Thursday, May 26, 2011

Passage Making: On the Importance of Being Ready for Nothing at All

Dolphin at the bow
-- a version of this article appeared in Latitudes & Attitudes, December 2010 --

Our passage from Mexico to the Marquesas took forty-four days.  That’s longer than the gestation period of a kangaroo and almost twice that of rabbits.  One reason our passage lasted so long was that we took the scenic route.  We snuck a peak at Socorro Island, but weren’t allowed to get off the boat.  From there we sailed to Clipperton, where conditions were such that the wrecks on the island, which had initially been objects of curiosity, took on a more ominous significance.  So we didn’t get off the boat there either.  These diversions added an extra 800 miles to our voyage.  But we also spent two weeks or so exploring the patch of water around 01 deg. North and 125 deg. West, inching forward by day on the slightest zephyrs and being set backward at night by a current that frequently ran more than two knots.  All told, we sailed some 3250 miles in 44 days –  that’s an average of about 3 kts.

I’m not complaining about this passage.  We didn’t have any major difficulties, and our sojourn in the doldrums was not forced upon us but was more of an aesthetic choice – we could have fired up the Perkins at any time, or at the very least offered some kind of sacrifice to the gods of wind and weather to get us moving again.  Indeed, we quite enjoyed our six weeks at sea.  And although we were thrilled eventually to see the lush, steep slopes of Fatu Hiva rising from the ocean, we weren’t desperate to get off the boat.  Once at anchor, our daughters jumped at the chance to swing from the halyards again, while their parents reacquainted themselves with the taste of beer.  The dinghy had to wait another day for its resuscitation.

When I compare this voyage to our first few oceanic jaunts, what strikes me is how much our attitude toward passage-making has changed.  We’re less skittish than we used to be, much more content at sea and less anxious to bring our voyages to an end.  It helps, of course, that we’ve learned a thing or two since we first started sailing; we’ve grown comfortable with the boat and have stuffed her nooks and crannies with enough useful junk to improvise solutions to most problems.  Much more important, however, is that we’ve learned to appreciate the irony that one’s voyage at sea is quite different from everything one prepares for.

A Mahi-Mahi near the equator advises
us not to swim off the boat.
A blue-water passage leaves no room for complacency.  Cruisers spend a lot of time imagining one nasty ‘what-if’ scenario after another, trying to prepare for every contingency.  And so they should – they’re putting a lot on the line.  But all of this anxiety about safety creates the impression that the passage itself is an undertaking of immense risk, which prudence suggests ending as quickly as possible.  It is as if disasters were creatures of malevolent intent, lying just beyond the range of Coast Guard helicopters, poised to strike at both the boat (the snapped back-stay, the shredded main, the seized engine) and the flesh (the abscessed tooth, the broken arm, the embolism in the brain).  Never mind that boat is in good shape and the crew a paragon of health.  Passage-making is often treated as a kind of race to reach one’s destination before disaster strikes.

Sunset in the Doldrums
But while dutiful sailors typically prepare themselves for the worst, they should also be getting themselves ready for nothing much at all.  The truth is that most passage-making is profoundly uneventful.  Although the stakes are high, the overwhelming odds are that nothing bad will happen.  While one has diligently prepared for the worst, crossing an ocean poses less risk than crossing the country in a car.  It just takes longer, has far fewer changes of scenery and no roadside attractions.  Moreover, even if one is possessed by the urge to complete the passage quickly, when that destination is more than a thousand miles away and your vessel lumbers along at a pace not much faster than a brisk walk, the notion of “quickly” becomes absurd.  As a result, the experience of an ocean voyage is often anti-climactic – a curious juxtaposition of dread and boredom.  Indeed, the number of cruisers who actually enjoy passage-making is less than one might expect.  When a friend, for instance, informed us of his impending departure from New Zealand to Fiji, I suggested that he must be quite excited and looking forward to the trip; he figured I was being sarcastic –  he hadn’t left yet, but already he wanted the voyage to be over.  Somebody else we know looked forward to an invigorating sail from Mexico to Hawaii, but then endured a passage so tedious that in Honolulu he sold the boat.

Scooping up sea critters
Perhaps at this point you’re expecting me to insist that the key to meaningful passage-making is to understand that the journey is the goal – that one needs to immerse oneself in the voyage itself and not focus on the destination.  But I don’t possess the spiritual depth to make that wisdom resonate.  Our approach to passage-making is quite the opposite.  For us, the voyage is something that happens while we’re doing other things – making fishing lures and baking bread; organizing boxes of stainless fasteners and picking weevils from the rice. Our kids love the baking, but not so much the weevils.   When it’s calm, they’ll set up their wooden train on the cabin sole, or put on their dress-up clothes and arrange a tea-party for their stuffed animals.  And when the boat romps through a building sea, they invent new ways to swing from the handholds or lie on the salon table, waiting for a wave to tip them into the settee.

Traveling by sailboat is certainly slow, but it is so unlike other forms of travel that the speed and length of the voyage doesn’t matter nearly as much.  It doesn’t require the same intense concentration as driving a car; it doesn’t subject you to the same mind-numbing, blood-clot producing boredom as an 11-hour flight.  And I would much rather embark on a two-week passage than suffer the experience of LAX. When all is said and done and the self-steering gear is set, the boat pretty much sails itself, leaving us free for other things.   Sure, the interests of safety demand some kind of routine and diligence – checking the bilge, looking for signs of chafe, watching for traffic.  For added measure, we impose a moratorium on all recreational swimming (for fear of contributing to the food chain) and alcohol consumption (livers are people too).  Now and then we’re called upon to put in a reef or two (or three), or to shake them out again, or to change a sail, balance the boat or adjust our course; but after that we can focus our attention elsewhere.

Swell off Fatu Hiva
We’re admittedly less sanguine when we’re caught in the teeth of a gale.  The sound of waves slamming into the hull and sweeping the cabin top still sparks an adrenal flash, even though we know that the boat can take on far worse conditions than we’re ever likely to encounter.  But what do we actually do in those conditions?  Well, we reef down and keep a close eye on things, making sure nothing breaks and that we don’t get run down.  If necessary we’ll heave-to.  Apart from that, we jam ourselves into the corners of the boat and sleep.  We figure it’s better to rest just in case something nasty happens than to exhaust ourselves worrying about said nastiness.  And then we wait for the weather to pass.

Of course, it is nice to be moving and I won’t deny the frustration in the doldrums of plotting our daily progress on the negative side of the number line for four days in a row.  But turning on the motor would have been worse.  The sound of the engine would have filled the cabin and left little room for meaningful pursuits; the expensive diesel draining from our tanks would have focused our attention on the “progress” of the voyage itself, the boat’s painfully slow pace and the immense distance still before us.  Much better to wait.  And, in fact, our days in the doldrums were some of the most memorable I’ve spent at sea.  Contrary to expectations, the temperatures were remarkably cool, requiring us to cover up at night.  We were haunted by a languid cross swell, from the northeast and southeast, long and undulating but barely enough to rock the boat.  In the mornings we were often enveloped by a thick and drenching fog that encouraged nudity in the cockpit to spare our clothes. One night in particular, looking out to the horizon under a brilliant canopy of stars reflected in the water, I had the impression that we were at the center of snow globe.  Usually, when the sea is broken by swell and chop and the skies patterned with cloud, it feels like we can see forever; but on this night the horizon seemed close enough to swim to.

One of our strangest (and still unexplained) experiences occurred at night at N 00 deg. 44’; W 124 deg. 42’ (or, if you prefer, in the absolute middle of nowhere).  As I went up to check our course, I was greeted by a vigorous mammalian breathing and snorting – a kind that I have only heard from sea lions – and it seemed to be coming from right beside the boat.  But we saw nothing, neither the tell-tale glimmer of phosphorescence nor anything with the flash light.  Two nights later at N 00 deg. 41’; W 124 deg. 14.4’ (in other words, about thirty miles east of the first position) we heard the sound again.  It must have been the same creature; maybe we were drifting east together.  I doubt very much that it was a whale, and cannot believe that any self-respecting sea lion would wander so far from shore, so I have no idea what kind of creature we heard.

Priorities -- swinging from the halyards
in Fatu Hiva
While we weren’t moving very much, we still had plenty to do.  We read aloud from the Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy under a makeshift canopy in the cockpit, a work that has as much to say to parents as it does to children.  We examined peculiar critters scooped up from the sea, and witnessed the triumphs and tribulations of President Bartlett in The West Wing.  Michelle monitored our consumption of powdered milk and I spent three days replacing worn plugs in our teak decks.  It is often said that cruising is about fixing your boat in exotic places; we also fix ours at sea.  Eventually the wind filled in again, sending us across the equator at a blistering 2 knots, after which it never faltered.  Ten days later we were swept into the lee of Fatu Hiva by gale force winds accompanied by torrential downpours.

Considered only as journey from one place to the next, the passage was indeed quite long.  But passages are not simply voyages and they’re not only about sailing; they are, in fact, extended moments when one’s whole life modulates into a different key, where distractions fall away and nothing stands between you and your imagination.  So when you’re ready to go – you’ve checked the rigging and changed the oil; and you’ve sewn together the carcass of a chicken to feel what it’s like to stitch a wound – give some thought to what you’re actually going to do out there.  Remember the promises you made to yourself in college to read the unabridged works of Tolstoy and to memorize the night’s sky?  There will never be a better time.