Distil the Essence of Sailing

It’s hard to describe what goes on day to day at sea, here I’ve tried to Distil the Essence of Sailing

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Sailing oceans is not like a plane or car ride. Nothing is certain except a vast puddle of water and a great stretch of sky. The days pass, measured not in hours but in distance. It’s dynamic, fantastic, and petrifying all at the same time. There is rarely pattern or logic; you deal with what’s received, as it arrives . . . moment by moment.

It’s dynamic, fantastic, and petrifying

Weather: Receiving weather fax is a daily task and is usually in direct association with my internal weather system. When we are tossed and buffeted I feel beaten. In good weather, I shift from thoughts of selling the boat to designing a new vegetable rack. Viewing the complete picture on synoptic charts we are sometimes anxious but always ready.

On watch: When all is settled and Pyewacket is gliding to her mission I become drenched by memories that have no regard for place or circumstance; some thoughts enough to make me blush into the night. Recollections of those I have hurt make me squirm. I cradle my own hurts in time with the rocking motion. I recall forgotten good times, as a kid, card games with my family by candlelight during frequent power cuts, it makes me smile. With no pattern, I think of things I should have done with my life, when the sailing charms me I realise there is still time. It’s like a switch flipping; morose thoughts are thawed by smooth sailing.

drenched by memories that have no regard for place or circumstance

Boredom plays no part. There is clearing up, receiving weather, radio scheds, power monitoring, fixing/maintaining, reading, checking the lines and rigging, resting, and sail changes too! Navigating with paper charts, joining the dots, creating a highway that proves we are moving; drawing a line we seem to follow. I daydream of smelling sweet grass and leaning against grand trees, succulent roast chicken and gooey ice cream. We keep moving, our thoughts do too, drifting away like clouds.

Off watch: In tune with the vessel new sounds are obvious; ‘Hasty Tasties’ (canned food) can wriggle loose and create a drumbeat with a thriving echo. Snuggled in a comfy bunk listening to the patter of rain on deck, the ocean rushing alongside and creaking lines are comforting. When I hear Noel ‘galley squirreling’ I anticipate the smells. Tea means it is my time to stand watch (the tea for me, like Pavlov’s dog I become instantly alert). Coffee means I can close my eyes as he’s making a mid-watch eyelid boost. Efforts of sleeping are linked with conditions, the gentle motion like a swaying train, or the vicious rolling in a malevolent and restless ocean where your insides jostle within your skin.

Orchestral music: The halyards play a rhythmic beat of hollow notes on the mast. The soft hum of the wind generator sends the first alert of wind increasing. The thud, slip-slap death throes of flying fish; either rescued by the soft-hearted crew or left hidden in the dark to gasp their last breath. Late leapers on board are still fresh in the morning, succumbing to the carnivorous needs of those onboard. The boom creaks, the soft click of the Aries windvane when we pull on a piece of string to change course. Noel can be soothed by the engine’s hum. I find it jarring like the dissonant chords of raw wind.

Seascape: The broad shimmering band of the Pacific Ocean is saturated with rich blue, almost purple. Low blue-grey clouds give way to fuzzy yellows along the horizon. The sun glides beneath the rim of the world and for a few glorious moments, the sea turns into a thick rich mixture of molten, reflecting the pattern from heaven. We are a minute particle upon the eternity of ocean and sky, that particle our home and world. Birds scoop a flight path around the sails, catching air currents. We watch the moon rise lazily across the sky to her peak, lighting a silver path just for us; marvelling in the waxing then waning. Bright and bold Sirius becomes my neat shot of pre-dawn adrenaline, bolting me from daydreaming as it curves across the black canvas.

Sirius becomes my neat shot of pre-dawn adrenaline

Travelling Tangs: Amid a tangy brew of percolating coffee and salty damp, is the strong olfactory confirmation that a flying fish has landed on the deck. Onions sizzling in the pan is a near-daily event onboard, meal creativity starts here. Sun-dried canvas evokes memories of summer holidays of our youth; the damp cotton cockpit cushions, penetrated by salt, never quite dry. The contrasting whiff of exhaust encourages seasickness, the sweet smell of freshly baked bread inspires hunger.

And then night comes: Watching for the lottery of squalls under the cover of darkness, the lightning cuts the atmosphere in two. As foreboding shadows creep nearer I feel the taut anticipation. At times the clouds seem to rub out the stars. The fake stability of the inverted cone of deck lights when shifting the spinnaker pole. My sodden hair slapping against my cheeks during downpours, while muscles bunch above the rotating deck, harnesses firmly in place. And finally dawn, where the horrors vanish and the air can become so crisp, it feels as though it would shatter with words.

muscles bunch above the rotating deck

Paradoxical beauty: Pounding waves, great geysers of water, white bubbles chuckling softly amid giant swells. Plunging into the void, pushing away thoughts of what lurks below. The wind from hell, a neighbourhood we are keen to avoid. Disgruntled clouds carrying punches, soft marshmallow trade clouds. Hopping in a warm bunk, trusting my partner with my life enables me to sleep. Malcontent wind and waves provide rude awakenings. The dawn paints the horizon in breathtaking crimson or sadistic black. Stiff and useless salt incrusted lines, like icing on a bun. The crucial burden of stores, lifted with the seas. Vivid green phosphorescence streaks behind magnificent dolphins and rainbow reflections of oil. The paradoxical beauty of the ocean – a lesson in humility.

Togetherness: We are a tag team, 5 or 6 hours on/off watch. We usually reef, take breakfast and evening meals together, propping each other up in bad weather. We can both operate all aspects of the boat, an important skill when only two onboard. On calm seas we brush up on celestial navigation, writing and enjoy eating finer meals that take time to prepare. In bumpy waters, we eat one-pot repasts. Shifting winds, unkind seas, and endless squalls are frustrating but mellowed by the kindness of my partner, the gift of an extra hour’s sleep, no grumbling when I wake him early to help me reef. When I despair at the approaching lightning or struggle with violent weather, Noel says “it will be okay” and it always is.

Home: The unique colours of the Australian sky are drawing us home. As the sun slopes off behind the horizon it paints Aussie golds, woven with tinges of low pearly clouds. For a few glorious moments, the sea is warmed by the reflection of yellow. We are absent from society, but not for long.

Distilling the essence of life at sea: It’s a love-hate relationship, a roller coaster. The journey becomes etched on our skin. Vibrant bruises match vivid sunsets. There are tremendous stresses on equipment as well as our bodies. We learn something new each day, about sailing and ourselves. Sailing the oceans isn’t easy, but offers magnificent rewards with perseverance. We whinge about the effort, but secretly we are glad, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

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