Ten Days

13 Feb­ru­ary 2001.   Jour­nal entry: “Tomor­row we will attempt to make San Juan del Sur.  We have spent the evening talk­ing with ‘Har­mo­ny’ and ’ Sli­p­away’.  The weath­er reports they have giv­en us are not good.  We are run­ning low on food, and the wind is still high.  This moment seems very seri­ous now, with our lives hang­ing in the bal­ance.  This is why, though we do not admit it now in our time of fear, that we trav­el.  This search for the crys­tal clear snap deci­sions that decide our mor­tal­i­ty.  For the moment when the words we say and actions we take mat­ter.  This emo­tion is one that can­not be found at home, one that should not be found any­where nor­mal humans have the abil­i­ty to per­ceive.  This is the moment before bat­tle, before strug­gle.  This time smells like…VICTORY.”

We did­n’t know it then, Jason, Bruce, and I, whether or not we would be vic­to­ri­ous.  We were off the coast of south­ern Nicaragua, well into our sec­ond week of heavy wind sail­ing in a small boat.  We were sail­ing from San Diego to Vir­ginia via the Pana­ma Canal.  In our first month of sail­ing, we had only six days total of heavy wind, and those six days were down­wind scream­ers-the boat flat, putting up a wake and mak­ing amaz­ing time.  We had seen dol­phins off the bow in the morn­ing, glo­ri­ous sun­sets, seals fol­low­ing the boat for hours, and sword­fish jump­ing at night.  It had been perfect.

Our bod­ies were a deep sailor brown after thir­ty-five days of being on the water, and our hair was bleached blonde.  We had sailed over 1,000 miles and had safe­ly got­ten through the Gulf of Tehuan­te­pec, where the rip­ping off­shore wind makes the end­less Pacif­ic a bar­ren dan­ger zone of vicious­ly chop­py seas.  It howls in Tehuan­te­pec, the wind scream­ing through at any­where between forty and six­ty knots.

Boaters wait in groups for a weath­er win­dow, or calm spot, when the wind dies down to around twen­ty.  Twen­ty knots is about twen­ty-four miles an hour.  Imag­ine dri­ving down the road in a car with no wind­shield, doing twen­ty-five miles an hour.  You can’t see very well, it’s hard to breathe, your skin dries out, it’s dif­fi­cult to hear what your friends are say­ing. Now imag­ine going to the bath­room off the side, or drink­ing cof­fee, or eat­ing.  It gets unbelievable.

After three days of con­stant­ly get­ting thrashed by the wind and sea, we pulled into port on the far side of Tehuan­te­pec for eigh­teen hours; enough time to make phone calls, stock up at the gro­cery stores, do laun­dry, and take off again.  We thought we’d sail straight to Cos­ta Rica, an easy four day trip under the right con­di­tions.  Under any oth­er con­di­tions, it becomes a mat­ter of tenac­i­ty, hope, and survival.

05February01, Apoc­a­lyp­so Log Entry

Strong East­er­ly this morn­ing, lumpy seas.  Wind went right so we tacked to a new way­point inshore off El Sal­vador.  Hop­ing for smoother water and may stock up on H20 in El Salvador/ Upwind sure is anoth­er ball game then down­wind! ‘Apoc­a­lyp­so’ does­n’t like steep chop,slamming; hard to sleep.  No one would respond on Chan­nel 16 for weath­er forecast.

We were 20 miles off­shore, the skies were sun­ny but the wind was howl­ing and the water was cold.  The Hum­boldt Cur­rent had dipped toward shore on its way up from Antarc­ti­ca, and the water tem­per­a­ture had dropped to the high 50’s.  The only warmth to be had was below.  “Below” was in the cab­in, a space that was three and half feet high at the high­est, about two feet in the bow where our head went when we slept and just under six feet of sleep­ing space.

It was tight, two men on a large couch with walls.  It had no ven­ti­la­tion, and when the weath­er got bad we stopped wash­ing our­selves-it was too much of a chore.  Below was warm and damp and stank.  Below was dark, and when the waves came over the cab­in, water would come in and Below would get wet.  Below was the nicest place to be on the boat.

On deck was where the boat was sailed.  On deck had unend­ing wind, cold sea spray, and no pro­tec­tion from the Cen­tral Amer­i­can sun.  Jason and I were on deck at least 18 hours a day, usu­al­ly more.  We stood 3 hours on, 3 hours off watch­es dur­ing the night, and we both stayed up dur­ing the day.  The log entry for the next day is in my hand­writ­ing this time. “2–3 foot wind swell.  Uncom­fort­ably upwind.  Still slam­ming, slept 2 hours last night. Yes!!!”

The next day; “Approach­ing Tamarindo, Bay of Fon­se­ca.  Hard going, no sleep for Nik or Jason, boat leak­ing port­side at the bow, re-thread­ed jib sheets, still 15–20 knots on the bow.” 

We anchored at Tamarindo that night, think­ing we were safe, but as soon as we had anchored, a fish­er­man drove up in his pan­ga and through repeat­ed bro­ken Eng­lish and our dic­tio­nary Span­ish, told us to head up the bay for bet­ter anchor­age; we were in dan­ger.  We had been sail­ing for 3 days, and had 12 hours of sleep between Jason and I, with Bruce in a sea­sick coma below.  We did not want to move.  We cooked a salty goulash, then got our heads togeth­er.  Our anchor­age was rol­ly, not much bet­ter than sail­ing, and we fig­ured going up the bay could­n’t be worse.  We pulled anchor, and three tired boys and one beat up boat head­ed deep­er into El Salvador.

As soon as we round­ed the head­land into the Bay of Fon­se­ca, the wind died down, and the phos­pho­res­cence lit up our wake in an elec­tric blue.  We rode an incom­ing tide into anchor­age just off the Navy base in La Union, El Sal­vador.  We stayed on anchor for that night and the next, resup­plied and got mov­ing again.

We left at 8 o’clock the evening of the 9th, on an ebb tide.  We had a gen­tle wind behind us through the night, warm with the smell of the earth and tinged with salt from the sea.  It took us across the bor­der and into Nicaragua the next morn­ing, then died.  We jumped in the water to wash off the night, got out, dried off and sat around wait­ing for the morn­ing onshore breeze.  This was the sail­ing we remem­bered; calm morn­ings, clean bod­ies, the feel­ing of crisp­ness, of being a new per­son from the day before, of hav­ing made it through anoth­er night.

After 20 min­utes of no wind and the boat drift­ing, we decid­ed to start our tiny motor.  I was yank­ing away on the cord when I heard Jason yell “Breeze On, get the reef in!” I looked up to see a dark spot on the ocean head­ing for us, and Jason and I hur­ried­ly dropped the sail down to our first reef.  Putting in a reef means low­er­ing the sail and tying off the bot­tom end to make the sail a small­er tri­an­gle.  Sailors reef when they get more wind than the boat was designed to take with a full sail up.  From that point until I sailed into Cos­ta Rica, we had at least one reef in.

That day, the 8th of Feb­ru­ary, was the begin­ning of a heavy­weight beat­ing that would last a full sev­en days.  Those weren’t nine to five days, with Com­fort reach­ing out warm hands to you in the evening, those were five full-on days of man pit­ting him­self against Nature, of strug­gling to sur­vive, of think­ing about liv­ing every sec­ond.  Those were some of the best days of my life.  I don’t have a sense of time, or sequen­tial events.  I have to look back to the jour­nal I kept, as well as the boat’s log.

13February01 Jour­nal Entry

Anchored in Nicaragua, emer­gency line out… 35+ kts of wind.  The hard­est sail­ing I’ve ever done-very tired, cold and wet….  Ho. Lee. Shit.  Anchored, thank sweet baby Jesus.

Lat­er that day…It’s amaz­ing, the wind.  It whis­tles and howls and screams in the shrouds.  Jason reck­ons it’s got­ten up to 40 knots.  Wish we had an anemome­ter.  Our nav light broke last night-maybe the bulb.  This is good time for think­ing.  I don’t wish for any­thing so much as for the wind to die down.  For a while it was burg­ers and fries, milk­shakes, bis­cuits and gravy etc., but my world has devolved to one small boat in heavy wind off of Nicaragua.

I remem­ber sail­ing less than 100 meters off shore to avoid the seas that build beyond, of hav­ing to sail through a plume of smoke a half mile long, from a fire on the shore, and lis­ten­ing to Les Mis­er­able five times in a row because I could nei­ther leave the helm, nor wake up Jason to change the CD.  I remem­ber think­ing of my fam­i­ly, won­der­ing what they were doing; glad they didn’t know the dan­ger I was in.

Every phone call or e‑mail I sent back to them was full of cheer­ful lies.  It wasn’t until I fin­ished my trip, and had flown back from Jamaica, that I told them how many times I saw that tall gaunt fig­ure, Thanatos.  I remem­ber cracked brown lips, sores from sit­ting in salt water, sun poi­son­ing; lit­tle white pus­tules on my arms, and thick, salty hair.

On the morn­ing of Feb­ru­ary 14th, 2001, we set off for San Juan del Sur, leav­ing our emer­gency anchor­age.  We had decid­ed the night before to go for it.  The reports we had were of 70 knot gusts of wind two miles off shore, and 15 foot seas.  The only food we had left were pro­tein shake pack­ets, which had to mixed with water.  We had one gal­lon of water for three peo­ple.  We did not know how long our trip would take.

When I told ‘Sli­p­away’ and ‘Har­mo­ny’, two oth­er boats that had emer­gency anchored near us, of our short­ages, they told me to come by in the morn­ing and accept a pack­age of food and water.  I declined.  I would do this on my own, with my own body, with my own pro­vi­sions, with no out­side help.  Jason and I had a bit­ter argu­ment about it, but I was the Cap­tain and the final call was mine.  We left with no help.  All three of us dressed in all our foul weath­er gear-Jason and I had full suits, Bruce had only a jacket.

We pulled up the sail in 25 knots of wind, Bruce and I haul­ing in 300 feet of anchor line, fifty feet of chain, and the 20 lb anchor. Sweat dripped down the inside of our foulies, our faces were red with the rush of blood, we were pulling the boat into the wind.  We had our deep reef in, the small­est amount of sail pos­si­ble with­out tak­ing every­thing down.  Jason drove, and Bruce and I hiked out.

Hik­ing out is hang­ing as much body weight as you can off the high side of the boat to help coun­ter­act the force of the wind on the sail.  As soon as we left the shel­ter of the anchor­age, into the full 35 knot force of the wind, we were knocked down, the boat slammed on its side.  A knock­down is an awe­some expe­ri­ence.  As in awe-inspir­ing that Nature can put a 2,000 lb boat on it’s side with the force of her windy breath.  A knock­down means it’s time to put in anoth­er reef, but we had no more reefs to put in.

We had our small­est sail up, we had 300 pounds of flesh hik­ing out, the only thing we could do was to point high­er, or into the wind more, to lessen the pres­sure on the sail.  When you point too high, the sail begins to luff, or flap, as the lead­ing edge of the sail gets wind equal­ly on both sides.  Luff­ing a sail destroys it, the con­stant snap weak­en­ing the fibers as the wind screams past.  For the next 8 hours the sail nev­er stopped luff­ing.  That day is still clear to me.

The beat­ing sun, the scat­tered clouds whip­ping over­head, the spray com­ing off the bow wave, the feel of the waves as they passed under the boat.  We sailed so close to shore where the ocean changes from deep water to shal­low reefs that waves like watery whales would hump up under our boat.  We could eas­i­ly see hous­es on the shore, the trees around them per­ma­nent­ly bent under the con­stant overseer’s lash of the wind.  I remem­ber incred­i­ble igneous rock for­ma­tions, huge twist­ed arthrit­ic fin­gers reach­ing out of the sea.  I remem­ber the blue of the water, the white foam in streaks on top, and the icy feel of Poseidon’s touch when we dug into waves.

We made it that day, made it to San Juan del Sur.  When we arrived at the har­bor entrance it was 3 o’clock.  We had been sail­ing 8 hours, cov­er­ing 20 miles of the heav­i­est wind we would see on the trip.  As we tacked up the har­bor towards the shore, the fish­er­men gath­ered on the decks of their 60 foot boats to watch us.  As we passed them, our lean, gaunt faces peer­ing out from under the hoods of our jack­ets, they screamed and whis­tled in admi­ra­tion.  They knew the fury of the ocean.  I have nev­er been more proud.

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Con­text:  I orig­i­nal­ly wrote this piece dur­ing my first semes­ter at col­lege.  It was for an Eng­lish class, and the pro­fes­sor had asked us to write about some­thing dan­ger­ous we had done, and how it relat­ed to the char­ac­ter Chris McCan­d­less in Jon Krakauer’s sto­ry “Into the Wild.”  Here is the final para­graph of the paper I submitted:

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When I read about Chris McCan­d­less and his final days, I saw in him pieces of my jour­ney.  The free­dom, the inde­pen­dence, the pit­ting of man against nature, the accep­tance of your own strengths and weak­ness­es.  I know how McCan­d­less felt when he died.  It is some­thing that I have done my best to explain, and still can­not come close.  It is the feel­ing of being at the helm of Des­tiny, of steer­ing your own course, of fol­low­ing your heart.

It is a self­ish life, not tak­ing into account the feel­ings of fam­i­ly or friends.  Before leav­ing on my jour­ney I was con­stant­ly told to stay in San Diego, to find work with my friends, it’s so much eas­i­er to surf every day, you can learn how to sail slow­ly, please, stay with us.

I could not, as McCan­d­less could not.  We two have shak­en hands with Death, have felt those bones press­ing into the flesh of our palms.  Chris McCan­d­less could not let go.

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