Setting Sail

The learning curve on a sailboat seems to be quite rapid. When Captain says “let’s furl the yankee,” or “we’re gonna come up on the halyard,” the scattered shuffling through ropes with that look of sincere confusion only gets you so far. On a boat, it’s either learn or be useless, sink or swim.

A couple of golden rules that I’ve learned quite quickly here on the boat:

1. Always keep a hand free for the boat.
2. Read the wind.
3. Sleep whenever you possibly can.
4. Don’t take anything personally.

I’ve been at sea for three days now.

After chucking–literally, chucking–Joe off the boat in Utila,

we headed East; we were to take a route that followed roughly due East along the coast of Honduras, with a turn South alongside Nicaragua. Heading away from the island and watching it’s edges blur and size shrink, rocking gently back and forth, I felt again the pull at my heart-strings because I would soon be far away from Utila. But this time it was mixed with the tranquility that closure brings, knowing that there was no turning back at this point. I could look behind me and watch Utila become a memory, or look forward and marvel at the blue crests and troughs dancing as far as the eye could see. I took one last glance at the island as the sun hovered directly above, and never looked back again. Now it was time to jump head first into the world of nautical jargon, rope pulling, and uneasy cooking in a rocking cabin.

I assumed the role of a sponge on the first day, absorbing all the information I could until saturated to the point of chaotic confusion, my mind overflowing with “notes to self” about which line goes to which sail and which button turns on which electronic device. I was finding it difficult to organize information effectively, as nautical language requires a dictionary of its own, and simply taking a second in the moment of action to store a new word away was seemingly impossible.  My brain was constantly distracted by the ongoing warning signal, repeatedly firing the message: hold on to the damn boat!

But learning is my fuel, and so even if I hadn’t memorized the food stocks and locations, I at least knew the boat contained enough information to sustain me for a lifetime.

The hours passed calmly. We charted our progress by way of GPS coordinates and wrote in the logbook on the hour, every hour, describing the conditions, barometer reading, direction of the wind, and general conditions.


The “general condition” remained consistent for quite some time:


There are three of us on board, and we’ve found a calm dynamic among ourselves that reflects quite naturally the setting of the sea around us. Jason, the other mate on board, is easy to talk to about just about anything, as is Josh. But as the Captain, Josh is also task-oriented, efficient, and capable. We have our roles, and we have our jobs on board. My favorite, at the moment, is popping down into the cabin each hour for the charts.

The water is tranquil, and the sensation of being at sea is incredible.

When the sails are up and the wind is taking us, I feel like a little bug traveling on a leaf floating aimlessly with the tides. Of course, we have a precise sense of direction and purpose, but when I gaze out at the openness of the vast blue in all directions around me, I can lose myself in my own little dreamland.  The breadth of it all in any direction is hard to understand, especially from the vantage point of a little sailboat in the middle of nowhere.  But the meaning is there, loud and clear: you are on a very little thing in the middle of a much bigger but still little thing.  Hold on tight and enjoy the ride.


*    *    *    *    *

The first day passed gently. The islands of Roatan and Guanaja slipped away in the distance, and the sun set on a peaceful stage.


At dinnertime that first night, Josh introduced us to night watch procedures.  This is how it would work: we’d take shifts of 2 hours on, 2 hours off, with him overlapping with each of us for an hour. He showed us the harnesses, equipped with GPS safety devices, and a system that sounds an alarm in the cabin if the person wearing it goes overboard.

As he briefed us, I came to my first realization that sailing could be dangerous. In fact, I had never before considered what might happen at night on a sailboat. I guess I had foolishly imagined that an anchor gets thrown down each night and the sailor simply sleeps until morning and then raises sails again. Not only would this be an enormous waste of precious wind and time, but it doesn’t make you any more safe than cruising softly through the night with an eye out for other ships coming your way. See, another ship is the fear of the night watchman out here. With the GPS and perfect navigation systems, hitting sandbars or reefs is not really a concern, as long as the auto pilot is doing its job. But ships and weather, those are the things for which your senses become hyper sensitized at night on the sea.

Night watch became one of the most wonderful aspects of the journey for me. Exhausting as it is, there is not quite any feeling in the world like being at the helm of a boat in the middle of the ocean under the black starry night. The serenity and palpable responsibility of it all are overwhelmingly blissful, in some way that’s really difficult to describe.

But the last 15 minutes of watch is invariably a struggle. Peeking down into the cabin, I could see Jason fast asleep, as any reasonable person should be at this hour. After my 2 hours, I’d unclip from the harness, creep downstairs, and chart our progress under the red light we use at night. Then, looking at my watch to make sure I didn’t cheat him even a minute of that precious sleep, I’d gently tap his shoulder, with a “sorry, it’s time to wake up.” Those are never appropriate words at 1, 3, or 5 in the morning. But so it goes.

The second day was much the same as the first, though now that we were cruising with consistent wind direction and maintaining a speed of 5 knots, the hours began passing with not much to do besides talk among ourselves, read quietly on top of the deck, or sit and gaze aimlessly at the water. Jason sat at the stern trailing a fishing line out behind the boat. Sure enough, just as I was getting ready to prepare some lunch, there was a tug at his line.


It couldn’t have been more perfect timing.

As the boys cleaned the Skipjack Tuna in record time, I set to cooking rice, soaking shredded beets and ginger in soy sauce, and slicing avocados. For lunch, we feasted like kings:


Sushi rolls and sashimi, does life get any better than this?  Nothing goes unappreciated when you’re living out there in the aquatic wilderness, that’s for sure.

The next day the wind picked up a bit, and we pulled up a new sail in the bow, a “drifter.” This thing made us fly, and we sailed downwind for hours.

It wasn’t until afternoon today–day three–that we had to change from our entries of “calm” in the logbook to “windy.” Well, Josh made us change it. At 1600 he came up from the cabin after looking over our entries, and reminded us that “it’s not always calm.” I told him I had just been confused about the intention of “general conditions”–I had been reporting on my general mood, and didn’t know “windy” was an option.


The sunsets, the conversations, the hours I was able to spend in my own little world reading books on sailing masters of the past…these are the things I cherish about sailing.  Well, the dolphins swimming at the bow aren’t so bad, either.


The nautical nonsense is slowly beginning to make sense, and I am understanding the basics of how the boat works.  I’m learning from my mistakes, most of all to always hold onto something.  Even in calm seas, you can get tossed around quite easily.

On day 2 I was moving the preventor to the starboard side as we were getting prepared to tack, when a huge swell came up beneath the boat.  Like a rookie, I was fiddling with the thing using both hands while walking across the stern.  As we rocked over hard to the starboard side I was thrown into the lifelines.  In slow motion, I thought the sailors most dreaded thought:  I’m going overboard.   But alas, I was just found moments later, by a puzzled Captain, crumbled up on the side of the boat with bruises and rope burns to evidence my foolishness.  I gave him the universal “I’m OK!” signal from where I lay and staggered up to tend to my wounds.

Rule number 1.  Always.

One Response to Setting Sail

  1. Rachel Levitin

    Awesome! Such a cool adventure. Really makes me want to take to the sea :)

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