Live or Die Trying

By: Maven Cade Leary

“Who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived, or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?” – Hunter S. Thompson

Whenever I decide to move, I tend to do so suddenly and with great force. Such is in my nature.

This sometimes leaves the people around me feeling abandoned and confused, and I apologize to them for that. Such is not my intent.

If there is one thing that humans fear consistently, and often without any rational reason, it is what they do not understand. Better the devil you know to the devil you don’t apparently. Humans are prone to phobias of insects, avoid people and situations they aren’t comfortable with, and resist change like it’s the plague. 

Truth is, change requires work, growth. And one thing that many humans value above all others is comfort and ease. To be challenged to the brink of one’s potential is not something individuals are used to, appreciate, or seek out. Our culture tends to dull us and remove true challenges of mind and body, leaving us in a vacuum, an undisciplined daze where a simple twenty minutes workout a few times a week seems impossible.

To seek growth, to create change, is then almost assuredly a matter of intentionally setting yourself up for isolation and persecution. The evidence is everywhere around us.

My father was a fearless freak of nature. He bestowed upon me a thirst for adventure from before I can even remember.  I could fill books on his exploits, on the risks he undertook, with and without us. But this is going to be about one particular experience, a night I will forever remember and be grateful for. The above quote by HST is one of my favorites, and this is in part because of this one adventure we barely walked away from.

We were sailing down the west coast, from Victoria to San Diego. My mother later told me that getting me out of regular school and giving me a different perspective on life had been one of their main reasons for undertaking this voyage. Fuck am I grateful for that.

My father had done a similar voyage down the east coast from Montreal to Florida many years before with my eldest sibling and had considered it one of the best experiences of his life. I mention this for two reasons. One, he was a fairly experienced sailor, having been within a hundred miles of the eye of a hurricane on one occasion, and in many, many other storms over the years. And two, the coast guard keeps track of people sailing up and down the coasts apparently just for fun, so they knew what kind of a crazy bastard he was.

The trip we were about to undertake was from Morro Bay to Santa Barbara. My dad was hell-bent on leaving now, because there was some bad weather beginning. Once you get to Santa Barbara, it’s a whole different ballpark. It’s within the sheltered south-facing portion of the California coast. Here, in Morro Bay, a reputedly rough part of the ocean, it wasn’t going to stop for quite a few days, and the wind was about to shift to a southern one, making any headway nearly impossible.

There was a weather advisory, and the coast guard had issued a very strict lockdown of the harbor. No one could come in or out. It was broadcasting on the CB repeatedly.

The old man told my mother to pack up and get ready to leave with my little brother. It was customary for her to follow us with the car. If things were calm enough, she and my younger brother would come along, and my father and I would hitchhike back for the old wagon.

He got the boat ready for the trip while I was charged with taking the cat to shore and letting her do her business before her upcoming car ride. She didn’t really do so well in rough weather, so she would be driving this one out as well.

I got back to hear the incoming call from the coast guard.

“Grail Pilgrim, you are cleared to leave. But don’t try and come back in.”

He had requested permission to break the lockdown, and they knew that compared to what he had seen, this was nothing. He had a well deserved reputation. So off we went, pulling up anchor and making our way towards the open ocean.

Morro Bay is hidden away behind a little peninsula, and open to the ocean by a very small passageway maybe a hundred feet wide. The waves were crashing over the breakwaters, completely obscuring them from view for short periods of time. The small opening has a buoy in the middle of it. That big fucker was going from completely limp in the water to completely submerged.

This was going to be one hell of a storm if this was only the beginning. We circled in front of the exit for what felt like forever. I asked him if he was completely crazy. That opening was narrow as fuck, with breaking waves way too often to make a clean break. We would be pushed sideways by the surf and smashed up against the rocks! He laughed. Told me to count the waves. To notice that every fourth one was a bigger one, that it broke larger than the other three, that the time between the last of the three small ones and the big one was longer than the time between any of the other waves.

Well, he was right about that much…

Yelling “NOW”, a delirious smile on his face, he gunned the large inboard diesel engine and we made our break for freedom. I was holding onto the mainsheet like my life depended on it, and yet I remember not really being scared. I realized I was just as excited and delirious as he was. The insanity was either contagious or genetic.

Morro bay is named after a giant rock sticking out into the ocean. It’s massive, really quite impressive. With the rain and the waves and the roar of it all, I remember thinking that if this is where I was going to die, it wasn’t such a bad moment to go.

Oh, yeah, just thought I would mention I was about eleven at that point… Apparently my father didn’t consider safety a priority.

So we crested the big wave with perfect timing, and as we made our way down, it began to break. We were past the narrow slit, past where the artificial constructs forced the swell to a crest.

Unfortunately, it was not all smooth sailing from here. The ocean was rocky that afternoon and evening. The next eight or so hours were a long bore, the kind of moment you really wish would just end. A constant beating, the jostling back and forth, the low cloud cover obscuring visibility, the spray keeping you drenched… It was nothing exceptionally bad, but just bad enough to feel like a slight punishment, like a chore. These were not moments I thought of fondly at the time.

And then as evening turned into night, things took on a severe turn for the worst. This kind of a beating the old man had not expected. The waves picked up size until they were 25-35 feet high, as high as the mast of our Columbia 28′ sailboat, with breaking waves on top of those monsters.

The southern wind had not yet hit, and so we were thankfully able to maintain roughly our initial heading while riding the surf.

We quickly hooked ourselves onto the boat and began a battle that would last the better part of the night, from eight or so to well past two in the morning.

There’s a really amazing feeling of being at the hands of fate in those moments. As you peak and look around from up on high, seemingly just floating in empty space, you feel on top of the world, like this is just too cool. But then you begin to sink backwards and downwards until you find yourself looking up at endless walls in front and behind you, like you are falling backwards down into a hole in the ocean.

The issue with these types of situations, aside from the potential to hit random logs and other unseemly obstacles due to lack of visibility, is that the only chance you have is to ride out the waves, to go with the flow, as they say. But when the waves are faster than the hull speed, and pushing with such force, every climb back up to the top of the crest is a battle, as the stern is pushed forward faster than the bow, resulting in a requirement for a very touchy and very forceful control of the rudder. I tried to do it and at that age simply did not have the strength to hold my own against the onslaught.

Twice the waves got the better of him, and we were sent flying around like ragdolls on the end of a string as the boat flipped sideways and forward, the mast going underwater for a brief moment before the three-quarter keel pulled us back upright again. Columbia sailboats are built tough, and can take a surprising beating without any real danger.

While the afternoon had seemed like a chore, a moment of boredom, that night was an intense battle-fever filled ordeal with little room for such things as boredom. My memories of being out there with the old man, both of us salty as fuck, thoroughly enjoying the moment, feeling completely alive, are some of the best we have shared.

It eventually ended. Gradually getting calmer as we rounded the point and made our way south-east along the coast. An hour before twilight, when the wind and waves were completely dead, I was blessed with an experience not many humans have witnessed.

There is an effect when algae that traps the sun’s light in the daytime gets disturbed at night. This green fluorescence is something that many people have seen or know about. I myself had spit in the water for this very reason many times. But this night, we were suddenly surrounded by a school of dolphins, thousands of them, for as far as the eye could see.

The main sail was up at this point, the engine off, and the spinnaker bundled up in front ready to be pulled up. As I lay there in the great sail, with a giant playboy bunny on it (the boat’s previous owner had named her the March Hare…), I watched as the dolphins shot through the algae, creating the most magical lightshow I have ever seen, torpedoes of light playing together, moving with such grace and speed and obvious playfulness as to make my heart repeatedly leap with joy!

For the next half hour or so I watched them, spellbound, as they jumped around the bow, racing each other, seeming to compete for the task of escorting us out of the hell the night had been. It was like a cosmic gift for having bored the night with such perseverance and acceptance.

As the dolphins left us, and the sun came up, we for the first time on this trip encountered palm trees. The coast was filled with them. The beach looked like paradise, like I had always seen in the movies. I remember thinking I could jump in and just swim to shore from here. That beach looked like the only place I would ever need to be.

Life can be so intense sometimes, filled with such power.

Without moments like these, we don’t realize how much of a gift it is just to be alive. One thing I can say for certain is that my father, Serge, was one hell of a good friend, an ally in battle, a mentor, and probably the kindest and most capable human I have been blessed to know.

I miss him, but I do not mourn him. He took his own life while struggling with a failing meatsuit in 2004. His life was a celebration, and his end was his choice. He taught me many things. One of which is acceptance as strength. And never let a crazy fucking storm or the authorities tell you what you can or can’t do. The possibility of dying doing what you love has to be an acceptable risk, otherwise, it could be argued that you are protecting a life barely worth living.

Having been close to death on many occasions over the years, I can say that each one is like a bright spot in my memory, a marker in an otherwise mostly boring and pointless existence.