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The Longest Miles

Mark Aisbett

Merkava
Fraser 41
October 1st, 2015

I was startled awake from the force of the rain hitting our topsides in the dead of night. As I lay awake listening, the bow started a now familiar plunging up and down as the seas started to build. I got out of bed and felt my way to the companionway in the dark and across the rocking sole. As I looked out, all I could see was slashing rain and building waves lit occasionally by flashes of lightning that only added to the insanity that was unfolding in my world.

We were at anchor in Gan, the most southerly atoll in the Maldive chain, having spent the last week getting ready for the passage to Chagos which lay 350 miles to the south of us. We were all checked out and ready to go, just waiting for a good weather window before setting sail. I sat in the companionway and watched as the wind rose, and then rose some more. I was pretty confident as we had already weathered a few 40 knot squalls that had ripped through this tiny atoll, but there was something different about tonight. The wind was…more. The waves were…larger. The bow was plunging up and down, “chomping on her anchor chain” as it were, with the bow almost going under at each wave.

I sat and watched for a few more minutes when a feeling came over me that we might not be able to stay on this lee shore for much longer so I went below, and got out our wet weather gear which always seems a bit silly in this part of the world. We spend most of our time dripping with sweat and being overheated, even at night on passage, but I knew with this much wind and rain, that we would still freeze before too long. No sooner had I got the jackets out when I looked up and saw we were dragging. The anchor had become unstuck from the bottom and we were drifting towards the reef at an alarming rate! ROSIE! GET INTO YOUR RAIN GEAR THEN TAKE THE HELM AND KEEP US OFF THAT FRIGGIN’ REEF, I’LL GO FORWARD AND GET THE ANCHOR UP!

She could barely see the one reef marker as the lightning thankfully flashed. I went forward and started the long process of getting the anchor up with the bow now bucking down and under the water bringing waves of blue water onto my little project. After what seemed an eternity, we were free and under way into the centre of the atoll and more importantly, away from any of the hard bits around the edge that would ruin our whole trip.

When I got back to the cockpit I looked at the time – 0230h. It was going to be a long night…. We motored around the interior of the atoll until first light with our friends on Rutea. Their one inch anchor snubber had snapped in two with the force of the waves and they had opted to get the hell out of dodge as well. Once it got light, we motored up to the western side of the atoll where there was more protection and waited there until it looked good to go.

Two days later it did look good so we took off and said goodbye to the Maldive Islands that we had enjoyed for the last two months. The first day was wonderful. A nice wind blowing from a great angle, blue skies, fluffy white clouds dotting the sky. As it got dark we started to notice some black squall clouds forming around us. Soon all was dark, rain was slashing, waves were white and nasty, and the wind was howling through the rigging as squall after squall came through. We’d see them coming on the radar and try to go around them. Sometimes we were successful, sometimes not. Then, a big one showed up and was moving towards us from the west. It looked ominous, but thin. Only a few miles “thick” from east to west, but about 15 miles north to south, the direction we were going. I got on the radio with Neal from Rutea and asked him what he thought of it. He said what has become a bit of a joke with us when he said, “let’s just turn hard right and get through this thing!” Cool! Great! The same thing I was thinking was a pretty good idea.

Before it hit, I took down all sails and started the engine. Just as it was arriving, I turned right into it, and the whole world changed. All of a sudden I was in a storming cauldron of wind, waves, rain, and darkness. We couldn’t see more than a few feet from the boat. The auto pilot couldn’t steer the boat as our speed went from six knots to zero. Our chartplotter was useless as we watched our icon go around in circles. I grabbed the helm and started to hand steer. Kind of… I didn’t know which direction to go! There were no reference points. No stars, couldn’t see waves. I could see the speed indicator which went from zero to 8 knots as we pirouetted through the maelstrom. I opened up the compass and went traditional. It was the only thing that could let me know what friggin’ direction to steer! And so, we spent the next few hours like that, trying to get to the other side of this living hell.

We did get there and for the next day we had squall after squall come through all with the wind right on the nose, but none like THAT one. In contrast, the last day and night were super tranquil. No squalls, light wind. The sky was filled to the brim with stars that seemed…brighter. More alive somehow.

As I sat and watched the night go by as we approached the Chagos Islands, I thought how much richer a star-filled night is when you’ve gone through some black ones. I was reminded of all the people I used to see on top of the Chief after having hiked up the steep trail. They have that same look to them as I did on that starry last night. A richer view from having had to work for it. To strive and push and to bloody well earn the view. Cruisers will talk sometimes about the “magic” of being “out here” crossing oceans and I think a lot of that comes from having to put a lot into getting to these places. Sure we’ve been to some gorgeous places, no doubt. But would they have been so good without the sleepless, rain, and wave filled nights? Without the facing of our own inner fears and the coming to the other side of that? Would we use the word “magic” so freely to describe it?

The view never looks as good as when I’ve just climbed the Chief. And as we sailed into the uninhabited Salomon Atoll, after 350 of the longest miles I’ve ever sailed and smack dab in the middle of the Indian Ocean, magic was surely shining through my smiling eyes.

Onward…

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  1. Anders Lonnqvist says:

    Yes, you say it so well. It is magic, weather you just lay and stare at the stars and the Southern Cross or hang on for your life through a Typhoon.
    I love six hour night watches you have the whole world to yourself.

  2. Ken Wright says:

    Good account Mark ! I’ve seen a few squalls ( by definition …terrifying night creatures) along the way.
    Perhaps not as bad as THAT one .
    Yer right …if you don’t work till your body aches and wants to quit, and shed tears and blood….
    it does NOT mean the same….just great but not MAGIC !
    I’m usually in Turkey Spring to Fall , if you’re passing through .
    Cheers Ken

  3. Helen Roberts says:

    Great story. Thanks!

    Now you have hindsite would you have steered into it again?

    Helen

    1. Hi Helen,
      Not sure that Mark is checking the eCurrents site…. Beth Cooper submitte dthe article on his behalf. I will pass your question on to her.
      Cheers,
      Rosario