09/25/2012 07:27 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

The Voyage Of The Cormorant: Sailing A Hand-Made Sailboat Off The Coast Of California (EXCERPT)

Excerpted from The Voyage of the Cormorant by Christian Beamish. Patagonia Books™ ©2012. Used by permission of Patagonia Books ™,

About a year-and-a-half later I wheeled Cormorant, just completed, scuff-free and freshly painted, across the sand on a jet ski cart to launch for the first time. The lifeguards questioned the presence of an 18-foot boat on the beach, but I would not be deterred. I had checked the law, and with no motor on board I was permitted to launch from any beach as long as there were no swimmers near. This I relayed in an even-but-insistent tone, adding that I had the situation well in hand and that I was "a trained professional."

Academically at least, I knew how Cormorant was meant to work, but in truth I had only ever sailed in a dinghy once or twice before, 25 years earlier. I had never rowed a boat either, so launching through the surf on my first outing may not have been the best idea. But June 4, 2007, was a gentle, warm day with little waves, and I wanted to establish my right to access the ocean just down the street from my house.

At the water's edge I pulled Cormorant off the expensive, balloon-tire cart I had bought. A small surge lifted the hull, and I shoved off and leapt aboard and took up the oars. My stroke missed completely, which sent me sprawling off the midships thwart, wriggling on my back like a sand crab on the floorboards. The next little breaker caught the boat sideways and jostled her back to shore. "A trained professional..."

I quickly regrouped and pushed off again, the oar blades biting in this time, and I pulled forward, up one row of jumbling foam then over a small, cresting swell and soon across the smooth water beyond the surfline. Here I had the chance to pause and acknowledge the fact that I was actually floating. Cormorant was a functioning boat, a true vessel -- a means of moving through the world. There was the curve of the gunwale, the stout mast with the halyard run through the top and coiled at its base, the rich color of the tanbark sail. A few more strokes, and I went forward to hoist the main.

Hoist the main! On my own boat!

The breeze puffed just lightly, the sail billowed out as if by magic. Cormorant coursed forward, a miracle.

The sea was like pewter under a high ceiling of clouds. Cormorant reached northwest passed the end of the pier, the breeze picking up a little once I cleared the rock stack of West Reef. The ocean stretched before me, Catalina Island a distant shape on the horizon, and I wanted to sail onward for days and days. I came about and ran back in to the pier, then put out to sea again, farther this time. The bluffs of San Clemente became small off the stern, the houses on the hills impressionistic dabs of white. The sea lit up gold on its scalloped edges when the sun dipped away late in the evening.

Night fell as I ran in again, but I did not want this dream to end. "Bound is boatless man," goes the Viking proverb, and I hadn't known how true that was until now. I passed the pier well off the end and decided to come about again and sail out to sea once more, my eyes adjusting to the dark.