Crusing the San Juans

It seemed like such a good idea at the time, and it probably was. The four of us, good friends all, were on our annual flying and camping trip to the south tip of Baja. We had made this trip each February for so many years that our wives referred to us as the Baja Bunch, along with several somewhat more descriptive but less flattering names. We had always been able to justify our stag trips to Bahia de Los Frailes by telling ourselves that wives wouldn't enjoy sleeping in a tent on a beach thirty miles from the nearest television, telephone or bathroom.

The Baja Bunch consisted of a Colonel at the Air Force Academy, a Boeing engineer who had been transferred from Seattle to NORAD, a man who sat on the board of a local bank and myself. The common thread which held this unlikely group together was our mutual interest in flying sailplanes.

It was somewhere around the third day of basking in the balmy sea breezes under the famed fig tree when we found ourselves riddled with pangs of guilt for leaving our mates to suffer the winter weather back in Colorado. Suddenly someone suggested, "We should take our wives on a really nice trip of some sort."

Several suggestions were tossed into the air, only to flutter lifelessly to the ground. Suddenly, like some great Guru calling down from the mountain, the engineer said, "I know what, let's lease a large power boat in Seattle and spend a week cruising the San Juan Islands. I've had quite a bit of experience on larger boats and our wives would love it."

Since our friend from Seattle had made the suggestion and claimed to know all about boats, we left everything up to him. A few weeks after our return he announced, "I found a charter agent who has the ideal boat for us. It's a 48 foot cruiser with twin diesels, flying bridge and five cabins. It has an owner's cabin, two guest cabins and two crew cabins plus beds in the galley. It's supposed to sleep ten to twelve people, so there will be more than adequate room for only four couples. It's available for ten days in June for only twelve hundred dollars a day, but we'll have to send him the full amount of the charter immediately if we want it. Naturally, we will also have to pay for fuel and our share of the insurance."

If you divide twelve grand by four couples and say it real fast, it doesn't sound all that bad, so the deal was made and our checks went into the mail.

It's truly amazing what can happen in only four months, but to put it simply, the Baja Bunch sort of came apart at the seams. No, there wasn't a fight or anything like that, just a series of unforeseen events. The Colonel found himself on his way to the Pentagon, Boeing sent the engineer off to Turkey for an indefinite period of time and the other partner in this great adventure chose that exact time to have a mid-life crisis and go through the change of wife. He had moved into a condo complex occupied mostly be singles where he found a twenty-four year old nympho with hair that looked like a copper Brillo pad and more raging hormones than a Girl Scout jamboree to help him through his trying times. There was a mutual attraction: him to her body, and her to his bank account.

A call to the charter agent confirmed our worst fears; a deal is a deal and there are no refunds. The Colonel sold his share to a fellow officer who had just been promoted to a one-star General and sent to command an Air Force Base near Seattle. The engineer sold his share to a fellow engineer at the Boeing factory. He assured us that this man, "owned a boat and knew a lot about them". For all practical purposes, the four couples who came together in Seattle on that fateful day in June were total strangers.

As soon as we climbed aboard, the General's wife marched into the owner's cabin like MacArthur returning to the Phillipines, poured herself a Gin and Tonic and lay claim to it. It was larger than all the rest of the cabins put together, had a king size bed, color TV, stereo with at least a dozen speakers and its own bathroom.

When it was realized that, except for the General's wife—who had brought along her own traveling bar—no one had made any arrangements for food, my wife and I headed for the nearest supermarket to stock up. By the time we returned laden with supplies to feed eight people for ten days, we found that the engineer had claimed one of the guest cabins and the banker and his redhead the other, in which they were already checking out the mattress. My wife and I we were left with a choice of pull-down bunks in the galley or the "crew" cabins which were nothing more than cubby holes above each of the two big diesel engines. Since there was only a single bunk in each crew cabin, my wife would have to sleep in one and me in the other.

The General was on the flying bridge with the charter agent who was giving him instructions on how to get both engines running at the same time. They were blubbering happily as they warmed up. Since the General had spent most of his military career flying B-52s, he considered anything with less than half a dozen engines to be a toy. It turned out that the man from Boeing who was supposed to know a lot about boats had gained all his experience from a 15 foot fishing boat, only slightly larger than the dinghy which hung over the transom.

Finally, when everything was stowed aboard and we were ready to cast off, the charter agent handed us two bills. One was for two thousand gallons of diesel fuel, which came to a bit over two grand and the other for sixteen hundred dollars for insurance. Not much could be done at this point except to ante up another grand each.

The General assumed his position of command on the flying bridge while the agent walked around the boat, slipping mooring lines from cleats and tossing the loose ends aboard. The General nudged in a bit of throttle and the two big diesel engines began to mumble in unison--but the boat didn't budge. I suppose that the General figured that like a B-52, it needed at least 65% power to taxi and nudged the twin throttles forward a bit. The mumble became a rumble, the prow of the boat began to climb the dock and everyone started jumping up and down and yelling something which sounded like, "Put the damn thing in reverse!"

In the meantime, the agent had vaulted aboard, skittered up the ladder to the flying bridge, shouldered the General out of the way and brought the rumbling engines back to an idle. After it was determined that nothing more than the General's pride had been injured, the agent carefully backed us out of the slip, turned the boat around and pointed us away from anything easily broken. Someone in a small boat came out to pick him up and as he watched us moved slowly toward open water, I'm sure he figured that a check from the insurance company would be the only thing that the owner would ever see of his boat again.

As we motored out into Puget Sound, we met an inbound ferry. Evidently the General didn't fully understand all there was to know about rights of way at sea because as we missed one another by about twenty feet after some amazing evasive maneuvers by the ferry. As we wallowed through the bow wave of the ferry, the captain offered several observations pertaining to his seamanship and ancestry over the PA system. Shortly thereafter, a Coast Guard cutter came along side and we discovered that when it comes to water, a Coast Guard Lieutenant outranks an Air Force General at least three to one. After a stern lecture from the Lieutenant, we were allowed to go on our way.

As we settled down, the true flavor of the group came to light. The General took command of everything while his wife sank into a deep funk over the fact that while she was away from the base she was losing ground in a contest for president of the Officer's Wives Club. She must have been the president of the Gin and Tonic club because she put away a fifth of Beef Eaters every day. The Flying Bridge was the General's private domain and he barely allowed anyone to come up there much less touch the wheel. He was great at shouting orders but did absolutely nothing else. He was accustomed to other people doing everything for him except breathing and brought that attitude aboard with him. It was after we left his dirty dishes on the table for three meals that he finally started cleaning up after himself.

The engineer was one of those people who knew everything about everything and told you so. No matter what subject came up, he was the resident expert and would go on for hours about it. His wife, an ardent gardener with the voice of a dull lawn mower, talked of nothing except bugs and begonias. She was without a doubt, the worst cook in the world. She scorched everything that she touched, even the coffee. It was by mutual agreement that my wife and I became the official cooks.

Evidently the rolling of the boat whetted the sexual appetite of the redhead because they were constantly in their cabin, going at it like a pair of monkeys. Any time that they did emerge for a breath of air, she had a smile that an undertaker couldn't remove and he looked like an owl that had been struck by lightning. They would be on deck just long enough for the portholes to clear before she would be leading him back to the bed. After a few days, we began to wonder about his chances of survival.

In addition to being a lazy drunk, the General's wife was also a bath freak. She took at least three long soaks in the tub each day. On the fifth day, we ran out of both fresh water and gray water holding space. The leasing agent had told us that there was enough of both aboard for at least three weeks. When we finally found a place to fill the water tank and pump the gray water, it cost us a hundred bucks.

Two days before it was time to return the boat, the wind came up and the General's wife became very seasick. She demanded that the General find some place where the boat wouldn't be rolling. There was an inviting little beach out of the wind on the lee side of a small island so he decided to beach the boat on the sand. The rest of us questioned the wisdom of beaching a boat of this size but while you can always tell a General, you can't tell him much. After we were hard aground with two lines to trees on the beach, the boat was steady as a rock.

Some time during the night I awoke with the strange feeling that my bunk was considerably out of level. My feet felt at least a foot higher than my head. As soon as I got out of bed, I knew that something was very wrong. Up on deck, I realized what had happened. It was high tide when we beached the boat and now that it had gone out, we were almost totally out of the water.

The General was never one to simply let nature take its own course and wait for the next high tide to float us free. First, he tried to simply drag us free with power but when that failed, he decided to use what he termed as asymmetrical thrust to rock us back and forth sort of like getting a stuck car out of the mud. He swung the wheel hard over to one side, put one engine forward, the other in reverse and began to nudge the throttles forward. Sure enough, it seemed to be working as the boat shuddered and the stern began to swing to one side. Suddenly, there was a lot of beating, banging and thrashing coming from the area of the stern. We couldn't tell what had happened but to me, it sounded very expensive.

This was when the General finally decided to take our advice and put out a call to the Coast Guard. Within an hour, the same cutter commanded by the same Lieutenant who had visited with us about the ferry incident came into sight around the point of land. They stopped about a hundred yards from us and put a small boat into the water. A diver who was sent under our boat to access the damage reported that as the boat had swung to one side, it had hit a submerged rock, shredded one of the propellers and bent the drive shaft. The rudder and other prop appeared to be undamaged.

Then the Lieutenant did what the General should have done. He waited for the high tide to come in and when we were almost afloat, he put a couple lines on us and dragged us off the beach. After it was ascertained that the other engine and prop were undamaged, we limped back to port at five knots on one engine.

A couple weeks later, I received a letter from the General with a request that I send him a check for two thousand dollars. He said that the repairs ran eight thousand dollars but there was a ten thousand dollar deductible on the insurance policy so they refused to pay anything. I sent him a reply to the effect that the Captain of a ship always has more responsibility for what goes wrong than does the cook. I never heard from him again.

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Copyright 2003 by Jim Foreman