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"Henry's captivating account fills readers with admiration for her courage and stamina."
"A wonderful voyage of self-discovery."
"A powerful and compelling personal account of [Henry's] battle with the elements--plus inner and outer demons--while struggling to complete her solo journey around the world. What a book and what a woman!"
--Willard Manus, author, This Way to Paradise
A Woman's Solo Odyssey Around the World
Ship's diary: 0442 Local, 16°14'N/100°38'W, motorsailing at 5 knots with the main, steering 238M, light WSW wind, clear skies. Since departure at 1330 yesterday I've made 56 miles.
Of the more than two hundred cruising sailboats arriving in Mexico in 1989, only a handful were turning southwest into the Pacific, sandwiching their departures between the South Pacific hurricane season ending in April and the one that had officially begun on May 1 in the North Pacific. And of that handful, only a few, like Southern Cross, had come to Acapulco for the large supermarkets and chandleries; the rest had already departed from points farther north.
The stragglers among a group en route to the Caribbean via the Panama Canal had waved good-bye as I circled past neighboring boats. For more than five months we had shared anchorages—down the coast from San Diego through Baja Mexico and the Mexican mainland—forming friendships almost instantly. A neighboring boat often greeted my arrival in an anchorage with a dinner invitation or a loaf of freshly baked bread, and by the end of the evening I knew them better than I had known most of my neighbors in Santa Cruz after eight years. Our shared experiences—of storms, broken gear, homesickness, and good news—and the help we offered eachother—tools, know-how, charts, and a friendly ear—brought us together despite the knowledge that we would eventually part company.
Cathy Mackenzie, the Scottish veterinarian on board Super Tramp, remained behind to finish preparations for her sail north to Canada. She was the first woman singlehander I had met.
The rest of the anchorage considered the Mexican coast "home." Some had come south with plans to continue but found a place they liked. Others had run out of money, developed boat problems, or decided the boating life was not for them and were waiting for another dreamer searching for a boat to buy.
Waving friends off on long passages had become an accepted but still painful reality of my new life. For those with ham or single sideband radio, the separation was gentler. They could keep in touch over thousands of miles, plan reunions at future ports of call, report problems, get advice, and through phone patches keep in contact with family back home. Southern Cross carried only a small Sony shortwave receiver to gather weather reports and news broadcasts via Voice of America and BBC, and listen to the progress of friends over the ham radio nets run by volunteers. I had no way to contact anyone more than 20 miles or so away. That was the limit of my VHF radio's range.
Before motoring out of the harbor the previous afternoon, I had finished preparing Southern Cross for the coming weeks under sail—tying fuel and water jugs, dinghy and fenders securely to the lifelines, handrails, and rigging, topping off water and fuel tanks, replenishing food, ice, and bottled gas for cooking, and mailing letters. Below, the cabin was sea-ready, with dishes done and put away, extra sails stowed forward on the V-berth, charts and plotting sheets ready for use on the chart table, and every movable item stowed safely inside a locker.
After dinner, five hours offshore, I had seen two ships, confirming the anticipated presence of commercial traffic in the area. With the kitchen timer set at fifteen-minute increments—half the time it would take a ship doing the typical 18 knots to cover the distance from the horizon to Southern Cross—I dozed in the cockpit.
Now, through pre-dawn air tinged with the scent of cilantro from last evening's vegetable stir fry, the glow from Acapulco's lights, fifty-six miles behind, still defined the edge of the earth above my wake. Ahead, the compass to the left of the companionway cast a pale red light over the cockpit, and from the right the blank screen of the knotmeter display stared back. Its malfunction usually indicated that a tiny creature had settled on the small paddle wheel on the bottom of SC and prevented the wheel from turning. The screen normally displayed Southern Cross's speed and distance through the water—information I needed to gauge currents, navigate by dead reckoning, and tell if SC were carrying too much or too little sail for the wind.
Motoring forward and backward at full speed failed to dislodge the creature. I refused to go back to Acapulco and would not pull the mechanism out of the hull from inside. The manufacturer had provided a plug, but the thought of the ocean pouring into the boat through an inch-and-a-half hole, even for a second, terrified me. That left only one option—diving overboard to unfoul the impeller. A shiver ran down my back as I waited for sunrise and my impending baptism.
My subconscious replayed a scene from the movie Overboard in which Cliff Robertson watched helplessly from the water as the wind pulled the sails slowly up the rigging and his boat sailed away from him. I got up to tie all the sails to the boom and lifelines, secure the halyards, and find a line with which to tie myself to Southern Cross.
A well-known cruisers' story floated through my thoughts. Someone had found a boat in the middle of the ocean with the table set for dinner and no one on board. Later authorities pieced together the last moments of life: becalmed, the crew had decided to take a pre-dinner dip from their high-freeboard sailboat. Everyone jumped in together and then could find no way to climb back on board. Fingernail scratches showed in the gelcoat surface near the water. I hung SC's small boarding ladder over the side and tied it securely to the rigging.
I squelched scenes from Jaws and looked hopefully, one more time, at the screen. It was still blank.
With a screwdriver in one hand and scrub brush in the other, wearing mask, snorkel, and the line tied around my waist, I backed down the ladder, took a deep breath, and slipped below like an astronaut floating into open space. An endless, featureless blue stretched in every direction. Drum rolls of apprehension pounded in my chest as I dove over and over, scrubbing the little wheel while darting 360-degree glances for danger. Finally finished, I rolled and played at the end of my tether for a moment, becoming one with the warm sea.
I climbed the ladder, turned on the engine, engaged the gear, and watched the numbers flash on the knot log screen. A smile spread across my face as I reached over to pat the deck. "SC were going to be all right."
That night I covered the narrow settee in the main cabin with a fresh white sheet, plumped up my pillow, and crawled in, savoring the delicious feel of cool cotton on bare skin. The moon swayed lazily above, visible through the open hatch. Southern Cross floated at the center of an immense black bowl studded with a million stars above and pulsing with life below.
A decade earlier, three years of voyaging on the trimaran Windy had shown me aspects of the life I was now entering. Over the next few days, in the absence of stimuli, everything would come into sharper focus. Sounds would magnify—the lap of the sea against the hull, the high-pitched call of dolphin, and changes in the wind piercing the quiet. By daylight, blue upon blue in varying shades would force my eyes to search for details in miles of sameness. The absence of smells would heighten each small scent. Sensors all over my body would awaken.
In 1981, after 35,000 miles on Windy, I moved ashore seeking a new home. Friends asked if it wasn't claustrophobic living on a boat "in that small space," but looking out one small window after another into tree limbs or neighboring walls felt like a jail cell to me. When I found a studio perched on a cliff in Santa Cruz with a view over the ocean and could see to the horizon again, I signed the lease and breathed deeply.
During the past year, memories of being at sea had pushed me through days in the boatyard working on Southern Cross. My body knew the rocking motion, the constant sway, the quick roll, and the need to brace instantly for the unexpected—one hand for me and one for the boat. Amid the turbulence of TWT's demise, I had craved the peace of the emptiness around me now. But nothing could have prepared me to be here alone nor told me what difficulties might lie ahead.
I closed my eyes, keeping one ear tuned for any unusual sound. In all those sailing miles on Windy, someone had kept a watch—twenty-four hours a day. Dangers lurked in the nighttime sea from big tankers and freight carriers moving at high speeds—often with no one at the helm and with their radar turned off—and from unexpected squalls, floating debris, other sailboats, or equipment failure. From books and conversations I knew that, once offshore, most singlehanders sleep at night. The odds are comfortably high against colliding with another vessel and they assume the noise of changing weather conditions or equipment problems will rouse them. It is impossible to stay awake indefinitely. I made the same assumptions but wished my small budget could have included a radar—one with an alarm to notify me when anything approached.
With 120 miles of presumably empty sea between Southern Cross and land, on a windless night with the electric autopilot steering and the engine running, I sank into dreamless sleep. Every two hours or so the soft beep of the SatNav receiver announcing a new fix from orbiting satellites awoke me. I climbed to the cockpit, marveled at the sky, scanned the empty horizon, and returned below to plot the new position and go back to bed.
In the morning after breakfast, on the way up the stairs to the cockpit with a mug of coffee and Gulliver's Travels, I froze. The stern of a tanker mocked my assumptions. How closely and when had we passed? There was no way to know if she had crossed behind SC, or I had sailed in front of her. For the next forty hours I lived in the cockpit watching for ships that never came.
Three hundred miles out from Acapulco on May 8, under sail in very light winds, I tracked a large cargo ship dosing on a collision course. When she didn't answer my VHF call to ask if we would pass without a problem, I started the engine. She passed one mile off ten minutes later.
On May 9, nearly four hundred miles offshore—no man's land—another ship steamed dead ahead. Desperately needing sleep, I called to ask whether there would be more traffic in the area, but again there was no answer. She was the last encounter. Exhausted, I stretched out below and slept.
Peaceful days followed—in marked contrast to those of 18 months before. My only obligations were meals, a little navigation, maintenance, cleaning, and an occasional tweak of the sails, searching for more speed in the light winds. Then back to reading. Each night after dinner I doused a few buckets of salt water over my slowly browning body, dusted on a little Paloma Picasso, put on tights and a long-sleeved shirt, studied the familiar shapes in the emerging stars above, and returned to the settee.
Knowing I couldn't steer all the time, I carried two self-steering devices: an electric autopilot, which steered to an internal magnetic compass, and a non-electric windvane controlled by changes in the direction of the wind. The autopilot consumed far too much electricity, and whenever the windvane steered, Southern Cross made a wobbly line across the plotting sheets on which I recorded her progress. The Pathfinder vane had been one of SC's selling points, but I had lacked the experience to evaluate the merits of its design. Either the windvane was faulty, or there was too little wind to make it reliable, or I simply could not master it. A macramé of bungee cords to dampen the motion of the tiller and balance the helm grew steadily across the cockpit as I tried to control my course.
The line on the plotting sheets steadied whenever I engaged the autopilot, but only at the cost of precious battery power. I could recharge the batteries from a solar panel mounted on the stern rail and by running the engine, but conservation of water, fuel, and electricity was paramount. The fuel tank in the bottom of the hull held thirty-five gallons of diesel fuel, and the jerry cans on deck another twenty—enough for 140 hours of engine time. With good weather, that might mean 630 miles of the more than 3,000 to Nuka Hiva.
SC's two water tanks contained fifty-five gallons, with twenty more in the water jugs on deck. That meant a gallon per day for drinking and cooking and one for a freshwater shower and shampoo once a week, with a safety margin. Nothing was allotted for laundry. My halfway point celebration would include a clean sheet, and during warm days I abandoned clothes.
In the ghosting breeze I began to worry. At departure there had been enough fuel to get offshore and partway to the northeast trade winds, run the engine an hour a day for the batteries, use some to cross the doldrums around the equator and pick up the southeast trades in the southern hemisphere, and cover my arrival. In six days I had used the first allotment with no sign of the trades. Three miles away the horizon beckoned; I knew I could sail three miles. I wouldn't think about the miles on the other side.
These were the very conditions that had prompted me to lay out a sizable portion of my departure funds for a brand-new light-air sail—a radial head drifter that promised to respond to the lightest zephyr. But my first efforts at controlling this huge, bubbling piece of Dacron off the Baja coast, en route from Santa Cruz to Acapulco, had ended with a vow to keep it permanently stowed below. Now it was the only sail on board that could catch the light northeasterly breezes.
I tried flying it with and without the mainsail and with and without a downwind pole, looking for a winning combination. At 0730, as I brought the pole down to stow it, the boat rolled, the wind shifted and puffed, and the huge blue, white, and green spinnaker-like sail maypoled its way over and under itself, wrapping around the headstay in a hundred knots. At 1630, I finally dropped the last of the errant sail on deck and stuffed it through the forward hatch.
With the mainsail and 150 percent genoa catching a freshening northeasterly breeze, I collapsed below-dehydrated, hungry, close to heat exhaustion, and nursing a serious sunburn—once more swearing never to try that again.
That night, my eighth at sea, I tossed and rolled, hunting for a comfortable position. Tender, freshly burned skin made sleeping on my back impossible, and sciatica interfered with every other position.
The low back pain had first struck the previous November, immobilizing me as I bulk cabinets and installed heavy new marine batteries in Ventura, California. Off the Baja coast, it had brought me to my knees at every sail change.
Halfway across the Sea of Cortez, beam seas had tossed me backward across the cabin, smashing my spine against the chart table edge. The two pains merged at Isla Isabela. In San Blas, a hike through town meant alternating each ten minutes of walking with ten minutes prone on the nearest flat surface.
I nursed the pain down the mainland coast and into Banderas Bay to La Cruz de Huanacaxtle, a sleepy fishing village north of Puerto Vallarta. There, neighboring boaters told me of an acupuncturist ashore who sold pies.
In cool morning air I walked down bougainvillea-lined cobbled streets, asking for the pie lady. When I entered her open-air shop we went straight to a small, second-floor office graced with flowered curtains and incense. She diagnosed and treated me for classic sciatica.
An hour later, for the first time in three months, I was able to move painlessly. Then forty-eight hours passed, still without pain, and I returned for a second appointment. We pored over acupressure charts while she showed me how to keep the condition under control by working three points on each leg and ankle. In Acapulco, when the pressure points no longer responded and the pain returned, I assumed that hauling heavy jugs and supplies had triggered it again. Now I could no longer sit, stand, or lie down without pain shooting from my lower back to my left leg. I could barely remember what life was like without it. Friends had provided various medications, but the resultant nausea and drowsiness worried me.
Excerpted from By the Grace of the Sea by Pat Henry. Copyright © 2002 by Pat Henry. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted June 13, 2006
What a terrific, exciting book written with such honesty that you can just feel the purity of her story. I loved it not only becaue I'm a female, 60ish and a new sailor but beause it rings true of what I've know of life.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.