Now for Something Completely Different

I just spent a week exploring, but without my bike and without walking more than 40 feet. I was miles above the “ground” at the same time.

This was my home:

s/v Haerlem

Haerlem is a 55-foot Swan sloop that my husband crewed on for the Newport-Bermuda ocean race. I joined the delivery team to bring it home after the race.

Three of us left St. George’s, Bermuda, on Monday and set sail for Annapolis, MD, more than 650 nautical miles away across open ocean. We turned on the autopilot (steering system) and went about our business: reading, cooking, sleeping — pretty much without having to adjust the sails or change course for several days at a time.

This is what we saw:

view in one direction...

just ocean and sky

looking that way…

Yeah, nothing but ocean and sky. For days.

Thank God the boat owner had a few books onboard. I’d packed several, but seriously, this was 5 days without “Mom, can you give me a ride to…” or having to work or shop for groceries or anything. It was not the most exciting trip I’ve taken, except for a 30-second period at 4am on Thursday, when — on my watch, of course — we sailed into a thunderstorm.

It was ridiculous. I could see this storm coming from miles away. The cloud reached from the sky to the ocean surface, and the lightning was flickering inside it. Did anyone else think, “hmm, could that storm do anything to alter our course?” Apparently not. When I asked my sleepy crewbuddy about the possibility of shortening sail for the impending meeting of boat and storm, he only said, “We’ll reef if the winds go above 24 knots.”

Guess what? The winds went above 24 knots, and it only took about 5 seconds for it to happen. We were cruising along with steady 17 knots of push, then the wind reading shot up to 40 knots in the opposite direction and pushed the boat over onto its side. Gee, that woke ’em up.

When the storm had passed and the adrenaline left our systems, we were on a starboard tack, set the sails again and turned the autopilot back on. Two more days of steady sailing without touching a thing.

even the flying fish were bored enough to kamikaze on deck for a change of scene

OK, I’ll admit, cruising along in solitude could be nice at times. The clouds were captivating, and the color of the ocean out there is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Around Bermuda it was that clear Caribbean green-blue that tempts you to jump overboard for a swim. At sea it’s best described as a mysterious inky indigo. I guess it’s due to the depth that sunlight can penetrate without being reflected by the bottom.

The stars were another story altogether. Sometimes I wished my overnight watch could be longer than three hours because I’d spend the time hanging out of the cockpit upside-down, gazing at the heavens. Directly above the mast was a near circle of stars. On either side were zig-zags and clusters, some I recognized and many I didn’t. There were so many more stars and planets visible that I could just hang there, mesmerized, for hours. For better or worse, the moon was nearly full for the whole trip, so we were also treated to gorgeous moon rises around midnight and silvery light all night that competed with the stars.

There was plenty of time to think, and part of that was spent reconsidering my desire to spend long stretches on a boat. I like sailing, but I have to admit that the thought of doing serious open ocean sailing, such as the 19-day Atlantic crossing that Haerlem’s owner did, no longer appeals to me. I like the port-to-port cruising we usually do, stuff that’s punctuated with new scenery and tests of skills like anchoring, tacking, and playing with the sails. Haerlem was really too luxurious for me with its hydraulic operation (push-button sailing!) and high-tech gadgets (bow thrusters! electronic windlass! working refrigeration!). This was as much about sailing as going on a cruise ship might be.

gateway to the Chesapeake... only 100 miles to go!

One fitness benefit of sailing was underlined in this sort of sailing: isometric muscle toning. With the boat on a pretty constant 90-degree angle, the floors were not flat, nor were they stable. Depending on the waves of the day, we’d have anything from a consistent, gentle pumping motion to vigorous thrashing. Even when sitting, maintaining balance required muscle tension. It was like doing pilates for five straight days, and I can still feel it in my thorax. Of course some of that “exercise” was offset by the rich food that we consumed, from risotto and steak dinners to omelets.

And when we finally got into the Chesapeake, there was some relief, as well as some action. Suddenly, there were other boats around.. some of them rather large and imposing. Intimidating at times.

One in particular caused a little trepidation when the tug pulling it got a little close, so we were feeling the hot breath of the barge behind us.

crowding on the Chesapeake after days without seeing another boat

Now, I don’t want to leave the impression that I’d never do this sort of boat delivery again. I would, but with my eyes wide open. More books! Better music! Maybe a laptop for writing essays. Is there a camera that can photograph the stars when in motion? And — less rich food.

ok, ok, there were benefits, like gorgeous sunrises


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