by Alan Keitt



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 night.

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 in.

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.



by Alan Keitt


I can't remember when I got this dog
Perhaps we are litter mates.
I don't know which one of us will die first.
The worst fear I have is that he will get loose.
I keep him inside mostly
but he often barks at night.

Sometimes I take him out for a walk on a short leash.
Strangely, it seems that no one else can see him,
as though he and the leash are invisible out there.

He pulls so hard that we went to obedience school.
I did great but my doggy friend would have none of it.
After about 3 steps he was out there pulling again.

Once in a wild place where coyotes howl
I let him go.
But he hung around and seemed afraid.

Once in a while we meet a stranger
who comes right up to my dog and pets him.
He always seems to feel better and stops pulling for a while.

A lot of people we meet are racing along,
following something out there on a leash
but we never bump into each other.

Sometimes I meet someone I know
chasing something out there on a leash,
but I can't see what it might be.

While we stop to exchange lies,
the two fear dogs, who may be littermates,
are sniffing butts.

This dog is big and I have to keep thinking up ways to feed him.
Sometimes I take him along on the boat.
There's always a lot of dog food there.

And when night comes on the wind
and I snap on my harness and double ended leash,
I sometimes wonder which end holds the pet and which the master.



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