When to Fight and not to Fight

So Friday the 13th arrived, tired and depressed, everything felt like lead. If I weren't to leave, then I'd have to reverse all that I had done to get Sojourner ready. I'd have to strip her yet again for storage in the cyclone zone for her third season. To boot I wouldn't have the sense of accomplishment that I would have had if I'd crossed the ocean. As if to fight it to the very end, or to perhaps convince myself I hadn't given up, I switched on the HF radio, computer and PTCII (terminal node controller or radio-modem) and began my usual routine. It was simpler to follow the motions, the same brainless routine, than to make a decision. The whine and scratching sound of the fax signal were comforting; New Zealand meteorological office hadn't given up, so why should I? I stared at the picture which was evolving raster line by raster line, not really comprehending the spaghetti of isobars. It was time for my instant Nescafe, but even that seemed more than I could tackle. Besides I doubted the Barbie Doll kettle could fit between the faucet and the dishes.

Pots, pans and curry-stained plates overflowed the single, tiny, stainless steel sink. Coffee colored semi circles covered the white Formica counter, fresh pineapple skins were piled on the dishes and sweat-soaked clothes were strewn around the cabin. VHF radios, GPS units, binoculars, cameras, satellite phone, life vest and harness were piled on the couch and coffee table. I had to bulldoze material aside to find a 12" X 12" space to sit in. Yet two days ago everything had been stowed, tied down and in perfect order, even the toilet roll had been in it's teak holder. My habits seemed to have subconsciously accepted the inevitable and the boat was spiraling down into a live-aboard, go-nowhere scene. It was a classic single-handers' boat, acceptable disarray with little, if any, risk of being discovered. The random mumbling completed the scene.

Somehow the kettle eventually began to whistle, and the bitter coffee made with "Rewa Life, ultra heat treated milk" began working it's disputable magic. I stared at the IBM screen with more conviction, hoping for a decision from afar. Show me a bomb or a cyclone, something concrete that I could blame it all on and then throw my arms in the air with despair.

Even the fax hadn't arrived correctly - it had sliced the top section and displaced it two inches off to the left. So the convergence zone hanging over Fiji had been chopped in two, with the stump pointing at Vanua Levu. All the curtains were closed in the cabin, and had been since 6:15am when I'd yanked them closed in anger. Perhaps I could tell from the chart what the weather was like outside - what did that stump mean? I thought of the irony, the sun was desperately trying to penetrate the cabin and I could tell from the brightness of the curtains that it must be blue sky. Yet I was peering at a digital picture on an LCD screen, sent tone by tone from a radio station in New Zealand, which in turn got the information from buoys in the southern ocean that were not far from me and satellites that may well have been above me at that very moment. I felt as if I were calling Jen by cell phone in the supermarket to ask her what aisle she was in.

But the satellite picture wasn't good. The high over New Zealand was squished into a banana, the muscles of the Antarctic low flexing in the Tasman Sea, and the old low blocking it to the East. These highs normally last five days or more, giving at least the impression of a window, but now they are bullied by the lows and reduced to 3 days or less of squash-zone hell. This is not what I expected, I had illusions of leaving on the start of a high and arriving in the trough behind it, perhaps hitting one blow near the end. Even the recent blows had been near hurricane force, confirming a story I had heard last night at the beach bar. One sailor told me of a guy presently anchored in Musket Cove on a Westsail 32, who had done more than one circumnavigation including the notorious Japan-Alaska passage. That passage is known for lows so deep, even the ultimate atheists see God. Apparently this hero sailor set off from New Zealand to Tahiti, a passage which involves following 35 to 40 degrees south for about 1500 miles, and he encountered one of those inevitable squash zones of a low against a high, just east of New Zealand. He said it had been the worst conditions of his entire sailing career, a desperate battle for survival. Japan to Alaska had been a "breeze" compared to that.

It was 8 am and time to hook up the sat phone in case anyone from work needed to call. The antenna was attached to the cockpit roof, which meant setting up the phone outside and accepting all that beautiful blue sky and glassy calm invisible water. But surely the fax picture was more accurate - this was all an illusion, just a hundred miles out it was a maelstrom, right?

Friday the 13th is a double whammy. Most sailors will never leave a port on a Friday - it's a superstition that goes back hundreds of years. I don't know for sure, but I assume this is re-enforced on the 13th. If not, it should be. Add to that the poor prognosis on the weatherfax, my hacking flu-generated cough and the expired drop dead date, I asked myself if I should wait for one more sign before quitting. I didn't have to wait long. The Iridium phone said I had missed a call, so I checked the message and followed up. Bad news from work, something that would affect our entire season in Antarctica, and something that could, in some way, be compensated for by me being back earlier. Being away for a month was bad enough, but this event underlined the fact that it would be better for me to be back sooner rather than later. If I left for New Zealand now and encountered bad weather I would not be back until early July. It may not seem that bad, but the Antarctic season is 5 months long, and if it is a bad one, it could be much worse than any ocean passage...

Sitting on the teak bench of the cockpit I suddenly began to see things. Needle fish swam by in swarms, tiny sergeant major fish did spirals around the dinghy painter, and 200 yards away a stingray leapt twice out of the water landing with a slap. The last time I had seen a ray jump was in the Sea of Cortez. The veil of indecision was gone, the trip was off and I was liberated in paradise to enjoy it - at least for the rest of Friday the 13th. I made a second coffee and thought about how Jen would be so pleased about the no-go decision, and my family too. But then I wondered how I'd deal with it since I already had that guttural feeling of failure. Carrying on with everything seemingly stacked against me did not logically make sense. But logic doesn't make people climb mountains, and 20 years ago it wouldn't have stopped me leaving for this passage. My friend Bill Stockton sent me a quote from Sun Tzu when he heard I had made the decision not to go: "He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight."

So maybe it is not so much a failure, perhaps I have simply learned what fights to pick and what fights to walk away from.

A Gecko darted across the cockpit bench and a Turtle Islands Airways float-plane glazed the lagoon a mile away. I sank back in the seat feeling the infra red soak deep into my stressed muscles, and visualized our inevitable vacation in Fiji next February. Perhaps, just perhaps, having a yacht stranded in paradise isn't something to be so depressed about after all...

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