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42 - Entropy

Meg Stone goes for a refreshing dip in the middle of the ocean
Deep ocean dip

Life adrift -- hundreds of miles from land, countries and their borders -- became routine. Solar panels generated electricity. Electricity provided freshwater, refrigeration, entertainment and even virtual social interaction via The SIMs computer game. We had plenty of food. At the sound of the fishing reel and Elena's shout, "Deeenner!" I hid below with my headphones turned up. I begged her not to fish, but it was inevitably death that provided our protein.

As winter wore on to the north, we watched its ugly weather on the satellite charts. Huge storms spinning out of Kamchatka raced across the Pacific. Thousand-mile cold fronts churned the waters north of us. But drifting in the tropical Pacific, we were safe, all alone, unmolested by weather or man. It was so easy to just shut down and give in to entropy.

Despite the relentless passage of time and life becoming kind of meaningless, we made a pact to return to the doldrums and live the rest of our lives adrift, should Elena be denied entry to Canada. She believed that the only safe place on Earth was the ocean. Where nobody could hurt her, and her life was her own.

Dolphin sidles up for a scratch behind the ears
Deep ocean friends often came for a visit, or a scratch behind the ears.

Out for a swim one afternoon, I had a mystical encounter with an ancient sea turtle. She seemed as curious about me as I was with her. When I looked into her enormous eyes and imagined all she had seen through the centuries, something in my own life changed forever. It defies analysis, but something happened to me that day, swimming all alone in the deep Pacific. Something I will never forget. Something that even now, brings tears to my eyes and shivers up my spine.

The weather was changing almost imperceptibly. We hardly noticed when the water gave up its glassiness to ripples. Or when puffs of breeze flipped shaggy locks into our eyes and raised goosebumps on wet skin. The endless freight train of storms raging across the North Pacific gave way to longer breaks between the gales and fronts. We packed up our ocean homestead and began to crawl north.

Typically, clouds built up throughout the morning and into the afternoon. With them, so did our desperate hope that there would be wind. Even the tiniest breeze raised our spirits. By sunset, though, the clouds evaporated along with any possibility of wind. Every morning, like some weird flag raising ritual, we ran the spinnaker up the pole. When the lazy slapping on the mast and rigging finally drove us crazy, we pulled it down. Seabirds roosted on the solar panels and the deck overnight. Part of our morning ritual was rinsing off their mess with buckets of seawater. We were so lonely that we really appreciated their company and loved having them aboard.

Elena Ivanova with laptop computer in her yacht cabin
Elena playing The SIMS

We had almost given up on ever getting home, when the tiniest breeze imaginable filled the spinnaker. Breathless, we waited for another puff. It felt like hours would go by, then the spinnaker would fill and drag the boat inexorably forward. When it started to feel like just maybe we were going to make it out, the wind would die and we would come to a slowly rocking stop. Aarrrg!

As if that's not bad enough, try catching breezes at night. I couldn't see the puffs coming, so I held the spinnaker lines like a horse's reins, ready to catch every last puff of air it gave me. With any breeze at all, water trickled past the hull for a few glorious minutes before the wind gave out, the lines went slack, and I muttered the foulest language this side of Key West. This went on all night for me and all day for Elena. We actually made about twenty miles a day like that. The further north we went, the more breeze we got until we were finally starting to put some real miles under our keel.

A couple hundred miles west of sunny Puerto Vallarta -- that's about half way up Mexico -- cold wind swept down from the north. It was a wake-up call for what lay in store outside the tropics. The wind became blustery and persistent. Not only that, but it was right on our nose. Typical! We had also gotten ourselves into a rotter of a current flowing south. Something we overlooked or just didn't give a crap about in theory. Tacking -- zigzagging -- against the wind and current in swells and choppy waves turned every mile into an uphill battle. Every today was colder than yesterday. Clothing was no longer an option, but a necessity that took some getting used to.

Elena Ivanova at the computer
Elena anounces the birth of a new SIM

"Can you smell it?" Elena asked. "It's land." We were about forty miles south of Cabo San Lucas. She has a sense of smell that puts a bloodhound to shame. When the south end of the Baja Peninsula came into view, she was pretty sure she could smell a couple of kids doing bong hits behind the dumpster at McDonald's.

The current was crazy! We figured it was doing a couple of knots against us. Given we were tacking back and forth at five knots meant that our actual forward speed north was three knots through water that was flowing backward at about two knots... well... do the math. We didn't have to. We knew we were standing still, bashing our brains out in a violent chop. "Since you're probably asking, it's something called the California current." I looked it up. "It's not funny. It runs the whole coast, not just California."

"So, what does that mean for us?" Elena asked.

"It means we aren't sailing up the West Coast." I slammed down a huge tome. "According to the British Admiralty, the only way up the West Coast in an underpowered vessel is around it. Way, way out there. From Cabo San Lucas, one puts the wind on their right hand side and spends weeks, maybe months, looping out into the middle of the Pacific, and then, back in to Juan de Fuca Strait." We hung a left, said goodbye to land, and tracked right back into the middle of the Pacific ocean.

Satellite weather chart
Weather charts were not encouraging.

Six hundred miles west-southwest of Cabo San Lucas, simply had to be far enough out to get clear the California current. It put us back in the Tropic of Cancer and we were enjoying reasonable weather, so we turned north. It was either that or sail all the way to Australia. Don't think that thought hadn't crossed our minds. Each day further north, the worse the conditions got. The harder the sailing became. We had, so far, managed to avoid the cold fronts spiraling off the deep lows to the north. It was sheer luck, which ran out five-hundred nautical miles west of Los Angeles.

Just the tail end of a cold front off one of those North Pacific storms got us. Sailing went from this-sucks! to what's-the-point-of-living? in a matter of hours. The sky was overcast, low, dark. The temperature dropped like crazy. The wind picked up to gale force and clung tenaciously above thirty-five knots for days. We tacked back and forth on eight hour shifts, fifty-five degrees off our intended course. Infuriated by the lack of progress and how hard we had to fight for it, we put the wind on our side and headed west-southwest. Again.

Sailing away from one's intended destination already sucks, but we also had to worry about running into Hawaii. Don't forget the warning we got about steering clear of USA. In fact, we had drawn a line of skulls and cross bones on our charts, two hundred and fifty miles out from any US shore. We had come too far and gone through too much not to take that line extremely seriously.

Meg Stone stares at a satellite weather chart in utter disbelief
Meg downloads the weather.

No matter how far west we went, climbing north meant rapidly deteriorating conditions. It came down to going north and taking on winter, or turning around and giving up. Living as castaways in the jungle had a certain allure to it. Jon spared no bytes telling us that the wind further north was like nothing we had ever seen. It would come from the northwest and when it did, we had to have it on our tail. On the side, on the front... not a chance we'd make it out alive. With the thousand mile chasm, we had to climb as far north as possible before turning east. Once we were running from that northwest wind, there would be no stopping and no more going north. We would come ashore, like it or not, and everything we fought for rested on landing in Canada and not USA.

It was cold. Not just nippy, but bone-chilling. Flying spray was inescapable. It soaked through everything and never dried. Clothing was stiff, greasy, itchy and ripe. Under our foul-weather gear, we had on just about all the clothing we still had from our chilly days in Ukraine. We watched our track, day in and day out; a crazy zig-zag with occasional loops to the southwest when we just couldn't take another icy wave in the face. And gave up for a few hours of mercy below deck.

Once in a million waves, we'd crest a swell and see a freighter in the distance. Tracking a course, straight and true. Oblivious to us and the living hell in which we existed.

Elena envied them. Telling me, "I think of the crew, dry and warm, going about their duties, sitting at a table with a plate to eat from, talking to friends about families and home. Maybe an officer on the bridge sees white sails, looks in binoculars, wonders who is so crazy to be out here."

Elena Ivanova eats yogurt on deck
Elena enjoys yogurt alfresco. Leaving the tropics everything changed.

Further north the nights grew longer. The weather, heavier. Every movement was excruciating. We communicated less and less. Inmates serving time with nothing left to say. Elena kept a list of milestone cities taped to a bulkhead. As we crossed their latitudes far out to sea, she crossed them off. So far, Cabo San Lucas, San Diego, and Los Angeles had fallen to her scratch-off pencil. San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle perched on their own clean lines at inconceivably high latitudes.

I cursed Boadicea's lack of heater. But, who thinks of something like that in Turkey? Bollocks! Who thinks of sailing at all, that far north, in the dead of winter? Waves had grown into a continuous barrage of marbled slate mountains, driven by cold fronts spinning off monster, winter cyclones in the Gulf of Alaska. Each front packed a gale worse than the last.

One day, marking our position, I ran out of chart. "Lenna! We are well and truly off-the-map!"

Meg Stone overcome with exhaustion in her cabin

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