Even paddling out in a leaky dinghy with one oar, she had four months of bliss — before “it” began. “The worst year,” she says, “of my life.”
January 16, 1993, is the day that will go down in Sylvia’s book as the beginning of the end. A very slow, painful end.
“That’s the day the storm struck,” she says. Her phone rang at home. “Bad news,” said Mike, a floating neighbor who lived on his boat. “Your boat has sunk.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” Sylvia says. “My junk had never taken on water before.”
She rushed out to Glorietta Bay. There was Wo Hing ’58, down in the water but not sunk. In the storm it had dragged its anchors. Some of the neighbors were plainly peeved that her junk had been thrown against their boats during the night. “It was the rain. Water had never come from the top before,” says Sylvia. “This was when I started realizing I knew nothing about boats. I didn’t know what to do. I was getting contradictory advice from everybody. I should get a bilge pump going. But I had no battery. Should I get a regular battery or a marine battery? Should I try caulking the roof leaks or put a tarpaulin over? Or would the wind catch it? I rang someone to see how much it would cost to pump it out and cover it with a tarpaulin. Two hundred dollars!”
But before she made up her mind, she gathered with Mike and two other boating neighbors around the bar at the golf course clubhouse. “They said they hated to see me spend that money. They told me the water inside had equalized with the water outside. They said to leave it a couple of days while the storm passed, then they’d help me beach it and empty it out. I thought, ‘If these three full-timers agree, it must be a good idea.’ So I didn’t ask for the pump-out. That was my first mistake.”
The next phone call came about 3:00 the following afternoon. “Bad news.” It was Mike again. “Someone untied your boat and let it loose in the storm. It’s on the rocks.”
“I rushed down. It was still raining. I called at the hardware shop and bought some rope. Then I went straight to the golf course. I had to walk all the way to the Coronado Bay bridge. There it was. On the rocks.” She waded out waist-deep, attached the rope, tied it to some rocks, tried to haul it off the rocks, gave up, and just went home.
“That night, Sunday, was a God-awful storm. Wind, rain dumping water. I expected to go down the next day and find just toothpicks. But there it still was, waterlogged but together, and on the sand now.”
Sylvia went to phone Barnacle Bill’s Marine Service to arrange for a tow back to her moorings. “Then I thought, ‘Since it’s on the beach, maybe I should delay the tow. Get a battery. Pump it out. Caulk the leaks.’ I left it till Tuesday.”
Tuesday her floating neighbor Bruce came with her — and turned up more bad news.
“He saw what I hadn’t: the keel had been stove in. He said, ‘That’s it.’ Barnacle Bill came and looked at it. Four hundred dollars just to get it off the beach. At $35 an hour, it could end up costing me $1000 or $10,000 to repair it. Everybody said, ‘Get rid of it. Go out and buy a nice plastic boat.’”
Ad, mid-February, in The Thrifty free-circulation paper. “$500 or offer: Chinese junk. Damaged. Possible partnership.”
“I did lots of ads. They sometimes brought people, but nothing came of them, after they’d seen the junk. Everybody I talked to was full of ideas as to how to get rid of it, of course. Take off the license numbers. Go to the DMV and pretend I had sold it. See if a Chinese restaurant wanted to buy it. Have a big bonfire. Chop it up for chopsticks. I actually went out and bought a chainsaw for $100. Except when I opened it, it was all sticky. I never even unwrapped the thing. Plus there were 30 different safety cautions to read. I thought, ‘No — my foot is worth more than that.’ That’s when I decided to try and save the boat.”
And thus began eight months of Sylvia and Wo Hing against the Fates, a saga the floating population of Coronado watched with a combination of admiration and horror.
“First I put up a sign. ‘This Boat Not Abandoned.’ I had to; things had already happened. I’d heard someone look at the mast and say, ‘That’d make a nice flagpole.’ Next day it had been sawed off! Can you believe people? I decided to repair the bottom then and there. For that I needed muscle. So I put an ad in the Reader. ”
Ad, Reader, mid-Feb.: “Help needed. I want strength. A group of guys to help me tip my Chinese junk over.”
“So I just started digging the sand out from under her myself, over several weekends. It didn’t work. Every time the tide came back in again, it would fill up the hole I’d just dug. Then I had an idea. I bought a $20 bottle-jack and actually got the boat on its side that way, with boards and rocks to hold it up.”
As word spread around the waterfront that Sylvia was going to fight for Wo Hing, a young live-aboard named Roger came and offered to help her, for $10 an hour. He told Sylvia it was too dangerous to work on the boat like that. It needed to go to a yard. He would use his boat to tow it to a yard in National City.
There were other incentives: the Harbor Police told Sylvia to do something with it or the Port would destroy it for her — and charge $1000 for the trouble. A friendly cop told her she had 100 days before they’d actually take action. “I thought, well, that’s three months. I’d rather spend $1000 fixing it than smashing it to bits.”
She and Roger bought wood to cover the smashed keel. Foam to fill the bilges. Plastic barrels to help the buoyancy. (“They cost $30 each — except the one thing they didn’t have was caps. We stuffed them with rubber.”)
It was moonless and cold at 9:00 on a February night when Sylvia walked into the water from the deserted golf course to push off the refloated junk, waiting for Roger to putter around in his big old fishing boat. “Then I noticed a gang of young people drive up in their cars. They parked facing the bay. Their headlights lit me up. I was frightened. I didn’t dare go back to shore. I had to haul myself up on the junk and wait for Roger. He took hours. I just sat there, and so did they. But when he finally came and took me in tow, about midnight, we heard them all cheer and flash their lights. It was a moment of triumph. I thought, ‘This beautiful little junk could have been firewood by now.’ Everybody told me to abandon it. But...it’s still alive.”
Because Roger’s navigation lights didn’t work properly — and there’s a $500 ticket if you’re caught — he took the junk back into Glorietta Bay, its old mooring grounds. He meant to take it straight across to National City the next day, but somehow, what with coordinating with the yard, one day became seven. Seven, ten.
Another phone call. To Sylvia, at work. “Bad news.” It’s the Harbor Police this time. “Your vessel is floating free down Glorietta Bay.”
Ex-floating neighbor Bruce does her a favor. With his outboard and dinghy he catches up with waterlogged Wo Hing, looking now like some lost Kon Tiki, and hauls it back up by his boat in Glorietta. Sylvia’s pretty sure it was “set loose” deliberately again. Somebody didn’t love her back there. “Just walk away from it,” her father implored.
March ad in The Log Marine newspaper: “For Sale, or Part-Ownership: 30-foot Chinese Junk. Needs work.”
No serious replies. Finally Roger gets the junk across the bay to Land and Sea’s National City yard. A six-hour voyage. Land and Sea takes one look at the junk sitting there low in the water, held up by all those ridiculous plastic water bottles, and refuses to take it. But the owner of the yard next door, the Sweetwater yard, who’d had a junk himself once, takes pity and gives them space for half-price — $15 per day.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says Sylvia. “Winched out, wheezing water from every pore, but — we had it on dry land. It hadn’t fallen apart. Roger said he could make it seaworthy in a week for $400. Naturally it took almost a month. Completely took over my life. I used up leave from work like it was going out of style. My bank account the same. We were refastening planks with stainless steel screws, recaulking, sanding off, applying rubber, epoxy, two coats of paint. I painted mostly the top half of the boat. Maybe I should have spent more time on caulking below the waterline.”
It’s June now. A blustery afternoon, winds rising. “We had to do it. We were paying all that yard rent. People said that the junk being wooden, any leaks we hadn’t spotted would close up pretty quick. We put it in the water. I felt this was going to be a great moment.”
Great moment it wasn’t. Even after all the gunk, the boat leaked—just as badly. “We should have hauled it right out, but that cost $200 each time, so I decided just to see if it got better as we got towing.”
It got worse. The waters got rougher. Mike, the Glorietta neighbor, couldn’t make the bilge pump work. It was clogged with the gunk they’d been squeezing in between the planks. He started getting seasick down there in the bilges. He refused to go back down there again.Had to sit on the forward deck with the towline.
“By now I’m up to my knees in water. I know we’re not going to make it to Harbor Island. And there’s the beach it’d been wrecked on for three months, the last place we could beach it. I hollered to Roger, ‘We gotta pull in!’ ”
As Wo Hing wallows back under the bridge onto that familiar shore, and Mike is leaning over the side throwing up, and a smart-ass jet-skier refuses to take the line from the beach, and, worst of all, Sylvia has lost her glasses, she figures this has to be it.
“I’ve spent about $2000, I’ve had my life wrecked for five months, I’ve done everything to save this boat. I’m outta here.”
Except for those darned glasses. She ties Wo Hing to a rock, thanks the boys, pays the boys, drives back to National City to clean up the yard, then, finally decides she can go home, have a bath, freshen up, warm up. Once she’s warm, she writes out another ad.
June ad in San Diego Union: “$500 or offer: Chinese junk. Damaged. Possible partnership.” Then, even after all the crises of the day, she decides to go back for one last look for her glasses. One last search aboard before the light fades.
“I get back to the golf course, walk down to that beach and — no boat! I finally see it adrift out there, alone, low in the water, heading for the bridge. Those jet-ski guys must have cast her adrift — we were probably where they wanted to land. But they didn’t have to do that. I jump into the leaky dinghy and paddle out — still just one oar — to catch up with it.”
She reaches the Wo Hing. It’s wallowing, heading for the bridge and who knows? Maybe the open sea if the tide wants. It’s utterly alone and maybe sinking. And yet all Sylvia Repine, city government clerical assistant, can think of is her glasses.
“I’m down there scrabbling, I know I should be trying to set anchor, except I don’t know how to set anchor. Finally I put my head up, and there is this huge leg of the bridge coming up. The tide is carrying us right onto it. Clunk! I toss a rope around the cleat they have on the leg’s platform. I clamber up onto the platform. It’s when I’m going to tie the other end that I miss a gap in the concrete. What do you expect, fading light and no glasses? I’m falling. Into the water. I scrape on the barnacles all the way. It’s all I can do to haul myself into the dinghy. It’s leaking, as usual, but I bail out. And somewhere I get this flashlight. I try to flash it for help. It’s dark. There are no boats. The night wind is freezing me, and you know what? I suddenly think about that first ad. Why did I answer it? I wouldn’t be here freezing and alone if I hadn’t spotted that ad.”
And yet somehow, despite everything everybody’s said, she can’t help feeling like she and the lost junk are, well, buddies out here. “I kept thinking, well, we’re not in very good condition, but here we both still are. We’ve both faced an awful lot of negativity. I’d had to work so hard against it, with no knowledge of boats, no money. But I did as good as I could. The boat and me — we’re two of a kind. I mean, it had been a helluva day. One half of me was desperate, terrified, emotionally exhausted. Yet too, I’d discovered another side of me, thanks to this boat. Here I was doing stuff nobody would believe, back at the office. I suddenly think to myself, ‘I can handle this. I can get back. I don’t need help. Even if I do only have one oar.’ ”
Ad, September, in Boat Trader: “Junk, 30-foot, teak, needs someone with time, $$, space to restore it. Make any offer. Any.”
Sylvia (who found her glasses, paddled herself back with one oar — against the tide — and for whom some anonymous benefactor later towed the junk back to “its” beach) has a whole range of respondents: a guy wanting to plant the junk in his commercial nursery and live in it. People wanting it to put in their garden and put a hot tub in it. A gentleman wanting to make it a novel guestroom on his Alpine property. And a restaurant wanting it as a theme. She had even approached Tom Han of the Chinese Historical Society to put it in their museum.
But she finally chose “Charlie” of Spring Valley, because, in exchange for her giving him Wo Hing free, he agreed not only to fix it up in his yard but guaranteed her a certain number of nights each year, when she could come aboard, have the boat to herself, lie back on the roof, listen to the slop-slop of the waters, and watch the stars...
“None of the worries,” Sylvia says, “all of the fantasy. I think that’s a pretty good deal.”