A LIFE UNDERWATER A SAILING ODYSSEY CHAPTER 8
A Life Underwater, A Sailing Odyssey, Chapter 8
One meets a plethora of unique characters when living in out of the way places that are tucked into the corners of the world! Pine Cay was no exception! We had the opportunity to meet a husband and wife team who were sailing around the world with their nine year old daughter. The hotel hired them to manage the property and we became fast friends. Bill Carruthers was a brilliant gentleman who had been wandering the planet since he graduated from college. He was a jack of all trades and was a walking travel log of adventures. His wife, Sue, was the daughter of the former commissioner of police for the entire country of Kenya, Africa! Ironically I had read about her dad when I was a young man because her father had infiltrated the notorious Mau Mau tribe in the late 1950's and was instrumental in bringing that bloody revolt to its final violent conclusion.
Bill had met Sue years before during their separate travels while both were on the roof top of a guest lodge in Katmandu doing their laundry! They fell in love, moved to Cape Town, South Africa and started the first pizza restaurant in this African city. Three years later they had five restaurants, were making lots of money and hated the oppression of South African apartheid and were desperately missing the call of the “road”! So Bill built a sailboat and with their daughter Pasha, he and Sue sailed away in search of new adventures. They eventually wound up on our little island's doorstep.
Every evening, after a long day of diving, the five of us would meet over rum drinks and the tropical evenings would be spent being regaled by Bill and Sue's wonderful tales of sailing oceans and discovering worlds I had only read about in magazines. The stories were mesmerizing! Bill and Sue did not know it at the time but they were providing further inspiration for my chronic itchy feet once again!
Destiny turns on the toss of a coin! The meeting of someone unique, who is inspirational and makes you view the world just a bit differently, can be such a random event. Throughout my life I had placed myself in positions to encounter inspirational people and Bill and Sue and Pasha were just such an intelligent and adventuresome combination of personalities. So when they sailed from our tiny Pine Cay island world after one year of work, they asked my girlfriend and me to join them. Their intentions were to sail to Florida to refit their boat, then head to Jamaica for a bit before crossing over to the Panama Canal. There would be the eventual trip across the Pacific Ocean and ultimately into the exciting world of French Polynesia.
It was an easy decision for me. I had made a vital discovery about myself early on in my travels. I was strong and smart and I had the confidence to be able to make a living wherever I went. With this fresh epiphany in mind, I sold the business that I had built in the Turks and Caicos and my, no longer girlfriend but now wife and I moved back to Florida to rendezvous with Bill and Sue. We would be sailing under the Kenyan flag and making friends with our new home, the sailing yacht, Rafiki.
Life is about chapters. We write beginnings and we write endings to those chapters. I had just closed a magnificent chapter of adventure while living in the Turks and Caicos Islands and now I was beginning a whole new odyssey. One that I knew would be as remarkable a life changing experience as any I had discovered to date! I knew I would not be disappointed. I also knew that I would not be the same person I was at the beginning as I would be at the close of this next chapter. That was fine by me!
A Sailing Odyssey
It was 2:00AM on a black moonless cloudy night. I was dozing and half asleep, when I was simultaneously doused by a wave of seawater washing over me while at the same time being struck solidly in the center of my chest by a heavy flying projectile! Drenched in seawater and startled to a fully awake status, I heard an incessant slap slap slapping of a fish at my feet where I was now standing in the center of the wet sailing cockpit of Rafiki! Still confused, it took several moments for me to realize I had just been struck by a large flying fish that had erupted out of the face of a wave as our sailboat passed by! This was, as I would soon learn, a not so unusual occurrence when doing long distance sailing across open oceans. Being struck by a startled flying fish and being suddenly swamped by a rogue wave was my initiation into long distance cruising! I ate the fish for breakfast!
We had joined Bill, Sue and Pasha in Florida for a period of time while they sorted out their sailing yacht, Rafiki. I went back to work at the Scuba Club where my mentor, Norine Rouse, welcomed me home with open arms. Our plans changed a bit when Bill had to sail Rafiki down to Montego Bay in Jamaica to pick up a moored 100 foot sailing yacht that he had been hired to captain for a wealthy owner and bring it back to Miami for a major refit. So six months passed before we all finally loaded up our many bags of gear and boarded a flight to Jamaica to join the waiting Rafiki and kick off our new sail-cruising lifestyle.
Jamaica was a country of Bob Marley, Rastafarians, hypnotic reggae music and “ganja” on every corner. I saw police constables directing traffic with a marijuana “spliff” hanging from their lips! We rented a motorcycle and toured the entire country for two weeks, nearly getting killed or maimed on a daily basis by stoned native drivers or the frequent and sudden appearance of a crossing herd of goats! It was common to check into the tiny guest lodges for travelers in our Jamaican back country explorations but instead of being given a key to the “mini bar” fridge full of drinks as found in most modern hotels, you were furnished with a half pound of pot and a packet of rolling papers! Well, when in Rome..... Rest assured, I never inhaled......much!
The people, by United States standards, were poor but very happy, intelligent and fun loving. We were constantly being invited to share a meal in someone's home or hut. It was a chance for the natives to learn about America and an opportunity for us to learn about the local culture from the curious children and adults. The food was spicy, fresh and healthy. I fell in love with the sing song dialect of the Jamaican peoples' lilting patois, “Cool Runnin, mon, Irie” was slang for have a great day! We always did!
I was offered a job, at one point, to manage a cocoa plantation for a wealthy white Jamaican we had met in our travels around the island. We visited his magnificent plantation that looked as if it had been carved out of the 17th century. It almost had been! The owners were direct descendents of the original white British settlers who had come to Jamaica with their slaves. We rode the plantation's ridges on horses, saddled for us by patiently waiting black groomsmen. From the higher elevations we could oversee the rich green rolling hills covered with cocoa trees. I found myself falling in love with this tempting job opportunity. But I was a water person, a diver and as romantic an impulse decision this opportunity would have been, to accept this job would have compromised my driving need to experience more of the underwater world in the remote regions of the planet. I thanked our colonial hosts and set my sights on the South Pacific.
The Panama Canal is nearly due south of Jamaica and the sail took us 7 days. I learned firsthand what is meant by sailing a “beat”! It is when the wind is coming from the exact direction you intended to sail toward! It is also called a beat because this is what happens to your body when trying to sleep in the forward V berth of a sailboat that periodically falls with a resounding crash off the backside of an oncoming wave! It is nearly impossible to sleep! Your body is suddenly and briefly airborne as the boat drops out from under you, and then you are violently slammed back into your berth as the boat lifts on the next wave! Bruises magically appear all over your body!
Night watch became my favorite duty when sailing. One cannot help but feel insignificant when sailing under the canopy of a star filled night sky, knowing that you are a mere speck traversing the surface of a very vast ocean. The crisp sound of popping sails, shushing water along the hull, the hum of taught rigging and the creak of the mast and boom all became familiar and friendly sounds heralding the life pulse of your voyage. Duties would include adjusting the wind driven steering mechanism to coincide with subtle wind shifts of direction, navigation, sail adjustments and the constant scanning of the horizon for any obstacles such as another vessel crossing your path.
Bill had built Rafiki well. You have to trust your boat and Rafiki deserved our trust and confidence in her seaworthiness. Her hull was fiberglass and exceptionally thick. It consisted of a heavy outer shell, a shock absorbing foam middle core and an inner shell of equally heavy fiberglass. It would prove to be the key to saving us from sinking on two occasions. Rafiki was 32 feet long with a 9 foot wide beam. Her mast was 35 feet tall and her keel was 6 feet deep, holding 12,000 pounds of lead which made her sail stiff and upright in the strongest of winds. This below water mass slowed her speed down but it made for a far more comfortable sail for its occupants! Her interior was cozy with two berths which doubled as padded seats opposite one another, a built in table amidships, a chart table, a galley, a one man aft berth for Pasha, a shower and head or toilet area, large hanging locker and a two man V-berth forward. Storage was everywhere and not one single space was underutilized. We were always forgetting where we had stored certain items as there were so many places to choose from! We had a kerosene refrigerator and freezer and a two burner propane stove and oven. The stove was on gimbals so no matter what tack of sail you were on the stove top would swivel to a level position. In rough seas the cook could strap themselves in to eye bolts on either side of the stove to avoid being tossed about the galley. The berths were equipped with comfortable lee cloths which would stop you from being thrown out of your bunk in the roughest of sea conditions.
One becomes quickly adapted to a world of perpetual motion when long distance sailing. Bruises would suddenly appear on parts of your body and you would have no remembrance of how you obtained them! Every movement around a sailing boat while underway became instinctual and fluid. A sort of synchronized rolling and shifting of weight from one leg or hand brace to the next. When you were on deck, you wore a harness that could be clipped into a running cable that went around the entire deck of the boat. If a person is ever thrown overboard he is, in theory, still attached to the vessel and can pull himself back on board to safety. There are moments that invariably occur when you must react quickly if a critical line snaps or a block and tackle breaks and you must control a potential damage situation from compromising the integrity of the vessel. These are the most dangerous times for a sailor who can forget to clip in during the heat of the moment. Cruising sailors hear story after story of crewmen being lost overboard and never being found again in just such situations.
We would practice man overboard drills. It was unnerving to realize just how easily a person can be lost to sight in open ocean waters. We would toss a white paper plate over the side pretending it was the head of a lost sailor. One person would watch that plate and never look away, always pointing and shouting out its position as it disappeared into the wake of the boat. If that observer ever glanced away, just briefly, you can rest assured they would never spot that plate again in a rolling ocean! It was a chilling revelation! Man overboard....and Lost!
That is why we had an eight foot tall orange flagged buoy with a life preserver attached that we would toss overboard immediately to mark the closest proximity to the lost sailor. Then the other crew members would scramble to drop the sails, secure all lines, start the engine and turn the vessel around. Often the boat would travel a mile before the turn around could be effected. Some cruising boats trailed a heavy line as well behind them just to increase the chance of surviving a fall overboard with a lucky grab. The problem, however, is that the line would get quickly fouled and slick with algae growth and barnacles on a two week passage making it difficult to grasp and hang on to while being dragged behind the vessel underway. Even with all these precautions, sailors are lost overboard every year. I was surfing the dial of our on board HAM radio one night and stumbled across a phone call patch from a sailor near Tonga who was calling his girlfriend's parents in Ohio informing them that their daughter had been lost over board in a storm. There was not a dry eye on Rafiki that night as we inadvertently eavesdropped on this family's pain and loss.
One of the most vulnerable times for men to be lost overboard is when they try and urinate over the side of a boat rather than go below to use the head! I read a statistic somewhere that 60% of the bodies of drowned commercial fishermen pulled from the Chesapeake Bay were recovered with their pant's fly opened! I had a cruising friend who was on night watch while sailing in a remote area of the French Polynesian Islands. He had balanced himself on the stern railing of the vessel to relieve himself rather than go below and wake his sleeping crew-mates. Suddenly he slipped and fell overboard! He remembers the horror of watching his boat sailing away, leaving him behind and the sudden feeling of utter helplessness at his situation. He became aware of feeling something sliding along the side of his ribs and simultaneously he remembered the heavy fishing line that he had put out earlier that night. He began frantically winding his arm into the slick monofillament line! It saved his life as it towed him through the water but not before leaving permanent scars on his arm from the tightening and cutting monofillament line and the fish hooks that became deeply imbedded into his flesh!
I have fallen overboard twice. Once I was harnessed and clipped in when a large wave swept me from the cockpit and I was able to save myself, thanks to that attachment. On another occasion, I ran forward at 2:00 AM while solo sailing across the Gulf Stream to rescue a broken line and a flogging sail. The boat fell off a wave suddenly pitching me off the bow of my sailboat! I stupidly had not clipped in to a life line in my hurry to save damage to my sail. To this day I do not know how I pivoted in mid air from that bow toss and somehow managed to lunge in time to catch the passing stern of my boat! Clinging desperately to my swift sailing boat with every ounce of strength I could muster, time slowed down to freeze frames of slow motion. I remember thinking that if my grip slips I will be lost at sea and my unmanned boat would sail on by herself, ultimately colliding with the shores of Florida. No one would ever know when or where I had been lost and thus would have no point of reference to begin a search for me. I thought of my family who would always wonder and never know what really happened out here. An eternity of time passed in a moment as I slowly and systematically dragged myself to safety with strength I did not know I possessed. Fear is a powerful motivator!