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43 - Knockdown

Elena: I remember once, the plotter was showing us as far north as San Francisco, and I imagined the city with it's usual life. We were one thousand miles from human lives, from cars honking in downtown, from people hurrying home. And outside the boat the huge waves and merciless wind were playing with us, trying to break our will. I didn't see justice then, I realized there is no justice in nature or in the human world. There is one organism swallowing another, and in our case, there was the ocean, digesting us and our boat.

Elena and Meg's position off the west coast of North America. Chart plotter, Pacific ocean, photo by Elena Ivanova
Chart plotter showing Elena and Meg's position about 900 nautical miles off the west coast of North America. Note the line of death, skulls and cross bones, 250 miles off the US West Coast.

On Elena's list of cities, I noticed a line through San Francisco. "Whoa, we're north of San Fran?"

"Yes, San Francisco, we have passed, but a lot west." I'm pretty sure we cheered, teeth chattering. Maybe we even toasted the milestone with soggy crackers and a tin of Turkish vegetable medley.

What I remember most was downloading the latest weather chart. "This isn't good. Freaking, big low headed for the Charlottes."

"Tak schtow, what are 'sharr lots?' "

"Islands off British Columbia."

"Are they not far from us?"

"Well, sure, but this storm is pushing a cold front as far south as Hawaii." I had never seen anything like it. "We can't get out of it's way." The wind arrows were bristly with speed notches. On frontal passage they snapped around nearly 180 degrees. The air temperature behind that toothy line plunged to almost freezing. "Yeah, this is going to suck." I skooched out from behind the nav-station. An open bag of coffee had spilled onto the counter. "Bollocks Lenna!? You don't drink coffee!"

Navigation station and instruments aboard Boadicea, Elena and Meg's yacht. Elena Ivanovo wears indoor winter clothing to stay warm in a sailboat without heat.
Elena at the computer and navigation station.

"No, I smell it. I stick my nose in the bag and I inhale."

"Smell it?" I clung to the counter with one hand, sweeping precious coffee into the bag with the other. "Well, if you need something to smell, I smell! I stink, in fact! It's been two weeks since I took off the foulies."

"Blyad! I smell nothing, Meg. Maybe there is salt in the air, or rotting clothes, or even my own body, but I am numb to it. I smell your coffee to keep from going crazy. To smell something. Anything that isn't the ocean or what it is doing to us."

"Wow, Lenna. I didn't know... I haven't really thought about it or anything at all. Just trying to go on. Keeping it together. Like you... I guess." The yacht slammed into a wave. I sacrificed the coffee for a handhold.

Meg Stone aboard Boadicea attempting to cook while heeling in a sailboat
Meg in the galley, doing a little bit of cooking. The camera is not tilted. Reference the bag dangling from the doorknob in the background.

"And color! Haven't you seen? There is no color! The ocean is colorless here. The sky is colorless. When there is enough light to see, all I see is black and white and shades of gray. It is like living in a black and white movie about the war. Grey sky, black sea, white waves." Elena tugged at her scarf, a bright orange, polyester thing an Orange Revolutionary gave her in Kyiv. "I look at clothings to see colors. Colors that do not come from the sea." She turned away. "Goddamn it, I want to hear again! The sound of a dog, or a child, or a bird, just once even... Here it is only water, waves... pain. Nothing else." She fled to the cockpit, slamming the companionway behind her.

I swept up the coffee, inhaled its aroma. It was weirdly comforting in a primordial way. Sensory deprivation coupled with North Pacific gales wore us down, tore at us, immersed us in a world of constant stress, gnawing cold and despair.

Elena Ivanova packs the mainsail on Boadicea 1000 nautical miles West of San Francisco
Elena wrangles the mainsail, offshore in the North Pacific.

* * *

We were overvolted lightbulbs, exploding at the slightest provocation. Elena spent more and more time in bed. Cocooned in the spinnaker for extra warmth and shock absorption. Withdrawing. Vanishing. It was getting dark. I was exhausted, cold and pissed off. I was going down for the count, like it or not. Where in the hell was she?

A rogue wave hit broadside -- hard. The bow yawed. Sails back-winded. I lunged for the wheel, skidded and slammed a knee into something a lot more solid than the bones in that complex joint. Pain and nausea radiated from the point of impact. "Fuuuuuck!" I hammered a fist into the floor.

"You crazy!?" Elena screamed back.

"I must be! It's not like I HAD to sail this boat to Canada."

"Yes! You are crazy! You can land anywhere, be a tourist, be safe. For me, there is only ocean. You are crazy. Okay, be crazy, but I am terrified. I am scared all the time. I don't say to you this. I don't tell to you that I hate this. I don't say that I think we are going to die in this sea, but I do. All the time, I am..." Another broadside had her airborne. She came down on the galley table, rolled and bounced off the opposite wall, then crashed to the floor.

Meg Stone at the navigation station of Boadicea, Elena and Meg's yacht
Meg, below deck at the navigation station.

I watched, and holy crap -- I started laughing! It was like there were two of me. One was horrified. The other was watching like it was some kind of demented sitcom.

Elena looked at me -- both of me -- concerned... afraid... no, that's not it: absolutely terrified. "You cannot fall apart, Meg. I trusted you. I go with you because you never break. Never! Nothing could stop you. Now look at where we are, the North Pacific... in winter. If this can stop you, it can... it will... oh god, it really will kill us! I can not see you losing it!"

A wave exploded under us. Our world canted forty-five degrees.

The idiotic windvane lost it. Boadicea turned the drum-tight sails broadside to the blast. The tilt got one hell of a lot worse -- fast. Everything, and that includes the two of us, avalanched to the lower side of the boat. Books, dishes, bilge water, garbage, tools, clothing, charts landed in one soggy heap.

"Well shit! Someone's gotta steer this thing."

"Meg, I will do it. You sleep. Rest, so later you can steer and I can rest. It is not getting easier. Only harder, unless we turn back to the tropics." She looked into me for non-verbal reassurance. "Go, sleep. I will call for you later."

I wedged myself into the spinnaker-nest, shoved in earplugs and slept like an undergrad at one of my lectures.

Graybeards in the North Pacific. Photographed by Meg Stone aboard Boadicea
Graybeards form when the wind is strong enough to rip the tops of the waves off and lay them out as streamers.

* * *

I fell out of bed sometime after midnight. Immobilized under a pile of bedding, sail cloth, books, clothing and gear, I managed to get one hand free and feel out my surroundings. Major bollocks! I was lying on the wall! It sounded like Elena was screaming, somewhere far away. My blood ran cold.

The boat was on its side, crashing and violently shifting. I wormed my way along the wall to get out of the cabin. Being on the high side of the yacht probably saved my life. Something shoved the tilt past vertical and the floor in the main salon came crashing down. It just missed me on its way past. A cascade of floor panels, dishes, food, and cookware rained down from the galley above. We're freaking rolling over! Where in hell is Elena!? A cupboard door unlatched overhead. I was pelted by a hailstorm of melamine dishes. Elena was still screaming. Okay, she's still with the yacht.

Elena Ivanova in the steering quadrant of Elena and Meg's yacht, Boadicea, in the North Pacific making repairs while under sail. Photo by Meg Stone
Elena in the steering locker making necessary repairs.

The yacht was righting itself. I thrashed to the companionway. My flashlight, swinging crazily from my wrist revealed a chaotic scene of swirling water, tangled ropes and debris. Elena clung to the wheel. Dangling from it, arms outstretched. Her feet kicked uselessly in the torrent of water foaming beneath her. I was only halfway out the companionway, convinced the boat would flip upside down with the next wave. But no, not that time. Instead, the sails rose from the sea in a maelstrom of spray and noise. The wind drove us backwards. The swim platform scooped a wall of water into the cockpit. It was like we stopped for a second. Like everything stopped and just kind of hung there before the bow swung violently through the wind. The sails blew inside out, and then, Boadicea went over on the other side.

"We're turning turtle!" I screamed my throat raw. "Flipping over when the next wave catches the keel!" No time to think. I launched myself toward the helm and its handholds. Zero G. Everything dropped into an oncoming wave-trough. Shit! I'm going to fly right past the helm and over the side. "Deep breath and hang on!" The wave hit. The cockpit came up at me like a fist. I slammed into the helm. Those natty, Beneteau cup holders splintered under my ass. The sails slapped the surface. The mast sliced into the foaming water. Elena hung, paralyzed, from the wheel. It looked jammed. Pinned to its stops. Her mouth was open in a frozen scream. Her look was pure terror. "You have to move!" If the boat came down on top of her, she was dead.

Meg Stone at the helm of Boadicea. Elena and Meg's yacht in the North Pacific
Meg at the helm 1000 miles offshore in the North Pacific above the latitude of San Francisco -- in winter.

The enormous weight of the keel should have levered the sails from the sea. It wasn't happening! "Straighten the rudder. Let go of the wheel. Get ready to swim if this thing goes over!" I screamed into deaf ears. She was frozen. Gone. Far away. "Suka, shit, piss, blyad, fuck!" I shrieked. "Wanna die?"

She looked right through me. Water sloshed down the companionway. We were freaking sinking! If we didn't get the sails out of the sea, we were going down.

"Get off the fucking wheel!" I shrieked in her ear.

A fist came at me and missed. "I hate you! Hate you..."

"You can't hate me if you're dead!" I pulled the manual trip on her life jacket. It inflated with a demonic roar. She noticed that. "Piano keys! Go! Release every line." I loosed a line from a big winch above my head. Elena figured it out. Grasped and grappled her way forward. Screaming Russian curses, she snatched at line releases, left-right-and-center. Ropes sizzled through their guides, bitter ends whipped free. I spun the wheel to what I thought was dead center. The yacht lolled upright, but still broadside to the waves and wind. The loose sails cracked like giant whips. The rigging shuddered and crashed. It was going to tear itself loose in short order.

view from one of Boadicea's windows underwater. Photo by Meg Stone
In heavy seas the windows were often submerged.

We were nearly awash. I switched on the cockpit floodlights. The wind speed hovered around fifty five knots. The boat was dead in the water. Waves washed over the deck and down the companionway, each cascade, another wave closer to sinking. "Take the wheel. Turn downwind if you can." I jumped below, waded through thigh-deep water, looking for the companionway covers. It was a last ditch attempt to stop the water pouring though from the deck.

Elena wasn't at the helm. Holy shit! She'd gone to the mast, was trying to wrangle the viciously whip-cracking sails. The boat spun. She skidded backwards, tried to grab the rigging on her way down and slammed into the deck. Next wave and she'd be over the side. Gone. "Forget it! Get back here!" I screamed from the cockpit. She couldn't, or wouldn't, listen. On hands and knees, she crawled toward the mast. I wanted to look away. I couldn't watch her flying over the side or getting brained by a whipping sail.

Still no helm control. But the yacht was more-or-less upright. Reflexively, I slapped the fuel open and turned the key to start the engine. What sounded like a shotgun blast into a rain barrel came from below. The lights went out. The electrics were dead. "The engine's underwater. Stupid twit! Stupid, stupid, stupid!" I screamed.

Elena Ivanova on Boadicea in the North Pacific taking a photograph of Meg Stone
Elena climbs above deck with her Nikon digital.

"Bring me a jib sheet." I yelled. "We need some sail power for control." She probably didn't hear. My throat was shredded. I shone my flashlight on one of the thick whipping ropes. Elena got the message. She crawled toward me with the rope, holding onto it with all she had left. My fists closed on it. Elena tumbled into the cockpit with a splash. I slammed the line into a winch and pulled like hell. The forward sail took on a bulging grotesque shape and dragged the bow downwind.

"We have helm control!" Elena jumped for the wheel, steered downwind. We picked up speed, gaining more control.

I stabilized what functional sail area I could. The wind vane self-steering contraption was trashed. Not that you could tell, but this time, parts were torn away. What was left of the Voyager frame was twisted and broken.

The boat sat low in the water. Waves from behind poured over the transom. "The battle's not over." I worked the manual bilge pump for what felt like hours. At least I knew it wasn't hooked up backwards. Elena spelled me off when she could. Slowly, Boadicea rose from the water. Waves stopped breaking into the cockpit. When the pump started gulping air, I went below.

Moderate chop on top of swells in the North Pacific North of the latitude of San Francisco photographed by Meg Stone aboard Boadicea
Choppy following seas in the North Pacific during winter.

My flashlight revealed the heartbreaking mess. Everything was drenched, smashed, ruined or just plain gone. Ruined books, charts and notes lay in sodden heaps. Water dripped from mattresses, seat cushions, piles of clothing and blankets. Only the food in cans remained viable -- although missing labels would make for mealtime intrigue. The electrical panel was dead. The choking smell of chlorine and an ominous sizzling from under our bunk wasn't a good sign. I knew we'd lost some, maybe all of the batteries. Recalling my idiotic attempt to start the motor, I hoped the system had shorted out before the engine turned over and inhaled seawater. I didn't know if I'd be able to start it again. Neither of us had anything dry. Then, seeing my breath, I realized how seriously cold it was.

I moved up to sit on a bare cockpit bench. The cushions had all been swept overboard.

"How far to Canada?" Elena's voice quavered from the dark.

"Oh geeze, maybe a thousand miles and they're all north." I squeezed icy seawater from my mitts. "And it's going to get a lot colder... rougher."

"Okay, tell me... Meg, can we make it?"

I opened my mouth to speak but had nothing to say. Eventually, "We're a thousand miles from land, somewhere in the North Pacific, west-northwest of San Francisco. I've heard offshore racers say 'nobody sails north of San Fran in winter,' and it's winter now."

"I don't care what you've heard others say, they aren't here now, we are."

A distant albatross photographed by Meg Stone aboard Boadicea in the North Pacific in winter
Meg and Elena had company almost as high as the latitude of Portland, Oregon. The arrow points to an albatross, their faithful feathered friend, and one dearly missed when he finally turned south.

"We were so close. So close, Elena! One more week and we might have made it. The only reason we're upright now is because we are going downwind. Heading south -- running away."

"I have nowhere to go but north." Elena spoke slowly and clearly. "If we don't go north, my life is as good as over."


"No, let me speak. If going north means we are both going to die, I won't have that. I think we cheated death tonight."

"I think we've been cheating death since..."

"Let me finish." I heard her inhale slowly. "I have been ready to die for a long time now. I think it maybe started for me in the Atlantic. I look at things like it is for the last time. I look into the water and I imagine my last breath. I have grown accustomed to living always with my last sunset, last meal, last look, last feeling. I guess, as you would say, 'I am damned if I do and damned if I don't.' But you aren't. You have a choice. We can go to Panama, or Mexico, or even America. You might lose this boat, or what's left of it, but you won't lose your life."

Yankee jib on Boadicea, Meg and Elena's yacht in the North Pacific
The Yankee jib flies close hauled as seen from inside Boadicea.

"You won't..."

"Yes I will, or I might as well. I will be returned to Russia, eventually. My life will be over. It's just a fact. But Meg -- and this is what I need to know -- I don't want to die needlessly in this goddamned ocean. If you don't think we can make it to Canada, I don't want to try. You told me you didn't want to watch me die. The same goes for me."

We said nothing for a long time.

Then she inhaled forever and went on. "So, if you tell me honestly that we can, or we will make it, we can turn this boat around at first light. Make what repairs we can, and we'll fight the battle again. But only if you say we can win, we can survive, we can make it."

"I'm no hero."

"You have to be. We both have to be heroes. So, Meg... Can we make it?"

Five meter waves with 1.5 meter wind waves in the North Pacific during winter. Photographed by Meg Stone aboard Boadicea
Nasty sea conditions in the North Pacific in winter time. Five meter waves with chop photographed from Boadicea during a strong gale.

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