“Out in the dark it throbs and glows– the wide, wild sea that no man knows!

The wind is chill, the surge is white, and I must sail that sea tonight.”

(From “On the Verge” by William Winter)

The annual Toshiba Tall Ships Festival at Dana Point, California opened in chaos this year, as Mother Nature reminded us that she’s in charge.  Strong tidal surges from Hurricane Norbert in Mexico and unusually high tides from the approaching full moon combined to unleash mischief on the Southern California coast and provided unwelcome drama at the festival.

Waves roared over the breakwater and spilled like a waterfall into the Dana Point Marina.  This man-made jetty was built to protect the harbor from the open sea, but it did little to deter breakers from pouring into the harbor.  Tall ships at the floating dock tossed about.  Dock lines snapped.  The schooner Bill of Rights came in on a swell and crashed into the cathead of the brigantine Exy Johnson at the dock.  Exy sustained some minor damage from the mishap.

A sign on the jetty warned visitors that it was closed to pedestrians due to the high surf.  Crowds gathered on the landside of the jetty to watch rip currents at the nearby beach and breakers that rolled in and crashed onto the rocks.

The Friday afternoon “Parade of Sail” festival kick-off was cancelled, and with large swells and rogue waves likely for both Saturday and Sunday, all battle sails were cancelled.  The Ocean Institute, host of the festival, promised to mail full refunds to those who had purchased tickets for the sails.

Tall ships Californian and American Pride returned to their home ports Friday night, for fear of being damaged. Patricia Belle left Saturday morning.  The festival carried on with the remaining vessels — Exy Johnson, Irving Johnson, Bill of Rights, Pilgrim and Spirit of Dana Point — and a full complement of vendors and entertainers.

Visitors who purchased Pirate Adventure Passes participated in above-deck tours on the remaining tall ships, activities aboard the brig Pilgrim, activities inside the Ocean Education Center, and they had admission into the “Art and the Sea” workshop series.

There were two pirate encampments, the “gentlemen pirates” Port Royal Privateers, who returned for the 10th year, and newcomers Alliance of the Double Cross, who conducted reenactments of the “Golden Age of Piracy.”  Pirates and privateers waged gun battles from their rowboats near the tall ships.

This was the fifth year in a row that I’d volunteered at the Toshiba Tall Ships Festival Tall Ships, Tall Tales and Tall Hearts: 2013 Toshiba Tall Ships Festival).  I arrived early Saturday morning to help conduct deck tours on Saturday and Sunday on board Irving Johnson.  During high tide, we rolled at the dock and had to be extra vigilant as we helped visitors up the gangway onto the ship.  From time to time, we were treated to a show at the breakwater when large sets of waves poured over the rocks and sent dramatic sprays of white water into the air.  Local residents exclaimed they’d never before seen the ocean top the jetty.

In past years, deck tours ended at 3:30 pm so the crews could prepare for battle sails.  This year, we welcomed guests aboard till 5:00 pm.  It made for long days.  The ship’s helm was a favorite for our guests, particularly with kids.  I opened the housing behind the ship’s wheel to show them how the wheel is connected to a screw-like shaft that runs to the rudder in the water on the outside of the ship.  The kids could observe how the shaft moved when they turned the wheel.

By the time guests vacated the ships on Saturday evening, the tide was nearly high again.  We stayed on board Irving Johnson to babysit the vessel through the worst of the rocking and rolling. One of our dock lines snapped two of five strands, so the captain and a deckhand adjusted the line to eliminate the damaged section.

At 8:00 Saturday night, crews from all of the ships gathered on the deck of the Pilgrim for a potluck dinner and crew party.  We filled our bellies with food and drink and belted out some sea shanties.  I retired early to my bunk in B compartment of Irving Johnson.  The ship rocked like a baby’s cradle all night.  The steady motion quickly lulled me to sleep until the wee hours of the morning when I awoke suddenly to what could best be described by a verse in the song “What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor.”

Tall ships festivals are as unpredictable as the sea.  Each year is different.  Each deck tour surprises me in some way. Each battle sail is unique.  But one thing’s for certain, I love the Toshiba Tall Ships Festival and can’t wait to participate in next year’s event.