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SAILING A SERIOUS OCEAN
SAILBOATS, STORMS, STORIES AND LESSONS LEARNED FROM 30 YEARS AT SEA
By JOHN KRETSCHMER
McGraw-Hill EducationCopyright © 2014 John Kretschmer
All rights reserved.
Changes of the Watch | Midnight Watch | True vs. Apparent Wind | What It Takes to Go to Sea | Shipmates | How This Book Works
"The stories of sea voyages, from The Odyssey through Hakluyt, and into today, retain immediacy and freshness because they took place on the never-changing sea, and each one goes to the secret core of a man's joy. It is a pleasure found not only in the tale of adventures but in the certitude that here on the sea, a man can reaffirm his human animal self, by the power of his arms, his will and his skill in a direct encounter with a huge and impersonal element and to do so in close company with chosen companions."
—William Snaith, On the Wind's Way
The cabin looked like a crime scene. Bodies, books, clothes, tools, and assorted fruits and vegetables were scattered haphazardly, rearranging themselves with every wave. So much for that quaint idea that on a boat there's a place for everything and everything is in its place.
We were heading south, and the off-watch crew occupied every berth north of the bow and most of the cabin sole. They were desperately trying to catch a bit of sleep before their next call to duty. The red night-light in the galley flickered as undermanned electrons faltered against a flood of salt water pouring in through the leaky vent overhead. The light finally capitulated, but the eerie darkness did little to disguise where we were. Nothing can muffle the cacophony of a sailboat interior when the sea is raging. Conrad described a gale as "that thing of mighty sound," and as always, he was right on the mark.
It was November: Newport to Bermuda. It was bitterly cold, and winter seemed a lot closer than summer. In what was to become an annual rite, I had dubbed the trip the "Heavy-Weather Offshore Passage," and no one could accuse me of hype. Cresting walls of water arrived on deck with a complete lack of subtlety, shaking Quetzal to its core and making the entire boat shudder. Unused halyards clattered against the mast, reaching a crescendo in the strongest gusts. An overloaded sheet block groaned hoarsely trying to control the tiny staysail. Locker doors flew open and then slammed shut as the boat rolled from gunwale to gunwale. Nobody was getting much sleep, except for me. I can always sleep, which according to my grandmother means I have a clean conscience. Unlike Conrad, my grandmother was not always right, although both shared a deep mistrust—even hatred—of the sea. Conrad because of its "unfathomable cruelty." My grandmother because it had tried to take her son from her during World War II.
My alarm sounded and put an abrupt end to a lovely dream. I rarely remember my dreams ashore but almost always do at sea. Something about sleeping in a washing machine allows better access to the subconscious. It was my watch. I wriggled most of the way out of my sleeping bag and the coffin-like pilot berth where I'd spent the last three hours. Then I decided to let gravity lend a hand. I should have known better. Newton was no sailor; gravity has its own laws at sea. Everything that can fall, will fall, and will continue to fall no matter how many times you stow the damn thing before you make landfall. I tried to anticipate the next lurch to port, but just as I made my move, an errant wave spanked the hull and we careened hard to starboard instead.
For a long second I was airborne with my sleeping bag draped around my knees, my arms flailing. Clutching the mast, I managed to land on my feet and somehow miss Chuck, who was sprawled across the sole with a wet sleeping bag pulled over his head. It was a remarkable landing, and I took that as a good sign. After thousands of midnight watches in the North Atlantic, you'd think this routine of getting up at all hours would grow old, that the magic would be snuffed out from sheer exhaustion if nothing else, that omens would turn to curses. But I am here to report that the magic of a night at sea is remarkably durable. I don't deny that given the slightest opportunity the ocean will rise up and test your resolve, challenging and occasionally shattering your nicely scripted notion of just who you think you are. But no other realm on our planet carves its initials as permanently into our brain's hard drive as the deep ocean, and I remember this night nine years ago, the first of many "heavy-weather" passages aboard Quetzal, like some might recall their wedding night.
As I struggled out of the sleeping bag and directly into my clammy foul-weather gear, I bounced off Mark. He was stuffed into the settee berth, suspended above the soggy sole by an overburdened lee cloth. He pretended not to notice my accidental hip check. He was someplace else, somewhere far away where the world was flat, stationary, quiet. I think he was holed up on a farm in Kansas, near the geographic center point of the country and as far from the sea as he could get. I would never have predicted that a few years later he'd cross the Atlantic with me as a stalwart member of the crew.
After finding a handhold, I slid butt by butt into the galley. I grabbed an orange, a pocket full of saltine crackers, a bottle of water, and my portable shortwave radio before stumbling headfirst into the cockpit. This process took two, maybe three minutes. I rarely tarry when it's my watch.
A blast of cold air shook the lingering image of my girlfriend from my brain. Unfortunately we were still charging before a gale in the North Atlantic and not ghosting along the Amalfi Coast, the setting of my rudely interrupted dream. Tadji, the aforementioned girlfriend, was nowhere in sight. Mike and Dirk were, and I greeted them with a smile. Their faces would never be described in a logbook entry, but they told a better story than the dreary weather and navigation details we typically scribbled down after each watch.
Mike had soft, bulging brown eyes turned down at the ends, curly black hair refusing to stay sheltered beneath his hood, a defiant moustache. He was cold but coping, happy to be out here, happy to be one of us (and would go on to become a frequent member of Quetzal's crew). Dirk, with bright, serious eyes, was competent but queasy, relieved to see me. My arrival meant that warmth and respite from the wind and seas were just down the companionway.
In sturdy, Dutch-accented English, Dirk delivered the watch report. "Winds still from the north-northeast, gusting to 40 knots, steady at 30 to 35, course around 170 degrees. Speed 7 knots steady. Running down the waves, well that's another story, sometimes 10 knots, sometimes 12 knots, sometimes more ..." His voice trailed off.
Twelve knots. That explained the hooting and hollering I'd heard below. Although that speed translates into less than 15 miles per hour on land—dead crawling through a school zone in your car—at sea in a 47-foot sailboat, 12 knots puts you in a churn of adrenaline; it's right on the edge of control.
"Thirty-five knots is the definition of a gale, isn't it?" Dirk, the analytical one, asked. "Especially 35 knots apparent."
Only sailors would complicate something as simple as wind. We have two winds, true and apparent. Apparent wind factors in boat speed; it's the wind you feel on deck. True wind assumes you're not moving, which of course is rarely the case. Like a lot of so-called truisms, true wind is not a very useful measurement on a boat. Ours is very much an apparent world at sea.
"Dirk, I think gales are personal. You know one when you're in one, and each is different. It really doesn't matter if the wind is true or apparent; it's just blowing hard and you deal with it. But you're right, officially 35 knots sustained wind is a gale; at least that's what Admiral Beaufort tells us."
"Thought so," Dirk replied, satisfied that he had stood watch in a gale, another item to check off his bucket list. He was getting ready to cross an ocean on his own one day, and wanted to taste a gale while I was around to reassure him that everything was okay. As I write these words nine years later, Dirk recently emailed that he and his wife, Susan, had just made landfall in Scotland, completing a very nice North Atlantic crossing from Newfoundland aboard Tide Head, their Outbound 46 sloop.
As I came out on deck, I thanked Mike and Dirk and assured them that they were doing a fine job on their first offshore passage, and then I sent them below. Mike paused in the galley, snagged a cookie, and then poked his head back out the companionway hatch. "Need any help, Cap?" he asked dutifully, knowing and hoping that I didn't. By a quirk of crew size, I was afforded the luxury of a solo watch, and I cherished a little time to myself.
"No, I'm okay, Mike. I'll shout if I need you guys. Thanks."
"Sure? Do you want something to eat or drink? Dirk says he'll make tea."
"No, I'm fine, really. Just get some sleep, both of you. Thanks. And good watch."
The Atlantic had been corralled into a cave. Visibility was left to the imagination. Occasional foam streaks from cascading waves were the only horizontal references confirming the sanguine notion that our tiny section of the planet was, at least for practical purposes, flat and that we were still on top of it. We were in the Gulf Stream, and Quetzal was slaloming down waves spawned by the collision of wind and current. We were being hurled forward by the tiny staysail, a mere 300 square feet of canvas propelling a 30,000-pound boat with all the horsepower she needed. The mainsail was lashed to the boom, and the genoa was securely furled around the headstay. Quetzal was dressed down for heavy weather and felt right. The Swedes say, "There is no bad weather, just bad clothing," and the same might be said about boats. This was, if there is such a thing, a perfect gale. There was enough wind to nurture deep respect for the sea's power, but the large seas were still manageable, and I knew instinctively that the gale was not going to intensify.
The ride was thrilling, especially when we caught a breaking wave off the stern quarter. At that moment Quetzal would lift slowly, like a whale ruffling the surface just before breeching, and then surge forward surfing and squirming but still tracking true, leaving a trail of bioluminescence. When the wave finally overtook her, stranding her in the suddenly windless trough, she'd wallow for a split second and then dig her shoulders into the sea like a running back expecting contact after a nice gain. Soon the wind would return and the staysail would fill away. The mad rush of water over the rudder would restore steering control. Then she'd begin climbing another mountain of white ocean, and the roller coaster ride would start all over again.
I may have been captain of this enterprise, but I never doubted who was in charge. Neptune and I had worked out an arrangement years before. He laid out my job description in clear terms: Keep an eye on things and don't get too full of yourself. And I was on the job, doing what I do, what I've always done, it seems—sailing in deep water and keeping an eye on things.
But this passage was not about me. It was about my crew. They were an odd mix: an ice cream salesman, an engineer, a nurse, a small-business owner, and a peanut broker. Not an experienced sailor among them, but they all shared a passion to taste the ocean from the spray zone, just a few feet above the surface of the sea, the place where man and ocean get to know each other on very personal terms.
The folks who sail with me shake the world when they're ashore. But on that ugly night at sea, they felt refreshingly small. They knew intuitively that the ocean was no place for boasting. In a gale, it's a dark alley in a bad neighborhood; you have to look ahead and behind and be ready to react. They had come from all over the country and had never met one another before the passage. They had sought me out and paid a nice sum. Then they found their way to Quetzal and checked into my cramped and uncomfortable floating world.
Some had been dreaming about going to sea for years. For others it was a newfound passion. Chuck and Mark had read Patrick O'Brian, all twenty volumes, while Dirk pored over how-to books by Don Casey, Lin and Larry Pardey, and Nigel Calder. Mike was enchanted by the beautiful narratives of Bernard Moitessier. They were romantics, if you can call someone searching for something as simple as an uncluttered horizon a romantic. They wanted some sea stories of their own, to test themselves in a gale, for someone to assure them that it wasn't too late to launch a dream. They were searching for the sea, and, in the brutal honesty that flows through its currents, hoping to catch a reflection of themselves that they could live with. Conrad titled his sailing ship memoir The Mirror of the Sea, a perfect metaphor for the searching that takes place out there. Camus wrote, "After a certain age every man is responsible for his face." To thrive at sea, you must be responsible for who you are, not who you want to be.
Cautiously I poked my head above the spray dodger. We had the ocean to ourselves, at least the few hundred yards of it that I surveyed before retreating reflexively when a wave suddenly broke abeam. I was too late, and the wave soaked me. "Damn," I mumbled and then laughed. Where were we? It didn't matter. We were everywhere and nowhere, our position defined by dimly backlit digits on the GPS, a set of coordinates that meant nothing at that moment. Our world was 47 feet long and 13 ½ feet wide, period. In deep water, in a gale, with no land to worry about, the sea has but one position, one address. You're out there and you've always been out there. Yesterday and tomorrow merge in a conspiracy of wind and waves. You can't reach one and you can't remember the other.
And yes, the boat matters, it really matters. It's not just a slurry of fibers, toxic resins, stainless steel, and teak suspending you above te bottom of the sea; it's a vessel of hope. It's the Holy Grail. You talk to your boat, you reassure her, and she reassures you. You give her a slap on the side. You and the boat are in the thick of it together and you form a bond that strikes land people as weird, maybe even a little creepy, but what do they know anyway?
Before we had shoved off from posh Newport, we had made pacts with our private gods, utterly accepting of whatever came our way. That was the point of the passage, after all, to contend, to discover, to accept, and to endure. I wrote in my book Flirting with Mermaids, "I make landfalls for a living." That's a good line, and not a bad way to navigate through life. However, as I get older I have realized that making landfalls, even dicey ones, is the easy part of sailing. The tough part is making departures, shedding the shackles of society's expectations, kicking the addiction of electronic connections, subverting the guilt of our own obligations, and pushing off the dock physically and metaphorically. Most of the people who sail with me know that time is no longer their friend; their biological clocks are ticking. They savor the moments, even the unpleasant ones, with an understanding that they've reached a point in their lives where time is what matters most. They sense that our journey is circular, and with an almost childlike innocence they long to get back to a familiar place. T. S. Eliot describes the quest, "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
Tucked back behind the dodger, I felt something heavy in my jacket pocket—my shortwave receiver. I was going to listen to the National Weather Service forecast when my watch started. Imagine that: nine years ago we still listened to weather reports on the radio. At the time, Internet weather, and the constant pursuit thereof, had not yet taken full possession of a sailor's life. I love weather, the good, the bad—even the truly ugly. You must love weather to be a sailor; it is a core part of the package. I am not a slave to forecasts, however, and I don't worship at the altar of satellite GRIB files. I don't dispute that GRIB (which stands for gridded information in binary form) models are very accurate, but the pursuit of weather information can border on obsession. The more you sail, the more you accept that fact that weather is also influenced by local phenomena, and forecasts can still be inaccurate. Your own observations are often just as important and usually more useful than the professional mumbo jumbo. Still, sailors go to great lengths to obtain weather information via radio and satellite and then doggedly believe it, even when the evidence blowing directly in their faces suggests otherwise (see Weather Information Sources on page 14). I have seen sailors desperately trying to download forecasts from their perch at the navigation station below, completely ignoring towering cumulus clouds shrinking the dark horizon abovedeck. Weather forecasts have become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy; you want to believe them, you want to trust them.
Excerpted from SAILING A SERIOUS OCEAN by JOHN KRETSCHMER. Copyright © 2014 John Kretschmer. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill Education.
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