Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call
Wanted to sail upon your waters
Since I was three feet tall
You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all
(A Pirate Looks at Forty – Jimmy Buffett)
Nothing makes me more calm and content than sailing a boat on the ocean. Knowing that my actions are directly responsible for my survival gives me a sense of connecting with the earth that supercedes any of my other hobbies. I have often said, I love the ocean like a mistress. Most of the time, I prefer being the Captain. I don’t trust anyone to pay attention to the details as rigorously as I do. There have only been one or two exceptions to this rule.
While I was working on the Stealth Bomber project, a coworker came up to me and asked if I would like to participate in a sailboat race from Long Beach to Catalina Island. The owner of the boat was looking for experienced crew, and I saw this as an opportunity to let someone else worry about the details. All I had to do was follow orders. (Now there’s an interesting concept.)
A race was scheduled to the island on Saturday, with another race returning to Long Beach on Sunday. The weatherman was predicting light rain, winds up to 15 knots, and waves between five and eight feet high. To an experienced sailor, these weather conditions pose no threat at all. They just make the experience more exciting. The actual weather conditions turned out to be more severe. The rain was heavy, and I was soaked to the skin before we even crossed the starting line. As we left the harbor, we experienced 15 to 30 knot winds, with occasional gusts to 45 knots. The wind was so strong, it blew the wind indicator from the top of the mast into the cockpit where we were standing. The swells were easily 10 to 20 feet high. When the boat is at the crest of a swell, you can see for miles. Moments later, your view is limited to the thirty feet between the swells. Mother Nature was clearly in one of her moods.
Allow me to answer the question every non-sailor is asking at this moment. What happens when the wind capsizes the boat? The short answer is, it can’t. Imagine the boat standing still with the sail up. The wind comes over the beam and pushes on the sail. The boat heels over, or leans away from the wind. However, the further the boat heels, the less sail there is for the wind to push against. Even if the sail is parallel to the water – which almost never happens – the wind has nothing to push against, and the boat will not turn upside-down. Plus, every sailboat as a long keel that is often made of lead. The boat acts like a Weeble, which wobbles, but won’t fall down. As soon as the wind slows down, the boat will stand itself back up.
I have always known this intellectually. This race experience proved it to me empirically. The boat was already heeled over nearly 60 degrees. Strangely enough, I never worried that I might drown, however I was very prepared to jump far from the boat if it did capsize. I didn’t want to be trapped underneath the boat. And that’s when I thought I heard the Captain yell, “Sheet in! Sheet in!” I would never challenge the Captain’s authority, but I did want to confirm that I understood the command correctly. You want me to make the sail tighter, so the boat would heel over even more?! I found myself with one foot in the cockpit, the other on the wire lifeline, cranking the winch which is already underwater. Our sail was occasionally parallel to the water. There were fourteen boats in our size class. The other thirteen dropped their sails and started their diesel engines, disqualifying themselves from the race in lieu of trying to survive to sail another day. Our boat won the race by default.
Everyone was wet to the bone when we moored in Two Harbors. I had been there many times before, so I was aware of a small laundromat near the dock. As I changed into dry clothes and gathered my wet ones, every one of the crew asked if I could dry “a few more things” for them. I used nearly a roll of quarters and three dryers to get everything dry again. The Captain bought the crew a fantastic dinner to celebrate our victory, although he never showed the slightest awareness of the dangers we had just faced. In the morning I purchased plastic rain gear, plastic bags, and a roll of duct tape. Before boarding the boat, I pulled plastic bags over my socks and taped them to my bare leg. Then I put another pair of socks over the bags. I used the tape to seal the rain gear around my wrists and ankles, and less convincingly around my waist. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a huge improvement over Saturday’s attire.
I was perfectly content to sail the boat back to Long Beach, however I never expected us to continue racing. Fortunately, the weather wasn’t any worse than yesterday, however it wasn’t the slightest bit better, either. To qualify for the race we had to sail north around a bouy before heading back to Long Beach.
I never allow lines to remain loose on the deck for someone to trip over. In weather like this, anyone who falls overboard can be presumed to be dead. It would be nearly impossible to turn the boat around, and even if you did, the possibility of spotting someone’s head – which is the only thing floating above the water – is approximately zero. I was diligently coiling a 50ft length of line that was no longer being used for anything. I was sitting with my legs dangling over the high side of the boat. One moment my feet would be high above the water, the next moment the water would be up to my knees. As I worked, the bow to my right would rise as the boat climbed a swell, and then fall as we slid down into a trough.
All men are created equal, but this does not hold true for waves. Some are bigger than others. Some are MUCH bigger than others. As I continued to coil the line, the bow rose up until it was pointed at the sky. Then, it suddenly dropped as if we had fallen off a cliff. I looked toward the bow and all I saw was a wall of water. I vividly remember looking up, up, up, until I saw the top of the wave – thirty-five feet above me! I didn’t know you could stack water that high! My brain raced through a series of physics calculations. I told myself, “It is impossible for this boat to ride over the top of this wave.” I was right. We turned our sailboat into a submarine for about eight seconds. Believe it or not, sailboats are designed to withstand this kind of punishment. There was no time to panic. All I could do was close my eyes, take a deep breath, and hold on to the boat as if my life depended on it. When I opened my eyes again, I watched the cockpit climb out from underwater, and I started to laugh. “If my mother could see me right now, she would have a heart attack!” No wonder she worries about me.
We rounded the bouy and headed for home. The wind was directly behind us so the Captain gave the command to raise the spinnaker. A spinnaker is the large, colorful parachute sail that grace so many beautiful photographs. However, spinnakers are difficult to handle under regular weather conditions. Now I know he’s certifiably crazy. Our forty-five foot boat began surfing a large wave at 14 knots. It felt like we were being chased by Niagara Falls. We made it back to Long Beach in under two hours. I didn’t know beforehand that things would be so exciting, but I’m pretty sure I would have gone anyway. You only live once. You may as well enjoy it to the fullest.
Life should be an adventure. You’ll never know what you can do unless you constantly push your boundaries.