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A Point Reyes Homecoming

November 12, 2012

At eleven that night I gave up. The pile driver and rock mover continued their work under artificial light bright as a welding torch. Boulders for the new jetty dropped from the maw of dozers with a seismic thud; the pile driver kathunked its piles–activities not heard so much as felt through the body as I lay in my bunk searching for sleep. At eleven I rose. I quit Crescent City Harbor, walked across the road and took a room at the Super 8 Motel. The sheets were surprisingly soft. I fell immediately away and through windows wide open heard nothing until the alarm at three.

All that day had been sunny with a crisp north wind but now the American flag above the harbor, big as Texas, flew straight out from the south and a light rain fell. Back aboard Murre, I listened again to the weather forecast, and again heard its call for northwesterlies all night and into the weekend. The rock mover was silent and the pile driver, though active, drove no piles. I crawled in my bag and slept until dawn.

Now the rain had stopped. Wind continued from the south but seemed to be easing. I started the engine; Murre and I were underway, passing Round Rock, the harbor sentinel, by eight. Here the ocean turned a milky turquoise, reminding at once of the bluey-green waters of Tahiti and the silted greens just below the Sawyer Glacier, pleasant memories both, but quickly tempered by the lead sky that, within the hour, covered the deck with pea-sized hail.

All day the sky squalled but less and less so as we pushed offshore. By afternoon the south wind had turned sharply west–almost but not quite sailable. It died with sun down and was not replaced. Cloud vanished entirely. The Milky Way shown, a broad avenue. At first Orion reclined upon the coastal ranges, but slowly he rose to stand, arms wide, as the night approached its zenith.

I slept in 20 minute intervals as Murre swept out and around Cape Mendocino. Large, round and knee-like, this cape is, in fact, the joint at which California’s coast makes its turn from south to southeast. Among cruisers it is known as a junction of a different sort–it is the barrier below which weather markedly improves. “You start pealing off sweaters and long underwear,” said one sailor I met at a party in Sitka.

True to form, next morning brought a sky of pinky, cottony cloud reminiscent of the tropics. As the day warmed I did peal off fleece (though made no such move at the long underwear). Advancing squalls could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and none advanced on Murre.

But we were not out of it–not yet–and by way of reminder, the swell. For hours I watched from under the cuddy as trains of great waves, the result of some northern storm, approached from the west to pass endlessly under Murre. These were “mature” waves, rolling hills and deep valleys, no longer wind-driven but moving under their own power, an inertia of such mass that once in motion their roving could only be halted by the rock wall of a continent. How to describe such feats of nature? As big as a three story houses. Long as city blocks. Their interiors were bunkers. From their crests I looked down as if peering over a cliff edge. Regal, magisterial, haughty, aloof. Mountainous. Alien.

Wave speed is a function of wave size–bigger is faster. Thusly, tsunamis travel the deep ocean at hundreds of miles per hour, only slowing and piling as they reach shore. But speed can be a matter of perception, too, and these waves, these jumbo jets of the sea, appeared equally ponderous and slow as they rose into the air, though to my reckoning they were making thirty miles per hour to Murre’s five. Steep enough that their tops would have crashed dangerously in a stiff breeze, but without such aid they were resigned to flinging their spray straight up.

All day radio announcements from the Noyo River Coast Guard unit warned of fifteen foot seas breaking over the bar at Fort Bragg and ended the message with “Mariners are requested to call this station before attempting entry.” But such heights seemed impossibly diminutive; staring up from the cockpit it looked like these summits rose above Murre’s main mast at 45 feet. Late in the afternoon I got the winning image: in shape and size like the great sand dunes of Saudi Arabia, but blue and heaving.

That night we approached Point Arena without having seen a boat or a ship since leaving Crescent City, so just after sun set I began sleeping in 30 minute intervals–purest luxury. When I rose to check course and position, I saw white lights occulting along the coast to the west, the headlamps of cars traveling Highway 1’s winding path. The predicted northwesterly wind began to fill in after midnight. I rigged the jib pole and opened the head sail, but greedy for speed, eager to make my destination, I throttled back on the engine only slightly. At Point Reyes I would meet my wife, but only if I was on time.

In the early morning an announcement on the radio from the Bodega Bay Coast Guard–an emergency beacon had been activated three miles due west of Bodega Head; mariners in the vicinity were requested to keep lookout and assist in search if possible. The announcement repeated every twenty minutes, “Pan Pan, Pan Pan; at 0230 local the Coast Guard has received an emergency distress signal at coordinates…etc.” Murre was the only vessel in the quadrant, much less the vicinity, but we were ten miles out and ten miles south. In such a sea and headwind it would take three hours to climb back to the position of the signal. And it was a moonless night. I delayed. Should I respond? Surely the Coast Guard was acting–it was their role–but the repeated radio calls made no such mention. I imagined Murre in similar straits. I was reaching for the radio when I saw the first helicopter astern, its red light flashing, its search beam moving over the waves. Murre and I continued on.

Dawn and Point Reyes a black hulk on the horizon. Then sun rise over the city as Murre rounded into Drakes Bay, dropping anchor off the long-shuttered Point St. Joseph fish pier at just after eight, 48 hours after departure.

Home. Two years and two months away, but home now.

The day grew big and blue. The crescent of bay and its sandy beaches folding familiarly around. Fawn colored hills cut by butter yellow cliffs. The high ridges a smoky green of Doug fir. In the far distance, Mount Saint Helena. Nearer in Mount Vision, Mount Wittenberg, Mount Tam. All places I had hiked year upon year. I have been a San Franciscan since 1989, but it’s in this countryside that I left my heart. More than the next day’s return under the Golden Gate, this was the coming home.

My wife arrived at noon. We walked the paths of the point as we have always walked them, single file, she in front. We talked casually as if today was any Saturday afternoon. Often I paused to look down at Murre, anchored below a shock of cypress, tugging gently at her chain. I had not anticipated such pleasure. It still surprises me.


  1. Rodney Vietz permalink
    November 12, 2012 4:14 pm

    Welcome Home Randall!!! We are looking forward to visiting with all of you next Tuesday. For those of us that had to stay working our day jobs the past two years and two months. Thank you for short time-out breaks that you provided by sharing of yourself and of Murre’s trek. Blessings! Rodney

  2. November 13, 2012 7:32 pm

    Thanks for the thought, Rod. I too am looking forward to seeing the family. See you soon!

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