Things That Are Scary About Sailing

orion-form-afarThe time has come.

The time is now.

Chris Parker has spoken: this afternoon we will leave for St. Maarten, a roughly 16 hour trip that will require us to sail overnight.

Because apparently I haven’t yet earned my hearty overnight sailor badge yet.

Because now there’s just the two of us, and if we’re going to go down island, I will have to take night watches by myself, upon occasion.

As we’re fiddling around, getting things ready to go on a longer sail, I cannot help but be reminded of our journey down here. You know, that roughly 1200 mile off shore passage that we did early November. With the 15 foot seas, and the squalls and the broken autopilot. You know—that one.

I hope—as I notice the butterflies that are present in my stomach,even though our departure is hours away—that I can enjoy this trip a little more. That I can not be terrified, overwhelmed, and sleep deprived. I mean, it’s only 16 hours—our trip down here was 11 days. I’ve been working on this thing called fear. I’ve been working on my perceived experience of Things That Are Scary About Sailing.

Going on the Big Ocean: The Slog Before

In preparation to make the Big Trip, we took Orion up to Maine and back down to Virginia. Of course, the trip up was with Malcolm’s two sons, Ethan and Max, for fun and family bonding etc. Largely successful with gentle wind (Deleware Bay excepted—ah, we’ll always have New Jersey …) and a fair amount of motoring. It was coastal cruising, always within a radio call of Tow Boat US or the USCG. The shore was always reassuringly there. We had the two strong boys to help with everything (even cooking!). It was a stretch for me physically, coming soonish after my last surgery. But I did it! We had a good time. Who knew teenage boys were so hilarious? (And stinky! Whew!) I still didn’t feel like a sailor, though.

The trip back down from Maine was a necessary slog, to get to VA where the Salty Dawg rally to the British Virgin Islands would commence. We had much scarier weather: big bouncy seas (buh-bye centerboard, somewhere in Massachusets you lie in your watery grave), bigger wind, and there was just the two of us to make it all happen. It felt exhausting, and I couldn’t shed the mounting unease about going on the Big Ocean, in November.

We were joined in Atlantic City by John Wandling,john our potential crew member for the Big Trip. Here was a person, live and in the flesh, who wanted to go offshore, just to go. Who was going to join us for fun. I could not imagine what he knew that I didn’t (well, I could, actually, since he’s been sailing for most of his 70-odd years, boats big and small). Welcome, John! Since we were in New Jersey (his home state, actually), nature dictated that we would have exciting adventures with drunken, crazy captains of the asshole variety (I will cut your docklines!), engine failure, and no wind. But John was mellow throughout, and seemed to take things as they came. Turned out, he had a friend who could accompany us too. Another person who was excited (imagine!) to go offshore—and a woman, to boot. Tracy McIntyre. She was an experienced sailor and a good cook too, John said. I was very happy about this. They both lived in Hampton, our jumping off place, which would prove so helpful and convenient as we prepared to go offshore.

Going on the Big Ocean: The Real Deal

We left at midnight, giddy, excited and—for me, filled with foreboding. First there would be the Gulf Stream, then some “easting” before the big right turn that would take us all the way to the BVI. The weather router—Chris Parker—had opined that the trip looked pretty good. I had no idea what that actually meant.

Gulf Stream in darkness. As John said, after, “I’m glad I couldn’t see the waves.” It was a side to side jelly roll for a few hours, where we got to test our seasickness mettle: all passed with flying colors. Though I think we did all pop a dramamine ahead of time. Well done us. Daylight brought the sea, already a different, richer sort of blue, and some non scary conditions—though, look ma—no shore! Many boats had left on our schedule, but we saw no one those first couple days.

The sea was kind at first; the dolphins came on day three for the official welcome, and I couldn’t help but feel that I might live to see the end of the journey. No kidding—I wondered often if I might die. This did not occur to many others I felt (I found other women later, on their first trips, experienced similar feelings), as people were bringing dogs, children, going with broken arms and even single handing. They all had to know that this going offshore was a Reasonable Thing To Do.

Exit dolphins, enter the next leg of the journey. The Big Seas and Broken Things.

Our one working head stopped working. Without getting into the finer details of how ours was incorrectly plumbed and the failure of impellers etc., suffice to say that John jumped in for a day of head-fixing, while we bounced and heeled in increasing wind and sea state. We were never without the smell of the thing, but at least he fixed it so we could poop somewhere besides the tupperware.

Once the sea state was really booming—visualize an endless wall of water behind the boat, shining with moonlit, horrifying splendor, while the wind wailed in the shrouds and the wind generator screamed constantly—the autopilot ceased to work. It was handsteering for all, which is much, much harder than it sounds, despite the fact that back in the day, that’s what people did. And some sailing purists don’t use them. I, needless to say, am neither interested in sailing purity or historical experience.

The wheel of a boat is big. “Ten and two” is like 2/3 of my total arm-span. The waves push and pull you one way. The sails are full of wind, pushing another way. You are pitching, bucking and rolling along, trying to keep the wheel steering on one approximate heading. Too much one way, you jibe—bad!—too much the other, the sails luff and flap horribly. Imagine exhaustion (because you never sleep properly), darkness, waves you can feel, but not see. No light. I was totally overwhelmed; one night on our watch I just sat and let the tears run down my face. I hate this. Malcolm let me go below and sleep. He kinda thought it was fun (the sailing, not me crying).

tracyTracy was game too, and never seemed scared or even mildly apprehensive. She volunteered to keep us fed, and she made endless cups of instant coffee. She could sleep anywhere at any time. She liked hand steering.  She was a lovely alien from the distant planet Offshore Is Fun. I was so incredibly glad she was there. Her courage and sang froid helped keep me ok inside. Go Tracy!

The autopilot got jerry-rigged: Malcolm and John’s handy persistence to the rescue. We eventually woke to a sea like glass. Tracy got me to actually leave the cockpit and walk around the boat. I was that wound up, even a toe in the water as we floated, gently, seemed almost too much. We had a beautiful cruise the last three days, with only huge freighters and cruise ships at night (“cruise ship Caribbean Star, this is Orion, do you see us, on your port bow?”) to keep the adrenaline flowing. We arrived at about 8 in the morning at the Bitter End (ah, the irony) Yacht Club, Virgin Gorda, BVI. Thank God. It was Over.

I had earned my Offshore Badge.

So What’s the Big Deal?

… About going 16 hours to St. Maarten? One overnight? Yeah, I know. I don’t have to be afraid. I have a relationship with Orion now.orion As Tracy said—“she’s a wonderful boat, like a big-bosomed lady, just taking you in her arms.” Orion likes wind at 25-30 knots. She enjoys a sporty sail. Ocean cruising was what she was made for. And she is a good, old girl. I know she will do her job, and keep us afloat. It’s really myself I worry about, my proficiency on deck alone, at night, to keep her pointed straight, even with autopilot, and keep the sails trimmed right.

And yet, isn’t that what I came here (this incarnation, this planet, this trip) for, to have adventures, and dissolve the edges of my fear, and live more and more fully with each year that goes by? My “yes” to taking this trip was reluctant, but I still said yes. I want to be the woman who knows and trusts herself on her boat. I may not want to ever make another offshore passage, but I want to do this thing. I want to be like Maxo (my bonus teen #1), who always says, “I got this.”

img_1267So. It’s time to stop writing. Make a last snorkel here in the BVI. And then we’ll be underway. I’m going to practice changing my perception about sailing at night, about taking a watch by myself. I’m going to pick away at the edges of my trepidation. What if it’s fun? What if I know more than I think I do, now, with several hundred miles under my keel? There’s not much of a moon right now, maybe I’ll see the Southern Cross.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

8 thoughts on “Things That Are Scary About Sailing

  1. You already amaze us with your stepping out of your comfort zone on the trip so far! I’m such a wimp I would have never managed even a hesitant yes:) proud of you! You got this! Hugs…can’t wait for the next blog post…living vicariously here:)


  2. Elia and Malcolm,
    We are glad you are in this journey together. Happy New Adventures to you both. As the Gaelic Blessings say, “May the wind be at your back, the sun be in your face, and the peace of forgiveness in your heart.”
    Amen to that, brother. Sail well.
    — Henry


  3. Elia, by now, you are in St. Maarten feeling competent and powerful! This is your journey and I feel sure that it will be a positive one for you! It was a true pleasure to be a part of your crew on the trip down and I would gladly be crew any time you need extra hands!


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