I was sitting in the only dry-ish spot topsides of a Hunter 38 sailboat, hundreds of miles from anywhere, surrounded by sapphire and cobalt waves with crests of rolling white foam. Bracing myself next to the main hatch, in the shelter of the dodger–a windshield-like structure of flexible plastic panels sewn into canvas stretched over a stainless steel frame–I was pushing my feet against the other side of the companionway, making a bridge with my legs over the opening.
From my perch, I saw that the world was flat, except for the blue, blue waves–which rolled as high as six feet, looking like advancing walls off our stern. Occasionally, one of the rollers hit the boat broadside, slamming into it like a bull, and throwing spray up and across the cockpit. Sometimes, a wave slapped the boat so hard and high that it splatted forcefully against the dodger, the water running under it and dampening my seat. Everything topsides was flecked with fresh ocean spray or crystals of white salt, including me. My black jeans had been doused by a wave and were swirled gray and white, dotted with salty stars, making a miniature galaxy along each pant leg. This was a few hundred miles through an 11-1/2-day journey of over 1,500-miles, in which I was helping to deliver a private yacht from Annapolis, MD to its new owner in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
We made it down the Chesapeake Bay in under 24 hours, and on our first night in the Atlantic, the continent slipped away, and land already seemed only a concept, a smudge of light that faded in the horizon behind us. The sky was clear and the Milky Way quite visible.This was a treat that I had seen only a few times in recent years. On some nights during the transit, thick cloud cover blocked out the stars and even the moon, making for an uncannily dark night. To save battery power, we sailed in “stealth mode,” with no running lights, so the only light was from the autopilot console at the wheel, and from the bioluminescence in the sea. I watched that aquatic light show for long moments, leaning my head outboard to see, and it seemed as if the boat was casting and recasting nets of foam to catch tiny green twinkling stars.
On one such veiled night, it was 2 AM and skipper Matt Rutherford was asleep while I stood my five-hour watch. Under full sail, we were traveling at around 6.5KT, a respectable speed for such a vessel. I had the sense that the boat was hurtling through darkness, time, and space, and felt connected to all the sailors before me, as I thought about ancient mariners and understood why they believed the world was flat, and that “there be dragons” at the edge.
Weather was the chief determining factor every day, and in most decisions made aboard the boat. It determined our course away from the Dominican Republic, but then also determined our need to divert course toward the Dominican Republic, but that is for another story.
We seemed to be constantly encircled by clouds on the horizon, even on a clear day. Large puffy white ones with flat bottoms, that roamed the sky above in a semi circle, like a herd of grazing animals. “You don’t see clouds like these anywhere on land, not even in the middle of Kansas,” Matt said, and I believed him. Periods of rain were a near-daily occurrence. I quickly fell into the habit of scanning the horizon, noting the movement of clouds and calculating what action to take. For instance, on day eight of the delivery, an apparent squall was off the port bow. It looked to be dropping heavy rain, which meant we could meet substantial wind if it came near. I anticipated this and prepared the main for reefing in case I needed to furl it.
Things look different in the dark at sea. On moonlit nights the clouds seem to be closer, just out of reach overhead. Toward the end of the transit, the nights were mostly clear, sometimes with falling stars, and with a waxing moon so bright that we did not need to turn on a flashlight.
Our time was regulated not by day and night, but by watches, five hours on, five hours off. After a few days, I was used to sleeping whenever I could, though I still found the wee hour watches a challenge. Being the crew, I had the easier end of the bargain. Yes, sometimes I was helping with refueling or washing dishes in my off watch, but the skipper’s “off” time was much more taken with necessary tasks. Matt was in regular communication with Pat, his weather watcher on land. He also had some conversations with the boat owner, as well as other satellite phone calls pertaining to his non-profit, Ocean Research Project. Matt was often calculating fuel consumption and determining the motoring speed we could afford. In addition, the skipper generally cooked at least one hot meal per day for us to share, most often starting by sauteing garlic and onion. Mmmmm! I gladly took care of the dishes in appreciation for the cooking.
Matt had made numerous prior deliveries, and has spent so much time at sea that I ended up teasing him about being “jaded,” though he was clearly not, just deeply familiar. For me, this was a journey of firsts: twice the longest stretch I have been offshore, the greatest number of miles in a voyage by 50%, the farthest south I had sailed by about 450 miles. It also included the roughest ride and strongest storm I have experienced while sailing.
Though I had sailed offshore twice- even passing the notorious Cape Hatteras once before, that was in a vessel about 90’ longer. The effect of weather is greater on small boats, and during the two days and nights we beat to windward on this journey, I was banged around, and my hands and arms became sore from holding on so much. Also, I had difficulty sleeping due to the motion and sounds of the boat under these conditions. Imagine trying to sleep while clinging to an incline. One that rocks, rolls, yaws, bounces, shakes, and vibrates. Accompanied by sounds of water swirling like a toilet flushing next to your head, thumps like sharks or killer whales attacking, various vibrations, and the hull flexing and bowing. The boat bouncing so hard that you are occasionally airborne in your bunk. But when you’re dog tired, you sleep when and where you can. The bouncing became so familiar to me that I would rouse from consciousness enough to know that I was in the air, then fall back asleep as soon as I was on the mattress again. At one point, I woke up from an off-watch nap in the saloon and Matt was a few feet away in the galley, saying we were no longer beating to windward. I had noticed and said, “Yes, I am just laying here enjoying the not-bouncing feeling.”
Poor sleep made it sometimes difficult for me to stay awake on night watch. I would sing, stretch, and climb around the cockpit–quietly, so not to wake Matt, whose berth was right below. On motoring nights, I would sing to myself to stay awake, often repeating “A Sailor’s Prayer,” which had become one of my anthems through the arduous task of killing off my old life and building My Whole New Life. Even so, it was sometimes hard to keep my eyes open. “Just two-and-a-half more hours,” I would tell myself. “You’re halfway through. You can do this.” Applying such determination sometimes minute-by-minute, I properly kept my watch.
As the passage went on, I gained confidence in my ability to make the right decisions when the wind or weather changed. Increasingly, I found myself thinking I should adjust something, and as I was thinking it, Matt directed me to that very action. This stoked my ego a bit, until the night of the speed demon, but that is for another story.
During the nine days out of sight of land, we saw only about seven ships, all far in the distance, and no other sailboats. We saw few other signs of life while offshore, only a few sea birds, occasional schools of flying fish flashing like little flocks of silver birds, and large mats and ribbons of sargassum. Aside from the visiting whale, but that is for another story.
Many times on this 11-1/2 day journey, I would giggle from the magnificent joy of being there. I marveled at my situation, amazed and delighted that I had ended up being the sole crew for this transit, with such a remarkable skipper. Some of my friends said I was lucky, but I was not the winner of some dollar ticket lottery. Rather, it seems that I was the best qualified candidate for a short-notice adventure. This was not mere happenstance, but due to years of effort, time, focus, networking, expense, and sacrifice.
A sea voyage typically includes many hours of monotony, giving one time to read, write, scrub the boat, and to think, think, think. “How many people get to do this?” I wondered, and guessed that the number is very few. I wondered how many people would truly want to make a voyage this, to put up with the daily discomforts, long hours, tedium, lack of conveniences, and being cut off from the rest of the world. I realized such people must be extremely rare. But I am one of them, and glad to be so. I also rediscovered parts of myself that I had neglected and almost forgotten, such as my youthful interest in being a marine biologist, and my particular love for whales.
As the journey spun and our days left were progressively smaller than the number ahead, again I felt connected to sailors through time, those called back to land by the yearning to see loved ones. I began to start thinking about what I would do ashore, and how I wanted to structure the week immediately following the delivery. I imagined how excited I would be to see land, other human faces, have a real shower, clean laundry, and eat a salad.
We made land two days before originally planned, because we had to take an unscheduled detour to a foreign land. How strange and new and wonderful that place looked after land had been only a concept for days. But that is for another story.
As our little boat entered Puerto Rican waters, a storm began to build. We had a lovely rainbow and sunset off the stern before the clouds darkened, the wind picked up, and the wave action increased. After darkness fell, the storm hit, with driving rain, and strong wind on the nose. We were beating into the waves, but the slamming motion was not nearly as bad as those earlier two nights and three days. Matt and I both felt this storm was the “grand finale” to a trying voyage. Between the beating for days, the side trip to the foreign land, becoming entangled with a fishing line on the way in, and the ensuing immigration matter in that country, the stealth ship encounter, the number of things that broke on the boat, and this storm, the delivery was challenging in unexpected ways. Matt and I were relieved to find it coming to an end. Once the boat was secure in its new slip at 12:21 A.M., Matt opened a bottle of wine in his own special way, poured some into two ceramic mugs from the boat, and we went onto the dock to clink our cups and drink. We stayed on the pier, talking and feeling excited and happy, for perhaps an hour or 90 minutes before we wound down enough to get some sleep, with great relief that neither of us had to be on watch.
It has been said that sailing is “long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror,” but for me this voyage was one of long periods of reflection in solitude, graced with learning-by-doing, some direct instruction, and periods of joy, peace, delight, pleasure, amazement, and wonder. Despite the bruises and sore muscles it left me, I would do it again on a day’s notice.