September—late in the season: Though tempted to linger in the enchanting Azores, we must finish our crossing to Europe. Our passage, projected to take ten or eleven days, will be easy compared to the first twenty-six day leg of our voyage. After a summer spent in the company of yachtsmen who made passages of at least a thousand miles to share our dock, this journey is not preceded by the nervous excitement that attended its beginning.
We are sailors. This is what we do.
Each of us understands reaching the far shore represents the terminus of a grand adventure and a transition into a less predictable realm. On the ocean, all men are equal. The sea recognizes no social classes, economic divisions, hard bosses, landowners or toll collectors. The Atlantic may test us or terrify us or even take our lives, but to its depths we ascribe no dark motive or intent to beguile. In the realm of Poseidon, teamwork, perseverance, and clarity are coin; here, we have sufficient accounts to make our journey. Ashore, cash and influence are currency. Soon, we must rebuild our resources where men trade in different measures of labor and value.
We’re broke, and Gerhard’s original offer to pay me as crew (and thus the promised fare for my return trip and the rent for Blue Monk’s mooring in the Bahamas) trades on future earnings. After adjusting to life at sea and enjoying an unanticipated vacation in the Azores, rejoining the civilized world will be our challenge.
The wind increases excrementally.
The seas grow rough. We run downwind in huge rolling swells.
The autopilot dies.
For the next nine days, we hand-steer around the clock, seasick or not.
How big are these swells? Twenty feet? Thirty feet? More? We ride over the crests, roll over the troughs and surf into deep valleys of black water under a colorless sky. The cockpit floods and drains. Rivers run up and down the deck, streaming out the scuppers as sea and spray climb aboard. Journeyman buries her bow, shudders and rises from waves that try to swallow her.
On the VHF radio, we hail friends from São Miguel who left in a much smaller boat than ours. We can’t see them but they’re within range and they answer. Like us, they’re uncomfortable and wet, but bashing their way eastward. Chitchatting under these circumstances is absurd, but we find futile comfort in knowing we’re not entirely alone out here.
Through the steering wheel in my hands, I sense enormous pressure against the rudder as it resists the seas trying to roll Journeyman on her beam-ends. Nine rotations of the wheel are required to turn from one side of the steering range to the other, but even with this tremendous mechanical advantage, keeping our course requires strength and concentration. I understand why the autopilot gave up.
Standing in knee-deep water, I steer until the queasiness comes on, then heave and recover sufficiently to continue steering again. I recall hearing of a seasickness remedy that employs elastic wristbands to push plastic beads against pressure points on the wrists. The next marine store lies nine hundred miles ahead so I improvise with duct tape and two pinto beans. Forty-five minutes later, I am singing in the cockpit, eating and drinking to keep my energy and enthusiasm up and enjoying the scenery.
By sunset, we are wet, cold, and tired. We heave our vessel to, effectively parking for the night. With an assist from the engine, we round up into the wind, haul up the mizzen sail, and tack back across the gale without bringing the jib to the other side. The mizzen keeps Journeyman headed up while the backwinded jib tries to push the bow off the wind. The sails balance; we drift in relative comfort. Down below, all is soaked and in disarray but we’re too exhausted to care. I sleep in my wet foul weather gear on a pile of soggy sail bags shifted onto my bunk. Hundreds of miles from land, we have plenty of sea room; we can drift without worrying about shoals and shores.
Morning light awakens me. My first conscious thought is surprise over having slept at all. Maybe the storm has blown out? It feels surprisingly calm from inside the cabin. My joints ache from the dampness. I open the companionway doors and creakily ascend the steps to the cockpit.
Hove to, Journeyman rides comfortably among enormous swells, but contrary to first impressions, the wind has increased. From horizon to horizon, the surface of the ocean is a field of churning white foam. The tops of giant rollers are blasted into flying spray by the wind. I am adrift at the center of an exploding world.
Why am I not afraid?
There is no point in being afraid. There is nobody to ask for help, nobody to pay, nobody to seek advice from, no dream to wake from, no port to run to. Three mice cling to a leaf in a tempest; what good would it do to be afraid? Nature prepares us to flee or fight but we are programmed as much to master our destinies and face our fates with cold reserve and hard resolve. There is nowhere to flee, no foe to fight. We have done all we can to ensure our safety. Survival means keeping our heads, minding the wind and seas, and pressing on.
Alone in the cockpit, I sit on the helmsman’s seat, watching the shattered face of the North Atlantic.
No, I am not afraid. I am blessed to bear witness to nature’s secret rage on this remote part of Planet Earth. Scenes like this don’t exist on the terrestrial plane.
A calm slick lingers on the water in the lee of our hull in the path of our slow drift. I see fish schooling around our keel. Perhaps they’re seeking shelter behind us? I manage a smile at the irony.
I call our friends on the radio.
I assume they’re out of range.
I hope they’re out of range.
A chainplate parts on the mizzenmast. The spar rattles and vibrates, trying to jump out of its step. The restorative comfort of heaving to and the necessary hiatus it delivers from manning the wheel in boiling seas will not be possible if we lose the mizzenmast. I start the engine, which wakes Gerhard, then manage the helm while he wrestles down the sail. Up and over the swells we go and down into the troughs again.
But the gale blows from behind us.
Gibraltar lies ahead.
We are wet and tired, hungry and uncomfortable, but the wind favors our course and Gerhard has built a sturdy ship.
The day wears on.
The storm blows out, fading slowly, almost unnoticeably, spending its power like the mainspring of a great clock until it is time to haul aloft the big gaff mainsail and bend a jib to the forestay.
A pot of stew bubbles on the stove. The decks dry in the sun. Wet sail bags and sea-soaked clothing air out on the cabin top.
The storm is past.
We say little about it.
Many miles of ocean lie before us.
We adopt a new rhythm. I retire after dinner at eight o’clock while Gerhard stands watch until midnight, at which time I ascend to the cockpit with my tape player and a selection of cassettes to sing to me through the night. Every night, I stare at the compass, listen to my cassettes one side at a time, and sail into a starry void. Journeyman’s bowsprit points not across night-shrouded waves, but out into an endless beyond.
We are not floating.
We are flying through space.
I choose a star to keep in a certain place in the rigging. Every so often, I change stars or change my reference point, allowing my guiding light to shift relative to where it hovers over the mast spreader or the lightbox mounted on the shrouds. After a few nights, I learn to slowly compensate for the gradual spin of my guide stars around Polaris so they don’t pull me off course. How the Polynesians navigated for thousands of miles is no great mystery. They grew up sailing under the stars, developed a sense of heaven’s rhythm, and turned slowly, steadily one way as the sky turned the other; they knew intuitively what stars were over what destinations at what times. I check my course against the compass less frequently, steering more and more accurately as the nights go by. The helm demands less concentration. Alone in the cockpit under the Milky Way, I experiment with controlling the speed of time, extending my four-hour watches by two or three hours to allow Gerhard more sleep. As the constellations glide across the celestial dome in a single endless moment, what is another hour or two or three? What is an hour at all?
When I am too tired to keep a straight course any longer and I’ve listened to my box of tapes and dawn streaks the sky before me, I wake Gerhard and give him the helm. Grateful for the extra sleep, he thanks me before I climb forward into my bunk.
During the days, we keep short, informal watches. Matina practices keeping a straight compass course as we plot tiny eastward-moving crosses on our chart.
The sun marches over our heads through a field of blue, burns the horizon beyond our wake, yields to the stars, purples the east and rises before us again.
We are aground in a river of time.
With the wheel, we turn the ocean round our boat.
Days pass like silken threads on hidden currents of wind.
Hours hover like dust revealed by a sunbeam.
Forever collapses into a moment.
There can be no other side, no destination.
There is only here, only now.
The wind falls light again.
We motor over calm, shimmering seas.
Two fishing vessels appear before us, rising slowly, steadily above the edge of the mirrored plane of the sea. We wave at the men working the boats and steer around the floats that mark the perimeters of their nets.
Gibraltar is close.
With proximity, with the idea of here and there and distance between, time returns.
No electric excitement, no air of celebration arises with the prospect of completing our Atlantic crossing. In truth, we share a subtle melancholy as more boats and birds and signs of land appear.
Suppressing thoughts of the terrestrial unknowns that lie ahead, we mind the compass, adjust the wheel, trim the sails, mark the chart, check that the bilges are dry, make a pot of coffee, stand our watches, study the waves, discuss what weather the clouds portend, and listen to the sound of the ocean moving past our hull, reveling in our journey’s final moments of timelessness before land’s inevitable arrival.
We are sailors. This is what we do.