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Having lived aboard a sailboat for several years, Migael Scherer had never before raced over water. So when an invitation came to join a six-person crew on a race, she said yes. Three years prior, Scherer's life had almost ended in a violent, near-fatal rape; the race becomes a personal voyage of recovery. She addresses the wonders and horrors, beauty and dangers of both the natural and “civilized” world. Throughout, she keeps an account of the race and its intricacies with the knowledge of a seasoned sailor and ...
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Having lived aboard a sailboat for several years, Migael Scherer had never before raced over water. So when an invitation came to join a six-person crew on a race, she said yes. Three years prior, Scherer's life had almost ended in a violent, near-fatal rape; the race becomes a personal voyage of recovery. She addresses the wonders and horrors, beauty and dangers of both the natural and “civilized” world. Throughout, she keeps an account of the race and its intricacies with the knowledge of a seasoned sailor and the freshness of a novice racer. Photographs and her story illuminate Scherer's successful struggle to recapture her love of life.
Raven entered my life through gifts.
First there was the sweatshirt, a present from my older
sister on my thirty-sixth birthday. Turquoise blue, the
color of glacier ice. On the front, a black raven painted in
the graceful ovoids and swelling outlines of Alaska Native
art: chest out, wings spread, tail fanned, head in profile.
Surrounded by a thin black circle, with painted feathers
"An eagle!" I said with pleasure when I unwrapped it.
"A raven," she corrected, pleased that I liked it. "The
I looked at the emblem more closely. Ravens were so
common in Alaska that I'd pretty much overlooked them.
I watched as she traced the soft contours that seemed to
flow from one into the other, explaining how an eagle's
beak would be more strongly hooked in Alaska Native art.
When I put the shirt on, the raven covered my chest like
I wanted to save the sweatshirt for good, to wear it only
on occasions that passed for dress up among us marina
liveaboards in Juneau, but it didn't take long for it to
join my everyday wardrobe. In the photo album of those
four years Paul and I lived in Alaska, I appear again and
again in that turquoise sweatshirt. At first I'm cooking,
or crowded with friends around the galley table, grinning
with them over a platter of salmon steaks. A few pages
later there I am, kneeling on deck, bending over a bucket-load
of Dungeness crab, orange rubber gloves on, ready to
kill and clean the whole lot of them.
The first blood to stain the shirt came off my friend's
halibut. We'd left the guys behind on Orca: Paul was launching
the dinghy and rigging it for a sail. Herm was setting
up crab traps. Joyce and I took the inflatable.
We had fishing rods, herring for bait, a small tackle
box, a medium-sized net, and a club. Cans of beer rolled
around on the floorboards. We motored north about
a quarter mile, cut the engine, and dropped the plastic
bucket over the side to hold position. We baited our hooks
and dropped them to the bottom. Almost simultaneously,
we reeled up a few clicks.
And sat, Joyce on one inflated pontoon, I on the other,
beers open, smiles across our faces. Just us, the blue bowl
of sky, the sloping walls of the mountains around a calm
sea. To the south Orca floated on a tether of anchor chain;
the graceful sheer line of her hull swept up at stern and
bow, her masts raked gently aft.
Sooner than we expected, the tip of Joyce's rod curved
down to the water. She scrambled to grip the rod and
adjust the reel. I quickly reeled in my own line.
"Feels like a halibut," said Joyce. She was already
responding to the resistance of heavy flatness rather than
the darting fight of a salmon. She raised her pole up in a
slow pull, then lowered it quickly, reeling in furiously as
she did so.
Hauling in a halibut on sport line is often described
as raising a barn door: not elegant or tricky, but not easy
either. As they are with any fish, patience and pacing are
necessary, and stamina as well.
Joyce kept raising and lowering and reeling in, in a
steady pumping motion, not giving the fish time to dive.
Her line moved in circles as the fish moved this way and that,
trying to shake the hook caught in its throat, sawing the thin
monofilament with its sharp, fine teeth. Fighting for its life.
On the surface we were hooting and laughing. Our
beers had long since tipped and spilled onto the floor-boards.
Joyce was kneeling and I was sitting on the wet
bottom, oblivious to the cold sea-brew that wicked into
our jeans. I yelled unhelpful suggestions: "Keep the tip
up! Don't let it take any line!" Joyce grunted and giggled
in response. She was following her own instincts, reacting
entirely to the halibut, as though receiving signals
through the translucent line.
When the ghostly form appeared below, we both gasped.
The halibut looked almost as big as the inflatable-much,
much larger than we'd expected. Its head wouldn't fit in the
net we'd brought, let alone the rest of it. We had no gaff to
hook it by the gills, no pistol to shoot it.
But we did have a handheld radio. As Joyce cautiously
gave the fish a little line, I called Orca. Could someone
bring the big net, soon?
It was the kind of challenge any boater would love-an
emergency delivery of a large net for a large fish. Paul did
it in style, hopping into the dinghy, raising the little sail,
and beating his way upwind toward us. The small triangle
of white sail and the wide circle of the aluminum net grew
larger as he approached.
Joyce began to reel in again-the fish had rested and
was resisting mightily. Paul pulled up on the opposite side,
passed me the net and held onto the pontoon. I lowered
the net into the water away from the struggling fish, then
slowly brought it closer.
"Now!" said Joyce, and I swooped the net over and up
with all the strength of both my arms. Joyce instantly let
go of her rod and grabbed the rim of the net. Together we
dragged the thrashing fish over the pontoon and into the
boat, all but falling on top of it. Joyce raised the club and
brought it down hard. Blood and slime splattered us both.
The fish continued to thrash; I unsheathed my knife and
plunged it through the halibut's brain.
We never figured out its exact weight. The best scale we
could rig was to hang our stern anchor on the opposite side
of the mizzen boom, and the balance seemed about equal-some
sixty pounds. By the time we finished gutting and
cleaning the fish, my sweatshirt was permanently stained.
In the logic of fishing, I treasured the raven sweatshirt
even more now, a good luck charm I wore deliberately
whenever I wanted to catch fish or crab. It never failed me.
ACCORDING TO NATIVE ALASKAN legend, Raven
is power. Not the power that comes from size or strength
but the power that comes from cleverness and trickery.
Intelligence and deception are his weapons. Raven always
prevails. He helps man, but in an off-handed sort of way,
as much from a sense of fun as altruism. He is often pictured
with the moon in his beak, a moon he acquired by
transforming himself into a crying, demanding child,
then released into the night sky. Raven is one of the most
admired of all animals, topping many a carved crest pole.
He carries none of the dreary associations of death and
carrion that I'd read in medieval ballads and Poe's grim
tales; in Alaska, Raven had more in common with the two
birds perching on Odin's shoulders in Norse mythology,
one named Thought, the other Memory.
Speaking realistically, it's difficult to describe ravens
in terms of nobility or grace. Their blue-black feathers
are elegant as satin and their profile is aristocratic, but
their walk is almost a waddle, and in flight they sometimes
tumble, as if they had suddenly forgotten how to fly. Their
cries are complex and harsh: quorks, tocks, rracks. They
have a greater variety of calls than any creature except
humans and they're skillful mimics. More than once I was
stopped on the dock by what I thought was a baby's cry
only to discover a raven, big as a rooster, peering down at
me from the rigging. Like crows, ravens often gather in
groups that seem to exist for play as much as work. They
have been known to tree cats, taunt small dogs, hunt in
groups. One Juneau story-reported with great flair in the
local newspaper-describes an Easter egg hunt thwarted
by ravens that had waited patiently while the colored eggs
were hidden; as soon as the humans were preoccupied with
registering the children, the ravens swooped in to collect
over half of them, a six-hundred-egg bonanza.
What with the sweatshirt and my penchant for these
stories, I was delighted when friends presented me with
the gift of Raven Woman on my fortieth birthday. A signed
print of a pen-and-ink drawing by an Angoon artist, it
shows a realistic raven in profile, holding the moon in its
beak. In front of the raven, obscuring its chest, is the face
of a Native Alaskan woman. She stares straight ahead,
with a look of complete calm and strength. The peaked
band across her forehead is beaded with a raven shape
very like the one on my sweatshirt. White feathers curve
beneath her chin.
I propped up the picture in Orca's main cabin and kept
it there for weeks, then moved it to the forward cabin,
and finally tucked it out of sight. That summer Paul and
I cruised south, moving back to Seattle, and Raven Woman
was forgotten. But the sweatshirt remained a vital item
in my limited wardrobe. Photos of the six-week voyage
invariably show me in that bright blue sweatshirt: walking
a boardwalk trail outside Sitka, hopping to a jump rope of
kelp on a British Columbia beach, standing watch at the
helm on a sunny, downwind run.
THE DAY I SURRENDERED that raven sweatshirt, the
blood on it was mine. The blood came from my hands
and neck, from wounds inflicted by a knife much like the
one I carried in my back pocket while fishing. The knife
belonged to a man about my age, a quiet, blondish man
who waited in a Seattle laundromat until I was loading
wet clothes into the dryers. He attacked in a quick rush,
knife to my throat, left arm like a steel cable across my body.
He dragged me into the narrow room behind the dryers
and raped me. Then he jerked the sweatshirt up over my
face and strangled me. I don't remember seeing the shield
of the raven then, but I saw the blue-that deep turquoise
of a glacier crevasse.
I clawed uselessly at his wrists, his hands. I heard each
breath as his thumbs pressed in and in-my breath, rasping,
then retching. My brain was screaming, I don't want to
die! but thinking too, rapidly and clearly, How can I stop him?
In the furious scramble of my mind I suddenly remembered
what I'd been told a thousand times in Alaska: When
a bear attacks, play dead. And the moment I remembered-that
very instant-I exhaled and went limp.
He unclenched his hands. "You're a lucky woman," he
said, releasing me to the floor. I lay motionless, gasping,
alive, grateful for air. A rustle of clothing, a slamming door,
and he was gone.
So the last photos of me in the raven shirt were taken
in the police station. And the last time I saw that shirt was
on the witness stand. When I identified it as evidence during
the trial, I recalled-just for an instant-halibut, crab,
mountains and glaciers and clean, chill air. Then I saw the
blood, dry and brown. I smelled the stale, soured sweat.
Twenty feet away in that courtroom, the man watched as
calmly as he had in the laundromat eight months earlier.
In the days that followed, while the trial continued,
I remembered Raven Woman, retrieved her from storage,
set her on a seat in the main cabin. The calm face of the
woman and the triumphant profile of the raven, holding
the prize of the moon in its beak, gave me a sense of peace
and hope that I desperately needed. I stared at that picture
every morning, woman and raven, the blackness of feathers
and hair almost indistinguishable, her pale face like a
shield across its dark chest. It was a kind of prayer, my silence
at that picture-through the rest of the trial, through
the relief of conviction, through the renewed anxiety of
sentencing a month later, and especially through the dark
depression that followed and nearly crushed me.
IT IS SAID THAT a totem animal chooses you as much
as you it, connects through a powerful event, bestows a
kind of grace. Thereafter, you are never the same.
The Spirit of Adventure Around Admiralty Island Race is held every
summer solstice out of Juneau, Alaska. It's the longest coastal sailing race
on the West Coast, a two-hundred-mile circumnavigation of a wilderness
island, through the fjords of the Southeast Alaska archipelago. The race
consists of two legs and takes about six days to finish, with a mid-course
layover at Warm Springs Bay. International Yacht Racing Rules, with
modifications, are used. A dozen or so Alaska sailboats of varying length
and rig enter each year; a handicap system evens out competition between
faster and slower boats.
Although few outside Alaska know about this race, Southeast sailors
prepare for it all year. The main challenges in this remote setting are
topography and weather. Channels and passages are rimmed with snow,
topped, two-thousand-foot mountains that create unexpected wind shifts.
Powerful currents accompany tidal ranges of twenty feet. Winds range
from light and variable to major gales resulting in dismastings. Conditions
I LOOKED OUT THE SMALL, rounded rectangle of
window, down at the patterns of water and land. The
view from the airplane was a seamless chart, like the many
we'd used as we cruised Orca south along that blue surface
years ago. I counted back: Four years ago I was down
there, not here in the air. The water that looked so flat
from where I sat now, strapped in a narrow seat, had been
three-dimensional and alive, responding with movement,
color, and shape to the wind, the current, the terrain below
the surface, and the atmosphere above.
I glanced at my watch; only an hour more, at most,
until we landed in Juneau. I'd be sailing before sunset. The
day after tomorrow I'd be racing. The Spirit of Adventure
Around Admiralty Island Race-I wanted to say the name
out loud. Unbelievable that I was doing this, at last, without
Paul, just as I would have five years ago when Joyce
had invited me to join the crew on her boat.
A clutch of regret and sadness. If only I hadn't been
kept ashore by the flu; if only she hadn't been turned back
by that storm. If only she were still alive, cancer a disease
she'd fought to its death, not hers. I breathed deeply, in
and out. So much unfinished at the end. Like a rope, cut
The turbines droned and the anxieties I'd ignored
in the excitement of leaving Seattle for Alaska enveloped
me. Would I fit in with this crew? Joyce's had been all
women; this would be all men. A week could be a long
time on a thirty-four-foot sailboat with five men. I only
knew two of them, and easygoing as they were, this would
be a race, a competition. There was bound to be disagreement,
could be a lot of yelling and barked orders. I felt
my body stiffen. I'd raced before, but those were daylong
contests at most, in full view of Seattle. Admiralty Island
is wilderness, the race almost two hundred miles, the
I took another deep breath. A woman's gotta do what a
woman's gotta do, I said to myself, but the joking reply was
hollow. What was I was doing? Exploring? Escaping?
The hardest part of any voyage is pulling away from the
dock. A thousand details ashore to settle, a thousand items
to provision and check.
Excerpted from BACK UNDER SAIL
by Migael Scherer
Copyright © 2003 by Migael Scherer.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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