I am bleary-eyed and sleep deprived when I slide open the door to the cockpit and stick my head out to test the air. Usually, the two person watch shift before me is slumped over at the wheel or sliding down in their deck chairs at this hour—all they want to do is get back in their warmish, dampish bunks and get more z’s. But this morning, they are jumping around like mountain goats. Mountain goats in bright yellow and red foul weather gear. The one in red is yelling and pointing at something off to the port side.
“What the f*ck is that??”
A week before, no one had asked me such a question, at least not with such urgency. But six months ago, I had basically agreed to answer questions like this, as well as deal with every other crazy thing that went on aboard a fifty-five foot catamaran sailing across the Atlantic ocean. A man I knew from my gym —somewhere between acquaintance and friend—had emailed a group of squash players such as myself, inviting us to join him and his family of four to cross the Atlantic (Bermuda to the Azores)—the longest leg of his year-long sailing adventure. While I did pause a few weeks to make believe to myself and my family that I was sanely considering and researching the pros and cons of such a venture, I knew I very much wanted to go and unless someone told me not to, I was going. Well, no one did…. although the most experienced sailor I spoke with, someone who had sailed his whole life both for pleasure and for business, raised a number of red flags. I won’t say I ignored them, but I sure thought of them plenty, as one by one a number of them flapped tauntingly while we were hundreds of miles out to sea.
I purposefully did not think of them as my plane descended over the turquoise waters of Bermuda. The captain and his family—his wife, a ten year old daughter, and a seven year old son—had sailed up from the Virgin Islands a few days previous. The rest of the crew, two squash players and a jack of many trades, all men and all with varying degrees of sailing experience from almost none to sixty years worth, had flown in a few days before me. I knew them and liked them, the way you like to drink a beer or two with someone after a squash match. I had never lived with any of them. This was about to change.
The Ondine is a sturdy boat with a lovely name, and seeing it across the cove as my taxi pulled into the town of St. George, I felt a little bit like a college student seeing my freshman year dorm for the first time. Excited. A bit scared. I’m sure there are other sailing vessels that I would’ve looked at and wondered how it could possibly carry eight of us across eighteen hundred miles of ocean, but the Ondine looked like it would do just fine with its beam nearly as wide as its centerline was long.
I’m tempted to say that looks can be deceiving, but after fourteen days aboard the Ondine and twelve of them somewhere between Bermuda and the Azores, the Ondine did not let us down. Point her nose in the right direction, let out the reins a bit, and she trotted along like the good sea sprite she was. It was the riders she carried aboard her back, along with their humanly mundane needs for food, water, and a place to pee, who sometimes had a harder going. Not to mention exciting. . . .
The guy’s eyes are nearly popping out of his head. When this guy was off duty, he was often asleep or trying to sleep. Now he’s about as awake as I’ve ever seen him. I follow the line of his arm off into the gray seas and even grayer skies. It is a stormy morning and the rain is blowing into my eyes. But then I see it. It looks like a twist cone, its narrow bottom just touching the waves and then its swirl of varying grays twisting wobblingly up into the dark clouds above. The other guy says it’s a water spout; he’s one of the sailors and crossed the Atlantic two years before, so I guess he knows his spouts, but the term sounds like a vast understatement. Later, we all have a debate of how large it was, but even though I think it’s smaller than the others do, it doesn’t look like something I was about to get up close to measure.
While I’m gawking at it, the captain sticks his head out and looks with me. Guy number one is pointing again. The captain mutters one of his favorite expletives and then points to the side of the boat that the spout isn’t on. “Go that way.” He ducks below deck again to get back to his much needed sleep. I go back inside, too, and put on my foul weather gear. By the time I return, the spout is out of sight. Crisis averted. At least this one.
I signed up for this trip because I knew it wouldn’t be smooth sailing. In fact, I hoped it wouldn’t be. A friend had told me that it’s rare not to run into bad weather on the crossing, and others confirmed that just about everything breaks at some point on a boat; you just cross your fingers that you’re there for the less serious ones.
Many boats are prepared for months before a long ocean journey. Long lists of repairs are checked off methodically. The Ondine had such a list, but it wasn’t in a dock yard over the winter getting pampered with the full spa treatment. No, it was down in the Caribbean soaking up the sun, the salt, and playing host to its family of four. While I rationalized that this would be a good way for the boat and its captain to work out its kinks, I couldn’t help cringing when the boat’s blog described broken heads, bent propellers, and, early on, two rudders that only let you steer in one direction! But each problem was fixed and the captain was gaining valuable experience….did I mention that he’d had very little open ocean sailing experience? Only owned Ondine for a year? Deemed himself ‘not all that handy’ before that? Talk about red flags….
The Ondine flew other flags, however. It’s customary to fly the flags of the home countries of those on board. So the Union Jack flew for the captain’s country of birth, the maple leaf for the one of his youth, and the Australian flag for his wife’s home. It was the stars and stripes, however, that flew tattered but proud from the stern; the couple’s children were born and raised in New York, where the family had lived for a decade, but the flag seemed also a well-worn reminder of all the captain had gone through in a year.
When I stepped aboard in Bermuda, I hadn’t seen the captain in six months. The last time had also been aboard the boat, but a lot had been different. It was in New York City, it was a freezing November evening, and the captain was still the city guy I’d always known him as with his pale English skin and Metropolitan grooming. Now, the city guy appeared long gone. Instead, I saw two brown bare feet under a pair of dirty khakis wedged into an opening in the boat’s interior. Attached, I assumed, was the rest of the captain, but it wasn’t until he wriggled himself out that I sort of recognized him. The English skin was now Caribbean brown, the metropolitan grooming had been overtaken by windswept, home-cut hair, and the squash toned muscles, while still in evidence, were now combined with a sinewy lankiness you often only see on people who don’t sit still.
The captain did sit still for a moment as he caught his breath, wiped his brow, and welcomed me to the Ondine. But his list of fix-its was long and the time to our departure was short. He went on to the next item on his list and I went on to put my bags in my cabin and get a lay of the land, um, so to speak.
A fifty-five foot catamaran is a very nice boat for eight people, especially if six of them are couples. Each hull has two cabins and two heads (en-suite, if you will), along with a captain’s office in one hull and the galley kitchen in the other. Three of the cabins have double beds and one has two singles set up as bunk beds, one over the other. Originally, six friends (none of them couples) were planning to come along as crew, which would’ve made for some interesting sleeping arrangements, but when two pulled out, two of the remaining four got lucky and got their own cabins. One being me. Sometimes being the sole woman is a nice thing.
I had to walk through the galley to my cabin, which was the one closest to the bow of the boat. Sleeping on a boat while it’s in port can be a lovely thing. The water laps at the hull outside, salt air drifts through the open port holes, the boat gently rocks you to sleep. This is pretty much a non-existent memory once you’re sailing along at six to eight knots (our median speed) in the open ocean, the boat climbing and then plummeting down six, seven, and eight foot waves, and the bridge being slapped—no, pounded by every other wave, reverberating throughout the boat as well as between my ears. Lying in my bunk whenever the seas were bigger than six feet, I’d try to relax and let my body ride the waves with the boat, but most of them time it felt as if I were on a never ending amusement park ride. My head would tip down and then my stomach and the water would be rushing around me just outside the walls of my cabin and—after a dozen or so times—up I would get with my bedding in search of less rolling quarters. Sometimes I’d curl up in the salon with the kids and sometimes in the bunk of someone on watch. Half of the time I woke up not knowing where I was, but it was more important to me that I got some shut-eye.
Sleep is pretty important on a sail boat crossing the ocean, because there’s a watch schedule for being awake and it’s not the one you’re used to on land. The captain devised a three hours on, six hours off schedule and we all got accustomed to it with varying degrees of success. Sea Dog (as we dubbed him) got the most sleep; he had been on a crossing before and always got back to bed as soon as he could. His fellow cabinmate Mad Dog was a close second. And the captain and his wife were often snuggled in together, for – ahem – much-needed sleep on the captain’s part (he had a lot more duties and stress than the rest of us) and the side effects of sea-sickness on the wife’s part. The kids didn’t do watch, they slept whenever they wanted, and I often had a late night or early morning chat with one or the other. The rest of us—well, all two of us non-sailors were alternately exhausted, hyped, or some degree of sea sick.
Almost everyone was seasick at some point. I was lucky, actually. If you could call throwing up over the stern of the boat on the first day lucky. The thing was, I’d eaten a big lunch and then gone down to the galley to help the captain’s daughter bake a cake (well, why not?). Within five minutes, I had broken out in a sweat and my stomach was gurgling and not with hunger. I apologized to the daughter, went up to the cockpit, and asked her mother where a good place to lean over the side was. She gave me a knowing glance and pointed to a place on the stern. “That’s where I like to do it,” she said helpfully. Within a minute, I was staring down at the water and saying goodbye to my lunch. After that, I broke open my scopolamine patch, stuck it behind my ear and never got that close to the water again, although I did do a fair amount of baking. I didn’t like the feeling of having the patch on–it felt like I had a dull headache, only behind my ear–but the alternative was worse. Fortunately, by the time the patch wore off, I had gotten my sea legs and sea stomach.
I wasn’t the only one without much of an appetite near the start of the voyage. While our first day under sail was clear with steady winds and flat seas, a fairly ominous dark cloud grew ever larger behind us. The captain rechecked the weather forecast and it no longer looked as sunny as before. An enormous low pressure system had moved in over the east coast of the U.S., swallowing up Bermuda with it and coming our way, slowly but surely. At the same time, a ‘high’ circled north of us. “Keep going east,” advised the weather guys to all the boats heading toward Europe. “Don’t go anywhere until next week,” they told the boats still in Bermuda. Great. We were one of the last boats to leave Bermuda, and amongst the slowest, which meant we’d get a taste of this ‘low.’
Within hours of sunning ourselves on the deck, we were literally battening down the hatches and donning our foul weather gear. I thought I’d be excited about this. It was what I’d signed up for. I would have a story to tell. I had a valid excuse to wear my entire set of foul weather gear. But as I lay in my bunk that night, the boat pitching up and down on ever steeper waves, I was ready to get off. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. In fact, it was a bad idea. A really, really bad idea.
Problem was . . . I. could. not. get. off. There literally was no turning back. Especially with a monster storm behind us. You’re going to have to get through this somehow, I remember thinking. And I lay there giving myself a pep talk. It would be one moment at a time, one watch at a time, one day at a time . . . and they would add up and, eventually, I and the rest of the crew would get through this thing called the Atlantic and I would put my feet on land again and live to tell the tale.
I’m not really sure if I felt immediately better after that, especially as the storm did get pretty hairy (another crewmember’s blog will give you all the damp details)—at one point the winds were up to 45 knots and we ripping along at 18 knots, the fastest that the captain had ever seen the Ondine go, which was both thrilling and terrifying. However, with every day, I did get more and more accustomed to being on a relatively small boat in a seemingly endless sea. I baked bread. I lost badly at card games (thanks again, Miss P!). I made tea for my watchmates and talked with them about everything from good books to bad T.V.
The one thing that I never could accustom myself to, unfortunately, was the chaotic messiness that occurs when keeping a boat afloat becomes more important than keeping it neat. Tools, toys, dishes, detritus all drifted around the insides of the boat and got worse along with the weather. To be fair, however, it seemed as if every day had a new distraction to get through, whether it be dodging waterspouts, fixing leaks, repairing rudders, or transferring fuel. Sails ripped, bilges backed up, water turned salty . . . we never lacked for excitement. And we also never lacked for our rewards. Almost every evening, one word would ring out from on deck, “Dolphins!” And everyone who was awake would dash out to see them. One of my favorite and, albeit, selfish moments was one of the last afternoons on board when I was at the helm and everyone else was below deck. One fin and then another curved up through the waves, diving down and then leaping up and out of the water right near me. I considered calling out, but the moment got the best of me. The sun was low on the horizon, clouds were colored with pinks and golds, and it was just myself and the sea and the dolphins; I had earned these few moments and I enjoyed every one. Finally, I realized how happy I was to be there. Somewhere sailing along on the great, wide ocean.
The first question people have often asked me is if I had a good time. I shouldn’t be surprised—sailing sounds fun; it conjures up warm breezes, fresh air, and sparkling water. I understand; I grew up in a sailing town and looking out at the bright white sails bobbing along in the blue summer seas, that’s been my picture of it, too. But I wouldn’t call the trip fun. I went because I wanted to be in a situation that no matter what happened I had to stick with, I had to get through. On the one hand, I got more than I bargained for—seriously scary stuff happened every day. But every day I also learned that sailing truly is a group effort, from fixing leaks to fixing dinner. And we were lucky; we all got along. Maybe sometimes a little wobbly, but smarts, humor, and a good dose of patience can get you a long way . . . all the way to the Azores in fact.
A good time? No, it was a great time.
* more photos of the crossing below
This article is dedicated to Steven Kahn, aka Sea Dog, who sailed on to the great sea in the sky on February 6th, 2016. I met Sea Dog maybe one time before we boarded the Ondine, but I immediately fell for his gentle manner and soulful spirit. While he was a sailing master next to my bumbling boatsmanship, he was always appreciative of what I could contribute — mainly food and fellowship. Here’s to sunrise on the high seas, Sea Dog. There’s nothing better.