There is a cushion on the breakfast porch of my grandma's house in Cape Cod that describes sailing as something like moments of pure bliss interrupted by moments of sheer panic and depicts a tiny embroidered sailor being alarmed by an equally distressed whale. Having already shared this one experience with the stitched seafarer, the beginning of the long passage has brought on many other high-intensity moments already, and has more in store, I am sure. Most recently such incidences have revolved around the spinnaker, which we have now been sailing under for over 48 hours.
Though, thankfully, I was spared sheer panic, hand steering last night took intense focus. Kathy was net controller for the Pacific Puddle Jump net, so we had to turn everything off, including the auto pilot and steer by hand to minimize interference with the Single Side Band radio. Being my watch, this responsibility fell on me. I hadn't hand steered in a while and not at all with a spinnaker up, so my hands gripped the wheel nervously as Dave said, "your helm," and my eyes began the constant rotation between the digital instruments and compass in front of me, the wind reader and sail luff above, and the the horizon ahead. The large swell coming from behind the beam on starboard turned the boat into something of a gyroscope, and the forestay swung wildly back and forth across the spotty clouds ahead from which I was supposed to be getting some visual reference for steering.
At first these repeated fluctuations in our course were frustrating to say the least and brought on small panic attacks each time the boat moved swiftly to starboard. Swings in this direction were highly stressful because it could bring the wind too far forward causing the chute to collapse. Though this was correctable by immediately cranking the wheel hard to port and back to starboard as the sail filled, my mind was plagued with the possibility that Dave had recently described of the 1200 square foot sail wrapping itself around the furled jib, which could only be undone by jibing the boat, and most likely sacrificing the sail.
So there I stood, braced against seas, whipping the wheel back and forth on almost every wave in a vain attempt to keep us pointed straight. Despite my efforts, the boat continued rock to and fro, and I was often reminded of my incompetence by the noises that barraged the boat. At unhappy angles, the sail would fall slack and then noisily refill, separately or simultaneously as a wave would rumble between the hulls, vibrating the bridge deck below my feet. It as if the elements I was trying to control were throwing a childlike tantrum in protest of this so far meek authority.
I often wished to aim my complaints into the pilothouse, "Dave, these waves are totally messing with my course!" but I knew that the conditions were unavoidable and he would offer me little in the way of sympathy. He later proved his own prowess at the helm by steering, eating dinner, and defending our masthead wind readers from boobies all at the same time. But I found that as I got a better feel for the wind and waves the task became easier and less stressful, and I was able to move the wheel less and less.
For the next couple of hours, as Kathy made contact with over two dozen other sailboats on the SSB, all headed south and west like us, Dave and I steered the boat. The wind shifted slightly and we followed it as the light faded and the stars came out, adjusting our visual reference from the clouds to the constellation of Orion. Learning experience that it was, I was very grateful for modern technology when the net was over and the helm was once again in the hands of our trusty fifth crew member.
The real panic came at 7:30 this morning, on my watch, while everyone else was asleep. I was in the middle of commenting in my journal of the peacefulness of the early morning watch, when the sail started to collapse, this time on the port side. I rushed inside to fix it, thinking to myself, "the sail is collapsing on the opposite side from before, so I must correct by turning the opposite way," but somehow this train of thought didn't span the distance from my brain to my hand before I was vigorously cranking the wheel hard to port – totally the wrong way.
Not realizing until later the error in my ways, I was baffled as to why my go-to method was failing to refill the sail, which was swinging around in front of us, flogging loudly and slapping its sheets angrily on the deck. I tried a few moments more to reset the sail, as the fear of it exploding on my watch built rapidly in my gut. Totally giving up, I yelled shakily for Dave who soon came rushing up, earplugs still in, and quickly fixed my mistake while letting me know that this was not something he should have to do. He was right, of course, and embarrassed and shaken, I held frozen hamburger meat to a rapidly swelling "boat bite" on his shin, as the adrenaline worked out of our blood and we discussed what had gone wrong.
Fortunately, these moments of panic are usually only moments, leaving the majority of the day and night blissful. When I'm not cooking or doing some of the daily chores around the boat I spend most of my time reading a variety of books. Sometimes, while observing the endless scene of sea and sky around us, broken occasionally by a bird or flying fish, I simply let my mind wander to distant places in space and time. Lost as I may become in these thoughts of far away friends or daydreams about the tropics ahead, I am roused not by panic, but by disgust at finding myself absentmindedly picking at a dried squid stuck to our deck. So I guess there are at least three kinds of moments on boats.
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