The definition of “doldrums” is “a spell of listlessness or despondency.” Yup, listlessness captures it nicely, except it missed the constant rumble of the diesel, the distinctly un-rhythmic weee/waaaw of the auto-pilot, and those damned space pirates!!!
The Doldrums are, Well, Dull
Unsurprisingly, the Doldrums are pretty dull. Starting at about 4 degrees north, we gave up on using two foresails in a wing-on-wing configuration because one was always flapping around uselessly, and whichever was on the snatch blocks (a temporary setup used only for wing-on-wing) was a pain to douse. We started up an engine, and created some of our own wind. We used a single foresail on and off — as the breezes allowed– all the way to Grenada . . . about 900 miles. Luckily, much of the 900 miles was in the Guinna Current, a relatively narrow stream of water flowing north off the coast of South America. The current added 2-3 knots to our speed for much of the trip.
On the upside, the views were lovely.
Watch-standing continued as we saw occasional random buoys float by. Those buoys were small and likely broke off a fishing net. We feared that a fishing net was attached to the buoy, but despite our best efforts, we never could spot one until it was just off the beam.
I grew up in Queens, NY. The neighborhood was densely populated and largely friendly. So, we had drop-in visits from friends, neighbors, and the occasional salesperson (damn, I miss you, Charles Chips guy). Nevertheless, I did not expect visitors, announced or otherwise, hundreds of miles offshore.
But, they were a welcome addition to our day whenever they visited.
This little swallow spent some time with us and was adorable. Swallows are considered good luck for sailors as they indicate you are nearing land. They are also the traditional sailor’s tattoo meaning that you sailed 5000 miles. Only 4000 or so more, and I’ll be due for number two!
And then, of course, the stars of the show were the dolphins who visited throughout the entire trip. This excellent video is courtesy of Bernard.
Keeping Ourselves From Going Stir Crazy
Most of this leg was an exercise in managing boredom. Bilge and engine checks continued. Watchstanders maintained their posts. And the popcorn machine and tv got a lot of use. So too, did audiobooks and a few actual books (well, e-book readers). Bernard, who had taken a keen engineering interest in the electrical system earlier in the voyage, started writing a treatise that mapped out the circuits and breakers in a more easily understood (and I think more comprehensive) format than the manufacturer’s manual! A tiny portion of his work is shown below.
We have no pictures to share this experience that every one of us on the boat participated in and, at the time, felt like a nervous energy in our bones. Pictures, and videos did not even occur to us (though perhaps they should have) as we pulled from our stores machetes, my USMC Kabar (knife), bear spray, and some other defensive stuff we had prepared (defensive prep is a divisive topic among sailors, so I won’t go into detail here).
Our story unfolds well after dark about 60 miles off the coast of Trinidad. Wild Rumpus was underway making a large curve around Trinidad to maintain its distance from the allegeldy troublesome island. It is worth noting that many sailors head to Trinidad and enjoy their visit. We, however, were anxious to finish our voyage and myopiclly focused on the crime/piracy reports. Noonsite, a popular informational site for ocean sailors warned that those heading to or passing nearby should notify the Trinidad Coast Guard so that they, in theory, might direct some patrols in that direction. If we met pirates, there was little hope of assistance within hours, so we would be all on our own.
Standing his night watch, dutifully and rhythmically scanning the sea for threats, and the sails for their trim, Bernard sat astride the helm with a straight back and commanding presence. Indeed, much like Lord Nelson himself, he was completely in command and ready for any trouble, including a bothersome boarding party that needed to be repelled.
Oh, crap, wait, nope, that was. a novel I read.
Please allow me to start again.
Slumped comfortably at the helm, scanning the sea for danger, playing with the radar display, and checking the fuel consumption numbers regularly, Bernard was on watch wearing red and black tribal patterned board shorts and t-shirt. And,, being french he neither looked nor sounded anything like Lord Nelson. Instead, picture a skilled sailor version of the guards from The Holy Grail sans the armor and facial hair.
While scanning the horizon, Bernard noticed a bright light off the stern at an underdermined distance. Odd, no ship appeared on AIS and nothing showed on RADAR. Understandably nervous about pirates, he watched that light for some time to see if it moved off, got closer, or did anything else worth noting. After some time, Bernard decided the light remained long enough to mention to Stacey.
Stacey, who was next up on the watch schedule, remained in the cockpit for emergencies, and to discuss concerning items such as unidentified lights off the sterm. Stacey was, of course, clad in her usual leather duster, broad rimmed pirate hat, hair flowing in the wind, with the flare pistol tucked in her belt.
Oh crap, I did it again. Stacy, was, of course, in her carrot orange button down shirt and shorts with no weapons, and some understandable anxiety (had you asked her a year before this trip if she would ever cross an ocean on a sailboat she would have laughed in your face).
Stacy and Bernard watched the light and it disappeared. The lights disappearance led to a good long conversation about whether the boat had turned away and was not approaching us, or whether it had turned the light off so that we could not see its approach. Just days before Wild Rumpus had been buzzed by several boats that we think were offshore fisherman interested to see what we were. They motored by, sometimes circled us, but always then turned away and went about their business. Then there were the mobile drilling rigs we passed, those were bright lights off the horizon that kept their distance too. Hmm, this light was not like those. It was alone and far more suspicious.
Small interjection here, it is difficult for most to understand just how dark the ocean is at night when sailing offshore. The sky lights up with stars, but they provide little help to visibility on the sea itself. Often, sailors can see some swell with the star’s reflected light just at the crest, a slight difference in the darkness at the horizon, and then only whatever their imagination conjures up while they are tired and nervous.
Eventually, the light returned and once again maintained its distance. Sometimes it appeared a bit brighter, but mostly that boat was following us. The open ocean is not like a street in a city. Boats/ships don’t follow one another. Occasionally they cross paths. In fact, we crossed paths with about three ships over the previous 5600 miles or so. For each such crossing, we adjust our path to make sure we were not within less than a mile of those ships. And, when I was on watch I would actually hail the ships on the radio to confirm that they were going to maintain course so we didn’t get any closer. (More boredom than necessary prudence.)
Finally, deciding that the situation warranted further evaluation and a decision by yours-truly, Stacey made her way into my cabin. There she stood, hesitant to wake me as my eyes were closed, my mouth was open, and the dulcet tones of breathing were singing in harmony with the throbbing rumble of the starboard engine. She knew that I was finally asleep after a hard and heroic day of working on the boat to keep everybody alive and single-handedly fixing some critical thing that broke without which the crew’s survival was in doubt.
She knocked on the wall and said my name. As soon as that first knuckly hit the wall, I sprang to life, jumped from my bed, and was ready for action.
On deck, I watched the light with them for a scant few seconds. In a truly heroic speech that would only diminish if I recreated it here, I told them that I trusted their judgment, to wake the entire crew, and to prepare to rebel boarders. We began the process of laying out what few items we had on board that could be used to keep pirates off of the boat. Our plan, in general, was to give the pirates any money and booze we had, but to try to keep them to their own vessel. The bear spray had a range of 30 feet in a concentrated stream, but even after that it would make them very unhappy in a cloud. We untied our 5 gallon jug of gasoline, prepared a few empty bottles and towels to make Molotov cocktails, and maintained our course and our watch. Our biggest plan was deterrence and by the whole crew being on deck, turning the transom flood lights on to illuminate them when they approached, shooting a flare in the air, and calling out maydays on the radio, we hoped to dissuade an actual approach.
Prepared and amped up, we scanned the horizon with our binoculars, and waited . . . .
After about an hour, every crew member agreed, the light was a star. No, not Elvis and Prince in Amelia Earhart’s plane. An actual celestial body that was so bright it appeared to be a light on the water. It “turned off” in when the fairly gentle swell raised the bow and we lost the ability to see high enough in the sky from the stern to see the light.
Without any actual danger, those couple of hours passing Trinidad were the most nerve racking I experienced. Wild Rumpus, named for the imaginary party that got out of hand in the book Where the Wild Things Are, provided us exactly the type of experience Teresa and I thought about when we decided on the name. To us, Wild Rumpus represented the ability to be whatever party — relaxing or wild — that one could imagine. Unfotunately, nearing the end of a 6000 mile journey took our imaginations to one dark place!
Important Lesson Learned
Once we realized that the greatest danger we were in was from a spaceship taking us for probing, I laughed and started to head back to my bunk. Stacey correctly pointed out that I should not give her or Bernard a hard time because I did not want to discourage the waking of the skipper in potential emergencies. I recall stopping in my tracks when she said that because it was such a good point. Our standing orders are to wake the me if anything seems off and never again will I do anything to discourage that behavior.