I am fresh back from a week of sailing in the fresh breezes of the North Atlantic, as one of five crewmembers (plus the captain, who made us six) on a 48-foot Nautor Swan sailing yacht bound for Bermuda! The experience was a real adventure for the crew, if not for our seasoned captain, Tania Aebi; New York to Bermuda was the first leg of her solo circumnavigation, as a teenager, in her Contessa 26 sailboat Varuna. Certainly the voyage we shared with her was much easier for her than that trip. And certainly, with her years of experience, she made it easer and surer for us as well.
My goals were simple: First, prove to myself that I could handle an offshore passage. Second, learn as much as I could from Tania, who is (after all) one of those who have gone where I am dreaming of going. Third, enjoy the voyage, even the parts that might not be so damn enjoyable at the time.
And I met them, with varying levels of success.
The biggest worry I’d had was whether or not I could even get to sleep while the boat was under way. I’ve been doing my share of Bay sailing, but I’ve always spent my nights at anchor; the only times I’ve gone offshore were on ocean liners – and there is a vast difference between a 30,000-ton liner and a 30,000-pound sailboat. The hiss and crash of the waves on the hull, right beside my ear – the pitching and rolling of the vessel, that would have bounced me out of my bunk if I hadn’t used a lee-cloth to keep me contained there – made it a challenge indeed; but if I couldn’t sleep, I convinced myself, then relaxing my body as totally as I could manage would do me just about as much good. And I did adapt. I did sleep, and took catnaps during the day as I could, and that relieves me of the biggest worry I’d had about sailing the open seas. I can handle it.
My third goal was a whole lot easier. The ocean off Long Island, in June, is still quite chilly, and we had to bundle up for night watches all the time. But there was that amazing sky at 2 AM one night, so thick with stars that I could almost feel myself falling up into its glory, and I was living that line of John Masefield’s poem Sea-Fever: “And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by….” I also had the experience of sailing the Nautor Swan 48, which is more racer than cruiser. It’s got a short, deep and rather bulbous keel and a deep, finely balanced ‘spade’ rudder; it’s marvelously responsive in the right hands, but I had my hands full keeping her close enough to the right course (and I wasn’t the only one!) The daytime watches were entertaining, when most of us were up in the cockpit watching the sea go by; the last couple of days and nights were exciting, with heavy winds driving the boat at eight knots with occasional bumps up to 9 and even 10 knots – and if that doesn’t sound fast to you, you don’t sail, do you? And I had the great good fortune to be at the helm when we dropped and secured the sails, and motored directly upwind into Town Cut and St. George’s Harbor.
The second goal? I’d hoped to brace up Cap’n Tania to hear of how she’d provisioned Varuna, how she’d handled cooking for one plus a cat, how she’d handled the single-handed days and nights of her passages around the world – Et Cet-e-ra, Et Cet-e-ra, Et Cet-e-ra, as Yul Brynner enunciated it in The King And I. She forestalled all of this quite tartly with three words - “Just do it!”
Yes, ma’am, Captain. Will do.
(Well, two out of three ain’t bad.)
So now I’m back. I did see better ways to do a lot of the things I’d have to do on my own voyage, and I’ve got some things to add to Halcyon and some improvements I’ll need to make on her. I’ve worked up a program to ready myself for that future, solo Bermuda run – if not this year, then certainly (God willing) in 2013. Because I’ve expanded my personal envelope, considerably, and I have to grow now to fill it.