© Copyright 2004 by Becky Coffield
The following narrative is a true account of my first ocean passage, a crossing of twenty-seven days between Acapulco, Mexico, and Nuku Hiva, a voyage of 3,000 miles. It was a journey of discovery in every sense.
I doubt I will ever learn as much about myself again as I did on my first ocean passage from Acapulco to Nuku Hiva. For twenty-seven days I had plenty of time to think – Tom and I both did – and perhaps we came to decisions and conclusions that we might never have made had we not taken such a block of time and, without interruption or distractions, thought each thing out in every aspect. On the other hand, perhaps our situation tainted our thinking. Will I ever know?
Our passage began beautifully enough in light winds, calm seas and Acapulco blue skies. For the first week I pinched myself daily and gloated over the fact that yes, I did have the courage to make a crossing. I had always wondered if at the last minute as land faded from view I wouldn’t “freak out” and, head hung low, bump my way back up Baja and the thousand miles of coastline home. Thus, my first mistake was to equate ocean crossings with courage. Since my first crossing I have learned that any fool can cross an ocean…in fact we met many! People who set off in unseaworthy boats or people with no knowledge of navigation. Anyway, everyday I smirked in smug exhilaration over the fact that here I was making a passage at last.
We soon found ourselves developing a simple routine. We ran four hour watches beginning at dark. (On later crossings we changed to three hour watches as the fourth hour is deadly for the one on watch in the middle of the night.) During the day we did not run a formal watch, for one of us was usually outside reading or “butt bathing”, an activity that consisted of laying across our deck box with our bare butts exposed to the sun to help control the salt water sores that one tends to develop from long stretches of sitting in slightly salted clothes. Anyway, I tended to be outside more due to my claustrophobia, while Tom found himself a nest below to burrow into. At noon I took a sun shot which Tom plotted along with his DR (dead reckoning – a guesstimate at where one is based on speed, direction, time, and current) and then we had our bathing hour. This finished, we opened the “casino” and played cribbage, the only game we had where the pieces didn’t slide all over the board. We gambled for a dollar a game and dish duty the next day. Let me only say that by Nuku Hiva Tom had dishpan hands and owed me $35,000 which, I might add, he denies and has never even attempted to pay me. After the dinner hour we began our watches. Tom frequently took star shots in the evening, and he became quite familiar with many stars. At least I think he did, but how would I know since I only recognize a few! Unfortunately, despite the hours I spent on watch with Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, I learned no more about the stars than I’d known when we left Oregon some three years earlier. Other than the northern basics, I’m afraid to admit that they all just looked the same to me!
March 6th was a cloudy day, but the barometer was holding and we had no rational reason for concern. In fact, it was a relief to escape the sun’s murderous heat for a day. We even had a rainstorm pass over and happily collected gallons of water; we topped off our water tank, filled two teapots, refilled our sun shower and filled up various pots and pans. At 5:15, however, the reason for my growing unease became apparent. A blast of wind from the northeast struck Cabaret with such force that the boat was almost knocked down. We had been moving along comfortably at five knots with jib and reefed main – suddenly we were on our ear and going over fast. I scrambled out to release the jib sheet which gave a modicum of relief. Amid the increasing wind and rain we lowered the jib and set about double reefing the main. “So this must be a genuine squall, huh, Tom?” I nervously asked. We decided after a few seconds of still increasing heel to just drop the main since we were running water over the rail with the main even in the process of being double reefed. I flipped the autopilot off and headed Cabaret downwind. Under bare poles we were now making seven knots and the wind was still increasing. The rigging began its horrible howling and rain crashed down. Tom went below to don raingear while I kept Cabaret headed 180 degrees. My smug sense of adventure was quickly fading and was rapidly being replaced by a growing terror. This wasn’t in any of the books I’d read! The wind was still steadily accelerating. Our anemometer was frequently hitting fifty-five knots and still stronger gusts screamed past us. The boat was running at eight knots now and, of course, darkness had descended with the storm, leaving me alone with wind and rain beating me from all sides. I decided then and there that darkness was not a comfort on a stormy night at sea.
Tom took over the wheel upon his return and dourly commented, “This is no squall, and this is no gale!” I numbly agreed.
“Do you think this is a hurricane?”
“Well, how would you know? You’ve never been in one!” I angrily shouted.
He steered while I sat in the cockpit and eyeballed the growing seas. I was too frightened to stay alone below although I did duck below once to scan my Bowditch to see if we weren’t in fact in a genuine hurricane. Somehow I actually managed to read the chapter while being wildly buffeted about, but Tom was right – it was no hurricane. At best I thought it to be a tropical depression, for which I now had unlimited respect. I did not stay below for long, for I wanted to be with Tom if anything happened…like the boat pitch poling, turning turtle, sinking, things like that. I was now terrified and wishing I was crawling up the coast of Baja with my head hung low. Cabaret was racing under bare poles at nine knots and surfing to fourteen knots down swells. I had read of boats doing this but never believed it could happen to us. Still the wind kept up its incessant screaming and the seas grew. “Tom, I’m so scared,” I wailed piteously. Deep down I felt that if I just verbalized my fear it would all go away.
“So am I.” This I did not want to hear from my fearless husband.
“Tom, what’s going to happen?” No answer. We both were thinking the same thing now. We could be killed out here. Why hadn’t I considered this possibility earlier? In our youthful exuberance and confidence we had not even bought a life raft! We could die for this lark we were on, and what were we proving anyway? Why hadn’t I asked myself if I was willing to pay with my life? All good questions that I had not asked when we started out. We were now in imminent danger. Never had we seen such wind, and I do not say this lightly. We had been in gales; we had made record runs both up and down the Oregon/Washington coasts due to heavy weather and seas. We had been in anchorages – one in Port Orford, Oregon, and one at Bahia de Navedad, Mexico – with winds gusting to sixty. But here, where there was no shore we could possibly swim to, where there was no lifeboat we could turn to, where I felt nothing but a cold sweat and rumblings in my stomach, I realized I was not brave, and just maybe I was not a real sailor.
We watched our backstay do a crazy jig of its own, independent of the hula hoop action of the mast and we both regretted we had not bought the $85 cable cutters we’d seen. What would we do if our mast came off? Why didn’t we have a ham radio so I could call someone and tell them where we were…or say goodbye? I found myself thinking about what I’d say, and I feared I would cry and plead for help, and I would not be brave. Or, maybe I would pull through on the radio. I would tell people how much I loved them and that they could be proud of me. Why was I tormenting myself with my melodramas? I have always been prone to theatrics, and here I was in danger of actually dying playing out my death scene and weeping at my own brilliant performance. Maybe it was better we didn’t have a radio, but maybe if we’d have had a weather fax we’d have been able to outmaneuver the storm. A lot of maybe’s; a lot of hindsight.
Out of my reverie I heard Tom hollering, “This isn’t worth it, Becky.”
“I agree.” Somewhat abashedly then, “Are you praying?” We both were. Could I become even more of a hypocrite before the night was over?
The waves were breaking now, and I watched the white curling, foaming seas approach us from what seemed like every angle. Suddenly I cried out, but it was too late. A huge curler broke next to the starboard stern quarter and a wall of water cascaded into the cockpit. Madly I began bailing, wishing our scuppers were ten times their four bit size. In my frenzy I threw out a bucket of Tom’s underwear that had been gently agitating all afternoon. Three times during the night I bailed our never before swamped cockpit. I wanted to cry, somehow hoping this childish emotion would make all the trouble go away, but I knew tears would upset Tom, and me, even more. I tried to push out a few just to see though, but my eyes remained dry, as did my mouth.
We alternated wheel wrestling, for neither of us felt confident enough to “lash the helm” and go have a cup of coffee below. I really wonder about people who say they do that. They’ll never convince me that they’re all that nonchalant. At 11:00 Cabaret was still skidding along doing ten to twelve knots, and I had by then set a new record for sustaining terror. I wondered in passing if in the morning I would discover a full head of white hair in place of the light brown. Off watch we both were so exhausted that we miraculously slipped into a deep sleep lying in the cockpit of the boat in pouring rain, in inches of water, using a wet towel as a pillow. Even a few seconds respite refreshed us. I wondered how I could possibly be so mundane as to be sleepy on what might very well prove to be my last night alive, but sleep came instantaneously. The one on the wheel would stay with it until their eyes could no longer focus on the compass. Often we would begin nodding off while trying to steer. I have no idea how long our times at the wheel were; it may have been ten minutes – it may have been an hour.
Still alive by 2:00 a.m. we both began to feel a sense of survival. We were making it, and by 3:00 there was no question that the storm was abating. Cabaret was still under bare poles, but her speed was now only seven knots and seemed to be dropping steadily. Within the hour we were flopping about at three knots and the seas were much less intimidating. Although there were still curlers, none came on board.
Daylight found us trying to motor but having difficulty maneuvering the boat. We had had difficulty steering all night but had thought it was just the storm. Unbeknownst to us our steering vane’s cables had jumped their tracks and fouled. In lumpy seas we had to drop the rudder off the vane and haul it aboard. We were wet, tired, and literally a thousand miles from nowhere, but we had survived. Tom had me feel a walnut sized lump on the back of his head where he had slipped and knocked himself out on one of his forays below. His head ached for a week. Our new American flag was in tatters. We were beaten, but alive.
It was not until much later in the day that I completely broke down. I remember sitting at the settee and looking up and seeing Tom. Suddenly I realized how much I loved him and that it was my insistence that had brought us on this adventure and threatened his life. The fear I had contained all night arose and I found myself shaking in fright. I was experiencing what I later came to call “reverse claustrophobia”, or agoraphobia. The hugeness, the emptiness of the horizon put me on the edge of profound and terrifying hysteria. I told Tom, “Tom, please talk to me. Tell me we’re okay and that everything’s all right, please!” Tom reassured me, but I don’t think he ever understood the brink I almost fell from. The remainder of the trip in traditional winds could not alleviate my anxiety…what if it happened again, only worse?
My fears were not unfounded. Three days out of Nuku Hiva we were hit by the worst squalls and thunder and lightning storms I could ever imagine. Simultaneously the Tuomotus were experiencing hurricane force winds, and the Society Islands were being buffeted by one of the worst storms they’d ever had. We were within feet of being struck by lightning, and I will never forget the look of sheer terror on Tom’s face when I flew to the hatch just seconds after the blinding flash and deafening boom had struck. The air was thick with a horrible smell, and our mouths tasted bloody and metallic. I donned my raingear and sat by him, not wanting to leave him alone to the hateful ravages of nature. We sat there, becalmed in the ensuing downpour, and I held his hand while he struggled with the fear born in him by the lightning that had struck perhaps fifty feet from the boat. I know now it was a miracle we were not hit.
Going into Nuku Hiva the last three days was tedious for our exhausted nerves. We alternated between flat calm and gusts of Force 8. It was impossible to carry sail to satisfy both extremes. On one occasion I was on watch when a severe squall hit us. We’d been making two or three knots under storm sail alone when suddenly we were up to eight and going over fast. Numbly I stared at the storm sail sheet and wondered if I should release it or let it be. I was so tired I could not make up my mind whether I was over-reacting to the situation or whether we were in real danger. I held the sheet in my hand just debating. Within seconds Tom was at the companionway. Casting one critical glance at the menacingly pumping, bending mast he dove to release the sheet. The wind had actually been driving Cabaret to submarine. Our mast, 3/16 aluminum – the mast off the Cal 46 – was no lightweight stick. Finally, out of exhaustion, we began motoring. This was an interminable ordeal now, and at times I gritted my teeth wondering if the distance between us and land would ever diminish.
Our last evening out it began clearing. We raised sail once again and continued until we were within what we felt was twenty-five or thirty miles of the island. We had not had a shot in three days because of cloud cover, so we were hesitant to approach too much closer lest our DR be off due to currents. We did not want to miss land at this point! We hove to and tried to sleep until daybreak, but long before dawn Tom was able to identify one bank of clouds as definitely an island. At daybreak Nuku Hiva lay some twenty miles dead ahead. Too impatient to try and sail in the now light easterly winds, we fired up our engine and headed in. Ten miles from the island we heard Cabaret being called on the VHF. We answered the call to find that the Shannon Marie, a boat that had left Acapulco the same day we did, had been anxiously awaiting our arrival – fearful lest we’d disappeared in the storm. They had arrived the day before. Later they told us that they had managed to keep a reefed main up in the storm and had made two hundred sixty six miles in twenty-four hours. In so doing, however, they had torn their chain plates loose and had numerous steering difficulties. First they’d sheared the bronze pin in the steering quadrant, and then the whole quadrant blew apart. They had been very concerned about us, and we too had wondered how they’d fared.
So, our first passage came to a close. We had made it, but what damage we had done to ourselves. It would be years before sailing would really be the enchanting activity we’d once thought it to be. Being confined for twenty-seven days had been almost more than either of us could stand. We’d gone through two terrible storms that had definitely eliminated the starry thoughts of cruising forever! We’d experienced a profound mid-way depression (not uncommon, however) and we’d wrestled with thoughts and fears we’d never known before. And now, worst of all, we knew we had two more passages awaiting us – the one to Hawaii, and the one home.
We talked with other boaters and few felt as strongly
as we did, but few had had their butts kicked across the Pacific Ocean.
Even those unfortunate souls who’d come from Panama and had taken fifty-five
and sixty days to reach the Marquesas had not minded the time confined
aboard so much, therefore I suspect that a lot of our displeasure at being
cooped up was due to our particular chemistry. We both had missed plain
old physical activity. But we had definitely formulated some future goals,
goals that would change our lives more than ever upon our return. By Nuku
Hiva we had no doubt we’d never be world cruisers, leastwise not at this
time in our lives. I was actually very glad, however, that we’d done what
we were doing when we were doing it, for I could imagine nothing more disheartening
than to spend my whole life dreaming about cruising only to find that it
just was not what I’d thought it would be. However, the twenty-seven days
had not come to naught. I felt we’d learned some valuable things about
ourselves and cruising (like don’t believe the weather pilot charts!).
But it was so disheartening to find we were not sailors in the true sense.
Passage making did not seem to be in our blood. I was perhaps better adapted
to the confines and adventure of the boat than Tom, but I wasn’t going
to cruise without him! Coastal cruising and our adventures in Alaska and
Mexico notwithstanding, it was sad to admit we were just not in our element
at sea. I understood why Robin Graham had headed to Montana after his circumnavigation.
I deeply envied the likes of Bernard Moitessier, the Pardeys, and the Smeettens,
but I knew we would not be following in their steps, at least at this time.
Yet these twenty-seven days may have been the most character building,
confidence enhancing, and self awareness developing experience of our young
lives. We had made a rugged passage, yes, but we had survived and had,
in reality, enjoyed a lot of the trip despite our nights of terror. Twenty
odd years later we are still trying to unravel the mystery of our hearts
and our love and attraction for sailboats and the sea.
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Becky's Story List and Biography