From 2002 to 2004, Christian Beamish worked as a handyman at the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, about thirty miles north of Santa Cruz. Built in 1871 to guide ships on the Pacific coast of California, he was taking part in an old maritime tradition. In his spare time he surfed sharky Nor Cal reef breaks and shaped single fins and Bonzers.
“The place got into me,” says Christian. “The sun sparkle in the lee of the point, the perfect place to slip into on a boat. The mountains and forest all around, and that wild, living sea.”
I met Christian in the mid ‘00s when he worked as an associate editor for The Surfer’s Journal. He was curious, unique, passionate, and totally anomalous to the typical OC surfer dude. We connected, talking at length about his time in the U.S. Navy, his love of the Zen poet Gary Snyder, his fascination with the Simmons keel fin.
One afternoon at the TSJ office, Christian asked me if I was in a hurry to get home to LA.
“Not at all,” I said.
“Can I show you something?”
We hopped in Christian’s Honda wagon and drove to his rented house, near T-Street in San Clemente. He opened the single-car garage and there it was: his sailboat-in-progress.
“This is the Cormorant,” he said. “It’s eighteen-foot-one. The design is called a Shetland Isle beach boat. And basically I love to joke that it’s an eighteen-foot pintail. It’s got the wide point slightly forward and it just tapers back to this pointed stern. And furthermore, it’s a channel bottom.”
To say that Christian beamed paternally would be an understatement. In his luminous face I saw an amalgam of the maker, the surfer, the sailor, and the lighthouse man.
He explained his building process. “You have to line out the marks and build the planks and build the stem and stern, so it definitely takes some building knowledge.”
Clamps held together curved strips of wood. Sawdust scattered the floor. The smell of resin and glue hung thick. The Cormorant fit into that garage the way a sword fits into a sheath, albeit with a knocked-out wall to accommodate.
“The boat’s eighteen-one and the garage is, I don’t know, seventeen-ten,” said Christian. “So I busted out the drywall into the kitchen so the stern could have those extra four inches.”
We stood side by side admiring the Cormorant’s clean lines. Christian studied the starboard curve the way a surfboard shaper studies a rail.
“Soon as I get it done I’m going to sail it down the coast,” he told me.
Christian’s Cormorant got me thinking about the relationship between surfing and sailing. In the late nineties I went out with a girl who surfed and sailed. She kept a dinghy in Marina del Rey, and made great use of blown-out summer afternoons, returning from her sailing sessions all sunburned and windswept and stoked.
“It’s like flying,” she’d say.
I’d first encountered this wind love in 1992 when I interviewed the legendary Australian surfer Wayne Lynch for The Surfer’s Journal. Seated on the squeaky sands of Newport Beach in Sydney, Wayne spoke longingly and gushingly about the joy of sailing.
“It’s sort of the next frontier,” he said, nodding past the breakers and out to the open sea.
That evolution is depicted brilliantly in the film “Uncharted Waters,” a documentary of Wayne’s life. “What the surf magazines don’t tell you,” says surfer/shaper Dave Parmenter in the film, “is that there’s a story arc from someone like Wayne when he was thirteen being wonderboy, and now in his fifties or later in his sixties—where do you go with surfing? At some point you actually just transcend the act of going down to the beach and riding a surfboard in the waves. You’re still a surfer but you go on to a different area. I think that Wayne is drawn to the open ocean.”
Wayne riffs on this: “After years and years of surfing you learn about the swell direction, you learn about the tides, you learn about cloud formations, and what type of weather might be coming. You start to get an understanding, and to me that is part of being a surfer. And that’s our heritage. And that’s where surfing came from with the Polynesians.”
The Hobie Alter story parallels this. First a surfer and balsa board builder, then a pioneer of the foam-and-fiberglass surfboard, then, in the mid-sixties, the designer of the Hobie Cat, an easy-to-use fourteen-foot catamaran designed to launch from the beach and ride over the surf. Since 1967, the Hobie Cat company has been the largest manufacturer of small catamarans in the world.
Christian built his Cormorant. He sailed solo for 65 days down the coast of Baja, thinking, chronicling, and surfing alone at unnamed breaks. And he wrote a book about it. “The Voyage of The Cormorant” is a wonderful tale of self-reliance and life at sea.
“The quiet of a boat when you’re sailing is true enchantment,” said Christian in a recent phone call. “The squeaking of the rigging, the lapping of the water, the whole gentle movement of it.”
We talked about the tradition of boats and boat builders in California—the Radons in Santa Barbara, the Spike Africa in Newport Beach. Christian pointed out that he’s most interested in sailboats.
“I love the lineage of it,” he told me. “With the Cormorant, I was just using the materials that made the most sense economically. It still has that wooden feel, but it’s a different thing entirely, you understand, to mill timber, steam planks, and bend them into shape and knock them together like the Vikings did.”
He talked about what he called “blood memory,” that sense of knowing we’re taking part in something ancient, be it surfing, sailing, shaping, or building boats.
“And there’s no better feeling than to go surfing by boat,” he added. “It’s like doubling down on the radness. And it’s interesting too, with John John [Florence]—I mean, what would you do if you were a two-time world champion and had considerable resources and you lived in Hawaii? You might get your hands on a cruising catamaran and eye the South Pacific.”
For more of Christian Beamish go to www.christianbeamish.com, or Instagram
@christianbeamish, or buy “The Voyage of the Cormorant”.