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St. Pierre – Crookhaven: 6 Aug – Day 7, 0500

Ugh, awful night. It’s five in the morning, and I’ve got the morning watch. I know I will regret saying ‘awful night’ later on when we really do have one, but it was unpleasant nonetheless1.

After the WX report last evening with Dad, I turned in for the night. It was blowing ~25 knots and we were just roiling along in big seas under the small jib and the mizzen. The boat was really moving, and happy. Every 4th or 5th wave exploded on the beam, covering the decks with green water and spray.

I found it nearly impossible to sleep on the high side. Until last night we’d either been becalmed or on port tack, so my starboard bunk was always on the low side, or at least level. To start the night last night I was about 30º higher on my side – until the wind died, again. After dark, the rain came, and the wind went with it. We had too little sail up, and the boat just started bobbing around uncomfortably. It’s too warm to crawl into the sleeping bag, but too uncomfortable and itchy to lie on the bare cushion, so I had mighty trouble getting any good rest, really the most important aspect of the voyage for my overall happiness2.

I switched over the Clint’s side at midnight when Mia came off watch. It was still very muggy, and the cabin is damp from the constant windward sailing and heavy rain of late. Now that it’s warmer in the air, nothing dries and all the surfaces are sticky and unpleasant to the touch. The wind never did come back, and I lay there half in a daze gritting my teeth at the unlikeliness of the scenario3. I’m guessing the center of the low finally caught up with us, and we’re actually in or near the eye, where the wind drops right off. The stars came out in a clear sky, another indication. If I’m right, we should get a windshift later today to the WNW, when it should also get colder, drier and windier. The GRIBs, according to Dad, show favorable wind for the foreseeable future.

I’m making coffee now. The kettle my parents got us for the wedding works wonders onboard with its wide base. But the handle broke the other day. The whole thing is brass, shaped like a bell with an exceptionally wide base so it stays put in a pitching galley. The handle is teak, perched atop two brass arms of sorts. The brass arm on the ‘aft’ side of the handle came loose from the teak. Mom bought it from a specialty jeweler that deals in nautical-themed pieces, and I wonder if the kettle – though modeled after an authentic sailing ship design – was ever intended to go to sea4.

The coffee is done. It’s Swedish instant coffee, and it’s actually really good. I’m drinking it black now, as my stomach can’t handle the UHT milk that hasn’t been in the fridge. This particular instant coffee came in a small Ziploc bag, and was present #8 that we got from Mia’s swim girls5. Everyday we open a new one, and the event marks a highlight to each day, and something we truly look forward to. The girls gave us 30 presents – one for each day of the voyage, and a few extra to be sure we’d have enough. We started opening them on the way to St. Pierre, as Baddeck was our last real stop on the mainland. Clint won possession of the swim cap (present #6) yesterday when he beat me at a round of the raisin game6, his first. He and Mia will vie for the cap sometime today over a game of graph paper Battleship.

For days now we’ve had a little black chirping bird fluttering around the boat during the nights. You can just make out his little silhouette against the night sky when he flutters near the tricolor. He sounds almost as if he’s chuckling to himself. I haven’t decided if it’s been the same one night after night or if he has friends that take up station near the stern as we continue east. If we were closer to shore, he could easily be mistaken for a bat (save for the chirping of course), as his flying motion is almost floppy, like he’s not sure how it’s done. I think I’ve seen him in daylight – he flaps his wings only occasionally, and between flaps his body appears to fall right out of the sky, as if he’s struggling just to stay airborne. He’s by far the smallest of the seabirds we’ve encountered, but he must be a good flyer, as we’re now over 300 miles from land. There are a surprising number of birds about actually – the other day during one of the calms (which are beginning to be hard to keep track of) an enormous flock of brown and white guys seemed to be following the boat. We were motoring south, trying to get to 43º north, ahead of the low, and I think they mistook us for a Grand Banks fishing boat. They’d take off en masse, and land on the water just ahead of us, floating and looking for food. Humorously, they’ll dunk their heads right under the water to have a good look around, like the ‘curious birds’7 I became friends with in the Caribbean. Once the boat passed them by, they’d take to the air again, landing again just ahead of us. This game went on for hours that day. We never did feed them.

The sun’s coming up now. This is one of the best times of the day, especially now it’s clear. The nights are long and hard when you don’t sleep well, and the dawn is so friendly, invigorating. I just finished my coffee and ate a Larabar, and with the coming daylight, I might actually feel reasonably awake. The last few stars are just now fading, and if I were a little more ambitious I’d get out my sextant. Maybe in another week or so.

I don’t think I mentioned it, but I’m finally getting ‘into’ the voyage. There are times when my anxiety goes way up – two days ago I was literally on the verge of tears, wanting to snap my fingers and find myself at home on the couch with the dogs, or at the breakfast table in Dunderbo8. The feeling was utterly irrational – we were sailing beautifully and the boat was performing great. But the sky was grey, and with it my mood. Last night was another instance, even after I felt I’d turned the corner. The building wind and seas raised my heart rate just enough that I found it hard to relax. I noticed my breathing was short again, which had gone away since leaving St. Pierre. The feeling faded into a battle with my consciousness to try and let me sleep, which I failed. Mia shared this ‘butterfly’ feeling, and we chatted about it before her watch. Clint overheard and jokingly wondered if he should be concerned as well9.

Out here, you’re so exposed. I think that’s the root of my anxiety anyway. The comfort and security found in your bunk is literally only separated from the sea by – at most – an inch of plastic. I thought of other land-based adventures yesterday – mountain climbing, hiking, etc. – but comparatively, from my perspective on this boat, they seem so secure. Yes, a rock-climber is only one slip away from death, but I feel like he’s in control. Out here, it’s utter wilderness, and no matter how prepared you and the boat are, the sea is ultimately in control, and can simply overwhelm you if it really kicks off. It’s this feeling of exposure that literally has me holding my breath. On the really bad thoughts, I tell myself that this is the end of my seafaring career, that from now on I’ll stick to adventures on solid ground, but I know that’s not true. Those are just the bad days, and they’re complemented by good ones. Nevertheless, on this day, that feeling of raw exposure pervades and hangs like a cloud over everything else.

1 During the calms, Mia and I would sleep in the same bunk, head-to-feet, wedged in between the lee cloth on the outside, and the teak backrest on the inside, usually with some pillows or an extra sleeping bag for padding. Whoever was supposed to be on watch set the alarm to go off every 30 minutes, so we could pop up and check the AIS and have a look around outside. The typical pattern was for the wind to get light before midnight, and die off to just a whisper by the early morning hours. By 0300, before Mia’s watch, it was gone completely, and I’d take the sails down before coming down below. Neither of us would really sleep in the cramped quarters, with the boat rolling incessantly from side to side, the contents of each locker banging back and forth violently and noisily. By dawn, the wind was usually back to a whisper, and we could make sail before breakfast. It was common in a 24-hour period that we made 5-6 sail changes, often at night.
2 And maintaining an efficiently sailed boat. When I’m tired, I’m grumpy. When I’m tired, I don’t like getting up, and get frustrated when someone wakes me. Inevitably this leads to poor decisions on my part, even though I know what needs to be done. It always would get done, but not without grumbling from me, and usually 30 minutes too late.

3 We’d expected constant wind and weather, often bad at that, this far north, as the pilot charts indicate. We never did get it, and when the wind did come up, were more concerned with sailing the boat as fast as we could than worrying about our survival.

4 In fact I’m sure it was never intended to go to sea. The handle got worse – on either end of the wooden piece were tapered ‘plugs,’ which fitted into an opening in the curved brass arms on either side. The ‘aft’ plug was the first to pull out, then the forward one went. 5200 solved the problem for good.

5 Anna, Ida, Sara and Anna – at the wedding in June, they changed out of their dresses and into their bathing suits, goggles and swim caps, and gave the most memorable speech of the evening (to the delight of many of the American lads in the room).

6 Mia taught me this. Place a handful of raisins in an open palm. Think of one. Have a friend choose a single raisin and eat it, until they choose the one you’ve been thinking of. Say ‘beep.’ Now switch roles. Whoever eats the last raisin wins.

7 The ‘curious birds’ were actually red-footed boobies (try looking that up in google images). I was swimming once in Ile Fourche, near St. Barth’s, and the birds would land nearby and stick their heads under water. When I dived down, I could see them from beneath, and their expressions were quite comical as they looked around underwater.

8 The idyllic village where Mia’s family lives, literally ‘Thunder Village.’ As I write, the apples on the trees in the yard are ripe – I ate three of them from the gound in one sitting yesterday. The breakfast table in Dunderbo often consists of home-baked bread, yogurt, muesli, crispbread and cheese, hard-cooked eggs, fruit, homemade jams and potfuls of coffee. These breakfasts, especially when Mia is home, can last for hours.

9 It was obvious that he was not. On watch a few minutes earlier, Clint had stood outside in the drizzle and spray, hooting and hollering every time a big wave came up astern and sent Arcturus on a wild surfing run, or when another smashed into the beam, sending spray as high as the spreaders. Clint was in his element.