Monday, March 17, 2014

The Offshore Sailing Experience: Overly Romanticized First Impressions From a Life Long Newb

Sea trials continue aboard Robin with a recent 30 mile offshore sail south to Palm Beach and next day return over the weekend.  I have exited the Stuart/Saint Lucie inlet on a Catalina 32 with a friend before and remember the water churning between the rocks, with us taking massive sheets of water over the bow and across the deck.  For about 200 meters, a little bit of current, shallowing depth to a narrowing straight, and the gentle incoming ocean swell combine to become a hippopotamus washing machine, the type of washing machine that you would use to heavy rinse, spin cycle and tumble dry an entire load of dirty hippopotami.  After those 200 meters, everything becomes gentle ocean swell.  That was not yesterday.

I felt a bit sick as I approached the inlet with thoughts about everything I had worked for, everything I had built, every penny spent, a normal life deferred and invested in this, this inert thing that I am now taking into an unforgiving ocean that doesn't care if it takes it all from me.  Then my thoughts become much more minute and detailed.  I began to think about every fitting that I had checked for proper torque in the rig, hoping that I hadn't missed one somehow, every detail of the last three years of building the boat came into my mind.  I felt momentary panic as I tried to recall an actual memory of tightening every fitting and every keel bolt and every engine bolt.  Each one sprung to mind, but can I even trust my memory?  Is my mind feeble?  Am I just trying to convince myself of safety?  Am I sure I didn't completely hallucinate the last three years of hard work?

Then the inlet came.  Or rather our eight-ton boat blasted through a wall of water after diving off the end of a water-cliff, sending a foot of water over the bow and foredeck.  At the same time, Sarah accidentally bumped the engine control from full-bore to idle.  I thought we had stalled the engine with the massive crash, but at least I was thinking something new and present.  We were now without power exactly in the middle of near-vertical ten foot seas between two very unforgiving rock spoil islands about 50 meters off either side. That moment of real panic instantly flipped the switch and put all other worries in perspective.  When shit hits the fan, for me, everything slows down, I feel calm, and priorities fall into line.  Suddenly it didn't matter if I had properly tightened any of those bolts now.  I planned it, and I did it, and now the only thing that mattered was getting out of the inlet and sailing the boat with all my faculties.  Within that life-long second of stark reality, I realized what had actually happened and slammed the engine back into full thottle; eyes, hands, and mind resolute on escape.  After a few more crashes we were clear of the inlet.  Motion became more ocean-like, but not as much as the NOAA weatherman had led me to believe.  It turned out that while the inlet's washing machine was still running on heavy duty cycle as expected, the ocean was apparently left running as well.  The weather had predicted 2-3 foot swells in a 7-9 second interval with 10 knot winds coming from the east, putting us on a lovely bobbing reach down the coast.  We ended up beating into a 25 knot southeast wind in 5-6 foot seas that were on a 3-4 second interval, but raised our sails, shut down the engine, and set our course south anyway.

The motion reminded me of my blacked out rides on Blackhawks, Chinooks, and the small twin prop cargo planes run by the special operators, winding through the windy canyons and valleys of Afghanistan, mapping the earth with our turbulent flight path.  Even tumbling along off-camber mountain roads in humvees peering through tiny green tunneled nightvision goggles watching for wadis and ravines induces a similar feeling.   These motions are incomprehensible to people with feet perpetually on land.  Feeling the world in three dimensions instead of just two, as your ground support seems to tilt wrecklessly and sometimes falls out from underneath you.  But I've never been one for motion sickness.  I was the guy calmly reading the newspaper as we dove and swept through the mountains.  This was my element.   Robin ate up the stiff seas as gracefully as could be expected.  I sat confidently, but easily, allowing my body to shift with the constant motion, hand on the tiller, eyes scanning the sails, the rig, the water, and the horizon, my only concerns with the next wave and the next wind shift.  I entered my zen state: the blind, uncaring world, and me. Riding it out, keeping an eye on it, and feeling its continued warnings by the seat of my pants.

All the books I have read and experiences of my life may have prepared me for this physically and mentally, but none of them prepared me emotionally.  The feeling of freedom and joy when you get to live life for yourself, of your own accord, proceeding into an environment of your own choosing in the direction that you want to go.  I wasn't doing it for anyone or anything else, nor was I a slave to the perpetual years of boatwork and dreamchasing.  This was me, being me, for the first time in my life.  This was the dream.  It was coming true.  It was finally tangible.  I wasn't expecting the dramatic state of the seas to be less dramatic than the emotional transformation.  In a way I finally became a man in those hours to Palm Beach, every dousing of salty spray adding hair to my chest and iron to my hands and soul.  Some people find themselves in the company of or under the tutelage of others, but some people must find themselves by themselves.

Unfortunately Sarah was sick almost the entire day, and I looked after her as best as I could. The seas calmed some in the last dusk hour before we pulled into the Palm Beach inlet and dropped anchor at sunset.  We met up with a friend of a friend there and came back to our slip in Stuart up the Intra-Coastal Waterway the next day.  But what detailed events actually occurred during those two days?  I barely remember.  I barely care.  I just know that I felt it, and it felt correct.

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