She's got 30 feet of waterline
- great for makin' way. She was built 20 years ago at the Freedom yards. I call
her Diomedea, the generic name for the Albatross family. When I bought her 10
years ago I had never seen an albatross - to me they were a nonpareil of flight,
an avian cruciform, broad reaching the austral oceans wing on wing for a year at
a time without any terrestrial needs. Not a bad life style. I wanted to explore
the wilderness offshore and this is what I find in that corner of the oceans
lying west of Florida where mine is the only albatross.
Getting offshore at night one
experiences a bizarre mix of the sublime and the grubby. After dodging acres of
crab traps set out like minefields we see the extraordinary illumination of the
shrimp fleet as they dredge the bottom - scouring all vegetation in the process.
As we get out to 60 feet things seem to settle down for a bit. But huge city
lights loom on the horizon as we bear down on the 1000 foot anchored tankers
waiting to get into Tampa Bay. It takes most of the night sailing steadily south
to leave their lights behind. Just when we think we are free a curious
incandescent pyramid appears down the way. The casino boats are out - it seems
that gamblers, like shrimp are active all night.
But after another day of
sailing we are well out and almost alone with the clouds and a gentle breeze.
Diomedea will do almost 3 knots in a 5 knot breeze. She is good at ghosting
along. Tom caught a couple of mackerel and just as I prepare to cook them on the
galley stove. I feel her lean 15 degrees and go up to check out the rising wind.
15 knots is not good for cooking so it will be snacks tonight. As the second
darkness falls we drop the mizzen and still track down the wind stream at 6
knots. Suddenly we hear an exaltaltion of loons calling to one another - short
hysterical quavers as they are massing for return to their green lakes of
summer. A pair of ghostly gannets jump off the cliff into the wind and silently
veer out of our ever increasing way. The black shadow of a startled frigate
bird, the nazgul of these oceans, swings off to leeward.
Now the wind is up and the
tide of fear is rising. We have a minor cold front which has spun the gyre
behind us and the big swells are beginning to roll. Everything seems more
ominous in the dark offshore. In giving wide berth to Sanibel Island I have
gotten out 35 miles and as the wind swings a bit northeast we have to cut across
the swells exposing our vulnerable rear quarter. The waves love us and given a
chance can shake us like my dog Leopold grabbing a possum. They overpower the
autohelm which can't anticipate their arrival, so it's wheel watches for this
We have too much sail up and
must take action. The first thing I do is the best - put on my long capilenes
under my foulies. Crank up the diesel and swing into the wind and winch in the
jiffy reefing line that I so carefully installed last year. Amazing - the main
marches down the mast and draws tight at both ends on the boom - we have a very
effectively double-reefed mainsail without leaving the cockpit. It stabilizes
our rolls and plunges as we cut across the waves toward Naples. The powerful
hand of the wind has us in her grip but we can use her to our advantage.
Now we can swing southeast and
suddenly our track aligns with the sparkling moonpath. We are surfing down moon
gravy at 7 knots. Four dolphins have joined us. They rise in perfect dressage,
gasping as they curl under the next wave. They are wonderful company and help
keep my white knuckled fear at bay - not gone but balanced by the incredible
beauty and aliveness of the moment.
Tom has missed a hand hold and
hurt his ribs on the autohelm controller. He is a bit dopey and moving slowly in
pain and sleep lack; So it is my dance. I am getting more and more revved up and
prepare to finish out this night to remember with a 4 hour wheel watch. I am
strapped in with harness and tether.. The top of my big 36 inch wheel is my
stabilizer. It finds my umbilicus just above where the fear is. The wheel spins
back and forth through my loose grip with only an occasional assist from me.
Leaning slightly forward, knees are slightly bent - an asana of the mountain.
But I am on a 15 degree grade which causes some less than perfect muscle balance
and fatigue over the course of the night.
The game is this - cut across
the ordinary waves and always eye the big ones which are just starting to break.
They usually come in threes. Then spin the wheel folding the huge barn door
rudder across our wake, aligning the stern to the wave. As we jump over the
cliff the bow lifts and we see the stars under the moon shadow. Then racing down
the surge of the next wave - we are surfing again.
The wheel is my partner in an
all night dance contest. The ocean is music. Soon I know every step
and most importantly let her lead. Steering is in the knees as the body leans
lightly on the helm. In time, at 4AM we are moving in perfect synch and my mind
flies off to strange places. The dolphins are gone, the wind is up and the waves
are rolling straight down to Havana. What would happen if the diesel quit? Worst
case scenarios and abandon ship plans flit onto my screen. News Item:
"Casino Gamblers Rescue Incorrigible Sailing Addicts". But finally I
realize this is just another cold front and the chances are that we will make it
Gradually the translucent
shrimp gray eastern sky warms to boiled pink as the sun announces another day.
The casino boats are gone behind us and the shore begins to loom with profiles
of the condos at Vanderbilt Beach and Marco Island. We are now in the lee of
Sanibel and the wind is offshore so the big waves are gone.
What a sight we must be as the
morning sun finds us in elegant Naples.
Two red-eyed, graybearded ancient
mariners, rimed with salt, in their foulies and harnesses, each hiding brand new
Medicare cards. I feel the fetid albatross of fear slipping slowly from around
my neck. But it will always be there in some measure. For offshore sailing is
indeed a dance of fear and exaltation - opposite sides of the same coin lodged
down there just below the belly button.