Dad answered the phone. I’ll never forget the emotion in his voice. I don’t think he believed we’d get out of Panama alive or really ever arrive within striking distance of them after all these years on distant shores. We had arrived in San Diego and he couldn’t believe it. My dad was a pretty stoic guy à la 1950s era when dads were supposed to be the disciplinarian, and no-shows of tender feelings. He cracked with my phone call. It touched me.
We stayed in San Diego for about two weeks, doing the usual clean-up chores, grocery shopping, and quick repairs. It also turned into somewhat of a homecoming. My sister and her family drove down from Los Angeles, we hooked up with an old college friend of mine and his family for the Fourth of July, and my parents drove down from Bodega Bay. We decided that my parents would drive back and take Sean and Brendan with them while Michel and I would sail up by ourselves for this final stretch. It would be the first time we sailed without the boys since before Sean was born. We figured it could be rather unpleasant sailing up the coast what with beating into the wind and the cold fog, and it also seemed like a good opportunity for Sean and Brendan to spend some time with their grandparents, so that they could all get to know each other a bit.
At that time, The San Diego Yacht Club had the distinction of being the home for the America’s Cup trophy, having been the host yacht club for the most recent America’s Cup race in 1988. The trophy was on exhibit on the premises. Some of past America’s Cup (AC) boats were also in the harbor, used for day trip outings on the bay for special guests and some high profile yacht club members. One boat in particular, Heart of America, from a former AC challenger campaign, was docked near us. It was like a magnet for Sean. He was absolutely smitten with this vessel, that it was an actual America’s Cup boat. When he learned that it took people out for “joyrides,” he literally planted himself on the dock, alongside the boat, for hours on end. All day long he would sustain this refrain as soon as the skipper appeared:
“Can I go out with you…Can I go too…please…Can I go…I really would like to go out…”
He would just stand, sit, stay glued to that spot for hours, unrelenting. Sean was 11, and the first reaction of the skipper was to brush him off.
“I’d like to take you, but you’re too young.”
By day two or three, the skipper started to cave in. He asked us what we thought. We knew that Sean was water safe, and quite capable onboard, and that this would be the thrill of his life. Finally, they took Sean out with them one afternoon, and even put him on as one of the grinders. He was ecstatic. I believe there can be defining moments in one’s life that trace goals for the future. This was most decidely such a moment for Sean. He was already bitten by the sailing bug and later, by age 14, he was crewing high profile races on the San Francisco Bay, and even had a trans-Pacific race under his belt. Early on in high school, he claimed he would make a career of being a professional sailor, and that being on an America’s Cup team was one of his goals. Indeed, he fulfilled that dream as the bowman on the French team Areva in the 2007 America’s Cup in Valencia, Spain. Today, in his mid-30s, Sean continues this career, and is one of the few premier elite professional sailors on the worldwide racing circuit.
By the same token, I now also realize that a seemingly ordinary outing in Cuba several years earlier may have sparked that same fire within Brendan, mapping out for him today a then-undiscovered desire and talent which has since emerged as his overriding passion. Amidst an area of marble mountains and quarries in the vicinity of Nueva Gerona, on the island of Isla Juventud in Cuba, there was a particular marble rise reputed as a good hiking destination, with the added bonus of a cave and underground stream that could be explored. So off we went. After climbing the “mountain” we found the cave quite easily, but hesitated. It was rather foreboding as it was a steep descent. We finally convinced ourselves to take the plunge, with no regrets. Upon entering a hidden room with stalactites, it was magical and something new for all of us. Climbing back up was somewhat athletic, scraping along with our hands and feet searching for footholds in the cliffs and rocks until we poked through the surface back on top. Brendan was elated.
“That was much better than I thought it could be!”
I think this could have quite possibly planted the seed for the rock climbing passion that consumes Brendan and his family today. He, his wife, and two small children grab every available moment, pile into their custom designed camping van and hit the trails across the country—and even abroad— always seeking to conquer the new challenges of a cliff or sheer rock façade.
Sean and Brendan hit the highway with my parents, bound for Bodega Bay, while Michel and I cast off for Marina del Rey, Los Angeles, visiting again with my sister, in addition to my uncle and grandmother who all lived in the area. Cojo Bay near Santa Barbara, was our final stop in Southern California, anchoring for the night just off Point Conception before penetrating the ominous thick wall of fog that hung just off the coast in the near distance. It was a most eery and curious sight, this summer fog phenomenon. It literally was a gray, cottony opaque “iron” curtain just marking time, as it hovered in a set spot. We anchored under a warm summer sunset, enjoyed a beer, and contemplated this curtain that undulated just a few hundred feet away. It would swallow us whole the next morning. At sunrise the wall was still there. Basking in our last rays of warmth, resigning ourselves to surrender to this cold and gray on the other side, we bid goodbye to summer and—as if stepping through the looking glass, or plunging down the rabbit hole—we were sucked into the other side. Cowabunga’s bow punched a hole through the cotton, and with a vacuum-sealed “slurp,” it closed behind our stern. Here in a California July, the heart of summer, we plunged into a North Sea scenario. It depressed me. What kind of a homecoming would this be?
It was slow going heading up the coast as we dueled the current and the headwinds. Tacking, tacking, tacking—making only incremental progress most days. It was a pure study in frustration as we would pull a long tack out west to the open sea for several hours, only to backtrack east to the coast, trying to sail into the wind as close as possible while attempting to maintain some speed. At the end of a full day’s work. we only tallied up a pitiful total of minimally advanced miles. We were literally tacking in huge squares, like following the pattern on a checkerboard, or avoiding the sidewalk cracks that would “break your mother’s back.” All this effort for naught. And it was cold.
At one point we couldn’t shake the distant vision of the coastal landmark of San Simeon’s Hearst Castle. It mounted the guard all day long. Thinking we had made some good progress that night, our spirits were dashed when it still stood proudly before us at daybreak. Eventually we reached Monterey. We decided to get off the merry-go-round and take a break for a day or two.
We hoped against hope leaving Monterey that we could fulfill our longtime dream of sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge, and anchor for a day or two in the San Francisco Bay. But here, too, we were thwarted when the fog was impossibly pea soupish at our 2:00 a.m. approach. In this year of 1990, GPS navigation equipment didn’t exist for sailing vessels, but Michel had always handily navigated us from day one to our rightful destinations thanks to his on-target sunsights with our trustworthy sextant. However, it was quite useless in the dead of night, in the fog. By following the curve traced by the figures popping up on our depth sounder, in conjunction with our compass, we could somewhat visualize how we were situated in relation to the coast. We could hear the cargo vessels booming their fog horns all around us. Not reassured and wanting to be seen, we promptly notified the Coast Guard via the VHF radio channel 16 of our presence in the area. Indeed they had spotted us on their radar as did the surrounding traffic, in their version of air traffic control.
“We are tracking you, Cowabunga,” they responded, and then gave us a heads up to stay our course while keeping a lookout for a freighter that would appear very shortly off our stern. Suddenly a huge bow loomed through the fog alongside us, booming its fog horn in acknowledgement of our presence.
Greatly disappointed, we kept our course north, bypassing San Francisco. With our compass heading fixed on what Michel estimated should be Pt. Reyes, Bodega Bay would be just around the bend. Suddenly the intermittent blinks of the Pt. Reyes lighthouse pierced the thick fog in the early pre-dawn hours. It was a relief to count the alotted seconds between the pulses, confirming not only that it was indeed the right lighthouse, but also verifying our “dead reckoned” position that Michel had intuitively configured taking into account the miles logged, the current, and the wind, and tying in the depth sounder and compass readings. He was always quite adept in coming up with fairly accurate positions in these scenarios. Now with this firm identification of the lighthouse, we established a clear chart position in order to give the coastal rocky outcroppings a wide berth.
With daylight, we sighted Bodega Bay in the haze just beyond the point. The wind was cooperating so it wasn’t too much of a tacking duel for this final stretch. Rounding the jetty, I wondered where my parents’ house was, as they said they were perched above the bay. Never having been to this new retirement digs of theirs, we gazed upon this landscape for the first time pulling into the Spud Point Marina on July 27, 1990.
My parents, Sean and Brendan, and my brother and his wife surprised us, as they waited at the guest dock where we pulled in. They spotted us sailing into the channel from their living room window and had plenty of time to get in the car and mount an official welcome committee in the harbor. Needless to say, our reunion was rather emotional. Eight years after leaving France in August, 1982, with a 3-year-old and a 5-month-old, four continents, two oceans, some seas, a myriad of islands, good fortune and misfortune, and now here with barely pre-adolescent 8 and 11 year-old boys, we arrived safe and sound, all of us older, and maybe a tad wiser, but no regrets.
In rapid succession we found jobs, bought another vintage “tank,” an old 1968
Ford station wagon that Michel fell in love with, (plus it was all we could afford), rented a quaint wood cabin in the nearby redwood hamlet of Occidental, got the boys sorted out for school in the fall, and hauled out Cowabunga for hull cleaning and maintenance. Again, typical of his customary “Superman” method, Michel found a job with a local architect in very short order, only an hour or two after he started looking.
As with our previous long term stops in Cayenne and Florida—putting the boys in school for a bit and working to cushion our savings—we intended to stay in Sonoma County temporarily, albeit indefinitely, until we could get things sorted out, and figure out a future direction, plan of action. As I write this now, almost 25 years later, we didn’t know it yet then, but we were home—accidentally.
Cowabunga is no longer ours, and to be perfectly honest, we don’t know where she is, or even if she still exists. We would rather not know. Cowabunga was our home, our life, our way of life, and even our family name for 10 years. It defined us, and still today, it is very much a part of who we are, since it is a good chunk of our history. It would just hurt too much to know if she ceased to exist. After all these years, I still have tears and a knot in my throat remembering the day she was trucked away from our grasp. Even now, today, so many years later, this is hard to write. It seems so silly to get worked up about a boat, and I don’t think I even quite understand the emotional attachment we all had—no—still have for what was really our “soulmate”—the word “boat” being just so impersonal. Cowabunga was NOT an inanimate object. She gave us a life, and a way to live it. We learned so much about places in the world, cultures, ourselves, survival, tragedy, and joy through this vessel. The word “cowabunga” is a cry of joy, of delight, of satisfaction. That was how we felt when we bought her, so we christened her thus without hesitation.
After our first year in Occidental in the wood cabin, we moved a bit farther south to Petaluma, and eventually bought a home. Cowabunga followed us to Petaluma on a truck, first to a 100-acre ranch where we rented a house for several years, then to a fixer-upper house on an acre, which is still our little corner of the world today. At first, the idea was to refurbish Cowabunga as well as the house, to prepare her for a future trip—someday. In reality, though, the energy and money needed for both a fixer-upper boat and house proved too much, and we had to make a choice. Cowabunga was donated to a good home—we hope—and one warm, fall day, a large crane raised all of her sleek 42 ft. onto a large trailer, and off she went with a new owner. Michel, Sean, Brendan, and I all watched in silence. Michel followed the convoy out with his car as far as the freeway on ramp. The driver tooted a deep farewell honk, and then Michel let go. Well, no, I guess not. We haven’t ever really “let go.”
Our boys finished growing up in Sonoma County and San Francisco, California. They are adventurous, outdoors-driven young men. It’s in their blood. And now, with the full help and enthusiasm of the loves of their lives, they have embarked upon their own adventures, and they earnestly pass that spirit on to their children. We are proud of them. One son continues to sail, while the other one thrives in the canyons and cliffs of the hinterland. The legacy of Cowabunga lives on.