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“Sailboat Sailboat!”

May 13, 2011

MAY 12, THURSDAY

Days at Sea: 14

Position: 04.53N by 129.52W
Course: 190t
Speed: 4.5 knots
Wind: 6 SSE
Swell: 2 SSE
Sky: 50%
Temp: 80 degrees
Bar: 1012

101 miles made good since yesterday.

Sleep comes with difficulty, the difficulty of finding time for it. The ship is as likely to need sail changes, course corrections and other care at night as during the day, so for the singlehander who is ever on call, cat-napping through a twenty-four hour cycle is the way to go.

But I am not a nap taker on land and forcing myself into that routine at sea has thus far met with little success; either I can’t fall asleep or something happens that needs my attention.

Take today, for example. It was late afternoon and I had been in my bunk for twenty minutes when I heard a helicopter pass over the boat.

One hears all kinds of things at sea: finch songs in the rigging, bits of human conversation just the other side of a near bulkhead, a sailor’s throaty belch, sails flapping noisily when they are not. But the whir of helicopter blades had not yet made my at-sea repertoire.

So I rose to the companionway hatch, and there it was, a small orange helicopter hovering right above Murre.

How does one grok the appearance of a physical object that has no right to be there? My first thoughts were: one, I must be close to land. Each time I encounter a fishing trawler I think the same thing–my position must be way out and I am in fact sailing large circles just off the coast of Honduras; and two, something must have happened while I slept that has put me in need of rescue. My first feeling was one of relief. I have chosen this occupation and would do so again, but one of its accoutrements is consistent, low-grade stress that part of me would like to be shot of. I wouldn’t mind a rescue if that meant being whisked away to the nearest Four Seasons Hotel with its triple-head hot shower and five-star restaurant.

I noticed a Mexican flag painted on the helicopter’s tail. I waved. The pilot waved. But he didn’t immediately fly off. He must be wrestling with his own reality check, I thought. First he encounters the oddity of an abandoned boat at sea–then the oddity of its tenant, a hairy, sunburned man dressed in nothing but boxer shorts, waving casually from the cockpit as if his world were the very definition of normal.

I sought to clarify matters by making the international sign for “I’m OK.” I tapped the top of my head with my right hand while ensuring my right arm was out to my side in a nice, round arc. I also waved the radio microphone in the air by way of invitation to conversation, but the pilot declined by flying away.

A moment later the VHF radio began to speak, in Spanish at first and then, getting no response, in what sounded like English. I could just make out the muffled words, “Sailboat Sailboat.” For a brief moment I wondered if the voice could be referring to me. Then, remembering where I was, I answered back “Sailboat Sailboat here” sleepily before I’d had a chance to think. Then, more professionally, “This is sailing vessel Murre. How copy?”

“My pilot wants to know if you are OK,” said a Mexican voice on the radio. “Do you need help?”

“I am OK. I am OK. All well aboard,” I replied. “Did there appear to be something wrong?”

“My pilot said you made a strange sign with your arm and then you pointed at your radio. Do you need to relay a message?”

“No. All well aboard,” I repeated.

“OK, out,” said the voice.

Out? That’s it?

But before I had a chance to object the voice came back with “Sailboat Sailboat. What is your port of origin and where are you headed. Just curious.”

“I am departed Cabo San Lucas and am inbound Marquesas Islands,” I replied.

“Ok. Out.”

The voice’s curiosity was easily satisfied.

Mine not so much. “Hailing vessel, what is your location?” I asked.

“We are at 04.35N and 129.53W,” said the voice. “Ten miles east of your position. Out.”

“And what type of vessel are you?” I asked.

“We are the purse seiner Ma Atun of Mazatlan Sinaloa. Out.”

It is my experience that commercial seamen are not much prone to radio conversation with pleasure boaters, so I left it at that.

I could see the boat on the horizon only by its towers at first, then, as it steamed west, the hull came up ocean blue and of that distinctive shape of Mexican tuna fishing boats. For half an hour the helicopter zoomed from one horizon to another looking for game, then it finally returned and landed on the tuna boat’s house, where it looked like a small bird perched on the back of an elephant.

***

For a day and half we sailed inside a cloud, a low, wet, horizonless drizzle punctuated occasionally by heavier cloud and heavy rain and inside of which wind refused to be consistent or from a favorable quarter. Finally, last night, I gave up on sail changes and let Murre run downwind all night due west. At this point we want southing, but I couldn’t unrig the jib pole yet again only to have the wind turn moments later into a direction that required it.

Then this morning, clear skies. We are sailing in a valley of sunshine. Behind is the grey, many-armed monster of a cell that we have just escaped, and ahead as much as forty miles, another mountain of cloud with multiple, snow-capped, stratospheric peaks. But in the middle, a fine easterly breeze and a much needed sense of openness. Emotions follow the weather. Emotions are the weather, and in this bright valley our emotions are happy ones.

The wind veers southeast and makes a due southerly course tough for Murre whose fat, old genoa I have left up.

At eleven o’clock we are at the base of the nether mountain range where wind increases briefly to 15 knots at the edge of the cell and immediately softens once we are inside. Rain is torrential for half an hour: no lightning, and then we are through only to face another range of cloud ten miles on.

The wind backs to east-southeast, which takes our heading to about 210 true. Molly struggles to maintain a close hauled course: the headsail is too big and is muscling her around, but there is too much wind for a sail change now. Stupid. I should have put the working jib up this morning. Yet the fact of it, the fact of a steady wind this far into the ITCZ, for in it we must be, is itself remarkable. Aren’t the doldrums close by?

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