First Wayfarer Solo Overnighter
California Wayfarer, Brandon McClintock (W3576), sails the San Joaquin River

It wasn't pretty - at least not by any experienced dinghy cruiser's standards.  But I did manage to sail to an intended destination, anchor overnight, and slog back the next day.  My first ever solo mini-cruise.

Author, Brandon, on Smith Island during the 2009 Wayfarer Chesapeake cruise

A lot of people would probably dismiss the experience as trivial. After all, what could possibly be challenging about overnight camping on the water? I would assure them that, as a 66-year-old and former Boy Scout dropout, it was not a decision to be made lightly. There were factors to be considered: age, lack of experience, doubt, memory, age. To go or not to go, that was the question. To ensure that my decision was founded on reason and strict impartiality, I had someone else flip the coin.

With apologies to Dickens, it was the best of cruises and it was the worst of cruises. In the proper spirit of preparation, I spent days making lists, often adding items faster than I could cross them off. The cruise was to begin on Saturday and end on Sunday. All of Friday was devoted to collecting, organizing, and making sure that nothing essential slipped through any mental cracks. I would have everything I'd need for a weekend or a week.

Up at 6:00 am on Saturday to load up, hitch up, and head out. It's only an hour's drive from home to the launch site but it took me well over three hours to get rigged and everything stowed. By 1:00 pm I was finally launched and ready to cast off. I was departing the Brannan Island State Park (California Delta) and would be sailing east up the San Joaquin River. These were the same waters in which I had experienced my first capsize a year ago on my third time out.  There are about a hundred huge high-tech wind turbines within view of the dock and they are sited there for one simple reason - wind. Lots of it. This was to be my 11th launching and even though I felt a little more experienced I cannot say that I cast off without some anxiety.

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It was a lovely, warm day and I used my ¾-sized main and small jib to harness the 15-kt winds out of the west. Since the first day was one of reaching and running, I easily made 5 - 6.5 kts for the whole run up the river. Although I didn't have a chart with me, I had been to my destination once before. I spent the day as a delighted child in the guise of a senior citizen. I practiced jibing, heaving to, and reefing when the wind got up.

I found a quiet, secluded anchorage in the lee of a small island at Mandeville Tip County Park (A above) and proceeded to settle in for the evening. Right off I wished I'd made a "locator list" - as in "Where in the hell did I put _____?!" Seems like I always had to move 5 things to get one. I can understand why the later Wayfarers marks might be preferred for less stressful cruising. Have you ever tried to extract things from the forward buoyancy tank on a Mk I? Air is about the only thing that goes in and out easily. Especially with the tabernacle right there impeding every attempt.  I should re-name it: the vertical thwart.

I finally managed to get somewhat organized but it wasn't pretty. After anchoring, my head took a good smacking from the boom before I was able to get the main down and the boom tent up. Later on I discovered that I hadn't tightened the cap on the bottle of stove alcohol allowing most of the contents to escape into the bilges.  I'll never know if the headache was from the boom, breathing excess alcohol, stress, or a combination of it all. I did manage to enjoy a dinner of canned soup, saltines and a cup of tea with McVities for dessert.

Before turning in, I became the sole member of the audience in nature's nightly theater. A vibrating V of Canada geese passed overhead, bullfrogs croaked, red-winged blackbirds played hide-n-seek in the rushes and bass leapt out of the water for their dinner. As reluctant as I was to invoke modern technology and break the spell of silence, I turned on my weather radio for Sunday's forecast: 30% chance of rain and winds from the south at 10 - 15 kts.  Perfect!  There hadn't been rain in months so I could ignore that. And the wind shift would give me a reach on the return.  With the wind and current leading, the boat followed in perfect step; sleep came easily.

It must have been 3:00 am when I became aware that the 30% chance had become 100%. At first there were just a few drops that insinuated themselves into my dream. It was the full blown showers that finally woke me. Sleep became intermittent.  I had been betrayed.  The forecast was a damned lie. "Lies, damned lies and statistics!" And to top it off, I hadn't prepared for rain. I did have my light foulies but no proper boots, gloves, or headgear.  I knew it was going to be a long day.

I got up at 6:00 and was about to have a cuppa when I discovered that my butane stove lighter had packed up.  Sardines and saltines for breakfast. Luckily the showers abated while I was stowing the tent, my gear and getting the sails up. Hoisted sails and weighed anchor. Right away, because I hadn't noticed the slight current, I found myself drifting into a forest of river grass before I could stow the anchor. Thank goodness for the W's shallow draft.  The rudder did most of the harvesting.

I headed back south to the main river channel with the full main and jib. After rounding the point of the island and leaving its protection, I was hit with way more wind than I had expected or could cope with. What happened to those 10 kts from the south? At least 20+ kts from the west. I wasn't scared … at first. Then at least two really good gusts held my lee rail under long enough to send water cascading into the boat. Now … I was scared. I figured I had maybe two options: heave to and try to drop the jib and reef the main or run off and try to assume Uncle Al's R&R position. But things were happening very fast and it became obvious that there wasn't time or space to heave to. My leeway was enormous. I was now too close to the rocks lining the levee to try tacking, and trying to turn downwind would have put me over for sure.

I got the board up as fast as I could and then cast off the main halyard.  The boom clobbered the afterdeck but it helped to keep me from capsizing. Unfortunately during my panic, I'd forgotten to free the halyard from its little stowage bag and there was even more panic for a few seconds until I could do that. I finally got the main completely down as the boat flew off to leeward under the small jib alone.

After jibing the jib and making it back to the lee of the island, I lashed down the sails, put on the few extra clothes I'd brought and fired up the outboard. It took me almost 6 hours of motoring to get back to the launch site. As the wind was against the current, there were armies of whitecaps and square waves marching directly toward me. Any deviation from dead ahead would blow the bow off instantly. The pounding was atrocious. If things weren't wet from the buckshot spray being blown back, the rain took care of the rest. I figure I must have averaged abut 2.5 kts. I was wet, cold, hungry, and thoroughly chastened by my lack of foresight. It was all I could do to cast my glance through rain blurred glasses toward the two-story power boats passing serenely by. I swear one of the skippers held his hot cup of coffee toward me in a salute to my insanity.

I now have a list of all the things I forgot, failed to do properly, and found wanting in my knowledge and abilities. I also have an indelibly visceral idea of what extended dinghy cruising takes in the way of experience and endurance.  And I wonder if I have what it takes.

To be sure, I haven't given up. I suspect that this brief introduction to the realm of dinghy cruising can possibly be remembered as a mother might remember the pain of childbirth. Perhaps in the end, the pain will be largely forgotten and replaced with the memory of being so in touch with life.

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