Pacific Crossing



The ocean will not tolerate errors nor will it remit any of the penalty which attaches to them. To hope that when something has been overlooked or left undone aboard a vessel at sea, the fullest penalty will not be exacted is merely to delude oneself, and perhaps the hardest part of voyaging is to make the necessary switch in thinking from that of a landsman to that of a seaman. On land whatever may happen to us there is always help available. At sea, the only help is self-help; the only supplies those that are carried aboard. He who voyages on a small vessel at sea must be a rigger, carpenter, electrician, blacksmith, mechanic, navigator, and above all an improviser of wide imagination and the strongest tenacity. – author unknown

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Sunday, May 9th, Mother’s Day. The four of us are pinned down in the cabin as a full gale of more than 50 knots, now in its seventh hour, roars through the boat. The sails are reefed and furled to avoid destruction; only a tiny wedge of foresail is left exposed to keep us pointed forward. Regardless, the boat pitches sideways, first 45 then 50 degrees, water pours over the deck, and the rudder shudders under the force of the waves, driving us farther into the storm. The sun, visible for only a few moments as we crest a wave before plunging back down into a deep valley of darkness, is setting. Soon, it will be gone and we will be alone in the empty black of the North Pacific.

The last weather forecast we received by shortwave radio predicts that the storm will continue to worsen through the night. More than a week from the nearest point of land, we huddle around the helm, each considering the hours ahead, agreeing in solidarity that we will share watches throughout the night to give one another rest, though no one really expects to sleep. John, our captain, takes measure of our boat’s endurance against the wind and waves, evaluating his own work on building this 55-foot craft. His wife, Joanne, having marked off eight years of ocean crossings, stoically braces herself in the corner. Keith, my fellow crewmember and usual source of levity, grows noticeably quieter in proportion to the increasing rage of the storm. The ocean thrusts in all directions around us, first 12, then 15 feet into the air, before the wind shears off its edges.

Another series of waves slams into the port side of the boat, sending shudders through the hull as we plunge sideways down into another valley filled with slabs of angry, black granite. The boat pitches sideways, and pots, binoculars, and charts crash all around us. Holding fast against the various forces pulling us, we can only watch as everything slides across the floor. At the bottom of the trough, another wave plows over the deck and submerges the cabin, the weight of the water felt all through the boat. Lines and blocks strain against the deck, and the mast moans. As we emerge from under the water and the boat rights itself in preparation for the next assault, I look over at Joanne, who I estimate will most likely admit the truth. Measuring her eyes with a steady gaze, I ask:

“Are we going to make it?”

Joanne is slow to speak, deliberate, and no one interrupts her response.

* * *

Our voyage began 12 days earlier from the port of Hilo on the “Big Island” of Hawaii. Our destination: Victoria, British Columbia, 2,500 nautical miles north and east across the Pacific Ocean, the distance separated by wind, water, and time.

While distance between continents is measured in hours by air, crossing the same distance in a small craft under the power of sail requires a commitment of weeks and a willingness to test one’s skill, fortitude, and fortune. The reward? The opportunity to press against the thinnest layer of the membrane separating man from nature, life from death, and the history of exploration from the present. Apart from perhaps space travel, only the desolation of the open sea offers the possibility of touching this membrane, and maybe even passing briefly into the other side.

Before leaving, I knew little of what to expect. My sailing experience was limited to little more than a year of weekends sailing a small, 19-foot, two-man boat on White Rock Lake, a small inner-city waterway a few miles from my home. The mechanics of a multi-week ocean voyage remained largely a black box. I avoided attachment to the idea of going, as too often in the past life’s many constraints conspired against taking leave of my daily routines for more than a few days. Yet as the date grew near, what began as a daydream started to gradually take focus. Only then did I reveal my plans to others.

Invariably, my disclosure led to a series of questions: How big is the boat? How many people will be on it? How do you know them? The recited answers became rote: 55 feet; there will be four of us (the captain, his wife, me, and another crewmember); and we connected through the Internet. Notices posted many months earlier at marinas along the West Coast under the sections of “crew” and “crossing” had generated four or five responses, but the captain and his wife presented the first credible prospects, as they had verifiable credentials and reassuring feedback from former crewmembers who presumably had survived the experience.

But then, people would ask me the why—why was I was doing this? It was a natural question, even an obvious one, but I was ill prepared to answer it. My stated reasons vacillated between “for the challenge” and “to get away for an extended vacation,” but neither felt completely honest. In return, most people nodded and smiled vaguely, as if suddenly realizing they’d encountered someone living slightly at odds with the normal world, like the co-worker who organizes her weekends around Renaissance fairs. A few recounted their own sailing experiences of summers off the coast. Others offered advice ranging from the banal, “wear sunscreen,” to the ominous, “remember there ain’t nothing in the ocean that don’t have teeth.”

In truth, I wanted a break from life, and sailing away from everything sounded like a relief. The flaw in the plan was that I have always feared the ocean. And why shouldn’t I? All the evidence suggests danger prowls at the intersections between the lives of city dwellers and the ocean. Who hasn’t seen the movies?

Act One: the beginning of a dreamy vacation drenched in sunlight and filled with sand, surf, and the promise of fiery romance.

Act Two: our new friends go surfing, snorkeling, or scuba diving.

Act Three: something goes wrong, terribly wrong; our friends are left behind, isolated from help.

Act Four: enter the sharks, octopus, or giant squid.

You know what’s coming—you’ve seen the trailer. The signs were all there in act one, but you were distracted by the scenery. But by act four, the message is clear: the ocean is cold, wet, and hungry for your life. Regardless, I wanted to go, whatever the risk, real or perceived.

The preceding 18 months had provided a trifecta of psychological stressors: a career change, my mother’s battle with cancer, and the implosion of my marriage. There were days I could barely get out of bed, the blankets of anxiety, sadness, and failure too heavy. Low points beget fantasies of painless death: an overdose on pills or maybe a collision with a bridge abutment at lethal speed. Paradoxically, a perverse fear of failure hovered over my fantasies of ending it all—what if I couldn’t even get that right? Living a life cloaked in pity represented one of the few imaginable existences worse than living through so much suffering. Any fears of drowning, creepy Internet people, or even sea monsters paled in contrast to so many preceding dark hours. In a sense, I felt drawn to the sea and its darkness.

The final days of last-minute details compressed into a blur, then the wheels of the plane withdrew and a sense of decompression began to take hold.  Seeking solace, I slipped on the headphones as the music started: “She packed my bags last night pre-flight. Zero hour, nine a.m.” I drifted into the void between the earthbound piano and the voice floating above it: “I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife. It’s lonely out in space . . . .”

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Download the full story in PDF here: Pacific Crossing.