SURVIVING THE PASSAGES: One woman's perspective on crossing oceans.
I don't know if it's some sort of an unwritten taboo among seafarers that you're not supposed to admit to, but whenever I mention my views of ocean passages among fellow sailors, it usually raises a few eyebrows. Even after seven thousand miles of water, Mother Ocean and I just don't seem to hit it off! But I have faith that maybe someday we'll be friends. The following is my story about the ups and downs of getting from point A to B in a 35 foot capsule.
We were in White's Bay, Catalina, gearing up for our first-ever "real" passage down the coast of Baja California. It was the second day of our final departure from civilization-we had cut the ties in San Diego, and all that would lie between us and paradise were the passages. Steve and I had convinced ourselves that our three or four day stint in Catalina was a good enough pre-shakedown, and were indeed ready to set out across the big blue, across the boarder and down to Mexico. After all, we had just spent three years getting Sojourner ready to handle anything the sea could dish out. Admittedly, we still both felt that pang of anxiety about losing sight of familiar shores, and the word "passage" had an unnerving effect on my stomach. At that time our longest passage, if you could call it that, was from Oceanside Harbor to Catalina Island, a mere 63 miles! But we were only talking about a weeks sail, at most, with stops along the way, down the coast of Baja to Cabo San Lucas and the Sea of Cortez. How bad could that be?
Steve's green face looked up from the engine compartment, mumbling something about the simple life. He was re-torquing the heads on the engine while the boat rolled violently in our swell-infested anchorage. It was our 6th wedding anniversary, and we were both struggling to stay cheerful in our new-found paradise. Looking to port, we noticed a dear old couple merrily rowing their wooden dinghy our way. It turned out that Bob and Betty had been cruising for a number of years, and were both in their seventies. With several crossings of the Atlantic, and about 40,000 sea miles under their keel, we got to talking, and I found myself naively idolizing this woman, hanging on her every word. We chatted awhile about places they'd been and the sights they'd seen, with my rookie sailing mind soaking it all in. I'll never forget dear ol' Betty's departing words, when she said,
"Say, if I were you two, I'd sail the 800 miles all the way down to Cabo San Lucas without stopping. I just love the passages!".
Loves the passages? Wow. So maybe there was some truth to the supposed peace, the serenity, the feeling of freedom on passages that I read about in those sailing books. Here was a woman, at least two times my age, saying the passages are wonderful. If she survived a couple of ocean passages, why couldn't I? Maybe I was worrying about nothing. As they rowed away, Steve and I found ourselves pumped up with enthusiasm and ready to go. And yes, we happily decided, why not do the whole coast of Baja California in one leg? Piece of cake.
There is not a word miserable enough to describe that passage. With monster seas, howling winds and me useless from seasickness, we got as far south as Cedros Island before scrapping the ridiculous idea of sailing straight to Cabo. As we slammed down the coast, battling horrendous conditions, I decided that there must be something seriously wrong with that old woman and swore that I would hunt her down just as soon as I got on solid land. LOVES THE PASSAGES?? This I thought, was just a sick joke. We finally got the anchor down in Cedros harbor, and gulped down one of the bottles of excellent wine that our friends had so generously given us on departure day, while checking the map for the closest port south of Cedros. Thankfully, it was only a day sail.
The trip down the coast of Baja was for me, a humbling experience as I gained a newfound respect for the ocean and all of her forces. I realized that it would take time, and perhaps lots of it, to feel at home on these ocean swells. After a few months rest in the Sea of Cortez, with short day sails and a couple of overnighters, we felt ready again to tackle this passage thing. We had our hearts set on the pristine waters of the South Pacific, and unfortunately, in a sailboat, it's no day sail. This passage, which amounted to a total of 29 ½ days at sea, for us, would be monumental. In early May, the departure date had finally arrived and we cast off the lines from the marina in Cabo San Lucas. We got off to a rough start, with 25-30 knots, right on the nose out of Cabo. Why didn't we wait for what is called a good weather window, you might ask? Well, at that point in our sailing careers, we didn't know too much about weather. At least we knew that May was the right time of the year to do this crossing and we knew nothing really nasty was on the way from a weather fax that a fellow cruiser had shared with us. I suppose in our inexperienced minds we decided this was enough of a window, and in all our anxiousness to get going we didn't consider that we might wait for the winds to drop just a little!
As we pounded our way through the waves with the arches of Cabo San Lucas fading behind us, I looked at my watch with horror and realized we had only been gone two hours. How, in God's name, would I survive this for over three weeks?, I agonized. A panic welled up inside of me, like a feeling of being locked in a closet with no escape, and I decided that concentrating only on each passing minute would be the best thing to do to keep from launching into complete hysteria. We were fully committed, and when Steve asked me if I wanted to turn back, I told him that if we did, I would never set foot on a sailboat again. He decided it was best to keep moving.
By day three, the seas started to calm, and we found ourselves falling into a rhythm of sorts. My seasickness vanished, and I somehow found the motivation to cook meals, clean a little, and even read. By the end of the first week, we were in a real routine, and by day eight the trade winds finally kicked in. I started to feel that this passage might even be tolerable.
It doesn't matter how many books you read, or how much you try to prepare yourself, or even what I'm telling you now; the only way to ever know what it is really like on an ocean passage in a small boat is to just be on one. For me, the Pacific crossing was a series of ups and downs, emotional highs and lows. Sometimes I would have moments of complete exhilaration, looking out over Sojourner's stern at huge rollers coming up behind, the blue sky above with a Booby soaring overhead and my music blasting, and would feel on top of the world. Then, the magnitude of our situation of complete desolation would hit me like a wet blanket, and I'd fall into a mood of utter despair. Something funny would happen, and I'd laugh for hours; some mishap would occur and I would be devastated for a day. In retrospect I realize that just the shear exhaustion of being on the ocean for weeks in a small boat can have a drastic effect on one's mind. The constant bracing of my body, the lack of sleep and true exercise, and no other stimuli but open ocean all played a part in making me feel a little nuts at times.
The crowning moment of this 29 ½ day adventure was the huge electrical storm near the equator. Interestingly enough, I suppose I fell into a complete state of denial, because while Steve was in the cockpit fearing for our lives, throwing electrical cables over the sides, and putting the computer and electronics in the oven, I decided I would make baked beans. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
Then finally after nearly a full month at sea, the outline of high peaks of an island appeared through the misty rain. We had made it to Hiva Oa, our first exotic landfall. It was a moment that I find hard to put into words, but a sight worth every moment of the 29 and a half days to get there.
In the months to follow, we'd be walloped several times more by Mother Ocean. We left Nuka Hiva under a blazing sun and 15 knots of wind on a perfect beam-reach, bound for the Tuamotus and the atoll of Kauehi armed this time with our "good weather window". It all looked so perfect, with the monitor wind vane set, a forecast of 10-15 knots out of the east, and Steve and I relaxed in the cockpit. I exclaimed, "Now this is what sailing is all about!!"
I was beginning to gain some hope that just maybe we'd get that passage we deserved. I thought I might even enjoy this four day passage, if the conditions stayed just like they were. As if on cue, within two hours, the skies had gone black, the wind increased to 25 knots and the rain poured down. A mere squall? We wished. It carried on for the entire four days, with the wind ever-increasing to a crescendo of 40 knots and pelting rain outside of Kauehi's pass. About the time we were making way for the pass entrance our engine died. As Steve was bleeding the engine in rolling seas, I was deciding if we should just give the boat to the locals in Kauehi, or have it shipped back to the states and sell it. So much for that weather window! Another several months respite in the Tuamotus sent the memories of misery on the sea once again, to the far reaches of the back of my mind.
Over time, as the miles clicked away under our keel, we got a little more seasoned, and a little smarter about weather conditions, and knowing just the right time to set off for the next island group. But even knowing just the right time to leave doesn't necessarily guarantee you'll get there unscathed, as we had already discovered. Despite Steve's growing reputation as the weather guru due to his newly found ability to interpret weather faxes, we just still never seemed to hit it right on our own departures. We started to become suspect of those supposed perfect conditions when leaving, and we forbade each other to even utter the words beginning with, "Now this......", that jinxed our Tuamotus passage. Armed once again with what looked like ideal weather, we set out from Bora Bora to Rarotonga. It was all looking too good to be true. Blue sky, beam reach, 15 knots of wind. Hell had to be on the way! And sure enough, it was. By day two the winds clocked around to the west, and we slammed along, directly into the wind. It was all I could do to turn the can opener to open the beans as we hit each wave like a brick wall. I managed to slop them into a pot, heat them up and get them in a dish for Steve. Feeling like I had just climbed a mountain, I handed him his dinner, and staggered back up into the cockpit to resume my watch. No sooner did I turn around to see Steve air-born, beans still in hand. I screamed as I watched him as if he were in a slow-motion movie scene, being catapulted off the couch, while his beans splattered on the floor. I couldn't face that gyrating galley again. After that passage, Steve had gained the unflattering nick-name among close friends as "Headwinds Steve." I'd decided that at Rarotonga I'd burn all of my sailing books.
Believe it or not, with all of our sailing experience by now, weather knowledge and salt, we were still destined for yet another passage from hell! The worst so far had to be the 24 hour passage from Beveridge Reef, a desolate, landless circle of reef, in the middle of the ocean, to the island of Niue. We were the only boat left, as all of the other yachts had already left for Niue or Tonga. We had been socked in for four days of consistent 25-35 knot winds, and were at that dangerous stage of rationalizing that a 24 hour passage couldn't be that bad; a clear case of Get-there-itis. Finally one evening the wind dropped down to twenty knots and we decided to make a break for it. By this time, we were smart enough to know that we were kidding ourselves; it was only a matter of time away from the lee of the reef that we'd be hit with the monster waves that had been building for four days. But, I suppose we asked for it. At one stage we were perched atop a twenty foot cliff of water, and as we skidded down its side, crashing into the trough below, our plastic fan came loose from its mount, and swung on its wire, still spinning, with the blades slicing up our map of Oceana on the wall. The scene of the swinging fan and a completely trashed cabin was so pathetic, that all we could do was laugh. Finally after seven thousand miles, we were at least gaining a sense of humor about it all.
I fully understand that many a sailor can honestly say they do love the passages, and by no means am I saying they are crazy. It's not that I have derived absolutely no pleasure whatsoever from passages. There have been a few unforgettably beautiful moments, like the pod of over two hundred dolphins that accompanied us for over two hours on my 12 midnight to 4 a.m. watch, with calm seas and a full moon while on our crossing of the Pacific. Then there are those moments of deep contemplation, usually in the wee hours of the morning of a watch, when your mind seems to drift away, thinking about the people you love, and what's been important in your life. In that instance, life is good, the ocean is your friend, and you can do nothing more than take in all of its beauty and magnitude. And of course the reward is also the beautiful, unspoiled places that are reached as a reward at the end of a passage; still pristine, and many still unreachable even by an airplane.
Perhaps ocean crossings are a little bit similar to how they describe childbirth; you soon forget about all of the pain you went through, and only remember the incredible occasion; moments of beauty, like the sun rising or a whale breaching. As we continue to log the miles, the dread of the passages grows more dim, and the special moments and places seem to take the forefront of my mind. These are the reasons that bring us to once again drop the lines, or lift the anchor to set out once again across the great sea.
We had a recent, very pleasant two-day passage in October, from the island of Niue to the Vavau group of islands in Tonga. With a perfect beam-reach, moderate winds and clear skies, I will venture to say those forbidden words; That was what sailing is all about! Luckily our last passage was a good one, and since we've decided to wait in Tonga for the whales to come back in July, it will be some time before we venture out across that big blue ocean once again.
Maybe we'll wait for a good weather window.
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