The Sailor’s Life


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!!



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One Response to The Sailor’s Life

  1. KatieRose says:

    WOW! Love reading about your experiences. I do wish you could write more but I understand that is difficult to do under the circumstances. I’m glad to hear that you are tolerating the sea sickness so well. Now that you’ve explained the food and cooking I’m glad I didn’t join you. Of course I’d probably have lost weight or died and had to be buried at sea. :-). I’m so glad that you all are safe and made it through that tropical storm. Unfortunately, the bad weather looks to be headed out to the Atlantic between North Carolina and New York. I hope it won’t cause you all any problems.
    Next trip come sail the South Pacific. Love you both, look forward to the next chapter in your adventure.