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A Star to Sail Her ByA Five-Year Odyssey of Coming of Age at Sea
By Alex Ellison
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Alex Ellison
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOff to the Caribbean in Hurricane Season
Although extraordinary and utterly foreign to me, life at sea was one I adapted to quickly. For my sister Lara and me, this first ocean passage was easy; we had little to offer in the way of actual help, so we stayed idle. Mom blocked me in to help Ken for the noon-to-three shift each day. This hardly kept me busy; we were moving along at about three knots, which is slower than walking speed, on flat seas and under a glaring blue sky. The incandescent, smooth blue above us merged at the horizon almost seamlessly with the cool dark of 20,000 feet of water. Water four miles deep over the Mid-Atlantic Trench, a hot day and low boat speed was an invitation to swim. Putting on harnesses, Lara and Justin leapt from the boat, towed along at two to three knots as we went. Mom did the same, much to my father's dismay. I overcame my trepidation about the possibility of sharks (which, honestly, was minimal) and followed suit. When back safely onboard, Dad, who had snapped some dramatic photos, recounted how it could not have more closely resembled trolling, with lines trailing behind the stern and live bait on the ends. Fortunately, no one bit.
When at sea, meals circumscribe the daily schedule. One lives for mealtime; while the food is rarely special—in fact, usually inferior to one's standard diet—it is always very much appreciated. All of us would cram into the cockpit for spaghetti one night, a deformed pizza the next. While the sea was still calm, we were even able to treat ourselves to a couple of veritable feasts, including a honey-baked ham and a stuffed roast turkey. Still, supper did not mark the end of the day. Every other day after dinner, we would bring the trash can up on deck, and sitting over the transom, we would sift through and make a pile of cans, cardboard, and the little food waste we had not already thrown overboard. Cardboard was torn into small bits, and cans were punctured so they would sink into the crushing abyss below. Plastic was always stored to dispose of in port.
On about the fourth day out from Bermuda, the wind and waves picked up—as did our speed. The blazing sun was finally obscured by clouds, and the cockpit was thermally bearable. About noon, Justin called from behind the wheel, "Hey, Uncle Lee! I think your GPS thing is broken. I don't know why, man; it just stopped working."
Dad walked over to the GPS. The monitor and keys worked, so the unit was fine; it just gave us no coordinates. Dad pursed his lips and said, "Well, we can do celestial navigation later, but for now let's pull out the handheld GPS." Opening the special watertight abandon ship bag with the flares and other emergency equipment in it, Dad procured the Garmin handheld unit. He flipped it on and waited for it to generate our location as I peered over his shoulder. After a moment, a dialog box popped up: Coordinates not available. Southeast of Bermuda ... we were in the Bermuda Triangle.
Mom and Dad laughed, hiding the unsettling situation from Lara and me. We were fine, because we could perform celestial navigation, but it was still concerning. Several shifts, about 24 hours later, the main GPS beeped; service was back. Coincidently, the handheld unit was suddenly working again, too. The Bermuda Triangle is an inexplicable but apparently real phenomenon, an area of ocean that appears intermittently not to exist. We fortunately had alternate methods of navigation and sailed under fair weather, so it had no consequences for our voyage.
However, Promise succumbed to maladies that did not fit the traditional description of Bermuda Triangle problems. Our sixth evening out, Mom and Justin were sitting on deck watching the sun set over the growing waves, holding onto the lifelines for stability. Justin commented, "Auntie Mary, do you have this weird electric feeling? I get it in my upper body."
The following day, our pristine white hull had gone orange at the bow; the bow stanchion had nearly rusted through, the oxide having run onto the deck below it, and then in two ribbons down each side of the boat, where the water had flushed it along the gutters. Although ugly and worrisome, the discoloration did not affect our performance, and the seas and speed only continued to grow. While rocketing along at a healthy nine to ten knots, the conditions passed ideal to become mildly concerning. We were now nine days out, and had reached the end of the safe sailing window previously determined by my mom and her meteorological guru back home. A tropical wave had developed from a trough moving westward off the coast of Africa; it was organizing and could become a tropical storm within twenty-four hours. Most ominously, it was moving northwest from its position briskly, and would intersect with our course around Antigua in approximately 24 hours. This was unbeknownst to me at the time, however, and I simply commented with glee how much more "fun" the rolling waves had become. As Lara began to voice her concerns about the increasing seas, my mother launched into one of many songs and chants she would invent to keep our anxiety to a minimum. This particular one became a standard that we still teasingly use today: "Up and down, uuuuuuupppp and dooooowwwwn!"—sung to a tune from Kindermusik class we had taken the previous year.
The next morning, our tenth since leaving Bermuda, Justin bellowed into the sky, "Land! Land ho!" In days past this sort of feat, being the first to spot land, would have earned the vigilant sailor an extra ration of grog (not a tradition we maintained on Promise though). Sure enough, a small, dark wrinkle barely visible on the horizon: Antigua! We careened toward it as conditions continued to escalate. By the time we sailed down Antigua's east coast and made our way along her southern shore, careful to stay far enough out so that we did not get pushed onto her coral strewn coast, fifteen foot swells rose well above the decks. The bitter wind howled at forty-five knots as some intrepid porpoises leapt along with us. Dad, our current helmsman, exuded grace under pressure, methodically trimming the reefed sails and guiding the vessel through the towering surf that was the approaching edge of Tropical Storm Claudette.
Promise tacked behind the colossal old fort that bars off most of the serpentine English Harbor. As we entered the sheltered area, the waves vanished, the wind abated, and a sparsely used anchorage and mooring field spread out before us. This naturally strong hurricane hole, which had served the British admiralty for more than two centuries, had been our original destination; we had no idea how appropriate and fortuitous it would turn out to be. We navigated through the small collection of boats and made our way to the quay where, although it was a Sunday, sailors scurried about the wharf making their vessels fast during the imminently approaching storm.
Tying the dock lines and pulling the keys out of the ignition was the most gratifying moment! I leapt from the deck, the solid impact of concrete jarring joints that had become accustomed to a moving surface. A brief tropical deluge found Ken in his underwear on the docks, a bar of soap in hand. For Lara and me, the hiatus of hygiene had been awesome, but for most civilized individuals, ten days was a long time to go without a shower, especially in the salty, grimy environment of an ocean passage. Getting clean was nice, but there were some drawbacks: Lara's impenetrable mat of hair could have been used as a replacement for Kevlar, and Mom's attempts to comb it out were met with blood-curdling screams for a full thirty minutes. Later, however, even Lara admitted that the sensation of cleanliness was wonderful.
Now ashore and presentable, I was able to appreciate the harbor. The British had constructed the buildings a few hundred years prior from coarse grey stones the size of my eight-year-old torso. The quaint architecture and grass were tremendously inviting, and we lounged on the wet turf ten feet from Promise, ecstatic for a change, and nearly oblivious to Claudette whipping around Antigua. We were nestled behind substantial hills to shelter us from the wind, while several twists down the narrow harbor subdued the waves. It was not until later when we visited a museum on local history that we learned that one of the hills sheltering us from the wind had been moved to its current location, back in the 1800s at the command of the British Royal Navy. Extensive chains had been wrapped around the hill at three altitudes, and armies of enslaved people, who were at the other end of the chains, managed to drag the hill into a position better suited for sheltering the harbor.
Our own exhausting work, pale in comparison, had been done, and we were able to relax—at least in part. Dad never left the phone booth as he called the maritime insurance company covering us, and then our boat's manufacturer, Beneteau, and finally a local electrician. This was the start of something I was to learn about sailing: not everything always works the way it should. The other thing I had started to learn about sailing was that change really was about the only thing you could count on. After Claudette swept past, we pushed on southward, heading toward the safety offered by the lower latitudes. One tempestuous brush was enough. We were going to Grenada.
Chapter TwoPirate Lairs
To call it "rain" would be misleading. "Deluge" also fails to be even remotely accurate. According to the GPS, we were off the coast of St. Vincent. Although we were theoretically only a mile from shore, we couldn't even see the front of the boat through the downpour. Not one to miss out on the activity, I sat in the rain with my self-inflating lifejacket, filled with perverse glee, hoping the rain would accidentally trigger the CO2 cartridge to explode and inflate the lifejacket. Mom was onto me, though: "Alex, get out of the rain before that thing inflates!" She needn't have bothered; I was moving in under the canvas cover anyway, because hailstones had begun to fall.
The winds, which had been a boisterous thirty knots, accelerated to over fifty, a "strong gale" on the Beaufort scale. Although bursts of squalls were a frequent occurrence at sea, this batch was particularly ferocious.
Ken shook water out of his short hair and pondered, "Do we want to head into a harbor on St. Vincent, maybe? I doubt this is going to lighten up any time soon." The adults all looked at each other. Within moments, Mom was navigating through the digital chart by the helm. She tried but sputtered over the harbor's name a couple of times before correctly pronouncing, "Waliabou."
We pulled into the wind, toward the island allegedly there. Our sails were already reefed due to the high winds, and we now rolled them up completely to prevent them from flogging and getting damaged against the rigging. Suddenly, the mountains of St. Vincent appeared out of the mist, looming ominously. The island's features did not become well defined until we were a mere few hundred feet away. I assumed the duty of bow watchman, calling out in the event of lobster pots, moorings, boats, or any such surprise, "Something ahead!" I really had not expected a rowboat to be rocketing out of the harbor toward us—no one had—but the minute skiff was easily outpacing Promise, and pulled alongside within moments of coming to our attention.
The pilot was a tall, powerful looking man with long dreadlocks that he shook as he called, "Hello there, skippa! If you ha' a long line I can tow you asho' ... trus' me, you no a gon' see much in dis rain and I know the bay good." He was right; we were functionally blind and, as our handy travel guide had indicated, nearly all the harbors on St. Vincent required an intricate mooring system. So, we threw him our longest line; one end of the black line was secured in his rowboat, and I knelt at the bow to cleat the other end down.
He wriggled momentarily on the oarsman's seat as he adjusted the oars in their locks. Then, bending forward, he dipped his blades into the water and heaved: we were off. I felt the hull's vibration change as someone put the engine into gear, to give our rower less weight. But he called out, "No! It's fine! Put it back in neutral." His voice did not even sound strained as he propelled us toward shore. The folds of the peaks sharpened; to our left, a rocky arch spanned a fair expanse of water. The shoreline also became clearer; I could see long wooden docks extending into the water. At the end of one was a small coconut thatched hut; at the end of another stood a wooden crane, a thick hemp rope dangling from it. The oarsman called up instructions. We were to spin the boat so the bow was facing the sea, and drop an anchor into the eighty feet or so of water. Normally when anchoring, one wants a 7:1 ratio of line, or scope, to the depth of the water; we only had 300 feet of stainless steel chain, insufficient here. A longer scope secures the angle of the anchor and reduces the chance of it dragging across the bottom. Dragging in this small, rock-strewn harbor in the middle of a gale with night approaching would be terrifying at best, and a disaster in the worse, more likely scenario.
Our tow service islander ordered us to drop the anchor and then back in toward shore. Coconut trees. We tied stern lines to two coconut trees ashore with an anchor out in the bay. None of our ropes exceeded twenty-five feet in length, so, even when we tied them together to make a single long line, we were still really quite close to shore. In this harbor, however, that hardly mattered; it turned out that the bottom was bizarrely steep. Our anchor, out with all 300 hundred feet of our chain, hung straight down. The throttle was pulled back to neutral, and the key turned. Promise finally came to a rest.
"Thanks for your help, sir!" Dad called.
"No problem, man. Dat a be twen'y dollars though."
As Dad gratefully shelled out the cash, I looked around. The buildings along the wharf were all stone with thatched grass roofs. None stood more than two stories tall. Wooden placards hung from the front of some; I saw "Cooperage" and "Blacksmith." I was amazed; these were terms for establishments that belonged in a museum dedicated to maritime history, such as Mystic Seaport, not in my real life in 2003. No people walked about. With the docks and architecture like that of the 1700s, and no solid human proof that it was still the twenty-first century, it began to feel like the storm we had outrun had sent us through a time warp. The rain had diminished, and mist hovered eerily over the surface of the water; our helpful local guide had silently disappeared. Looking out at the harbor, was unsettling, as if we'd sailed back in time.
"I'm going to go ashore and see if I can do customs," Dad said. As the captain, he was the individual required to find the customs and immigrations office and officially clear both the vessel and her crew in and out of every nation we visited. In addition to paying port fees and duties, this also required significant paperwork, copies of the boat's documentation, insurance policies, and passports of all crew members. Even when we had visitors, they were always labeled "crew", since the designation "passenger" carried even more onerous requirements. Dad zipped over the short distance by dinghy and returned a long thirty minutes later, with an ear-to-ear grin. He was eager to recount his tale.
After beaching the dinghy on the black sand, he found his way onto the waterside street. All of the buildings were sealed, windows dark and dusty. He passed a deserted bakery and the blacksmith, bales of hay stacked in the attic visible through the open windows. Several horses were gated in a pasture behind a barn. Not seeing anyone, he went the length of the street, finally coming to a building of similar architecture, low and of massive grey stones. This one building had a warm orange glow in the window, and a placard over the door bearing the words, "Customs and Immigration." Once inside, the office was standard with lamps, leaves of paper, a computer, and best of all, a person. Dad inquired, "Hey, as cool as this place is... it's a bit odd, isn't it? With no people, and hey, what's up with having a blacksmith?"
Excerpted from A Star to Sail Her By by Alex Ellison Copyright © 2011 by Alex Ellison. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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