Aquatic Mammals

4/25/2013 1:06 AM (utc) – 23°01.48’N 123°21.53’W

A week ago, Nepenthe sailed out of Ventura Marina on a cool, clear day, a steady breeze filing her sails.  As the sun set on that first day, we were beyond sight of land and, well, that should be about it until we hit Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands. Today we’re about a quarter of the way there– 700 miles of 2,833 total. From our current position, you could head 731 miles due east and hit the southern tip of Baja California, or about 1,800 miles west and run into Hawaii. Or, if the fancy struck you, you could head due south and the first land you would hit, 5,700 miles later, would be Antarctica. Yesterday, we were surprised to cross paths with a Singaporean container ship by the name of Orchard Bulker on her way to Guangzhou (6,400 miles), but in all likelihood, we won’t see another ship until we’re within shouting distance of the Pacific islands.

Our little boat is comfortable enough for our crew of four: two tiny cabins in the stern, and a third in the bow. I’m relegated to the berth amidships (which is to say, in the middle of the boat), short on privacy as it’s in the living room/galley/salon below decks. I sleep on a sort of shelf up against the wall, and I must go fully horizontal before I am able to enter it. When we’re underway, I can hear the water gurgling and rushing by on the outside of the hull, and the overall sensation is something like sleeping in a three-sided coffin that’s being flushed down a giant toilet. But with the seas rocking my cradle every night, I’ve actually been sleeping pretty well.

Though I will say the rocking took some getting used to. Our second day on the water was, for me, a blur of violent illness and long naps. Every salty old sea dog I talked to before the trip assured me that I would almost certainly be seasick for a few days, and then I would almost certainly get over it. Not one to take such chances, I’m traveling with a veritable salad bar of seasickness medications, including one that isn’t, strictly speaking, FDA-approved, though it’s apparently what NASA gives to queasy astronauts, and another that is alternatively employed as a truth serum and a facilitator of kidnappings.

Courtesy of this floating pharmacy, I awoke on the third day feeling greatly reinvigorated, and I was welcomed back into the world by a pod of dolphins bounding over the horizon. The ocean has a way of keeping you going, even as she torments you (so say, anyhow, the aforementioned salty old sea dogs), and these dozen dolphins stayed with us all day, playing in our wake and seeming to encourage us on, surfacing for air together and darting under and around the boat in pairs and threes.

Our primary daily task, of course, is to sail this boat. On our first few breezy days, this was, well, a breeze.  We’d set our sails in the morning, and hardly touch them as we sliced through the ocean all day before setting a more modest arrangement for the night. Much of this week, however, we’ve been becalmed, bobbing like a cork in a bathtub. Our only wind has come in gusts from the north– half an hour of calm, fifteen minutes of breeze, then another still period– like the steady exhale of slumbering arctic giant. In these winds, we’ve been sailing with our spinnaker, a technicolor parachute that balloons out before our boat as we cruise downwind. It’s been an interesting challenge to harness and finesse it– Henry described the process as like “flying a kite the size of a tennis court,” which is not far off the mark.

Being at sea narrows the world considerably, and also, I have found, narrows the range of things one might think about: wind, food, fellow crew, clouds, waves, vengeful whales, etcetera. And so beyond our sailorly activities, we go about our days methodically, circumscribed by this forty-three foot tub, constantly in motion, always listing fifteen degrees to starboard. Simple tasks, as you might imagine, become rather difficult. In the old sailor adage: “one hand for yourself and one for the ship,” and when that fails, you go ahead and strap yourself in.  Meals are cooked with the help of a gimbaled stove that swings with the swell, and dishes are washed by quite literally binding yourself to the sink (an innovation that might find another application in dealing with chore-shirking teenagers). Even taking a whiz comes with risk of high comedy every time you unzip– one hand for the ship and one on yourself, to be sure, lest you befoul the head and get clobbered against the rocking hull.

Our weather is forecast to improve in the morning, and then we’ll be off and away again, south and west in the trade winds. Before then, I’ll be enjoying the graveyard shift at the helm– 2am to 5am, looking out for commercial traffic, oncoming squalls, rogue waves and shifty winds. The moon will be full, and if this night is anything like the past few, the ocean will stretch out from our hull, endless in all directions, glinting glassy and metallic in the glow, and above me our sails will be silhouetted black against a bright, starry sky.

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