While Latitude 38 is essentially a West Coast magazine, we’re constantly amazed at the various global locations in which we meet sailors who either hail from the West Coast, have lived here for a time, or have sailed through on their way to distant destinations. This also leads us to wonder if anyone reading about these itinerant sailors ever remembers having met them. The Bay Area in particular turns up often in sailing conversations abroad. One such conversation occurred during a recent visit to Australia’s island state of Tasmania, where we met Mervyn (Merv) Mitchell, recently returned from a circumnavigation of Tasmania. Anyone who has sailed anywhere near this southerly island will attest to its harsh coastline and unforgiving weather. But what really caught our attention was that Merv had once sailed into San Francisco Bay, as part of a voyage from Sidney, BC, Canada, to San Diego.
The year was 1972, and the then 20-something-year-old Merv, his wife Sue and their almost 1-year-old son Len boarded Qui Vive — a 42-ft Hillyard ketch, which had been sailed from England to Vancouver Island via Panama by her owner, 70-year-old Donald McKay and “an unknown crewman who had never before been to sea.”
Merv and Donald’s friendship had begun with a chance meeting due to a berth dispute, which although amicably resolved, was perhaps the first indication that the man who was to later captain Qui Vive to San Diego was an interesting and somewhat brash character. We’ll save that tale for another time. For now, we pick up Merv’s story at the point where Qui Vive‘s southerly voyage was bringing her crew within reach of San Francisco Bay.
“Donald had asked me to look after radio navigation, which enabled the boat’s position to be determined from the various radio beacons scattered down the coast. We followed the fog line south until we drew level with Northern California, and then headed back into the murk. Of course it is impossible to navigate by sextant unless you can clearly see both the sun and the horizon. At this juncture, we discovered that Donald had left ashore the directory to radio beacons, so we were unable to navigate by RDF either, leaving us only with dead reckoning, in which you continuously record your speed and direction of travel and use these data to determine your present position relative to your last known position; currents and leeway add a level of unpredictability to this method.
“After about 20 hours sailing under these conditions, I was receiving a very strong signal from what I suspected was the radio beacon on Cape Mendocino. I mentioned this to Donald, who went below to check his calculations. Moments later he yelled up from the cabin that he’d found an error, and we should turn around immediately. At almost that exact moment, the fog peeled back and we could see the sunlight glinting on the cars parked above the cape. The rocky shore was just ahead.
“We followed the coast south, drawing slowly westward so we could pass around the outside of the Farallon Islands, before lining up with the entrance to San Francisco Bay. This put us back into fog, more impenetrable than before. We could hardly see the end of the bowsprit. It also placed us smack in a major shipping lane, and through the night we heard the booming of ships’ horns as they seemed to zigzag all around us. It was a terrifying experience. Once we saw the faint loom of lights in the blackness as a ship passed close by.
“I was on watch as the first tendrils of dawn dragged across the sky. The water was calm and the fog thinning a little. Everyone else was in their bunks below. Suddenly the sea began to boil on the starboard side. The boat lurched and spun and water began to cascade down upon the decks. A massive black shape, some Brobdingnagian monster of the deep, arose alongside us, scarcely a boat hook’s length away. Cries of alarm from below. Donald was first to emerge and knowing more about these matters than I did, identified it as an American nuclear submarine that had presumably been aware of our existence. Within moments some tiny figures appeared on the conning tower and the sub gathered speed and disappeared into the gloom. I noted its course, which we also followed, assuming, correctly, that it would lead us to the Golden Gate Bridge. Soon afterwards we could hear the early morning rush hour traffic above us, and then, like a curtain being drawn aside, the fog cleared and we were in sunlight with Alcatraz Island lying dead ahead.”
“We spent about four days tied up at a yacht club in Tiburon, with trips into San Francisco by bus, and just enjoying the calm (no seasickness). Two amusing incidents come to mind. Donald was the least clothes-conscious person I have ever known — worse, even, than me. He dressed like a hobo, and on one occasion attempted to cash a check for about $1000 at a local bank (a sizable sum in those days). The cashier looked him up and down, her face clouding with suspicion. She asked for further ID and he produced his passport. She read his name aloud, ‘Donald Horatio McKay. Horatio! What sort of name is that?’ Donald’s hackles rose like the spines on an enraged porcupine. In his plummiest, most British voice, ‘My dear woman, I’ll have you know my grandfather fought alongside Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Waterloo.’ This hardly answered her question, but she got the point.”
“On another night, quite late, Donald, dressed like a derelict as usual, was picked up by a passing police cruiser as he attempted to enter our fairly up-market yacht club. They almost carted him away and it took some explaining before they would accompany him to the boat to check his bona fides. We all vouched for him, but the police remained skeptical that he really was Captain Donald Horatio McKay.
“We passed below the Golden Gate for the second time in glorious sunshine and saw not a skerrick of cloud or fog (and precious little wind) for the remainder of the journey, sailing within sight of the coast nearly all the way. Qui Vive made an incursion into Long Beach Harbor to view the Queen Mary, purchased by the city after her removal from service in 1967. An earlier captain of the Queen Mary, Commodore Donald McLean, had studied on the Conway with Donald [McKay] and they had remained lifelong friends. Upon his retirement, Commodore McLean donated the Queen Mary’s pennant to Donald, and this was flying from the stern of Qui Vive as we closed in on the mother ship. It was, for Donald, quite an emotional moment.”
As you can see, Merv is quite the storyteller, and the afternoon we spent in his living room Down Under was not nearly enough time to hear about all of his sailing adventures. But he’s also a prolific writer, so perhaps we’ll share more of his stories another day. In the meantime, if you happen to have any recollection of meeting Merv, or Donald, or anyone aboard Qui Vive in 1972, we’d love to hear from you.