My maiden name is Seward, derived, I thought, from “Seaward” meaning bound for the sea. Instead, I found the origin of my name was most likely the occupational term for a swineherd. Lovely. So much for destiny calling me to sea. But perhaps that’s the point. I was never destined for the sea. In fact, I suffer from motion sickness. I also suffer from a fear of heights, which I’ve discovered on some of my voyages, is the same as a fear of depths. I am not a risk-taker. Nor am I impulsive. I am methodical, organized to a fault and tend to be comfortable only when I am in control.
But I married a wonderful man, Jeff, who, I found out later, dreamed of going to sea, literally. So we traveled to Ft. Lauderdale and purchased a large sailing vessel, Sirius—a boat that would take us across oceans. Both intimidated and excited, I prepared to bring her home….
Our purchase was concluded on April Fool’s Day. Not a good sign, but I’m not superstitious. I must admit that I fell in love with Sirius when I first saw her. Though Jeff talked about her silhouette, her bowline or her overall grandeur, I was more focused on her washer/dryer combination, her trash compactor and the aft bed that I didn’t have to crawl onto to make. What appealed to me, knowing I was eventually going to live aboard, was how she wasn’t that different from a house: the more systems, the better. Need water, she has a water maker. Need air-conditioning, she has a generator. And she has five large fuel tanks to power everything. And should the wind not be in the right direction or should we decide to abandon our journey, we could turn on the 180 horsepower engine and have enough fuel to traverse at least half of the Atlantic. What’s not to like? She has loads of storage space, and if I was originally intimidated by her sheer size (54 feet long and 16 feet wide), everyone assures me that once on board, boats get small in a hurry.
So after the papers were signed, we hired a captain and a mate and flew down to Florida to bring Sirius back to the Chesapeake Bay, which would be her new home. Though we had chartered many times in the Caribbean and had owned two smaller boats, this would be our first time sailing in the ocean. Thus we hired the additional crew. Besides, our insurance carrier insisted.
Gray, our captain, was a surly sailor who reminded me of Captain Ahab. Dark wavy hair framed his block-like face, which was most often scowling. It was almost impossible to have a conversation with him since he wouldn’t respond to any of our questions. His seemingly brooding nature, we learned later, was due to a massive double ear infection. Gray was a large man with a can-do attitude. I admired his confidence, but learned that despite his self-assurance, he wasn’t always right. As we sailed with him, he told us stories of extracting people from other countries and ferrying them away in the middle of the night. He was a self-described James Bond in all the clever ways he skirted local authorities. Who was this man?
Harry, the first mate, was much more sociable. He was somewhat tall with short light hair, which contrasted severely with his very dark tan. Think of a blonde George Hamilton. He wasn’t as remarkable as the captain, but won my favor by greeting me each morning with a hot cup of coffee.
We arrived on the boat, got our things stowed and prepared to leave. Last-minute repairs were completed and we were ready to set sail. However, it was Friday, and we were warned that you never leave port on a Friday. Again, I’m not superstitious, so these warnings didn’t bother me. Further, I noticed that the date was May 1st. I joked about leaving on May Day and preferred to think of this omen as a sign of rebirth and renewal instead of a mariner’s call for help.
Gray was in charge (of everything) so there was little for us to do but watch his maneuvers and enjoy the scenery. We motored past endless resort-like homes and under several bridges until finally we were free from the New River and officially on the Atlantic Ocean. I prepared myself for seasickness. I expected long rolling waves that would lift us up and deposit us in a trough between two walls of water. None of this happened. It was a beautiful day, warm with a cooling breeze. There were waves, but they were gentle and with a following wind, hardly noticeable. I had decided to wear a patch for the seasickness, so my stomach was fine. We hoisted the sails. Between the current and wind, we averaged 8 to 10 knots. But it wasn’t like our other sailing experiences. One difference is that Gray takes his deliveries very seriously, which means you get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Perhaps that was his Bond training. Not knowing what nature would throw our way, he maximized the sail, rode the current and ran the engine full out. We were used to the quiet of sailing and suddenly found ourselves feeling like we had just bought a motorboat with a pole in the middle of it. I’m enough of a sailor to relish the time when you shut the engine down and the peacefulness of the wind and the water surround you. Not so on this trip.
Despite our concerns about engine noise, we were still too excited about sailing north to care too much. We watched as towns and cities slid by us as we slowly moved farther off shore. Gray offhandedly mentioned the Gulf Stream and my ears perked. I have heard so many stories of the Gulf Stream; how sailors dread it, how you always get sick sailing over it, how the best thing to do is cross it as quickly as you can. So I asked Gray when we would experience it and how bad it would be. To my surprise we were already riding the edge of it and had been for several hours. I looked at the water expecting to see “the edge”. Nope. There was nothing to see. And nothing to feel either, except perhaps an extra knot or two of speed. Wow. This was easy. I felt superior to other sailors and their weak stomachs. I had ridden the Gulf Stream and had hardly noticed! What a triumph.
Somewhere within the first 100 miles of our trip, still off the coast of Florida, our generator broke down. Since we needed the generator to power our refrigeration, we went into a panic. We had food for four on board, enough to last us a week and we didn’t want to lose it. So Gray decided he had to fix the generator. Sirius was on autopilot so there was still nothing for us to do. I hung around Gray and Harry trying to learn how they were fixing the engine. But our generator is in the wall between our shower and the galley, and though there is access on both sides, Gray was in the shower and Harry was in the galley. I would not have been comfortable being that close to two men I hardly knew. So I stood back and offered to fetch tools. Not long after my offer, Gray needed a wrench from the blue bag on his berth. Happy to be doing something, I hurried on my errand. Sitting on the middle of his berth was his blue bag. I opened it up and immediately saw a gun. We knew Gray was licensed to carry a gun, but he had told us he wouldn’t be bringing it on this trip. Not many pirates, drug runners or angry government officials in these waters, I guess. I stood frozen trying to think of how I felt about this. Then I closed the bag and searched until I found the wrench. I didn’t say anything about the gun until I had Jeff alone on deck. By that time, I was over the shock and both of us decided there wasn’t much we could do about it anyway. Gray was unable to fix the generator, so he returned topside. We would eat the food most likely to spoil first.
It was getting late and Jeff and I anxiously looked forward to our first night sail and our first night watch. It was decided that night watches would be divided into three three-hour shifts. Jeff and I took the 9 pm to midnight shift. Gray would do midnight to 3 am. Then Harry would finish with 3 am to 6 am. We discussed how to read running lights on boats and ships. We talked about watching the wind strength and how to brief the person relieving you at the end of your watch. Harry went below and left Gray to explain the various dos and don’ts of night watch.
“Do stay in the cockpit at all times. If you wander around the deck and fall overboard, we will never find you.”
“Do keep the cabin lights off and don’t raise your voices, so I can sleep.”
“Do wake me immediately if you are unsure about anything.”
“Got it? Goodnight.”
With that, Gray retired and Jeff and I were left on deck, in the dark, under the stars.
There is nothing to prepare you for a night sky at sea. The Milky Way was a gossamer veil that floated above us. The many planets we saw were large and iridescent. The radiant rising moon cast long shadows in the cockpit. And as we sped along carried by the wind blowing a fairly constant 20 knots, the bioluminescence in the water left a glowing wake behind us.
Finally our shift was over. We briefed Gray and went to bed. Down in our cabin Jeff and I sneaked a glass of wine to celebrate our accomplishment (against Gray’s admonitions about drinking while making a passage). Turning in, however, was easier said than done. The engine is located just outside our cabin and, we discovered, is incredibly loud, especially when you are trying to sleep. Moreover, the engine running full out made our bed vibrate. Since we were already heeled over sailing, the vibration caused both of us to be moved steadily to one side of the bed. Notwithstanding the engine roaring, our bed shaking and bracing ourselves against falling out of our bunk, we fell asleep.
Bang! I sat up and tried to orient myself. That was loud. Jeff left to go topside to see what had happened. Unbelievably, I went back to sleep. Soon however, Jeff came to wake me. Gray had called a meeting in the cockpit. It was 3 am and we needed to decide what to do. The noise I had heard was the mainsail ripping. (Now I know why people say they blew out their mainsail; it sounds much more like an explosion than material tearing.) The situation was that our generator was broken (therefore no refrigeration), the engine had started shuddering (not a normal shudder but a troublesome shudder) and now we had no mainsail. We explored the possibility of putting ashore somewhere close, but the way Gray painted the picture, the only viable option was to return to Ft. Lauderdale. And so we turned around and went back. We were 150 miles north and over 100 miles offshore. I rethought the wisdom on leaving on a Friday….
To our friends who were tracking our boat, it looked like we were sailing in one large circle, returning to Ft. Lauderdale to close the loop. And we were disappointed in this return to where we started. But I was jubilant for having survived and even enjoyed the trip. We safely made it back to port and completed our repairs. There we learned that the generator doesn’t power the fridge, the shuddering engine was fine and we had an extra mainsail in the sail locker. How ironic!
In a few days we sailed north again and this time Sirius arrived at her new home in Annapolis. Now when we are out on the bay, we savor sailing without the engine so the only sounds are the water sloshing over the bow and the occasional creak of the boom as the main strains to hold the wind. Though I haven’t lost all of my fear and concern, I am much more likely to push it back into my subconscious and let the wind blow my hair and the gentle breeze and steady sun warm my soul.