Friday, June 09, 2006
Offshore trip is an
exercise in extremes
The line between exhilaration and misery is a fine one during an offshore
passage. I'm in the middle of one right now, sailing from Rarotonga to
Niue. The distance between the two islands is about 600 miles and should
take about six days.
Or not. Our speed, which ranges between 2 and 7 mph, depends on the wind.
But South Pacific weather predictions, we've discovered, bear little
resemblance to reality. Our joke on board is that the forecast is
calling for too little wind, freshening to too much wind at some unknown
time in the future.
In the absence of wind, a frequent occurrence so far, we turn on the
diesel engine and travel 5 mph at a dull roar. While motoring like that
earlier this week, I dreamed about, of all things, a truck stop.
That's not so odd, however, because offshore passages are full of
incongruities. They are interesting and boring, easy and hard, long and
short, all at the same time. Also, they are exercises in self-discipline
The most interesting parts to me, of course, are the marine animals I
see along the way. Flying fish leap to their deaths on the deck,
seabirds circle the boat and at night, bioluminescent creatures show an
ocean of life.
The boring part is that these sightings are so infrequent. After sailing
more than 1,000 miles, we've found three decked flying fish, spotted
maybe 10 seabirds and seen neither dolphin nor whale. Plus this week,
the bright moon has diluted the bioluminescence, our main nighttime
So on this passage, like most others, I spend much of my time staring at
the endless blue waves, waiting for something to happen.
Except for animal sightings though, I'm really hoping nothing will
happen, because then the sailing is easy. With the wind just right, I
can set the sails and lie back in the cockpit listening to audio books,
watching the stars or just dreaming the day away.
The hard part comes when the wind is not just right, which on this trip
has been most of the time. First the wind blew from the west, the
direction in which we want to go. Then, just when we were recovering
from hard upwind sailing, the wind came directly from behind, which
slows the boat and upsets the sails no end.
It's at these times passages becomes interminably long. Will this
pitching, rolling and sail flapping ever end? I wonder.
The salt on everything gets on my nerves, the boat's system failures are
maddening and the night watches feel exhausting.
It's time then to take a deep breath and look for the bright spots.
"Write that we lick our sunglasses," jokes Scott from the cockpit when I
ask him what he thinks of the passage.
We laugh but it's true. Since our glasses are continually salting up,
and fresh water is at a premium, we lick the salt off them. Then we sit
back and, once again, stare at the sea.
Offshore passages can be trials, but to most of us sailors, they're
still a great part of the adventure, just as soon as they're over.