Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Plus ça change, they say in French, plus c’est la même chose. That line makes sense to me on and off. Sometimes it sounds like something that’s supposed to be clever. Last week it seemed like the unvarnished truth. We set off from Culebra, reached St. Croix—did things there now vague to memory—and prepared to journey on. We were careful, of course, because as any sailor knows, particularly one as half-assed as myself, you do not mess around with the weather. So we had our weather relay and we had our diesel and food that probably would not induce seasickness and our wits about us, as much as you can hope for at any given point in time. The only problem was that a few things went wrong. One of them was: While lying low, keeping my nausea tuned to a manageable level, riding it out, I looked up and saw smoke eagerly billowing from the closed door of the engine room. Look! I shouted. Smoke!

Leaping up from where he was nursing his own juice-induced nausea (it’s an art as well as a science, figuring out what to eat underway, and in each new port it seems I’m tempted by something that soon proves deadly), Adam dove into the smoke. Long and short, there wasn’t an actual fire, but the engine had gone dead.

Sailing engineless is nothing new for us, of course. We hadn’t even been using the engine. Later, though, the port side sailtrack ripped out of the deck. Adam jerry rigged something or other—I have no idea what it was because I was trying not to be sick while reading some kids’ book aloud down below or getting food for Tallulah, who seems to recover from her own little flares of seasickness with stunning speed. But no engine and a compromised rig in someone else’s boat in unfamiliar waters during hurricane season adds up to Not OK. You have to be able to get away from the storm. I used to be kind of blasé, but after evacuating New Orleans at dusk with the electric bite in the air of pressure dropping, along the empty highways—then, weeks later, driving with a will back into the ruined city to touch things that the storm had left behind, dripping with prisms of mold—I find my cells shudder at the notion.

But at some point after we decided that the safest thing to do was return to Culebra, a thunderhead like a mushroom cloud possessed the horizon. It staged a bloodless coup. It was so big it didn’t need to make a sound and it looked marshmallow soft. Long jagged clouds the color of pewter balanced across it as the sun shot that soft whiteness through with pink gold. When it reached us, it was sheeting warm rain and blowing 45-knot gusts in the darkness while the boat plowed the waves like some Greek’s mythical horse.

We knew this—this Invest 92, this tropical disturbance we’d been watching for days and now, with our change of plan, it was tickling the edge of our westward trajectory with its long white plume. And we prayed, for the first time in years, because sometimes in the dark ocean you hope there really is some kind of benevolent higher power, even if that idea seems unfathomable in the clear light of day. Because sometimes if you’re not calling out to the heavens for mercy you’re singing all chirpy in your head, “The Minnow would be lost, the Minnow would be lost…”

It’s a fact of life when sailing that plans are not that relevant. A fact not always pleasant or easy to deal with, sometimes one of the most frustrating axioms for me of life aboard. Because I’m pretty good with uncertainty but not that good and that’s probably why I live on a sailboat, because I have to learn my lesson. Maybe. I’m not really sure. Anyway, we went sailing. And now we’re back.

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