I cannot tell whether the crunch under my barefoot is granola or crusted salt. This dimly lit room would make a great prison cell, or better yet a coat closet, instead it is my home for the next 26 days. “All hands to the mainsail,” comes an echoing cry as a group of 14 to 17 year olds struggle to hoist up the billowing white sail.
I am struggling with my current mission too; several boxes of angle hair spaghetti and a Costco sized can of tomato sauce need to transform into dinner for thirty-four, as I contemplate how I got myself into the situation.
The answer is simple- Michoel.
He is the charismatic camp director with the gall to take a group of orthodox Jewish boys to the wildest places imaginable for one month every summer. From the peaks of the Great Rocky Mountains to the rain forest like trenches of coastal Washington. This year marks 11 years since he first embarked on this improbable mission.
During a jog in the morning of an early April day I saw his caller i.d. appear on my phone. There are few calls I would answer during a run but I knew Michoel would appreciate it. “Uh, doing real, uh, well,” I respond to his question while gasping for air. “That’s great Huds, how is your July 15 through August 13 looking? I need a cook.” His gung ho attitude is infections and while I never had aspirations to be a sailor, let alone a cook on a sailboat, I agree to a job I don’t fully understand.
The Exy Johnson is a tall ship, modeled after the Brigantine vessels once used to transport tea and tobacco across the Atlantic. Most of those boats have long since been replaced by liners, the sweat of sailors by gasoline. Boats like the Exy are left to enthusiasts.
With the tomato can opened and a pot of water boiling I deceive myself into thinking all I have left to do is dump in the pasta, let it simmer for half an hour, drain it, and mix in the sauce.
I step outside the galley for my first walk around the boat. I immediately notice three boys slumped against the railing, one of them is leaning over it, throwing up. I recognize Tzvi as the one who just threw up. He made an enthusiastic introduction early that day when we set sail, leaving me with the nugget that he was notoriously prone to motion sickness.
Moving past him and to the front of the boat, or the bow in sailor language, I find myself at the main deck. Its most strident feature is “the jacuzzi,” the main gathering area where we do morning prayers, all hands meetings, and hang out. The little tub is crammed with weary campers. One boy is talking animatedly to Captain Dan, “No, I don’t think we will make it all the way to San Francisco, but let’s see how we do getting out of the marina first,” he responds. San Pedro is still visible to the east of us. Sailing from this Southern California port to the San Francisco Bay was Michoel’s original plan when he called me months ago. It had more recently been swapped out with the far more attainable goal of circumnavigating the 5 Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California.
I amble back to the galley to check on the pasta. As I insert a beat up serving spoon I am met with resistance halfway down the pot. Clumped pasta. I drain and rinse the overcooked pot of goo in an attempt to improve the situation. It is 4pm and despite the quality of dinner it is ready. 2 hours early for dinner but too scared to step away from my “creation” I pull myself up to the only viable sitting space in the galley; a small linoleum topped counter. Two sentences into a collection of the best short stories from 1998 I am nauseous.
After dinner I make my way to the jacuzzi, focusing on my breath, trying to dispel myself of the nausea. I find a huddled mass of other sick boys, a dire difference to the group of boys I saw there several hours ago. I wedge myself between the two least nauseous looking boys I can see. Soon I start wondering, realizing how 26 days is a long time. Among the other sick on board I have some relief in knowing I am not alone. There are a handful of boys that are already unsettling at home on the Exy, none of them sit besides me. George, one of the crew members, tries to assure us matter-of-factly that, “Within a few days you’ll find your sea legs. Then you won’t feel a thing.” What started as slight dizziness is turning into the urge to purge myself of dinner, my trust in George is low.
With my approval half a pot of misshapen pasta is unceremoniously dumped overboard. As soon as the rotation of boys assigned to helping me with kitchen duties start scrubbing the dull grey pot my thoughts drift, breakfast. It is hard thinking about scrambled eggs while wanting to never eat again.
As I put away all the kitchen equipment, giving the pot a personal once over, I prepare the kitchen for tomorrow morning. The sun has long since set and although we are not more than two dozen miles away from the mainland the stream of stars above head is vivid. The boat is quiet now. The only noise is water gently lapping against the side of the boat.
I am tired but can’t force myself to go below deck. A trip to the stuffy and equally smelly main quarters is unappealing. I make my way back to the jacuzzi instead. There are only a few campers left out, the most ailed among us. Staring into the empty and dark horizon Captain Dan says, “You guys will have to go to sleep eventually, especially if you are in shift 3, you are on duty starting at 4 am.” “I am going to throw up if I go down there,” a short kid with a New York accent, whose night this may have been his first away from home in his life, says. “I know you feel bad right now but once you get into bed and close your eyes you will start feeling a lot better. And practically speaking you really can’t stay on deck all night.”
Among the haggard herd of unwilling sick people I eventually make my way down stairs. The main haul is essentially a very wide hallway. On both sides there are triple tiered bunk beds, each with a thin foam pad. I crawl into my new abodes and shut my eyes tight. Dan wasn’t lying. I fell asleep fast.
“Hey Yehudah, wake up, Fern sent me down to get you.” I peek at my phone, it says I have zero bars and it is 6am. My messenger, a tall boy with brown hair, looks like he would rather be sleeping. His shift has been up since 4am. When I get on deck there are only 3 campers and 2 crew members in sight, everybody else hiding in bed.
Aside from the slight residue of nausea left over from last night, like the stubborn pieces of burnt spaghetti left glued to the pot on the galley counter, I can feel another uncomfortable sensation. It is an ache in my chest, a rare feeling among the sensations of my life but a feeling I identified with quickly. It is the dull dread I get before public speaking or having a physical confrontation. Its cause is obvious- my responsibility to feed everyone. I soon decipher a consistent routine; As I am preparing a meal the dread builds until I am finished. It starts to dissipate as everyone lines up to get lunch, as I see people are actually willing to eat my cockamamie impersonations of honey dijon chicken wings, caesar salad supreme, or whatever I scramble together. The sensation completely leaves when and if I announce seconds and the food is finished off. An occurrence that would not happen until after a few days on the ship and I had developed some kitchen acumen.
After five days I feel like I am getting into the swing of things. The slight nausea persists but I have only thrown up once. Tzvi, my new constant companion in the kitchen, hasn’t been so lucky. His pale face greets me after breakfast, “I have just about the greatest idea for lunch,” Tzvi is funny, despite his nausea, and an appreciated help in the kitchen. But he is 16, I am dubious of his great idea when he excitedly reveals it, “Let’s make some french fries! Give everyone a taste of home. It’ll be much better than the baked potatoes you have planned.” “Common,” I say to him with pretend hurt, “Everyone loves my baked potatoes.” “No offense Yehudah, your potatoes are B-L-A-N-D. Your recipe is oil, potatoes and salt.” Tzvi says.
“I’d like to see you do better,” I respond. “I will. For lunch. French fries.” He is alive with the idea, for a moment it overshadows his sickness. “Alright you make these french fries, I am going to make egg salad. You have 5 hours until we serve. Please don’t mess this up, I only have so much food aboard.” I am becoming increasingly more aware of how the boats stock of food will not get us through another 22 days.
“Yes!” Tzvi goes in for an enthusiastic high five, “You are not going to regret this.” My egg salad will take less than half an hour to prepare. “If his plan flops I will just serve wraps with lunch”, I think silently to myself as I walk towards the jacuzzi.
I listen to Michoel give a pep talk to the usual crowd of jacuzzi residents. It is clear I am not the only one rethinking my decision to be a part of this voyage. By 12 o’clock I decide to go back to the galley, start working on that egg salad, and salvage whatever Tzvi and his gang didn’t ruin.
Tzvi is wearing the flamboyant floral kitchen apron, between his hands, an improvised tray made of a discarded cardboard box. In the box there are, to my amazement, french fries. I am pleasantly taken aback. I smile, “Wow those look good, can I have some?”
“No food until it is served,” he replies, parroting one of the lines I tout daily. Then his smile fades, “Uhh we are seriously going to have to limit everyone’s portions.” The tray he is holding is the only tray. One tray of fries for 34 hungry people. I serve lunch with tortillas after all. My usual dread leaves as I serve the last scoop of egg salad.
On the morning of the 8th day of the trip I wake up early to start preparing rations for the next five days. I visit the bow of the ship to greet whichever shift is on. When I get there all twelve of them, plus 4 crew members, are crowded around the railing. An odd sight for 5am. Then I see it- the back of a whale emerges 30 feet from the boat. My first reaction is panic. It is huge, bigger than the ship itself. But no one else seems irked. I quickly transition to awe, realizing we are in no danger. The whole ocean comes up to say hello that morning. Dolphins, schools of catfish, the whale even emerges a few more times. The closest experience I ever had to this was seeing Shamu at six flags, it isn’t comparable. As conservationist and ranger premier George Melendez Wright once observed, “Generations ago man was accustomed to wild animals, but that has all been buried in city life. Whenever he has seen wild animals at all, they have been presented in some way compatible with dense populations […] comes a day when his heart skips a beat. Walking along a deep forest trail he comes upon a single bear eagerly peeling the bark from a log in search of fat white grubs. This is a fresh thrill and it brings the realization that the unique charm of the animals in a national park lies in their wildness, not their tameness, in their primitive struggle to survive rather than their fat certainty of an easy living. The new concept involves an appreciation of the characteristics of a real wild animal, notably, that each wild animal is the embodied story of natural forces which have been operative for millions of years and is therefore a priceless creation, a living embodiment of the past, presentiment of the future. It teaches the new joy of seeking out the wild creatures where they are leading their own fascinating lives instead of having them pauperized in camp where each individual animal becomes a bull in a china shop.”
We are in the headwaters of a national park that also happens to be an island, Anacapa. It is the reason I am preparing rations. During the phone call I had with Michoel 4 months ago he told me we would be doing some camping this year, “Listen mate I have a couple Islands in mind. Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, or Anacapa. Let me know what you think, where we should bring camp.”
I gave the matter little thought and when he sent me an email the next week, asking which island I liked, I googled each one and choose the one that looked the nicest; Anacapa. I later found out we became the longest time residents since a hermit named French made this his home in the 1950’s.
“My break from Cooking” I think over and over again, smiling to myself as I distribute tortillas, salami, small packages of condiments, a bruised apple, an orange, and a few cheese sticks into 29 Hefty 40 liter garbage bags. Each camper will have all the food they need and I will only have to worry about feeding myself for the next few days. This was going to be the vacation I needed.
The small island is visible by midday. A crew member ferries groups of 4 to the small island. The boat and the crew members will leave us ashore while they go back to the mainland and do a resupply.
I am the last to leave the ship, doing a once over of my galley before I go. “Don’t worry, we will keep it safe for you, won’t mess anything up,” Fern, the first mate, says. As I step onto Anacapa I feel euphoric, free of all responsibility, of the daily dread of making food. The joy dissipates as I realize we are not the only ones on this island. In my “research” of the island I neglected to uncover that from May to August Anacapa is home to 10,000 pairs of mating western gulls. 20,000 adult seagulls and their countless bratty kids. They are our companions for the next four days on this tiny island. I stop noticing the non stop crowing and moaning of the birds during day two. But they don’t stop noticing us, stalking us overhead anytime we venture out of our tents. Anacapa is soon dubbed Ana-crap-a
Every day we swim, jumping from the jagged cliffs off the island. I get to read without getting nauseous, but most of all I appreciate not having to cook. The four days passed faster than any four days of my life. I achieved a kind of relaxation that can only be found after an immense buildup of pressure has been released.
“16 days left,” I think to myself as I start chopping wilted carrots back in galley only hours after returning to the ship. I am the first aboard and am ready to get back at it. Baked potatoes and romaine salad for lunch. I recommit myself to finding both literal and metaphorical balance in the kitchen for the days to come.
After lunch an all hands meeting is called. Every person aboard assembles around the jacuzzi. Captain Dan stands near Fern at the helm. She starts talking loudly, “I hope you guys all had a good time on Anacapa, we heard those birds where relentless,” she smirks but quickly gets serious, “We are headed into what may be the most intense stretch of this journey. This stretch of ocean is known to be treacherous. By the looks of it some of you are already feeling the swells increase, this will get worse by tomorrow. If your shift is on, or you are on deck for any other reason, you will need to be clipped into a harness at all times,” safety lines we usually only use at night, “ above all else be smart. If you follow our orders and use your common sense we will get through this fine.“ I look around, some of the faces seem to be saying, “bring it on”, most of the others look unenthusiastic, I feel both.
I fall asleep without issue but upon waking up feel the boat swaying more than usual. I step outside and almost lose my balance. In the galley I make a plan: I will serve the simplest meals I can think of to survive today. Cereal and milk for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly tortillas for lunch, hot dogs and broccoli for dinner.
After lunch the swells start approaching 8 feet, sending waves on deck, soaking any passersby, and returning me to a state of utter sickness. I decide I better get started on dinner before I am decapacitated. When 4pm rolls around Fern’s words from last night seem too tame. Anything that isn’t bolted down goes flying, inside the galley, on deck, or below. A lost book, an odd sock, even someone’s shoes, float past the galley window. The tossing to and fro is worse than any roller coaster I have ever been on. I go to the jacuzzi to seek refuge. Michoel is explaining how it is impossible for the boat to capsize, “The haul is just to darn heavy, we will all die long before this ship turns upside down. Just hold on tight. Isn’t that right Malley Gaster” he says, smiling in my direction.
I hear the thud of pots and realize things in the galley are out of control. I grab two people who look like they are doing okay, Carol and JJ. They both had a glint in their eyes last night when Fern was describing this. Together we hatch down all the windows and fasten the pot to the stove. If that gets out of place I am screwed. Inside the oven the hot dogs are bouncing like kids on a trampoline. At least it is contained. With the windows closed the galley becomes stuffy as hell, my nausea worsens. I leave Carol and JJ with instructions, “Listen guys, serving dinner on deck clearly ain’t gonna happen. We are going to open the port side window and serve dinner from there. Got it?” They both nod in affirmation, “Alright, great, feed anyone who is hungry and find me if you need anything, I will be throwing up near the jacuzzi.”
I bolt out of the galley in time to lean over the railing as I let my guts out into the raging ocean. It is cathartic but I still feel like crap as I sit in the jacuzzi. The waves are 12 feet tall at this point and there is no escaping the salt water raining down on us. “All hands strike the square sails,” Fern shouts, I make a weak attempt to help bring the sail down, “Heave, ho. Heave, ho.” I don’t have much juice but I yank the damp line like my life depends on it, “Heave, ho. Heave, ho.” The sail comes down all at once. We scuttle back to the jacuzzi. As I pass the galley I see Carol and JJ within, feasting on hot dogs, I afford a small smile to myself. At least someone on board is having fun.
People usually don’t talk about the calm after the storm but that describes the next day perfectly. In fact the rest of the week goes by without much event.
Dinner the next night, burgers, are cooking in the oven as I start sauteing some vegetables on the stove. It usually takes me 25 minutes to get the two large pans finished. Today an hour passes and the vegetables still don’t look ready. I peek inside the oven at the burgers, they look partially cooked. When I take one out for a taste I realize they are completely raw inside. I go behind the galley, where the gas canisters are stored, to make sure the valve is on. They are on but the pressure barometer tilts back and forth. I consult Fern. She figures out pretty quickly the propane is empty. “How the hell am I going to finish making dinner?!” I ask Fern. I know it is not her fault but I am frustrated. I trust the crew to make sure everything boat side is in order so I can do my job.
The stir fry becomes an avocado salad. I throw the burgers into the freezer, hoping it hasn’t already developed some god awful bacteria. Thankfully there are cheerios and almond milk left over from breakfast. Without an ounce of shame I serve it with the aforementioned salad.
The next morning land comes into sight again. This time it is the mainland, our last stop before sailing back to San Pedro. The Santa Barbara port looks childish compared to the vast sea I am used to. People dressed up in beach attire. Their only care if there will be traffic on the way back home later that day. It all seems so trivial compared to that hellish evening two days ago, or the horde of birds on Anacapa. I can still hear them caw if I close my eyes.
Today I will go into town with Captain Dan. He will pick up a replacement gas canister for the oven and stove. I will go to Safeway and stock up on produce. It has been a week since I had anything fresh left to serve. I find the two big carts and giddily set off down the aisles. Two hours later they are both overflowing with avocados, greens, corn, potatoes, chips, tomato sauce and their like. Having cooked for 3 weeks I knew exactly what I want. Dan easily locates me and my brimming carts in the Safeway parking lot. In one trip I am back to the galley. Now stocked with enough goods to keep everyone on board happy for the final week.
The next day we set sail again. This time back, south. When we are well out of sight of Santa Barbara the next day we take a break from sailing in favor of swimming. Before jumping from the edge of the boat I lather on layers of shampoo and soap, a desperate attempt at cleanliness. The feeling of being in the ocean, in the middle of nowhere, is sublime. I am completely consumed by the oceans vastness. Getting clean also felt pretty darn good.
Just as everyone makes it back on board a school of dolphins comes up to the spot we were swimming. I feel like life on the boat is actually becoming enjoyable in that moment, it does not last. I decide to go all out for lunch. Cheese fondue, toasted tortillas, and a fresh romaine salad with my yet to be famous sour dressing. As I zest lemon, mostly mayonnaise at this point, the boat tilts to its port side, my right. I am already used to the sporadic movements of the ship, even in calm seas, but the dressing is not secured. It falls off the counter. In a slow instant I am covered in it. Not only is this the last of my mayonnaise, I forgot to replenish in Safeway, I am no longer clean. My good mood is gone. I wipe of the viscus, white, concoction from the least likely and most obscure parts of the galley. I use a lame olive oil dressing in its place.
Today is our last day at sea, day 27. The wind starts to slow down during lunch, mashed potatoes. There is not much to do on the boat, the boys lazily strike all the sails as the port comes into view. After dinner Captain Dan breaks out his banjo, Fern her fiddle. They start belting out lively bluegrass tunes. Before long everyone aboard is dancing. For once the boats rocking has nothing to do with the swells, we are securely tied to the docks of Ports O’Call in San Pedro. It is uninhibited dancing, the made up jig full of uncoordinated movement, the happy dance of a sailor headed home. It has been a hard month. This celebration is as much a farewell to the good times had as much as it is a welcoming embrace of the land to come.
Everyone sleeps well that night, there is no “on shift.” The regularities of society we have been “lacking” seep in overnight. The boat gently caresses the wooden port with the occasional thud, as it comes into contact with a rubber mooring buoys hanging off of the boat.
Months later when I close my eyes I can feel the motions of the ocean, and for a panicked moment try to remember if I took the lunch meat out of the freezer to defrost, only to remember that responsibility has long been fulfilled. It was more demanding than any job I have ever had, yet I am better for it.
All photos are courtesy of the incredible photographer Tzvi Perlow (who happens to be available for hire).