They were the first of dozens of dolphins we would see on a three-day cruise south along the California coast aboard the 73-foot sailing vessel Dirigo II.
Ten of us — four paying passengers and a crew of six — left Long Beach on an overcast morning this month bound for Ensenada. We were on a "downhill run," a sailing term for an easy voyage running with the wind.
Unlike the huge cruise ships that ply the same route, we would not light up the night with a disco dance floor, create shock waves with blasts from our horn or unleash 2,500 passengers onto the streets of Ensenada.
We would see dolphins and sea lions, cormorants and pelicans, jellyfish and sunfish. And we would travel the way men and women have traveled for eons: under sail, relying on the wind and a well-built wooden ship to sustain us.
Designed more than 60 years ago, the Dirigo II (Latin for "to guide or lead") is graceful and strong — a mahogany and teak beauty with 75-foot masts and four sails that fly 1,500 square feet of canvas.
"Look at her lines. She pushes the world away," said Chris Eann, a longtime sailor who faces life away from the sea as an actor and writer.
And it was true. Life became simpler as soon as we left Long Beach harbor. The sails took over. There was only the wind, the sea and a lovely old schooner.
We lounged on the deck watching the Southern California coast slowly fade into the distance. Before long, the marine layer cleared, and the ocean turned from gray blue to cobalt. Instead of hearing city traffic and noise, we heard canvas rustling, water lapping against the hull and seagulls crying as they passed overhead.
Built as a family's private yacht, the Dirigo II sailed around the world and eventually found a home in Long Beach's Alamitos Bay. It now takes passengers on day sails, evening cruises and multi-day excursions to such places as the Channel Islands and Baja. Some of the crew work for free — for experience and for the opportunity to sail on the boat.
We spent a lot of time enjoying the clear air and a lot of time eating. There were bagels midmorning, chicken Caesar sandwiches at lunch, hors d'oeuvres in the late afternoon, barbecued tri-tip for dinner. Plus multiple side dishes.
"You're hungry all the time because you're always moving — trying to steady yourself against the rolling movement of the boat," said Len Daniello, who cooks aboard Dirigo II and owns Horizons West, the adventure travel company that operates the trips.
"It's sort of like isometric exercise, right?" asked a crew member.
"Then I have an excuse to have a second helping."
Late in the afternoon, the marine layer drifted back in, toning down the sunset and hiding the stars. But our fascination with wind and waves kept most of us on deck anyway until late in the evening.
Hal Stoelzle, an old friend from Denver, had come prepared for chilly weather. When the wind picked up after dark, he pulled on thermal underwear and a fleece jacket. He was still cold, as were several others. They headed for sleeping bags — passengers in tiny, mahogany-trimmed staterooms, crew members on open berths in the main cabin. Traveling in the Dirigo II is a bit like camping at sea.
The boat tossed during the night, and the wooden hull creaked and groaned. A few people found it difficult to sleep. Not me; the movement and the sounds made the night special. (But I've fallen asleep in a dentist's chair, so perhaps I'm not a good benchmark.)