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Gary Horton: Wooden boats and steel sailors

Full Speed to Port!

Posted: December 22, 2009 9:57 p.m.
Updated: December 23, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Carrie and I own a little battery-powered boat out in Oxnard. It’s a dinky thing, commonly referred to as a “cocktail cruiser.” Good enough for plying the channels inside the harbor, but suicide for anything else.

We were headed for the Sunday British breakfast at the harborside pub. Fifteen minutes after charting course we pulled into the public dock, mouths watering at the prospects of shepherd’s pie and other delights.

But nothing doing. “Closed,” read the sign on the second-floor door. “Out of Business” was posted on the window of the other restaurant on the first floor. Snake eyes. Two more Channel Island restaurants slipping down under the murky harbor economy.

Further down the harbor we would hunt down our food. The search led us to the old but always-there “Whale’s Tail.” A rowdy, “Marie Callender’s meets the sea” is how the place is best described to land-lubbers.

We took a wide angle around to the inside edge of the dock, making our way along a fatigued 100-foot, wooden, commercial fishing boat. Channel Islands boasts its own local fishing vessels, but this one was more used up than anything I’d seen in the harbor in a decade.

Big, rusty, old, ugly and worn. As we turned past her stern I pointed out to Carrie the huge gashes in the hull, carved by years of chains pulling nets, baskets and service dinghies down and up. Those same chains wearing gashes in the hull sides also likely wore skin to bone on the crew.

The boat might be 60 or 70 years old, yet still plods on in commercial service. Thick planks of wood form her hull, with cracks and joints gapping under what must be dozens of coats of paint applied across the decades to mask her age. Her home port was Santa Cruz — she was just in for a breather no doubt, then soon back to work.

Departing on our little cocktail cruiser, we thought about the grinding work that fishing vessel represented. Hard, long, wet, cold work. Cuts and bruises and bloody accidents. Long days and nights away from home, with storms at sea, loneliness and repetition to keep you company.

A hard life, it seemed to us thin-skinned cocktail cruisers.

We made our way up to the Whale’s Tail patio. Mid-day Sunday, and the deck was empty, save for four rugged men huddled around a square table, overlooking what turned out to be their old wood fishing boat.

Each was hunched over, slowly drinking a Pacifico beer. Three were old, wiry skinny guys and the fourth corpulent and younger.

These men were beyond tan — dark, sun-worn skin, deep wrinkles mirroring the wear on the hull of their old boat. Accents revealed two as native Mexican and two from California.

The group bantered back and forth in a slow, tired beer-lubricated rhythm. Nice enough guys, it seemed — just blowing off steam for a weekend before heading back out.

No Christmas break for the old boat. You fish when the fish are there to catch. “Squid,” they said. They’d been hauling in local squid outside northern Malibu.

“When I’m away, my wife plays,” quietly quipped one, his melancholy joke passing his lips as though thinking aloud. Low chuckles from around the table. Wife problems are a likely common lot of fisherman gone for weeks on end.

A beautiful new Sea Ray yacht passed by our view.

“Jefe,” joked one to the boss, “When are we going to trade our block of old wood for something like that?”

More chuckles at the absurdity of the thought. No money, and it wouldn’t work, if you had any. Those fiberglass boats may look sexy but would sink in any one of the hundreds of storms their heavy old wooden boat had seen them through.

But their boat is getting too old, and they know it. And there’s likely no money to replace it. So they work harder. They joke about the weathered wood and the age.

Then the owner waxed profound about their condition: “When the boat is made of wood, the sailors are made of steel.”

Chuckles again around the table, as one repeated the sentence aloud as to ponder the truism.

“Profound enough,” I thought, feeling very lucky to have met these men.

I turned and asked which one climbed the old rope ladder to the crow’s nest on top.

“The crazy one,” was the immediate answer. It looked it, too. Just old ropes with wooden steps, and when you got to the top, 75 feet above the water you have to somehow pull yourself over the edge of the perch with only ropes and no safety rails. Forget OSHA outside California waters.

The fishermen drank their last beers, said their good-byes to us and made their way down to the old boat, climbing on board and disappearing inside.

They were heading back out on Monday for a couple of weeks. My bet is they slept for the rest of the day, resting up for the work ahead.

“When the boat is made of wood, the sailors are made of steel.” That’s what the old owner with decades of experience understands.

It’s been a wooden year for most. We’ve had to steel ourselves against a harsh storm. Adversity builds character and tough adversity builds tougher character. We witnessed that on the dock. Men steeled up against what would shatter most.

We left, eyes opened that we could emulate a lot from those stoic, determined fishermen and it would certainly be for all our own good.

Merry Christmas from Full Speed to Port.

Gary Horton lives in Valencia. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal.


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