Monday, June 17th, 2002
The Really Scary Stuff Finally Hits: the Saints to
We had decided to shove off the next day
at noon, dependent on favorable weather. We had estimated
a twenty-four hour sail if we skipped the island of Dominica,
heading for our next landfall in Martinique. A noon departure
should give us enough light to anchor both earlier and later
if our estimate was off greatly. Though the weather outside
was drizzly and the gray, the wind and seas seemed moderate.
And, we reasoned, we'd be sailing along the coast of another
island, so if the weather worsened, we could always pull-off
(so to speak) and anchor along Dominica for the night. So,
after wrapping up our errands for the day, we set off at noon
The skies had cleared as the day wore on,
leaving a bright and crystal sea with brisk, but steady wind
to carry us southward. Up until now, it seemed the wind had
always been blowing against us, and we were always beating
into the wind- making for rough and uncomfortable sailing.
This afternoon however, we were on the most comfortable and
fastest point of sail, a beam reach. The wind was coming at
us from a 90 degree angle and Force Five was happy as a clam.
She slouched comfortably to one side and smugly glided along
the sea. Even when we found our primary GPS had inexplicably
gone on the blink, we didn't fret too much. It looked like
it was going to be a beautiful night with clear skies to light
our way along the coasts of Dominica and Martinique.
Up until now, I could never imagine how
people actually cook underway. The boat leaning over, flammable
gas fueling the stove, hot food ready to tip with an unexpected
wave? But today- I got it. Force Five was just gliding along.
It was a gorgeous day and I broke out my cookbook to see what
we could stir up. Oh happy day- we had (most) of the makings
for jambalaya! The recipe was meant to serve 8, so we'd even
have leftovers for the rest of our voyage. In these idyllic
conditions, it was a breeze! The stove swung lightly on it's
gimbals, following the motion of the swells
and delicious smells wafting from the pot. We enjoyed a stunning
sunset as a backdrop to our meal and toasted each other with
a glass of red wine. Now THIS is the life!
You notice early on in the Caribbean that
you can see bad weather approaching. It's the craziest thing.
The horizon will be clear, but you'll notice one blurry gray
stretch, capped with ominous and dark clouds. You know to
close the hatches if you want to avoid getting drenched. We
were finishing our dinner when I noticed big gray clouds upwind
from us. The nervous Nelly freak that I am, I feigned nonchalance
as best I could and mentioned it to Curt. "Looks like
we've got some weather. Should we put a reef in the sail?"
Having heard of the gusts off the south coast of Dominica,
Curt agreed it might be the prudent approach and we reefed
down the main so the boat wouldn't be overpowered if we got
too much wind. Dark now, we watched the lights of Dominica
slip further and further behind us. Curt, I noticed, was looking
for the noted wind whipping from around the point. Astern,
big puffy clouds were lined with the silver of the moon's
light. Ahead, the sea and sky were blurry like a water color
painting that someone had spilled their drink on.
I don't remember when it started exactly-
but I know it had already grown dark. I know we had time to
realize we couldn't see anything around us anymore. And I
also know we had time to dig out our foul weather gear: rain
coats and harnesses to clip ourselves onto the boat. The drizzle
hardly had a moment before both the rain and wind generator
started screaming. The rain was a wall of water and I found
myself thinking how much I hate our wind generator. A pinwheel
type apparatus that sits atop the back of the boat, the wind
spins the blades, and this generates power for our electricity.
As the wind builds, it spins faster and faster, building up
to a high pitched whir as if the boat were going to explode
at some point. As if the rush of the wind past your ears isn't
enough, the boat heels over as the pitch of wind generator
rises. As Force Five is pushed further onto her side, you
can hear glasses, plates, even the TV below all rattling around
to try to find their balance. Instinctively, I lean back to
compensate for the boat's leaning and wonder how much further
she'll heel over exactly?
Of course I look to Curt. "CuURT?"
My voice betrays me and it's clear I'm really scared this
time. And poor Curt is trying to focus on taking care of the
boat, and my eyes are pleading for him to give me some reassurance.
Always patient and willing to explain things to me, tonight
he looked like he was going to cold-cock me instead. He really
just wants me to shut up and get a hold of myself, but he
merely snaps back that I should go below since I'm just in
the way. My ego might have been slightly bruised, but I was
too scared to think about it. Now, I can't even hear the screaming
wind generator above the downpour of rain beating the decks
and canvas of the boat. Later, Curt told me he actually had
to duck his head down in the cockpit because the rain was
pelting him so badly. And Force Five just kept leaning more
and more until I thought we'd certainly be knocked over completely.
But instead, she still just kept careening forward, dutifully
climbing each swell and bashing down into the trough on the
Below, I grabbed the first book I could,
hoping to take my mind off of things
a trick I use with
mild success when I fly. Tonight, it seemed to be working
quite well! The book was "Wuthering Heights" by
Emily Bronte. Funny how when I was supposed to read this back
in high school, I couldn't seem to retain a word of it while
reading in the quiet of my bedroom, and now in the middle
of all this chaos, I was actually getting it.
I don't know how long it lasted- maybe Curt
does? I'd guess maybe twenty or twenty-five minutes? But during
that period you don't know how long it will be. And you can't
turn back, and yet you can't see ahead. You just have to stay
there and battle it out. Or perhaps I should say Curt, had
After some time, things quieted a little.
Though I don't really remember that all that well either.
I know I wanted to be back up on deck- to be sure Curt was
okay, or maybe help him if he'd let me. Or maybe to see what
further mess was headed our way and deal with it head-on,
even if I couldn't stop it. Up top, Curt was soaked and the
canopies were still pouring rain off of them. The cockpit
light was still flickering and bobbing with the movement of
the boat. And as bad as it had seemed while it was happening,
somehow now it didn't seem to be that bad. We were still there
to tell about it. After a period of wordlessness between us,
I asked Curt if he was okay and if there was anything he needed?
He asked if he had hurt my feelings asking me to just go below
and get out of the way. In all earnestness I told him that
in the face of much larger and immediate issues, whatever
words had passed between us before were irrelevant. We sat
there quiet for a moment and he said, "Okay, so maybe
NOW you'd rather be back at work and dealing with a two hour
commute." It prompted a good chuckle from me before I
went back below to take another bearing on our headway.
Using our back-up instruments and our charts,
I found we were only one third of the way to our next landfall.
I took to my perch and assessed the scene outside. To starboard,
the skies had cleared enough to show the sterling sliver moon
and splatter of stars. Big puffy clouds framed the portrait
of the cosmos. The winds were still gusting
just enough to push Force Five onto her side and cause me
to catch my breath. To port, the windwardside where I sat,
the sky and seas were both as black as the bottom of a well.
I couldn't make out the size of the swell until we already
felt it lifting the bow of our six ton yacht, and then dumping
us off the other side. It was the strangest and most exhilarating
thing to find myself so overcome with the beauty of the scene.
The stormy seas they try to replicate in the movies always
seem so painfully contrived
the way the skies appear
to be painted on a canvas screen: the drama of the ship's
lights swinging in the wind, the silver light dancing on the
ocean waves like an old black and white movie- but it really
looks like that. And in the midst of all this I was spellbound
by it's beauty. The clearing in the clouds gave us a glimpse
of thousands of stars- so bright- and the moonlight danced
all the way across the sea, finding its way all the way here
to our brave little boat. Everything beyond Force Five's rail
was completely colorless, and the stark absence was captivating.
I got back to my business of a riveted assessment of each
oncoming swell, and when it got too scary I would go below
to take our bearings and be sure we weren't headed for the
With the slight clearing, we were able to
see the first lights of Martinique in the far off distance.
Though I know I should somewhat fear land when we're in bad
weather (because it introduces an object you can actually
run into), I still sighed with relief. It cheered me a bit-
before I realized that the lights would occasionally fade
to black and disappear for a period before re-appearing. We
figured out it must be more dense clouds ahead, lying between
us and our destination, and so we weren't really too surprised
when we got hit by the second squall. We were surprised, however,
by how much more extreme it was.
When the first wind hit us, it hit us relentlessly
and without a build-up into its full force. The driving rain
was therefore the least of our worries. There wouldn't have
been time to try to put a third reef in the sail if we had
wanted to, and so we just had to cling on and see what would
happen. I only offered my help to Curt once this time before
preemptively going below. The reading trick wasn't going to
help this time. I sat at the navigation table under the red
glow of the night lights used for reading charts, and closed
my eyes. Though the boat was on autopilot and neither of us
had to steer- Curt still sat in the cockpit. I peeked up out
of the companionway to see him donned in his ball-cap, raincoat
and pants, a harness around his chest with a nylon line clipped
into a wire that ran along the cockpit. His arms were folded
across his chest as he hunched over from the rain being blown
into the cockpit by the fierce wind.
I sat back down at the chart table. Water
had run in down below and our wooden floors were slick and
wet. I was still in my foul weather gear and harness as well,
but my bare feet were pruney and cold. All I could think about
was why the hell were we here? It isn't worth it. I WOULD
rather be stuck in traffic in Oakland. I WOULD rather go to
work everyday. What I wouldn't give for a Starbucks, non-fat
extra chai, chai latte on the sidewalk of Chestnut Street
right now. Okay- enough. I wasn't going to get one. Don't
think about it. And then the wind would gust, Force Five would
be shoved over, and over, and over onto her side, and I could
see waves crashing past the window above my head. I covered
my eyes again and thought about what was the worst that could
happen? We weren't going to die, we weren't going to die.
It might FEEL like we're going to die, but we're not going
to die. "Okay, okay- FOCUS on the chai-latte! Remember
what it tasted like. Hmm. Remember that nice girl that always
had it ready for you when you got in line every morning? Yes,
yes- think about the chai!"
Once again, it was over at some point. It
felt like it had been forever, but really might not have been
long at all. It seemed like we would never get to Martinique-
ever. Obviously, Curt wasn't going to leave the cockpit, so-
exhausted, I went below to try sleep for an hour or two. When
I woke, it appeared that our wind had departed along with
the line of squalls. Lying below, all I heard in the calm
was the hollow sound of waves lapping against our hull. Force
Five was still sliding and bobbing along as I went topsides
to find poor Curt on watch in the cockpit. He still had on
his rain coat and harness. He was soaked though and through,
and rain was still dripping from the brim of his ball cap.
With the clouds gone, we saw a handful of boats in the distance.
By noting whether we saw red or green running lights to indicate
either the right or left side of the boat, we could deduce
if we needed to adjust our course to avoid crossing paths.
While the squalls may not have been fun,
they had brought us strong winds and therefore we made far
better time to Martinique then we could have guessed. We arrived
at 4am, but it was still too dark to anchor. We puttered until
dawn, when were finally able to drop our hook in Schoelcher.
It was an open and straightforward bay, and had we known,
we probably could have anchored just fine in the dark. But
by then, the damage was done. Curt was a walking zombie from
being up all night, and I was a just in a nightmare of a terrible
mood wondering what in the hell was I doing here anyway? He
went below and deservedly passed out from exhaustion while
I banged around the boat putting things away and settling
into our new spot.
On deck, I put the sail cover on as
the sun rose over still and glassy waters. I folded the main
sail away, being sure it was flaked properly, and neatly coiled
the lines. Alone outside, I paused to watch the sun come up
and felt a surge of emotion towards Force Five. Was it love?
Gratitude? Some sort of maternal instinct type of pride? I
thought back to the night before and how our beautiful and
strong friend carried us to where we now so peacefully rested.
It started to make sense to me in a deeper way now why boats
are traditionally identified as women. In their sure and steadfast
strength, they do what needs to be done, regardless of what's
going on around them. And I've never felt this type of emotion
for a house or an apartment? Perhaps it's the traveling together
with our boat to all these destinations, that gives us an
illusion of her sentience. It sounds crazy to describe such
feelings for inanimate object, but nonetheless, Curt and I
both agree we do love our Force Five.