Thursday, July 19, 2007

En route from Long Bay, San Salvador, Bahamas

Wind: E 15 knots, gusting higher
Seas: 6-8 feet, higher over coastal shelf

Today we left the haven of Columbus’s anchorage at San Salvador, heading out into the wild and woolly Atlantic. I’m writing in secret (in Secret--ha!) as Karl sleeps like a baby on the lower lee berth, curled up in a sheet stained by his own sweat. We’re under sail, almost full sail, a reefed main and full lapper. It may even be my first time to have an actual watch over night where we’re sailing with jib and main. I’ve sailed under main alone on our first passage, when we should have reefed the main and carried some jib, but other than that it’s been motoring or motor-sailing, if I recall correctly. It’s a glorious feeling.

We had a scare coming out of harbor, though. First, coming through the coral was brutal. We put it off too long, scared, and we didn’t leave until three o’clock in the afternoon. By then the giant cumulus clouds off land had moved in and blanketed the coral heads. Coming out past the reef nearly did my nerves in. I stood on the bow and shouted desperate ports and starboards while Karl steered. I’m not sure we were ever in much danger because the water was more than twenty feet deep the whole time, but I’ve seen heads that high or higher, so I was still afraid.

We ran out past the lee of the island, which is when the seas really picked up. As usual, the Master wasn’t working, so I manned the helm while Karl adjusted the sails. It was scary. The seas were easily ten feet high, huge crests and huge troughs, and we raced up one side and down the other. Looking back, all I could see was towering walls of green.

It’s so hard to judge, though. The wind felt a lot stronger than fifteen knots, but we were close reaching, so how do I know? The seas looked bigger than any we’ve seen, but how can I be sure? They certainly felt bigger than the 3-5 predicted by the shortwave radio, but I can’t even be sure of that. I don’t even know how they measure waves. Is it the biggest distance from crest to trough, or the distance from the middle of the wave to the crest? And do you measure the biggest wave or the average wave? I have no idea. I’ve never been sure, and though Karl keeps insisting that we’ve been in big seas, I’m never quite convinced. How do we know that these aren’t little baby waves that experienced cruisers would scoff at? We don’t. We never know.

Karl would have turned around, I think, but as usual, I wanted to press on. I refused to admit to myself or to him that the waves were actually bigger than five feet. I hate turning around. Hate it.

As it turned out, I’m glad we didn’t. After an hour at the helm I was angry enough at the Master’s lack of functioning and our own negligence in refusing to learn sheet-to-tiller self-steering or build a wind vane that I turned the tiller over to Karl and went below to get some sleep. After he actually had to take the helm and fight with it, he figured out a way to get the Master to work. He always does.

So by the time my watch rolled around, even though I had slept very little, the Master was working, we unfurled the full jib, and the seas had calmed down. In retrospect, I just think they were built up from coming over the coastal shelving off of San Salvador. I’m glad we went tonight. It’s a beautiful night. I feel like we’re finally getting the hang off these offshore passages--we know how to stow things below deck so things won’t fall all around, we know how to rig and use the lee berth, we can both sleep better and keep watch better, we both know enough about sail trim to adjust the sheets. (I haven’t actually been brave enough to adjust the jib sheet yet, but I’ve been adjusting the main to steer a better course.)

I adore these silent overnight runs. I love the numinous beauty of the moonlit night, the phosphorescence sparkling in our bow wave. As I duck back and forth into the cockpit to check our course and check our navigation, I’m watching the crescent moon slowly sink into the clouds. Sunsets are good, but moonsets are far, far better. Tonight I watched the evening star turn yellow, flat, and mellow as it withdrew below the horizon. How many people have ever done that? How many people have even done this? Controlled a big boat, on a rough night, as it crossed eighty miles of open Atlantic... It makes me feel independent, skilled, and that edge of fear that hones all my senses.

My mind always drifts into unreal places on these passages, hearing voices sometimes. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep or the solitude. Tonight I keep thinking I hear the waves, still big enough to be a little scary, talking back to me. I know they’re not, but I still think maybe they have individual personalities, just like people. Does God name each of them like he does us? We’re told he knows every sparrow that falls, but what about every wave?

I could die happy tonight. Not that I want to tempt fate. Just feeling one of a select few, one of the ancient mariners or explorers, someone who watches the constellations wheel as she steers her small bark over the seas. I feel so confident, and each voyage increases my confidence, my knowledge of what Secret and I can handle together.

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