In October 1999, we left our sailboat in the South Pacific and returned to enjoy a Canadian winter. A few friends have expressed curiosity about our nautical lifestyle, especially the long passages:
“What do you do all day?” they ask: Two people, alone in a small boat on a large sea for 3000 miles, 24 hours a day, no anchorages, restaurants or spas in between. Well, as someone told me, there’s always something to do. There are routine boat responsibilities, chores and optional extras. As well, every day some unexpected challenge comes along: the Eggplant Parmigiana hits the deck and 100,000 shards of Corelle, along with a reasonable facsimile of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre keeps you busy for a while.
Even in the halcyon life of Paradise West, there must be structure to a day. Ours is built around a few constants: deck watch and the Radio Net. The latter is a communication protocol, informally agreed upon by boats sharing the same passage. On our trip to the Marquesas, we checked in with eight other boats twice a day; shared information about weather, sea conditions and, increasingly, “glitches”. It was very reassuring to know that there were other people out there, even if we could not see one another.
We believe strongly that there must be someone “on watch” at all times. He/she should be up on deck, barring very brief sorties below. Our schedule is less structured than some, but we try to accommodate our personal “biorhythms”. Only the night watches are consistently scheduled. Hugh goes to bed soon after dinner, usually sleeping from 2030 hrs to 0030 hrs. He does the “graveyard shift” until about 0500 hrs. Then he sleeps for about 3,5 hours. He is, however, like a mother with a new infant; any unusual change in motion or sound may bring him on deck to check and adjust. During the day, we spell each other off for short naps.
At first, I found my evening shift almost unbearable. I would check the clock every ten minutes; I didn’t think midnight would ever come. Once I prided myself on being a night personality. Suddenly I had no personality at all. I was fighting sleep at 2100 hrs., panicking at the thought that I would have to do this for over 21 nights. I still don’t love it, but I have adjusted to it. I’ve had a full moon, phosphorescent waves, balmy evenings. “The stars upon the Bowl of Night..” etc. My Walkman is my salvation. We brought several audio tapes from Canada and have exchanged others with friends. Listening to a book is a fantastic way to pass the time. We have an eclectic collection, Proust to Judy Blume, but find that the best are classics or excellent contemporary literature. Unfortunately, we are running through the collection too quickly. I’ll soon have to return to “Gzowski’s Last Show”, a sentimental favorite!
Once I wondered if I’d ever be able to sleep below, with the bouncing and rolling that occurs. Veteran sailors assured me that I’d fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and they were right. Unfortunately for me, awakening from sleep is excruciating. However, once on deck I know that it will be light in an hour. I get all the sunrises and they are usually magnificent. Then I just sit and think for awhile. This is my alone time and I treasure it.
I have done more writing in the last few years than I had for decades. (Muse inspired by aberrant circumstances?) Once I thought I could never create on the computer, that I needed the magical stimulus of a lead pencil. But I have realized that I do my writing when I am scrubbing the deck or snorkeling or walking down a street. When I sit down to the computer, I am just putting the words I have memorized onto paper. During the past two years, I have written nine chapters of an “Agatha Christie-style” murder (nautical motif); regular articles for The New Edinburgh News; several short but pithy reflections on Life at Sea; as well as a roughed-out plot about a woman who advertises in the Personal Column to find a partner for her husband, who wants to sail around the world. I’ve even returned to poetry writing for the first time since soppy adolescence. It’s faintly depressing to admit that my passionate poetic expression should be entitled “Ode to a Pressure Cooker”. Ah well, youth’s torrid emotions must be channeled into more prosaic areas.
By the time morning net was over, it was time to think about lunch. Dining and wining have always been rituals central to our existence. A lot of readjustment have been necessary since we became “Boat People”. For a while, I tried to produce the kind of meals I made at home: meat with a sauce, three kinds of vegetables, a salad…It just doesn’t work on a rocky boat. The stove is gimbaled; there are devices to keep a pot from reeling too far afield, and many boats have a security strap for the intrepid cook. Nevertheless, one often risks life, limb and the poached chicken while cooking underway. I have realized, not without a certain sorrow, that “one pot” meals do best: a casserole in the oven or a dish cooked in the pressure cooker. I cannot tell you how I have resisted “cooking under pressure”. It seems that most people of my generation recall cowering in the corner of the kitchen as the pressure cooker blew its top! My experienced sailing buddies assured me that “they don’t blow up any more”, but I found a lot of delaying techniques before I finally assembled my new pot. I must admit that my first production convinced me of its value: ratatouille in five minutes! I have done great soups, modified my chicken casseroles and regularly steam vegetables without drama. Cooking is one of my few creative outlets and it was depressing to think I’d have to curb my style. However, this is a life of compromises!
Related to cooking are daily chores: looking into the storage bins to sniff out rotting potatoes etc. (Doesn’t take a rocket scientist!) It makes my day to find weevils in the flour, necessitating major extermination measures.
I do not knit, quilt, polish the silver or sprout mung beans. In time, I may dabble in water colours, work on Spanish translation or make bread. I should do sit-ups, edit my videos and give myself a manicure. I read voraciously. Good books are important, because their spirit lingers.
Okay, what about running the boat? In my time, I have taken several courses where they tried diligently to explain that complex combination of sheets, strings and sticks that work together to take us the longest distance between two points. But just when I was beginning to tell a jib sheet from a forestay, Das Boot was equipped with a set of electronic and mechanical support systems to rival Apollo 2000. Now I have to learn to push buttons and I covet a Fisher-Price wheel to grip; ours turns by itself.
Furthermore, we have embarked on passages where we stay on one tack for a week. Hugh spends a lot of time fine-tuning the self-steering wind vane, which we generally use. His previous career experience makes him the better-qualified to plot the course (I used to go from downtown Ottawa to Kanata via Hull) so my principal responsibility on deck is to look out for traffic. Not too demanding, considering that we saw three vessels in three weeks. Nevertheless, it only takes one close encounter of the worst kind! Hugh does a walkabout several times, usually obeying my exhortations to wear his harness. As well, each day he checks the engine, runs it when necessary to recharge the batteries or run the water maker.
As for the Most Frequently Asked Question: “What is it like to spend all your time alone together on a boat?” That is best left for alternative publications!