Friday, October 3, 2008
We arrived in San Diego (a week ago) at 4 am, straining to find the red and green corridor of navigation lights superimposed on all the lights of the city.
There was a surprising amount of harbour activity in the wee hours of the morning: fishermen, police run-abouts, military patrols roaming the edges of the Point Loma Naval Base, panning great spotlights over its brushy slopes. Just inside the harbour mouth is the “Transient Dock”, the public dock.
We tied up and had a celebratory dram of scotch and sleepily congratulated each other on making it to our destination. The docks were quiet but gradually we realized the water around us was crackling. It sounded as if someone had lit cedar kindling under the boat. We poked our heads above decks, we leaned out over the water, we took Kim’s stethoscope out and held it to the hull. Finally, baffled, we fell into our bunks and slept until 9 (well trained by now to sleep in 4 hour watch stretches!).
The public dock in San Diego is at the end of a long thin peninsula of land called Shelter Island. Looking down into its quiet waters, one sees a forest, a watershed of masts. There are said to be 15 marinas and 7000 boats in San Diego. There are sloops and ketches, schooners, and motor yachts, micro and mega yachts, stripped down racing boats and gin palaces. And here’s the thing, there’s nowhere to go. Past the harbour is open ocean; the nearest islands are over a day’s sail away. But that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. On the weekend, the bay is a traffic jam of boats sailing back and forth, back and forth.
When you get tired of that you can shop for boat things. Shelter Island is one of the world’s major yacht centres. There are brokers and maintenance yards; there are chandleries and stores where you can contemplate upholstery, water makers, navigational instruments, refrigeration, canvas, carpentry, charts, books, tackle, sat phones and radios; there are painters, carpenters, fiberglassers, sailmakers, riggers, and people to maintain engines, plumbing, and electronics. In other words it is guy heaven.
There are women on the boats at the dock of course, but they don’t wander with a glass of beer or a cup of coffee, lean on each others’ boats shooting the breeze, they don’t spend hours talking about hull shape, this self-steering or that navigation system, the best configuration of sails and solar panels.
The transient dock turned out to be the place where almost everyone who arrives in San Diego first ties up. This time of year most boats are on their way to Mexico. You can spot the veterans by the amount of gear hanging off their rails: barbeques, extra gas tanks, solar panels, kayaks, generous awnings. Circadia, with her simple light lines and spindly radar pole looks naked.
The transient dock is also the place where permanent denizens of the harbour mooring buoys come to pump their tanks, get fresh water, charge their batteries, and have a shower (you can stay there 10 days out of every 40). They are recognizable by their leathery skin and their derelict boats.
Almost every boat on the transient dock seems to come with a dog, Chihuahua, border collie, pit bull… When a new boat comes in they all start barking at the newcomer on the bow.
But there are other life forms on the dock. By day great blue herons pace thoughtfully. Green herons hunch over bowsprits. And at night the black crowned night herons stand under the lights, gazing steadily into the water with their ruby eyes.
And, oh yeah, we did finally figure out what the strange static in the water was: beds of snapping or pistol shrimp, tiny critters only a couple of inches long. One claw is super-sized and comes with a thumb-like thing. The military first took an interest in them. A commander of a US submarine in 1942, suggested that “the Japs may have some newfangled gadget that they drop” to make so much underwater chatter. Since then someone figured out that the claw creates a bubble of water, which snaps when it breaks. Under the boat, and on the pilings, as I write, hundreds of snapping shrimp are at work—or whatever it is—speculations are it is both defensive and stuns prey. Check out Wikipedia for some amazing underwater footage.