Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What A Difference A Day Makes

What a difference a day makes. Literally. The ocean has moods that change like the wind. Sometimes she is calm and coy, cajoling, beautiful, and serene. Yet she can change over night aggressive, boisterous and raw, bucking, ugly and fierce. We often mirror her moods with our own.

Departing the Andamans under grey skies and 20-25 knot winds we hunkered down in the cockpit, clinging to the coming and bracing our feet against the boat at odd angles while we tried to maintain some sense of balance and hold onto our breakfast in rolling and confused seas. Squalls hit us regularly for the first 22 hours, blowing wind into our sails and just as quickly sucking it away. Wet and uncomfortable we peered through the grayness searching for the ships that passed us heading for Colombo, Cochin, and other parts of India. We stared at each other blankly and again out to sea. Asking ourselves silently why we have chosen this life and grateful for the simple things, the samosas we snacked on with tea in the afternoon and the tandoori chicken we ate for dinner.

The first day is always difficult for both of us. We turn inward, fully aware of our insignificance. We ask our bodies to move as one with the boat as she pitches uncomfortably though the slop. We alter our mindset, knowing everything is unpredictable and we will be called upon to respond. We rally our bodies to sleep and wake at odd times and for too little. We resolve to work together with each other and with the boat, reacting to the conditions the sea sets before us. There is nowhere to go and nothing else to do but move forward.

Gar carried a grey cloud with him for three days. Not even the settling of the seas or gentle light airs nor visits from dolphins at the bow could dissipate it. Being stuck between 4 fishing boats at night doing circles around us did nothing but annoy him. Our conditions contributed to his mood with the sails slamming and snapping and the gooseneck cracking. The wind was fickle and we jibed and kept changing course, trying to keep the wind directly off our ass. Our frustration built; I sat gently on eggshells waiting for us both to break.

It is usually me who is affected, nervous and withdrawn. I forget that not only is the passage a strain for both of us but Gar is going through withdrawal. He stops drinking coffee cold the day of departure. Sipping tea seeped with two bags of Earl Grey is no substitute for his vice. But he knows seasickness is more likely to strike if he keeps to his traditional morning ritual. Sometimes I forget. Next time I will remember. It will make it easier for both of us.

Day 4 dawns, the horizon is licked pink, the crisp pale blue sky is wrapped in thin white glowing gossamer clouds. Three hundred and forty miles under our keel and we are both finding our rhythm. Our bodies react instinctively to the slight roll of the boat, our muscles always working even while we sleep. We are moving slowly with the full main up, aided by a slight current carrying us with it. It is peaceful and we feel rested and balanced.

Day 6 and the highlights are quiche and fresh sourdough English muffins for brunch and visits from dolphins as the wind clocks around and we alter course. Our instruments are acting up, the heading is lost and the autopilot resets itself. We are both so frustrated, a nervous feeling settles in the pit of my stomach. Gar is seething and at a loss of what to do. We have been plagued by autopilot problems since leaving California and now we've got a new system and the problems still linger like an annoying habit.

We are more than half way there. The nights have been clear. Only the brightest stars wink at us. The moon is growing bigger and the sea is kind. We leave a milky way of glitter in our wake as we slowly make our way west.

Day 7 and we find our selves navigating our course through big tankers and cargo ships. Our course heading seems to be found and our autopilot is working overtime. We love our new AIS system. We can identify ships, their exact course, speed, and where they will intercept our course. Also, we transmit so they can see us. It seems to be working as they alter course before we think to, miles away. Tanker Green Park, an average size ship at 497 feet with a 79 foot beam and a 31 foot keel crossed astern 1.2 miles moving at 22 knots. Normally this would freak me out but I can see it clearly. We headed for the traffic separation scheme where we transited a safe zone avoiding the big ships bypassing Sri Lanka and the ones headed there. It also kept us free of fishing boats and nets.

We found wind, a 2 knot favorable current, and calmer seas thanks to the island of Sri Lanka blocking the swell. Riding fast at a maximum speed of 9.7 knots and average of 8.4 all evening we greeted first light 5 miles off Galle, Sri Lanka, under smoggy skies and a breeze stinking of garbage, smoke, and sandalwood. It was the first time we passed land within 5 miles with the option of stopping in a harbor. It felt strange not to tuck in rest and see another incredible part of the world. Instead, we accepted the help of the current to take us onwards, past the port of Galle and to Uligan, Maldives.

Day 8 and we're lucky. We made it through another 60 miles of dense shipping lanes in daylight. The wind is licking our sails and we're happily moving at 6.3 knots with 15 knots of wind. It's twilight and we battle predictably about double reefing the main before darkness as our weather forecast is for 20 knots crossing the Gulf of Mannar.

Usually I get a niggling thought that just won't leave. Tonight is no different. Our conversation usually goes something like this. "What do you think about putting a second reef in the main (note we are sailing beautifully right now)?" "We're sailing great," Gar annoyed but willing to acquiesce. "I know but the gribs said it was going to pick up and everyone always has 20-30." This goes on and on. I am stubbornly unwilling to compromise our sail plan right now because it is working and I know Gar doesn't want to change it. He knows I won't sleep unless we do but wants me to be the one to make the decision to reef. We go back and forth for about 15 minutes and predictably put the second reef in.

Good decision. Within three hours the wind is up to 25 knots the seas are 10-12 feet. The boat is flying smoothly across the ocean like she was built to do at 7-8 knots. The moon hangs high illuminating the swell in silver, highlighting the frothy white spray on the heads of the breaking waves. Some invade the cockpit. There is only one dry spot on the boat. One of us sits in it at a time for a day and a half, curled cozily on the port side under the dodger our feet curled beneath us.

The ocean is big powerful and commanding of respect. Today we feel part of it, like Neptune's children born of the sea, part of the sea. This is what we love about sailing. It is raw and beautiful and we are sailing across the Indian Ocean just half way around the world from California. Something shifts for us both. The feeling is almost indescribable. We are fully alive, glowing, at one with the boat, with the ocean, and the wind. We revel in our motion and salt that clings to our skin and the wind that sings through the rigging. We celebrate that feeling of being alive fully aware of our own power and what we are doing.

By afternoon on Day 10 the wind has mellowed to a comfortable 12-15 knots, the moon is fat, the sea is sparkling and we are still riding fast. It is almost like a dream and the memory of the Gulf of Mannar begins to fade, as we are lulled into a dreamy state of calm. The sky is so bright we can see for miles. The boat is quiet as she slices across the sea smelling landfall; we push on.

Under a bright full moon and clear sky we soak up the last hours of our passage before we navigate through the islands and turn towards the mast lights glowing like welcome beacons in Uligan's harbor. By three thirty in the morning we have dropped anchor in 75 feet of water sure we have avoided the coral heads we cannot see. All of a sudden we stop. The boat rolls gently from side to side with the slight swell. We sit on deck basking in the moonlight before showering and toppling into bed together excited for what tomorrow will bring.

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