THAR SHE  DOESN'T  BLOW

Our Corey faces a mighty lack of wind

BY COREY LEVITAN

      "Get us out of here!" commands Rafael Fernandez.

      For some ill-advised reason, the director of the Redondo Beach Sailing Academy is trusting me to drive the city's biggest and most valuable sailboat, the Cal 27. He's way over on the opposite side of the 27-footer as he yells atop the engine scream.

      Not only do I lack the required two hours of dockside training, I wasn't listening to most of the instruction Fernandez provided in our compressed 20-minute session. These adventures tend to go better that way.

      "That's OK!" Fernandez hollers. "I'm ready to jump off at any time!"

      The engine is noisier than a baseball in a spin cycle. Even though we're in a sailboat, Fernandez likes to motor out of King Harbor, then sail back in after his excursions. It's a proud tradition.

      "Wait!" Fernandez screams just before we launch. "I forgot something!"

      He bolts to his car to fetch a small VHF radio.

      "In the old days, my dad used to call the Coast Guard because he ran out of beer or something," the 40-something Redondo Beach resident explains later. "They frown upon that now. You have to be dying before you call them."

      Obviously, with me at the helm, the thought of dying crossed Fernandez's mind.

      The Redondo Beach Sailing Academy is a mostly volunteer nonprofit whose dozen boats are used to train anyone with saltwater in their veins and $16 an hour.

      "Grab the tiller!" Fernandez yells. That's the thick stick of wood that steers the boat. Turn it right and the boat goes left, left and the boat goes right. Every command you give it, the boat does the opposite thing -- kind of like a teen-ager.

      A lever by my right leg controls the gas. I floor it, harnessing all one cylinder to produce the nautical equivalent of about 5 mph. I turn a corner for our final approach to the marina entrance. The Exxon Valdeez springs to mind.

      When he's not sailing, Fernandez works as an architect, designing hotels for the L.A. engineering firm of Hellman & Lober. I dragged him out of work early today.

      "Sailing is just a hobby," he says. Fernandez learned it from his father in Guatemala, when he was 7 years old. He still races three times a week during the summer, with the King Harbor and Redondo Beach yacht clubs.

      "Actually, I wish this was my main occupation," he says.

      Behind us, a siren starts blaring. It's a lifeguard boat, going about 30 mph. Maybe there's a boat low on beer somewhere.

      Fernandez instructs me to pull over to the right, just like a traffic stop. The speedboat whooshes past, then turns left and mysteriously out of sight.

      Fernandez uses the down time for more instruction. He asks if I know where the expression "three sheets to the wind" came from. Sheets are what sailors call ropes. Sailors have a different word for just about every regular word you can think of.

      "There are three sheets that move the sail from side to side," he explains, "starboard, port and main. It means that if you're sober, you control the boat well. If you're drunk, you just let the sheets go."

      But mostly, Fernandez tries teaching me stuff I don't care about, like rudder and keel theory.

      "If you want to turn into the wind, you're going up to tighten up the sail behind the keel, because it's like a teeter-totter."

      "I see," I lie.

      I steer the conversation toward some real nautical issues. For instance, was Gilligan really a mighty sailin' man? After all, it says so in the theme song.

      "None of them were mighty sailors," Fernandez says, laughing. "They were goofy."

      I floor the engine again. It begins to smoke as we pass an unmanned bait barge. Apparently, 5 mph is asking too much.

      "We're overheating," Fernandez announces. This is just what happened to the boat in "Jaws," before the final shark attack.

      Fernandez switches to sail power earlier than he wanted. He hoists up our main triangle of Dacron, completely obscuring my view of two motorboats headed directly for us.

      "That's part of the dilemma of sailing," he says, smiling.

      I keep the boat pointed at a building in front of us, hoping the other boats see me better than I see them. Then I see what I've been waiting for all day.

     A steep, irregular sea, bursting with a tremendous surf as though under the impulsion of a very hard gale. The breeze is strikingly cold and it whistles through the rigging with a singularly keen and shrilling note.

      Actually, I didn't see that. You just read a passage from "The Far Side of the World," one of the two Patrick O'Brian novels that the new Russell Crowe movie is based on.

      That's the way I hoped things would go. The boat pitching back and forth, knocking me briefly over, whitecaps slapping my back. Maybe I'd even fall overboard. I brought a change of clothes.

      I even had the headline: "Near Death of a Sailsman."

      No. This afternoon, the ocean is as calm as bathwater ... after you turn the faucet off ... and you don't make any sudden moves with your hands or feet. The sails hang lifeless from the mast like giant underwear on a laundry line ... in someone's basement ... with all the windows closed.

      Elton's candle could have survived this wind, no problem.

      We are moving at 2 miles an hour, slower than an elderly couple strolling along the dock. I reminisce about my time speed-demoning in the marina. The only thing blowing on this voyage is the voyage itself.

      We inch past a buoy where some visitors are taking a load off. A loud bark fills the dead air.

      Even the seals are laughing at me.

      I keep my distance not only from the rock wall guarding the marina but from Daily Breeze photographer Robert Casillas. He has already mentioned tossing me overboard, just for an action photo op. I try climbing the mast, like Crowe does in "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," just to give him something.

      After a half hour, I steer back to the entrance, which was never more than a few hundred yards away.

      The wind is so meager, Fernandez has to break his years-long tradition.

      "God, I can't believe we're gonna have to motor in," he says.

      Fernandez did not want to sail in this weather.

      "I tried to talk you out of it," he reminds me. But I was pressed for time. I came up with this idea only after seeing "Master and Commander," and I wanted this to run while the movie was still hot.

      I feel bad. After we dock, I decide to do Fernandez a favor and fetch his radio, which is below deck. I hand it to him as he's busy breaking down the sails.

      "Thanks," he says. There's nowhere to set it, so he grabs it with his right hand while undoing one of the bowline knots he unsuccessfully tried showing me before. It jumps out of his grasp, onto the deck and into the water, where it sinks like the diamond at the end of "Titanic."

      Today's voyage was REALLY nonprofit for Fernandez. That radio was $150.

      "That's OK," he says. "Things happen on boats."

      He adds, "I'm gonna go home and get drunk."

 

      The Redondo Beach Sailing Academy gives three-hour lessons at U Dock, behind the Bluewater Grill, 665 N. Harbor Drive, Redondo Beach, at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. on winter weekends. The cost is $16 an hour. Call 310-318-0610 x3445. But pick a better day to sail than Corey did.

 

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