8
Cuba. The closest I have come to dying.

“You think we should turn back?” he asked.

I cocked my head to the side and met what I could see of his concerned eyes in the dark, over his hands, which were tightly gripping the steering wheel. His muscles were taut at the tops of his tanned arms. His body swayed harshly back and forth as the boat rocked wildly around him. His shirt, the light blue one that matches his eyes, with Neptune holding a triton on it, whipped against him in the wind. His hair and his eyes were both a little wild.

“No way,” I said. I gripped the rail harder as the boat pitched more aggressively. Then, remembering I am part of a team, I added quickly, “I mean, I don’t want to.” After all, as the embroidered pillow says (a quote my mom sent me shortly before we left); “Calm seas does not a good sailor make.”

I looked over at Bill, our almost always fearless third. From the look on his face I wasn’t sure which way he would go. He looked at the floor for a couple of seconds then looked up and said, “Nah, let’s go to Cuba.”

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While disembarking from Key West I was struck by the subdued nature of my teammates. There was none of the usual toasting, singing, dancing, or can-you-believing that there had been when we had come through the Gulf. Looking back, it seems perhaps instinctively we knew what was to come. Though we had no way of doing so as the sky was a deep, disarming blue followed quickly by a brilliant nautical sunset, the pinks and greens and oranges of which were fit for any picture frame.

The weather forecast looked reasonable.Adam

At least part of the reason for the damper in mood was the exhaustion of my boys. Bill, our favorite pirate, had been up for twenty-six hours by the time he had flown in that morning, at which point we made him, with Adam, scrape the ecosystem off the bottom of the Talisman. It is a thankless, arduous job that I very well should be doing when I’m home alone, but I’m afraid of Barry, the abnormally interested barracuda that lives under our boat.

Adam had gotten home only a couple days before we left and had done constant boat projects, to get us ready, until departure time. Hindsight tells us that perhaps it wasn’t smart to leave for a twenty hour trip through the Gulf Stream, at night, with winds out of Northeast, with the most competent two-thirds of our crew completely and utterly bushed.

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Quickly after sunset we appealed to Bill, who was already blinking slowly, to go inside and try and get some rest. We had our sails full out and were making satisfactory time. The boat rocked, not uncomfortably, back and forth. All went insipidly well for about twenty-five of ninety miles.

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Then we hit the Gulf Stream.

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And nothing would be ok for a very long time.

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It felt like hitting a wall. The wind abruptly smacked into us and the boat immediately began to rock badly side to side. Bill immerged from below, both hands firmly griping each side of the companionway. He asked all the appropriate questions with his eyes. It was dark out. very dark. We couldn’t see the waves. Only a few stars poked out of the clouds. We sat together, the three of us, an ominous feeling creeping over everything like a think, wet blanket. Someone, it evades me now whom, said softly, “… so it begins.”

This is when Adam, ever the democratic, safety conscious pilot, asked the team if we wanted to turn back. At which point I did allow myself a moment to think; if the one actual sailor among us is hesitating to go on, oughtn’t we visit with that idea for a while? We simply didn’t. Time moved forward. We wanted to go to Cuba and there was other stuff to focus on. Important stuff.

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Had I known then, what I know now, I would never have had the guts to keep going.

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We should not have. We absolutely unequivocally should have turned back.

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So we fought our little boat. The waves and wind steadily got worse. All night the waves came from port, from starboard, and from aft. It was the most confused seas I have ever seen. The Fibonacci sequence kicked our asses for more then fifteen hours. We could not let our guard down, not for a second, but then with every seventh wave the danger grew remarkably and exponentially worse when a wave or two would be so enormous it would throw the boat over till the toe rail was in the water, then yank it up again and slam it down on the other side. Leaving whomever was at the wheel fighting to keep control with everything they had. Everything inside that I had so painstakingly stowed would come crashing through the restraints until the cabin was impassable.

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Later we would meet a family who made the same crossing a day or two ahead of us, only in a boat a stabilizing twelve feet longer.

“You guys came from Key West too?” The captain asked.

“We did. Yesterday.”

He whistled through his teeth as his wife started saying they weren’t waiting to leave until the last minute. “Fuck that,” she said, shaking her short blond bob vigorously back and forth as her big heavy glasses tried to stay on her face. She clutched a silver thermos, with a sailboat on it, against her small frame like it was a life raft and stared at the ground. No, Sir. They would be leaving the second the weather looked good instead of hoping the weather was good when they had to get back. Her big shiny eyes, more than anything, showed us how fearful she had been.

“How bigs yer boat?” The captain asked as he put his arm protectively around his wife.

“Thirty four feet,” all three of us replied in unison.

His eyes grew satisfyingly wide. “Jesus,” he said under his breath as he rubbed his free hand over his face. I watched out of the corner of my eye as each of my men raised their chins slightly higher.

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I know at least a few of you are currently worrying about Boatcat so let me assuage those fears before things get worse. At this point I drugged him and threw him in a cupboard. Yep. I did that. And am extremely thankful I did. The thought of adding an aggressive, pissed off, seasick cat, who internalizes stress (Dr. B’s words, not mine) to what happens next, makes me cringe. He was fine. And safe.

Well, as safe as any of us were.

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Bill was below, and eventually I told Adam he needed to at least try to sleep as well. After crossing the Gulf in the mess that we did, I vastly overestimated my sailing abilities. So did he. He gladly gave up the wheel and went downstairs to be tossed around and attempt a moment or two of rest here and there.

So I drove for a couple of hours… alone. The wind was atrocious. Gusting hard and changing all the time. We had about fifteen degrees of the compass in which the ride was sustainable. The one thing that happened in our favor that whole night was that the way we could go just so happened to be the way we had to go. But deviating from the course we were on, even a little, proved disastrous. The waves and the wind could easily have swallowed our little boat right up, as they do in these waters, to little boats, from time to time. Luckily I still had a few stars to aim at, but my attention could not abate for even a second.

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And then it did.

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For one second.

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The winds were coming from the Northeast. Hitting us off our port, stern quarter. We were on a broad reach but close enough to downwind to warrant a precautionary preventer, a line tied from the boom to the side of the boat to prevent a full, accidental jibe, in which the wind or water pushes the stern through the wind and the boom swings dangerously and powerfully across the boat. Many things can occur at that point, the boom can break off completely, leading to damage of the boat, someone could easily be killed (or thrown into the sea and lost) if they happened to have their head up at the wrong moment, and myriad other scenarios I’d like to avoid thinking about just now.

For me, it went like this; for hours I fought the wheel, the muscles in my back painfully knotting up, my feet pressing hard against the seats on either side of the wheel lest I be tossed to one side or the other of the cockpit or out into the sea. It was so black out there that there was no distinction between water or sky and I couldn’t see the waves coming. When the bigger ones would hit, the wheel would turn unexpectedly and harshly, with the impact of the wave, and my body would involuntarily twist in half, one arm ending up at the top and one arm at the bottom of the wheel. As we slid down the wave my stomach would drop like I was on a ride at some really shitty carnival. At that point I’d have to wrestle it all back under control as more things crashed downstairs. I could tell I was letting out small animal noises but I didn’t care. No one could hear me in this pandemonium. Every second the boat pitched dreadfully from side to side.

Then, out of nowhere, the boom swung across the deck, so fast I never saw it move at all, and slammed, like a gun shot, against the preventer, stopping it halfway across the length of the boat. It sat quivering for one second and then, terrifyingly, the sail, with it’s new sail plan, filled with wind. My heart beat painfully and distractingly in my throat. Before I could blink, the boat rounded up hard into the wind (the equivalent of skidding out, in a car). I watched helplessly, hanging on for dear life to the momentarily useless wheel, as the top of the mast dipped down to almost touch the water. Everything left on the shelves and couches, including the boys, crashed into the far wall of the boat. Both feet against the side of the starboard seat, I was standing vertically. I tried turning the wheel but it only increased the pitch. I heard someone screaming.

I didn’t realize until later that it was me.

The next thing I knew, Adam was at my side yanking the wheel out of my hands. Because, as I have said before, all my stories are, in their essence, as follows;

I got into trouble.

Adam fixed it.

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I looked across the cockpit, from one weary man to the next and back again. “I want to go to Cuba,” I said. “But you are the captain. If you don’t think we can handle it, let’s go back.” We knew that this had become a now or never situation. Each of us, at that moment, knew that if we went back now, we would not make this crossing again. It was a lot of responsibility to put on one man. I watched my beautiful, exhausted husband raise his chin, look out over the wheel into the darkness, his hair vibrating in the wind, and, knowing he would be carrying the weight of this expedition, steel himself, come what may.

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So again we decided to press on and right at that moment a rogue wave tossed itself up and over the hull, landing its full weight directly in my lap. Also hitting at least one side of each boy. I felt my jaw drop open and my arms raise up and out to the sides, my hands hung down limp as I made the universal sign for dear-God-I’m-suddenly-and-shockingly-wet. Despite ourselves, the sea, and the situation, as soon as we looked at each other all three of us burst into laughter.

And for a brief moment,

It was not so bad at all.

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Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand -Mark Twain

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We did not talk much after that. I sat across the cockpit from Adam, able only to offer my presence and a few terrified words or grunts of support now and then. The muscles in my right arm screamed from holding my full weight to one side of the cockpit. We grew more afraid every hour. After my jibe disaster we had, horrifyingly, as someone had to go up front, taken the sails down and started the motor. We would not have the nerve to put them back up. We got out our PFD’s (small inflating life jackets that allow you to move freely while sailing) only to realize they don’t come with CO2 cartridges installed.

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“Can you please drive for a little while?” he asked the silence hours later. “I’m sorry.”

“God Adam, don’t apologize. I’M sorry,” I said. “I’m SO sorry!” He had begun to slur his words not long before that and his movements had became slower, his reaction time malfunctioning slightly. Then he started with the math. He always turns to math when he’s out of steam. He was showing serious signs of fatigue. He wasn’t going to be able to carry us much longer and though I had been begging myself silently, for over an hour, to take over for him, to give this man I loved more than myself, some sort of break, if only for a little while, the idea of taking the wheel immobilized me over and over and over.

His asking me, however, broke the spell. “Of course I will,” I said and, without hesitation, twisted my body around the wheel to take over. He immediately went to the side and threw up.

A lump formed in my throat and my eyes began to water. How long had he been driving seasick so that I didn’t have to face my fears.

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Bill came up after a while and took over. I told Adam to get downstairs and rest. Being upstairs wasn’t going to help him, there was no horizon for him to focus on. Only the ruthless blackness of the sea.

At this point it wasn’t safe for anyone to be in the cockpit alone so I laid down on the seat across from Bill, and tried impossibly to turn off while also holding myself on the seat. He fought the waves like the excellent pirate he has always been. I am awed by this man, who has rarely sailed through anything but barely tolerable weather. He always wants to come back for the tough stuff. And he will persevere, without fuss or asking for anything.

It went like this for a few hours. Bill at the wheel, me sleeping but not sleeping and Adam downstairs in all our stuff.

Every seventh wave I heard Bill make the same inescapable mewling sounds that I had been making while he twisted himself  in half and fought the waves like a champion. He never complained, he never asked me a question, he never asked for help, he did what he had to. He drove.

Through a nightmare.

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After a long while he asked if I would drive again, or I offered (unlikely). When I got behind the wheel I saw that the pale haze of Havana, on the horizon, that I had been following when I was driving (even though we were still probably only halfway there), was gone completely. Swallowed up by an incoming storm. And that he had been following “kind of to the right” of a light so dim you couldn’t look directly at it. This was the only thing that existed past the safety rails of the Talisman.

“What the hell Bill,” I whimpered. “This is how you’ve been driving??”

Furthering my admiration of him as a person, he shrugged.

Yes we have charts, but charts have their downfalls. The electronic chart app (Navionics) that we, and every sailor I know, uses, has a lag time. So the line you follow jumps around a lot. You watch it for a while, take an average, look at the compass and keep on that heading by finding a cloud, star or ship in the distance and aiming at it. That’s all fine and good when the weather is agreeable. But when you can’t take the waves broadside, it’s a huge flaming problem. It is extremely hard to drive looking at the charts alone. Especially at night. The boys don’t do it either.

Immediately, I made another discovery, we were running at 2000 rpm, and not the 2500 rpm that we were allowed by our captain (we would find out later that there was not quite enough tension on the throttle lever which vibrations over time walked back to 2000 rpm.). My first thought upon seeing this was, we could have gotten out of this sooner…

I was so tired. And I had had cortisol running through my frazzled system for so long.

I reacted to this discovery poorly.

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In order to see the engine panel, I needed to turn on the flashlight. It took me ten seconds or less to get the RPMs where I wanted them but by that time the damage was done. The light had left a stain on my retinas and I could no longer find the tiny light I was supposed to use to navigate. Before I had time for another thought I felt the boats pitching change. Warm red light flooded the dark sides of my vision as panic crept in. If I could not get us back on course immediately, I could absolutely sink this ship, but I couldn’t find the light. My fingers tightened around the wheel. My breathing sped up. I squinted and searched what I assumed was the horizon, hysterically. I could not find it.

“ADAM!”

I tried to feel the wind, to get it behind me again, but the adrenaline pushing through my body negated my nervous system completely. I didn’t even ask Bill, who was standing across the cockpit from me, for help as he incredulously watched this all unfold.

“ADAM!!”

The boat pitched again harder. Both myself and Bill, holding on to the biminy, were flung across the cockpit. I fought my way back to the wheel and turned on Navionics, further blinding myself, and watched as the line jumped worthlessly back and forth across the screen.

“ADAM!!!!!!!!”

“I’M COMING!”

I could hear him fighting through the stuff in the cabin to get to me.

The boat pitched again. The only thought in my crippled brain was, where is the seventh wave? Everything that was tied down on deck fell over, all five diesel cans, still tied together and to the handrail were now upturned and banging against the deck. One began to leak, which we wouldn’t discover until morning.

Then he was there, taking the wheel.

Again.

I fell, or was thrown, onto the seat behind me. He looked at the screen, turned it off and looked out into the void, one hand on the top of the wheel. I could tell the moment he began to feel the wind. Some sort of subtle zen-like shift in his face that I didn’t realize I knew so well. He turned the wheel and within seconds we were back to the endurable ride we had become accustomed to before I had brought us to the brink of disaster.

Again.

I am not proud of this thing. I am a strong woman, and I want to be a good sailor. I do not like to rely on anyone else. For anything. But I have learned that I am a person who is immobilized by panic. When I think of Bills perfect record that night, his unfailing calm and competence, especially having sailed a fraction of what I have, I am proud of him, and I am embarrassed. I feel it needs to be acknowledged, here, by me. I was by far the weakest link in the chain of this torment. I have a lot to learn. But learn I did. And will. I now know what my little boat is capable of. I know what my crew is capable of. They are inspiring. And they are my teachers.

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Both boys were rightfully hesitant to let me drive after that. Adam lied that he had had a good rest and could take over and Bill went downstairs. I sat with him. Feeling stupid and helpless and, though he did seem a little better after he slept, feeling great compunction that he had to drive once again though he was exhausted and sick.

I simply sat with him, kept him talking, kept him awake and reassured him best I could. At some point there were lights in the distance on both sides of us. That there was something beyond the blackness was more comforting then I could have imagined it would be. Except that now I could see the waves as they blinked the ships out again and again and seeing how big they were before they hit us made it all the more scary. As the ships came closer we saw one was a cargo ship and one a cruise ship. The cruise ship was heading to Havana and therefore parallel to us. Which would help in navigating at least for a bit. But the cargo ship was coming right for us. Eventually it became clear that we, or more to my liking, they, must alter course. We turned on our spreader lights. They draped the whole ship in a blue that I normally find lovely, but at that moment just looked cold and scary. Adam hailed them on the radio.

“Sailboat Talisman, Sailboat Talisman, Sailboat Talisman to eastbound ship.”

The handheld sizzled as the line opened up, and then,

“…gibberish…”

He was extremely difficult to understand and seemed confused as to whom he wanted to alter course or which way they should go. Meanwhile his lights grew farther and father apart. He was a big boy. “Port to port” were the only words, in the whole conversation, that I actually understood, when he responded at all. There was no explaining, to this person, that we couldn’t alter our course because the waves were too big for our little ship to take broadside. All in all he seemed content with our being run over by him and oblivious to the fact that the direction he wanted us to go would put us in a far more dangerous situation.

The bolt, in the steel pipe, on the biminy top, which I had been tightly clinging to for the last couple of hours, cut painfully into my hand as we turned port to port with the large vessel and the Talisman began to rock wildly again. The pain helped, grounding me somehow. Progress was achingly slow. We certainly rode out a couple seventh waves that way but my trust in my captain had become immutable.

Bill came up to see why we were rocking so bad again. The captain of the other ship couldn’t have known how bad it was for us to deviate from the coarse we were on and I couldn’t help but wonder what our little boat, lit up like a policeman’s home at Christmastime, had looked like being thrown down again and again, from his position so high up.

When we were finally passed them, we returned to our course and watched silently as the shapeless lights receded into the distance. Bill went back downstairs.

In the spreader lights, I could see what had become of the diesel cans and I went up front to try and right them and the other things that had fallen over. Adam was too tired to argue with me about my going out there. When I got to the cans I could see it would be impossible to do anything about them and it was extraordinarily dangerous to keep trying so I left them. Everything was still tied to the boat anyway. The sail had never been stowed properly after we took it down and flopped wildly, across the deck, in the wind (Later I would have to mend it as it had been torn at some point during the night). I took that time to tie the sail down.

“Baby just leave that stuff,” he yelled into the wind at me. I could hear the fear in his voice. But at least this I could do.

“Just be a sec.” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. I held on for dear life with my legs wrapped around the strong wires that run from the top of the mast to the deck. With a free arm I wrestled the sail back into some sort of recognizable shape and lashed it down. I was thrown into the boom again and again and my ribs would be tender for weeks. I was not tied to the boat… I have no idea why. None of us were thinking clearly.

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Adam chanced taking a hand off the wheel to squeeze my leg. “I can see why people quit sailing after one bad trip,” he said.

Side by side we stared into the abyss, our eyes heavy and our minds vastly overburdened.

“If we were to put packs on our backs,” he said, the sadness in his voice, and the slump of his shoulders, betraying him, “where would we go?”

I turned, slowly, to face him in the dark, which my eyes were long accustomed to. Being the ever safety conscious pilot was one thing, but he was talking about giving up.

I looked back at the receding ship as it began to rain.

Putting packs on our backs and walking or biking around the world is my dream. But that is a dream for later. The curves of the continents were his. The coasts and the beaches and most of all the open oceans were his. And I knew I would never let him give them up.

“Everywhere,” I said. “But let’s see how this goes Love.”  I squeezed his strong, rough, gentle hand and looked into his enervated eyes. The only thing in the world I wanted to do at that moment was stop sailing forever.

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At some point, after he started becoming delirious, I did drive again. I had to. They needed me. Adam curled into a ball, fully covered by a blanket, on the seat next to me. I drove without further incident for a few hours. My muscles ached, I was tired in a way that I hadn’t been for a very long time. And in my unattended state, my mind turned dark. And then, as happens if you allow the dark, it turned very, very light.

I started thinking about something, I can’t remember what, an old boyfriend or how a sewing machine works or something equally innocuous. I then thought to myself, is this really what you want to be thinking about when you die? I began to think about my mom. About how sad she would be if I simply never returned home again. How painful that would be. That close of a loss, partnered with the unknowing that comes with death at sea. And for the first time in my life I thought about stopping. Really stopping.

Because I was afraid. More afraid then I can ever remember being.

And then the undeniable realization of how heartbroken I would be if I never felt this way again clobbered me. I clamped a hand over the back of my neck and pulled down. I lifted my chin to engage the muscles that supported my battle-blown head. Suddenly, I knew for certain, in that moment, that I would not stop sailing around the world. And that I would not do it for him but because even though I hated this, intensely hated it, I also, in some unalterable way, wholeheartedly, loved it.

I felt alive. I felt real. Life, I understood, suddenly in a very tangible, corporeal way, was not meant to be watched from the sidelines. Life was out there, with me. Right then. Life is the pounding of my heart and it is the love I see in the eyes of my partner when he is genuinely and completely afraid for me and protective of me. If I spent my life going to work and going home and watching movies I would have never seen him look at me that way. Never known so deeply, how he really feels about me. Life is the joy of solid rock, the mindful value of which I have never appreciated more than after rough seas. It is the shower after the trauma, when you’re finally alone and can cry with gratitude for, well…

for literally everything.

It is big beautiful emotions, whatever they may be.

Eddy Gilmore wrote in The Emancipation Of a Buried Man, “Being out there alone in challenging weather causes your natural laziness to step aside as the stronger aspects of your character emerge.”

As I looked into the darkness, I mentally wrapped my fear up and, accepting it completely, cradled it like a baby. I knew then, and forever, that to stop bringing myself to this point, to this edge, to this wild place, would be worse then death.

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I hoped I could sufficiently explain this to my mom someday.

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Closing thoughts from Adam;

Lesson learned: Sleep is part of the preparation. While I’m used to odd hours and long shifts, the utter fatigue that sets in when the sailing gets lousy can be mentally and physically incapacitating; leading to poor decision making, procrastination of crucial tasks, even confusion that can lead to steering a wrong course or misinterpreting lights.

Lesson learned:
There is never a good reason to cross the Gulf Stream north to south with winds from the NE. Never. It’s not just rough and choppy. It’s rough, choppy, and no matter the vessel – potentially dangerous. Wait for better weather. For example, just after cold front passage when the winds shift and lighten up. The Gulf Stream is roughly 45 miles wide and flows WSW to ENE through the straights of Florida. You will be feeling its effects for over half the trip from key west to Havana. A wind directly opposite this 1-2.5kt (nearly 1/3rd of your sailing speed) current creates such unrest in the sea state that it virtually guarantees one of the roughest rides you can experience, regardless of the NOAA forecast for reasonable wave heights etc.

Hind sight being 20/20, did we, as a crew, make the right decision to press on? I’ve thought long and hard about it. Knowing what I know now, I would have personally advocated for delaying our departure given the same or similar circumstances. However, that being said, I feel like sailing can be summed up best in the sentiment of a short story about camping by author Patrick McManus titled, “A Fine and Pleasant Misery,” in that we only cherish those experiences that were seemingly quite rude to us at the time. Remember the times everything went perfect? No, not really. Remember the times you overcame and conquered? Absolutely.

Lesson learned:
Equipment checks – the best defense is a good offense, EVERYTHING must be prepared before hand, you will find it simply impossible to rig or re rig anything when that time comes. If it is not readily available and ready to use, you may as well leave it at the dock. Unless you can do it with your one free hand during a one handed push-up, it MUST be done before setting off. Oh, we most definitely had all the equipment, just no hope of using it.

I don’t get sick often and I don’t get sick easily. I’ve been seasick before, and I’ve had food poisoning before. I’m going to solidly rate this as a combo malady. Taco Bell before sailing next time? Nope, not for me! If food vendor choice was the major ingredient, the twisted angry sea state was most definitely the major catalyst. Independently, my normally high constitution for these things would have prevailed over either of these obstacles. Unfortunately for me…..

This may be worth mentioning for those that are curious – we were armed with two separate forms of electronic charts (OpenCPN, and Navionics) as well as paper charts for redundancy. The Navionics proved to be accurate, OpenCPN is amazing but crashed irreparably (Android version), and the paper did exactly what they were intended to do….. take up a small amount of space and look pretty. I’ve been running the electronic versions on an ASUS Zen tablet which, FYI, has a true GPS radio that doesn’t rely on cellular or Wi-Fi coverage to get a fix. This is important if you are considering a similar setup.

Don’t rush – yes, we know this. This is a lesson we must continually teach ourselves. Combined with the ever present tightrope walk of never sail on a schedule, this is one of the most important points. There is no such thing as a perfect sail – things can and most definitely WILL go wrong. In good keeping with Murphy’s Law, they will go wrong at the least opportune time. So just do your best, prepare ahead of time, and remember there is a wide road between safe and comfortable. No matter the other, stay SAFE.
At this point I would also like to offer my sincere thanks to Bill, our ever present companion, supporter, best friend, crew member, and truly one of my favorite people of all time. Without his help this voyage would have proved to be unattainable. Our little band of pirates is never quite complete without his presence.
Lastly, though this poem is really about flying, I feel as though it also embodies the spirit of sailing and being on the open sea:
Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.