Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Cormorant's Captain

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Christian Beamish for a short piece in the current issue of The Surfer's Path (issue 92 Sep/Oct 2012).  Christian is the former associate editor of The Surfer's Journal, a writer, wooden boat builder and wilderness surf adventurer who lives in California.  I had a hundred questions that I wanted to ask him, but had to parr it back to fit on a single page.  Below is the full transcript of our interview, with some of the images that he sent through and a recent video vignette produced to promote his brilliant book, "The Voyage of the Cormorant"; absorb and enjoy.

How did your ocean attraction begin?
From an early age I spent a lot of time at the beach with my Dad bodysurfing, boogie boarding, and then, naturally, board surfing at around 10-years-old. An L.A. County lifeguard in California’s “golden era” of the 1950s, my father raised me with what I now recognize as an overall waterman sensibility: Free diving the reefs of Laguna, sailing and fishing were all background activities to the main pursuit of wave riding. In my grown up surfing life I have pursued wilderness surfing experiences as much as possible, having nevertheless surfed a lot of “parking lot” beaches in Southern California. What I find most interesting about surfing is the way that it puts us into the natural world with such immediacy. It was in this spirit that I set out to explore wilderness shores in my small, open boat.

Can you please tell us about your boat, Cormorant.
A Shetland Isle beach boat, designed by Iain Oughtred on the Isle of Skye, Cormorant is 18-feet long by 5’4” in the beam. Although modeled on traditional craft, the boat is built in marine grade plywood, secured with epoxy resin. The boat carries about two weeks of food and water. With a mainsail (a balanced lug) and a smaller mizzen, Cormorant makes about 5 knots. There are three reef points in the mainsail and the “double ended” design handles a following sea very well, so it is truly a “sea boat.” Historically, the Shetland Islanders fished banks 40 miles offshore in these boats, and then landed in small coves.

What inspired and drove you to build your own boat for solo surf searches?
A feeling has nagged me that our headlong embrace of electric gadgetry threatens to sever us from an essential, physical, aspect of ourselves developed over the 50,000 years (or however long it has been) of our modern human physiology. I suppose it’s a longing for a forest home and the adventure of open water that informs the notion that florescent lighting, emails and automobiles make machines out of us. I was living on the grounds of a lighthouse, on the North Coast above Santa Cruz, California, and the maritime history seemed to haunt the place. There were historic photos of  fishermen plying those waters in traditional craft and a vision hit me so hard that I knew right then that I needed to experience that kind of essential human endeavor.

Where have you sailed her to date?  
I’ve got about one thousand miles “under the hull” (as Iain Oughtred has said). Two long Baja sails, a couple of 30 mile crossings to the Santa Barbara Channel Islands (with circum navigations of Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz Islands), countless “local” trips from Dana Point and San Clemente down to Trestles and up to Laguna, and a great month-long journey in Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

Can you give us some high and a low points from your adventures in Cormorant?
The high points are nice sailing conditions and the quite glide of it all. Low points are abject terror, far offshore when conditions threaten to overwhelm – but in those situations one is too involved in the moment to really judge “high” or “low”. The low is running out of supplies, far from help and feeling the inherent limitations of such a small vessel. 

Did you ever miss a surf to work on the boat in the two years that you spent building her?
I wouldn’t have missed “epic” days, but sitting in a line-up with a bunch of people in tiny waves will always be less appealing than the mediation of building a boat (or shaping a surfboard for that matter!).

How did your experiences with Cormorant lead into you surfing Mavericks?
I can’t say that building and sailing Cormorant led directly somehow to surfing Mavs. But once on that program I recognized a real similarity to the feeling of being in “big water” with just yourself and your equipment (self-built) to rely on. But neither pursuit – solo expeditions or big wave riding – has ever had an element of being something I wanted to “challenge,” “overcome,” or “conquer.” The inherent danger is not to be dismissed, as much as accounted for. Then I make an assessment of my abilities and the conditions for any particular day. Luck plays a huge role for anyone involved in ocean work.

Is/was Cormorant just the start of a much deeper relationship with the ocean?
Yes. I sometimes shudder when I think of some of the situations I’ve put myself in. Oddly, I think I’ll be more cautious now in my ocean forays… they’re not done, but I want to make a few adjustments.

What lessons did you learn from reducing your immediate world to an 18’ x 5’ space?
Hard to say, but Cormorant was my transport and shelter, and traveling this way is much like traveling by bicycle with a tent to sleep in at night. So it wasn’t quite like a monk in his cell… I sometimes rowed ashore and set up a beach camp, or, if staying aboard, I’m off surfing or fishing most of the day, leaving the boat at anchor. One of the great feelings is having a snug cove you’re anchored in, a good meal you’ve cooked (and caught) on the camp stove, and a good book to read by lantern light. It’s sort of the small boy and his “fort” made in the woods feeling.

What’s next for Cormorant and your boat building exploits?  Do you have plans to extend your fleet at all?
Solo expeditions have their place, but I’ve also greatly enjoyed traveling with friends. The vision I have is to build two new boats (need to speak with Mr. Oughtred!) scaled-up to 22- or 24-feet. I want to sail with 2-surfers per boat in wilderness areas. The boats will stick together and share camp duties and of course the fun and challenges of these adventures.

Were your trips simply surf trips, or were they by their very nature more multi-dimensional?
Multi-dimensional, but guiding by a foundation in surfing. A lot of the old timers say that “it’s all surfing,” and with beach boats that really is true.

And finally, on a purely inquisitive level based on my own boat building experiences (and not part of the main interview), how many clamps did you have to use??!
Always about twice the number I had was what was needed it seemed!

Christian recorded some of his adventures as a podcast for The Dirtbag Diaries a while back.  I listened to his piece and immediately reigned in the plans that I harboured for adventures in the boat that I was building at the time.  Click here to listen to 3/8th of an inch to eternity.

Here's how it looked in print...

You can purchase Christian's book, The Voyage of the Cormorant, here.

All images are copyright Christian Beamish which means that if you want them then you have to ask nicely, please don't just take them - it ain't cool.

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