Viewing Blog

View All Blogs | View Blogs by Shangri-La | View Blogs in Cruising Log

<- Previous Blog by Shangri-La | Next Blog by Shangri-La ->

Connections With That Long-Ago Girl

By Shangri-La - Published February 01, 2008 - Viewed 710 times

The other day, on our offshore sail from Curacao to Cartagena, I had one of those moments you never forget. The kids and Grandpa were down below doing what they do best, napping and reading, and I was sitting

Tania works on the Monitor, and learns how to hook it up to the Autohelm.
in the cockpit, doing what I do best, watching the waves from astern catch up and pass beneath us. Shangri La was slaloming down the small mountains that build off Colombia’s Punta Gallinas, a protuberance of land that’s been likened to Cape Hatteras, Cape Finisterre, and many other locally feared capes around the world where, at times, the wind and waves can conspire in fearful ways. Tony, the broker who’d sold me Shangri La, had told me the story of another couple to whom he’d tried to sell her. They’d wanted to do some serious cruising, balked at steel, and had gone ahead and purchased a lighter fiberglass boat instead. A fierce blow right off Punta Gallinas, with weather typical of this reputedly nasty little spot where all the Caribbean wind and waves stack up, ended up being severe enough to trash the boat and shelve their plans. The story had given me pause — nothing to worry overmuch about with tough little Shangri La, but a heads-up nevertheless.

We’d left Curacao on an overcast Saturday, drizzly and so calm the wind scoops hung wet and limply over the hatches until we took them down. We eyed the skies, listened to the cruiser’s morning weather report on the VHF, and decided to leave anyway, even though they were calling for more clouds and windless conditions. It was the day I’d said we’d leave, the new fridge was installed and working, engine oils and filters were changed, laundry freshly cleaned, we were all checked out with immigrations and customs, the rental car had been turned in, dock fees paid, tanks topped off, farewells made. So, barring a forecasted hurricane, waiting for a perfect weather window wasn’t an option. Weather is always dependable when it comes to change, and it would do so while we were at sea as well as while we were on land. I was anxious to get going and so we did.

As we motored out of Spaanse Water and up along the Curacao coast, the first order of business was to figure out the Autohelm-Monitor steering relationship, a fantastic something new I’d learned about since this reintroduction to the offshore sailing life. A small autopilot had been

Tania sits, watching the waves, and feeling a connection to the girl she once was – only two years older than her oldest son – heading out around the world more than 20 years before.
aboard when I bought Shangri La, but on the way down to Curacao from St. Maarten, I couldn’t get it to work, couldn’t understand how it even might. It seemed unlikely that such a little motor and mechanism would have the power to push and pull the heavy tiller, nor was there any obvious mounting system left behind by the previous owner. Whenever we motored, hand-steering was a major drag, especially as I was the only one aboard who could hold a reliable course, navigate, or cook. The log records a total of 22 hours of motoring, explaining why I was so tired after that four-day-long passage.

Back in Vermont, I researched tiller pilots and the biggest one available still didn’t have the oomph to handle Shangri La’s 12 tons, which made the presence of that small model aboard even more puzzling. Well, what I found out in the course of inquiry is that a small tiller autopilot can steer even the largest boat, as long as the boat is equipped with a self-steering gear. You hook the autopilot arm to the pivot point on the wind vane, and this easy movement activates the gears and blocks that control

I check the engine every chance I get, to reassure myself that it’s ready for action.
the paddle and ultimately, the tiller or wheel. In this way, the autopilot suffers less strain or use than it would on even the smallest and lightest tiller-steered sailboat. While getting Shangri La ready in the yard, I’d had a mount made for attaching the autopilot to the stern pulpit and was eager to see how well it would get along with the Monitor.

So, as we headed up the Curacao coast, I inserted a U-bolt (for no particular reason other than it was something I found in an odds-and-ends box that looked like it might do the job) in place of the Monitor’s wind vane, and hooked the arm of the beautifully mounted autopilot to it with some wire. And, it worked! Like a charm! A match made in heaven! Nobody had to steer, the course was being held better than any human aboard could, liberating me from tiller tyranny to better concentrate on listening to and monitoring the engine (because I was conditioned early on to never completely trust an engine). In between plotting courses that headed up and around the island and past some shallow spots between the looms of Venezuela and Aruba, a surreal night of refinery flares, glaring lights, and anchored ships, we motored toward the distant Punta Gallinas. High on the jubilation one can feel from figuring something out to such satisfying results, instead of inciting dread, the Punta beckoned as a place where we might actually find some wind.

Several hours later, though, a little breeze began to ruffle the water and up went the sails in a downwind configuration, pole out on one side, main on the other, with all the attendant preventers, down- and up-hauls that proceeded to require several jibings over the course of the first night out. Grandpa was there to help with all his attendant cussing and huffing and puffing, because labored sound effects make every task seem tougher, harder, more adventurous. The more dramatically he sounded off or compared a maneuver to something that happened on one of his four previous boats on one of his four previous trans-Atlantic crossings — “I can’t remember what I did with the spinnaker pole, but I don’t remember ever going through all this . . . ” — the more matter-of-fact I got. Jibe? Again? Oh well, so what. He has that effect on me.

The kids listened, rolled their eyes, and between card games, reeling in a yellowtail tuna that would feed us for two delicious dinners, and naps, over the next two days of building winds, they stood watches and watched. About 50 miles off Punta Gallinas, about 25 knots of wind blew in, nothing more than trades typical of the Caribbean that had us flying down small wave mountains clocking hull speed. Rocking and rolling along, I talked the boys through what was happening before every tack, jibe and reef, the rules of the road, how to tell which direction a ship was headed from the lights. In the meantime, Grandpa figured out how to use the GPS for locating someone in a man-overboard situation, delivered a lesson, and wrote up the instructions on an index card that got taped by the instrument panel. “Just for the record, though,” I said, “remember that statistically, most men overboard are literally men, found with open zippers. No peeing overboard without a harness or somebody watching. And furthermore, no men overboard, period. Okay?”

By Night Three, just after the wind died and returned, following a tremendous son et lumiere thunder squall, a tired bird flew into the cabin and landed on my head, and stayed there until I physically removed it. Later, Sam was on watch, reliably watching the course, scanning the horizon for ships or anything worth reporting, capable enough to help with reefing in

Teaching Nicholas the ropes.
the jib (a set up that needs someone on the foredeck to pull on the furling line because it has to go through too many blocks and fairleads to make this possible from the cockpit, from where someone else needs to control the sheet and pull in the furling line slack — block replacement is on the to-do list). Then, when on the next watch, wakeful and solicitous and sure of his footing, a harnessed Nicholas helped with jibing the mainsail, spinnaker pole and jib (which entails pulling the pole far enough up the mast for it to be able to swing aft of the forestay, where the jib sheet and downhauls get switched over on a pitching foredeck, all without any hollering, grumbling, or cussing), I knew the boys were quick studies, that they’d be the finest crew.

On the morning of Day Four, grandpa was sleeping and the boys and I were chatting in the cockpit. I told them how down below on the chart table was the same Caribbean chart I’d used 22 years ago on the crossing from St. Thomas to Panama, as I was about to transit the Canal and really leave behind my hemisphere, home, friends, and family for a couple of years. Our current position was within a hundred miles of the one I’d plotted for July 23, 1985 with the sextant I didn’t really know how to use yet, an icebox filled with melted ice, and an unreliable engine. I was twice as old now, on a bigger boat with a boy only two years younger than I was then, his younger brother, and my father -- who was now the crew -- and me, his captain. With us we had the sextant, three GPS units, radar, refrigeration, an engine I kind of understood, and SSB with a modem for sending and receiving email that still needed to be figured out because there’s always something waiting to be learned.

It was a little while later, several hours before the wind petered out, when the big moment arrived. I was alone in the cockpit, gazing astern

Shangri-La flies along under sail, headed for Colombia.
as the Monitor’s wind vane swung back and forth against a mesmerizing backdrop of following waves. This was almost exactly the same sight I’d watched for hours, days, and weeks whilst crossing oceans by myself all those years ago. Only then, I was functioning in survival mode, doing whatever it took to get by, to live to see this very day where I could be back here doing it purposefully and deliberately with my own kids. In that hypnotic instant, I was suddenly transported back in time with a loud swoosh, in stereo, just like in a science fiction movie. They say you can’t go back, and it’s true. On land, you can’t. But, right then and there, the ocean still looked exactly the same as it did when I was 18, and for that moment, I was 18 again.

To suddenly wake up to something that can be so changeable in such enduring and powerfully unchanging ways was incredibly comforting. The waters we were crossing, calm or riled up, looked the same as they did 22 years ago, as they would have 400 years ago, and unless we humans really screwed things up, as they would even 200 years from now. Yes, in a world that changes so very much and constantly ashore, it was comforting to be back with an old friend who really hadn’t. For about five heightened minutes of time being echoed by those familiar waves, with my dad and kids below, I felt entirely connected with the past and the present as we headed into the future—where the moment would pass and get bounced back as the unforgettable memory.

 

Finally, we’re at sea again.




Blog Comments

There are 0 blog comments.

Sorry there are no blog comments.

Post Blog Comments
Message:

Sorry but you must be logged in to submit comments.