Adventures of s/v WILD HAIR


Our land life took on form, solidity, routine. We had mastery of a limited set of skills. We had habitual expectations of others and ourselves. Going sailing, we let go of our attachments to our roles, views, and rituals. We persist because we are growing in this shapeless and dynamic world.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

“Empty day all-around. In the entire circle there is not the furthest
impertinent interruption—through all the degrees there is not one fool standing in the light; and you yourself are on nobody’s horizon.”
HM Tomlinson
The Sea and the Jungle

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 2, 2010—0600 at N 23 29 27 W 67 33 07 (235 nautical miles northeast of the closest land: Turks and Caicos)

At 04:00 the wind went kaput. Nada. It was dead with a tag tied to its toe.

Now, we are floating in place. The boat rocks lazily to and fro. The wind indicator at the top of the mast swings with the boat’s motion sending confused signals to my electronics: swing—the wind is from port; swing—the wind is from starboard. Round and round my instruments spin as Dave repeatedly asks, “What direction is the wind coming from?” He does not accept my answer that there is no wind.

Becalmed, I really feel like an explorer of old. I contemplate mutiny for fear of falling off the edge of the world.

For two hours we work to suspend the sails. Captain Dave’s goal is to hoist everything we have and lasso it into place so that it won’t snap and bang with the rocking motion. We know that most equipment damage happens in light winds. But, Dave is driven to take advantage of every breath. We strapped the boom to the portside toe rail, and lashed the whisker pole with the foresail off the starboard side. We lash the wheel and rudder to hold a course toward the south and east. But, the boat doesn’t have enough forward momentum to steer. We flounder in the slop of the sea and every time we check our progress we are pointed in a different direction. Since we’re not going anywhere, our course heading really doesn’t matter.

Seeing the futility of our effort, I mutter how happy I am not to have been in Dave’s OR for the past 20 years. He is a determined fellow, just what you’d want in a physician!

I radio Chris Parker to find out if we can motor to a place with wind. Sunspots must be bursting today because the ionosphere is not cooperating. The radio is horribly garbled and I can hardly hear Parker’s transmission. Quickly enlisting the cooperation of boaters sailing closer to Parker’s home base in Florida, I spark a relay team. Now, we all struggle to hear and be heard. Suddenly, the heaven’s open and I hear seven words directly from our weather oracle as clear as a song: “Wait for the wind to reach you.” Got it! We get a day off!

Pancakes, bacon, and eggs are the order of the day along with tall mugs of steaming decaf. Then sleep—precious, uninterrupted, glorious, deep, safe sleep. Dave, kitty, and I sleep all day long. After that, we sleep all night long.

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 3, 2010—0900 at N 23 14 41 W 67 37 09 (229 nautical miles north east of the closest land: Turks and Caicos)

Chris Parker assures us the wind will arrive by noon today. But, Dave woke with new energy. Forget noon. Dave has us under sail by 07:20. There are eight knots of wind blowing consistently from the north east, so we can muster five and a half knots of boat speed heading 130 degrees on the compass. That’s not bad!

This is a blissful moment. Gun shy about how quickly our fates change, I am no longer presumptive enough to call it a beautiful day; I can only vouch for this moment. In 20 minutes everything may be different. The sea is teaching me about the dynamic and ever changing flow of life. Nothing stands still in time. But this moment is heavenly.

Dinghy woke with new energy, too. She and I play with her fuzzy pink worm on a fishing line for about 30 minutes. Her favorite move is to dive for it while falling into the sling of the pilot berth. She jumps and twists like a short stop. Her athleticism is brilliant.

It was disconcerting to sleep as we floated aimlessly in the middle of the ocean. We left on our running lights and our VHF radio so a local boat could hail us if we were about to hit. We knew our radar reflector would help other boats pick up our location, too. We turned off all other instruments. Dave and I were concerned about a collision because three times this trip in the middle of the night WILD HAIR came within two miles of another boat. Twice we had to take evasive action at the helm so as not to collide. The odds surrounding such a phenomenon are incalculable, but there you are.

Imagine a lumberjack camp. In it, a 60 foot crane lifts a ten foot log on a rope. The crane swings right and left 15 feet in each direction until the log arcs wildly. It only takes two or three strokes. This is what happened this morning as we took the whisker pole off the forward sail. Dave was standing on the bow as I cranked the sail in from a winch at the stern. I heard a strangled call and as I looked up Dave was falling backwards onto the deck. The log/whisker pole had swung wildly from the top of the rocking mast clearing him by inches as he fell. It easily could have knocked him overboard. It easily could have knocked him out. Luckily—and it was sheer luck—Dave saw it coming out of the corner of his eye and dropped. On the pole’s next pass, Dave caught it and the drama was over. Just like that. It was to date our most frightening moment and the whole event happened in less than 10 seconds on a sunny day in calm seas.

Today we realized our next for-profit venture. We have discovered what the true off-shore sailor wears. Forget Nautica, it’s underwear under the PFD. Dave and I will start a new line for men and women to be sold by West Marine. We’ll call it Skipper’s Secret: for the non-sensual times in your life. It will feature vintage elastic and pre-stretched cotton. To draw attention to the naughty bits, where others add feathers or beads, we’ll have scales. We think we have a winner.

SATURDAY, DECEMBER 4, 2010—0600 at N 22 11 00 W 66 25 59 (225 nautical miles north of the closest land: Puerto Rico)

I’m having odd dreams. Vividly, I dreamt of walking in tall, clean woods. I lingered in the cool shade as I woke. Later, I dreamed I was eating a scone at Starbucks.

This morning, the world is moody. The wind moans through our canvas, waves growl past the boat, the sky is torn fibrous paper in the colors of charcoal. White caps burst into the air as they meet at cross purposes.

Today is our last day for easting. The door called “plenty of opportunity to go east” is closing. Very soon the winds will shift and the only thing we will be able to do is go south. But east, the required direction for the next 85 miles, is uncomfortable. We are driving hard into rude waves. Press on, press on, press on.

The chart tells me we are in 18,163 feet of water. Soon we’ll be over the Puerto
Rican Trench—the second deepest hole in the world.

I’d like to paint the sky for you with words so you can see it with fresh eyes. You’ve seen this sky before. It is the sky of childhood, of endless summer days. Blue is so clear. Clouds are fuzzy and shapeless—no rabbits or turtles in them. There is a cotton-ball softness that wraps my heart in gentle warmth, a looseness that says, “Don’t be afraid.” Then, down low, clouds hang with full bellies inches above the horizon. These are satisfied clouds. These are the water-carriers going about their business. These are the clouds that give us life. Or, not us, but people far away. The blue space between clouds jumps back and forth like an Escher painting: is it a positive shape or a negative absence of shape? It matters little for the blue is the jewel in Nedra’s Net. There are so many jewels, holes. They are the way into the ultimate.

Press on with courage into the objecting surf.

This trip is a learning lab. There was only so much Dave and I could know about off shore sailing from books, bar conversations, and lectures. Eventually, we had to come out here and taste it. I write this journal to unravel the mystery of sailing in the great beyond for myself and for you. I can paint pictures of moments, but no one—including myself—will ever fully grasp the enormity of the surface of the world gone wide. I may suspect that here it is possible to know my place in the universe. But, no. This is not a human place. I am a mere court jester passing comically through without effecting plot.

Knowable is our technical progress; Dave and I now have a pat drill for handling storm cells. We know what to do when we detect a change in the wind. Previously skittish about such things, we feel safe riding out squalls, the blustery downpours that make the Caribbean a lush place. Further, hoist sails confidently in the face of a blow when before we would have shrunk from intimidation.

Press on mindlessly against the mindless surge.

In retrospect, maybe we should have gone north to go south. Every year, the Caribbean 1500—a cruising rally open to sailors like Dave and me—departs from Hampton Virginia, traveling nonstop to the Virgin Islands. Surprisingly, that route is the same distance to the islands as a departure from Florida. But this year, Caribbean 1500 participants made the trip in only 9 days compared to our two weeks. What is the difference? Given the slope of the east coast, Hampton is located hundreds of miles east of northern Florida. Their trip is almost due south and the winds push from behind nearly the entire distance. We did the trip the hard way; northern Florida is just about as far west as you can get on the east coast. So, we had to sail 955 nautical miles east into the wind in order to reach our goal. Doable, but it is slow and hard on a body and a boat.

There is another lesson not to be missed from the Caribbean 1500: bailing out of an off shore route for land can be dangerous. One boat in this year’s November Rally decided to veer off toward the Bahamas. Perhaps they had difficulties with their systems, maybe they were tired or made uncomfortable by the weather. Whatever the reason, the decision was fatal. The captain drove the boat in a narrow pass between the islands during a “rage sea”—a time when strong winds create violent waves as the Atlantic Ocean pushes against the Bahamian shoal. Throughout time Bahamian rage seas have slammed boats into rocks. The way I heard the story told, the boat was lost. Two passengers drowned, only the captain survived. It is common sailor’s wisdom that the deep ocean far from land is the safest place to be when things get rough.

At 2300, under Dave’s watch, we reach our easterly target: 65 degrees west—the longitude of the US Virgin Islands. Remarkably, there is no finish line to stride across in jubilance and a final rush of athleticism. As I sleep, Dave turns the boat from east to south and the 20 knots of wind shifts from working against us to working with us, nudging us boldly from behind. The boat stretches though the waves as silent and settled as a yoga master.

SUNDAY, DECEMBER 5, 2010—0600 at N 20 58 10 W 64 56 36 (160 nautical miles north of the closest land: St Thomas, US Virgin Islands)

I woke this morning with Captain Dave’s pronouncement that we may arrive in St Thomas tomorrow morning. Hooray! It is time to burn the Skipper’s Secret apparel and break out the bikinis. In celebration, I load a new set of electronic charts into our navigational system and study the Virgin Island cruising guides. Before now, I was afraid to hope.

How peculiar the idea of being in civilization. It is peculiar and pleasant. I plot my first umbrella drink. I cannot wait to take kitty for a walk on land. I cannot wait to take a shower, eat a salad, and sleep in my bed instead of the pilot berth. I cannot wait to move freely without a personal floatation device and tethers literally tying me down. I cannot wait to wear something pretty and dine on something someone else has prepared for me. Wouldn’t it be nice to go for a swim in all this warm water or walk down a street window shopping, absorbing culture and the energy of others? Wouldn’t it be a delight to see green and red and yellow, to smell soil and clean people? I look forward to movable furniture and the kindness of a stranger as we help each other through the day.

I am grateful to this boat. It teaches Dave and me how to sail. With a little smart handling, the boat finds her way through the seas. The sails capture what they can of the wind. The sails themselves are strong, light, and skillful. Bending just so, the sails fool the wind into thinking the cloth is more than it is. These strips of white thread force the wind to speed on one side and linger on the other, perfect airfoils for imperfect, tired deck hands.

The hull, bobbing with confidence through unending assaults, takes the middle path of least resistance. WILD HAIR’s shell is our safeguard. It is a thin barrier between us and those that would consume our meat with satisfaction. The hull’s innate, engineered wisdom is our savior, delivering us from evil. The rigging soaring toward the heavens is the temple of our efforts. Forgiving, movable pawns in this chess game, every piece of rigging is a tool to harness and leverage nature toward our end. In the past two weeks I have seen a year of wear put upon our dear boat and yet it stands tall, willing, able, and ready for more.

These are the components of a boat that sleep in a yard or marina. These qualities are hidden to the buyer that knows only to ask, “Is she strong? Can she go off shore?” The reputation says yes. Now the reality says yes and this indebted sailor says yes. Discovering the boat in this way is like meeting a lover only to discover that your lover is also your best friend.

And speaking of best friends . . . Dave has shown me a few of his inner workings that—after 25 years of marriage—I didn’t know made him tick. His energy appears unlimited. After years of working as an operating room leader, I find him an articulate captain able to delegate jobs and describe shared outcomes prior to action. It is his habit to think 10 steps ahead. Further, Dave is incredibly kind. Concerns about my nausea and dizziness, my cold, and the fact that I was five months post-operative from a total hip replacement prompted him to manage most of the physical line and sail duties on a heaving, wet deck. Over the course of two weeks, he did 90% of the winching as I managed the less physical but more technical helming during sail changes. He also did 50% or more of the watches since he had trouble sleeping. Dave says he feels like he just spent two weeks on call; I do too but I think his efforts were more physical than mine.

We each made certain our partner didn’t get behind in drinking fluids or eating. We spent our energy caring for the boat and each other’s wounds. While we both navigated and charted our progress, Dave was the technician overseeing WILD HAIR’S diesel and the charge of our refrigeration and batteries. I was responsible for communications with family, friends, and meteorologist Chris Parker. I prepared meals, Dave cleaned up. He is skilled at judging sail plans given predicted winds, I am skilled at trimming sails for optimal performance. With the exception of maneuvers requiring strength and balance, we split the load evenly and played to our advantages. I believe we are the perfect cruising couple.

It is 14:00 and the wind has quit. We are becalmed again and just 152 nautical miles north of our destination. Knowing this was going to happen, we saved fuel for the final push to shore. Now it is time to start WILD HAIR’s engine.

“Va-room!” our 63 horse power Yanmar comes to life, we strike the sails and abruptly WILD HAIR is transformed into a motoring trawler. At 2800 RPM, we will ride on smooth water at seven knots for the rest of our journey.

But, we have no idea where in St Thomas we are going! It is time to refine our destination. Because we will fly to Arizona leaving the boat for two weeks over the holidays, we need a slip for a month at a protected marina and someone to watch the boat in our absence. Using the guide books as reference, I call several marinas using the satellite phone to check availability and make arrangements.

Oops. I quickly am informed that this is the most popular time of year. Most marinas are fully booked. Others only rent by the night so the price for an entire month is cost-prohibitive. Given the season, we feel a bit like the biblical Mary and Joseph. At last, we find one marina run by a charter boat company that has one slip for the month at a quarter of the price of the others. Phew! What a lucky break. Who knew it would be so tough? Sometimes we feel like rank amateurs in this cruising life.

As we motor toward our new home, I find my thoughts are rushing to the end of this trip. I’m having a hard time witnessing this sunset, this lovely placid night.

MONDAY, DECEMBER 6, 2010—0600 at N 18 35 47 W 65 03 56 (24 nautical miles north of the closest land: St Thomas, US Virgin Islands)

I am at the helm as the sun teases the horizon at dawn. The lights of St Thomas are visible like chunky sugar crystals on a Christmas cookie in profile, gold and red. For the past several years of our sailing life, I have been acutely sensitive to the cruelty with which people treat each other. Every time Dave and I re-emerge from an extended sailing trip and come back into the US culture of media and financial markets, we are stunned by how badly people behave—spiteful politics, greedy business decisions, and selfish personal indulgences. None of this is new to the history of mankind. What is new to me is the degree to which bad behavior saturates every aspect of our collective lives. It seems to be the fascination and allure of news casts, the tantalizing plots of sitcoms, and the root of catastrophic economic loss. Constantly turning off the TV, I find it almost more than I can bare.

But this morning, with the sugar crystal lights of St Thomas on the horizon, I saw nothing but the beauty of mankind. We take care of each other through the gift of light in the dark night. Art, literature, science, medicine, environmental protection, and education are all evidence of our nurturing higher selves. Food—the act of growing, storing, preparing, serving, and eating is a reflection of kindness one for another. All of civilization is a testament to our love. Civilization is the creative energy and celebration of our coming together.

I am so relieved. Now, I can see the beauty that counterbalances the chaos of petty ways. Now, I have a salve for the pain. The ugliness becomes mere background noise to the greater story arch of human inspiration.

At the helm of my ship, I sit in peace.

It is 80 degrees as we approach the harbor in St Thomas at 06:30.

I ask Dave if this voyage has satisfied his strong desire to “cross and ocean.” He says, “Yes. I no longer need to cross an ocean. We’ve done that.”

There are two kinds of sailors: those who have sailed off shore and those that want to. I’ve never met a sailor that doesn’t—on some level—want to sail off into the great beyond. It is a profoundly compelling call to anyone who has experienced the power of wind and trust in their craft. For us, the idea gnawed for decades and caused us to finally rearrange our lives for the opportunity to do this, together. Today, Dave and I graduate into the first category, those that have sailed offshore.

Now, the mystery is gone; the price of off shore travel has been named and paid. Our conclusion: off shore adventures are not glamorous or romantic. They are grueling work. But, we are so very happy to have undertaken this voyage and to have successfully completed it. Like mountain climbers and astronauts, there is no denying our sense of accomplishment. But, are we called to do it again? It is too soon to tell. For now, I look forward to skipping south from island to island through the Caribbean, perhaps voyaging all the way to South America. This is called “coastal cruising” and it too is satisfying. After all, it is the coast—the interface between people and the sea—that is the stuff of legends.

Thank you for coming on this journey with Dave and me. We needed you. We love you.

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