Two inexperienced skippers encounter the high seas

By Bob Quall

When I was 12, I was in the Cub Scouts.  Wasn’t able to advance to Boy Scouts, but I remember one of their mottos was “Always be prepared.”

This advice would have come in handy when I set sail on the high seas the year of 1967.  I like to think I was  prepared when I  was working in my career, and when I still direct trips to Kenya.  Not so as captain of the “King  Midas.” Here is what happened.

In 1967, I was a Deputy District Attorney in Santa Barbara.  I secured the same job with the San Diego County District Attorney’s office.  The day before I was to report, I decided to stay in Santa Barbara. (Yes, flaky).  However, when I interviewed and accepted the job in San Diego, I purchased a Chris Craft 25-foot cabin cruiser.  This dog was named  the “King Midas,” an oxymoron if I ever saw one.

The name alone should have been my first clue that this floating mahogany boat was going to be trouble.  At any rate, the King Midas had to get to the harbor in Santa Barbara, so I was going to pilot this cruiser up the coast to its final destination.  Since I knew nothing about sailing on an ocean, I talked my buddy Terry into being the “co-pilot.”

Sheila and Donna dropped Terry and me off at the San Diego harbor.  They were to meet us at the Newport beach harbor.  All four of us would sleep on the boat or at a motel. The next week we would sail into Santa Barbara. Great fun!

To be honest, I don’t know what I was thinking!  My total experience with boats was taking my Dad’s 14-foot Weldwood up the Columbia river for five nights with Jay and Harold. I knew no navigational rules, hadn’t been schooled on the radio, and had no information from the salesman on electrical equipment.  Yep, disaster in the making.

The marine salesman (I think his name was Mud) gave me the key and watched as I fired up the engine. Purred like a kitten.  It made me a little nervous when he commented that the “King Midas” hadn’t been out of the harbor in a year and only very seldom had they started the engine. Mr. Mud  said the only thing I should do was run the motor for a couple of hours and then shut it down and check the oil.  He gave me two cans of marine oil on the house.  Terry and I began this ill-fated adventure at about  10 a.m.  We forgot our coats, but it was a warm day.  I figured we would be in the Newport Harbor in the early afternoon so we took no food, only a six-pack of coke. (Diet coke had not been invented.)

Terry was going to bring along his tool box, but left it in the trunk of his car.  We did have a screw driver and a pair of pliers.  I felt like we were in paradise.  A warm day, calm sea, and my co-pilot at the helm.  We were probably 25 miles up the coast line and about four miles from shore when I decided to shut down the engine and check the oil gauge.

My friend, Mr. Mud, had said to run up the coast for a couple of hours,  and if the oil was low put some more in.  Seemed reasonable to me.  I checked the dip stick and the oil line was right on the mark.  I replaced the stick in the engine and turned on the key. When I turned the key on, all I heard was crickets! Maybe “clickety, clickety.”  The battery was dead!  No amount of messing with that key would bring that battery back to life.

Terry and I looked at each other and realized we were in a pickle!  Not only was the battery dead, but the radio was dead, we couldn’t send any messages, only listen to a few other boats.

Twenty five miles down the coast line and four miles out from shore posed a huge problem.  Just as we were wondering what to do, a strong wind came out of nowhere and created huge swells.  They didn’t swamp our boat, but we both got sea sick, and I mean sea sick.  He took the bow and I took the stern for a couple of hours.  Fortunately, the ocean became calm and we became only moderately sea sick.  I had started to gain a little weight, but figured that little bout of sickness took off abut five lbs.

Fortunately, the wind had subsided, but unfortunately the fog rolled in, and without any coats, I felt like an icicle!  I took off the canvas from the flying bridge and Terry and I cuddled up, wrapping ourselves in the canvas to keep warm.  Cell phones had not been invented.  Night seemed forever, but eventually the sun came up about 6 a.m.  We would have had breakfast, but the cokes didn’t look appetizing.

We did have a huge problem and that was how to get back to San Diego harbor.  Several fishing boats went by close enough to see us waving. They waved back, thinking we were enjoying our morning!

I had an inspiration and unscrewed the mirror in the head.  I then got on top of the flying bridge and flashed the mirror in the eyes of some fishermen on another boat.  They actually came over to see if we need assistance.  They said they wished they could help us get our engine started, but it would delay their fishing trip.  I was relieved  that they said they would call on the radio and notify the Coast Guard.

Thee hours later the Coast Guard showed up, and dropped a sailor over to make sure our engine wouldn’t start.  Another sailor threw us a 2-inch rope and towed us back to San Diego.  Took several hours.  In the meantime, our wives had called the Coast Guard when we didn’t show up in the morning at the Newport Beach harbor. When we didn’t show up at the harbor Saturday afternoon, they thought we had dropped anchor in the ocean for the night. Must have thought we had a 500-foot rope attached to a 100 lb. anchor.  They went and got a motel and had a great breakfast.

When we got back to the harbor in San Diego, the salesman was apologetic.  Said  he forgot that the toggle switch controlling the charging of the battery had not been turned to the right. His mistake, but he showed us that by a simple turning of the switch, the battery would charge.  The girls were waiting for us at the harbor.  I didn’t appreciate their smirks, although It might have been my imagination.

The problem was that “King Midas” was still in San Diego and I had to get it to Santa Barbara somehow.  I decided to get a new co-pilot since Donna wouldn’t let Terry go with me again.  Two weeks later, I started out again with a federal narcotic agent,  Ren.  Only this time it got worse, we ended up in jail.

To be continued…

Robert Quall is a former Merced County Superior Court judge and Merced resident who helped establish the Maasai Medical Mission non-profit organization. The group takes annual trips to impoverished regions of Africa to provide healthcare services and other support.

Robert Quall
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