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Two Seconds Later, Sailing in Apra Harbor, Guam

Guam's Apra Harbor, taken from Orote Point

Guam's Apra Harbor, taken from Orote Point

When I was a young man in the Navy, for about two years my ship was homeported out of Guam, which is about 3,000 miles west and 500 miles south of Hawaii. The Navy’s Special Services had a few sailboats available for recreational use, but to rent them, you had to attend and pass a sailing course. Even if you could demonstrate that you were already proficient at sailing, for several weeknights you still had to show up in a classroom, and for several Saturday mornings you still had to show up at Sumay Cove to practice in dinghies.

Always the Saturday morning class stayed inside the cove, just tacking back and forth on little Lasers (nice, fast little planing boats, sort of just a single step up from a surfboard.) On the last Saturday morning of the class, though, we paired up in 14-foot Lido’s and went out of the cove into the harbor.

Old shipreck sitting tall on coral shelf at GabGab Beach

Old shipreck sitting tall on coral shelf at GabGab Beach

Apra Harbor is deep – 300 feet at the entrance, if I remember correctly – and pretty big. There’s room for commercial docks, two sunken ships (the Japanese freighter Tokai Maru and a small tanker), several beaches, and, oh, yes, an entire U.S. Navy base. Right at the edge of the Navy base’s GabGab Beach is a shipwreck deposited on the edge of the coral shelf by Typhoon Pamela, I believe it was. You can literally wade out to the ship to her starboard side and jump off her rusted port side into water that’s 80 feet deep and sloping down much further.

On that particular Saturday morning, Apra Harbor was especially big and gorgeous. From a small boat in a big harbor, from a small island in a big ocean, the sky overhead seemed enormous. It had its own presence, big and quiet but alive and immensely strong, full of unspoken magical powers. From the horizon to directly overhead, the sky’s blues ranged through nameless shades and hues, and near the sun the blue was so deep blue that it was tinged with purple. And there were clouds that so stately paraded overhead, brilliant white clouds, colossal and impossibly white, so clearly defined they couldn’t possibly be gaseous: they must have been solid, huge, huge alien ships, a fleet of bizarre space dirigibles . . .

On the water there were no ships moving, but there were working boats of various sizes, and there were sailboats, an unusual number of them out together. These were cruising sailboats, evident by the homeports named on their stern: San Diego, Miami, London, Brisbane, etc. They must have been racing, because they were flying all kinds of sail, much of it brightly-colored nylon, neon-colored nylon . . . paintbrush dabs of accent on the canvas of deep blue water. Those sails, so much bigger than a single man, so much smaller, so much pitifully smaller than the ocean, are more than mere color: because they are flags of human spirit, they fly in the sun a little bit brighter.

Understand that on days like this, at that time of day, ocean water is not merely one color. It is moving under the wind, swelling and blowing into little wavelets and waves, constantly presenting different faces to the sunlight. Sometimes, here and there, the light penetrates the surface and illuminates shafts of bluish-purplish color, and everywhere else it glances off to nowhere or it reflects silver flashes like tumbling fragments of mirror glass. The water under and around the little boat I was sailing was a kaleidoscope of blues and silver, and it, too, was alive.

Between the sky and the sea was the island, across the harbor and in the background. Guam is just a few degrees above the equator and has tropical seasons: rainy season and dry season, period. When it rains the hills are more green; when it doesn’t, they’re more brown, and most of the time they’re a mix of both, the spines of the corrugated hills some shades of brown and the vertical valleys some shades of jungle greens. I believe there is something about tropical light – maybe the relative thickness of the atmosphere, or the angle of the sun, something – that affects color, or at least the human perception of color. Years after I had left the island, on a TV documentary about Viet Nam, the narrator said something about the colors being so rich that they seemed to vibrate, and I knew exactly what he was talking about. So, that day out on the water in Apra Harbor, looking out over the sparkling water under the big, big, big blue sky at the brown tropical island draped in jungle greens, the colors were truly – and I use this word intentionally - vibrant.

Apra Harbor from Nimitz Hill

Apra Harbor from Nimitz Hill

Okay, so the scene is set. The other guy in the sailing class (I have no recollection of his name) and I were sailing along, enjoying life, and he said – and mind you, this is long before the popular beer commercials – “Man, it just doesn’t get any better than this!”

I agreed, but being young, and thirsty in the sun, I felt the need to add, “The only thing that would make it any better would be something to drink. I wish we had just two ice-cold beers.”

I swear, no more than two seconds later, we heard a few shouts coming across the water. It was our instructors heading toward us in the informal yacht club’s committee boat, an 18-foot aft console open boat with an outboard and a kicker. We saw them waving at us, so we figured something was wrong, that maybe we’d gone too far for the class. We touched the tiller, adjusted the sails, and headed toward them. We could see one instructor was driving the boat and the other was forward, bending down, reaching for something – a tow line, maybe? No: the instructor forward stood up straight and lifted his arms high, holding up two beers! I remember seeing the ice water drip and glitter down his forearms and drop from his elbows . . . It was one of those perfect moments, embedded deeply into my mind.

We passed port to port, close by, and they handed off the beers to us. And they tasted mighty, mighty fine! Halfway through the beers, my classmate said, “Dammit, man! This cold beer is great; don’t get me wrong. But next time you make a wish and you’re around me, dammit, man, you wish for two bronze-skinned bikini-wearin’ beauties!”

I swear, no more than two seconds later . . . no, no, no, it didn’t happen, but it really would have been something if it had, wouldn’t it?


Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on December 04, 2012:

My husband, Bob was in the navy and went to Guam. He has no interesting stories about Guam like he does the Philippines. I really enjoyed this one, though!

Dale Anderson from The High Seas on September 08, 2012:

Wonderful. Guam has always been in my mind as a possible port of call but now it's risen significantly on the list. Much thanks for sharing.

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