Now that I am in the Virgin Islands, I can be a little bit more “transparent”. When I say transparent, it’s a euphemism for “honest”—because, let’s be honest, I haven’t been totally honest.
Over the past several months, when I would tell well-meaning friends about my idea to sail 1,000 miles of open ocean over 10-15 days by myself, generally the first question was, “Have you ever done anything like that before?” I would answer with a halfway confident, “Kinda”. But, when I said “Kinda”, I really meant, “Not even close and I don’t even know what I’m getting myself into.” However, looking at that last sentence I just wrote, that’s not fair either. I had done a lot of reading and a lot of preparation. I would say that I knew intellectually what to expect but I really didn’t know what to expect from the emotional and stamina perspectives. I have quite a number of notebook notes and audio notes that I made during the passage and, over time, I will put them together into blog posts. What I’d like to do here though is provide an overall perspective and some salient remembrances.
If I were forced to boil the whole thing down into one lesson—into one thing that I learned—it would be this: Don’t, Freak, Out. When I say those three words aloud to myself they are so impactful and meaningful to me. However, when I type them and see them in front of me, they just look like three words. When I say them though, I say them slowly and in a metered rhythm. I also accentuate the first couple letters of each word: DOH—FRE—OWW. The second half of each word comes along for the ride. Try saying them to yourself, aloud. Maybe the spirit and meaning will come through.
I boil it all down to “Don’t freak out”, just because it would have been so easy to do so. Things that go awry when you are a couple miles from shore are totally different than the things that go awry when you are hundreds of miles offshore and by yourself. If you were to fall off your boat a couple miles offshore, your pride would be bruised no doubt, but it would heal. There’s no button to press if you want to stop the ride and get off.
Related to the don’t-freak-out concept and I think also proving the point, is a follow-up lesson for me: The ocean is big. Again, a simple concept and one that I knew intellectually. However, in the middle of the passage, I went for 2 1/2 or 3 days without seeing another ship. This includes not seeing anything on my every 30 minute checks of my AIS unit (Automatic Information System). It essentially extends my field of vision to a 24-nautical mile radius. In the daytime, I could see a ship maybe 5 miles distant. At night, add a couple miles if you count just seeing the glow of its lights. I was talking to my daughter Emma about this the other night and she wondered…how many people alive today have had the opportunity to be over a hundred miles from any other human being? It’s an interesting question that I hadn’t considered.
What’s crazy about this as well is that I wasn’t in the “middle” of the ocean. Sure, I was well offshore, but not like I was in the middle of the Pacific or something. Interestingly also is that I saw very few jets in the sky. I guess it’s because jets, like ships, don’t just fly around. They stick to their lanes. In looking back through my notes, when I did see one jet I wondered what the 200 or 250 souls onboard were thinking. Were any looking out the window down at the sea? Were they thinking about its size, power and expanse, and what we as a human race are doing to it? If so, it was probably the children onboard who were asking themselves those questions. Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
I was 3 or 4 days into the passage when I was visited by the most beautiful seabird I’d ever seen. I’m sure it’s beauty in the eye of the beholder (me) was enhanced by my sensory deprivation. It was a White-Tailed Tropicbird (thanks for the ID help MVK).
It flew around HJ for 10 or 15 minutes and actually made several unsuccessful attempts to land in her rigging.
I can understand a soaring seabird such as a Magnificent Frigatebird staying aloft well-enough to cover hundreds of miles, but the tropicbird is a “flapper”, it flies much more like a tern or a gull. To think of it, hundreds of miles from land was mind-boggling to me. Several hours later, I was visited by a pair of them. I spent a lot of time thinking and wondering about many questions. Was one of them the one I saw earlier? Are they a life pair? If one of the pair was the single bird I saw earlier, how did it communicate to it’s mate about the discovery of Hazel James?
The dichotomy of, on one hand, being in a boundless place—and on the other, being bounded by a 31 foot by 10 foot fiberglass hull was disorienting. What was orienting though were the stars, the planets and the moon. I could see the hourly and nightly changes in the sky like I never had before. Also, as I sailed south, I saw new stars in the southern sky every night. This climaxed two nights before I made landfall in the Virgin Islands when I saw the Southern Cross rise low in the southeast.
When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way
‘Cause the truth you might be runnin’ from is so small
But it’s as big as the promise, the promise of a coming day
—Crosby, Stills & Nash
Most every night I also saw bioluminescent plankton in my bow and stern wakes. Many times on cloudless and moonless nights, I’d turn off HJ’s running lights and turn off all unnecessary electronics. I left my AIS and GPS running but dimmed their displays to black. The combination of the stars and planets above with the bioluminescence below was worth every bit of effort it took to get there.
Here are a couple shots of me on the passage…
After three nights in a marina with hot showers, laundry and restaurant food for me, and some minor and not-so-minor repairs, a good washing with biodegradable boat soap and a lot of reorganizing for HJ—we are back in fighting-trim and ready to go. Tonight we are anchored-up in Christmas Cove, on the lee side of Great St. James island (just off the coast of St. Thomas island, USVI). Tomorrow we will sail over to St. John (still USVI) and do some snorkeling and hiking in the national park.
I can’t express how much you all mean to me. So often, during a beautiful part of the passage (like the sunset below), I’d think, “If only my family and friends were here to see this with me….” Perhaps that’s the way climbers feel when the summit a great mountain.
”Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
—This is one of my favorite “Mark Twain” quotes. However, in researching it turns out that it may have been H. Jackson Brown, Jr. or someone else who first said it. Regardless, it’s great.