At the Helm

At the helm of schooner Suva on a sunny day

I had a fabulous time on the schooner Suva last year. It was the first time I had the chance to sail on a ship that size. Even though the schooner was only 65 feet long, it can sleep nine to ten adults for overnight sails. The Suva is similar to ships Captain William A. Richardson sailed on San Francisco Bay during the 1800s, although it was constructed during the Roaring Twenties era and shipped in 1925 from Hong Kong to Puget Sound. It is now a flagship of the Coupeville Maritime Heritage Foundation.

While on board, passengers can explore below deck to see the wheel house, galley, main salon, and the front cabin. You can also have a turn at the helm—with the captain standing close by. A volunteer crew of men and women, people who love the sea and sailing, cruise along with each sailing, to raise sails and educate visitors about the ship and sailing her. Under clear skies and a good wind, I had a wonderful afternoon out on the water.

Why was Indigenous Peoples’ Day established?

For many years a debate hung over the use of the word “discovered” when talking about Columbus Day. Italian Americans lobbied Congress in 1934 for a holiday to honor their heritage and recognize the contributions of their immigrant ancestors. However, Americans failed to acknowledge the role of the many people who lived in the Americas when the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus landed in the West Indies on the island the Lucayan people called Guanahani. Claiming the island for King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Columbus renamed it San Salvadore. 

In 2021 President Joe Biden officially endorsed the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ day. Many states now observe this holiday instead of, or as well as, Columbus Day. I found this holiday a good reminder to reflect on Native American heritage and even to discover what tribes lived on the lands I’m now on.  An interactive map for the Canadian website Native Land Digital ( shows territories throughout the Americas that Indigenous people inhabited. You can learn about this nonprofit’s sources for its map on its website. When I clicked on the California state area, a box popped up listing the names of the many tribes that had dwelled there. I’ve researched several of them and found that each group had its own language, customs, ceremonies, foods, and tools depending on its location. For example, some peoples used locally-sourced clay to make pots while others living near marshes used reeds to weave baskets and mats. I feel I now have a better understanding of their lives and their world before Spanish explorers came. 

Emotional Memories of 2021

Over the holidays I recalled many Christmases past celebrated with family, some present, some, sadly, gone. The phrase “Christmas past” moved me to watch the movie “The Man Who Invented Christmas.” It weaves the story about how Charles Dickens suffered through a grueling writing process to pen and publish his now famous novella “A Christmas Carol.” The movie re-enacts Christmases Past, Present, and Future delivering their messages to Scrooge. 

What fascinated me was Dickens’s tortured efforts to write truths and still appeal to his readers. 

In Victorian times workhouses and debtors’ prisons threatened many people, young children were sold on the street as drudges, and most of the public turned a blind eye to the misery. Dickens saw or heard about such things every day as he wandered about London. He collected comments he heard, horrors he observed, even recorded unusual surnames and peoples’ quirks in a notebook he carried. He used what he saw and heard about him in his stories. All this fodder swirled around in his head. In writing his Christmas story, Dickens pointed out all the cruelty and sordidness of London life, poured his anger and sadness into his words, to force his readers to recognize and empathize with the miserable. In the end, he provided hope by showing skinflint Scrooge could change and help his fellowman.

Many writers gather words, phrases, and names to use in their writing. A writer friend once said he goes out to talk with friends, to stimulate his writing juices, but then returns to his desk to be a man alone with his thoughts and a blank screen to fill. Most writers do. And like Dickens, writers hope to blend their emotional memories into their art.

Besides everyday interactions, writers read to gather facts as well as emotional memories. Here are a few books I’ve read that stimulated my writing with new ideas and facts.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer – fed my interest in the natural world and ways people once used what they found in nature

The Way of the Ship: A Square-Rigger Voyage in the Last Days of Sail by Derek Lundy –  the subtitle tells it all

The Overstory by Richard Powell – an imaginative, emotional connection to the natural world

Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City by Gary Kamiya – a step back into various time periods of San Francisco’s past by the well-known chronicler of its history

What uniforms did Mexican Presidio soldiers wear in the 1800s?

Presidio soldier uniform, shield, and weapon

Mexican soldiers wore uniforms of dark blue wool jackets with scarlet collars and cuffs and brass buttons, matching wool trousers, and wide-brimmed black hats. But for protection from indigenous peoples’ arrows, the soldiers wore leather coats that hung to their knees. They carried long lances and leather shields as shown in this photograph. This display is in the San Francisco Presidio museum on the site of the original Spanish Presidio. Because the soldiers often herded cattle and horses, rode as escorts for the friars, and carried mail between presidios, the cumbersome leather coats were shortened to jacket length. The jackets were made of antelope hide with red felt collars and cuffs. Antelope-hide leggings or breeches covered the soldiers’ legs.

How close should you get to a grizzly bear?

Stuffed grizzly bear as store display

News articles recently reported that a person is serving time in prison and paying fines for approaching too close to a grizzly bear and her cubs in Yellowstone National Park. All park visitors are warned about the dangers of approaching any of the wild animals and given specific distances to stay away from them. For grizzlies, you are told to keep 100 yards (that’s 300 feet! 91 meters!) between you and them. If you are closer and a bear decides to chase or attack you, you will not get away. These bears can run up to 40 mph, a lot faster than any human. They can run up and downhill, swim, and also climb trees although because of their long, curved claws, not as good as black bears. Males can weigh up to 700 pounds and females up to 400 pounds. A large male standing on his hind feet might be seven to nine feet tall. Not something you’d want to wrestle. I read that even though millions of people visit Yellowstone each year, records kept since 1892 show only 16 people were ever killed by bears.

When I visited Yellowstone National Park, I was thrilled to observe so much wild life up close. Some of these animals can still be seen in California but not in such numbers as in the past. Huge populations of elk, deer, black bears, wolves, and grizzlies once roamed the hills and valleys of California. Some such as wolves and grizzlies are gone forever. 

In 1846 American settlers in Alta California rebelled against the Mexican government. They chose the grizzly as a symbol for their flag because the bear never backed away from a fight. These rebels became known as the Bear Flaggers. When California joined the United States, the rebel flag with the grizzly was adopted as the state’s official flag. The grizzly still flies on the state flag even though the last California grizzly bear was shot in 1924.

Could sailing ships replace fuel-powered container ships?

Sailing ships are back! Sure, many people have boats with sail, but now larger sailing ships are carrying cargo. Small cargo sailing ships can carry only about nine shipping containers whereas the largest container ships carry up to 20,000. A sailing ship is also slower than a fossil-fuel powered ship. However, the advantage of sail is it’s environmentally friendly. Modern shipping produces almost 3% of the world’s carbon-dioxide pollution. 

Besides the wind power, sailing ships use the natural ocean currents to propel them across the oceans. The Tres Freres is one small cargo ship with canvas sails already moving goods around the world by wind and sea power. Sailcargo is a Costa Rican company now building a fossil fuel-free sailing ship which will carry coffee, cacao, organic cotton, and turmeric to Canada, and will transport electric bicycles, barley, and hops on its return journey. Larger ships are in the planning stages with unusual sails. Columns of rotor sails pivot to catch the wind and propel the ship forward. Because wind and sea currents can be fickle, these ships might also have engines. Some sailing ships will use solar power too. About 40 companies in countries around the world are developing wind-powered or wind-assisted ships. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to see more sustainable sailing ships on the ocean someday soon?

What are your reflections on the year 2020?

Now that I’m entering my second year with my blog, it seemed appropriate to reflect on the good and the bad from 2020. Most people will condemn the Plague Year as the worst ever. But I remembered the introductory sentence in Charles Dickens’ story The Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I certainly harbor negative memories about much of the past year and sympathize with medical staff, first responders, and those who contracted Covid-19. Many people also suffered through wildfires, hurricanes, and protests that turned violent. Because of where I live, I was not as confined as those in tiny apartments or living alone and feel fortunate that we dealt only with smoke and not the fires. As many others did, I agonized over not being with family and friends and missed traveling. But I can also look back at my achievements this year.

One of the best things was achieving my goal of starting this blog. In tandem with that writing, I finished the first draft of my novel because I had nowhere to go. I read that William Shakespeare might have been confined to quarters when the bubonic plague swept through London in 1606, and so he wrote a play, his tragedy King Lear. Obviously, confinement can lead to achievements. I followed author Anne Lamott’s advice also—in order to write you must sit in a chair in front of your open computer or blank yellow pad. After finishing my first draft, several good friends agreed to be the first readers of my novel, which I count as an accomplishment, and I’m truly thankful for their feedback and encouragement.

On the tech side, learning to use Zoom kept my brain from turning to mush. And my new skill in setting up Zoom meetings helped my book club by maintaining our collective sanity in kind of group therapy sessions as well as getting us together to discuss several wonderful books.

Besides writing, I finally managed to read many of the good books I collected over the past few years and stacked in piles around the house. These were my favorites:

  • Bill Bryson’s The Body: a Guide for Occupants–amazing details about the body told in his breezy style with funny, quirky quips. I learned so much about the human body as well as more about the history of medicine.
  • The Dutch House by Anne Patchett–a wonderful writer with deep insights into people, their motivations, and their failings
  • The Way of a Ship by Derek Lundy — this book told me much I did not know about sailing in the 1800s and helped me really understand the camaraderie and fears of sailors confined on a small ship on the sea
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama —what a great read! This book told me so much more about her and her life in the White House.
  • Educated by Tara Westover—I was frightened, amazed, and thrilled for her as she took me through her memories of her life growing up.

I hope you can look back at your year to recall wonderful things that happened. Cheers to you and 2021 — make it a fabulous year for you. As for me, I plan to continue my work on my novel about Captain William A. Richardson and look forward to publishing it.

What work did women accomplish in the past but is forgotten or belittled today?

A notice about knitting scarves for homeless people caught my attention and I am now adding my donation to the cause. As I calculated how long the project might take (probably about two weeks), I paused to think about making clothing two hundred years ago. It took me a year to knit just one sweater, but in early California, every stitch of clothing was sewn by hand. Talk about labor intensive! All baby clothes, dresses, shirts, linens, bedding. Often many pieces were decorated with embroidery. The Native American women at the missions were taught to weave to make blankets and rough cloth, using the wool from mission sheep and goats. The Franciscan friars taught them to sew clothing also. My knitting is just a hobby. The women in the past made their clothes out of necessity. And some men too. They did buy some clothing from trading ships—boots and shoes, hats, fine Peruvian wool or Chinese silk shawls, men’s jackets. 

Pioneers across the West did such work. We have all heard of sewing bees and women neighbors gathering to make patchwork quilts as gifts for soon-to-be-married couples. But think of all the cooking and cleaning that women did as well! Churning butter, making cheese, baking bread, endless housework. They served as the family doctors and nurses and prepared birthday and holiday celebrations. They performed truly amazing amounts of work and should be remembered and honored as much as the well-known male historical figures are.  

How long might it take to ride a horse or an oxcart to get to a dance?

When I was visiting Point Reyes, I stopped my car to look over the hills covered with scrub oak, dry grasses, and poison oak. How daunting all those miles of hills and valleys would have seemed to me if I had to travel in a slow, bone-rattling oxcart, or on horseback, or worse, on foot! Those hardy Californios and explorers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries might walk for many days to get anywhere. They thought nothing of riding 150 miles to attend a dance, known as a fandango. Men and women would camp and sleep on the hard ground under a blanket and the night sky. Besides hundreds of elk and deer, they might meet up with bears, wolves, or mountain lions. Much of the time there were only trails, no roads for a wagon or cart. Now we cover the same distance by car or truck in a matter of hours.

What kinds of fruits would nineteenth-century people have in winter?

Bowls of fresh plums

Fresh, ripe fruit just picked from a tree is much juicier and sweeter than store-bought. As I bit into one of our plums, I thought about the lives of early California people, both Native Americans and the Mexicans, and understood how much they yearned for fresh fruits, berries, and especially greens after a long winter without any. When my plum tree produced masses of fruit last year, I decided to preserve as much as I could. It takes lots of time and energy, boiling jars, picking, pitting, and cooking the fruit, and preserving it in canning jars. But it is worth it to have sweet plum jam on toast when snow covers the ground. Early settlers would not have that luxury of juicy stone fruit jams, but they would have stored apples and pears for winter and maybe citrus fruits would be brought on ships from southern Alta California. How lucky we are in the twenty-first century to get produce from around the world. Yet I still think that your own homegrown fruits and vegetables taste the best.