The title used to be “Weightless”. Someone pointed out that it has nothing to do with sailing, but I still relate to it because as challenging as the conditions were, in certain moments, I felt freed from the heaviness of the situation.
Within an hour of leaving the quiet anchorage on Gambier, I found myself putting a second reef in my mainsail. Winds channelling through Howe Sound, accumulated into 30 knot gusts that laid my boat down on its side. By the time I made it out into the Strait of Georgia, there was 25-30 knots of wind speed on the nose and the short, steep seas of the inland waters. Between 1 and 2 metre waves from the southwest, sometimes converging with waves from the southeast, created whitecaps everywhere.
It’s a good, sturdy boat, the Grampian 26. It was built in the 70s before the chopper-gun replaced the heavy hand-laid fiberglass layup that typify the era. It was also given 12 keel bolts to attach the 2,300 lbs of iron keel to the bottom of the hull. That would seem overkill to anyone familiar with the 7 or 8 keel bolts that are usually found on modern boats nearly twice that size. Less of lounging-at-anchor vessel and more of roaming-the-coastal-waterways vessel and very much at home in the Pacific Northwest.
A solid boat. A good old boat.
But alone, on waters such as these and with the rain coming down and the wind blowing from all directions, I wondered if I and not the boat, was up to the task of taking us home.
I rigged a jackline as soon as the first gust had hit an hour before. A line running bow to stern that I could clip into when I had to go forward and would keep me attached to the boat if, well, if God forbid I lost my balance and went overboard.
Seriousness. That’s what these conditions breed. They need to be taken seriously and respected, because it’s never just one thing that goes wrong. It’s at least 10 things and the things that go wrong happen at the worst possible time, when the boat is under stress, in stormy weather and the captain is alone on the vessel and there’s no one really to help out. Weather is to be respected.
With my gear setup and evaluating the risk, I decided to keep going. I was beating my way to windward while the dark clouds above and forward of me darkened the colour of the ocean and rained down, reducing visibility and soaking me through. The waves changed direction and started to come at me from both the right and the left. Navigating between the rollers without losing too much ground was challenging and sent me further out into the Strait than I had wished to go. But I didn’t see any alternative. It was either that or send my boat crashing through the waves and perilously close to the shore in an effort to gain a few hundred meters towards home.
There was progress, however. Hard-fought sailing, with the boat heeling hard and stalling halfway through a tack each time I came about, was enough to keep me as present as I had ever been. There was also lots of debris in the water: logs, dead-heads, seaweed, and it was everywhere. A few times I spotted a log just as it was going by the stern, instead of keeping the boat clear while the obstruction lay to windward.
Looking out at the unpredictable seas, fear started to bubble up. I started to anticipate everything that could go wrong. A rigging or steering failure in these conditions could spell disaster. What if the rigging holding up the mast failed or snapped? What if the rudder broke? I wanted to push the thought out of my head, but I had to think about it. I had to be prepared just in case it came to pass.
Slowly, fear gave way to protocol, memorized in times when it seemed so much more abstract. If the rigging broke, it would be quicker to pull the cotter pins at the base of the wires than try to cut through the wires while the mast is still attached to the boat, half in the water, threatening to put a hole in the hull with each passing wave. If the rudder fails and steering is lost, get the engine in the water and get the sails down and make for the calmest seas in whichever direction that lies. At least with an outboard, there is a chance to provide some steerage.
Writing these words down a week later, I relive the emotions that caged me at first, giving way to comfort and then to wisdom. I notice the sensation in my stomach, a small knot tying itself in as a safety mechanism to prepare for an attack. There is a stiffening of my shoulders and I become aware of the air filling my lungs and pushing out my rib cage with each breath, almost as if I have to force the air into a constricted area which only allows for the minimum quantity of oxygen needed for the tasks ahead. Consciousness too is affected. No luxurious calm awaits. My mind is sharp, focused on the now, focused on the present and categorizing all that is exterior to my body as friend or as foe. There are no idle decisions. Thoughts are corralled into pens and only the ones that have bearing on the present are allowed to be examined closely. The only part of the vessel independent of my decisions are the sounds of voices on the VHF radio, tuned to channel one six, the hailing and emergency channel that all mariners are obliged to listen to while underway.
Part of what brought about my unease was the first of four Mayday calls that were broadcast that day. A Mayday call is the highest emergency at sea, a threat to life or vessel. Mayday calls are not made lightly. They are only made when a person is in the worst possible situation they can imagine. When a Mayday call is broadcast on channel one six, no other communications are allowed. Everyone listens to the conversation, listens and assesses and decides whether or not they can provide help. Usually, when listening, I can hear both sides of the conversation, but in this case I could only hear the Coast guard side as they have a radio tower on Bowen Island, a few hundred metres from where I was, and the stranded vessel was 20 nautical miles away, out of line of sight. The conversation between the Coast Guard and the stranded vessel went like this.
CG: “What is your latitude and longitude?”
Vessel – inaudible
CG: “Are you taking on water?”
Vessel – inaudible
CG: “Is your vessel sinking?”
Vessel – inaudible
CG: “Are you getting ready to abandon ship? Do you have another boat you can abandon ship to?”
Vessel – inaudible
CG: “Mayday, Mayday, Mayday, this is the Coast Guard issuing a Mayday call for vessel … located at … All vessels in the vicinity, please respond on channel zero nine. Over.”
I’m filled with dread as I listen and of course, my heart goes out to the people on their beloved boat with all their belongings and memories slipping away beneath them as they frantically get into their dinghy and cut the lifeline to the mother ship.
It’s awful to listen to, to share in another’s pain and loss and feel helpless to provide support or comfort. The Mayday relay has been made, help is on it way. Back to where I am on the other side of the Strait. What do I do? Again, I make the decision to carry on, hoping to God that that will never be me, least of all today.
But after 30 minutes of imagining all the scenarios that could go wrong, I begin to adapt to the present state, the present reality. I adapt to that which I cannot control and look to operate the vessel in the realm of possibilities that I can control or, at the very least, influence. My focus is shifting from all that could go wrong to how all has, so far, gone right.
The good old boat is proving to be better adapted than I am. She surprises me by going to windward in these short, steep seas at 6.5 knots over ground. The good old boat is taking me for a ride. I am careful not to get too confident and also careful not to give the boat too much to handle. Still, I am reminded once again of the agility and power of such a small vessel. Ostensibly built as a lake boat or coastal cruiser, the hull has the design of an offshore boat that slices through the waves instead of slamming into them the way that most modern sailboat designs do. The round bottomed hulls of today’s sailboat cruisers provide ample room down below, to lounge in or eat a meal. Many times I have wished I had the room below decks to stretch out on a settee to my full height and have a nap without having my head next to the galley. Not today. Today I am becoming enamored again with the incredible sailing capability of this wonderful ship. All 26 feet of her. The mighty Ooviloo. The mighty Grampian 26. For the first time today I am feeling okay, feeling good and up to the challenges I have placed in front of myself. I imagine that this good old boat is showing me how to negotiate the rolling waves and telling me: “You tell me where to go and I’ll go and we’ll do it together.” The ‘I’ becomes ‘we’ and joined together, ‘we’ move forward towards safety, just 14 nautical miles windward. Estimating that with the wind and sea state remaining constant, it will be at least 2 hours to clear Bowen Island and get through the worst of the southwest wind pushing against us.
Behind us, a sailing vessel under power, 15 feet longer than us, puts up her foresail to help power into the wind on one tack and then another. Sailboats are designed to be under sail. They are not designed to be driven head to wind under power, pitching in the waves. Better to be under sail and under power than under power alone, battling into the headwind. Eventually she passes us and I wave nonchalantly, as if I sail into this kind of weather every day of the week. By this time, my confidence is back. The engine has been secured and is no longer moving on its mount. The dinghy is flying over the waves behind us and I am so moved by how well this boat sails that I duck my head into the companionway and shout to the good old boat that she is a damn good sailor! I slap my open hand on the cabin-top roof to make the point and pull my head up to have a look at where I’m going only to get drenched by a wave breaking over the bow. I marvel at the salt water in my eyes for a few seconds, still slightly amazed at how we are managing to sail so well to windward. There are not many boats that I have sailed to date that I would rather be on than the one I am on now in this kind of breeze, I think to myself. And there are all manner of boats that I have skippered in the last 13 years, from 22 footers to 42 footers. The larger, modern boats tending to slam and shudder, with their lightly built hulls and their mid-boom sheeting. Helm stations at the back of the bloody boat! Gah! Who needs them? I’ll take the Grampian with its helm station next to the companionway, far enough forward to be almost on the pitching axis, so that balance is more easily attained, visibility is improved and the observability of the boat’s heel is at its best. For the first time that day, I am lost in thought, long enough for the sea to change.
And the sea did change. Glancing at the knotmeter, I see that our speed over water has dropped considerably. We’re going too slow. The wind force has decreased but the wave height has not. Instead of sailing up and down over the waves with the momentum needed to negotiate their rolling power, we are beginning to feel the brunt of them as they hit the boat in an attempt to overturn it. Danger has crept back into the picture. The present has returned to my consciousness, taking over, pushing out all else.
We need to shake out a reef in the mainsail. In other words, make our sail bigger again so that we have the wind power to sail faster. I bring the boat into a heave-to position and leave the safety of the cockpit to manipulate the lines controlling how the sail is attached to the mast and boom. This procedure is straightforward in a calm sea without the gusting wind and the rolling waves and without the jackline. With the conditions as they are, I am in careful battle not to entangle my feet in the jackline while untying ropes at the reefing points, easing the second reefing line and pulling on the halyard to raise the sail again, with short trips to and from the cockpit to ensure a ‘smooth’ transition. I almost lose my balance, for half a second, like a rock climber whose foot slips a centimeter while negotiating a foot hold on a lead climb. I’m moving impatiently again.
I say the words out loud to myself. Move with purpose. Move with planning. A little reminder of where I am, still alone, still sailing, still in the present. And of course in the company of the Mighty Ooviloo.
Safely back in the cockpit and with the boat underway again, a couple hours from home, we navigate past Point Cowan at the tip of Bowen Island. A real triumph. I shout into the wind.
It feels as though we are through the worst of it. From a calm anchorage, into the doubt and the fear, passing into cautious strategy, some navigating and finally into elation all in the space of 5 hours. I have taken another step past my comfort zone and perhaps made the zone a bit bigger. 90 minutes later, I put down the anchor at Jericho Beach and take time to tidy up the boat and perhaps myself. I don’t want to go home just yet. Passing Spanish Banks and the calm of English Bay, I am reminded of the complacency of ashore thinking as overtaking vessels adjust their autopilot and alter course in a seemingly impatient manner, to get around me.
I cannot go back to that just yet. How can I? What do I do with all this… experience? All this stuff? The enormity of it all seems a little overwhelming.
The kettle is boiling. The oil lamp is lit and I have the large candles out, heating the cabin. Tea is made and I’m listening to an audio book. I turn it off. There is no room in my head for anything other than the journey that I just went through. The challenge I am facing once I get back to shore, is how to dial down and force myself to cover up my experience and fill my mind with inanity. Of how I must converse and listen to the stories of others in whose reality I am now expected to participate.
I sit down and drink some tea, reviewing the day’s events. There are a few moments or short video clip like memories when I seemed to experience all the weather at once. There was a lightness to it. Even with the wind pushing and the rain coming at me sideways over the cabin top, there was a lightness to the feeling of moving over the waves instead of heading straight into them. A word that might reflect the synergy of working with the conditions instead of fighting against them, maybe inside of myself too. Working with what I have instead of looking at what I don’t have. There has been a shift in me – a subtle, yet poignant change. I’m not sure what to do with it or what to make of it. Not yet.
I’m not sure with whom I can share it or what I could possibly say to do it justice. Maybe share it with some other sailors? I wish my father were still alive. He would surely understand it. The story might resonate with him and he would sit back and nod slowly, hand under his chin and seem to say, “I have been there. Many times.”
I’m sure he would see just how like him, I am.
So I’ll share it with you instead. And you can nod or not and say, “Yeah, I’ve been there,” or “30 knots! That’s nothing!!
It doesn’t matter to me. I have become for the first time: Weightless.
~ Vaughan Johansen, April 2019.