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.
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:
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.