A Series of Choices : Part I

Next stop, Guatemala

They say you don’t really know someone until you sail with them on a voyage on a 28-foot-boat. Or until you’re at the dock, getting ready to go on a voyage on a 28-foot-boat. They say that disasters at sea happen because of a series of events that lead up to them. Or a series of choices you make if you’re the captain or the owner of the vessel. Or a series of choices someone else makes if you’re the crew.

I was not in a disaster at sea. Obviously, I am here right now to tell the tale. But the nature of the distress I experienced happened that way; in a series of events, or a series of choices. Choices made by someone other than myself, because I was the crew.

The intended voyage was Rio Dulce, Guatemala, to Key West, FL on a 28-foot Pearson Triton. The boat was solid, this much I knew. Extensively outfitted for blue water. The captain had successfully made his way from the East Coast to the Rio with his young family in tow enjoying the foreign ports, sailing friendships, and beautiful scenery along the way.  The captain was known for being cautious, conservative, and doing everything to a T. There was really only one incident the entire way down where their weather forecast in Cuba was wrong and they experienced 30 knot winds and a wind over tide in the Gulf Stream during a 24 hour passage. The boat and crew made it through no worse for ware. I knew the captain personally and looked up to him for the work he had done to my boat’s sister ship.

The return trip was going to be a bit different. No family. More of a mission. A mission I felt prepared for, because I trusted the boat and the captain. We would go offshore as much as possible, with only one or two stops as seen fit at the time. He would pay all of my expenses (which were very minimal because a flight to Guatemala and food were very cheap). To compensate for my actual time spent sailing, which actually was costing me money because I’d be leaving my unfinished boat accruing fees in a boatyard, he was supposed to help me work on my boat and deliver some much needed spare gear he had. This was to happen when he dropped his trailer off at the boatyard he intended to haul out in, which was right near my boatyard. 

He never brought down the trailer, and thus never helped me work on my boat before leaving like he’d said. It was okay. Time gets away from you. I understood. I still wanted the sea time. I still trusted the boat and him. Then he didn’t have time to send the gear he’d promised for my boat, but he had time to send me two pounds of Pink Himalayan salt for the trip for me to carry in my luggage, and I had time to find him (us really at this point), a gimbaled stove from the used sailing shop which I paid for and also had to transport to Central America.

He then informed me that he had left his SPOT Tracker (a personal GPS Satellite tracking device that can be used for emergency communication) in the mountains of Guatemala, or was it California, or North Carolina, leaving the boat with no offshore emergency communication. Luckily I had my own SPOT device, which I had planned to activate anyway, but it was an older generation model that I’d been given for free and hadn’t used yet. Then he wanted me to buy him the waste and oil discharge placards required by the U.S. Coast Guard, or take the ones of my boat and let him use them. I only had two days between the last delivery I was on and leaving for this one. I was running around trying to pack, square my boat away, get any last minute supplies I would need, and activate and test my emergency communication device. I didn’t have time to go to buy them and I wasn’t going to peel stickers off my boat for him. I ignored his request for the placards.

I asked him how the weather patterns were looking. He replied by saying he hadn’t been looking at the weather, since he’s been so busy working on the boat, and he saw no point in looking at the weather until the boat was ready to go.

He then told me to bring my own pillow.

I didn’t have room in my luggage because I was carrying gear for him, my foul weather gear and personal safety equipment. He was starting to sound a bit unprepared and I was flying there the next day. Would I not have a pillow for this entire voyage? Was he so broke he couldn’t buy me a pillow in Rio Dulce, a busy little town where the U.S. dollar goes far? Was this indicative of what was to come?

I called my friend the night before leaving and asked “is this voyage ill fated?”

Baptism of fire

Everyone’s first time is different. Some are with a small, short dinghy. Others with a long, strong yacht. But me? My first time sailing was a 1200 nautical mile journey from Vavau’a, Tonga to Opua, New Zealand, out of sight from land for 10 sanguine days, on a posh 43 foot catamaran. No one told me not to put toilet paper in the head so how was I supposed to know (having never stepped foot on a sail boat before), that within hours of casting off from our mooring ball I’d be covering the toilet with saran wrap, hoping the excrements would stay put for the next 1200 miles? (Secret: we’d been at port living aboard on anchor for a little over two weeks waiting for a weather window to make our crossing. I’d been putting toilet paper in the head all along, so, knowing what I know now about marine toilets, I’m surprised it didn’t clog sooner).IMG_2325

It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Who I knew, not what I knew. The boys delivered the yachts to and fro twice each year and had room for me. So I paid my way from NZ to the islands and lived like a sailor for close to a month. I didn’t know cruising existed, and it wasn’t for many years later that I knew I could live on a boat, hell even own a boat of my own. Blissfully ignorant I had no idea the implications of sailing this somewhat treacherous area of the Tasman Sea at this time of year. I listened to but never felt concerned about the reports that came through the coconut telegraph on the VHF each morning. I trusted our captain, and we were at port a good while waiting for a clear window in between cyclones.

While in Tonga I walked a pig on a leash, rode in the back of a hay truck to a strange lagoon where the beach dropped suddenly off into the deep ocean, slept in a traditional Tongan hut with the branches of palm trees for bedding (when I told my Tongan friend I was freaked out by all the spiders in there he snapped his fingers and two little Tongan boys went and shook out all the leaves), ate a piglet roasted on a spit and root vegetables cooked in banana leaves, got the shits from drinking too much coconut water, got the shits from drinking too much kava, got the shits from eating too much papaya, got constipated from taking too much imodium.

While at sea…time blurred, or stopped all together. I felt truly free and alive for the first time. I cooked and made sure we didn’t run into any shipping containers. I kneaded and baked bread. I wrote sea shanty’s. I never got seasick. I picked up pumas from the water that had come from an underwater volcano eruption–it had tiny crabs living on it and I thought to myself, this baptism of fire is how it all began…