Originally published as a "Windshifts" column in the January 2015 issue of SAIL magazine
It was the things we tried to achieve off the boat that became fiascos. Jimmie and I had been aboard Cotton, our 1972 Newport 27, for nearly four months, and—even though we knew little-to-nothing of sailing when we left Portland—simple tasks like getting groceries often proved as hard as, say, reefing the main for the first time on a choppy-ass sea.
We were living an incredibly simple life, but also an inconvenient one. I mean, a lot of the complications of modern living, the things you "have" to have (a phone, a car, an income) are also the things that make it easier. We had none of these.
When we set out to sail from Oregon to the Sea of Cortez, we limited everything—by choice. But also by necessity. Besides being a little crazy and a lot in love, the main reason we, a couple of landlubberly middle-class twentysomethings, were able to quit our jobs and take a year off from being “regular” people is that we were cheap, so very cheap. We took to the Pacific in a $4,400 boat that is categorically considered “too small” for ocean sailing. We lived without heat, refrigeration, and much “must-have” sailing equipment. We anchored out 94 percent of the time (really, I did the math). We ate ramen. We drank box wine.
So when Thanksgiving rolled around, and we wanted to have some semblance of a traditional meal, challenges arose. We already had a can of cranberries, a box of Stove Top, and some kernel corn—nonperishables were our forte, after all. Meat, on the other hand, was not. And what is Thanksgiving without poultry? Not Thanksgiving at all, I tell you.
Our intended port near Malibu was a pretty unsheltered anchorage erroneously named Keller’s Shelter. We arrived around 3:30 pm, and Jimmie quickly inflated the dinghy (a blow-up Sevylor kayak we’d named “Johnny Inflatable”), broke out the walkie talkies, and set off in search of a Ralphs (the Californian grocery chain made famous by The Big Lebowski). The modern-day turkey hunt was on.
Once ashore, Jimmie walked about four miles round trip and returned with a whole rotisserie chicken, a Caesar salad kit, and a pumpkin pie. He also picked up a bottle of Yellow Tail (you know it’s a holiday when we splurge for non-box vino). All he had to do now was get back to the boat. That’s all.
The Malibu Pier, however, was now closed. This had never happened before in all our experience using piers to get ashore, which, at this point, was extensive. And it wasn't just "closed" by rule or shabby obstruction or posted hours; it was sealed off by a formidable 12-foot gate flanked by wide, concrete walls on either side. Access was completely shut off. There was still the beach, but you can’t launch your dinghy from the beach when your dinghy is tied to a ladder at the end of the CLOSED MALIBU PIER! And you certainly can’t swim, a daunting task at any rate, with a rotisserie chicken in tow.
Jimmie got on his walkie talkie and hailed me: “I’m locked out,” he said, before recounting the pier’s imposing facade. “I’ll figure something out. Hold tight.”
Being the resourceful chap he is, Jimmie put the handles of the grocery bag in his mouth, scrambled up a pile of construction signs, hopped on an industrial power module, leapt from that onto the wall itself, and ultimately landed on the other side. All the while, the fresh components of our Thanksgiving dinner had been hanging, literally, by the skin of his teeth.
He paused for an update: “Hey, it’s Jimmie. I’m in.” Then, quickly, with gravity, “Don’t respond.” He’d noticed a couple of security guards milling about. One word from me, and he’d surely be busted. I didn’t know this important detail at the time, but I kept quiet.
From there, Jimmie snuck through the shadows past the guards; further down, he deftly avoided a couple of janitorial folks sweeping and emptying garbage cans. He moved from cover to cover—from hot dog stand to bench to giant potted tree—eventually arriving at the scrappy rectangular hole leading down to the ladder.
He paused again: “I’m at the ladder,” followed by the emphatically hushed, “Don’t respond!” He put the chicken bag back in his mouth, stuck a foot searchingly into the dark abyss until it hit flat metal, and took the rusty rungs one by one. Upon reaching the dinghy, he found it bobbing upside-down. Flipping it over, he searched the damp plasticy surface with one hand, his other hand gripping the ladder, his teeth still clinging to our dinner. Because of the large swell rolling through the pier supports, he’d anticipated this problem and brought two oars just in case, wedging them hard into the kayak’s crevasses upon arrival. There was one! One had fallen out, but one remained.
He hailed me once more: “I’m on my way. Over and out.”
I squinted into the sooty night as Jimmie coasted toward me, an oar alternately stroking the surface along either side of his tiny rubber vessel. Meanwhile, the lights of L.A. sparkled like the lonely factories of Midwestern country roads—twinkling amber climbing up and over the hills and beyond. But not into the water. Away from the pier, the water was still and dark. Our world was the opposite of all those billboards and businesses, all the cars and lights and hectic clamor of the city. We were an island. Our own Thanksgiving island, floating, isolated, only 37 miles from the second biggest city in the country.
It still amazes me to think that most of the time Jimmie was jumping over and climbing down and sneaking past things, he was holding a bagged rotisserie chicken in his mouth, carefully aiming to keep it upright and sealed in its plastic case. And when it reached us, that chicken, amazingly, was still warm. The next morning, we had our only leftovers under way: cold pumpkin pie slices, eaten in the cockpit with our bare hands. ⚓