Standing at the Darwin Sound's wheel, you look out over water.
To port, there's roughly nine kilometres (five nautical miles) of blue Atlantic Ocean, same to starboard, same forward and aft. The Earth's surface has been reduced to a 16-kilometre circle of wavy, undulating, ever-moving blue water.
For the past 18 days my field of vision has been a monotonous — though by no means dull — 275 square kilometre swath of ocean. No more, no less. Other than water ranging from livid Caribbean blue to inky black, the count of non-aqueous objects — boats — has been far fewer than a dozen, freighters, tankers, other sailboats, three varieties of ocean-going birds — shearwaters, petrels and tropic birds — a handful of porpoises and/or dolphins and squadrons of flying fish too numerous to mention.
The flying fish are hilarious. Suddenly, from the depths of the surrounding water, one, two, three, maybe a dozen jump into the air, flap their finny wings like crazy, fly in random directions like dust motes swirled by a sudden breeze, and then kamikaze into an oncoming wave with a splash. Usually.
Sometimes they soar high enough to land on the boat; we find their desiccating bodies daily. Once, one of them flew into the side of my head. Seriously. The rest of the crew found it, well, like I said, hilarious. I was less amused. The side of my head smelled like fish. It was late at night. We were in the middle of a moderate emergency. I still had several hours to go on my watch. I hate the smell of fish.
Sky, clouds of all varieties save lenticular, stars, the moon and the sun are the only other natural features in oceanville. There are some people who insist on calling sailing off into the sunset an escape from reality. Usually, those are people who live their lives by the rhythms of calendars and clocks, days and weeks. They are wrong... completely wrong. Once out of sight of land, offshore sailing is an escape to reality, the reality of light and dark, hot and cold, wet and dry, windy and calm. They are your rhythms. Your constant companions, your only companions, are your skills and your fears. There is nothing more real. Especially at night, on watch alone, with nothing but ocean surrounding you for thousands of kilometres. Real enough?
The Darwin Sound is a 45-foot Dufour, a French-built sailboat. Cruising sailboats can be thought of as falling on a continuum one might think of as being anchored by the notion of built for comfort at one end and built for speed at the other. This boat falls somewhere along the built for speed side, where exactly I'm not certain. This is not to say it's uncomfortable. It is to say it's pretty fast. It is a complex ecosystem designed to do two things: move briskly across open water and, more importantly, stay on top of it.
Snaking into the cockpit of the boat are no less than two dozen lines of various sizes, colours and patterns. They'd be called ropes on land but sailors, like the French, have a different word for everything. Go figure. Aboard, they're called, collectively, lines. To confuse things further, something else sailors seem to enjoy, some are called halyards; they raise sails, though the only sail we have to raise and lower is the mainsail. Some are called sheets; they trim the sails to port and starboard and points in between – trim, port and starboard all being sailor words for simple terrestrial concepts. Quite a few are reef lines; they reduce or increase the amount of mainsail, for which I am grateful when the wind blows over 20 knots. I have no idea what a knot is in terrestrial terms and it really doesn't matter. The others do one thing or another — furl sails, set backstays and prevent gibes, position travellers, blah, blah, blah.
Pull the wrong line at the wrong time and two things may happen: the boat may do something ranging from comical to dangerous and you'll be admonished by someone using other sailor words that only hint at their displeasure.
Like I said, boats are complex ecosystems and this boat is no exception. Any complex system being used 24 hours a day for 18 days is bound to suffer stresses. If it's being bounced over an ocean, doused regularly with salt water, baked by relentless sunshine and occasionally having the wrong important line pulled, well, stuff happens.
Like the water we found in the bilge where we didn't expect to find water. To be fair, it wasn't just water. It was diesel-tinged salt water. The diesel, it turned out, came from trying to put more diesel in the fuel tank than it was designed to accept. We thought the overflow just ran out across the deck but some of it ran into the bilge. Who would have thought? The salt water came by way of a not-quite-tight-enough hose clamp on one of the several hundred hoses that run throughout the boat. Finding the one hose leaking was an exercise in patience and the use of words sailors share with frustrated non-sailors but which have no place in a family newsmagazine.
But the more serious oops moment came one evening shortly after my 8:00 p.m. watch began. Everyone had retired to their bunks since they all had watches coming up during the hours sane people sleep. I was pulling on rain pants since rain seemed imminent. That's when I noticed the mainsail was trying to gibe itself, notwithstanding the autopilot shouldn't be letting it do that. Shortly thereafter, the autopilot lost its mind and began beeping like a hospital patient flatlining.
Imagine my surprise. Standing there, pants around my knees, being the only person about to witness an event sailors would describe with another word having no business in the pages of Pique. I hopped behind the wheel and steered to starboard to undo the unintentional gibe. Cap'n Al rushed up on deck, quickly troubleshooting the fact the autopilot had lost its mind.
Actually, it had become unattached. This was particularly bad because of the point of sail we were on — wing-on-wing, running downwind. I refuse to explain further except to say it is a point of sail much easier for a functioning autopilot to handle for long stretches of time than a human.
Two hours and one flying fish in the head later, it was successfully MacGyvered with the nautical equivalent of baling wire. Two days later, a light knocking that had become an incessant hammering in the steering column, due to a loose bearing, was MacGyvered using strips of a plastic tonic bottle. Such is life on the ocean where the nearest service station is so far away it doesn't really exist.
You're on your own out here. Well, almost. Full props to our fifth crewperson, land-based Michael de Hann who sent us invaluable weather information several times daily. But on the water, you are on your own. Preparation, knowledge, experience and resilience will get you a long way towards home. If you're lucky, baling wire and plastic bottles will get you the rest of the way. Worked for me.