Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Bermuda Triangle

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East of Cape Canaveral we turned eastward in response to weather conditions. The winds had picked up, and seven to ten foot swells were coming on strong, row after row. With our new heading we were pulling 10 knots, sometimes even 13, due to heavy winds and the fact that we were literally surfing the swells. A trail of white foam traced out our path, slowly fading behind the current monstrous wave that we were hopelessly trying to reach the bottom of. Ominous darkness lay dead ahead, weaving blackness together under a moonless night as if some wizard somewhere was waving his arms and practicing his most powerful spell yet. The swells continued to grow, throwing us around to the point that all of us were no longer thinking of moving about. Clutching our nearest secure holds we were all wide eyed, and quiet. Fear began to show its ugly head, yet somewhere in the midst of it, as we sailed straight into the belly of darkness, an odd beauty stayed at our side. I watched in awe, full of mixed feelings, as our phosphorescent surfing trail percolated behind us and then disappeared over the top of the swells. “Shit, Shit,” our captain kept saying as he looked straight ahead. We all knew what that meant. We had to go outside to take down the front sail and reef the main. Splashing water poured over the side of the boat, drenching Angela in her coveted spot, and dousing the cockpit. Her facial expression didn’t change in the slightest. Constant thuds under the hull were slapping us around at will. “The winds are at 30 maybe 35 knots,” Gwen said. If we didn’t drop some cloth soon we wouldn’t ever have to again. It wasn’t raining, but you wouldn’t know it to look at us climbing outside. Angela took the wheel. Usually at this point she would turn a bit upwind to make things easier on us, but all she could do in this situation was wait to hand us the winch handle through the little plexiglass window at the right time, and be ready to throw out a life jacket if one of us got thrown off by a ten foot wave as it engulfed the bow of the ship. Dead ahead was a full-blown tropical storm. All night we slid around the boat, water crashing in, pouring everywhere. Everything was wet, everything was out of place, knives flew around as we rushed to pin them down and put them inside a secure compartment, bruising our knees, elbows, and shoulders as we slammed into walls after sliding across the floor. The wind picked up even more. “Forty knots,” our captain said. “This definitely qualifies as a tropical storm. Let’s hope it doesn’t grow into a hurricane.” There would be no sleeping this night, not a single minute. All we could do was try to eat saltine crackers, sip on ginger ale, and hold on while we tried to remind ourselves to stop holding our breaths. I kept thinking that if we made it to sunrise then we’d be ok. When day broke the only thing that had changed is that now we could see the waves coming at us. They were huge – 25, sometimes 30 feet tall. We watched with white knuckles as we went up and down, constantly in fear of double waves, the ones that would send you straight up, then just as you coming down, pointing either nose down or tipped with one side down, the second wave would come crashing in drowning us in the cockpit. The grey sky was void of any patches of hope. More saltines and ginger ale as we shivered in wrinkled skin. All day long in continued. Just before sunset we started to see small patches of blue sky, and miraculously, a rainbow. I always heard that rainbows were good signs, but never before had it been so personal. Then we noticed something crazy. According to our compass, the thing we had been staring at so intently to get us through this, we were going directly east. But the sun was setting directly at our left. I was pretty sure that even in the Bermuda triangle the sun was supposed to set in the west, but what did I know. We had all heard the ghost stories about compasses acting strangely in the Bermuda triangle, about the rough seas, and about disappearing ships. None of us had put any stock in those particular stories, but now that we were two for three, tropical storm and a northern sunset, we had to worry about what would come next. The next day I stared at our GPS position and noticed that we were tracking north, but the compass said we were going east. Then we found the culprit – a magnetized screwdriver had rolled up under the compass and was interfering with its magnetic field. Whew! Maybe that means we are only one for three and if we are lucky we can just leave it at that.

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The Calm

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Rounding the bottom of Florida, with the lights of Miami to our distant left and the soft glow of Cuba to our right, we got our very first experience of calm waters. The only waves were small ripples that made the surface glassy and smooth as they distorted the sunset clouds into a reflective surrealistic painting. No swells, no rocking back and forth, no calculating how to walk around, or trying to time your steps in time with the up strokes, and no worrying about the boom swinging around and knocking you out. This was a completely new sailing experience. With relatively light winds we ran every possible square foot of cloth up the mast. Afterwards we had the sensation that we were doing about 4 to 4.5 knots. Lucky for us, however, the currents rounding the bottom of Florida were moving at 5 knots in the same direction. So in total we were going 9.5 knots with the smooth sensation of only 4.5 knots. As Miami slowly faded behind us we entertained ourselves by watching the steady flow of cargo ships. We saw more ships that night than any other. Humans… so close, yet still so far away. I’m beginning to fully appreciate the opportunity to be social.

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The Sailor’s Life

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Ok, a few weeks back Jeff asked to know what the seafarer’s life was like. I usually try my best to share my adventures to inspire others to follow their dreams and expand their horizons. Rarely do I give a glimpse into the regular life activities that make those adventures possible. So here it is – the between the lines every day life for us (at least right now) that is making our adventures possible.

My day usually starts one of two ways. “Thad” a whisper almost entirely overwhelmed by the wind and creaking ship sounds. ”Thad,” again but a loud enough to stir me from my half sleep. “THAD!” “Yeah?” I reply half startled in the awkward position that represents my latest attempt to stop rolling from side to side. “Its your turn.” “Ok, just a minute.” I have to put my contacts in, which is a bit tricky when everything is moving.

The four of us take hour and a half shifts at the helm, which defines the backbone of the nights. During the day the length of the shift is up in the air. Everyone kind of just takes turns until they get sick of being there. If they are listening to their iPod, or if everyone else is busily doing other, less desirable chores, or if they are just trying to be nice, then they might be there for up to 4 hours.

The captain’s chair is relinquished as the person before me jumps out of the chair, which is rather high. Before they leave they give me the update – something like “We’re doing about 5 knots, the course is 30 to 40, but don’t go past 40” (because the sails will start flapping and you’ll lose steering control). And then there is often an external conditions report like, “There’s lightning on our starboard side coming our way but slowly, no ships in the last hour and a half, the swells are getting larger, and there is still no sign of Mr. Feathers.” Then I jump into the chair and begin either a series of small corrections – left and right as I stare at the glowing red compass, or wild turns hard left, flexing my muscles to hold it, then suddenly hard right.

From inside the cockpit I can’t see much at night. The glass is tinted enough to fade out all interesting data. The wheel goes four complete revolutions from hard left to hard right. It is plain aluminum with a diameter of about 3 feet. Because it is far away from the chair I usually cycle between steering with my feet when things are relatively smooth, with my hands when they require fairly dedicated concentration, or standing up when the world is coming to an end and you’re steering everyone directly to it.

Here’s the regular alternative. “Thad,” whispered just above the wind and creaky noises. “Got it,” I quickly reply. I’m up and totally ready to have an excuse to do something. I already have my contacts in because it was impossible to take them out while being violently tossed about in my cabin. The entire vessel is leaning at about 40 degrees to one side, rocking, shaking, throwing us all around like we were in a dryer. Unable to lay in the bed (I’ve been practically standing on the wall for hours) I slide down the wall and brace myself with all fours as I try to get through the little cut out doorway, which has razor sharp edges. Up the four stairs to the cockpit I walk more with my hands than my feet, which are only there to stop me when I slide across the room. The compass is dancing back and forth, turning to one side, than the other, but not rotating on its axis much. As I sit there in the fancy chair, tilted to one side, I feel like a blind person on a rollercoaster that only turns one way. I can’t see the waves coming so they all catch me by surprise.

I look on my phone, on the SEAiq Open program (thanks Jeff for helping me set that up – it is awesome!!) and check where we are, our current speed, and start fantasizing about the next location. Dropping anchor means a good night of sleep – usually. Everywhere we’ve stopped so far has been fascinating, strange, and completely new to me. It is amazing to think that we are sailing the Caribbean and are going to cross the Atlantic, following the same route that Columbus, and Drake took, learning little details about the passes, small islands, the sea life, the ocean currents, the winds, discovering some of the secrets about Nature that Blackbeard surely knew, and seeing spectacular sunsets.

We now know about little places in the middle of the ocean that have “almost islands.” Many ships have hit bottom in these places, turning them into shipwreck graveyards. We now know what its like to sail around a cape, with lighthouses in the distance trying to warn you, with the currents all mixing about, creating waves with random amplitudes and huge swells, as we fight against the wind. And with each passing day we relate more and more to the timeless human plight of deeply missing the world that you used to think of as ‘normal.’

One useful thing to know is that sailing downwind is a completely different monster than sailing upwind. Going upwind means more violent conditions because you are going against the swells, which shortens their effective wavelength and making them feel much stronger. Going with the swells is wonderful. That’s the best time to sleep. The entire ship smoothly goes up and down, up and down. It practically rocks you to sleep – so long as you are properly braced for that random wave. If we are going downwind, and the wind is relatively light, then we use the spinnaker, which is rather like half of a colorful hot air balloon. Otherwise we put out our main sail and a genoa (we have two different sizes), and sometimes we even put up a third sail called a cutter between the two.

When the winds suddenly pick up we have to rush outside like someone threw a grenade on deck and we have to toss it off before we die. First we drop the sails, pulling the cloth in as it falls. This task sounds simple, but when the ship is tossing side to side, simply standing can require more skill than you can muster. Then we untie the sail (three ropes attached) switch it out for another, retie the new one and then begin hoisting. It is important to use the right knots – the bowline has become my favorite. The ability to untie a knot is just as important as its ability to remain secure. Being stuck on the deck with cloth and rope flapping around while you are trying to untie your knot is an easy way to get hurt.

One person wraps the rope around the winch a couple of times and hoists until they can’t any more, then the other person inserts the winch handle and begins tightening to assist them. All the while teeth stay clenched and mouths stay closed because the two ropes tied to the bottom of the genoa are whipping around in the sky. If you get hit in the teeth with your mouth open it might break one of them – or so we’ve been told. We haven’t tested this claim out yet – plenty of time left for that.

In order to get a good picture of how chaotic this can all be, imagine all of those details, add rain, and enough wind that you can’t hear other people yelling at you from five feet away, remember the constant tossing of the boat, visualize the surfaces that are covered in salt crystals that you have to sit on to balance yourself as you pull ropes, and of course, imagine that everyone is in their underwear (or swimming suits). Its quite an exercise.

At the other extreme, calm conditions can be just as life changing as regular near death experiences. At night there always seems to be lightning somewhere on the horizon. When the moon is gone the plankton light up our wake, sometimes we can see stars, meteors and their reflections on the water, distant lighthouse flashes, all while the boat is caressed by the water beneath.

When the moon is out it keeps you company and makes you start to think about how different the world feels. We are sailing at an average of 3-7 knots. (A knot is about 1.1 miles.) The fastest we have pulled for a brief moment (according to our GPS) is 12.5 knots. 7 knots feels really fast on the ship. I walk at about 4 knots per hour on land, and I run at about 8.25 knots. For some reason it feels really strange to realize that we are going from Panama, to Columbia, to the Cayman Islands, around Cuba, through the Bahamas, to Bermuda, the Azores, then Portugal, Spain and France all at a speed that I can do on foot. It makes the world feel completely different to me. It even makes the stars feel a little closer.

The food situation on board is quite bad – which makes me sympathize with the sailors of old. Our captain insists on doing all of the shopping for some reason. He is French and fancies himself a good cook. He probably is, but we don’t currently have many ingredients in our kitchen that I recognize, and even less that my stomach is ok with. It turns out that on a boat I become much much more picky about what I eat. The gallon of rotten, unrefrigerated mayo makes me gag with just a little wiff. Gwen likes to toss a cup or two of that into everything he makes except coffee, which I don’t care for anyway. It is quite difficult to have anything more than a snack on the boat. Gwen happily cooks elaborate meals, throwing together some cyan, some stink dust, mayo, vegetables that now support their own ecosystem, etc. I just can’t do it.

When conditions are real smooth I can go downstairs and cook a soup, but that is about as complicated as I want. When things aren’t rough, I honestly find myself willing to wait hours for them to calm down while starving rather than trying to go in that kitchen. Nothing gets you seasick faster than trying to stir a pot on the stove without being able to see out, while the whole ship gets tossed side to side. The stove swings about, keeping its surface relatively level, but from the reference frame of the boat it really looks like it is tossing around. That’s because in the kitchen we REALLY get thrown around when the waves are bad. Once, while trying to do dishes, I had my foot half way up the far wall to support myself. The water in the sink started spilling on the floor (that’s how steep we were slanted). Being subjected to those motions, while trying to perform a concentration task (not drop the dishes and break them and somehow get them clean and safely put away before throwing up) is something I will avoid from now on at all costs. For now I’m perfectly fine eating a piece of bread and fantasizing about some of Angela’s enchiladas, Jeff’s turkey and potato dinners, or delightful restaurant experiences with Elaine and Phil.

The bathroom experience is worth mentioning. First off, it is awesome having a bathroom again. After living out of Wiggles for four months, having a bathroom right there all the time is quite nice. It has a mirror, a flushing toilet, which actually dumps directly into the water, and a sink. That’s the good stuff. The bad stuff is that somehow gas leaked into our water tank, so using the water to wash your hands is kind of counterproductive. You just end up smelling like gas afterwards. The pump on the toilet works, kind of. Sometimes it takes a bit of working on, and let me tell you, you don’t want to be down there in that cramped little space, trying to get things to go down while the whole ship is tossing about. You really don’t want that!

Showers are worth a note too. This boat has a shower, but it doesn’t work. So, instead we fill up a camp shower, like the one we had in Wiggles, from the kitchen sink. The bad parts are that that water comes from the same tank as the bathroom sink, so showering is really pointless. Still, after a few days we all break down, toss a bucket overboard, rinse with saltwater naked on the side of the ship, soap up, (the soap acts strangely with saltwater) rinse as much as we can, then use the diesel/water bag to rinse off. Then we tie the shower bag back off so it doesn’t get tossed with the next wave. The showerhead is missing, so the rinses aren’t quite as fancy as they were with Wiggles, but that’s no big deal. If we ever find out how to stop the gas leak, and can get a fresh water rinse, so our soap actually works, ahhhhhh that will be nice. On the plus side, whenever we push right through a heavy rainstorm we get a perfect opportunity to take a delightful shower. Rain-showers are wonderful experiences.

In our cabin we have our own little fan!!! I love that fan! Angela and I bought it before we left Panama. We unscrewed the light in our cabin and spliced the wires to power the fan too, which we mounted on the ceiling. When things get too hot we can always go down there and at least evaporate. That’s my little piece of sanity.

I hope that gives you a good idea what the seafarer’s life is like. There are many details that make each day unique that I haven’t included. For example, the other day we ran into a pod of dolphins that were eager to show off. Several of them had fancy jumping tricks. Mother child pairs loved to race alongside the front of our boat. It lasted for about 10 minutes. This happened in the middle of nowhere with no land in sight. The flying fish are thinning out now. I suppose they are more common in the south (where they were literally visible every second of the day). We’ve seen a few turtles coming to the surface for some air and every now and then, and when we are anchored, we sometimes get startled by a large splashing sound of an entire school of fish all touching the surface in sync and then rush back down.

Reading and writing are far more difficult to accomplish at sea than I anticipated. The capture the wind just right we seem to need to be constantly trimming the sails, taking down or putting up reefs, and making small adjustments. It is a life of rope, knots, cleats, compasses, winds, motion, and a large helping of randomness. I’m really glad to be getting this experience and I’m really looking forward to finding my way back spending time with all my friends and loved ones left behind. Wish us luck on the crossing. And please send messages. I really miss communication with you all!!

Loves,

Thad

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Sting Ray City

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To visit Sting Ray City we sailed around to the north side of the island, dropped anchor about 50 meters from the reef, and then began swimming to the coveted spot. The reef was more decorated with life than any other reef I’ve ever seen. There were ink fish, barracuda, turtles, fat face fish, schools of flat black fish, pencil fish, dozens of different brightly colored fish, and of course, sting rays.

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15 minutes later we were at the right spot, marked by two boats floating above. On the seafloor there was a pack of SCUBA divers sitting cross legged in a circle and holding out small portions of food. The Rays would come right up to the divers and glide over them, making contact with them as if they were polished marble. Holding my breath I joined the SCUBA divers and caught the attention of the rays. I joined their delicate dance and then almost screamed in excitement (and a little fear) as they began to glide all over me. Their dorsal sides were hard with almost spiny backbone regions. And their white underside was soft and squishy with cute little mouths that seemed to smile.

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One rather large ray climbed Gwen and then tried to sit on him like a hat. It was quite amusing. For about a half an hour we went up and down, holding our breath and playing with these wondrous sea creatures. Then it was back out into the great unknown where the horizon becomes indistinguishable in every direction.

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Mr. Feathers

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A couple of hours before sunset, 200 knots north of Columbia, which is about as far away from land as you can get in this stretch of the Caribbean, something special happened. An extremely exhausted, about to give up on life, pigeon landed on our boat. He was so tired that once he landed he didn’t have the energy to move away from us as we approached, even though he was surely afraid. We gave him some space for a while, then tried to feed him. He didn’t eat, but when we raised the lid of a water bottle next to his beak he drank it with vigor, and then six more.

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For 15 hours that little pigeon stood on the console right next to the big steering wheel, blinking, and watching us take our shifts. We fed him bread and water as many times as he would take them. Then, finally, he started to get his energy back. A day later he was following us around everywhere, jumping on our arms and shoulders and staring into our faces when he wanted more food or water, walking on the keyboard whenever Gwen pulled up our navigation charts, and pooping. We thought he would fly away as soon as he had the strength to, but it was clear there was a bond there. Scott and I didn’t mind repeatedly throwing the bucket overboard and then pulling it back up to wash and scrub Mr. Feathers’ mess off the deck. We needed Mr. Feathers – probably a little more than he needed us.

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When we got to the Cayman Islands we tried to encourage Mr. Feathers to go to land because the French man was talking a little too much about cooking him. We shooed him, but he came right back. We all stood on different sides of the boat and waved our arms as he flew about, but he just kept circling, looking for a spot to land. Then finally he turned away, but instead of going to shore he landed on the nearest boat and watched us. Two days later, just before we pulled up anchor, we saw Mr. Feathers fly to shore. We didn’t see any other pigeons in the Cayman Islands, so we assume that he will eventually be moving on. We were both happy to see Mr. Feathers safely on land, and sad to say goodbye to a friend that did so much for our smiles. In all the time we knew him he never made a sound. He just blinked at us and made us guess what he was thinking. We were happy to talk for him. Thanks for everything Mr. Feathers!

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