by Sandra Thoma
The February wind blew past layers of wool and down my neck. I tucked my chin into my moldy-smelling foul weather jacket, leaned against the lifelines and watched Mutt explain to Jeff how to put a reef in the main. Mutt and Jeff aren’t their real names, of course. It’s sufficient that Mutt was a Captain, and Jeff was his friend with a new cutter-rigged boat. Mutt and Jeff were Real Sailors. My friend Brian, also a Real Sailor, was also along as crew, also leaning against the lifelines, also watching Mutt and Jeff.
Brian leaned his elbows on his knees and whispered to me from across the cockpit, “I wonder if one reef will be enough.”
Brian was my bellwether. He had the countenance of the Old Man of the Sea with a salt and pepper beard that was mostly salt, and blue eyes that twinkled when he spoke.
We both looked out at the breaking, green swells beyond the harbor. “It doesn’t look like it to me,” I whispered back. I wasn’t going to speak up about it. After all, I was just the newbie, a tag-along on this foul weather training sail, hoping I could learn and inch my way closer to being a Real Sailor.
I’d sailed ages ago as a teen, but that was before college, career, and children demanded all my time. Now my oldest was launched, my career settled a bit, and I had time to return to sailing. I’d just completed a sailing class and joined Oregon Women’s Sailing, when a career transfer took me and my twelve-year-old daughter from Portland to Seattle. I’d always wanted to live aboard, so I bought a Catalina 36, enlisted the help of a crew, and sailed her from Portland to Puget Sound, to Eagle Harbor, and then moved aboard. I was so excited to sail on Puget Sound, to share a life of adventure with my daughter. But it was hard being the newbie in an already well-acquainted live-aboard community.
It was Brian that first befriended me, Brian that flagged me down as I walked on to the Bainbridge Island Ferry and introduced me to the live-aboard Ferry pod. It was Brian that announced one January morning, on our daily commute, that he was going on a foul-weather training sail. A local resident Captain and his buddy were going from Port Townsend to Victoria, B.C.
“Foul-weather training? That sounds great. I’d love to do that. Can I join you?”
Everyone in our Ferry pod stared at me like I’d flipped my cookies.
Brian’s ruddy face had broken out in a grin – a grin that made me a bit nervous. “Sure. It’d be great to have you along.”
A few weeks later, I showed up at the boat at the appointed time, my foulies under one arm and sail bag in the other.
“Ahoy,” I said.
Mutt and Jeff were busy about the boat and didn’t look up.
Brian looked up from tying on the jib sheet. “Oh, you’re here,” he said and reached for my sail bag. “Welcome aboard.” Mutt and Jeff looked up, stared at Brian, then looked at each other and then back at me.
They didn’t know I was coming. Brian hadn’t told them. Maybe he didn’t think I’d really show up. Or maybe he forgot. I felt my face flush.
Jeff started to say something, and Mutt interrupted him. “Great to have you along. Stow your stuff down in the V-berth. Just push the sails aside.” He turned to Jeff. “You know this gal. Her Catalina 36 is right across the fairway from your boat.”
We set out across the Straits that morning on glassy water, with not a breath of wind to be found. Mutt and Jeff tried to fly a spinnaker. Brian leaned back and snoozed. I peeled off layers and wondered how it could possibly be so warm in February. The spinnaker floundered, filled, and then went limp. Eventually Mutt and Jeff took it down and turned on the iron genny.
We tied up that evening in front of the spectacular Empress Hotel. This was a side of sailing I’d never experienced—going over big water to luxury destinations. I sunk in to a leather chair in the old world grace of the Bengal lounge and gave my order to the waiter.
“I’d like tonic with a twist,” I said. Mutt and Jeff looked at me with raised eyebrows. “I don’t want to be seasick tomorrow.”
“I think it’ll be fine if we have a drink,” Mutt winked at Jeff and ordered a whiskey. Jeff followed suit. Brian ordered an IPA and said, “Nice place, eh? A bit pretentious, don’t you think?” Brian was, after all, Canadian.
After drinks we followed Mutt to a swanky Moroccan restaurant. I followed Brian’s lead and ordered the lamb. Maybe it won’t be spicy, I thought, and maybe tomorrow will be another float trip.
As it turned out, the next morning was not to be a float trip and a single reef in the main was not enough. When we sailed out of Victoria Harbor it seemed to me that even a triple reef wasn’t enough. I’d seen waves before, but never like this. The swells came together from all directions, and piled up in pyramids with big foamy breakers on top.
Brian, was standing on the windward side of the boat, holding on to a stay, studying the sea, looking every bit the picture of the man on a box of fish sticks. He noticed me watching him. “Are you doing okay?” he asked.
I wiped salt water off my face. “Yea, sure. I’m great.” I was surprised I wasn’t seasick. Cold, wet, and scared, but not seasick.
Then Jeff leaned over the side and puked. Mutt wasn’t far behind him. I turned away and stuffed a ginger chew in my mouth. I noticed a halyard had come free and was uncoiling down the side of the boat and trailing in the water. “There’s a line free,” I said.
Mutt looked at me. “What should we do?”
Why’s he asking me? I thought. He’s the Captain.
“I’ll go get it,” Maybe this was a chance to prove I was capable. I clipped on to the windward jackline and scooted on my butt up to the mast. The boat pitched up on each wave, surfed down the other side, and then slammed down into the trough between swells. Green water rose over the bow with each pitch and roll, smacking me right in the face. I wrapped my legs around the mast, pulled the line in, coiled it, and hung it back on the cleat. I looked out at the wild sea around me, and noticed there were birds on top of the waves. What the heck were birds doing out here? For that matter what the heck were WE doing out here? Suddenly, without a hint of warning, my body decided to eject everything I’d consumed in the last 24 hours. I sprawled flat and made for the leeward rail – too late. I raised up and attempted to wipe my face down with my wet glove. The bow of the boat slammed into a wave, and water cascaded up my back, down my neck and over my face. I pushed water out of my eyes and scooted back to the cockpit.
Brian held his hand out to help me. He’d watched my show on the bow and there was no longer a smile on his face. “Are you okay?”
I wretched over the side again.
Now everyone on board was seasick. Everyone except Brian. Brian, the older one, the one with a limp – Brian was as strong as an old post, sitting with his hands stuffed in the pocket of his red, foul weather jacket. Brian looked at the rest of us, clutching our innards in the cockpit, but mostly he watched the sails and the green water heaving over the bow, and the wild sea.
We went on like this for half the day, until I was wretched out and my stomach started to rumble with hunger and the sun was on our backs. I felt a shift in the current. The waves were still huge, but it felt like we were being pushed against them. “So,” I started, “Does anyone have an idea what our current ETA for Port Townsend is?”
Jeff was a washed-out rag, with his back leaning against the bulkhead. He opened his eyes and stared at me, then looked over to Mutt.
Mutt studied the chart-plotter for a while, then announced “we should be there about seven tonight.” I’m going below to get some sandwiches. Anyone want one?”
As if that were supposed to be the end of the conversation.
“Yea, sure,” I nodded. I studied the gauges mounted on the bulkhead in front of Brian. “Hey, Brian, that one says we’re making 3.5 knots. Am I reading that right?”
Brian looked down at where I was pointing. “Yep, that’s right.”
“And we were supposed to have the current pushing us until the afternoon, right?”
“Yep,” he nodded again.
I ran through the math in my head. With the current turning against us, we’d be out here in this muck until well after 9 or 10:00pm. And with the turn of the current, the wind would be opposite the waves, which meant the seas would only build. I looked to where I knew land was supposed to be and felt my heart sink. How long would it be before Jeff became dangerously dehydrated from seasickness? What would the narrow entry to Port Townsend be like, in seas like this, in the dark?
I watched a container ship pass us, then turn to the south. It looked like there were cranes or buildings on the shore in the direction it was going. I turned back to Brian. “Hey Brian, where’s that ship going?”
“Likely Port Angeles.”
“Port Angeles? How far away is that?”
I didn’t wait for him to answer. “Hey Jeff,” I tugged at his sleeve, “How far away is Port Angeles?”
Mutt reappeared in the cockpit with sandwiches. I asked the question again. This set Mutt and Jeff to conferring over the chartplotter. After a few minutes, they turned to Brian. “Port Angeles is five nautical miles. Would you like to head in?”
“Yes.” I interrupted. “We should head in. At 3.5 knots, and in these seas, it’ll take a couple hours to get there. If we turned now, we could be there before dark, before the current pushed us away from the harbor, before the waves get even bigger.”
Mutt and Jeff looked at me like I was a talking dog. “I really need to get the boat back to Port Townsend,” Jeff said. I’ve paid for a slip there.”
That was stupid reason if I’d ever heard one. They both turned to look at Brian. “We can make it to P.T., Mutt said, but if you want to head in, we’ll head in.”
Brian leaned his elbows on his knees and studied Mutt and Jeff for a moment. Then looked across the cockpit at me. He held out his forefinger and motioned toward me. “I think you two should listen to her,” he said.
Two long hours later the boat was secure at the dock in Port Angeles. Mutt and Jeff had gone to look for a Customs Agent, and Brian and I were down below. I pulled my foul weather gear off and rubbed a towel across my head. I looked over my shoulder at Brian, stretched out on the pilot berth, still in his foulies. “You ok Brian?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You?”
“Better now.” I said.
“Yep,” he said. “Good call. You’re gonna be great. Just great.” And with that he pulled his hat down over his eyes and commenced to snoring.
Maybe I already was a Real Sailor. Maybe all I needed was a good friend and a little self-confidence. Maybe I was finding my confidence, and maybe a good friend was snoring in the pilot berth next to me.
For Brian, Who, on June 25th2017, sailed west to the sunrise.
Fair Winds and Following Seas my Dear Friend, where-ever you sail.
Sandra Thoma is a Sailor, Teacher, Author, Mother and Wife. She is a Physicist and Programmer by training and Nomad by inclination. Portland, Oregon has been home where for 22 years she has worked and raised her daughters in to wonderful women. Sandra started writing in earnest when she moved aboard her sailboat and the Salish Sea captured her imagination. She writes for a Portland magazine, and Aviation Journals. She and her Darling Husband are currently vagabonds, exploring by air in the plane he built, by land in their Airstream and the Salish Sea in their sailboat.