Turning The Corner, The Wrong Way

I don’t think I’ve begged for the sun to come up more in my life. Sailing with just enough light to see, in addition to taking on water, was freaking me out. If felt like we were really hauling ass now, but sailing towards shore into oncoming offshore winds doesn’t get you very close very fast. The boat was essentially sitting still while everything was flowing past it, so I turned the boat slightly south to see if I could beat a path diagonally towards shore. No talking, just the harsh sound of our sail when it would empty and fill again with wind…crack!

(To me this photograph is the most important one of the whole trip. In almost no light Heath’s iPad captures me at the beginning of an hours long downward spiral.)

Sailing our dory was a one person job, with one hand on the tiller that connects to the rudder for steering, and one hand on the main sheet, the rope that runs through two pully’s to control the boom at the foot of the sail. Whenever the wind would gust it would list the boat over so I’d let some sail out to take my foot off the gas. Over and over these gusts felt like they were just toying with us. I’d lose the sail, Heath would grab the rope, thread it back through the pully’s and then we’d set our path again. In hindsight I probably should have been steering the boat into the wind more when we felt threatened, but at the time my only weapon against the punches to the stomach were to let the sail go limp and then reset.

By the time we had full daylight things had escalated to a point where the wind was whipping across the water, the kelp beds flapping in the wind. One more brutal gust causes me to lose the sail and the boom swings hard out to the right… SNAP!

What the fuck just happened? That doesn’t look right man.

It was like that time when you were a kid and you saw a badly broken arm for the first time. You just sit and stare, but you don’t comprehend anything else except that you know something is in the wrong place. The boom was now separated from the mast, cracked around the end where it had been connected, and sagging into the sea. The mast was still standing but it was falling forward and getting the shit kicked out of it with the sail flapping wildly. I didn’t know this until later, but Heath told me that he heard cracking wood and he was worried that the mast was crushing through the bottom of the boat, so first things first, unhook the mast and take it down. I turn the boat into the wind with an oar to give him enough relief to take the tension off the stays.

Once we had the mast down we sat and had a pretty quick talk, it’s kind of a blur. I remember Heath was still calm and said “let’s just get to shore and we can fix this, not a deal breaker.” I remember thinking that maybe we could call John to come down and bring us a few things to fortify that part of the boom and then reconnect it. I don’t know exactly, my mind was racing with everything from practical solutions to panicked thoughts of survival, and even though we were both on the same page with the boat, I think I was in a real different place than Heath. I felt like at that moment we were in grave danger. I remember surfing in Costa Rica when I was younger and hearing horror stories of how offshore winds can turn a close-to-shore trip into a death sentence if you no longer had a motor. It doesn’t matter how close you were, straight out to sea you go like a cork.

At this point we were pretty close to shore, but we we’re looking around and seeing nothing but kelp, which we’d learned by that point was damn near impossible to row in. Heath on the oars and me leaned out the back on seaweed duty. Not making much forward motion, the wind pushed us out 10-20 yards at a time. If we could just get clear of this underwater forest we could grind our way to shore and put this all behind us.

I take over rowing and it’s a bitch, really difficult. I’m pulling as hard as I can and I feel like we’re sitting still. We’re free from the kelp and my hands are now forming hot spots, spots that will eventually turn to blisters in minutes from the unusually harsh and panicked work. I don’t know the purpose, because it wasn’t going to change anything, but I express out loud my doubt about our ability to overcome the wind beating us in the back. Heath says “We’ve got a weeks worth of food and a weeks worth of water in here. We’ve got this, even if it takes all day.” Yes, maybe the wind will break just long enough for us to gain some ground and close what looks like a 400 yard gap between us and the shore. I keep grinding. I’ve never pulled so hard in my life. In fact, I think it finally sank in that I was rowing for my life. I was scared.

It’s crazy to think what little it took to be totally screwed. All this rugged effort and it was just a simple stumble that was the nail in the coffin. We were switching rowers when the boat tilted just enough for me to lose my balance, fall to my left and lean hard against the side. It could have been two seconds or ten, but when I got back to my feet the boat was under water.

I look down and the water is up to my knees and the rails are under the surface. I have no plan for this.

2 thoughts on “Turning The Corner, The Wrong Way

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