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37 - Unstoppable

I emailed Jon. "Not giving up! Heading: Canary islands. Have hand-held GPS, magnetic compass and large scale planning chart. Fuel? Making for deep Atlantic to play it safe. Routing advice: much appreciated."

The transceiver found a satellite and sent the message.

Meg Stone re-rigs the mainsail on a close haul west in the strait of Gibraltar photo by Elena Ivanova... obviously
Balanced on the boom, Meg re-rigs part of the flying mainsail. Strait of Gibraltar.

The greasy smog astern eventually smudged out the great rock of Gibraltar entirely. Ahead, the Atlantic opened up before us. A cold headwind funneled through the Strait. Hard not to turn back into the Mediterranean. Drift, waiting-hoping for something to go right. The current, incidentally, was also against us. Evaporation exceeds freshwater inflow into the Mediterranean basin. Plug the strait of Gibraltar, and the Med would be a gigantic Death Valley.

"There's wind. We ought to save the fuel." I said.

"What do you want me to say, Meg? What good is fuel if we can't start the engine?"

"Just have to fix that. I guess."

"And, what if you can't?"

"Then... what difference does it make: a few more hours of engine time or not?" I took the wheel.

Elena raised the sails. Handling the huge Dacron wings was nothing for her by then. Recalling the test drive back in Marmaris, her transition was remarkable. I yanked the fuel shutoff. The engine died. The sails caught and bent wind. After more than a week of the motor's incessant, brain-eating drone, the relative tranquility was startling.

It took hours of zigzagging into the wind to leave the Strait and its endless column of ships. The sun was low on the horizon. We were losing solar power by the minute. Still, there was nothing from Jon.

Elena hates sunsets at sea. It's not the night itself that gets to her, but the unstoppable loss of light. When it is finally night and can't get any darker, it's like there's nothing left to lose. She sent me below. Told me to get some sleep and spell her off later.

I poured a couple fingers of scotch and wedged myself into the bunk. Whether it was the whiskey, or the hint of a swell I was feeling for the very first time in my life, I slept like the dead.

Strait of Gibraltar with fog bank photo Meg Stone
Boadicea heads for the strait of Gibraltar.

* * *

Our only relevant map covered the entire Atlantic. Let's just say, we weren't getting any fine-grained details from it. I guesstimated coordinates of land masses and shipping lanes, and finger poked those into the hand-held GPS. The intention was to get into deep water -- away from people and shipping -- without hitting something, like an atoll, or Africa.

Swells were something new and not that swell. Endlessly rising-and-falling, sometimes plunging, often lurching: the fast lane to seasick. Then came thick fog. It not only stole the horizon, it clung to everything like a wet towel and drenched us.

At three in the morning, I must have fallen asleep at the wheel. I came to with the sails crashing and the boat lurching and grinding. "We've run aground!"

Elena scrambled for the cockpit, blinding me in the process. "What! What is happening?"

"I don't know! We've hit rocks, or a reef. Can't you see!?" They were right there, jagged rocks rising from the foaming water all around.

"Blin, Meg! Wake up!"

Huh? I shook my head -- hard. The rocks were gone. We weren't in foaming surf on a rocky shore. Sure, the sails were luffing, making a terrible racket, but we were okay. What a relief. "What an idiot! I must have been dreaming."

"With eyes wide open!? You were hallucinating. Yobt tvyou zannago madt! Scared me to death." She paced around the cockpit, "How can I sleep now?" She gave me a cold, hard stare. "You can sleep. No problem for you, and you must need it more than me."

"Sorry..."

"Go! Sleep. I wake you later."

Climbing down the companionway, I watched Elena take over. She had her hand over her flashlight, turning it into a glowing red ball. It's a good way to see in the dark without wiping out your night vision. She couldn't see me smiling back at her in the darkness.

island and lighthouse off Tarifa, Spain photo Meg Stone
Elena and Meg's last glimpse of Europe, the island and lighthouse off Tarifa, Spain

* * *

I got up and made coffee with the last of the fresh water. The tanks were dry, and we were probably five days from the Canary Islands. Probably, because I didn't know where or even if we would be allowed to land. I feared something was going to eventually get us, I just didn't know what, or when.

I joined Elena on deck with my precious coffee. She was sailing into a light breeze in heavy fog, happy to tell me about bioluminescent creatures she saw during the night.

I took the helm, steaming cup of coffee in my free hand.

Elena climbed to the boom and pulled a soaking face cloth from the bottom of the mainsail. She sponge-washed her face, neck and arms with it then wrung it out over the side.

"Is that freshwater?"

"Of course."

"Holy kapoosta, for washing!?"

"Holy kapoosta, yourself. Watch, choomeechka." She ran the face cloth along the bottom inside of the mainsail. The condensation collecting there got it good and wet.

"Wow, I never thought..." I was impressed and intensely relieved. The fog, more of a misty drizzle, made everything wet. Droplets hung from the rigging, the lifelines. Water ran down the sails in rivulets.

We soaked condensation from the sails and any reachable surface with clean cloths. It netted us a couple pots of stale water a day.

Spinnaker flying in heavy fog off the west coast of Africa photo Elena Ivanova
Wet fog and constant mist provided a life saving source of fresh water.

* * *

I kept sending our coordinates and intentions to Jon. There was no reply. Running the satellite modem on what little electricity we had seemed pointless. I downloaded weather forecasts a couple of times a day, but the rest of the time it burned power I might as well use for something else; like trying to start the engine. I connected the solar panels' output directly to the isolated starter battery. Being the smallest battery on board, the trickle of electricity I could wring from nature might actually charge it. The wind turbine was spinning in the breeze, so I connected that too. Then we waited.

We hadn't seen a sunrise or sunset in ages. Only increasing and decreasing levels of light through constant fog. Still, the solar panels managed a significant electrical charge in the engine's starting battery. "What the hell, let's try it out!"

Fuel: on.

Glow-plugs: hot.

Starter: engaged.

Holy, freaking kapoosta! It started!

But, the instruments stayed dark. The electrical panel was dead. Nothing was charging. "Bollocks! We're right back where we were in Gibraltar." I cut the fuel. Nothing to do but sail until morning.

Nightfall at sea, seen through a porthole. Photo by Meg Stone
Nightfall through one of Boadicea's portholes, somewhere off West Africa.

* * *

I traced circuits with the zeal of a conspiracy-crazed UFO hunter. It wasn't easy, most of them are harder to get at than those aliens they've got on ice at Area 51. My chicken-scratchings on damp paper led me to a humongous switch under our bunk. It's a charge-selector. Everything that makes electricity -- solar panels, wind turbine, engine alternator -- is wired into that switch. And, before you ask, no! It wasn't in the off position.

The wires leading to that switch were as thick as a broom handle and nearly as stiff. What I could see of them looked okay. But the main power lead ran under the house battery bank -- which also happened to be our bed -- into the boat's, inaccessible nether regions. Impossible to see or get at without removing the house batteries which weigh about as much as us. It wasn't going to happen in a pitching sailboat at sea.

I managed a colonoscopy on the main power cable by shoving Elena's tiny camera along it on a bendy stick. The video revealed a fuzzy, greenish-brown artifact suspended between two spans of the thick, red cable. Eureka! An in-line fuse. Too bad it was unreachable, and really too bad it was submerged in the bilge during our various inundations. Electricity and seawater literally turned the fuse into a non-conductive ball of oxidized dirt.

Meg Stone fixes her laptop at sea off Africa photo by Elena Ivanova
The sea air might have been good for Hercule Poirot but not for Meg's laptop.

I disconnected the main power lead from the rotary switch. Then I yanked it and the ball of corroded yuck into the crawl space under the cockpit. A flattened, Turkish vegetable medley tin became a new fusible link. Then, grunting and swearing like a multilingual longshoreman, I pulled it all back under the batteries with a rope I'd cleverly tied to the end of the cable before yanking it out.

"Let 'er rip!"

Elena turned the key. Relays and solenoids closed like pistol shots. The engine turned over, and over, and over... and stopped.

"Arrrrg! Bollocks! Piss, crap! Why does this shit always happen to me? Just once! Just one cocking time. Something could..."

"Meg? Sorry to interrupt, but I forgot to open fuel shut-off."

"Oh..." I ground my teeth.

Elena cranked it over again. The starter groaned once, twice, and the engine came to life. "We did it! We did it, we did it!" I shouted. The alternator put out a massive surge of current. The engine labored under the load. "Thirsty batteries! More power, hurry! Throttle up!"

Beaming, tears on her cheeks, Elena pointed at the ammeter. Even the fuel gauges worked: about an eighth of a tank on each side. "We have diesel!" She pulled me close, kissing my cheeks, my ears. "Oh Meg! We are really doing it. Everything is going to be all right now." She pulled me into a bear-hug, thumping my back with her fists. "I knew it. We can do anything. We are going to make it!"

Elena Ivanova asleep in the cockpit with panties and socks hung to dry. Photo by Meg Stone
Elena on watch

* * *

The further southwest we sailed, the drier the air became. Daytime condensation vanished entirely. Night watches produced little in cloth-harvested water. Bringing the electrical system back online provided another source of water: condensation from the evaporator in the fridge-freezer pit. It tasted like dirty socks, but probably saved our lives.

With the batteries charged, the solar panels and wind generator kept up with our electrical needs. Electric light made sunsets less ominous, however, the desalination unit, the radar and the computer navigation systems remained unserviceable. An Atlantic crossing without those systems made me more than a little nervous.

I emailed our coordinates to Jon. Maybe he'd see that we were serious, would help with some navigation, at least.

That time we got a reply -- a terse missive about not participating in our suicides. It also included navigation and instructions for a landing in Las Palmas, Canary Islands.

Elena Ivanova photo by Meg Stone
Elena gazes toward The Canary Islands.

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