I can’t see the waves, but I can feel them.
It’s 2 a.m. and I just woke up for my shift. I’m in the middle of the Pacific Ocean inside a 70-foot racing sailboat called Rage. I step into my foul-weather bibs, rubber boots and heavy coat, still wet from the last shift. I strap into my life jacket and step up the stairs into the howling winds. Crashing waves spray saltwater around me.
The horizon is lost in the black fog and the boat is tearing through the 15-foot swells of saltwater. I clip a rope from my life jacket to the safety ropes lining the boat because one errant wave, one slip, one moment of inattention could send me into the water. If that happened, the boat would be zooming away through thick fog, my chance of survival diminishing by the minute.
It was one of the more dangerous night shifts on a trip in late July and early August, when I joined a crew of four other sailors to deliver Rage from Honolulu to Portland. Spanning about 2,500 miles, the trip took 11 days of nonstop travel, mostly sailing except for a few days of dead wind, which caused us to fire up the diesel engine and putt along at half speed. In the open ocean, day and night, I saw bizarre wildlife displays. I fought seasickness. I endured all that in an effort to become a more experienced sailor, so I can one day join the crew members in racing.
We cast off from the shores of Oahu, with its lush cliffs towering like knuckles that fade away behind the boat. We lived on shifts of 2 hours sailing and 3 hours of rest or relaxation. We didn’t sleep for more than 3 hours at a time.
From the first hoist of the mainsail, the waters were choppy and the wind blew. The constant pitching and rolling turned my stomach and it took concentration to suppress the nausea. Stare at the horizon, I’m told.
It helped, but going below deck I could feel the sweet sickness rising. I took Dramamine, a sea-sickness medication, which knocked me into a drowsy stupor. I was half awake when I finally puked over the railing at night. Afterward, I felt fine. I was done being sick. My body had adapted, and I was in tune with the motion of the boat.
It’s the stormiest night tonight, and I join Nelson in the cockpit. He asks if I’m ready to steer. Nelson is a life-long sailor and family friend. I shuffle over the wet fiberglass deck and take his spot as he hands me the tiller, an unusual steering device for a boat Rage’s size. I take the tiller, which looks like a shovel handle.
The fog is thick. I can only navigate by red numbers on a panel in front, showing wind speed, wind direction and boat direction. We’re speeding along at more than 15 knots, sometimes more when we surf down the swells, but there’s too much wind. Steering is like balancing one ball on top of another. A change in direction and it’s slipping fast, risking a “crash jibe” that slams the sail from one side of the boat to the other. That could possibly damage the boat and leave us stranded.
It’s time for Matt, another crew member, to switch with Nelson, and the years worth of experience of the shift members drops tenfold. Matt has spent little time on the open ocean and neither have I. Neither of us has sailed much at night. Nelson instructs us to keep the boat direction within a 20-degree window and goes below for the night.
About 10 minutes pass and I’m starting to feel more comfortable.
But then the wind gauge malfunctions and goes blank.
Panic. I’m sailing blind.
“Nelson!” Matt and I both shout. Within moments, he pops his head up from below deck.
“The instruments are out!” I shout.
He’s calm. He tells to steer by boat direction, which is unreliable on nights like this because the wind is constantly shifting.
Nelson goes below and redresses in his foul-weather gear. He comes up, moving slowly, tinkers with the displays and adjusts winches. He’s not talking. I don’t know how bad things are, but I assume they’re very bad.
Just then I hear chirping noises, almost screaming. I flick on my headlamp and see a flock of birds flying overhead opposite our direction, as if they’re fleeing some hellstorm that we’re headed toward. We’d seen individual birds at sea, but never in a flock, and never making sounds like that.
“If that’s not a bad omen, I don’t know what is,” Nelson said.
Matt is spooked. I am too, in this black absence of sun, moon and stars. Nelson engages the autopilot and it settles my nerves. My shift ends an hour later, and I lay in bed listening to waves slam against the fiberglass next to my head until I drift into a sketchy light sleep.
That was the only time I felt in danger.
In the open ocean, the remoteness can become heavy. We spent more than a week without seeing another boat. At times, the closest people to us were the astronauts in the International Space Station, which hovers about 250 miles above the ocean. We could see its pinpoint light flying over us on a clear night.
It’s a backward universe on the ocean. We saw rainbows at night. We saw flying fish glide 10 feet across the water. We saw birds dive into the water and swim to catch fish.
But that seemed normal compared to other animal behavior.
The first night on the boat, a bird hovered behind us for hours.
“He’s trying to find a place to land,” said Dave, the captain of the trip and a family friend.
When I woke up for the next shift at midnight, I could see a dark mass the size of a football on the railing of the boat. I flicked on my headlamp and saw a pattern of feathers. The bird was perched on the railing for a nap and a free ride.
We drifted through vast schools of white, plate-sized jellyfish. We saw coin-sized, floating purple jellyfish with vertical fins like little sails that caught the wind. We saw a whale slapping its tail on the surface of the water. We fished and caught a mahi-mahi that turned from a shimmering golden color to gray moments after it died.
One sunny day I was sitting in the cockpit, looking over the railing. I heard a flapping noise and saw what looked like a school of flying fish land in the water. They had flown over the boat. I turned around to ask Matt, a crew member, if he saw what I’d just seen.
“Yeah. One of them hit me,” he said.
I noticed the deck was splattered with dark liquid. It wasn’t blood – it was ink. Squid had jumped into the boat, and I could see one near Matt. I looked up to the front of the boat and saw more squid, each about a foot long, as they pulsated on the deck. With a bucket, I collected 12. I filleted them, fried them in butter, lemon and paprika, and we ate calamari like popcorn for lunch.
The most meditative times were when I navigated by the stars.
One clear, star-speckled night, Nelson handed off the helm. “It’s fun sailing,” he said. “It’s smooth. And you can navigate by the stars.”
He pointed ahead of the boat, up at in the sky, to a star that shone brighter than its neighbors,
“There’s the North Star. To the right is a sideways ‘W’ formation. That’s Cassiopeia,” he said. “Sail a straight course between them.”
The last five days fell into a routine. We sailed and occasionally motored through a glassy ocean with only a slight roll.
Time passes differently on the open ocean with no spaces to attach memories. It was hard to differentiate if something had happened yesterday or the previous days. Maybe our irregular sleeping patterns had something to do with that.
We landed in Astoria, Oregon, at midnight after motoring through a fog bank and dodging ships using the radar. It had been 11 days since I had seen buildings. The town looked like a miniature model of the real thing. I felt like a giant.
For days after landing, I staggered around. At night, my bed felt like it was tilting.
I could still feel the waves.