We left St, John’s in true ceremonial style. Not in a frazzled rush at the end of a frenzied morning of sticky projects, but fresh and ready early Monday morning. Peter treated us to a last crew dinner in a fancy fish house on the water, pushing us to order appetizers, drinks, and expensive entrees. The three of us frugal sailors took the decadence in accordance with our unique personalities; me accepting his offers readily, as the eternal child who has never worked to support a family; Dad shyly surrendering to his persistence, eating the last bites of appetizer before I could wolf it all down; and Dana staunchly refusing any coercion to go beyond her self-defined limits…while I happily plunged into the desserts that Peter ordered for everyone but himself. It was the start of a journey after all!
The next morning dawned clear and crisp, blue skies extending from hills to horizon, the first we’d seen in weeks. The fresh 30 knot breeze from the days before had simmered to a gentle, but steady, westerly. As we spoke of ice bergs and visibility, I realized that we would be sailing through moonless nights, as we were starting our trip exactly on the new moon, a powerful omen.
We left the cliff-edged entrance of the harbor, heralded by breaching humpbacks all around, finally revealing themselves after all their foggy late night hauntings. The day was fresh and inspiring. I sat on the bow, coffee in one hand, camera in the other, and filmed a Goliath container ship coming in, plowing a massive wake ahead of it’s massive bow. The swell rolled towards us, three perfect humps, and I realized as it approached that I’d better find a handhold. I grabbed the forsestay just in time to climb up the first wave, elated by the flight, then looked down into a three foot trench. I yelped as the bow plummeted and buried into the wall of the next swell, sending a barrel of cold, North Atlantic water up my left side, from leg to shoulder. I shook and chuckled. An initiation, I thought, a cleansing for beginnings. A little dunk from the mischievous ocean. If only I hadn’t been wearing all of my sweaters.
We set out on a compass heading of 100, east for Ireland. We would be going the great circle after all, shortening the distance with the curve of the earth. At night I saw rows of airplanes travelling the same line, little blinking lights up with the stars. We kept lookout for icebergs. It had been a record ice year, 600 shards as opposed to the usual 60, but melting quickly. Dad calculated that we would be out of the zone in a couple degrees of longitude, a couple of days. I just wish everyone would stop talking about the damn Titanic.
“Where was it the Titanic went down?”
“I don’t know,” would say Dad, “but did you know that my grandma came over the next year on the sister ship from Ireland, 18 years old, alone!” Nana O’Conner. He spoke of her with affection.
The bigger hazard that first week turned out to be the whales. As we crossed the Grand Banks, we encountered them daily, diving, feeding, interested in making friends with our hull, some odd-shaped kin of theirs. First day out, I started my watch by tinkering with our antique Aries wind vane, learning bit by bit how to adjust her wind paddle and legs to keep the boat heading on course. Peter, who was sitting out with me, saw a whale spout not far off. We both scanned the water. Another spout in the distance. A few birds fluttering the surface. Perhaps a feeding? Should I turn on the engine? Can they hear us understand sail?
We stood in suspense gazing over the dodger, waiting for the next spout. Nothing for minutes, until she appeared, right off the bow, barely more than a boat length away. A broad black back rolled out of the water, and then submerged, the light refracting through the water turning her white and blue as she sunk out of sight. I rushed to the engine, turning it over in neutral as we sailed on, and another plume ignited to port. We were cutting right through their pod, it seemed. I saw a white/blue shape out of the corner of my eye, flashing towards our keel and then disappearing, diving under us perhaps, or just in my mind. And then nothing more…we stood in silence, fixated on the ocean, engine running, until we had left the pod far behind, and then continued to sail.
A few days later a lone whale appeared next to the boat, surfacing on a swell less than a boat length away. This one was smaller, different shape. Stubby, square nose, with wrinkly skin on it’s back, and no dorsal fin apparent in it’s breaching. It dove and reappeared behind the boat, following like a puppy for the next 15 minutes, plowing it’s nose up every few minutes always the same distance behind the boat. Then he lost interest and vanished. The closest I could find in our whale book was a sperm whale. I teased Peter who had just finished reading “In the Heart of the Sea,” of a boatload of whalers stranded after battle with an enraged sperm whale.
A biplane skimmed us the second day, hailing us on the radio. The Canadian coast guard, checking in, asking boat name, crew, where we were headed. They circled as they chatted. Then, “Stay safe,” and buzzed away. Those Canadians, so kind.
Later that evening we heard chatter on the radio again. “Coast Guard responding to a Mayday, man overboard on sailing vessel.” They gave the coordinates, putting the boat on our same latitude, further west, back towards St. John’s. “Yes, we can be there in 60 minutes,” chattered the radio. We sat in silence, dark descending on the the cold, choppy North Atlantic outside and I sent a prayer to the poor soul lost at sea, for his unlikely retrieval.
“That is our reminder to wear our harnesses,” I insisted, as we solemnly agreed.
“There is a stinky stretch between here and Europe,” said Dad. “It’s called the North Atlantic.”
The wind stayed with us, and the fog never returned, but the seas became animated. I had become used to a three-day sick period at the start of a passage, and it set in without fail at the end of the first day. Stomach tight, eyes aching, I moved about as little as possible. When I wasn’t on watch, I was sleeping. I sipped some water and ate a little food, but mostly laid gazing about, wondering why I would do this to myself.
“It’s the labor theory,” said Dana. “You forget how it feels and so you go out again.”
That, but also the fact that even through the malaise the majesty of the ocean pokes it’s winking face. Whales visit. Dolphin brigades surf our bow and whistle through the hull. Gulls bob on the water, and flutter by, checking out the big momma bird of our sails. They trot across the water with their goofy webbed feet, wings out like ballerinas for levitation. And the stars, and the bioluminescence. Only through intense practice could you ignore such wonders, even when ill.
I remembered being sick in this very cockpit, on the return trip from Venezuela in 1994. We had all picked up something nasty, and I was sick for weeks. (Some later internet snooping revealed a cholera epidemic in the country that year.) Cholera or not, I remembered the unbearable nausea, four days sailing back to St. John, lying in the cockpit as my mom picked leftover knits from my hair, trying to keep down food. Once I learned that if I drank water super fast, I would throw up, relieving the nausea for a while. My worried mom scolde me for that.
I hadn’t thrown up since I was 12, the result of a bad burrito from Taco Bell. I prided myself on moderation through my drinking years, and on a strong stomach. But on the third night, I woke for my watch and crawled from under my warm blanket. That morning we had been charging straight into the swells, burying the bow and soaking Dana’s forward bunk through a leaky hatch. The motion manifested in my dreams as zero-gravity walking, bounding up high with every step, and crashing down on bent knees. I had conserved my movement all day, tense against an angsty stomach.
As I pulled on my foul weather gear in the dark, weak and shakey against the boat’s motion, an unfamiliar sensation crept up. My stomach tightened and a spurt of saliva flooded my mouth. “I remember this,” I thought, and rushed to the head. I couldn’t believe I was about to throw up, after so many years, and so much pride. But then it felt so good! Relief. My body had been asking for it for days and I just didn’t understand.
I ate that night, filling up a totally cleansed stomach, and my shakiness subsided. I emerged day 4 feeling refreshed, and ready to get on with the eating. It was a beautiful day, westerly breeze breathing 10-15 knots into our winged jib and mainsail. Chilly, as I was coming to realize would be our norm, but the sun poking little warm fingers through sparse clouds.
Dad said we were a quarter of the way to Europe, and halfway from New York. Just three days out, it was time to start making new bets on arrival. 400 miles in three days? Not too bad Tiger. I settled in for a beautiful trip, over my sea sick hump, thinking, “I might even brush my hair today, and change my underwear!”
And then the boom broke.