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

“His body resented the scene, his intellect disbelieved it, but his imagination was enthralled.”

VS Pritchett

MONDAY, NOVEMBER 29, 2010—0600 at N 29 04 54 W 69 19 31 (460 nautical miles northeast of the closest land: Abacos, Bahamas)

This is the pits! In the dark of night our beautiful breeze shifts and turns unexpectedly intense. We have the wrong sail combination but dread in these conditions to make a change. Some boats have all their sail controls strung to the cockpit. Our boat does not. Changes to the sail plan necessitate a crawl on deck to the point where we balance precariously in our winching and cleating. Instead, doing his best to maintain course with too much sail, Dave drives our Japanese Bullet Train headlong into big seas. It is impossible to sleep below. Everything is leaping again in the cupboards. Great waves rise and smash into our deck. The boat groans and pops. Water drizzles through port lights we hadn’t sufficiently dogged down. Our big salon windows, having flexed with the boat this trip, have lost their seals. I lay awake exhausted in the pilot berth with icy water drip, drip, dripping through the salon windows onto my body and bedding.

All night the boat pummels forward on the edge of control. On my watch, the wild animals of surf and swell intimidate just beyond sight. Out of the black, a rogue wave attacks, plummeting from a great height, smashing with a deafening force onto the top of the cockpit enclosure. Salt water flows through every void of canvas.

Dave does the math. Twelve 24 hour days of sailing are equivalent to an entire season sailing eight hour days between weather windows. This trip is putting a lot of wear on our vessel, and us.

At 06:30, Chris Parker—the archangel of good news—tells us we will get additional chances to go east in the days ahead. We can stop beating ourselves up into the wind. As a fellow sailor he knows, without our telling, that we’re hammering ourselves silly. He gives us the go-ahead to turn south promising that in doing so we will not fall short of our ultimate destination. In an instant we take a right turn and the ride turns quiet. The boat rocks port to starboard like a smooth rocking chair. It hardly feels like the same day. Worn out, we re-trim the sails and both fall sound asleep.

Mysteriously, I have lost my voice. Because I cannot talk, Dave was this morning’s radio contact with Chris Parker: long time listener, first time caller. He did a good job.

Also, the inside of my ears itch and Doctor Dave fears I might have an early fungal infection from the sustained use of wet ear plugs. I must stop using them and accept the noise at bedtime. The ear discomfort might also be caused by the anti-nausea scopolamine patch, so I remove it, trusting that I am now acclimated to the pitching sea. Removing the patch should also help me see again; I can no longer read the charts due to blurred vision, a side-effect of the medicine.

Waking after our simultaneous naps with the boat still cruising happily along, it dawns on us the boat stinks! To remedy the offence, we clean heads, the cat box, and dishes, and toss the trash. We bathe, wash our hair, and shave. We stow discarded clothes strewn about the cabin. What a difference; everything is made fresh again. Plus, Dave replaces the pilot berth’s screaming fan with a whispering new model; now we can keep cool as we sleep without the fan adding to the ruckus. He also fixes the fresh water pump so water flows again from our faucets. We run the engine to charge batteries drained by our electronics. Above decks, we re-lash jerry cans and equipment knocked about in last night’s turbulent dousing. We look for chafing in our lines.

Distance wise, we are more than half way to our destination.

As the sun sets we use the final moments of daylight to prepare again for night. Winds are increasing a bit. Even with no main sail and a tiny bit of forward sail out, we’re making six knots. We keep the sails conservatively rigged and continue a sea-kindly course south.

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 30, 2010—0600 at N 27 10 13 W 68 26 40 (475 nautical miles east of Abacos, Bahamas)

We departed a week ago today. 520 miles separate us from our destination.

This is an extreme amount of sailing. Every moment we think about sailing tactics, getting the most from our boat in the given conditions. For safety’s sake, no one leaves the cockpit unless the other person is awake and watching from the cockpit. Even then we know our chances of recovery are slim if one of us were to fall overboard; a person in the trough of a 12 foot wave is invisible to a boat in the trough of another. In our desire to make an efficient passage, we change sails and trim as a team all day and all night. It is not uncommon to be woken up because the weather has shifted. With only the two of us, I am nearly hypnotized by the constant raising, lowering, reefing, furling, winching and letting out. When cruising the shore and stopping at night, our time is divided by other activities like anchoring, hiking, shopping, and socializing. Here, there is no relief. We are on an endless treadmill of sailing.

With winds from the northeast we are making steady, settled progress. I had been on watch from 01:00-03:00 and 06:00 to 10:00. Between watches I sank into deep and restful sleeps. I woke at 13:00 dreaming I was in a hermetically sealed tube being sucked through a chute at the bank.

There was mutiny aboard WILD HAIR at 03:00. Dave scurried about the deck changing sails in the dark as I waited drearily at the helm for my watch to end. When all essential adjustments had been made, Captain Dave announced he was going to do some non-essential tasks on the foredeck. I said, “no.” After getting an earful about how he was trying to maintain top performance to make the trip as short as possible for safety’s sake, I quipped that I was too tired to save him should his tether fail and he fall overboard. I know when I’ve reached my limit. Unfortunately, 100% of the time, it is before Dave has reached his. My job is to speak up when I believe things aren’t safe. Dave’s job is to eek out that extra mile. In the end, non-essential tasks were deferred until daylight.

Kitty is on a busman’s holiday: If she wasn’t sleeping all day she’d be sleeping all day.

My voice is returning as my health symptoms evolve into a cold. As an added bonus, because my hormone medication provoked seasickness and dizziness, I abandoned its use.

I can’t remember having done anything this physically challenging before—except perhaps recovering from total hip surgery. I lay in bed with eyes shut feeling normal and rested, regretting the moment I must sit and then stand. In the wave action, every motion must be accomplished with a singularity of purpose and a concentration on balance. Holding my head on my neck takes energy. Each step must be timed with the boat’s motion requiring two hand holds for safety. Brushing my teeth necessitates two feet planted on the floor, butt pressed backwards onto the opposing wall, and left hand wedged to the basin. In this way, my right hand is free for business. I offer these comments not as a complaint. They are an explanation or reminder as to why I might think twice about doing this again. Offshore sailing is hard, hard work.

My clothes are getting baggy as my appetite is lacking; I am always on the verge of nausea. I feel ravenous and then fill on a mere half sandwich. Nothing tastes the same. Things that taste exceptionally good include: hard boiled eggs, apples, chicken bouillon, and peanut butter. Some of the meals I prepared in advance miss the mark with curry and horseradish cream sauces. Even coffee is a traitor to my pallet. I haven’t the courage to open the jars of chili I canned this summer for our travels. We completely take a pass on liquor underway; why add that to my system when I already feel sluggish and brain dead. It wouldn’t be safe.

But I have a Buddha in me and she won’t stop smiling. Every time I look she is there, so happy that we are able to go on this ultimate adventure.

Watching the boat move through the waves is inspiring. Such a simple machine is our hull and keel and sails. Simple, yet the design is informed by eons of our ocean-going kin. WILD HAIR goes into, alongside of, and surfs over the waves. Our bow like a faithful hound sniffs the route while our stern swings, absorbing the shock of energy out of sync. The autopilot reads the boat’s constant adaptation and keeps us pointed properly. The autopilot job is made easy by well-balanced sails. There is intelligence in the inanimate. Of course the nose and tail of our hound are connected without benefit of a supple spine. But the resulting motion of a rigid vessel is one of compromise, grace. It accepts every twist the universe supplies and finds a path forward. Its compass is unyielding in the face of uncertainty and oppression.

At 19:00 we are in another predicament. The cold front that blew by us with 47 knot winds and huge seas stalled; we sailed back into the old frontal boundary. Our weather oracle, Chris Parker, failed to warn us so our sail plan is not right for the 37 know winds at hand. We run downwind—heading too far to the west, of course—with everything on the boat pitching wildly again.

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 1, 2010—0600 at N 25 04 38 W 68 23 07 (280 nautical miles northeast of the closest land: Turks and Caicos)

06:00 finds us at the front of the front experiencing “free frontal activity.” The wind clocks, reverses, and quits. As I try and hail Parker on the radio during his morning broadcast, Dave shouts, “Enough of this! I’m sailing back and forth over the same ocean now heading north! Who cares what Chris Parker says? Let’s change the sails and point ourselves out of here!” Reconfiguring our set up, we aim the boat at the only patch of sky that seems to be clearing: south and east. We creep forward.

With things normalizing, I reach Chris Parker via satellite phone only to discover he is actively sick with the flu. Kindly and with great effort, he manages to confirm what we know—we should continue south and east. In a few days we should be able to motor east some more when the winds die.

Our autopilot has been munching energy like a Pac Man, causing us to run the engine for battery recharge much more often that we had originally planned, utilizing limited stores of diesel. Parker doesn’t know that “motoring east” might not be an option. Dave begins a chant that we won’t get to St Thomas; we’ll need to opt out of the journey in the Turks or Puerto Rico. My captain refuses to even initiate a fuel calculation until we are at a decision point. Either way, I hardly mind. It will have been the least efficient way to arrive at one of those destinations, but there are worse places in the world.

Enjoying a now beautiful day, I marvel again at this boat. Here is a riddle: how can the wind blow a mere 11 knots from the 10 o’clock position left of our nose and move the boat 7 knots forward into the oncoming wind? I understand a bit of the physics surrounding airfoil dynamics and the way in which our lead keel re-routes energy into forward progress, but how does it work?

The void that is the ocean makes it possible for memories to bubble up uninhibited into consciousness. Both Dave and I feel the presence of a number of people on this trip. Repeatedly, we are caught off guard by voices and encouragement of family and friends, some living and some dead. Presently, my childhood friend Diane is my companion at the helm. As I sit, I capture her memory in the story included below.

Tonight, the sky is full of stars. The air is warm. The wind and water are gentle. I am feeling blue.

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