35 - Friction
Finally, we were ticking off miles on our first deep-sea passage. We had to make four hundred and fifty miles between the west end of Crete and the southeast corner of Sicily. But by krikey, it was slow going! Remember how sailboats can't go straight into the wind? Well, that was the direction we needed to go. It meant zigzagging, three times the actual distance, back and forth across our intended course.
Halfway to Sicily, the sky turned brown and we were pelted with mud. When it wasn't raining mud, the dust was so thick it was worse than fog. Yup, we were in a dust storm -- at bloody sea!
Elena was one cranky sailor. "I'm eating sand, shaking it out of my ears. We can't see anything, the waves are huge. There's mud everywhere. Why would anyone do this?"
I cranked a salty, mud encrusted rope through a winch. Its precision, internal mechanism crunched and squeaked. I tasted dirt, crunched grit between my teeth. "Hey Lenna, we're really blowing the black snot now!"
"It's a lot like farming. My Dad would get off the tractor, all covered in dirt, blow his nose and say: 'You know you're a real farmer when you're blowing the black snot!' I'm thinking the same applies to sailing, it's not real unless it really sucks."
"He was a doctor. Why did he do farming if it is so terrible?"
* * *
We sailed far enough north to get out of the dust blowing off the Sahara. When there was no more blowing dust, there was no more wind. Instead, we got mist so bright it watered my eyes. "Arrrg, becalmed again! And we don't have the diesel to motor all the way to Gibraltar. Even so, the Brits letting us land is entirely based on some good feeling Jon has about cruisers on sailboats. This so completely, freaking suuuuucks!"
"Da, it sucks. Yelling and screaming won't help."
To motor or not became moot when the radio cackled, "This is NATO warship blah blah blah, calling vessel at position blah blah blah..." VHF has a range of about twenty-five nautical miles: way too close for comfort. They were asking questions we didn't want to answer. Like: embarkation port; destination; type of cargo; and the most frightening of all, nationalities of those on board.
Motoring toward Sicily -- as fast as our coffee-grinder engine could push us -- we got wind, yet the damned fog never lifted. In fact, it got thicker. Then the poxy radar failed! Long distance sailing isn't as much about endurance or skill, as it is about balancing risk and equipment failure. Kind of like a juggler, and someone is tossing him more balls -- or chainsaws -- to keep aloft. It's just a matter of time... Good thing the wind let us shut down the engine. That way we could hear the freighters out to get us. We sure as hell couldn't see them. When we did, they loomed suddenly out the fog to disappear seconds later. We didn't talk about it. In fact, there were a lot of things we weren't talking about. Like, does one's life flash before their eyes, or just the bow of a freighter?
Sicily's southernmost point is called Capo Passero, and we almost hit it. Yay, GPS works! We hugged and danced around. High-fiving and congratulating each other on our first successful offshore passage. Then we came around the point, hung a right and headed into the Strait of Sicily. Head-on into some blustery, Mediterranean wind of lore. It was ripping down the south coast, churning the sea into a frothy, violent conveyor belt going east. We gave it the good-old college try -- for maybe five hours -- before giving up.
I hollered over the din. "This is what dyed-in-the-wool sailors call, beating into a gale! It's bollocks! I checked the weather. No end to it! It is stable." Turning around probably saved our boat, our lives, and certainly, our relationship. The Strait of Sicily was no longer an option. Giving up and heading north, put the Sicilian landmass between us and that vicious wind.
Jon objected to our plan in capital letters. "RECKLESS-RISKY-STUPID. Between Italy's big toe and Sicily is something called the MESSINA STRAIT -- DON'T MESS WITH THE MESSINA STRAIT!!!"
"Ahh, what does he know?" We had the charts. The Messina Strait didn't look like much. A narrow passage between the Italian mainland and Sicily. "Sure, it might have some heavy sea traffic, but how long can it take to get through a little traffic?" It sure beat thrashing hundreds of miles, dead into the legendary, relationship destroying Mistral."
"I don't know. Maybe we should listen? He knows a lot."
"Fuck it! We're here. He's not. We're going north!"
"Do it yourself!" She burrowed into her cabin and slammed the door so hard the whole boat shook.
* * *
A hot, dry headwind blew south through the Messina strait. We had to zigzag back and forth between Sicily and the Italian mainland, and there's not a lot of room. The non-commercial traffic is heavy and it's insane! We had some seriously close calls and screamed, Italian language lessons from jet skiers and kite surfers. I'm thinking, not your typical teach-yourself-Italian vocabulary.
We hit the narrowest part of the strait just in time for sunset. A rusty ferry shot from its berth and came so close to ending-it-all for us, it still gives me the willies.
"Maybe, that is what Jon is talking about in your fucking Messina strait!" Elena screamed when we weren't dead.
"Yeah, maybe." Sure, the ferry traffic in the strait put the East River to shame. "But I think he meant those." I pointed at an aggressive powerboat with official markings. Bristling with lights, antennae and gun. I had a feeling those guys wouldn't be our friends.
Center channel, freighters and oil tankers line danced their way north and south. Their combined wakes churned up rogue waves, tossing us right-angles off course. Disorienting. What's worse was Elena pointing ahead to a landmark we tacked past an hour earlier. A strong current from the north added to all the shit we were dealing with, and I had enough fun for one lifetime of sailing. "Drop the sails! We're going to motor."
"Drop em, yourself!"
And people tell me, home renovations cause friction!
Pitch dark. Crazy wave action. So close to out of the Messina strait you could spit an olive pit, and the freaking autopilot stutters, grinds, hoots and self destructs.
"So, we're speaking to each other again?"
"I think there's something wrong with the autopilot."
"Duh, ya think!?" I poked restart. It caught, ran for a second or two, hooted a complaint and died. "Bollocks!"
Watches were sentences. Couldn't leave the wheel for a second. Taking a whiz was at the mercy of the other and usually engendered a snide comment or two. Sleeping happened more often but with way less effect. Something had to give or there'd be mutiny.
Elena, by then, was a competent sailor -- as if she had a choice. I had a eureka moment about it one morning. I was below deck, sipping coffee. Elena was at the wheel with Boadicea close hauled and beating to windward, and that's when it hit me: I completely trusted Elena with my life. Don't know when it happened, but there it was. Krikey, it felt weird. I was in the habit of trusting no one.
She steered and I crawled through lockers and access ports under the cockpit. No matter how much blood and skin I left behind, I couldn't resurrect the autopilot. I did, at least, diagnose the problem -- a failed, hydraulic pump motor. "Power on. Engage auto!" I yelled from a coffin sized space under the floor. Elena replied, "Da!" Then the pump motor got hot, smoked, and smelled like that time I drove Dad's car for miles with the parking break on.
Good thing we had a broom handle. I hacked some of it off, hammered it into the steam-punk windvane's broken rudder shaft. Jumped off the back of the boat with what was left of its cricket-bat rudder and impaled it on the wooden stake I whittled from the broom handle.
It worked! We didn't know for how long, but every second away from the wheel was golden.
* * *
Endlessly tacking -- that's zigzagging -- into barely a hint of wind, less than half way across the Mediterranean was demoralizing. One blisteringly hot afternoon, lying under a drenched towel, I pontificated that our state of being was: "Self imposed solitary confinement in a prison on the edge of a grave."
My opinion was highly under-appreciated. "You want to make this worse than it is for me? You would prefer gales? At least we are safe out here. Nobody is going to get us." She was right. We were alive, together, charting our own course and reasonably safe -- as long as the weather held.
Some wind would be nice. I worried that winter would come before we even got out of the Mediterranean. All around us, yachts, ferries and cruise ships -- plying the seas for a good time and allowed to land -- heightened my sense of exile and isolation.
Weeks of high pressure and oppressive heat gnawed at us. I tried to sleep through the midday furnace while Elena babysat the boat and studied English. Good thing Bernadette sent all those American movies and TV shows on DVD. It enhanced Elena's language acquisition but gave her an American accent. Computer games -- notably, The Sims -- provided her another distraction and virtual community that she nurtured throughout our psyche crushing isolation.
My own hours of consciousness were consumed by jury rigging, makeshift repairs and coaxing just a few more miles, minutes, days, watts, liters and calories from the boat, its systems and our dwindling provisions.
* * *
Near the south end of Sardinia, an explosive series of thunderstorms heralded a change of weather. The pace of everything picked up. A welcome break from the stultifying morass of inactivity. Strong wind from behind felt great. Boadicea surged forward but wallowed in waves overtaking us. "We have got to put up the spinnaker! In this wind we could be flying!"
"Are you crazy? We have never used it. Do you know how to set it up?" Elena objected.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah... It looks like a piece of cake. The waves won't be pushing our rear end around and we'll go like stink. Come on, come on, come oooon. Are we sailors, or are we sailors?"
With the giant, colorful sail flying before us the knot meter shot into the double digits. Dolphins came to play in our bow wave. Elena, clinging to the bow-rail, shrieked with joy at their antics. The boat quivered with speed and sliced through the water like a knife. Everything was perfectly stable so I engaged the windvane self steering and joined Elena at the bow.
It started with a sharp crack followed a half second later by all hell breaking loose. The yacht veered broadside to the wind, pitched on its side and drowned the spinnaker. Elena was thrown into the water amidst tangled lines, brightly colored sailcloth and curious dolphins goading us into taking up the chase. We weren't exactly sinking, but the boat wasn't righting itself either. The spinnaker pole was like a mast that worked best with the boat on its side. It was catching wind and dragging us sideways.
"Meg!" Elena spotted the dolphins. "Mamatchkie! Do they bite?"
"Don't brass em off. Krikey, forget the dolphins. Get on board before you tangle in the spinnaker and get dragged under the boat." I tripped the spinnaker cleats. The boat bobbed upright. Elena clambered aboard, and oooh, was she narked! Again, the floorboards were afloat. The inundation was extensive and cleanup took hours in a rough sea. The windvane was re-busted. Not the broom handle, astonishingly it held! It was another steel component that shattered. Gibraltar and repairs sure felt a long way off.
"We're screwed!" I disconnected the windvane.
"What else is new?" Elena pounded on her head, clearing an ear of seawater.
"It means one of us is on the wheel until I jury rig it."
"Da ladna... of course. It was too good to last.
* * *
The weather went from crappy to crappier. Blustery gales came at us from all over. The yacht was heeled hard over and slamming its way through steep waves. Without any self-steering, one of us was always on deck, taking the full brunt of mother nature. The other one down below was no better off. It was a shambles of wet clothes, dirty dishes, tools and garbage. All of it in constant motion and crashing around.
We'd taken to eating right from tins, chewing through our ample but uninspiring supply of actual food. Weirdly, our provisions included a ludicrous supply of hyper-salty olives, pickles and condiments. Cooking was out of the question. Doing anything at all was a slippery uphill fight. As a result, maintenance took a hit and things started breaking down. One system after another, jury rigged or not, failed in a slow motion cascade. Sailing had become a matter of hang on, shut up and endure.
Approaching the Spanish Riviera, the wind died but the waves didn't. They just kept right on bashing away. We had no choice but to run the motor before the ass pounded itself right off or we killed each other. Then, the fog settled in. Don't forget, the radar was duff. Damn good thing Bernadette sent my hand-held backpacking GPS from home, because the chart plotter navigation system conked out sometime between tripping on our own spinnaker and ending up in pea-soup fog.
Next morning, if you can call two AM morning, a desperate need for coffee revealed a failure in our freshwater desalination system. With a lot of swearing, a metal bar, a hammer and continuous dashes down from the helm while the boat meandered aimlessly, I managed to put about sixty liters of fresh water in one tank. Then the unit failed catastrophically. The explosion blasted seawater everywhere and embedded shrapnel in the water maker's compartment.
"Meeeeeeeg..." Elena moaned from her bunk. "I'm trying to sleep. Did we hit something? Are we sinking?"
"No, everything's fine. I was just making coffee."
"Well, please make coffee a little quieter, and let me sleep."
* * *
A couple of days out of Gibraltar, we lost all our electrical power. The engine was running, but the alternator and batteries were dead. Since there was no way to start the engine, we kept it running. "No big deal." I reassured Elena, "Diesels are meant to run continuously."
She mumbled something about always being totally screwed and took the helm.
I pulled a floor panel, unscrewed an access port on a below-floor water tank, stuck in a drinking straw, sucked up mouthfuls of fresh water and spat it into the kettle. It was the only way to get at the fresh water without electricity. The propane stove worked without electricity, or it did before Erdem insisted on correcting one of the defects Harvey uncovered with the survey. Swearing and thrashing around for tools, I performed a quick and dirty bypass of the propane cut-off solenoid. Nothing gets between me and my coffee!
* * *
We were blind, deaf, dumb -- and probably stupid -- motoring into one of the most congested shipping lanes on the planet. Something about how we assessed risk and valued our lives had changed by then. Eventually, safety goes away, one failure at a time.
I was counting on Jon and his sage advice to get us into Gibraltar. Trouble was, the satellite communicator ran off the boat's now defunct electrical system. The solar panels didn't gather enough diffuse sunlight through the fog to do anything for the huge battery banks. They were, however, generating enough electricity to power the satellite transceiver directly. I scrounged wire from an extension cord and hardwired the transceiver's power input to the solar panels' output. Its lights went green and it found a satellite. I hooked up the Dell and emailed Jon. "We're 50 hours from Gibraltar. Looking forward to stopping for repairs and rest." For good measure I added: "Current condition: failed radar; failed autopilot; failed windvane self steering; failed water maker; failed engine alternator; no on board electrics or engine starter, but it's going now; two functional sails, shredded the spinnaker, ripped the genoa; almost no fresh water; no maps for the Atlantic; maybe enough fuel to make Gibraltar."
Daylight drained away. The solar panels' output dropped. The satellite communicator went dead. And we still hadn't heard from Jon.
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