#88 — Living By the Wind

Lessons Learned From Sailing a Small Boat Across a Big Ocean

Karen L. Sullivan
100 Stories by 100 Writers


Mid-ocean sunset, peaceful evening. All photos by the author except where noted.

Ten years ago, my husband and I sailed our 24-foot boat across the Pacific Ocean from Puget Sound to New Zealand via Mexico. Most sailboats doing that are at least twice our size, but small seaworthy boats can be capable of crossing oceans, too. Our longest period at sea was 38 days, on the 3,000-mile stretch between Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and Fatu Hiva in French Polynesia. We had planned on a passage of between 25 and 45 days (it depends on the wind), but brought enough food and water for 50. Being far out at sea aboard a tiny boat is incomprehensible to most people, so here are some snapshots.

Departure day! Inflatable dinghy in blue bag and staysail in green bag. Spare fuel on side deck. Photo at San Jose del Cabo by Craig McPheeters.

Day 4: At sea, sailors “stand” watches, to watch for danger. Actually, in the size of the seas that tossed us around last night, standing WAS the danger, so we “sit” watches. We watch the sea. We watch the birds. We watch for other ships. Floating objects. Whales. Huge turtles. The sky. Landfalls. We live by the sea’s time and get tired at the sea’s whim. Here’s our watch schedule: 8:00 am to noon, Karen; noon to 4:00 pm, Jim; 4:00 to 8:00, Karen; 8:00-midnight, Jim; midnight to 4:00, Karen; 4:00–8:00 am, Jim. At sea, a ship sails 24/7.

Bow wave. Foredeck details.

Day 5: We’re sailing wing-and-wing like a butterfly, happy to be moving along. Pulses of large, long-period swells come and go from big storms way up in the North Pacific. The light mesmerizes. The sea’s mood is illumined, defined and shaped by light, color and wind. All three affect the inner sea of grey matter, which is, after all, mostly seawater. The sea has been post-card blue and playful. A wavelet boarded our leeward side, and I thought, HA! Missed me! But then my foot felt wet and I looked down to see my shoe filling with seawater draining from a cockpit scupper. Ho, ho! The next day, a small dollop of seawater hit the back of my head, soaking it, just as I was ducking below for a nap on a pillow that I wanted to keep dry. Tee-Hee!

Our boat’s interior. It was a LOT messier than this when we were all loaded up.

A squid landed on our hatch, and a flying fish flew in and nearly hit the stove. But dinner tonight will be cheesy egg, pepper and salsa burritos. We wash dishes like this: The cook hands a pot or plate to the person on watch, who holds it over the side as the boat rolls. It dips in, the force of the sea rinses it clean, done.

Cooking at sea requires that you 1.) hang on, and 2.) strap yourself in with a water-ski belt or homemade canvas one. Note angle of stove and look Ma, no hands pose. Also note mess in cabin. This is how you store months worth of stuff on a 24-foot boat. It was way more organized than it looked. Tilt your device to make the stove level and get the actual angle of boat heel. This was fairly calm. On some evenings it was too rough to cook.

The sea turned dull pewter highlighted with indigo and silver under a somber sky. A bit of spray tapped my shoulder as I made coffee in the galley. Now the sea is a lighter version of that color palette, with golden light softening the somber. It reminds me that we scratch a straight wake at the sea’s forbearance.

Our self-steering wind vane handled the building 4-meter seas.

Day 14: Last night, torrential, I mean bucketential, cats-and-dogerential rain fell all night, and in gale force winds we were surfing down wave faces. There was some lightning thrown in for nail-biting effect. We are the tallest thing out here, and we have a metal mast, so avoiding the bigger squalls is important. I got soaked and chilled trying to stay in the cockpit, so we stood our watches below, peering into the liquid blast every 20 minutes. Not that we could see much.

This morning was gorgeous but torrid. Hot, sweaty, Night-of-the-Iguana torrid. Like, butt-nekkid torrid if we didn’t have to be so careful about bun chafe from salty cushions. How does a naked woman with chest knockage wear a safety harness without chafing? If Victoria’s Secret designed them I wouldn’t be in this predicament.

Happy Spring! We get about a week of it until we cross the Equator, and then it’s… happy Autumn!

This was taken at anchor, not at sea! View from the masthead. That’s a 175-watt solar panel. It ran everything, including a Ham/SSB radio, and we never plugged into power once in two years. But seabirds loved it as a skating rink.

Day 18: A difficult rainy night with more 35-knot squalls, shifting winds and twelve-foot seas. Today it’s hot hot hot. Hot enough to melt the waxy frosting off the last of our lemon biscotti. But we’re less than 180 miles from the Equator!

Day 20: Today I wish my friends could be here. It’s a warm gentle moment on the planet’s midriff. We’re still 90 miles north of the Equator, which makes the midriff feel more like a love handle, but we’re making slow progress in light breezes. Except for a low southeast swell, it’s like a lake out here. The cockpit is awninged and we have coffee, fruit, good books, and easy napping.

I believe this may be the most Extreme-Home Waterfront Property anywhere. Ironically, the seclusion makes me want to throw a party. If I had to pick a lifelong philosophy, it wouldn’t be Platonism, nor Hedonism, nor Stoicism, nor Epicureanism (though I like elements of all four), it would be more like a Wind-in-the-Willows-ism: messing about in boats. Simply messing. With a boat, no matter how small, one always has waterfront property and an open invitation to stretch your limits.

On the other hand, there was plenty of this, too. And I wasn’t always smiling.

What is it about boats and being on the water? The coziness of a boat at anchor cannot be duplicated in a house. Maybe it’s the precisely wrought wooden dollhouse-scale interior cabinetry. Maybe it’s bronze portholes, or brass lamps, or some owner-made bits of fancy ropework. Maybe it’s the absence of straight lines in the hull’s extravagant curves. Or that snug-in-a-cove, let-the-wind-blow feeling as rain taps on deck. I’m not the first to try putting words to it, but one thing stands out: on a boat, coastlines throughout the world are yours to explore. A sailing ship is designed to be a partner to wind and sea. This is the design that should have been encoded in binary, placed aboard Voyager, and shot into space for interpretation by intelligent life elsewhere.

Day 21: We’re becalmed, and even managed to sail backwards. To be honest, we are enjoying it and aren’t feeling doldrum-y. These few days of enforced idleness feel good because we were busy before departure, and have been so engaged in running the boat in rough weather of late that the contrast is welcome. But idleness should be sampled in small delicious chunks, like a piece of rich fudge. With idleness, like Brylcreem, a little dab’ll do ya. We’ve read — total this week, five novels. We’ve snacked, slept, talked, gazed and feasted. Come to think of it, idleness may not apply if you’re doing things you love rather than stuff you must do. Whatever you call it, this has been just what we needed.

Laundry day in mid-ocean. Best done in a calm. Wash in salt, rinse in fresh.

Day 22: Just what we did not need was sailing 17 miles backwards last night. Dayum. The Equatorial Counter-Current took advantage of our becalmed state and pulled us back. An enormous northeast swell from some big storm far away has been giving us motion so violent we have to hang on with both hands in a flat calm. Crikey!

Day 23: We remain becalmed. It’s like a command: Be calm. But to a sailor it can mean conflict, a contest of internal will with external forces, as if the absence of wind is a force that must be resisted, along with the chafe of slatting sails that sounds like two sumo wrestlers having endless towel fights over your head. After awhile, it’s automatic to attach adverbs like “hopelessly” to becalmed while you conjure scenes of skeleton ships. There’s an odd suite of emotions associated with being becalmed, most notably annoyance and fear. What if the wind doesn’t blow for another two weeks and we’re stuck here? We don’t have enough fuel to motor very far; what if our water supply runs low? Becalmed introduces uncertainty, but also the one certainty that we’re going to sit right here until the wind blows again.

A sailboat is meant to move. Sailors work the ship. In a calm, there’s not much to do and poor results if you try. The greatest sailors hate calms more than anything else, even storms. We don’t hate it (yet), but I do feel that suite of emotions, especially impatience. Jim, on the other hand, is content, even curious to see how such a thing might affect him. We learn from each other, and thank goodness the learning never stops.

Crossing the Equator, recording the ceremony. Our boat was named after a whitewater rapid in the Grand Canyon. The word is from the 1800s and means “a little knockout.” Photo by Jim.

Day 24: We crossed the Equator in light but steady wind, and toasted the achievement.

A soundscape of wave noise is a constant combination of mesmerizer, relaxant, and early warning of a weather shift. Sometimes it can be an irritant, like when our cockpit becomes a splash zone. It’s a background easily brought to foreground when sounds change. Sound acts in powerful ways on the mind. Look at music’s ability to evoke tears. Can a painting or photo do that? Sound seems to be hard-wired into the brain. We have eyelids to block sight, but not earlids to block sound.

What effect might a prolonged spell of water sounds have? In good weather my dreams are more vivid, memorable, and pleasant. Sound can relax us, but in bad weather it makes us tense, especially if we’re waiting for the next wave clobbering. On a sailboat you get one sound channel: waves. No forest noise, no desert critters, just waves. Nor can you adjust the volume or tone, except by changing the boat’s speed. What you hear is what you get, and the ear becomes finely attuned to change.

Day 27: I heard Jim yelp in surprise on his watch, then heard flopping, and laughed. A large purple flying fish landed right next to him. He threw it back. It’ll have a good story for its grandchildren. Each night before the full moon rises, we can see the constellation Southern Cross and many other new ones. The North Star has nearly dropped below the horizon. There is a whole new order in the night sky as we voyage to the constellation of islands and reefs that make up Oceania. On starry nights we talk in hushed tones, if at all. Seeing and hearing become forms of worship.

Our boat was cutter-rigged. “Tanbark” colored sails are traditional and more visible to others in fog and heavy rain.

Day 34: The equatorial sun is so strong that if you’re sitting in shade and a sunray falls across your foot, it feels like a heat lamp. We rig shade awnings and curtains every day. Another interesting thing that surprises us is how slowly we sail in winds that up in the colder north would have us moving smartly along. I had read of the difference between warm and cold wind and their effects on sails; it boils down to the fact that warm air is lighter and has less “push” on the sails at similar speeds to cold air, which is denser. If we hadn’t sailed up north for comparison, we would not believe it could be this noticeable, but it is. So now we go with our biggest sails in a breeze that might, in colder climes, overpower them. Wind like today’s should move us faster, but it doesn’t.

Day 38: We stopped counting the number of days we sat becalmed (roughly three weeks), and the number of squalls that hit us (a hundred?) Nature’s Bowling Alley left us soaked, chilled, tired, grumpy, and longing for fresh vegetables and a full night’s sleep. About 150 miles out from Fatu Hiva, a 38' sailboat came motoring up in the calm with a couple from Japan aboard. They didn’t have fuel to spare, but yelled, “YOU NEED BEER?” Jim laughed and held one up to say no, we have plenty. We nearly cried as they motored away without offering us some diesel. But they barely had enough for themselves. It was our first contact since day 7, when we chatted with a Russian freighter in the Panama-Canal-to-Yokohama shipping lane. We haven’t seen a plane, or even jet contrails since then. So, we continue to inch toward Fatu Hiva. On our last night at sea after a frustrating day of constant sail adjustments, the most spectacular sunset of the voyage was our reward. There was even a good-sized green flash as the sun sank into the sea. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.

Calm sunset off Fatu Hiva at the end of Day 37 at sea. The photo doesn’t do it justice.

When the green mansions of Fatu Hiva hove into view this morning, more squalls hit with 45 knots of wind. But neither of us cared. Optimism had overcome us.

Arriving in harbor, keeping an eye out for coral bommies. Photo by sailing friends.
Some of the “Green Mansions” of the Marquesas.
This is our route across the Pacific to New Zealand in 2012. It took two years, with lots of stops. Graphic courtesy of Off Center Harbor.

Karen L. Sullivan writes essays and humor in between more serious projects. Her work is published in The Belladonna, The Haven, Rainshadow Journal, Stonecoast Review, and elsewhere. Twitter: @karenlsullivan9.



Karen L. Sullivan
100 Stories by 100 Writers

Never ask a woman spooning ice cream out of a half-gallon carton how she’s doing. Top Writer in Satire and Ghastly Cooking. https://karenlsullivan.com/about/