This will probably come as no surprise to you all: Phillip and I turned back. After our fresh water pump failed, forcing upon us an irreversibly waning battery bank, we decided to turn back to Spanish Wells in the Bahamas rather than continue on our I65 route to the BVIs. While we thought the expected two-day passage would be merely a disappointment, it turned out to be the most enduring passage we’ve ever been on, even counting our ocean crossings. Why? Never before had Phillip and I been so mind-numbingly, infuriatingly …
B E C A L M E D
There were things that happened that have never happened on our boat before: shouting, fighting, mutiny! Yet, it was an experience so eye-opening, so psychologically poignant, I turned it into a featured article that will be in SAIL Magazine this fall. : ) Be on the lookout! For now, here are three moments from that horrid passage that I didn’t share in quite as vivid detail: 1) the fight; 2) the fear; and 3) the mutiny.
“You will see no more than three to eight knots of wind the next three days,” Weather Routing, Inc. texted us via our Delorme after we told them of our decision to turn around. Never had I wanted so badly for a weather prediction to be wrong. But, never have I seen one more dead-on. For three days, we saw no more than six. We went no faster than three. It was fine at first, simply moving along slowly, our spirits not yet pricked, our minds still amicable and calm.
This is our Garmin track showing a much more wayward sail back from whence we came:
It wasn’t a few hours, though, before the up and downs began. The sails went up, the sails went down. So did tempers, moods, voices. I can still hear the flogging of the sails when I close my eyes, that metallic flong, flong, flong of the standing rigging being beaten to an early death. I haaaaate flogging sails. I feel like it’s a little metal pick just chipping away at the integrity of our rigging (probably because it is). It was chipping away at my brain, too. While going slow and rotting our minds out there was one thing, damaging the boat in the process was another. We rigged the pole, we tied preventers, we tied inventers (ones I made up to try to stop the flogging). But with such little boat speed in funky winds and even funkier swell, there was no way to stop it. After a day of flonging, that’s when it happened.
I will preface this with one impermeable fact: Phillip and I rarely fight. I’m not boasting, or bragging, we’re just not the type to raise our voices or foster hostility. We’ve had disagreements and uncomfortable arguments on the boat, sure. This was one. But, I can count those on one hand, and none of them involved no holds-barred shouting. Until now.
Over the course of the first 30’ish hours after we turned back, we bobbed and flonged and battled one another over the sails flogging. I consistently wanted to drop the sails and bob; Phillip wanted to keep us heading generally in the right direction (albeit at a speed of 2.1 SOG). Into our second night of this horrendous routine, I finally pushed hard enough to get my way and on the start of my night shift I dropped the sails. Was it any better? No. The pitching and yawing of the boat was equally loud and equally annoying. I could hear Phillip rolling around in his lee cloth below trying to get some sleep. Soon our boat speed was 0.2 headed back out into the Atlantic, and I knew then I had been wrong. If there was one thing I wanted out there more than to stop the flogging, it was to stop the passage. To get the heck back to shore. So, I raised the sails back up (waking Phillip in the process of course) and we continued to flong on at a snail’s pace.
Just as Phillip was—I’m sure—finally drifting off to sweet sleep, a cacophony of beeps rang out. It was our auto-pilot. Turns out he doesn’t like to hold when we’re only going 0.4. Can’t say that I blame him. I don’t either. So, I set him back on. Another cacophony of beeps. Then I hear what sounded like the beginning of a lion’s roar below, this guttural rumble that started to form into voice, as Phillip screamed, louder than I’ve ever heard him scream before:
I J U S T W A N T T O * * * * I N G S L E E P !
M E * * * * I N G T O O !
I thundered back at him. Then it was silence, as if everything around us—the boat, the swell, the stupid flogging sails, all took a collective breath in response to our terse words. I guess you could say it wasn’t really a fight, per se, but it was the most intense exchange Phillip and I have ever had on passage. It was on me, though. That was my shift, and auto had tapped out. I took the sheet to the head sail in one hand and the helm in the other and sailed the snot out of those three knots of wind, trying simply to stay on a general west heading back to the Bahamas while keeping the flogging and sounds of the boat, as best I could, to a minimum. Phillip fell asleep so hard I could hear him snoring from the cockpit. I let him sleep an extra hour, before I dropped dead myself after that exhausting three-hour shift. “I want to sleep, too,” I told him as we traded out. “You have to hand-steer her.” He must have because I sank into the starboard settee and my mind melted into a slew of crazy, turbulent dreams. For the rest of the passage, neither of us spoke of that moment when I think we both snapped.
Our second day on passage, we got a new crew member! As we were obviously sailing (bobbing) slowly enough for any living creature to board, this cute little green and yellow bird found his way onto our boat.
We welcomed him at first, letting him flit around the cockpit and get comfortable with us. It was amazing to wonder how far he had flown to get there, with us being over 100 miles out to sea. I even made him a little bird bath out of the cut-off base of a milk jug. He started to perch on our hands, even on Phillip’s head.https://havewindwilltravel.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/IMG_6704.mov
He was our buddy. We named him Sprite and called him our first mate (as Phillip and I are both the Captains : ).
He was cute.
He was friendly.
At first …
After a morning spent being hospitable to the little guy it wasn’t long before he started darting and zipping around in the cockpit seemingly trying to strike at our heads. He became aggressive. I don’t know if his intentions were to truly throw us overboard so he could commandeer the boat and sail himself back to Spanish Wells or if he was just getting territorial. Either way, he was becoming dangerous, darting at our eyes, sneaking up from behind. It was like Sprite had already declared this boat his, and no other bird or human was allowed aboard. I’m telling you it was weird. That or we were losing it. Maybe there was no bird at all. Either way, Phillip and I decided we had to take up armor. Fly swatters can be very intimidating when used properly. It was us against him out there! Sprite had crossed a line. This was mutiny! And, who was Captain of the ship?
That’s right. Phillip and I had to send that bird packing. After a few wallops with a fly swatter, Sprite finally learned who was in charge and decided to fly away. I will never know if he made it those 100 miles back to shore, but I’m not sorry for what I did. This was nature. That bird picked his war. What is it the Sergeant said in G.I. Jane?
You’re darn right Viggo.
The thing was over 820 feet long. Eight. Hundred. And twenty. And I couldn’t see it. This was my last night shift as Phillip and I were finally making our way back toward the Bahamas and coming into the major shipping channel where many carrier ships exit out of Eleuthera to make their way into the Atlantic. And, this is what I found on the AIS.
A monster. While I could see what I thought were its nav lights up ahead off of my port bow, it was really hard to make out. And, it looked like we were headed right for one another. On the AIS, our closest point of approach (“CPA”) was bouncing between 1.07 and 23 feet, then 0.3 and 84 feet. Too close for comfort was the bottom line. I’d haled the guy many times on the radio, of course. “Hey. Hey you. Big ass boat that’s about to hit us. Do you see little old sailboat me?” But I, of course, got no response. What I hate about CPA is it does not tell you whether the “P”—that all important point—is going to be his stern crossing your bow, or your stern crossing his. Thankfully—and I don’t know if it was Neptune or my USCG training that kicked in—but something told me I had—I simply HAD—to get downwind of him. That might seem like a simple thought to many experienced sailors out there, but in moments like that where it’s all on me and I’m terrified, I can be a terrible decision-maker, so I still give Captain Annie a little pat on the back for that instinct.
With little puffs of four knots I turned our tiny spec-of-a-boat as hard as I could in a 90-degree angle to cross before his bow so I could get out of his path and on the safe, downwind side of that beast. I’ll admit, it was terrifying. My heart was thumping in my chest. I was ready to wake Phillip at any moment, but I knew there was nothing different he could do. It’s not like we had oars we could bust out to paddle away. Our fifteen-thousand pound, engine-less boat was at the complete mercy of the wind. And the monster. This moment was horrible, and I was hoping to spare him of it.
This time I’m sure it was Neptune, hearing the thunderous beat of my heart, when he sent a little six-knot puff of wind my way. It was the most we had seen the entire passage back, and it came as a God-send. Our boat picked up three knots of speed and bobbed her way just out of that carrier’s path. When I got on the other side of him, that ship blocked out my entire horizon. He was massive, and dark, and deadly. I saw the CPA blank out as his bow passed my stern and a dreadful gratitude came over when I realized what would have happened had I stayed upwind of him … all eight. Hundred. And twenty feet of him. Aside from injuries and near-falls overboard, that encounter is still one of the most terrifying moments I have ever had on our boat. It was an eerie altered paradigm from my usual fear of merciless winds and seas capable of chucking and breaking our beautiful boat to a chilling fear of a lack of wind that could cause her to just bob idly into a monster boat or devastating shore. A slow creep to destruction? What an awful way to go.
When Phillip and I arrived back in Spanish Wells, we soon met another couple who sailed in with a wildly-different experience from us. While we had been becalmed out in the Atlantic on the east side of the Bahamas, this couple had been battered with gusty winds in the Gulf Stream coming into the Bahamas on the west side. Oddly, however, I almost envied them their experience. At least in heavy winds and rough seas, you are left with no choice but to respond. You’re just reacting to the gnarly conditions being thrown at you. Being becalmed, however, fosters a far greater agony where your mind wages war with yourself. You start picking at your weaknesses, reliving regrets, analyzing bad decisions you’ve made. Strangely, I found I can be nastier to myself than any storm can. It was definitely a psychological struggle. I can tell you, now that Phillip and I have had this experience, if we ever have the choice to be becalmed at sea engine-less for days on end, versus undertaking a bit of a rough passage … it will be a much tougher call.
How about you all followers? How do you feel about being becalmed?