Read an Excerpt
Dispatches from Distant Seas
By Beth A. Leonard
The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Beth A. Leonard
All rights reserved.
44° 37? N, 61° 37' W
Chesapeake Bay to Newfoundland 7th day of passage
June 11, 1999
I have finally arrived. The rising sun sets fire to each wave, a blaze of shimmering light stepping toward me where I stand on Hawk's bow, until we too are engulfed, aflame. I have become porous. Emotion has become thought, thought has become being. The world is in me and I am in it. Sea time, passage mind. Home.
Three weeks ago, the rumble of Hawk's engine reached me halfway down the dock. I had just exchanged my car for an envelope full of cash, disposing of the last physical possession binding us to land. With each step down the dock, I wrote the final words in a chapter of my life. The crossroads, so long in view, had been reached. Through hundreds of decisions over the past four years, Evans and I had chosen sea over shore, wings over roots, experience over convenience. Yet the sight of the docklines doubled back to the boat around the pilings made the money burn in my clenched fist. I wanted to run back down the dock and reclaim my car.
We put those six docklines on those pilings at Cypress Marine, off the Magothy River in the Chesapeake Bay, more than a year ago. They represented a promise. At that time our new boat was little more than an aluminum skeleton being welded together in a mangrove swamp in Florida. Evans wrapped each line around the piling twice to prevent chafe, then tied it off with a bowline. He secured the ends of the bowline with whipping twine and screwed plastic-coated red metal hangers into each piling to hold the neat coils of braided white line. When we arrived from Florida after a 700-mile offshore passage and tied our new 47-foot Van de Stadt sloop into her slip for the first time, she looked like a finished boat. But down below, her aluminum ribs protruded through three inches of insulation into what was little more than a cave.
Over the course of the following summer and fall, we worked to cover her ribs and turn that cave into a home. When we could tidy things up, we took her sailing, but when saws and drills were scattered around the interior and ash boards were piled along her hull sides, we sometimes motored to a nearby anchorage and sat on deck under the stars, talking of landfalls to come. We always returned to that slip and those docklines. I marked each one with indelible ink so I would know exactly where to cleat it off as Evans backed Hawk into her berth. We eased the springlines to drop her stern to the dock when we carried the icebox and diesel heater aboard; we tightened them to hold her stern well off the dock after we installed the windvane.
For the first time in more than a year, three of those lines had been removed from their pilings and lay coiled on deck; the others had been doubled back to Hawk's cleats. Evans motioned impatiently. I looked at the envelope in my hand, then turned to see my car pulling out of the boatyard. I climbed on board.
We stowed the docklines in a canvas bag, and Evans put them in the engine room. Over the next ten days, we worked our way down the Chesapeake, and I saw those lines every time I checked the batteries or turned on the solenoid for the stove. They comforted me as I struggled with vague misgivings, half-formed what- ifs, hazy might-have-beens, and unspoken regrets.
Five days out from Norfolk, just off Georges Bank, a forecasted 25-knot front arrived as a proper gale. The northeast wind lashed out at us, blowing from the exact bearing of our Newfoundland landfall. In less than an hour, the bottom leaped up from 2,000 meters to 500; the sea temperature dropped from 70 degrees to 54. Pinched by the bottom, tortured by the wind, confused by its own thermal energy, the frenzied water wrestled with itself. Hawk's bow chased short, steep waves straight toward the sky, then crashed downward when they rushed by, throwing up huge sheets of water on either side. Green seas and white foam washed down the decks past the mast, but they couldn't reach me where I stood on the top step of the companionway under the hard dodger. The sea, the wind—even Hawk—paid not the slightest bit of attention to me. I felt small, naked, and powerless.
The turbulent sea matched the turbulence of my thoughts during the weeks just past. Had we made the right choice in leaving our careers, our families, and our friends yet again in search of what we so valued on our earlier voyage? Hadn't we learned everything the sea had to teach over the course of a three-year circumnavigation' Was life out here really so much more vivid than life ashore? Did we really find a more natural balance and develop more sustaining values over the course of our last trip? Had our relationship been strengthened as much as I'd thought? I'd believed it once. I'd encouraged others to chase their own dreams. I'd invested all of myself in this boat and this voyage. And now I couldn't find the magic I remembered so well and needed so much. When I closed the hatch and glanced aft into the engine room, I saw the docklines in their bag and felt betrayed.
But now, in the aftermath of the gale, as the rising sun sets fire to the slow-heaving silver sea and envelops me where I stand on Hawk's bow, all of my fears and trepidations fall away. After seven days at sea, I have arrived. I have been scrubbed clean by the stinging salt spray and the howling wind. The sea, the gale, the emptiness, the sky—they have once again shown me my proper place.
I'm just a person, vulnerable, insignificant, mundane. I'm one cell in a body; one drop in the ocean—I'm a miracle in a world of miracles. As I celebrate that reality, I touch the place inside myself where my destiny dwells, and I know that only when I have been humbled can I grope toward the divine.
For the first time in many months, I can hear the quiet voice of my heart, the voice so long drowned out by the clamor of shore life, the busyness of managing day to day. It speaks through the pulse in my neck, the rhythm of the waves, and the sighing of the wind. It speaks only when I'm listening, when I am open, unafraid, and able to understand. It speaks of the cost of dreams, their exacting requirements, their frustrations and heartaches—and their incalculable rewards.
My mental compass has spun and settled, pointing once again to true north. I am here, now, and this is where I am meant to be. I hold the world inside my head as the world cradles me in its palm.
I go below to the engine room, pick up the docklines, and stow them properly in the sail locker.
50° 21? N, 56° 26' W
Abandoned outport of Williamsport Northern Peninsula, Newfoundland
July 9, 1999
Two gnarled paws of battered rock at the bases of the thousand-foot-high headlands on either side of the entrance channel engulf us. A gusty westerly wind, accelerated to gale force by the pine-clad arms on either side of the half-mile-wide fjord, threatens to blow Hawk back out the harbor's maw. Ashore, fir trees sprout straight up out of the crevices between rocks, on land so steep that the trees' branches occasionally touch the rising slope. Where no trees grow, granite outcroppings separate scree slopes, twisting rivers of flaked stone with round boulders frozen in their midst. Small torrents of white water tumble through the fir trees, one cascade on either side of the fjord.
A month and 500 miles of coastal sailing after our landfall on the Burin Peninsula, on the southwest coast of Newfoundland, we've reached the Northern Peninsula. This thirty-mile-wide thumb of land juts upward out of the closed fist of the island province to almost scratch the bottom of Labrador. The mountainous spine of the peninsula drops to the sea in sheer granite cliffs or wades out in long headlands that straddle fjord-like harbors. As we enter Fourché Harbour, our first landfall on the Northern Peninsula, only the navigation light on the rocks at the base of the southern headland suggests that others have found their way here before us.
"Quite a contrast to last night's harbor," Evans shouts over the grumble of the engine and the roar of the wind. I nod agreement.
We spent last night forty miles to the south and east, at Harbour Round, on the north coast of Baie Verte Peninsula. From outside the entrance we glimpsed a few houses clinging to rock outcroppings in tiny clearings several hundred feet above us. At the head of the mile-long harbor, a large wooden wharf fronted a dirt parking lot, and a ragtag assortment of buildings trailed off behind rugged rock ridges on either side. By the time we came alongside the wharf, cars were careening into the parking lot, throwing up dust and gravel. Half a dozen children waited to take our lines, and a dozen more raced down the road calling to friends and families. Doors slammed and dogs barked. Within ten minutes of securing Hawk to the wharf, thirty of the town's 150 or so people had crowded aboard at our invitation, with more arriving by car and on foot every minute.
"If the wind swings into the north, you'll get a goodly swell," one fisherman pointed out gravely. "Lots of water on the inside of the wharf. Whyn't you let us warp you 'round?" Others asked if we had enough water, fresh bread, seafood. Again and again we were thanked for coming into Harbour Round, for tying up to the wharf, for letting people come aboard. The focused attention and all the offers of assistance seemed excessive and somewhat embarrassing, yet we've experienced much the same in every harbor we've visited over the last month. In the world from which we come, such unstinting generosity creates an uneasy sense of obligation.
Here in Fourché no one watches, no one will extend us hospitality. Two miles from the entrance, we duck into a small indentation in the north shore less than a hundred yards wide and only a half-mile or so long. Here, slightly sheltered by a high headland from the wind whipping down the fjord, lie the remains of the abandoned outport of Williamsport. While it still lived, no roads connected this tiny outpost to the rest of Newfoundland; no power lines crossed the rugged terrain to bring heat, light, and voices from the outside world. The community was as isolated as a ship at sea.
Now it resembles a slow-motion shipwreck that has yet to complete its downward slide. Two dozen ramshackle wooden buildings line the steep-to shores; all have broken windows and wood weathered past paint to silver gray. One house has slid off its foundation and rests at a precarious angle on the hill. Cod drying racks, called flakes, still sit at intervals along the beach, though many have collapsed into heaps of logs. At the head of the harbor, the cemetery's stones glow white in the sunshine, and above them a white steeple canted at a fifty- degree angle marks the remains of the church. Several dories lie abandoned in the grass; flowers sprout from the soil that has gathered in their innards.
The cove's bottom steps up in great leaps beneath us, from 300 feet to 200, to 100. We drop our anchor in 40 feet, and Hawk comes to rest with her stern less than a boat length off the half-submerged boulders at the cove's head. The sound of the chain running out rises above the wind and echoes off the cliffs along either shore.
What a stir we would have caused here had people still walked the rugged paths between these houses and fishing boats still lined the derelict piers. We would have represented light and life, news of the outside world, supplies and celebration. If we'd arrived with a sick person aboard or a torn sail, the townsfolk would have done everything they could to put things right, just as we would have carried their mail or offered them medicines, all without obligation. Unstinting generosity would not only have been expected, it would have been essential to their survival, and to ours.
The people of Newfoundland, people who now live in Harbour Round and Burin and St. John's, are only one short step away from these outports, and they still remember.
43° 17? N, 70° 03' W
Casco Bay, Maine, to the Cape Cod Canal Overnight passage
October 2, 1999
It's one of those nights.
The bow smashes down. Forty feet behind it, my sea berth drops out from under me, leaving my head and shoulders momentarily weightless. With a waterfall rush of water down the side decks, Hawk's bow pops back out of the water, and my sea berth bucks up to meet me. Head and shoulders transform from weightless to weighty.
I ride the roller coaster with my eyes closed, willing myself to sleep. In two more hours, Evans will get me up; then I'll get no more sleep until morning. Except for a brief interlude before the waves built up, when I first climbed into my bunk, I've not slept at all. An hour's sleep so far, I think, hoarding that hour like gold. Two more hours if I can get back to sleep right now. I'll be all right on three hours of sleep. It's only one night.
We left Casco Bay, in southern Maine, at noon, heading south and west for the Cape Cod Canal. The forecast called for northwesterlies, but so far the wind has come from the southwest, straight up the rhumb line. Though it is blowing at less than 20 knots, Hawk's forward progress accelerates that to 25 knots over the decks. The wind has kicked up short, steep waves in this shallow water, 6 to 10 feet high and much too close together for comfort.
When Hawk's bow smashes down into a wave, a hole seems to open up in the water to receive it. The next wave rolls in and closes over her bow, then opens again as she bounces back up and out of it, shaking herself off. Water cascades off both side decks in huge sheets, washes back to the mast or just beyond, then angles down to the leeward deck. The pitching drains our forward momentum, forcing us to carry more sail than normal in these conditions. With one reef in the main and the full jib, we're sailing between 25 and 30 degrees off the wind, managing 6 knots, tacking to the canal.
My neck aches. At this angle of heel, I'm lying as much on the hull side as on the bunk itself. By stuffing the canvas pockets that line the hull with the three layers of clothes I'll need for my watch later, I've created a soft and almost level nest, but I haven't gotten my pillows quite right. I shift and burrow, push one pillow outboard and pull the other down to my shoulder. Better. I close my eyes and relax, opening myself to sleep.
My mind floats in that magic space between consciousness and dreaming. Disjointed images from a week ago, when my parents visited, come and go. We went to windward then too. Much more civilized though. My mom sits under the hard dodger, smiling over her blue slicker, relaxed and happy on her least favorite point of sail. My dad's driving, his six-foot frame rendered child-size by our four-foot-diameter wheel, his gray beard and blue eyes making him look like an old English sea captain who caught the wrong boat. We have the same sail combination as now—one reef in the main and the full jib—but there are no waves and slightly less wind. We race along at more than seven knots, less than thirty degrees off the apparent wind, with the boat heeled about fifteen degrees. "It's one of those days," someone says.
I'm aware of the very moment when I start the slow drift down the hazy tunnel that leads to sleep. Tension slips away.
I don't hear the wave or the wash down the decks. But the shower of cold salt water pouring into my bunk brings me back to consciousness in an instant and propels me up and away from it until I smash my head on the bunk above me. "Evans!" I yelp.
He's already here, standing in the companionway. "I've got it," he says, pulling the companionway hatch shut. It takes a moment for shock and disbelief to ebb, leaving my rational mind to figure out what happened. A particularly large wave must have washed back past the mast, reaching the small opening through the hard dodger for the main halyard and reefing lines. The boat's 25-degree heel to port funneled the water straight down the open companionway hatch and into my bunk.
I can hear Evans pushing a canvas tarp through the opening in the hard dodger, but the damage is done. I'm wide awake, wet, cold, and miserable. I swear I can hear the sea laughing long and loud as it murmurs and gurgles along the hull side.
I spend the next two hours chasing sleep, but not catching it. When Evans calls to me, I climb out of my bunk, woolly-headed and clumsy. For each layer of clothes I pull on, Evans pulls one off. "Anything I need to know?" I ask.
"Nothing's changed," he answers. Hawk crashes down again and we both stumble. Evans shakes his head and sighs. "Why did we build a boat that goes well to windward when I hate going to windward?"
Excerpted from Blue Horizons by Beth A. Leonard. Copyright © 2007 by Beth A. Leonard. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
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