Sail Fail

I’ll cut to the chase: Smartini (a.k.a. Fran and Butch/Brian) are not cut out to be sailors, and after 7 days and nights sailing from Panama to the Galapagos Islands, we have opted out of the sail from Galapagos to French Polynesia. We’re still going to FP, but we’ll be flying, not sailing. If you want to know why, read on!

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Before going any further, my sincere apologies to anyone who ever visited us on Smartini (the boat, not Fran and me) and found life aboard just a little (or maybe a lot) less comfortable than you had anticipated. We found it to be very comfortable, except for the occasional bad weather day underway or really rolly anchorage, but it’s what we were accustomed to. If you found yourself counting the minutes until you could get back to dry land and air conditioning, (to use the probably now outdated vernacular of the cool kids), “I feel you, dog!”

Liz, Paul, and Oneiro in Puerto Rico, March 2019

I don’t want to imply that our very good friends and gracious hosts, Liz and Paul, didn’t warn us; didn’t, in fact, make it a point that life on Oneiro (their 46′ Hallberg-Rassy sailboat) would be considerably different than life on Smartini. When we asked them about bringing a tiny projector with us so that maybe we could watch a movie in the cockpit on our long journey, the response was something like “Well, when sailing, the boat is always moving, sometimes quite a lot, so it’s not likely that we’ll ever want to just sit and try to watch a movie. In fact, a lot of the time, you really won’t feel like doing anything at all.” Now, if that’s not a warning, I don’t know what is – but Fran and I must have been thinking “Yeah, we lived on a boat – we know there’s always some movement – we’re used to that. How bad can it be?”

[Humor Alert: at this point, I will attempt to use humor to convey my feelings about being on a sailboat. If you are a sailor, and particularly if you are Liz or Paul, do not take offense – it’s humor, or at least my best attempt at it, hoping it will help me avoid some serious PTSD.]

Happier times, before I had any idea what we were in for

“How bad can it be?”, we thought. “Like riding on a bucking bronco, inside a washing machine that’s tumbling down the side of a mountain”, is the answer. The first two days and nights, when we had a 5-6 foot swell coming from behind, in 18-24 knot winds, there wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t thinking that I would rather be almost anywhere, doing almost anything, other than what I was doing at the time. Getting a root canal? Easy. Prepping for a colonoscopy? Child’s play. Having my fingernails extracted with pliers, while getting a root canal and prepping for a colonoscopy? Sign me up! Just GET ME OFF OF THIS BOAT!

Fortunately for me – and for Fran, Liz, and Paul, who were no doubt also wishing I were off the boat, so they didn’t have to endure the waves of miserableness (I know, “misery” is the correct word here, but somehow it doesn’t quite convey what I was actually feeling) emanating from my every pore – it got better. The big swell became much smaller, and eventually disappeared. The wind dropped to 10 – 12 knots, and then to practically nothing as we neared, then crossed, the Equator, so the seas calmed considerably. And while that reduced my physical discomfort to merely “annoyed”, it freed up my brain to think about the prospect of the wind and swell kicking up again, and of me being stuck on the boat for another 94 hours, 36 minutes, and 14 seconds.

And I began to wonder what kind of person actually chooses to travel long distances via sailboat. An adventurer? An explorer? A lover of the open ocean? Nope. A masochist, plain and simple. Let’s examine the facts: here is a person who, ON PURPOSE, locks themself in a contraption in which everything is smaller, tighter, hotter, wetter, louder, and smellier than, for example, a Dodge Grand Caravan with broken shock absorbers and no air conditioning, transporting a half dozen sumo wrestlers across Alabama during a thunderstorm in August, after feeding them all Burrito Supremes from Taco Bell. A person who, ON PURPOSE, spends days and even weeks on end (it’s about 24 days from Galapagos to French Polynesia) without a decent shower, fresh food, a good night’s sleep, Netflix, or a full day without banging one’s head on something hard at least once. (Hmm… does the frequent head banging factor into the decision to be a sailor? Worth investigating.)

Even changing lightbulbs is difficult on a sailboat – this is my view from the top of the 66′ mast, where I ventured to inspect the special sailboat lights (among other chores)

Everything you do on a sailboat at sea is difficult. Food preparation involves wedging yourself into the tiny galley with your knees and hips, and trying to maintain some upper body stability while cutting only the food, and not a finger. Cutting up a fresh pineapple can take an hour (not making this up). Pouring anything from one vessel into another is almost sure to result in some spillage – water into your water bottle, hot coffee into a mug, rum into a shot glass, tequila into a shot glass, pure grain alcohol into a shot glass (anything to numb the pain!).

Sleeping is difficult. Getting from any part of the boat to any other part of the boat, no matter the distance, is difficult. Going to the bathroom is difficult. Getting dressed and undressed. Brushing your teeth. Washing dishes. Reading. Writing. Finding a place to sit comfortably. All difficult, and when the conditions are bad, practically impossible. (Nothing particularly funny about this paragraph, especially since it’s all true.)

Paul in the cockpit of Oneiro – this is where we spent most of our time when the seas were rough

But Sailor Man* doesn’t seem to mind, or barely notice for that matter. Because Sailor Man is too busy being Sailor Man, doing Sailor Man stuff: checking the sails, checking the wind, calculating how fast the boat is going relative to the wind speed, and dreaming of what it could be doing with just two more knots of wind, or ten more degrees of favorable wind direction. Then adjusting the sails (which often means making a particular rope looser or tighter by six inches, as if that’s really going to change anything). Occasionally doing something called a “jive”, performed when Sailor Man determines there might be another 0.05 knots of speed to be had if he moves the sail from one side of the boat to the other – never mind the fact that the boat is now heading farther away from the destination than before the “jive”.

By the way, I may have the terminology wrong, but I hope I will be forgiven, because everything on a boat – not just a sailboat, to be fair – has a made-up word that is, I think, intended to allow Sailor Man to easily identify another Sailor Man, so that they can immediately begin to talk Sailor Man talk to each other. Every one of these words is, as far as I can tell, a made-up word for boats: clew, vang, jib, spinnaker, genoa, luff, leech, tack, mast, batten, halyard, sheet, brail, tricing line, warp, whip, jackstay. Then you get to combine them for even more confusion: jib topsail sheet, peak halyard, bunt line, boom vang. You would think a “sheet” would be the sail, but you’d be an idiot (in the eyes of Sailor Man), because a “sheet” is the rope (oops – “line”) that you pull on to make the sail loose or tight, or tall or short, or something. There’s something called a “clutch” that is really more of a brake, but why use a word the way everyone else uses it? That would make it too easy to understand! (I was going to try to make up some words to pump up the humor volume here, but as it turns out, it wasn’t necessary, as every word or phrase I’ve listed is absolutely legit.)

One topic I have avoided so far, because it’s so sensitive to Sailor Man, is running the engine. Sailor Man hates, with a passion that burns white hot, to run the engine. It means that the normal sounds of pure sailing – the wind filling the sails, the sleek hull of the boat slipping through the sea, the smashing of waves into the bow, crashing and clanging of dishes, glassware, cookware, water bottles and everything else that isn’t glued into place, the loud “Dammit!” of the crew as they bang heads, shoulders, knees and toes into hard parts of the boat (collectively known as the “clee yardlings”) – all of those sounds are drowned out by the gentle droning of the engine, burning the precious diesel, thereby eating away at the financial reserves and possibly preventing the planned purchase of the new wartsail. A sound which, to Sailor Man, is the sound of failure – failure to capture the wind and travel freely across the Seven Seas. Never mind the fact that, when pinned down, every Sailor Man I’ve ever met admits to running the engine about 50% of the time, something they call “motor sailing” to make it sound a bit less like failure.

In the end, I have reached the conclusion that there is something in the genetic makeup of Sailor Man that makes him yearn for the sea, that makes him eschew comfort for the feel of the clew and the cleat, yawing along the mainsail, with the boom vang and the topping lift in perfect harmony. And I just don’t have it, nor do I understand it. Literally – who can make sense of all the jibberish?! Put me on a 737 with a gin and tonic, and wake me up when we’re on final descent.

[Serious Alert: now that I have made you laugh yourself silly, let me be serious for a moment.]

All joking aside – and all anti-sailing bias aside (as far to the side as I can park mine) – I have great respect for people who live on their sailboats and sail them incredibly long distances to see amazing places. What they do is not at all easy, and they do it because of some inner drive to accomplish something that a tiny fraction of humans will ever do. They really do endure long, boring passages knowing that the boring parts can be interrupted at any moment by a terrible squall that could break their boat, or by a collision with a whale that could break their boat (not kidding – a sailboat similar to Oneiro was sunk by a whale collision just a week before we flew to Panama), or by equipment problems that could endanger their lives. It’s not much different from people who climb the world’s highest mountains.

Paul and his 20 lb. blackfin tuna…

Paul has wanted to sail his boat around the world for far longer than the four years we’ve known them, and he’s finally doing it. Fran and I are honored that they (Paul and Liz) thought enough of us to include us on this important leg, and I feel bad that I let them down. (Fran, being Fran, would have made it all the way to French Polynesia with a smile, regardless of the circumstances.)

… and the resulting feast (1 of 3)

Because they allowed us to tag along, we got to see a bit of Panama, and will see a lot of the Galapagos Islands over the next 10 days. And then we’ll spend a couple of months in French Polynesia, which we think we never would have visited otherwise. (Reminder – we’re flying there, not sailing.) On the Panama – Galalagos leg, we saw dolphins jumping on several occasions, and the Southern Cross in all its glory (although, to be truthful, it’s not a very impressive constellation – the Big Dipper kicks its butt in that department), and had a red-footed booby ride on our bow rail for more than a day. We witnessed Paul fight and land a 20 pound blackfin tuna on tackle more suitable for catching small river trout, and then had delicious sushi (twice!) and tuna tacos as a result. We crossed the Equator and celebrated with a bottle of Veuve du Vernay champagne.

Champagne at the Equator

And most of all, we were reminded that good friends don’t have to love all the same things to be good friends. Fair winds and following seas, Oneiro – we’ll see you in Tahiti!

* Thanks to another sailing couple we met while on Smartini, who we have become good friends with, Jim and Kathy Booth. They introduced us to the concept of Sailor Man, which is not a real person, but rather, a concept, an ideal, a persona taken on by anyone, man or woman, who takes the helm of a sailboat on the open ocean. When speaking, the term is said with a certain emphasis, similar to the way one might say “Superman!”. Or, more appropriately, “Underdog!” Some of Sailor Man’s character flaws endearing traits include attempting dangerous tasks, such as going up the mast in high winds, when there is no reason not to wait until later; always, in every instance, viewing other sailboats as opponents in a race; the belief that their boat’s brand, model, size, and sail plan is really the only one that makes sense, and why in the hell would anyone have anything else? Oh, Sailor Man, you amuse us so!

“It’s Underdog! (Or is it Sailor Man?)”