On an ocean passage, the sea’s boundless indifference stretches beyond the horizon, the sunset’s reflection is unbroken as far as the eye can see, and the wildlife cheerfully reminds you that you are in an alien world. The days and hours, however, are brought into narrow focus by the ceaseless changing of the watch schedule, the dwindling food supplies, the water maker’s reassuring whirring, and the nausea-inducing ritual of sticking your head down into the bilges looking for leaks.
So, join me as I share the joy in this, the first of the blog posts about the passage from South Africa to Grenada.
What It Is Like
Waxing poetic about the romance of the sea is a long-established tradition made famous by the likes of Hemingway and Melville. Unfortunately for you, I am an untalented hack with a big vocabulary. . . . Nevertheless, I am bound by tradition. I did recently and unironically bust out this video at a dinner party in defense of my stance that ketchup should never be applied to hot dogs.
I maintain, by the way, that ketchup on a hot dog is a sin against all that is holy. (But, when sick, ketchup on macaroni is okay if that is what your grandmother gave you as a child.)
So, let us wax poetic.
Oh Rapturous Joy
Let’s first talk about 15-foot seas with a three to four-second period. That is, the top one 15-foot high wave is just 3-4 seconds from the top of the next one with a 15-foot drop in between.
As all rational people agree [wink], the best part of a roller coaster is the big drop. Everybody loves it — they scream with joy, throw their hands up, and even the amusement park’s cameras are placed there to capture the look of glee.
Now, imagine that drop, the excitement, that glee, all while sitting on the toilet — now THAT is rapturous. And, that in a very real and metaphorical way sums up life at sea.
On a roller coaster, the pesky need to keep customers physically intact requires some alterations to the basic experience. For example, the bottom of the big drop robs you of the joy of a crashing halt. Instead of the sudden transition from forward momentum to a gut-wrenching brief stillness, the cars artificially transition into a smooth corkscrew that has you soaring above the heads of those waiting in line for your seat.
The sea does not care to entice other visitors and is brutally honest. The ocean allows you to experience gravity, acceleration, deceleration, momentum, and numerous other forces in their raw form, unprotected by pesky seatbelts or airbags. The only guarantee the ocean gives you is that when you put a hot cup of coffee to your mouth, the boat’s acceleration will convert into sudden and rapid deceleration.
(Yes, yes, I know, I am using sea and ocean interchangeably though they are different. I do so, not out of ignorance, but with the same poetic license that allowed Pink Floyd to argue they “don’t need no education,” and Paul and Linda McCartney to sing “in this ever-changing world in which we live in.”)
The Depths of Self Exploration and Contemplation
Boats cause introspection for virtually every person who steps on them. The first time a human steps on a boat there is a sense of trepidation . . . a realization that the vessel exists in and on an unfamiliar realm. The basic stability of the ground is, after-all, something most humans simply take for granted. After sailing for many years that trepidation subsides and seems to be replaced by the joy of being on a boat with salt spray on your face. Yet, after a boat day, the most common comments revolve around how exhausting being on the water is and that boat days make for early nights and deep sleep.
The joy of sailing (or boating in general) masks the fact that trepidation still exists even for the most experienced sailor. Experienced sailors aren’t nervous the way a newbie is, but they are constantly vigilant even on the calmest days. Experience with sailing does not reassure you that the activity is safe, but rather heightens your awareness of the actual dangers. Newbies have no idea that a winch can rip their fingers off, that the lines can chaff right through to the bone, or that the boom can swing and kill them– they are just generally nervous. Experienced sailors know that the main sheet -never mind the boom- can kill you, the winch can pull off a hand, and the lines can de-glove digits- a far grosser injury than burning through skin. The balance between knowledge of danger and the skill to overcome it is the secret formula for the fun of sailing and- I think- why it is so exhausting.
Departing a dock on a boat that will not see land for 1800 miles is a very different feeling than heading out on a day or weekend sail. The boat is no longer simply a fun balance of dangers and skill taking you to the next beach bar with rescue just an emergency call away. The boat becomes an independent moving island complete with water treatment, waste treatment, propulsion, food preservation, and food preparation, all of which must work, or you risk death with little to no prospect of effective rescue. You are embarking on an adventure in which you could end up being a modern-day Magellan expedition or the Donner party. Add to the sailing and mechanical concerns the sense of responsibility for the others on the boat, and the gravity of the undertaking weighs on the crew for the entire offshore passage until the pressure is finally released by the yell “Land ho.”
These thoughts about the balance of experience, danger, and pressure came to me while making chili about 650 miles from St Helena. I was using a pressure cooker to make the chili and it served as an interesting, if in-artful, metaphor for the trip itself. Like the chili ingredients, the crew and supplies had been thrown in a small vessel and then pressurized. Luckily, like my awful chili metaphor, the crew came together into one cohesive dish. (This awful paragraph is left here to as a marker for me to permanently dispel any notion of becoming a writer. I shall return to it often.)
Okay, enough of my blathering, let’s talk about some specifics. We had three legs to this trip. First, we departed Cape Town for St. Helena with a crew of 7. Next, we departed St. Helena for Fernando de Noronha with a crew of 6. And finally, we departed Fernando de Noronha for Grenada with a crew of 5.
Our watch schedules changed on each leg of the journey. The changes were due less to the diminishing number of people and more to our growing confidence with a bit of exhaustion thrown in.
Cape Town to St. Helena
For the first leg, we had one unexpected but welcome crew member. Nik from Xquisite Yachts joined us. Xquisite sent him along since our shakedown cruise was an offshore passage. Nik was a fantastic addition to the crew and sending him along was a super nice and generous gesture by Xquisite. He took my spot on the first leg’s watch schedule rotation while I maintained a nearly constant presence observing and learning as much about the boat as possible.
This was our watch schedule:
This watch schedule maintained two people on watch at all times with one person off the watch schedule and on galley duty. So, for example, on Sunday I was on galley duty (I think I cooked most of the time and left Nik to help with the sailing). Those not on galley duty simply followed the schedule, which rotated them through different shifts and partners. We discovered that this watch schedule did not mix up the crew as much as we had hoped, but overall worked well. It was, however, overkill.
St. Helena to Fernando de Noronoha
We said goodbye to Nik on St. Helena. I’m fairly confident the crew would have voted to keep him and leave me, but luckily Wild Rumpus was not a democracy.
We had a discussion about the watch schedule and decided to keep the galley duty aspect, but to move around the schedule to mix things up a bit. We tried to space Jay and I out a bit since we were sharing a bunk and I am not very cuddly.
We were much more comfortable with the boat and passage-making by this point, so we eased up on the two-person shifts. For this leg, day shifts were single-person shifts and only nights required two people. We also allowed folks to split up the shift so one would stay awake and the other slept next to the helm on standby. Standby meant that person had their life vest next to them and was ready to help at a moment’s notice. The person at the helm always wore their PFD.
Fernando de Noronha to Grenada
We said goodbye to Jay– our most experienced sailor– in Brazil right before undertaking the longest leg of our trip. Interestingly, although this leg was 1900 miles, we all felt secure in the knowledge that we were only 40-200 miles offshore. We were long passed thinking of 200 miles as an “offshore passage,” and viewed this leg as a long coastal cruise.
Our watch schedule was now a single-person watch with the watch-stander responsible for the meal served before their shift. The person on watch next was required to be on deck ready to assist with their PFD within easy reach.
This last watch schedule was very easy on everybody and resulted in a lot of popcorn and movie breaks for off-duty crew.
In the next blog post I’ll fill you in on crew safety requirements, daily boat checks/maintenance, and possibly jump into the fascinating topic of living on Wild Rumpus at sea (how to use the head, laundry, showers, etc).