Our kids grow up and one day leave Laguna. Laguna, however, seldom leaves them. They go off to college armed with their wits, often our credit card (yikes!), and whatever stuck from their upbringing. Many are equipped with something else as well, an attachment to their coastal hometown and the sea. Such a person is Jack Meehan, 27, poised to graduate from the California Maritime Academy (Cal Maritime) this May. When that happens an eco-minded, one-time Laguna surfer will cross a threshold, becoming a Pacific mariner.
I learned about Jack through his mom, Betsy Blackburn, who recently moved into our south Laguna neighborhood. When I embarked on a San Francisco Bay Area history road trip in mid-April, Jack, whom I had not previously met, gave me a tour of Cal Maritime’s tree-studded campus, situated on the edge of the bay in Vallejo. Just before the appointed time of our meeting, he phoned my cell to make sure that we connected in front of the administration building. At the next moment a strapping young man in a Navy-style uniform strode up to me, extended his hand, and said with a welcoming smile, “Hi, I’m Jack.”
Getting acquainted, he walked me over to the simulators, which provide much of the training for these ocean pilots-in-the-making. These multi-million dollar computerized stations replicate harbor conditions, weather, and currents at ports along the Pacific Coast. Trainees are closely monitored as to how they navigate these hazards that could spell profit or loss for a future employer. Some of these students will one day be piloting oil tankers down from Alaska; they had better be trained well to avoid mishaps that could cost lives and result in spills that contaminate coastal waters and shorelines, endangering marine life and seabirds.
During the remainder of the campus tour, and afterward by email, I asked Jack questions about his career choice, his Laguna Beach years, and his environmental concerns. Having previously earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from San Francisco State University with few prospects of employment, Jack said that he wanted a “real career.” When he learned of Cal Maritime from a friend, he took the plunge and enrolled. This meant immersion in the demanding 160-unit required curriculum that includes navigational mathematics, meaning spherical trigonometry and related subjects. Add to this sea duty on T.S. Golden Bear, the training vessel that took him and classmates throughout the Pacific where they applied the navigational principles and procedures that had been drilled into them on campus. Near the end of his studies Jack passed his state licensing examination to pilot vessels, affidavit of his qualifications as a newly minted mariner.
When asked about the possibility of his piloting oil tankers, he responded: “Oil is not good for the environment, it’s as simple as that, and great care is taken nowadays to keep the oil out of the water. As a surfer, and someone who was raised in the ocean this is extremely important to me.”
I asked Jack what growing up in Laguna had to do with his chosen path of living on the water. “I was born in 1985 and my favorite photo I own is a photo from 1987 of my mom and myself on a surfboard at San-O[nofre]. She was on her knees behind me, holding my ankles, as I stood there, and we rode the wave together. As long as I can remember I have been in the ocean. Growing up in Laguna you . . . become comfortable with the water. For me it was surfing, skimming, then back to surfing. . . .The water is our sanctuary, . . . it’s why people never leave the coast.”
During his boyhood days at the beach, his mom required him to pick up five pieces of trash on the way out. From youth through the rigors of Cal Maritime, Jack Meehan has been taught well.
Tom Osborne, a recipient of Laguna Beach’s Environmental Award, is the author of recently published “Pacific Eldorado: A History of Greater California” (Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 2013).