It was your average Caribbean afternoon: bikini heat and rustling palm tree shade, crystal azure water lapping at white sand beaches, and the waves glistening and winking gaily in the sun, carried from ocean horizons as far as the eye could see.
We were leaving the island, setting sail for Europe. I was crossing yet another point of no return. Such a momentous time; I felt as though I should be busier – but we were under way easily, with nothing to do but relax and watch the land slowly disappear; first into a greenish haze in the distance, eventually becoming small enough to be mistaken for a cloud on the horizon, and finally, most assuredly, gone, vanished over the curve of the ocean. From now on, there would be no breaks, no chance to get off and stretch my legs. No soccer games or tractors on the field, no red brick houses or laying in the grass, not even any trees… and certainly no bike riding, no rubber-side-down. For the next twenty days, the only land I saw was in my dreams, and even there, the ground was always shifting, a rolling tide beneath my feet.
Someone once asked me if my life ever seems surreal. “Of course,” I replied – when I step back and look at myself, way down there, chasing my dreams into all the various Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit-holes, it all seems extremely unreal. And I’ll tell you, Gloria – as the wind pushed me farther and farther from Antigua, deeper and deeper into the wide-open maw of mighty Neptune, it was inescapably intense. It was several days before I was able to truly feel normal on the boat, and was able to dig in and fully experience everything that was going on around me. Live in the moment; the life of a sailor at sea.
The BOAT is named Ninni. It’s a name traditionally given to girls in Sweden, and applied affectionately to the boat by her Finnish skipper, Mikko, who was just completing his own three-year world sailing tour. She’s a 40-foot glass-fiber cruising sloop, an IS400 designed in Finland by Hans Groop. As an accomplished traveling boat, it’s equipped with the de-salinating watermaker(the water from which doesn’t taste too bad, actually), energy-efficient LED lights(for both navigation and interior), solar panels on the roof of the doghouse, a towing generator(a sort of propeller on a rope that makes electricity) and the crowning piece of equipment, named “Peter” and making our lives tremendously easy: a self-steering wind-pilot, an ingenious sailboat invention which employs secondary rudders, wormgear, and windvane to automatically correct the boat’s course if the wind changes direction. Brilliant.
The CREW consisted of Mikko, a 62 year old retired Finnish photographer; Irek, a 35 year old Polish building-company manager; and me, a 29 year old student of foreign cultures. My first real introduction to international people, and an intense change from all that lonely bike riding.
Mikko is old salt. He enjoys a joke or a beer like the next guy, but he is very set in his ways, and after a few days living on a cramped boat, certain aspects of his personality started to get ugly. He was overly meticulous about his gear, for one; disallowing a plastic scrubbie to be used on a teflon pan, for instance; and for two(something that would eventually prove to be quite distressing) he was rather obsessed with doing everything himself. He’d made the Ninni up as a project boat, carefully crafting every bit of woodwork by hand, and replacing winches, blocks, and lines, adding extra stays to the mast, and various other personal touches he can trust. Then he sailed away from his wife, saying “I’m going sailing for a while.” (He never said “I’m going to sail around the world,” and advised me that it would’ve been wiser for me, too, if I hadn’t declared my intentions to ride my bike around the world. I guess he’s not into point-of-no-return drama.) On the way he’s had various different crews, mostly strangers he met on the internet(like me), and apparently learned not to let anyone touch anything on his boat. I started calling him “DIY Mikko,” watching him handle everything himself, from deckwork and sail reefing, to steering and entering the course, to cleaning… he even cooked almost every meal we ate, leaving Irek and I sitting with nothing to do, in danger of being seen as lazy. Once, I was graciously allowed to cook dinner, and when I innocently asked him how the unlabeled rice is cooked(instant or normal?), he nearly jumped out of his seat to take over, saying, “I can cook it!” instead of answering my question. This epic struggle, just to let me figure out dinner, was plainly visible on his face. Needless to say, the skill-building and sailing practice I had been looking forward to did not include the assistance of a teacher – only rarely, when “absolutely necessary,” did he explain things to us. But many sailors will agree that it’s better to train your crew before that big black cloud hits your boat….
Since we were to be stuck together on a little boat for so long, I thought maybe I’d be able to pick up a little Finnish or Polish. “Since you fly a Finnish flag, technically we’re in Finland, right? And we should speak Finnish?” Nope – English was the official language on the Ninni, despite Mikko admitting that he “can’t English” and Irek having only intermediate command of the language. But he still seemed to expect us to read his mind, despite investing as little time as possible in training. I suppose it would’ve actually been worse if we all tried to talk in Finnish.
Of course I did learn a lot, even without his help. Irek, who flew down for the voyage just to gain experience(in hopes of one day becoming a yachtmaster himself), would go out on deck and simply start doing things he thought needed doing, often drawing blustery criticism from the captain. But at least he was practicing, and eventually I grew comfortable enough to do the same. It was the only way to get our hands dirty – if we were to confer with Mikko first, he’d just end up doing it himself!
I will admit, I should’ve maybe expected such fierce independence. In one of his first emails, Mikko told me “I can do the sailing myself, but another person is nice to get good sleep.” Indeed, Irek and I were only really useful as watchkeepers, and really only at night. On any boat, it’s standard practice that the person coming off watch wakes up the person coming on next, usually early enough to make tea or breakfast. But Mikko would often let me sleep in and take my watches himself. Sounds great, yeah… but in reality it was aggravating. It enforced his apparently pre-determined image of me as a lazy American, and it screwed up the watch schedule. Nevertheless, when I begged him to wake me up on time, he angrily vowed not to!
I think I grew a few new gray hairs that first week, but eventually I got used to feeling useless, and though I was always energetic and willing to help if asked, and learned all I could on my own, the voyage took on a more “on vacation” feeling.
After that it was nice to be lazing about, reading or watching the sea, being served meals(most often described as a “sea mess” – canned fish, beans, and vegetables with garlic and onion; most fresh food only lasted the first week), maybe having a conversation. On occasion someone would spy a passing ship on the horizon or some sort of animal, and we’d all rush up to get an eyeful of something that wasn’t sky or sea. The ocean rolled steadily by beneath us, and each day brought us a tiny bit closer to the rising sun.
Watching the MARINE LIFE was one of the most rewarding diversions. There is an amazing microscopic plankton in the water that produces a small amount of light when agitated. After dusk, the wake behind the boat begins to glitter like the stars, and if you’re staring transfixed over the railing on a dark watch some night, it’s quite exotic and surreal. If the wind is really pushing and the boat is crashing into the waves, their sparkling brings to mind a grinder wheel, spitting out sparks. And when the sea is calm and you’re gliding clean through the water, it’s as though some gentle hand is spreading a carpet of fairy dust below the boat.
There are no mosquitos at sea; it’s nice. In fact we embarked a day earlier than Mikko had originally planned, just to escape the bloodsuckers that had been eating us in the Antigua harbor.
Flying fish are a common sight, exploding out one side of a wave and skimming along the surface, sometimes as far as twenty yards, before splashing back into the sea. Sometimes they land on the deck at night, and in the morning there are little cigar-shaped cartilage-boned breakfasts waiting for us.
By simply running a jelly-fish lure behind the boat as we sailed along, we were able to catch quite a few bigger fish, and stayed in fresh tuna and dorado(mahi-mahi) almost the whole trip. The biggest one we got, an albacore, was about 2.5 feet long and weighed about 13 pounds. Every time, Mikko would reel in the fish, then lean over the side and stab its underside with the gaff, a wicked-looking extendable sharpened hook. As the blood began to flow, he next clubbed it on the head with a big piece of wood he kept, for this express purpose, hanging on the lifeline near the rod. The poor fish would jitter and twitch at each blow, and finally die with one rather sickening and extended convulsion. At this point the dorados, which are normally a beautiful bright opalescent orange-green, would lose their color, and their scales would fade to grey, almost as if marking the passage of their soul. Next, with the cold remorselessness of a lifetime fisherman, he cut them open at the neck and plopped them back into the water to bleed out, while he went to collect his knife and bowl. Then, using a fold-down cutting board mounted to the railing, he would expertly clean the fish, producing chunks of pale boneless fresh fish. Many times, I saw this old fisherman pluck a piece of meat from behind the fish’s head and eat it raw right there in the middle of cleaning it; usually he would also serve a sashimi raw-fish appetizer with soy sauce and wasabi. Mikko let me clean the catch once, a very slimy procedure and quite precarious on a heeled-over jostling boat. I got to cook it once, as well, and (despite almost losing the privilege because I asked a question) produced a delicious blackened mahi mahi over olive-oil-n-oregano spaghetti with crushed tomatoes. The guys were impressed, I think, and I thought maybe I could become the boat’s cook, but the next day we were back to Mikko’s sea mess.
I never saw any sharks, but several times a pod of dolphins would catch up to us and romp around nearby, racing along the bow and obviously playing. Wonderful creatures. There were even baby dolphins once – very cute. Every time, I would welcome the sight of the dolphins; they always made me feel protected, and somehow welcome.
We saw a whale once, about 100 yards off the starboard side. It blew water as it sounded, shooting a geyser into the air, then majestically banked a bit and rolled over as it began to dive, revealing a humongous flipper, then a humongous tail, and then it was gone.
There were Portuguese man-o-wars floating near the Azores islands; little puffy, semi-transparent, purplish-pink blobs with long slimy tails, floating on the surface and being pushed by the wind. Sailing jellyfish!
And finally, there were birds. Frigate birds, petrels, fulmars, gannets, shearwaters, and gulls of many kinds. It’s crazy to think how far they must have flown, to be here in the middle of the Atlantic. But then you realize that they actually sleep while floating on the water – they spend almost their whole lives at sea. Although once I happened to pop up from the hatch one afternoon to the sight of a tiny, cute, intensely yellow canary having a rest in the rigging! I guess we must have helped him make his journey – do they really fly from boat to boat across the ocean?
The fishing birds were soothing to watch; they skim incredibly close to the surface, in a sort of dance with the water: up and down, along a trough and over a crest, following the waves and dipping below the surface for fish. Once, a pair of fulmars were trying to eat the fishing hook, and one of them got caught before we could reel it in. “Oh no…” I thought, “We’ve killed a bird.” Mikko stood back, saying that removing a hook from a bird would surely spell its death. Irek reeled it all the way in and on to the deck, and I realized with relief that it wasn’t hooked, it had only somehow got its wing wrapped up in the line. It didn’t fight me as I gently pinned it down and unwrapped it, and I held my breath as it plopped off the side of the boat back into the water. After a few moments of praying, “Please survive! Please survive!” it took to wing and rejoined its mate in the sky. Whew!
SURVIVAL is often on my mind, as one of my favorite pastimes, but at sea it took on a wholly different context. I had learned a lot about maritime survival during the STCW course in Florida, and was happy to see all the appropriate gear onboard the Ninni: the self-inflating liferaft, emergency water supplies and rations, the EPIRB beacon, dan bouys, flares, life vests and life lines, hand-held VHF radios, and a first aid kit. In my travels on the East coast I spoke to a lot of mariners, and can clearly remember certain phrases, such as “Boats just disappear,” “Any less than five crew on a transAtlantic and you’re playing with your life,” and “Every hour, somewhere, in some ocean, someone is sinking.” Then I started reading some maritime survival and adventure stories someone had left on the boat, and by the time I got a good sense of the pure vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, a constant (exciting!) sense of danger had settled over our little boat. I had my own personal ditch-bag, ready to throw into a liferaft, with full water bottles, CLIF bars, signal mirror, compass, fishing kit, wallet, and passport. Just in case.
I took a swim in the 5-kilometer-deep, royal blue water one day, with nothing but my fingers’ grasp holding me onto the Ninni, and thinking about the sheer magnitude of the ocean left me in humbled awe. There is so much massive force, so much power and energy beneath the waves; not to mention sharks or pissed-off whales, or floating cargo boxes or exploding propane tanks or hurricane-force gales that rip your mast off… it pays to take precautions when you’re a thousand miles from the nearest land.
Way out there in the ocean, the POLLUTION is different as well. It’s no less than on land, perhaps even more, actually(think New Jersey garbage barges), but everything except plastic sinks, so I guess most people are going with “out of sight, out of mind.” But sometimes it’s not out of sight. I’ve seen Coca-Cola bottles floating, I’ve seen BP oil drums floating. There is a place in the Pacific where all the plastic in the ocean collects – they call it the Great Pacific Garbage Patch(http://www.mindfully.org/Plastic/Ocean/Pacific-Garbage-Patch27oct02.htm). It’s the size of a continent. The plastic absorbs chemicals and interferes with the hormones of marine creatures, among other problems. And so on a boat, appropriately, it is illegal to throw anything made of plastic overboard. MARPOL actually pays people who report boats that break marine pollution laws – half the amount fined. Not that that stops people – it’s much like litter laws on land: ignored when no one is watching. What really frustrated me, though, was that beyond three miles from land, it’s completely legal to throw almost everything else overboard! I was forced to jettison aluminum and tin cans, glass bottles, cardboard and paper – almost all of which could’ve been recycled. I tried to save my beer cans – but Mikko wouldn’t let me. “We don’t have room to keep that” and “What if they don’t have recycling in the Azores?” Bah!
In Antigua I said “I’m using wind power to cross the ocean, instead of gasoline,” to a guy who builds sailing boats, and the response was something like, “Do you know how much waste there is just to build a sailboat? A lot.” Critics love to try and shoot me down, I guess. Actually, though, he had an interesting point – take a minute and think about how much energy is used, not to run, but just to manufacture your car, the siding on your house, even your solar panel, or (eek) your bicycle. But like anything else, it’s a lesser-evil type of situation – out of all the boats in the world that you can fit a bicycle onto, the sailboat is still the most ecological.
One type of pollution that doesn’t exist at sea is light pollution. The stars, the milky way, and the planets were all absolutely amazing. One night I was even lucky enough to witness a meteor shower, where shooting stars streaked across the sky, leaving a trail of light for several savored moments after each precious one. And the moon; aah la luna. I was able to see, for example, a crescent moon, as normal: a perfect sliver of silver, shining over the vast sea, directly illuminated by the sun; but it was so clear out there that I could also see the rest of the moon, darkened in the Earth’s shadow but still catching a few light rays reflected off our atmosphere. It was the most breathtaking celestial view I’ve ever seen, and I’ve looked at the stars from some pretty remote locations.
There is also a RADIO that bounces signals off of the Earth’s atmosphere – the HAM radio. It’s old technology, but still in wide usage. The longest piece of metal on the boat, the backstay(16 meters), which helps hold the mast up, doubled as Mikko’s antenna. The electronic guts of his system were coated in spray-on varnish to protect against corrosive, salty air, and he never had a problem with it despite using it every day, at sea and in harbor.
There is a whole sub-culture of geeks that really get into amateur radio. Some collect callsigns of different countries(each country has different ones), some collect only callsigns from islands, and some collect weird callsigns, like the maritime mobile station on the Ninni. Mikko’s Finnish callsign was OH2NIN/mm: “Oscar Hotel Two November India November stroke Maritime Mobile.” My gawd, I heard that callsign so much – imagine, if you can, the Finnish accent – I was hearing it in my sleep. Most times he would contact random people from across the globe – it really does bounce its signal off the atmosphere, so its range is, well, anywhere on Earth – but there were a few memorable ones.
Once he talked to an Algerian, and since both Mikko and Irek had become quite interested(and skeptical) as to how and why I would cross that particular African country, he took a moment to describe his crazy American crewmember and ask Mohammed’s opinion. Thanks Mikko, but I don’t think Mohammed understood your English – he didn’t respond.
Another time he contacted a bicycle mobile station! Some crazy guy on a bike in Blackpoole, UK was riding down the beach with a tire-rubber generator system, a 3 meter aerial sticking up behind him, and a trailer full of batteries, yapping away into a microphone! I was tickled. The guy had actually tuned his radio to resonate through the steel frame of his bicycle to amplify his signal. Apparently he had the strongest signal in all of Europe, and was very popular on the airwaves that day. Mikko again told him about his cyclist crewmember, and I heard the radio voice, bounced all the way from England to our boat in the middle of the ocean, say in a British accent, “I hope Charles enjoys his cycle trip here in the UK.”
But the most impressive use of the amateur radio was an American organization called Winlink. These guys have set up stand-alone radio stations, connected to computers, in various strategic points around the world. Any radio amateur with the (free) software can contact the station, and have a very reliable way to send or receive email or faxes. For maritime mobile operators, you can also download weather reports. It’s like an indirect sort of internet, without web-surfing, that relies on inexpensive, tried-and-true technology instead of $25,000 satellite uplink systems. Pretty amazing. Except I wasn’t allowed to use it! Oh well – he did actually let me send a few short “I’m still alive” messages to my family during the crossing.
Mikko didn’t like the weather reports he got from Winlink. He had a better source, a personalized, daily weather strategy that all but completely replaced older methods, such as looking at the clouds. This god-send is named Herb. “Southbound Two” is his callsign, and he’s a German mariner living in Canada who decided after a few rough transAtlantic passages that there should be something better than weatherfaxes. He’s not a meteorologist, but he talks directly to any boat(on the Atlantic) that needs his help, for free, every day at 4:00 UCT. He queues everyone up, then goes through the list, from Caribbean to Europe, listening to their position and weather conditions, and then delivering concise tactics and a waypoint to head for during the next 24 hours. I can’t believe he’s allowed to do it – shouldn’t some asshole have sued him already? – but everyone on HerbNet seems to know that his advice is “suggested course only.” Irek and I certainly would have preferred a little more do-it-yourself weather tactics; we were still learning. But this was the one thing Mikko didn’t do himself: he placed complete and utter confidence in Herb, saying “We’ll just see where Herb tells us to go.” Good thing the radio didn’t break!
When we were finally within about 100 miles of Europe, we were able to tune into FM frequencies. The BBC and its warm British accents and prestigious news reports were a welcome sign that we were getting close. But no music – the only music Mikko ever listened to was “The Best of Queen,” more specifically “Bohemian Rhapsody,” though he did play the bicycle song for me once. “Biiiicyle, biiiicyle, I want to ride my bi-see-call, I want to ride my biiiike….”
Indeed, by the time I arrived in Falmouth, I was out of shape, a bit tubby around the waist, and more than eager to get back on the bike. It was a total of 40 days at sea, ten twenty ten. Think about that for a second. Twenty days straight.
I can’t really even believe it myself.
The terra firma was so very, very enjoyable then, after such a long journey over the waves. I savored the act of pitching my tent, surrounded by the intense green of the well-watered English forest, getting soil under my fingernails and listening to the birds… Aaah, the whispering trees, swaying in the wind, yet anchored still to the deepest of roots; poetically balanced in elemental forces, reliable and grounded in the stillness of this Earth.
I have landed in this exotic land with a greater appreciation for everything: for solid ground, for pavement and rubber, for plants; for wind, for boats, and even(especially?) for water. For leaving my comfort zone, for purposefully breaking the routines dictated to me, and trying something so new, so uncertain and unfamiliar, I’ve come to appreciate all of life, more than ever before.
So try something new today! It makes life taste better.