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December 9, 2002
Five Days at Sea and Sint Maarten Homecoming

Tomorrow morning we leave for Saint Martin. We keep saying to ourselves that we shouldn't sail to other people's schedules, but yet we always find ourselves doing whatever it takes to see our friends and family come down for a visit. We're always happy to see them. Wait. That's not true. Elated. Elated to see them. Nate and Sandy are due in on the 20th of December, and doy oy- wouldn't miss it for the world. We've got to get to Saint Martin.

We agreed to sail when the sun got up- around 06:00. But yet, we were wide awake at 04:00. We debated just getting up and upping anchor, but in the end, we decided we needed our sleep and tried to get some more rest. As I lay there trying not to toss and turn keep Curt awake, knowing all along I should sleep (but unable) I kept hearing boats that sounded huge coming in and out of the anchorage. Their wakes would toss Force Five, but when I stuck my head out of the hatch in the v-berth, all I could make out were some obscure lights: not the body of a boat. Later, when I relayed this to Curt, he told me that one of the Tweedles mentioned that an oil tanker had been participating in the national strike and was holding their cargo offshore. Chavez had announced that if they didn't make a move, he would deploy the Guardia National to get their derrieres in gear. The Guardia National we knew, had been stationed around the corner with us at Margarita Marina. The fuel docks were here in the anchorage at Porlamar. I could only guess that they were fueling up to go have a "conversation" with the tankers. And I hoped the tankers were not in our path towards Los Testigos.

Once underway, the morning was sunny and bright. The winds were from the east, just barely off our nose. We knew right away we wouldn't be able to sail- we would have to use our motor to make it to Los Testigos. A cluster of offshore islands just north of due east, they would make an ideal overnight stop before we began our homage straight north. We needed to be as far east as possible to fight our way against the west moving winds and currents. Our new cruising friends on Il Sogno, Ulricka and Mike, were headed more or less the same way. They were trying to get to Guadeloupe- further east even then Saint Martin, and even straighter into the easterly trade winds. But they have a brand new, beautiful and big 50 footish sloop: electric winches and the like and better equipped for the trek. Regardless, Curt and I were both happy to know we wouldn't be the only ones battling the winds and tides to make our way north. We communicated with them every few hours as we moved north east.

With their much longer water line, and considerably larger engine, Il Sogno was going to be able to make Los Testigos at least three hours before we would. During one of our occasional check-ins with them over the VHF, another boat, Passagio, broke in to share that they too were in fact heading towards Los Testigos and then hoping to hit Martinique (even further south and east than either Saint Martin and Guadeloupe- and therefore, a shorter, but much rougher sail). They were behind us both and inquired of the sea and wind conditions we were experiencing ahead. I shared what we knew, and from then on, checked in with them as well intermittently as we all beat our way into the wind.

Both Il Sogno and Passagio made Los Testigos at least two hours before we did. Force Five is significantly smaller (by twenty feet or so), and, being a race boat, has a much smaller engine. We did what we could, but it was inevitable. It would be well after dark when we arrived. I radioed ahead and asked them to leave their deck and anchor lights on when we arrivee to help light a path to the anchorage. Both were so kind, especially Passagio. The Captain, Randy, continually checked our progress as we made our way towards them and I'm almost sure delayed his bedtime after a long day to assure our safe harbor. In his genteel southern drawl, he declared he'd "leave the porch light on" 'til we got home. Both Curt and I couldn't help but be warmed by the idea that in this big wide sea we'd ventured out into, this couple we didn't know at all was keeping an eye on us. While we may be learning that cruisers are by nature the most tight knit and generous group of people we've ever encountered, I never want to give up my sense of wonderment at their generosity and kindness for people they've never met before.

True to their word, when we arrived at after 9:00pm, Il Sogno and Passagio turned their deck lights on. We opted to anchor very far out since we couldn't see much, but being able to see their boats helped a ton. We at least knew that if we stayed behind them, we wouldn't go aground. After our hook was dug in, I was on the radio immediately to say thank you, thank you, and sleep well. They reciprocated the endearment.

The morning hurt. It felt as though we hadn't slept at all, and yet we couldn't sleep no matter hard we'd tried. There was nothing to do but get on with our day. We listened to the weather to hear that the winds were still strong and the seas were still big. 25 knots from the east/north of east, and seas of 7-8 feet. Not monstrous, but not a walk in the park either. Especially when you're looking at doing this for five days straight. Luckily, weatherman David Jones said he expected it to lighten up over the next few days. From his broadcast, we learned another boat, Tropical Dance, would be heading north as well today- leaving Los Testigos. Of course, we deliberated with Passagio and Il Sogno, sharing that we were going to head out. We by now had made VHF contact with Tropical Dance (the first out that morning) to learn that while the conditions out there were not ideal, they were livable. Curt and I knew we should go while we had the wind, and so we upped anchor.

The first few hours out we were lively, but the sun was out to take away from some of the ominous atmosphere. Almost from the start, a huge school of dolphins joined us (perhaps fifteen of them or so). They did their dance in front of our bow, and I was immediately a five year old kid again, dangling my feet over the side hoping they'd try to play with my toes, but no luck of course. As Curt and I laughed at them, one little show-off launched himself off the top of a wave, wiggling through the sky in mid-air, before crashing back into the sea. But then back UP with the next swell, and CRASH back down into the ocean. Over and over, for maybe seven or eight waves. It was amazing! He was giving us our own little show. As long as I clapped and whistled, he kept leaping through the air. We must not have been entertaining enough for them however, as they disappeared after fifteen minutes. We like to think they bestowed their good luck on us, and then went on to make more magic elsewhere.

Our first day passed, uneventful, but keeping us busy. We were beating into a east to northeast wind, and the going was rough. Fortunately, the fast winds made for fast sailing and we were making great time. By nightfall, Curt and I had settled on a watch schedule. He'd start with six to nine, and then I'd take nine to midnight, he'd be on from midnight to three, and so on. We were miles and miles from being within VHF contact of anyone, so by now, we were checking in with Passagio, Il Sogno, and Tropical Dance on our SSB (our long distance radio) at regular intervals: 7:45am on #8104, 4 and 8pm on #7186. We also had arranged to talk with Viva at 8am on #8104. Always, we gave our coordinates to them in case something happened, and we also took down theirs. Being the lead boat, we gave them the conditions we experiencing up ahead.

I suppose Curt's dubbed me with the name of "Nav" on this trip (short for Navigator). I've found I have a compulsive habit of taking our coordinates down on the chart almost hourly and checking in with other boats on the radio whenever possible. But, you have to understand. Imagine you're out in the middle of the ocean. It seems it's been forever since you've seen land, another boat- or even a bird. You consult the GPS for your latitude and longitude, and when you hatch the marks on the chart, the "X" appears so far out in the blue away from any island, you find yourself taking a big gulp. It would be at least (at least) a day for another boat to find us if something happened. If you think about it too much, it could cause you to panic. What if we were lost at sea after our 8pm check-in with our buddy boats? We'd be adrift for 12 hours before anyone would notice.

And as luck would have it, the SSB net instituted a boat watch while we were at sea. A boat was missing off the coast of Saint Lucia. The Terry B was dismasted at 3am and then their engine overheated as they tried to motor to safety. The crew opted to hop in the dinghy and abandon ship. They were picked up by a freighter later that night. Now- I don't know much, but I know not to leave your yacht unless it's about to choke it's last bubble of air before sinking below the surface. Your chances of survival are far greater if you stay with the boat. I remain curious why they opted to cast her off into the sea alone. But the reality of "what could be" was sobering while we were out there. When the sun sunk below the horizon each night, I found myself infinitely grateful to hear the voice of another person over the radio calling our name out, Force Five, Force Five. Someone was aware we were battling it out out here and wanted to be sure we were okay. I will never forget Il Sogno and Passagio for doing nothing more than calling our name. Thank you.

I can never sleep when we're underway, and that first night was no different. As we pushed onward as straight into the winds and seas as possible, Force Five sounded like she was about to break up under the crashing waves. They would smack her on the nose with such force, I couldn't stop wondering how she could take the brutal battering. Below, you couldn't move an inch without grasping a handrail or a table for dear life. A wave would smack us from starboard and she'd be launched to port, and then another would slap her from her belly and launch us straight up into the air like a rock skipping on a river. The sound was unnerving- like listening to bones breaking, but then again, not. But you're left wondering which one will the one that finally cracks the boat. She handled it well though, and when my turn to keep watch came, I was confident. I have no idea why, but I was. Curt apprised me of what his watch had been like and where he'd left the flashlight and GPS. I grabbed my Twix bars and sour gummy worm candy before wrapping my yellow slicker and pants on, and clipping the harness around my chest. He went to bed, and there I was: in the dark, headed towards open sea… my duty to keep us afloat and alive.

The moon had been growing for days now, and it wasn't quite full, but still bright. The nighttime world around me had that surreal quality like I was walking in a real life black and white movie. I sat in the cockpit, looking around for boats, looking at the wind direction, trying to dodge all the waves that kept crashing into the cockpit. I was soaked and getting bitter. I suppose the good news was I didn't have to struggle to stay awake that first watch. There wasn't time to get the nods because I was constantly getting slapped awake by a wave. And then, magically, a meteor shower caught my eye. I don't know if they count as shooting stars, but I tried to wish on as many as I could single out regardless. I figured it couldn't hurt to try, right?

Later, on Curt's watch, I was below, trying unsuccessfully (of course) to sleep and was going bonkers listening to our anchor banging out on the bow. We had lashed it down to keep it from tossing about, but from below, it sounded like it was just flying free, bashing away at the hull. I mentioned it to Curt, and he'd try to spot it from the cockpit with his flashlight. It seemed fine from his vantage point, but as the sun rose, we saw that it had actually torn loose and was rumbling about. The seas were still strong- Force Five was climbing and launching off each wave and the winds were howling- hurling us along, but all the more reason we needed to get the anchor stabilized. Someone had to go up to the front of the boat and lash it down again. We decided it should be Curt, and I would steer the boat.

This is our bad. Any sailors out there will be aghast to hear this, but we have never practiced "Heaving To," a method whereby you can stop the boat from moving forward. It is especially useful in rough weather when you need a break, or in a situation like this when you need the boat to slow down to fix something without taking your life into your own hands. The Captain (Curt) felt there wasn't time for us to dilly dally around and look in a book somewhere how to do this. My instructions were to turn the boat right and hold it there. No matter what. I got myself in a tizzy- I wanted just a minute to talk about this first. It seemed to me that the only time we break things or get into trouble is when we don't put together a real plan first. We don't have time, he said. Just do it. He clipped his harness onto the safety lines that run along the decks and went forward. Steer right, and hold it right. I did it.

Nothing about this felt right. Wouldn't we just keep doing circles? We did. The boat would climb a wave, stall as we faced dead into the wind and then whip around violently as we careened down the other side of the wave and caught the wind in our sails again. And then the boom would crash jibe across the boat, shaking Force Five to the core. Curt was hanging on at the bow trying to fix the anchor. I yelled forward, This doesn't feel right! Is this is what you want?! He ignored me completely. This can't be right. The boat is jibing! Curt- do you see this?! Ignored me still. Fine! I'm just holding it right. No response. I'm just holding it. In my head I was telling myself to trust him. He always gets frustrated that I don't trust him. This is what he said to do and I'll just shut up and do it. But still I was so mad I couldn't see straight. For not talking about it first. For not being heard when I disagreed with him. For being ignored. For seriously putting both the boat and us in an incredibly dangerous situation and not thinking this through first. Each turn, climbing the wave, stalling, careening down the other side, and then the subsequent crash jibe shuddering the whole boat made me clinch my jaw tighter. I gripped the helm harder and told myself over and over to shut up, shut up, shut up. He was completely ignoring me anyway.

When he crawled back from the bow it took everything I had to try to control myself. Was that what you wanted to happen? I just held it right like you asked, but that surely wasn't what you wanted to have happen?!

I guess our boat doesn't Heave To the way other boats do.

Have you ever Heaved To before? I didn't think you had?

A strained and tense "conversation" ensued wherein I think we were both trying not to explode at each other. I tried to say my peace- can we please just take a second to talk about things next time? The only time things go wrong is when we don't talk about things first. The anchor had been banging for hours up there, surely two minutes more wouldn't have put us in anymore danger than whatever that was we just did? He felt we didn't have time. It needed to be done right then. And I know the rules: you listen, and do unequivocally what the Captain says. Not very democratic, but it is supposed to be best in dangerous situations. I was considering just how to proceed with this conversation and was asking if he heard me yelling and just decided to ignore me when, he looked up and stated that the mainsail was ripped. I thought he was kidding and stared at him for a second before I realized he wasn't. I looked up at the sail. A tear ran just below the third reefing points from the luff about half way towards the mast. I thought to myself See!, but didn't say it. I didn't need to because I'm sure he knew I was thinking it anyway. And- we had more problems to deal with now. All that aside, by now I'm sure at this point he was thinking I was being a complete… (insert any and all appropriate expletives you think of here).

So the conversation came to an abrupt halt while we faced the next crisis. For a moment we just stared at the tear. I did the quick calculations about how far away from land we were. Already, it would be a day or two before we could make landfall. Not that this was necessary at this point. How can we make use of that sail now? I offered to climb up there and see if I could sew it. I was sure I'd seen sail repair instructions somewhere in one of our books. Curt reviewed what other sails we have below. In the end, we decided to try to take the sail down to the third reef and lash the torn bottom half to the boom to minimize further damage. Afterall, we were still in 25 knots of wind and eight foot seas. It wasn't like we were in light winds and trying to sail with so little sail. We got to work taking the sail size down and when we were done, we found we were still careening along at 6.5 to 7 knots. Maybe we should have had a smaller sail plan all along?

We were quiet for a long while. There was no reason to get into it anymore about the events of the morning. We returned to our watches and just kept going. What else was there to do anyway? We were still looking at at least three and half more days at sea. The boat was handling fine, the wind and seas continued to be strong, and even with the third reef we were making terrific time. Perhaps tearing the sail had prevented some other disaster we are lucky enough to have never seen. We always try to look at things that way. Maybe someone has been watching out for us in ways we never had to know about.

And so the time passed. One watch into another, and another. I would take our bearings whenever I had the time or inclination. The little "Xs" were so close together, it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. Like an addict, I tried to not go back to take another fix again, but I couldn't resist seeing how much headway we'd made. And, like an addict, I nearly always felt regretful afterwards when I found it looked like we'd hardly moved at all. If only I could wait for three hours at a time, then it would look like we'd really gone somewhere. And so then I'd figure out how many hours we'd been out, and the miles we'd gone, and try to get an average speed. And at our current average, how much longer until we get there? The calculations seemed to be a way to keep my mind busy in the boredom of waiting for the boat to get us where we were going.

And finally, Saint Martin was in our crosshairs on the horizon. We were trying to make the 17:30 bridge, but of course, now the winds had died and we seemed to be moving at a snail's pace. While we waited to get there, we had time for reflection. The sun was setting low in the sky, casting brilliant white light on everything and long shadows in the wake of the sun's rays. It was the time of day when over the past five days we had opened a bottle of wine before resuming our night watch schedules, and prepare for nightfall by donning our sailing harnesses and foul weather gear. Tonight however, Curt sat on the deck leaning forward with his elbows on his knees staring at the island in the distance. It was the perfect afternoon for us to return to what we think of as our Caribbean home. I joined him on the deck.

What're you thinking about? I asked. "I don't know. Everything. It feels like we're coming full circle" I conceded… "Kinda I guess." For me, it felt like I had just passed some sort of test. Five days at sea. I had kept my own watches fair and square. And for once I hadn't had to fake not being scared. I had felt okay, more or less, the whole time. I really hadn't given any of it much thought. There were points when it got a bit hairy, but I was never terrified. My heart hadn't ever jumped into my throat and pounded through my chest. Perhaps the scariest moment may have been that night I looked over our chart to mark our progress and realized it would likely be a day before anyone could get to us to help if we needed it. The little "X" marking our position was so far out in the middle of all that blue. But now, I looked up at the island ahead and realized I could come back with my head held high. Even with my insecurities and self consciousness, I think I can say I am a sailor now. I think, at least.

From the distance, the island looked so green, with gently sloping hills sprinkled with white houses and red tiled roofs. Who would still be on island? None of the friends we'd met cruising. These would be the "PC" friends: pre-cruising. They're all so important in our minds. They were the ones that helped us find our way to Force Five. The ones that we'd talk to on the dock, and ask about what it was really like out there. Those that would assure us we'd make mistakes, but be okay in the end. These friends that we hadn't known very well to begin with, and not very well when we left, hold such a disproportionately big place in the history of our mind's eye. To us, they are the benevolent mentors that sent us off into the Caribbean sunset with their words of wisdom and assurances of our steadfast boat. But would they remember us? Have they wondered what became of Force Five and her crew? After we'd gone, did they talk with each other on our dock and have a good hearted chuckle about the naïve little newbies and how they'd fare on the big blue sea? I wondered. But in any event, I was surprised at how my lips stretched in a grin across my face to see Saint Martin ahead. The sea was such a deep blue and the air filled my lungs so easily, I took long deep draws of it into my lungs. Home. We had passed the test.

Curt and I woke early Monday morning. Much earlier than either of us would have expected. We were refreshed. The day had that quality of Christmas morning when you just can't wait to hop out of bed and see what was in store. The morning net began at 07:30. We listened in, but leave it to Curt to have to go to the bathroom just before they called for new arrivals on the island. We never check-in to these things. From the bathroom Curt said We have to. As I spoke for Force Five, I was all too aware of who might be listening. I shared that we had just arrived from Margarita. Our sail was lively at first, but nice once the seas and winds died down a bit. Did it sound okay?, I asked Curt? He said it was great. I wondered if it would prompt any radio calls from our Saint Martin friends, but it didn't.

Hm, we thought. Well, on with our day. We had a long list of stuff to take care of to be ready for Nate's arrival. Like have our sail repaired and get a new toilet seat. The sail maker is right behind Island Water World (where we bought Force Five and lived on her at dock for a month before we left). No sooner than we pull up in our dinghy to see Matthew the engine mechanic. He remembered us and waved. We chatted for a moment until Ben, our x-dockmaster, came up to greet us with a congratulatory hug and welcome back… and invitation to stop by their boat for a beer. And then John, the store manager and our neighbor to the other side at dock, "Hey- we heard you were back in town! Did you survive?" And so our morning went on. We couldn't have asked for a warmer welcome. Even at Lady C that night for happy hour, two more characters spotted us from across the bar with big grins and hugs to say hello. They were pleased to see how far south, and west, we'd made it, and that we were still happily cruising. I admit I felt like I may have been beaming with pride. Did your dad ever put his arm around your shoulder and say, "I'm really proud of you son?" It felt that way to me. My cheeks were warm and flush as I tried to control the floods of stories I wanted to share and hear their take on. But it felt so good. We had done well. At the end of the road, we could look back and be proud of how far we'd come.

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