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Viking memories: a voyage from Ensenada to San Francisco

I recently took a chartered power cat to Anegada in the Virgin Islands. My crew included an old high school friend and his wife.

As a kid, my friend had been tough and adventurous, but not anymore. The boat was sturdy and sound, the scenery gorgeous, the weather wonderful, and the trip went off without a hitch, but my old friend seemed conscious of every discomfort.

Granted, he had some health issues, but I could not help but compare his demeanor to that of a much older guy whose boat I helped deliver from Ensenada, Mexico, to San Francisco. Five years ago, my delivery partner, Barry Terry, and I slogged our way up the California coast with a remarkable gentleman named John Lyngso, owner of an N37 trawler named Lena.

Lyngso had Lena built by the people at Great Harbour in Gainesville, Fla., intending to cruise the Caribbean, but as so often can happen when one reaches 80, health issues took precedence.

Lyngso hired Yacht Path to haul Lena onto the deck of a freighter and carry her to Ensenada. I’ve had more than a few miles aboard N37s, having worked for the builder for five years, including a delivery of an N37 on its own bottom from Florida to Ensenada. Now it would be like a continuation of that same job. Barry and I would help pilot Lyngso’s boat another 550 miles north to San Francisco.

About the first thing we did, having inspected Lena at her slip, was eat lunch together in the taco stands next to Ensenada’s old-fashioned fish market. Lyngso, a Danish American, and Barry, the unreconstructed Brit, fell in love — with the fish tacos, that is.

For the next nine days we steamed up the California coast, stopping first at San Diego to clear into the country, at Morro Bay for a rest and at Monterey for repairs before finally passing under the Golden Gate Bridge.

Lyngso on the bow as Lena approaches the Golden Gate Bridge.

Lyngso on the bow as Lena approaches the Golden Gate Bridge.

Initial worries

I was worried at first, I admit. Our octogenarian owner had trouble walking and hearing and some other serious issues, and we were heading into some notoriously rough water. Point Conception, at the junction of southern and central California, is the worst example. Believed by the Indians to frame the gate between the mortal world and paradise, Conception causes the northwesterly Pacific swells to compress, creating big, confused seas. This is the antithesis of charter conditions in the BVIs.

I checked our forecast as we approached the point, and, being an East Coast guy, I was a little confused by what it all meant. My first instinct was to find a port and wait for better weather, but I called my friend Jim Leishman, Nordhavn vice president and a born-and-bred Southern California guy. Leishman checked the tea leaves and called back: The forecast for Point Conception was about as good as it ever gets. We pressed on.

Appetite, I have come to believe, is a leading indicator of longevity, which, if true, bodes poorly for me. And it is especially true that I lack a desire to eat when rolling up and down 10-foot seas. Not so, John Lyngso. How many times did he go down to the galley to make a sandwich, offering to make us one, too? Then he would go into the engine room just to hang out.

“John, you can’t stay in there,” I told him, mindful of his 80-year-old legs in a seaway.

The N37 has a stand-up engine room, and John liked to move from place to place and just watch the twin Yanmars spin. And so I would order him back to the wheelhouse, my prerogative as captain for the delivery.

Lena at Morro Bay.

Lena at Morro Bay.

John, as it happened, had shipped out to the Pacific as a 16-year-old during World War II. He could do so at such a young age because he was not in the Navy but the Merchant Marine, serving on the tugs that recovered battle-damaged warships. He had been assigned to the machinery spaces, assisting the ship’s engineer. The seas, the sounds of diesels tapping away and the whiff of lubricants brought him back to a heady time in his life.

After the war, he returned stateside to a normal life, marrying and having a family. He built a thriving business, Lyngso Garden Materials, of Redwood City, Calif. In retirement the old Dane listened to the Viking within and bought a boat to go roaming. He loves his Lena and those twin beating hearts in her engine room.

Humor at sea

Toughness is one thing we value in our shipmates; good humor is another. John is a jolly guy at sea, and he often had us laughing. In Monterey, where we put in for some hydraulic work, sea lions rule the docks, barking all night long. We dreaded our second night and trying to get to sleep.

After a couple of nightcaps, John bade us goodnight, slipped the hearing aids from his ears and grinned. “Sleep well, boys,” he said, celebrating the fact that tonight his handicap was an advantage.

I phoned John recently to catch up. He is an avid reader of PassageMaker magazine and a subscriber, and he had just read that I was the magazine’s new executive editor and offered hearty congratulations. We talked. He said he had not been able to use Lena very much during 2012 because of health issues, but he swore a Norseman’s oath that this year would be different.

“If anyone can do it, you can,” I said. I told him he was made of cast iron — a figure of speech familiar to mariners of his generation.

“Naw, I’m not so tough,” he said. “I just managed to fool you.”

Whenever someone asserts — as did a talking head on television just last week — that the idea of the Greatest Generation was more myth than reality, tell them about assistant chief engineer John Lyngso.

Till next time.