“Should we call the coast guard?” she whimpered.
“No” I said, “The boat isn’t in any distress. We’re going to be just fine."
Even the little dog was shaking. He had his life jacket on and was cuddled beside her, the two of my charges trying to take comfort from each other. I didn’t think I was very reassuring.I’d taken them out in this mess.
But then I know this is sailing. I know this is life and the wilderness and that anytime something can come up to change things instantly. She knows this too. Intellectually, Experientially is always a different matter.
“How long is it going to take?” she asked.
“Hours,” I said. I didn’t mean to be mean. I often give people information when they want ‘sweet lies’. Later I’d say ‘we’re almost there” when we were still many miles away from our destination. My concerns weren’t here and now. My concerns were with the pass. This storm had slowed us down to half our speed. So we were going to miss our window of passage through the narrows. That window, the ‘turn’ is the calm time between when ebb tide and flood tide change. I’d already consulted the tide and current charts issued annually. I ‘d looked at the time and confirmed the negative sign of the ‘ebb’ and the time of the turn and added the hour for ‘daylight saving’. We would be lucky if we’d get there before the maximum rate of flow.
I’d been headed for Active Pass originally but there the flows through the narrows can be 20 knots. I’d diverted to Porlier Pass where the the chart said maxim flow today was 4.8 knots. My 40 foot steel 13 ton cutter rigged sloop sailboat with its new Volvo 40 hp diesel only did five maybe 6 knots. I was supposed to have some extra reserve for going against current but I was towing my rather large hard bottomed dinghy with the high centre console and 30 horse power motor. I’d been looking back often to see it was riding well behind us.
My brain, wants to go to a myriad of possibilities of things that can go wrong. It’s definitely got a contract on my ass. Sailing across the winter pacific through storm after storm alone from San Francisco to Hawaii I’d had to shut the thing off repeatedly since it was constantly running every nightmare scenario. What if a killer wave caves in a window? What if the engine fails? What if the pumps don’t work? What if I fall and break a leg? What if? What if?
“I’ve never been in anything this bad, “ she said. “Those waves are so huge”
My boat and I’d survived worse, 40 foot waves at one time. But these were 6 feet deep and white capped with spray trails running across the sea. It was hard to see very far. A gale really. It was the first time the boat was out this year, except for an hour run to Bowen for an overnight. She’d sailed with me before. She knew the boat and my history. I had experience and the boat did too.
“Your father as a tug boat captain would have worked in this often. Did you ever go out in his tug with him.?”
“No,” she said. Her mascara had run a bit.
Off shore I have harnesses and ropes to tie us to the boat. She didn’t have a life jacket. One was inside the cabin at hand reach but I didn’t want her to go below and I didn’t want to leave the helm. When I put the boat on autopilot the course was worse. I could at least turn into the ‘hundredth wave’, those big ones that comes along like clock work and confound autopilots.
“Could we call somebody to tow us in faster?” she asked.
“No, we’re going along fine. We’ll getting closer. You'd feel better if you sit up high and watch the horizon. If you take the helm, the sense of control makes the seasickness worse. "
“I”m okay”, she whimpered, hugging herself tighter.
I told if she need to throw up she should as that would make her feel better. But she said she didn’t want to throw up. Which brought to mind another time I’d been sailing across the Strait with a couple of women and another guy and they’d all been spewing in just these type of conditions. I was thankful my days of sea sickness were behind me but I’ll never forget that worst of all possible feelings when all you want to do is curl up in a fetal position and lie in your own puke.
“I was just thinking that this was like child birth.”, she said, " There’s the pain and horror and nothing to do but wait it out.” She was a mother of three and I couldn’t argue with her comparison given my own lack of experience in that regard.
“That’s about it.” I said.
“My dad said they’d have nights of storms like this and how they just went on and on up and down one wave to the next."
“I’m thankful the sun is out. It’s also quite warm not like those crazy Alaska fishermen have to deal with. Also I always think of the North Atlantic in WWII when they had the worst of sea conditions and had to contend with submarines shooting at them as well. It’s enough for me to deal with Nature than to have to contend with psychopaths trying to kill me as well."
I remembered how everything got better sailing in the south too when I was just wearing shorts and the spray off the sea was warm.
Another big sea crashed right over the deck spilling water into the cockpit.
That was another problem. The drain hole in the cockpit on that side was plugged. It had been last year too. I’d been meaning to fix it. But all last summer when water had come into the cockpit when I was sailing alone and burying the railing the boat had been heeling on the other side and I’d simply forgotten all about the plugged drain. There was now a foot of cold seawater sloshing around on the floor. My shoes were soaked and the dogs belly was in cold water contributing to his shivering. Warmth and comfort reduces sea sickness. I didn’t want to do it but I turned the boat directly into the wind, heeled onto a different tack and let the water run out through the starboard drain. Then I took the boat back to the original course cognizant of the fact that by keeping the boat quartering on the sea I was pointing higher than Porlier Pass.
“We’re not going to capsize?” she said.
“No, we’re perfectly safe.With the sails down we have a huge keel below us to keep us from going over. We could even batten down and heave to and wait out this storm but the weather report says it’s going all night. Indeed it’s supposed to get worse at night so I’d just like to cross the Strait rather than wait. We’re getting there. It’s not that much further."
“I think the winds getting less, “ I lied.
I also didn’t mention my concern about the Pass, the heavy dinghy or even the new window I’d thought the workman weren’t being conscientious enough about. There’s always something that can go wrong in life. A boat is just a tiny capsule of reality as we see it. I could be about to have a stroke and the incidence of that might be greater than the possibility of wear and tear on a guy line leading to disaster. In 30 years of sailing I’ve experienced a whole lot of misery at sea, broken mast, stove in sides, leaks, broken pumps, fowled props, storms and even running aground. Mostly the worst happens at night or in fog.
Driving the boat this sunny day I remembered another time the seas were like this and there were four of us aboard all accomplished sailors. A ferry had gone aground and half dozen boats had had may days in the freak storm, seas similar, winds about the same. It just came out of nowhere and caught everyone by surprise. The radio today didn’t have any may days, just a few of the next level of concern “Pan Pan.” There were several of those, A sailboat was unable to get it’s sail furled and was careening scared somewhere on the Strait. Another boat’s engine had failed and it was drifting towards rocks. Someone had fallen overboard. The radio is a background of negative possibilities when a storm comes up.
“Why aren’t there any other boats? “ she asked.
I could have waxed poetic about why 90% of sailboats and sporting boats never leave English Bay. Those that cross the Strait only do it in July or August in the best of weather. I sailed all year round. If it wasn’t for her being sick I’d be rather exhilarated. Like the feeling of riding a motorcycle in an increasing wind. That feeling that you and machine are going to make it through this. Not that I wasn’t praying. I’d been praying, “All Shall Be Well. All Shall Be Well. All Manner of Things Shall Be Well” from the moment I decided to take in sails. That prayer worked for those in the European plague years so I figured it would work for whatever I had to face. It certainly beat psyching myself out with “We’re going to die!. We’re going to die.” Mostly my greatest fight is with myself. Fear and despair really don’t help a situation so there’s no need fuelling them.
Also I’m blessed with a guardian angel or some kind of sailor intuition. I get a ‘feeling’ that I should reef the sail and every time I’ve been just a moment ahead of disaster. There’s a lot of things like that. I think I should check the pump and find that only one is working. There’s a sufficient level of obsessive concern. I don’t have the money or time to ensure everything is perfect. That’s what wealth brings. More security but even in the offshore races disaster strikes despite every contingency considered by the best of minds. I love following the NASA stories for this reason. It’s like watching the great chess players or reading the Glass Bead Game by Herman Hess. In my little way I’m part of this bigger picture. In my little world I’m doing that sort of thing. It’s like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or tying the perfect fishing fly. Today I’d delayed on responding to the feeling and was feeling a bit old, fat and slow.
I actually am old, fat and slow. I certainly felt it when I winched the sails up today. I have to factor age and shape into the equation and I simply don’t have the physical reserve I had 10 years ago to deal with unforeseen contingencies.
We’d been sailing, close hauled, all sails up, 15 knot northwest wind, calm seas 1-2 foot, going 4 knots,towing the dinghy. It was a glorious day. Laura was loving it. It was mid April and my friends out in Eastern Canada were still battling snow storms. Here we were on the west coast in paradise sailing across Georgia Strait. Life couldn’t be better.
And I got that feeling. And ignored it.
The weather report had been for increasing winds later in the afternoon and evening but it was only 2 pm then. Everything was perfect except my premonition. That’s when the railing first went underwater. Not a bad thing racing but obviously a concern cruising. I took it as a time to get up on deck and reef. I started the iron jenny enjoying the sound of the engine purring into action.
The more wind, The harder it is to reef. Using the engine and autopilot I could have turned direct into the wind like the text book says, trusting my autopilot but instead I just hauled the main sail down to the reef point and winched it tight in place. It all just took too long and I was quite tired by the effort. Back in the cockpit I saw the boat speed had gone from 4 to 5 knots and reefing wasn’t doing anything. The railing buried again. More white caps.
Back on deck.
It’s dangerous on deck without a line and harness. I had told Laura how to call Coast Guard on 16 and unleash the foresail rope from the winch to let the boat stop but if a freak wave hit and I went over, hypothermia would get me before rescue. “One hand to the boat always”.
Now the main sail was down and we were riding pretty good but the wind was rising and the sea was growing.
Just to be safe I began to roller furl the new genoa in. I remember doing this in the Pacific by myself for squalls in minutes. I was fast back then and strong. Now too long at a desk I was really taking an inordinate amount of time to winch the sail in even with the boat turned up into the wind. Laura was helping by letting out the lead rope but it was all going so slowly. My shoulder was killing me. I began thinking I’d damaged my rotator cuff. But eventually I had the sail furled to a third the size. We were riding exactly like I like it in a storm, the sail being enough to create just the right lean to cut into the seas but not enough to worry me. I was back to using the engine which was keeping us going at 3 knots. Normally it would be five or six. I looked back at the dinghy and it was riding just fine. Big seas slowed our forward motion to 1.5 knots. They just slammed into the boat submarining the bow.
“I don’t like when you go on deck,” she said. The boat was actually fairly okay at that moment. I was comfortable with everything and just had to persevere. I saw then that Laura wasn’t doing well. And that’s when the broadside slammed into her lifting the canvas and soaking her.
“Should we call the coast guard?" she whimpered.
When I was younger I would have ‘ordered’ her to pull herself together. I’d done that in my 20’s and am divorced. In my own fear and ignorance I’d thought that ‘female hysteria’ was something to slap into shape. Talking to veterans about war times and men going crazy in battle I know there’s a place for slapping someone back to reality. But that’s only when the bullets are flying. Mostly people, scared themselves, take it out on the one just a little more scared . I ‘d been that way. Putting on a phoney brave front and strutting about shouting orders in times of trouble. I’d got everyone through those times. I’d been a good leader in that regard but today I knew myself better.
I was scared. I’m always scared. There’s always some fear to living. I know too that courage is going on inspite of fear.
Laura just wanted me to acknowledge her. She didn’t want to be alone. The dog was cuddled up beside her and he didn’t want to be alone.
“We’re going to be okay. The boat can handle a whole lot more than this. I love my new Volvo. It’s doing an amazing job of pushing us through the sea. We’ll be at the pass shortly. Not much further."
The job of a captain is the care and safety of the boat and crew. The job of the crew is to assist the job of the captain. Laura wasn’t technically crew. More a passenger, really. I think Gilbert the first mate dog was cuddling up to her to give her comfort though it wasn’t too clear if he wasn’t the one getting the comfort.
I comforted her. No harsh words. Just reassurance. I also wished that I could take back all the harsh words I’d used in decades past as younger and stupider man.
Then we were in Porlier Pass. That was where I was really scared. And I didn’t share this. I’d also gone through a time in life when I thought that others needed to ‘know my feelings.’ I’d believed in that idea of letting it ‘all hang out’. I’d believed in the group grok experience but knew from experience that has no place whatsoever in life and death situations. People say they want their leaders to share everything and the silly media chants this day in day out but the fact is all that does is cause panic. I didn’t say a word when the boat hit the first whirlpool and I looked back to see the dinghy was riding high and hadn’t flipped to become an anchor I’d have to cut loose while the boat whirled in a ship killing whirlpool. I just made a decision and gave my new Volvo Engine full open throttle and coupled with the ebb flow we were maintaining a straight line at 10 knots through literally boiling water waves jumping into the cockpit from both sides.
Then we were through.
“We’re okay now, “ she said. Smiling.
“How’s your stomach?”
“Its okay.I was just scared, that’s all. I’ve never been in anything like that."
“It’s not your fault.It’s just what happens,” she said.
I loved her for that. Over the years so many others had blamed me. They’d wanted to come along with me on some crazy journey and when the going got rough said it was my fault. I’ve been blamed by young women for lightning, broken down cars, winter, sickness, and just about everything that life can bring. I always half believe them. No one wants to be on a couch watching tv adventure more than me when I’m in the middle of a real adventure. But the couch isn’t real and if one stays there long enough they will get bedsores.
Trinicomali Channel was serene. The bad was behind us. We motored on the ebb flow down to Montague Harbour. If my arms and shoulders weren’t like lead weights I’d have put up all the sails and enjoyed the fabulous wing on wing sails that Trinicomali Channel is famous for. Instead I made us tea, drinking mine with Gilbert sitting on my lap in the cockpit. Laura went below to text her sister that with the nights wind warning we were going to stop in Montague rather than spending the night in Dinner Bay.
I love the cell phone. I always look at all the technology I have, gps, radar, chart plotter, winches, charts, weather reports, VHF and thank all those intrepid professional sailors who went before and made it possible for me to take this grand little vessel, my home really, away for a weekend with pretty good likelihood of returning safely in a day or two. There was a time like they show in the Hobbit movies that an individual left his ‘safety zone’ at peril and never could be sure of returning . Adventure was once a mainly professional matter and now we all do it as amateurs.
I certainly know that it’s the way I can get back to the office and enjoy the relative safety and routine of my office.
“My sister says that there’s been several boats in distress and they’ve been watching the winds and seas and are really thankful we’re okay."
Her husband is a marine engineer. They live on the water. I thought it was a wee bit of a blow. Hearing that, I guess it was. So Laura wasn’t over reacting and it is good that we’re all safe and happy.
Anchoring in the protected harbour of Montague was a dream with the sun setting and boat lights going on. Below we made sandwiches but didn’t last very long before all three of us were bundled together under a comforter falling asleep to soothing rocking motion of a boat attached to the earth only by an umbilical chord anchor. The dog was snoring first.