War Games

War Games

Colin and I are pretty diligent about planning passages, but this one threw us some real curveballs.

We use cruising guides, paper charts, and electronic ones. One of us sets out the initial waypoints, courses and distances and the other one checks their work. We’re obsessive with weather forecasts and—now that we’re far enough south to have options—finding backup places to tuck in if we don’t make it as far as expected by dark.

One thing we hadn’t considered for passage planning was the New York Times, but I had just enough cell service as I sipped my morning coffee in Oxnard to notice that the US had agreed to stop conducting war games in Korea. Perhaps that should have been a clue.

Coincidence or not, the same day, war games broke out across the whole of Southern California instead.  

We were motoring out of the Oxnard harbor on our way to Paradise Cove when the first radio warnings by Warship 49 blasted across Channel 16 to keep a safe distance from a set of latitude and longitude coordinates. We were raising the mainsail and missed the chance to write them down.

'Live fire drills’ certainly raised our blood pressure at 7am.

By the time the sail was up, another warship was broadcasting a grid of six different points to avoid. I ran below to grab a pencil, and was barely scratching out what I remembered, when another broadcast advised mariners to stay five miles off Point Mugu.

Point Mugu we knew. 

Point Mugu was right in the middle of our diligently planned course.

“Colin,” I said, with a hint of anxiety. “That means us.”

I took our paper chart, used the dividers to draw a circle with a five-mile radius centered at Point Mugu and shaded the entire area as a danger bearing.

“Whatever you do,” I said, “Don’t turn to port.”

I erased our straightforward passage plan, drew in a big detour that took us out to the edge of the shipping lanes, and gave Colin a course to steer.

I stayed below at the nav table as the radio continued to squawk out the latitudes and longitudes we were supposed to maintain a safe distance from faster than I could write them down. Was that the same set of coordinates or a different one? Was that one near our destination? I was plotting points on the paper chart like my life depended on it (uh, kinda). 

There was barely a breath between the VHF broadcasts.

Apparently, the entirety of Southern California was under attack.

Pretty soon, we could hear the guns booming.

As I sat below, getting a handle on which broadcasts were new and which were repeats, Colin was topside with the tiller, staring through binoculars at a swiftly approaching PT boat with a huge bow wave. Then he heard the U.S. Navy hail the sailing vessel off the power plant. 

You guessed it. 

We were the sailing vessel off the power plant.  

Colin responded with calm, courtesy, and professionalism. I’m pretty sure a few four-letter words would have escaped my lips had I been the one on the mic. The Navy recommended we set a new course of 180 degrees for one mile.

“We recommend,” is how they gently phrased it. Recommend implies one has an option. There was no option.

Colin adjusted course, trimmed the sails, and confirmed our new heading on the radio all at the same time while I remained slack jawed below with the charting tools in hand. They kindly thanked us for our cooperation and we added a new waypoint to our course, courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

I double-checked my danger bearings at the time and made a mental note that when they say stay five miles from Point Mugu, what they really mean is to stay five miles from anywhere we choose to take our big warship.

And for the second time on this shakedown sail, I realized we were being watched by scopes powerful enough to count our goosebumps. We could only imagine the scene on the other end—a dozen young recruits monitoring every roll and yaw Pristine made on their target screens. Someone certainly would have asked if they could fire a shot across our bow.

Ha ha ha ha ha.  

At precisely a mile, they actually came back on the radio to tell us we were free to resume our voyage. We thanked them, but kept booking it out of there. What is it they say about three strikes?

So a U.S. Navy warship took an unexpected amount of interest in Pristine recently, but she’s certainly not been the only one. It turns out we’ve been on a lot of radars since we left the Bay.

The fun difference about being in the open sea is that the animals aren’t the oddity—you are.

When you see a hundred seals stop their Moe, Larry and Curly antics to stand on the seal equivalent of tiptoes and watch two humans go by, you realize that you’re the zoo exhibit.

You notice the pelican parade take an abrupt detour to buzz your mast. The dolphins not only seek your bow wave, but hang out a couple feet from the cockpit, looking up at the two strange, fin-less creatures above. And when a baby whale continually spy-hops just off your beam, you can’t help but imagine he’s saying in humpback-ese: “Mama, what are those?”

We’ve had 416 nautical miles of dolphins, seals, whales, birds, and otters chasing us down. Clearly, we’re the big attraction at the zoo.

Meanwhile, this crazy living on a sailboat thing is actually becoming a life.

All those mindless routines from land—how to make coffee while half asleep, which drawer holds the green t-shirt, what you do first when you walk in the door—got tossed in a blender at the beginning of this trip and needed to be re-figured out.

Our habits have grown over the last several weeks, to include turning on the propane to cook, setting out the solar panels if we want electricity, and using the saltwater foot pump for everything but the final rinse of the dishes. Already I wonder why all houses don’t have a monitor telling people exactly how many amps they’re using at all times.

Yet some things are still far from normal.

The “What’s that noise?” game looks like it will provide endless entertainment throughout this journey. Since there are always multiple strange sounds, when Colin says “What’s that?” I do my best to describe the options to ensure I’m hearing the same thing he is. The challenge is nothing is as simple as a thump or drip, so I have to reach a bit for an accurate description.

“Which noise? Do you mean the troll dance party or the chipmunks eating peanut brittle?”

Weirdly, my utterly accurate descriptions don’t always lead to shared understanding, so the games continue. 

I don’t foresee us being overtaken by boredom soon.

Fair winds and following seas


Seals on ‘tiptoe,’ checking us out


Chey at tiller

Happiness is 15 knots, sunshine and silence

Inflating the dinghy

Assembling the family station wagon, aka dinghy. The DMV doesn’t issue license plates for these motorized vehicles, so Colin’s adding the registration (CF) numbers with Sharpie.

Cat Harbor

Pristine got a reprieve from war games in Cat Harbor, Catalina. Her crew got to break out the bathing suits.

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