In between the gales – the one to the north of Bermuda that we’d been expecting, and the second, to the south, that we had not – I made breakfast for us in the galley. The boat pitched and rolled in the flung waves, and everything in the small cooking space gleamed and shone in the clean, crisp light that follows an Atlantic storm.
We were professionally worried, and determined, and in it now; and there was no going back. Behind us lay hard-earned, howling miles. Ahead, between us and the safety of a harbour, another gale swirled. And off the coast of Africa a hurricane had begun twisting towards our orderly isolation – a wicked ferociousness we would have to worry a good deal more about before we once again trod dry land.
There were five of us, bringing an 84-foot sailboat of proven hull and sound construction south for the winter. My watchmate was a woman named Kate. A friend of the captain’s from his offshore racing days, she was a drunk ashore, and a sailing demon off of it. She had an endless thirst, both for booze and sailing. A walking cliché, and (I would discover) just as enduring.
The night before we’d set out from Rhode Island – when all of the other boats were tied with extra lines in their berths, having no intention of going anywhere in the approaching November blow – Kate had ordered bottle after bottle of Chianti in a mostly empty restaurant in the off-season tourist port. The next morning we had to turn on the heater in her cabin to flush her out, after she refused to face a world that was neither a party, nor underway. She was a liability, I thought to myself that day, before changing my mind 36 hours later.
“Winch parts,” she reported in the dark, dumping a handful of objects onto the cockpit seat as I helmed as best I could in the following seas, looming in the night over my shoulder and breaking in roaring hushes. Before I could say anything she disappeared again, working her way down the at-times awash side deck, her harness clipped into the jacklines that ran from bow to stern. Her head torch flicked on and off as she completed her damage inspection.
“Anchor’s still secure but the strop is chafing on the deck plate. The foredeck hatch has a thin crack but it’s intact. One dorade box was ripped clean off. Here it is,” a dull thump as she dropped another find into the cockpit, all business now as we screamed along on a broad reach under a corner of jib and a stormsail. It was 4:30 AM. The worst of the first gale had blown through in the previous hours, but the wind and seas were still up. Everything was in motion, and we were hundreds of miles from certainty, alone with the knowledge that there was a lot of work left to do to get there.
“I’m going to double up the anchor strop, bag the winch base as best I can, and jam a rag in that exposed vent,” Kate said. I looked over her shoulder at the first light entering the sky to the east, and said that when she was done, and could take over helming, I’d make us breakfast.
“The shittier the night,” Steve had told me, as we sailed in the dark off of Vancouver Island in a local race a few years before, “the more important it is to make bacon and eggs the next morning. Even if you have to eat hanging on with one hand, it’s important to do. Puts a smile back on everyone’s dial.”
An offshore sailing guru, Steve also had a trick for avoiding boatwide hysteria in the face of hard times.
“First thing you do when you get on a new boat, before you’ve even left the dock, is you appoint a chief panicker,” he’d told me, as we test-sailed a classic 6m in Vancouver’s outer harbour; a Danish boat whose keel had once been chopped off in WWII to be made into armaments, and after, when the war was done, replaced with melted-down farm machinery and scrap metal.
“And make it clear to everyone onboard that this person will panic on their behalf. There is no need for anyone else to panic, and in fact that would be an insult to the person whose job it is to panic. Then, when something goes wrong, like a blown spinnaker, or running aground, or a man overboard or whatever, and everyone needs to do their jobs and not worry about worrying, just point to the chief panicker and say, ‘Now Jenny. Now is the time to panic.’”
I saw Steve do exactly that out on a flashy new race boat one March morning, when the mainsheet blew with a bang, overloaded by a katabatic bullet that had whistled down off the snow-capped Rockies. Jenny panicked, right on cue. And the rest of the team got to work.
By the time Kate had finished securing the forward end of the boat, the sun was close to rising. She came back and took over the helming, and it was striking the difference between this woman, striding confidently up and down the pitching deck in her foul-weather gear at 5:30 AM, and the bleary-eyed person who’d wanted nothing to do with life at 8:30 just a few days earlier. Some people just need a good challenge to bring out the best in them, I suppose. And struggle terribly with the excesses of easy living, in the absence of a reason to rise.
Kate took the wheel, and carried on the work of keeping a course across the opening and closing faces of waves the size of large movie screens, as we sailed surrounded by sound.
In the galley the hanging pots and ladles caught the morning light as they swung. The gimballed stove rolled like experienced crew. Through the porthole, navy blue waves with very white caps passed and broke in procession. When I looked back up through the main saloon and into the cockpit, I could see Kate’s lower half, braced in place as she helmed the boat along, one hand tucked behind the tightly packed vest of her inflatable life jacket. Comfortable. In her element. Free from the drudgery that kills more people, more surely, than any storm.
When I emerged with our breakfasts the sun was up properly, and the skies were a scape. Massive hanging anvils to the northwest, and a gathering front of groomed cirrus to the southeast, we were between systems.
We ate in silence, taking turns on the helm. The others rested below, tired after manning the midnight watch, which had seen shrieking winds, successive waves crashing over the stern, and the bow repeatedly burying itself into unseen ocean caverns in the dark, as the boat rocketed on like a thing possessed despite all efforts to slow her down.
“Nice day,” Kate said, as she ate. In a bucket on the seat beside her were the broken boat parts she’d collected earlier in the morning. Down below I could hear the Navtex spitting out concerning weather reports. Another gale approached. A churning hurricane formed and advanced.
Everything was in motion, of a size and intent. These were waves worth their name. And we were sailors worth ours. Ocean travel, as with most everything on this planet, is fundamentally improbable. And yet. Through the gales we work together.
And in between storms, we press on.