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Travis and Carol use every sailor's trick and turn of the tides that San Francisco Bay has to offer as their only weapons with astonishing success.
Whether the reader is a sailor or not, the excitement and satisfaction of reading how two regular citizens can prevail against professional evildoers is an old story but with a thrilling new twist in The Angel Island Conspiracy.
It's the fall of 1981 and Indian summer in the San Francisco Bay Area, the very best time to wander the bay in a boat. The days are warmer than in the official summer, and the wind is but a whisper of the roaring westerlies of June, July, and August. The Central Valley has cooled down, and the rage of cold summer wind and damp fog drawn eastward through the Golden Gate to displace the valley's hot rising airs have subsided. The light winds and sunny days of Indian summer that follow this uncomfortable weather are a welcome respite.
Having spent too much time on that other coast, I, Travis Blake, esquire, once workaday, now recently retired, am ever so grateful to be back sailing my native San Francisco Bay once again. I grew up sailing this bay and ocean racing up and down the adjacent Northern California coast. I even added one TRANSPAC race to Honolulu to my résumé before drifting east to test the job market and the waters of the Atlantic. Now, I am retired from racing too-except, on occasion, as crew on my pal Carol Whitley's Cal 3-30. For the first time, I can savor the beauties of my bay, which I took for granted for too many years while racing around one San Francisco Bay buoy after another. It was always blowing thirty knots, and it seemed I was always sailing against a maddeningly swift current. Now, I can afford the time to go with either the flooding or ebbing current, and I care very little which it might be.
I'm thirty-nine years old and still reasonably attractive to women but slightly overweight, and yes, to say again, I'm retired! Suffice it to say, I do not need to work to support my lifestyle; therefore, I don't. I live on my boat, a modest fifty-foot motor sailer named Lolita, at Clipper Yacht Harbor in Sausalito, California just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Lolita was just what I was looking for in a liveaboard, and I was lucky enough to find her in San Diego six months ago. I bought her without too much ceremony, conducted my own survey of her, and then sailed her up the California coast with the willing help of Carol Whitley. Besides being a close friend and confidante, Carol is one of the best sailors I've ever known, a natural-born master of wind and water. Thanks to her arranging a slip for Lolita next to hers, I have been enjoying the slow and easy harbor life in Sausalito ever since.
Lolita is a delight to sail and is also a quick little motor sailer under power, having a 120-horsepower diesel engine. I had long known of the designer Bill Calkins' superb motor sailers, and being that I was determined to live on my boat as well as sail it as often as possible, I knew Lolita was my best choice. She is one of the prettiest of Calkins' designs and was built in 1961 when the movie Lolita with Sue Lyons and James Mason was shocking audiences. The former owner had her built at the Dennison Boatyard in San Diego. He was a cameraman for that very movie, and I guess Sue made a lasting impression on him as she did on most men at that time. Anyway, one does not change a boat's name lest the gods of the sea should rise up and pull one under. So, since I too fell in love with Lolita-the boat that is-I was just as glad she wasn't named Broomhilda.
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul," so wrote Nabokov. Well, maybe Lolita the boat is not the fire of my loins, but I'm a sailor who loves his boat, and Lolita was made in heaven just for a guy like me. She suits my needs, wants, and desires to a tee-more so than any woman I have ever known, save one, but that is another story far removed from my recent rebirth on the bay.
One of my favorite bay landmarks is Angel Island. Angel is usually the center of my waterborne wanderings. I make it a point to sail to Angel Island State Park to spend the night as often as my hectic retirement lifestyle will allow-and always on a friendly current, of course. I can still pick up a state-planted mooring buoy at the island's Ayala Cove if I can get Lolita free of her slip by early afternoon. Once out of my harbor and into shallow little Richardson Bay, I steer south along the Sausalito shoreline toward the central part of San Francisco Bay. I round Belvedere Island, leaving it to port, enter Raccoon Strait, and lay a course eastward to Ayala Cove. Ayala is near the northeast corner of Angel Island and close to the east end of the strait. After hooking up to a mooring buoy, I can settle in for a pleasant night watching the southeastern tip of the Tiburon Peninsula fall into a black satin silhouette in the evening light-with a good stiff schnokker firmly in hand, of course, a sailor's reward for the arduous journey from Sausalito through current-ripped Raccoon Strait.
Raccoon is a picturesque and narrow little passage that separates Angel Island from the nearest mainland, the Tiburon Peninsula of Marin County and is mostly the domain of pleasure craft. Navigating this strait is the only way a boat can get to Angel's Ayala Cove. Although Raccoon is very deep, it is a bit tight on maneuvering space for many of today's gargantuan containerships and tankers, which constantly move in and out of San Francisco Bay, these days. Still, some of the less grandiose of these ships will shortcut through the strait just the same, on their way to the Standard Oil docks of Richmond or points up toward Carquinez and the ports of Stockton and Sacramento. The strait got its name from the raccoons that constantly swim back and forth between Angel Island and Tiburon. I've seen them on occasion, paddling along through the chop and fighting the swift current like seasoned channel swimmers. Ayala Cove is open to the strait but still provides a quiet refuge from the ripping currents.
In the past, my wife, Kay, and I would occasionally visit Angel Island between race days and moor at Ayala Cove in our rather small boat of that time, but it seems so long ago now. We're long separated, and she never liked being on the water anyway. I left her and my bay to seek my fortune in New York and Boston nine years ago. Tonight, I'm alone and liking it all the better on my spacious Lolita.
This Friday, I manage to get my boat away from the harbor early enough to have daylight see me nearly all the way to the island. It is an idyllic fall evening on San Francisco Bay, clear, warm, and calm. Pulling into Ayala from Raccoon Strait on this glorious Friday evening, I find a vacant mooring buoy next to a Grand Banks trawler yacht. This type of boat I usually take no notice of, but this one is flying a German Navy battle flag from a staff at its transom. Being a naval history aficionado, I have knowledge of the flags of the world's most prominent navies, and this flag is not at all the usual bunting one sees flying from vessels in this part of the world. Finding this banner flying from a yacht rather than a battleship is a bit startling to me.
"Howdy, skipper!" I say to the heavyset man on board the trawler just as I'm securing the buoy tether to my bow cleat.
The overweight, middle-aged man nods with indifferent, nonchalant economy. His dog, a wiry little schnauzer, peers at me over the deck rail of the trawler, apparently happier to see me than to be with his master. The portly man lowers his dinghy to row his dog to the shore for want of a tree, I assume. The dog gladly jumps into the dinghy and runs straight for the bow where he hovers in anticipation of putting paws on Mother Earth once again. Mr. "German Navy" crawls clumsily over the trawler's transom following his dog into the dinghy. He pushes away from the trawler using an oar and rows for shore. I can't help thinking that this guy is a ringer for Gert Frobe, the German actor who played Goldfinger. He is fat, has close-cropped blond hair, and judging by his cold response to my greeting, is about as friendly as Auric Goldfinger. Undoubtedly a Prussian, I think.
German Navy flag, Gert Frobe, I chuckle to myself. The people you meet at Ayala Cove on a Friday night. Meanwhile, my attention is drawn to a young couple in a brand-new twenty-foot camper-type day-sailer two buoys over who are struggling to put up a dodger-tent over their otherwise open cuddy for the night. They are newbies to life on the water, and I envy their youthful enthusiasm and shaky actions. Out of the corner of my eye, I spy the man and dog in the dink just pushing up to the rough, steep, and heavily foliaged shoreline of the cove. The little schnauzer leaps the last three feet of remaining liquid and rushes up the embankment. The young couple has moved on to prepping their barbecue overhanging the twenty-footer's transom. Many boat folks are arriving now and grabbing the last few buoys. The gab that accompanies the boat-hooking of the mooring buoy lanyards and the hauling down of sails fills the still night air. Man and dog are no longer visible. I help myself to another schnokker and revel in my useless existence while contemplating the possibility of a god and a world that may not be as bad as I had often thought in the past. Life is rushing through my arteries, and death is an impossibility.
The morning comes harshly with the siren from a sheriff's motorboat shattering the calm morning air as it charges into the cove, red lights flashing. An island park ranger is already poised on the cove's ferry dock to catch the boat's lines. What's so damned urgent as to break the tranquility of this fine island Saturday morning? I wonder. Here I am sitting in Lolita's cockpit sipping my first cup of coffee and trying to wake up when this horrid siren draws my attention toward the ferry dock. Then, last night's impossibility crashes into my view as a stretcher is pushed onto the dock surrounded by uniforms. A blanket covers the stretcher from top to bottom. Under it lies the Hitchcock-like silhouette of a rather heavyset human who seems to have been frozen in the act of trying to walk through the tight-fitting shroud, much as Hitchcock walked into his silhouette at the beginning of his TV program. A dog races round and round on the dock. It's the schnauzer of the trawler yacht man, the Goldfinger look-alike! Another sheriff's boat comes into the cove and starts going from moored boat to moored boat asking questions, I suppose about who might have seen what last night. A sheriff's deputy boards the trawler yacht and then beckons to me.
"Hey, Captain, did you see the people of this boat last night? And what the hell kind of a flag is that?"
I explain that I did not see the trawler man again after our brief meeting and his departure for shore the night before. After taking my name and contact information, the deputy moves on to the young couple's twenty-footer with the same line of questioning.
The corpse and sheriff's boats are soon gone, and it's time to go ashore for a stroll. I delight in walking around Angel Island's 775 acres of hilly, wooded terrain, which affords the grandest views of San Francisco, the East Bay, and the Golden Gate. From a land developer's point of view, Angel Island should have been a contiguous part of the real estate boom of the San Francisco Bay Area. But the army got to Angel first in the mid-nineteenth century and built some fort facilities, a hospital, an immigration station, and a few gun emplacements but did little else to spoil the natural landscape. The military held on to it through the smashmouth development of the great twentieth-century California land rush until they finally turned it over, in its entirety, to the State of California in 1963. The state, with great wisdom, made the island into a state park. Anyone can visit Angel Island State Park for the price of a ferry ticket and the park's day fee, or they can come by private boat to the delightful and sheltered Ayala Cove. Visitors are free to explore the entire island but only from 8:00 am to sunset. All persons but the park rangers must be off the island at night. Needless to say, Angel is an extremely popular weekend destination for Bay Area hikers and nature lovers, but the developers must hate this island. Wrapped up in the beauties of my bay, I forget about corpse, dog, and flag.
The Chronicle carried the story on page 3. "The body of a middle-aged white male was found early Saturday morning by a state park ranger near the old barracks on the west side of Angel Island. No signs of violence were detected, and it is believed by authorities that the man might have suffered a heart attack while walking his dog along the island's perimeter road. He has been identified as Klaus Nieber, a resident of Tiburon."
This perimeter road, Mr. Nieber's last trail so to speak, completely circles the island and is usually the main route for walkers. They can start from and end up back at Ayala Cove while never leaving the road but still partaking of all the glorious vistas of the Bay Area.
The area on Angel in the vicinity of the perimeter road where the corpse was found is called the West Garrison. It was built by the army around the time of the Civil War. Several buildings were erected there in typical nineteenth-century military style, lined up straight arrow beside a parade ground. There are only a few remaining structures of this little community, long ago abandoned by the army and include a solitary three-story building sitting next to a seawall on a brow above the northwest bay. The West Garrison looks out on the southeastern end of the Marin Headlands, Sausalito included. The building at the seawall, by virtue of its position near the water's edge, also has a grand vista of the Golden Gate. This is a delectable chunk of waterfront property-another reason for the developers to hate this island. Besides these buildings, several more, all constructed by the army for various purposes, are scattered in groups here and there about the island. Because of the curfew, the trawler man, "Mr. German Navy" and his dog were not legally permitted to go ashore that evening, but I've seen several other yachties from time to time take leave of the regs for doggy's sake. So, there was nothing outwardly unusual in his actions that night, but for flying that German Navy battle flag. Many Germans have settled in all parts of the Bay Area over the years, and I know several who are avid sailors, but none who possess such a flag-at least not that they are willing to display publicly.
* * *
The following Friday evening finds me back on a mooring buoy at Ayala Cove. Call it a rut, but I especially like the place, mainly because of its rusticity. Angel remains untouched while being completely surrounded on all points of the compass by some of the most expensive human development in the world. This night is another nice one, again thanks to Indian summer, and, as usual, the cove's moorings are filling up fast.
On my sail over from Sausalito this time, I noticed a boat anchored off the little beach below the West Garrison, the spot close to where the corpse was discovered. This is unprotected, open water off this beach and populated by pilings from an old army dock. It's a lee shore to boot being subject to the prevailing westerly winds, which flow liberally through the Golden Gate at different intensities in different seasons. It is certainly an unfavorable spot for anchoring at any time, and I'd never seen anyone attempt to anchor there. Yet, here was this particular boat, around sixty feet long, doing just that. It also stands out in my mind that she was a beautiful example of pre-World War II sailing yacht design with long, graceful overhangs and a delightfully curvy sheer, both of these features having long vanished from contemporary boat design. Of even more significance to me, I recognized her as a boat that has been docked, for as long as I could remember in Sausalito Yacht Harbor along the city-front row of berths paralleling Bridgeway Avenue. I'd always made it a point to stop to admire her lines whenever I was at nearby Maddens Boatyard fixing my own boat. But never once had I ever seen her out of her berth. Seeing her out on the bay then was a real curiosity, but beyond that was the even more curious banner she was flying from her jackstaff, the German Navy battle flag. What's this nonsense? I wonder. More transplanted Germans, who are, all of a sudden, deciding to show their patriotism to the fatherland?
Now safely ensconced at a buoy at Ayala, I ponder all this freshly discovered strangeness. This beauty was sitting in a most unlikely, illogical location flying the same flag I saw on the transom of that trawler yacht last Friday evening, off the beach in the same vicinity of the island where another patriotic German, the trawler man, became a corpse. All of this sticks in my craw. Not usually one to allow curiosities to upset my perfect little world of newly acquired leisure, I try to think purer, more enjoyable thoughts. No dice! It is stirring around in my brain until I start to shuffle around Lolita's deck, quite by rote. My orderly sailor's mind has a low threshold of tolerance for lines not tied properly and boats that have never left the dock suddenly being found anchored in places they shouldn't. I've sailed this bay too long to let such an obviously poor judgment in anchoring go unnoticed. Sailors are a conservative lot, knowing that oddity and change usually bring bad luck and trouble.
Excerpted from The Angel Island Conspiracy by Robert Banks Hull Copyright © 2010 by Robert Banks Hull. Excerpted by permission.
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