Two Women Cross the Planet, in a Fight for their Love and Freedom


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34 - Facing Death

Meg in bed with earplugs in
Elena took this shot through a hatch of Meg braced in bed.

It's a phenomenon called, stern slapping. Something boats with our hull design do in minimally choppy water. Wavelets get under its flat, gently sloping stern and thump the snot from anyone aboard. It's like living in a bass drum and it was driving us freaking nuts. We didn't know a boat could even do that! Back in Marmaris, its enormous rear end was either tied to the dock or in motion. Tiny waves couldn't get under our whoop-dee-do, high-tech, sugar-scoop stern and make life a living hell.

"I don't know how much more of this ass pounding the boat can take!" I secretly hoped the stern would just break off and end it all. Right there and then.

She stuck her face through a hatch. "Wind! There is breeze. Ripples are making this ass pounding." We hauled up as much sail as we knew how. It got us moving along about as fast as swimming might. Faster than the wavelets though, so the ass pounding stopped. Yay.

"Bollocks! Our boat's an ass pounder. The brochure never said anything about that charming feature."

"Neither, I think, did the survey." Elena poked the autopilot's on button. It beeped several times and died. The boat drifted off course. The sails slapped lazily. The ass started pounding. "So, we must steer always now?"

Elena Ivanova stares into the abyss aboard Boadicea
Elena contemplates the abyss.

"It's all part of the adventure." I went for the manual. "How much fun would it be if things went right all the time... or how about any bloody time?"

Elena spent hours at the helm going through the instructions, trying out a myriad of different settings and configurations. Technically, she commissioned the autopilot. Probably something we should have done before setting out on a planet crossing voyage. You live and you learn.

When things go okay, or at least not we're-all-gonna-freaking-die, you start thinking you just might make it. Knowing how to use the autopilot, and sort of figuring out how to set the sails in a reasonably steady breeze, put us back on course geographically and emotionally. If we had a schedule we would have been seriously behind it. But seeing as we had only a vague notion of where we were going and no idea of how long it ought to take, it really didn't matter at the time.

About twenty kilometers southeast of Crete, barely moving through glassy water, a glorious sunset off our bow and land in sight, it suddenly struck me: "Life is good! We need to toast merciful Neptune with a couple of tall, frosty brews."

"Huh, shto sloucheeless?"

"Beer, that's peeva in your colorful language. Barley champagne!" I hopped below, hauled open the refrigerator's lid; a slab of kitchen counter atop an electrically chilled tub, and holy krikey on a stick. The pong! The system shut down when the electrical supply dropped below a critical threshold. Some kind of safety feature to make sure there was power for things more important than the fridge. "Bollocks, the beer is tepid!" Despite solar panels and the occasional spin from the wind turbine, we weren't generating as much electricity as we consumed.

Meg Stone and Elena Ivanova in offshore sailing gear, take a selfie south of Crete. Photo used by the BBC
Meg and Elena took this selfie somewhere south of Crete.

Over limp pickles, warm beer and a twenty-three egg omelette, we reassessed our electrical needs. "Stereo playing; movies and video games on the big laptop; microwave oven; lights blazing -- like it's the palace of Versailles... Can we live without these luxuries?" I said.

"I am fine. It is not me that I am worried about. It is you."

"Me!?" I sputtered. "I'm not playing computer games until the cows come home."

"Yes you. All that popcorn you microwave. You are popcorn addicted. I worry for you. I do not think it is healthy." She was right. Not about the popcorn addiction, but about the microwave's power consumption.

Combing through specifications and crunching the numbers was a serious buzz-kill. Aside from popcorn popping, the biggest power draws were the refrigerator, the freshwater desalinator and the autopilot. Three items we considered necessary to survival.

Jon suggested: "You have to have the engine going constantly to run the fridge, water maker and autopilot. DO NOT USE THEM. Make water only when it is necessary for DRINKING. You should never have a fridge running. They are unheard of for long distance cruisers. Eat what is going bad and shut it off. DON'T USE THE AUTOPILOT unless you are motoring. You have a wind vane for self steering, USE IT."

Meg Stone at the wheel of Boadicea
Meg takes the helm!

* * *

Days creeping westward in light puffs of wind bled into windless nights adrift on the current. Time became meaningless. Distance was nothing but points on a chart. It all added up to an inexorable, halting, westerly crawl. Somehow it didn't seem to matter. We were together and safe. I managed to rig up the wind vane self steering contraption. It was like a plate spinning trick, but it actually worked when there was any wind. We watched old American TV shows from the stack of DVDs Bernadette sent with the apple box from home. Elena fell in love with the Mary Tyler Moore show. She watched it over and over with the English subtitles. Eventually, she didn't need them.

Just about any cretin knows that Crete is one heck of a long Island. Closing on the western end of it, the breeze picked up. Yay! We were finally putting some hard-earned miles under our keel. Until, that is, a sharp crack and an ominous clunk reverberated through the boat. Boadicea swung violently. Elena was thrown to the floor, breaking my own fall, which was nice. There was some shouting, cursing and fisticuffs before Elena got to the helm, grabbed the wheel and got us back on course and under control. I followed slack control ropes from the wheel to the wind vane. The ropes should've been tight, merrily actuating that steam-punk, wind-vane thing sticking out of the stern. Come to think of it, Elena shouldn't have been able to turn the wheel. Obviously, something had broken. Ropes were okay. Pulleys, all where they should be. The various quick releases were all locked. The skeletal Voyager frame looked intact. But what-in-the-hell?! A couple meters behind, a wildly flagellating, silver colored fish was struggling to keep up in our wake. No, wait a minute, we were dragging the wind vane's rudder by its safety cord.

Shattered stainless steel rudder shaft, corroded by years of electrolysis
The wind vane self steering contraption's shattered rudder shaft. "Broke like a clay pot."

"Dear Jon," I texted. "The windvane's rudder shaft shattered four inches above the safety release. It looks like broken pottery."

His reply: "It's got a steel shaft. It can't SHATTER like pottery!"

I assured him, "It shattered. Looks shiny on the outside, like terra-cotta on the inside and it crumbled like a flower pot knocked off the balcony onto dad's new car."

Jon suspected it, "Probably sat for decades, corroding in a marina full of electrolysis. Strips the steel of everything but the iron. That is why it looks like terra-cotta. Can't be fixed. Can't be welded. It's worthless shit and you two aren't west of Athens! MOVE. Hand steer as much as you can. Use the autopilot for rests, or when you're running the motor. Conserve fuel. You need to make it all the way to Gibraltar. Maybe you can get a new wind vane, or parts there. I will look into it."

Meg Stone on the deck of Boadicea
Meg models the latest in personal flotation and beach wear.

* * *

We had some fishing equipment stowed for emergencies. As far as I was concerned, it was just more junk we had to find a place for. Elena, on the other hand, stuck at the wheel and bored beyond belief, figured she'd try her luck at a little trolling. It's not like I could stop her. Besides, what I knew of fishing was hours in a small, open boat with my grandfather, while he tried to start the outboard and told stories of fishing success that would put Hemingway to shame. Of course, he never caught anything except hell from my grandmother for tracking sand in on his boots. A wild buzzing from the fishing reel and Elena's, "Deeeeeen-nerrrr!!!" Shattered the bucolic twilight. Line spooled out like crazy. Elena tripped on her own feet twice getting to the fishing rod. "The net! Meg, get the net! Hurry."

Elena Ivanova aboard Boadicea fishing for tuna in the Mediterranean
Elena, trolling for dinner.

The wheel abandoned, Boadicea drifted aimlessly. Sails luffed and we came to a stop. Elena fought with the fishing reel, furiously tightening it, reeling in some line. Then tightening it some more, when whatever was on the other end fought harder for its life. Krikey! It must've been huge. Maybe she caught a submarine. I ran for scissors, thinking we would have to cut the line before the fishing rod broke or tore right off the back of the boat. A half hour later she hadn't given up. Neither had whatever she caught, but it was now hiding under the boat. A couple of sharks circled for an easy kill. "Come on! Let's cut the line. All you're going to do is feed those sharks or maybe you caught one." I wasn't terribly thrilled by the hunt, my knees were feeling kind of funny. Something was fighting for its life.

"Get snorkel. Go in the water, untangle the line. Maybe it is around the propeller." She had to be kidding! Who knew what she hooked? How big it was or what kind of mood it was in.

"That's it! You've gone crazy. I'm cutting the line."

"No!" She gave the rod a pull that by all rights should have snapped it. Then staring up at us from just below the surface behind the swim platform, were huge, dark, round eyes in a silver-blue face. I had never seen such a beautiful creature. It was a tuna. Its body, sleek and muscular. Its scales, a gradient from silver to the darkest indigo. Long sleek fins projected like swallow's wings. "The net, blin! Now! It's going to get away."

Elena Ivanova with a tuna she caught in the Mediterranean
The sea wouldn't mourn the loss of one tuna.

I hoped it would. "You want to kill that fish?! How can you? It's beautiful!"

"It's dinner! The sharks are going to get it. It is bleeding. It is not going to live, no matter what."

I slapped the net on the water. The sharks backed out of my swinging range. The tuna didn't move. It hung there, suspended by the fishing line. We scooped it from the water. It left a trail of blood from the edge of the swim platform to the cockpit, where it lay tangled in the net going through terrifying death throws. I tried to rationalize what we had done. Like any hunter would. I couldn't. I still can't. The end was truly horrible. Eyes that once saw its world, clouded up. Dazzling silver turned to gray. A powerful, sleek creature lay tangled in a net on the cockpit floor. Its blood, vomit, and shit made a lazy delta around the floor drains.

I stood at the helm. Elena sharpened knives below deck. The wind picked up and Boadicea cut quietly through the calm water. It was technically a beautiful evening -- perfect sailing. I was glad it was too dark to see the sad pile on the floor. Elena came up to butcher her catch. I engaged the autopilot and went below to listen to music with headphones. I had no idea it would hit me that hard. Facing death took away its heroic importance. There was no magic. No angels. No soul. No dignity. No glory.

The sea didn't mourn the loss of one tuna. The sun would rise on a world that was less that one fish. One facet of watery perception from one living window had closed. Something about, looking into an abyss with nothing looking back, echoed in my mind. An existential reality we live every heartbeat denying. Holy crap! I looked. I couldn't look away, and there it was -- absolute certainty. Should something happen to us out there, our own deaths would be as undignified, inconsequential and unnoticed.

A glorious sunset
The sun would rise on a world that was less that one fish.

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