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Monday, June 17th, 2002
The Really Scary Stuff Finally Hits: t
he Saints to Martinique

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 as planned.

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… with warm 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 other side.

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 to?

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… occasionally 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 rocks.

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.

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