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


In the late fall of 2010, Dave and I sailed nonstop from Green Cove Springs in north Florida (N 29 59 30 W 81 39 65) to St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands (N 18 20 19 W 64 56 40). In total, the trip was 1,566 nautical miles. Moving at an average speed of just over 5 knots, the trip took us 15 days and 80 gallons of diesel to complete. But, the journey cannot be measured by miles and time alone; during the half-month afloat in the Atlantic—with nothing but combinations of boat, spouse, sea, and air—we took a journey of the heart. Below is the sailing journal Heather recorded during this voyage.


The plan was to bounce down the coast of Florida from Jacksonville, through the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and into the US Virgin Islands. Having spent the past two winters in the Bahamas, we were all ready familiar with half the route. But when I actually charted the full course, I calculated the trip would take us a minimum of 27 sailing days. Given prevailing winter winds and the need to wait for safe weather “windows,” I realized those 27 sailing days would take four months to complete. For much of the trip we’d be forced to sit in crummy weather. Plus, the route included several potentially dangerous legs, stretches notorious for ship wrecks dating back to the Santa Maria.

Alternatively, we could take the offshore route straight out into the Atlantic Ocean and turning south at longitude W 65, arriving in the Virgin Islands in about two weeks.

Dave and I talked long and hard about our options. The sobering fact was that the offshore route put us days away from land or rescue should we run into serious trouble. Plus, the trip was long enough that we’d surely experience bad weather at least once along the way. We had to be completely self-sufficient on our little island: WILD HAIR. We would be alone in the middle of the ocean.

On the flip side, we had bought a Hylas brand boat because of its reputation for offshore safety and performance. We’d spent years fine tuning her so that she’d likely hold up to the worst nature could throw. This summer alone we had the boat yard refit her with all new standing and running rigging; last year we bought offshore rated sails. We’d invested in most of the safety gear on the market and studied how to manage the vessel in heavy weather. We contracted with Chris Parker—a weather forecaster, sailor, and routing expert—to advise us via single sideband radio along the way. Most importantly, we wanted to give it a try. We had long harbored a dream of sailing to faraway places. Weighing all this, we changed plans and agreed to head offshore.

With years of preparation one would think it a simple thing to depart. But the land itself has suction that draws sailors in. For six weeks we dwelled at the Florida boat yard knowing that easy access to our car, mechanical and rigging expertise, and boat parts was this year’s only opportunity to make things just the way we wanted. On three occasions it appeared to be time to go. The first time we were about to leave we undertook a check on our systems and discovered the battery bank was critically damaged last year when our regulator failed briefly to regulate. All the batteries had to be replaced. The second time we thought we could go, our galley range went kaput (the thermal couples rusted through) and the entire unit needed to be replaced. The third time, a shelf in the engine room suddenly gave way from age and a previously leaky water heater, folding the heater into the bilge pumps and potentially collapsing onto the refrigeration unit. Throughout this time, the Space Shuttle Discovery was experiencing a series of delays. I shared the crew’s frustration. With a growing reputation that WILD HAIR would never leave, our fourth proclamation of departure proved right.

And so, it begins.

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 21, 2010—06:00 at N 29 59 30 W 81 39 65

Today, we take our departure slowly. We shower, and enjoy a big breakfast. It is Sunday and the boat yard is unusually quiet as we tuck our car in for long-term storage and return all boat yard keys. The day is sunny and clear, 72 degrees, with a light wind. The river water beneath us is silent, black, and calm. I know we are as ready as we will ever be.

Do we remember how to do this? My mind creaks as I shift from maintenance to sailing. Having spent the hurricane season up north, Dave and I realize it has been five months since we’d hoisted the sails. We comment on the butterflies in our stomachs.

It is my turn at the helm. To depart the pier I envision a smooth straight-back reverse and powering up into a turn to port once the bow has cleared. Naively, I don’t check the data on the river’s current this morning. Dave lets go of the dock lines, but before I get enough speed for boat control, the water and wind conspire to push us sideways into the stern davits of our neighbor’s boat, Serendipity. Embarrassingly, our friends Russ and Jane capture the moment on film. Serendipity fares well but I bend a lifeline post on WILD HAIR as we wrestle our way out of entanglement.

I choose to believe the awkward departure is not an omen to our voyage.

Dinghy the Sailor Cat has separation anxiety as we leave the land. She meows, circles, and paces in the cockpit on her leash. She is further disturbed by Dave’s moving about as he stows lines and lashes the dinghy to the deck. Only when Dave returns to the cockpit and brings her a blanket to sleep on does she settle. What must she make of her moving home?

Chatter comes across the VHF radio. The Coast Guard cautions mariners to slow if they see migrating Right whales. One boat kindly asks another to slow down so they can pass on the port side. Another voice requests a bridge opening. There is life on the water you don’t hear on land. The voices are comforting, familiar. It is the sensation of coming home.

I cannot help but feel our chosen lifestyle is something of a burden to those we love. We are absent from our friendships. Communicating with us requires odd procedures and the procedures change depending on where we are. Sailing has inherent risks creating worry. These burdens make me all the more grateful for the support we get to go adventuring. This past week I called each family member, asked them about their concerns for us, and answered their questions about how we intend to be safe. I thanked everyone for letting us go. I told family and friends that I loved them. Once completed, I reflected upon a felt kinship with departing sailors (or astronauts!) throughout time.

Five bridges cross our path today and only one must lift on our behalf. The others—colossal architectural wonders from this perspective—span the river 175 feet over our heads. “Wa-whump, wa-whump, wa-whump” go car wheels as they bounce on the seams of the bridge work overhead.

It feels good to be moving again on water.

Winding down the St Johns River we pass the Jacksonville Jaguars’ waterfront stadium. Suddenly, the packed arena roars to life. Within moments, our boat floods with the smell of beer and hot dogs sent from the breath of football fans. It is nearly overpowering. There is a second roar of approval. The combination sounds like a touchdown and extra point. This I choose to believe is a good omen for our voyage.

We pass by Jacksonville’s working ports. Soaring cranes that load and offload containers from freighters remind me of giant herons poised to feed in the shallow waters. Or, perhaps they more resemble blue brachiosaurus dinosaurs wearing tap shoes. I cannot decide.

The now falling tide draws us, increasing our motoring speed from 5.7 knots to 7.7 knots. Our 16-year-old engine has 4,000 hours running time—the equivalent of 200,000 miles in an automobile. But with tender care, the engine hums faithfully.

There—I spot the trip’s first dolphin.

Tug boats like picture book characters push rusted working barges up river. They appear little heroes. Underdogs.

At a tight bend of the river crowded with recreational and working boats, our visual navigation system freezes. I had been lazy, trusting it too much. Quickly, I scan my surroundings and mark the location and color of buoys. I pick my route for the next half mile. Loss of our electronics is a “new problem” and the only thing I can think to do is to reboot the screen. Waiting. Waiting. The image sparks to life anew and—thankfully—gives me an accurate read on our position. Unnerved by the knowledge I could lose electronic navigational support at any moment, the equipment will have to re-earn my trust. I continue down river on a defensive high alert studying and confirming our progress on the paper charts at my side.

We are surfing out to sea now, speeding with the water at 9.1 knots. Nearing the ocean, the river widens and the waves build to 2 feet. Twenty-two knots of wind blows the tops off the waves forming white caps. The boat starts to bounce and dance in the water, a sign of things to come.

The trees are in their fall color. How odd that Thanksgiving will be in four days. Having focused my attention on the details of our voyage, I feel detached from society and my roots. The world proceeds without us. This is unsettling. Seasonally, this is the safest time of year for us to make this trip. The ocean is most calm between the seasons of fall/winter (November/December) and spring/summer (May/June). So, now is the time to head south to the Caribbean. Spring/summer is the time to head north again due to the hurricanes. This is the rhythm of sailors. Not surprisingly, it is out of beat with the rest of the world.

I spot two tug boats coming at me but behaving strangely. I am confused by their actions so I turn off the auto pilot and hand steer. The tugs cross over and circle through my path. Behind them I see a giant container ship charging straight for me. These tugs are its escorts. I pick up speed so as to make my intended turn into a creek portside, thereby giving them all a wide berth. On the river, there are very few “rules to the road.”So, a captain must be attentive and—above all—stay clear of commercial traffic.

Arriving at the point where river meets ocean takes a full day. Our first major hazard will be the north flowing Gulf Stream running like a river miles off Florida’s shore. We must cross it at a time when wind and sea are favorable. Consequently, today’s destination is an anchorage up a small creek near the mouth of the river. Here we will wait for meteorologist Chris Parker to give us the all clear. Perhaps the weather will have us linger only one night, perhaps a week or more. Dave and I will fill our time with final preparations: connecting the GPS antenna to our lap top, hard boiling eggs for meals at sea, screwing down floor boards so what is stored below decks doesn’t crash on our heads should the boat roll, barrel-bolting the freezer cover for the same reason, and emailing our float plan to family. For now we are done with land until we reach St Thomas. Our journey has begun.

With anchor set and engine cooled, we shut our engine down. Watching the sun set over the nuclear power plant, Dave notes that we motored all day with our docking fenders hanging off our hull. Classy. It is a small thing but it is evidence of how rusty we are tending to the boat’s many details.

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 23, 2010—06:00 AT N 30 23 57 W 81 23 22

Yesterday, Chris Parker said our weather window wouldn’t open until December. This morning, he said everything changed. A departure today “just might work!” Over the radio Chris outlined the strategy on a day-by-day, tack-by-tack basis. Although there was no wind now, we would motor across a calm Gulf Stream arriving on the other side before mid-day tomorrow. Then, the wind would pick up and shift north east and we could sail for days along 30 degrees north latitude. If we dropped too far south, the trade winds would take over and we could no longer sail east; our trip would abort west of our goal in the Turks or the Dominican Republic. So, our mantra is to stay north and make our way east for as long as possible. East!

Oh My! It’s time to go. Now. I concentrate on breathing slowly, evenly. With the words it “just might work,” I felt a stress headache begin. I swallow a pair of Excedrin Migraine pills. I think I’ll burst with anxiety and excitement. Couldn’t Chris have spoken more confidently about this weather window and our chances for success? How could I stake my life on something that “might work?”

Dave must see my anxiety, or perhaps he wrestles with his own. “We can absolutely take four months to island hop our way to the Caribbean if you want,” he offers. “I don’t mind. We can do whatever you want to do.” I don’t think he is having second thoughts. Is it kindness that makes him say that? Or, is it self-defense, anticipating that I might blame him when things get uncomfortable?

Imitating calm I sit down with the charts and plot the forecasted winds and recommended course for each day. Low and behold, the trip looks beautiful, doable! I show my work to Dave and together we decided it is time to go. Without delay we paste anti-nausea scopolamine patches behind our ears, ready the ditch bags in case a quick escape into the life raft is required, take a few dinners out of the freezer, open the sail covers and lift the anchor. We’re off.

With Dave at the helm, I raise the mainsail. As I climb eight feet up the mast to undo the halyard, I realize this is my first hoisting since my total hip replacement four months earlier. I feel a bit awkward, conscious of limited movement, but strong. I must remember to email my physical therapist and thank him for his creativity in balance exercises to make me well.

Most injuries at sea—and there are many—happen to the female member of the cruising couple. Some theorize that women are proportioned differently enough so that they miss the handrails in an unexpected bounce. This nearly happened to me once, but I managed to grab hold with finger tips to avoid knocking out my front teeth on a shelf. Perhaps it is a factor of strength. No one knows for sure. I vow to be vigilant.

Winching the sail up the last 10 feet is aerobic. It fills despite the light wind forecast and the boat springs to life. The sea is lovely this morning, friendly. It is sunny and warm; the barometer registers 1020 millibars. Perfect.

As the shore slips into the distance, Maggie calls on my cell phone with news of college life in Wisconsin. Her roommate is moving out of the house and into a relationship with an abusive man; Maggie’s cat is pooping in her bed while another roommate’s cat is using her litter box; Christmas presents are in the works; it is snowing. Finally, we lose each other from a lack of bars. My stomach squeezes with the thought that that is the end of my cell phone.

Jelly fish populate the water. A sea turtle ambles by. We are nearing the Gulf Stream.

I toss my crushed soda can overboard. Everything in my being screams, “Don’t do it!” But, it is the way to manage trash at sea. Metal cans melt quickly in corrosive salt water. Paper dissolves. Glass is the stuff of sand so it returns from whence it came. The only thing that is forbidden is plastic. So, we keep two bags in the galley: one we periodically dump overboard, the other we will dispose of at our destination. This is such a difficult mindset for me. I’m certain the last time I tossed a can out a window was late in the 1960’s, well before my 5th grade science project on pollution.

Bravely, I go below to make up the pilot berth located near the base of the mast, the most stable place on the boat to sleep. With the action of the sea, tucking sheets and lacing the restraint that holds us in the narrow berth is a nauseating venture. As quick as possible, I crawl in for a nap. Lying horizontal the motion of the boat feels as if I’m lounging on a pool raft with children constantly doing cannonballs around me. This is a calm-ish day.

Back at the helm with Dave now napping below decks, I remember there is no flat space to sit on a boat. Sitting is exercise consuming calories because we constantly adjust to the motion of the boat. Our smartest purchase was a pair of West Marine lounge chairs; wedged into a corner against the frame of our bimini, we can at least sit and lean back on something soft.

We are tiptoeing out to sea. It is the sensation of sneaking around the resting body of a volatile giant. I am like a tiny person in Gulliver’s Travels. Sailing out is not a time of sport or conquest. It is a time of respect and appreciation. Putting fears of the sleeping giant aside, I remind myself it is a privilege to meet this face of the world.

My scopolamine patch is starting to ache behind my ear. The medicine must be making its way through the skin. While it does a reasonable job warding off seasickness, it comes at a price. On site discomfort, a sore throat, loss of taste, and blurred vision are standard side effects. I dislike these things, but I dislike being sick more.

This time of year the days are evenly split between light and dark. At night, everything looms forebodingly in shadow. The ordinary elements breathe ghostly hot air down your spine. Waves, clouds, moon seem to conspire against me. I don’t mind the darkness on land. But on water, without points of reference, imagination swirls unanchored. Perhaps I will make a peace with the absence of light this trip. I will have plenty of opportunity to practice.

Dinghy joins me at the helm. She is a social creature. But her face is strained and looks like an old man’s. She must have a touch of seasickness. Dinghy rests like a friend at my feet, springing to life when dolphin surface alongside the boat.

In the eastern sky, as the sun sets behind me, the night creeps above the horizon. Top to bottom the sky blends color from blue to pink. But as night rises, the sky above water turns deep, dirty lavender. It is the color of light without hope. It is the bruising of promise. It is the color of goodbye. In contrast, the silk of water seems to cling to the remaining light, brightening in the face of end. Water is the color of sand as it struggles to preserve the glare. Soon, the water loses its fight and swirls in a surrender of lavender circles, welcoming a new master.

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