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The Box Wine Sailors: Misadventures of a Broke Young Couple at Sea

The Box Wine Sailors: Misadventures of a Broke Young Couple at Sea

by Amy McCullough


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Amy and Jimmie were not sailors. Their experience included reading a few books, watching a couple of instructional videos, and sailing once a week for a year. They were land-lubberly, middle-class twentysomethings, audacious and in love. All they wanted was to be together and do something extraordinary. They quit their jobs, bought a boat that was categorically considered "too small" for ocean sailing, and left Portland, Oregon for the Sea of Cortez.

The Box Wine Sailors tells the true story of a couple's ramshackle trip down the coast, with all the exulting highs and terrifying lows of sailing a small boat on the Pacific. From nearly being rammed by a pair of whales on Thanksgiving morning and the terrifying experience of rounding Punta Gorda—hanging on to the mast for dear life and looking about at what seemed like the apocalypse—to having their tiller snap off while accidentally surfing coastal breakers and finding ultimate joy in a $5 Little Caesar's pizza. It also tells the story of two very normal people doing what most people only dream of, settling the argument that if you want something bad enough you can make it happen.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613733486
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/01/2015
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Amy McCullough is the former music editor of Willamette Week, Portland, Oregon's Pulitzer Prize-winning alt-weekly newspaper, and has also written for Eugene Weekly and SAIL Magazine.

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The Box Wine Sailors

Misadventures of a Broke Young Couple at Sea

By Amy McCullough

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2016 Amy McCullough
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-351-6



"Sensible" Cruising

"Wow. I Wish I Could Do That."

It was gutsy, sure. And there were dangers. "We're quitting our jobs and sailing to Mexico," we'd say. "No, neither of us is a sailor. No, we didn't take lessons. No. We haven't been on the ocean before." The naysayers would remark: "You can't do that." "You need a bigger boat." "You'd better take a few classes." Or the ever-encouraging, "You're going to die." But, in truth, most people said, "Wow. I wish I could do that," or "You're so brave."

It turns out the only difference between bravery and stupidity is a happy ending. If we had died, if our soggy carcasses had washed up on some Californian beach months after our departure, everyone would have said that we were foolish. Or at least they would have thought it. Sailing the Pacific on a twenty-seven-foot boat, with no experience? Figures ... But we lived. And so we are brave.

Jimmie and I did do something extraordinary together, but figuring out what the hell we were doing and the actual doing of it happened simultaneously. We were determined to be cheap — the only way a young, middle-class couple could see such a scheme through (thus skipping the expensive sailing courses) — and we were determined to do things our way (thus skipping the expensive sailing courses).

The extent of our experience upon leaving can be summed up as follows: we had read a few books, rented two low-budget instructional VHS tapes — one starring Flash Gordon and an actress from Dallas — and practiced sailing once a week for about a year before departing. Most people assume one of us was a sailor who convinced the other to humor his or her fantasy. But it was our fantasy. We dreamed it together. And neither of us had more of a clue about what we were doing than the other.

In fact, neither of us had ever been on the ocean in a boat until after we had quit our jobs, sold all our belongings, given up our apartment, taken the bus from Northwest Portland to our shabby Multnomah Channel marina, and crossed the notoriously dreaded Columbia River Bar. Before deciding on sailing, we had discussed building a cob cottage and living a self-sufficient, remote country life; we made plans for running a food cart or opening a small bar together; we considered canoeing to South America (from Oregon; we had our sights set high).

But a sailboat, we realized, could be purchased for only a few thousand dollars — if one's standards are low. And, once purchased, it can be lived on and traveled in indefinitely. As is often noted by sailors, the wind is free. Of course, there was the lack-of-experience obstacle, but we figured we'd deal with that in time. As it was, I had spent a handful of summery days aboard my stepdad's thirteen-foot racer (as a mere passenger) in my early teens. He sailed it on a small lake in Wisconsin.

Jimmie, for his part, grew up in the Cascade Range east of Portland. His family was poor, and luxuries such as family vacations were few and very far between. When he was twelve, a rather extravagant outing was arranged in which he was taken to the Oregon coast by his mother and paternal grandmother. Though he had spent his entire childhood a mere two-hour drive from the Pacific, Jimmie had never seen the ocean. Once on the beach in Seaside, he shit his pants with excitement.

"Welcome to the Jungle."

Our first day on the ocean was mostly beautiful. I had cried the night before, frying thin-sliced potatoes in oil on our two-burner stove while rocking on the wakes of fishing boats returning across the Columbia River Bar. Giant seabirds I later identified as brown pelicans were dive-bombing the water all around us, filling their flexible beak pouches with tiny fish and gulping them down; they'd rise up thirty or forty feet in the air, then tuck their wings and plummet so quickly that the subsequent splashes had us frequently popping our heads out of the cabin to investigate. We weren't yet used to the sound.

We were anchored right near the entrance to the Pacific, behind Clatsop Spit — perhaps a precarious spot, but we had never done this before, and we wanted to have as much time as possible to get from Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia, to Tillamook Bay, our first scheduled stop along the Oregon coast. And we wanted to do it all in daylight. The opposite, north side of the mouth is called Cape Disappointment; let's just say Clatsop Spit had a better ring to it. We had made a dish of lentils and canned corn sprinkled with Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning the night before and set it aside so we wouldn't have to attempt cooking while underway the next day.

The Columbia River Bar inspired many of the cries against our trip. "Not just anyone can cross the Columbia River Bar," people would tell us. "Special pilots are flown out to incoming vessels just to guide them across." "It's called 'the Graveyard of the Pacific,' you know." Yes, we knew. We'd taken a field trip to the Maritime Museum in Astoria earlier that year. There is a giant map in the entry corridor with little red lights marking all the historical shipwrecks in the region. And though we said many times later that the bar was the least of our troubles, we took it very seriously.

As such, we waited for a light forecast to make the crossing and were rewarded with a whitewash of fog and relatively calm seas. Rather than giant breakers and boats careening up waves at terrifying angles, our seascape was filled with bored seagulls, an impeccably opaque grayness, and the white stern lights of fishing boats speeding past us.

Eventually, the fog blew off and a lovely Oregon August day took over, bringing fifteen-knot winds on our beam. We set the sails, engaged the autopilot (a robotic arm that adjusts the tiller to keep you on course), and sat on the deck in the sun. The waves were long and low (for Oregon), but we both felt better sitting up high, rather than in the cockpit closer to eye level with the four- to six-foot swell.

I had never been too prone to motion sickness; Jimmie's history with it is, shall I say, on a par with how his body handled its first ocean encounter. At some point midday, we ate our lentils and corn, I hungrily and Jimmie begrudgingly. As afternoon came upon us, the winds picked up, as it turns out they often do, and the sea became an instant mountain range, its peaks and valleys growing more dramatic with each gusty whip. We maintained a facade of coolness, taking deep breaths and looking around with calm, collected expressions on our faces. We felt thankful it was sunny. We wondered if there was anything we could do.

We deliberated about going farther out to sea as the waves built up, thinking the deeper water might dull their height to some extent. As the distance between the water's surface and the seafloor diminishes, ocean swell begins to bump against the bottom and grow taller as it approaches the coast, ultimately resulting in breakers. But, as we later learned, such an effect doesn't materialize until the water is shallower than the waves are tall (duh). Even at a mere five nautical miles from the coast, a line we'd been riding most of the day, there were more than thirty fathoms (180 feet) of briny water under our turquoise hull. The queen mother of all tsunamis might have bounced back off the seafloor at that depth, creating the horror breaker of Laird Hamilton's wet nightmares. But, no, these waves were being caused by the wind. In our ignorance, we did venture slightly further out, only to find (ahem) no difference in the sea state. As we approached the entrance to Tillamook Bay, 55.7 nautical miles from our Clatsop Spit anchorage, we angled back toward the shore.

We were now sailing with a "following sea," which is just what it sounds like. The boat was yawing heavily, and we probably had too much sail up for the increased (and increasing) strength of the wind. We became more proactive about sail management as the trip went on, but in the beginning, we would have seemed downright lazy to a casual onlooker.

We had hank-on headsails, which meant we'd have to go on deck and unhook an entire sail to change it, pulling it down against the force of the wind (or turning into the wind to depower it), then bagging it before "hanking on" and raising its replacement. There were no shortcuts. Many boats have what's called a roller-furling headsail, which works like a giant window shade: you tug on a string and it winds up or lets out, all from the convenience of your cockpit. On a craft like ours, switching sails was a lot of work to get involved in if you weren't sure of the necessity. You might also, perchance, not feel terribly comfortable crawling all over the deck of your tiny boat, sail bags and ropes and hardware in tow, as it rides up and down seven-foot swell on your very first day on the mighty Pacific.

Each wave would lift our stern up and thrust us forward at a forty-five-degree angle, after which we'd slide down its face and then counter-steer to correct the spin it gave our rear end. During this repeated torture, I was holding on as fiercely as I could to the metal railings around the cockpit while Jimmie steered with all his might. (This was to become a familiar scenario in the face of intensifying conditions.) The autopilot, which we'd named Jeeves, had taken to seizing up and calling for help via a solid electronic BEEEEEEEP once we'd turned inland. Jeeves wasn't up to the task.

Neither, it turned out, was Jimmie's stomach. The lentils and corn were rearing their ugly heads just as the Pacific's waves grew white and dark in repeating, mesmerizing patterns in the dimming evening. Crest and valley. Foam and black. Over and over. We'd hooked up some marine speakers for listening to music in the cockpit, and our first coastal landfall was soundtracked by Guns N' Roses.

Jimmie, tiller in hand, leaned over the gunwales and yacked, the sea writhing beneath us and Axl Rose wailing in his ears: "Welcome to the jungle / Watch it bring you to your sha-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na knees, knees." He threw up and steered simultaneously — steady down the hill of water, keep your stern squared up to the waves — and just when all the lentils and corn had vacated his system, we crossed the bar into Tillamook Bay. Huge lumps of swell smashed into the jetty tips behind us, creating salt geysers against the poo-speckled rocks. "It's gonna bring you down! Huh!"

Once inside the jetties' rocky embrace, I took over steering, the boat powered by our outboard. Jimmie brought down the sails as we entered a large, calm body of shallow water bathed in clear moonlight. Sitting across from me at the dinette after we'd anchored in the tiny crescent of Crab Harbor, Jimmie looked exhausted. I made clam chowder from a can and we slept. When I closed my eyes, I could see wave-shaped patterns of white and black shifting against the backs of my eyelids.

And even if I dressed them up in curry and stewed tomatoes, Jimmie was never again very enthusiastic about lentils.

"Oboete Imasu Ka?"

I met Jimmie in a Portland theater-pub where I tended bar. He came in one evening and ordered a Terminator Stout, taking a seat next to my soon-to-be-fiancé, Ben. A scruffy, gregarious fellow with a loud mouth and a penchant for gin, Ben was waiting for my shift to end and struck up a conversation with Jimmie, as he might with anyone who happened to belly up in his vicinity. After several more Terminators and gin and tonics for them and a fair amount of citrus squeezing and bar scrubbing for me, the night ended with drunken karaoke at Chopsticks, a nearby Chinese restaurant–cum–late-night hot spot. (Jimmie sang "Love Me Tender," a performance which, I can now admit, made my heart feel inordinately heavy.) Numbers were exchanged, and eventually Jimmie was added to our cadre of friends, being invited to group concert-goings, birthday parties, and an "orphan" Thanksgiving hosted at my and Ben's house.

Eventually — rather, simultaneously — my relationship with Ben deteriorated. We had become the type of couple who very much enjoys each other's company but rarely has sex. We were friends, roommates. Though it was bright at the start, the spark was gone, and the engagement was a last-ditch effort to preserve something we both knew (or would soon realize) was fading. It would be a lie to say Jimmie had nothing to do with my relationship's rapid demise. He had very much to do with it, because I knew him intimately from the start. And I loved him almost immediately.

I got to know Jimmie more than anyone else cared to during those initial social gatherings. He expressed interest in me, and I reciprocated. Jimmie struck me right away, and even though I wasn't ready to admit to any romantic attraction, I knew he was worth knowing. He was a bit of a loner and had sharp, deep blue eyes, black-rimmed glasses, and a uniquely curled upper lip — like an archer's bow. He was frequently clad in a threadbare black sport coat, collared shirt and tie, and Converse All-Stars. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Northwest Portland. I knew it was useless to resist when I started to fantasize about being there with him, about stretching out before him, naked and white. I imagined his solitary place (which was a lot less gloomy in reality than I'd pictured it), his lips and skin and tender blue eyes exploring me. His touch (like his apartment) was far better in truth than in fantasy.

Before I knew that, though, I knew simply that Jimmie made computer chips for Intel and that when he went out to shows he danced his ass off. In addition to tending bar, I was a freelance music writer for the local alt-weekly newspaper (Portland's Willamette Week), and I would often invite Jimmie as the "plus one" to whatever concerts I was attending that particular week. Ben, also a bartender, worked nights and usually couldn't accompany me. That's when I really met Jimmie. We would drink whiskey before the shows and talk, and listen. And we would walk all over Portland afterward, something I once told my college roomie was all I wanted in a mate. Concert "dates" led to more. We carved pumpkins together on Halloween and sat on his living room floor listening to records, eating fancy cheese, and drinking wine. We put the jack-o'-lanterns in the park across the street, lit up with tea lights.

I leaned out his kitchen window, blowing smoke into the cool, damp air as we drunkenly talked till 4:00 AM, even on work nights. We discovered that we'd both loved someone who had died in the same way.

Together we watched Jimmie's favorite anime movie, Do You Remember Love?, sitting on a makeshift living room camp of sleeping bags and pillows. We drank warm sake from little ceramic cups I stole from the sushi place on the corner, while poufy-dressed pop star Lynn Minmay sang the main theme, asking, "Do you remember the time / When our eyes first met?" Yes, I did. My belly hot with the liquory essence of rice, I mouthed along with the Japanese lyrics: "Oboete imasu ka / Te to te ga fureatta toki?" ("Do you remember the time / When our hands first touched?") Yeah, that too. I was beginning to know I'd never forget.

* * *

A few months later, one totally average night at the theater-pub, Ben and several friends, including Jimmie, were drinking and waiting for me to finish work. It was then that Jimmie looked at me dead seriously and mouthed "I love you" across the bar. I was rushing about with a bleach-soaked rag, turning over chairs and wiping things down. But I saw him. I read his lips. I knew I was in trouble.

Later that night, in response to my distress — my this-changes-everything, this-is-about-to-upset-every-aspect-of-my-life distress — he said it again, out loud: "I just love you," adding "just" as if there were no choice. And there wasn't. And it did change everything.

In a dramatic sequence of events — move out and stay with a girlfriend, move back in, second-guess moving back in, find a not-too-depressing-but-barely-affordable one-bedroom on West Burnside, scrawl my name by the X — I finally left Ben. And I consumed Jimmie. I learned all about him: that he had an often good-natured and charismatic father who also happened to be a manic depressive and self-destructive drug abuser; that his mother was a sad, and resultantly mean, woman during his childhood; that his brother — eight years his senior — had been his idol. His brother was also relatively unavailable beyond a certain age; he'd long had his eye on the prize of getting out of Dodge (a trailer court in Welches, Oregon) and did so, enlisting as a trumpeter in the US Army Band and marrying young.

As such, Jimmie was left to his own devices, which (fueled by a desire to emulate his brother and to simply rule at something) materialized in a near-obsessive dedication to practicing and playing trumpet. Side interests included directing friends in amateur videos laden with secondhand clothing, over-the-top stunts, and '70s funk music; attempting to craft homemade Cheez-Its on the stovetop; mastering original Nintendo games; and singing Queen songs in his room at the top of his lungs.


Excerpted from The Box Wine Sailors by Amy McCullough. Copyright © 2016 Amy McCullough. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Dedication Page,
The Box Wine Sailors,
I - Oregon "Sensible" Cruising,
II - California Desperately Seeking Socal,
III - Baja Hung Out to Dry,

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