30 - Open Water

The first few miles of open water, deep-sixed any and all thoughts of adventure, I might have once had. It was pitch dark, cold, salty and wet. The steadily increasing wind pushed waves at us that were bigger than anything we had experienced, or frankly, imagined. It wasn't even that strong. About average for that time of year. Academically, I knew it was good sailing weather. I just had to get a bloody grip.

Meg Aitken makes a log entry photo elenameg.com

[Image 30-1] Meg makes a log entry.

It might have been two in the morning, and I was dead tired. The wind direction was complete bollocks. We were discovering just how few directions you can go in a sailboat relative to the wind. I tried to sail diagonally to our course but ended up perpendicular to it. Truth be told, we weren't the most skilful sailors back then.

Lights on the forbidden shore of Rhodes Island glowed contemptuously. I had never been denied dirt beneath my feet. I couldn't imagine how Elena felt. "Are you OK?" She didn't need to answer. I was just blathering to stay awake.

"Huh. What, Meg. Why?" She bounce-shuffled onto her back. I don't know how she did it without falling from the narrow, cockpit bench.

"I guess, I'm just wondering what this," I waved into the inky darkness beyond our navigation lights, "this running away, or to sea, or whatever we are doing, feels like for you."

"I am not running away. I am being with you. Seriously, Meg." She propped herself up on one elbow. "I am afraid not to see tomorrow, but I am with you. I am my own person. How you say, 'I am free?' They did not get me!"

"I wonder what your mother is telling people, to explain your disappearance."

"For sure, Mother is telling people that I am with a man, or that I have been kidnapped. She would not allow anyone a hint of knowing that her daughter made up her own mind. That she chased me away. That such a thing could happen to poor Olga is unthinkable. Our colleagues, relatives, friends will always think Olga is the poor victim, and I am the ungrateful daughter that ran away with a criminal shishka, or was brainwashed by Ukrainian anarchists."

Neither of us said anything for a long time. Finally, Elena stretched, went on. "Meg, I know what I am doing. This is the most beautiful moment to me. I am on the yacht with the person I love. We take our own destiny that is right for us. We are together. We are going to home with each other. That is great!"

light from a distant shore at night photo elenameg.com

[Image 30-2] The lights of Rhodes, Greece. This is what sailing at night looks like.

☸ ☸ ☸

We reefed the big forward sail. That means rolling some of it up like a colossal croissant. Reefing is just a fancy word for having less than the entire surface of the sail exposed to the wind. Something I didn't know or even think about, a few weeks back, was that there could be too much sail to the wind! Then the screaming starts, and the cursing, and the tears.

Frighteningly, the whole mainsail had to stay up. Reefing that one was way beyond our skill set. But with the head-sail reefed, things got quieter, but not by much. We still had to shout over the rushing water, slapping lines, breaking waves, the howling of the wind turbine, and stuff crashing below deck.

Standing up was close to impossible. Bloody forget about walking! Neither of us could even sit without hanging onto something. Elena tried sleeping and was launched from the bench. Dragging herself up, she looked at me, tried to say something, then hurled like crazy. I was feeling a wee bit delicate, myself. I just didn't acknowledge it until Elena brought it up so viscerally.

The wind became strong and gusty, from right where we needed to go. Sailing was decidedly, not fun. Back in sheltered, Marmaris Bay, tacking into the wind was exciting and fast. In open water, with the boat bucking over choppy, belligerent waves, it was torture. The bow reared up on each foaming crest, then plunged into the next wave with a shuddering crash that brought Boadicea to a dead stop. Over and over, water and spray flooded over the deck into the cockpit. We were drenched to the bone.

Then the poxy autopilot quit. It could have been, we didn't know how to use it, or the conditions overwhelmed it; it bloody didn't matter at that point. What did, was that I was stuck at the wheel with the hatches wide open. It was hot when we left Marmaris, and who knew, waves could go right over the whole deck and come through openings in the ceiling?! Conditions weren't getting any better. What was worse, was that Elena was too seasick to move.

The wind direction was forcing us toward Egypt. It would take days to get there, but the thought of running aground and just walking away from it all was disturbingly compelling. My mind and body yearned for land. Stability. I desperately needed sleep. I was at war with my lizard brain and worried about Elena. "Just take the wheel for a minute so I can close the hatches."

"Noooooooooo-- Pleeeeez let me die!"

I let it go at that. If I left the helm, we'd end up wallowing broadside to the waves or worse. In truth, I had no idea how the boat would behave. I stuck to my post, giving the manual bilge pump a few good pumps -- using its lever, conveniently installed by the helm -- now and then, just for good measure.

I tried poking at everything on the autopilot, but it wouldn't engage. The reality was, we really should have read the manual before leaving. An anaemic sunrise revealed an endless vista of white-capped waves. I gave one of Elena's legs a nudge. "Hey, I majorly need to poop. I really need you to take the helm."

cockpit bench festooned with foul weather gear photo elenameg.com

[Image 30-3] One of the narrow cockpit benches. Heavy weather sailing gear is spread out to dry.

No response.

"Please! It's urgent."

She got to her hands and knees, dry retched without result, and crawled for the companionway. "Bladt, water is everywhere!"

"It's been coming through the hatches. Take the wheel. I'll mop it up when I get off the cludgie."

"Meg, it is bad. The floor is floating!" She dragged herself toward the wheel. "Go look. I think we're sinking."

Heavy floor panels sloshed around in a soup of wet paper and debris. "Shit, we are sinking!" The electric bilge pump's breaker had tripped. I jammed it into the ON position. It tripped again. I hollered up to Elena, "The handle beside you. That's the manual bilge pump. Pump it!"

Water gurgled up by the base of the mast. I waded over. A rhythmic geyser stirred up the debris. "STOP PUMPING!" At least, that stopped the water from gushing out of the manual bilge pump's intake. The electric pump was completely clogged with paper and glop. It looked like a drowned piñata. No wonder that sucker choked to death. "Something is really weird down here. I need you to pump the handle once, and only once." Water gushed out of the intake. "Stop! It's pumping water into the boat." The bloody thing was hooked up backwards!

The boat lurched. There was a crash from the cockpit. Boadicea leaned over and started to roll. Floating floor panels battered my shins. I screamed and thrashed toward the companionway. Elena must have gone overboard. Whew! She was crumpled on the floor under the wheel. Her face was white and bloodless, eyes rolled up under the lids. "Lenna! Come on, I need you."

Under her heavy-weather, offshore gear -- supposedly waterproof -- she was drenched, cold and clammy. Her breathing was shallow, and she wasn't shivering. "Oh no you don't! Nobody gets hypothermia in sunny club-Med! Do you hear me?" I shook her by the collar.

Elena's eyes scrolled down. She spent a second or two focusing, then rolled over and threw up something gelatinous.

"You're dehydrated!" I wiped yellow ooze from her cheek.

Elena and Meg's bruised shins photo elenameg.com

[Image 30-4] Meg and Elena's shins and knees, a few days into their journey.

"Meg, floor is floating, and the sea, it wants to kill us."

It was sunny, not raining and it had warmed up since sunrise. Crazily, the waves were getting steeper, and we were being tossed around, like light bulbs in a tumble dryer. "I know it seems bad, but really, it isn't that bad."

"You mean, it is going to get worse?"

"Cute, but no. That's not what I mean." Do you know the way heroes in action movies fight off an invading army with a broken broom handle while cracking jokes? That's who I was trying to be. Who I had to convince myself I was. Yelling over the banging, crashing, sloshing, flapping and clanking, I begged, "Lenna, we've come this far. I'm not about to let you die in some stinking sea. I promise you that. We're gonna make it! But I need you. I can't do it without you."

"Meg, I can't even stand."

"I'm getting you some juice."

"Oh Gospodee, I'll throw up."

"Then throw up, and drink some more! If you break any records, I'll call The Guinness Book people when we land."

She took the wheel and got the boat sailing in at least some kind of direction.

My heart ached. "You have to steer while I bail. I'm counting on you." How fragile she looked, clinging to that wheel.

After an hour below, bailing, dry retching and dizzy with exhaustion, I lowered the water level safely into the bilge. I also sealed the hatches. But still, the boat was taking on water. It was getting in, every time a wave broke on deck.

Then Elena was stamping her feet, yelling, "Meg, a storm is coming!"

waves breaking on Boadicea's deck photo elenameg.com

[Image 30-5] Waves break on deck during Elena and Meg's first day of sailing out of Marmaris.

☸ ☸ ☸

We were overwhelmed and almost lost the boat in the first twenty-four hours. What would happen when my strength and rage gave out, or if things got serious? "That's it, we're heading for Greece." I tacked turned onto a heading for the island of Karpathos. "It will be calmer in a wind shadow of land."

Elena looked at me, smiling hopefully. "We can make it to that island?"

"Damn straight we'll make it! Are we sailors or are we sailors!" Crikey, it was a barely visible, purplish hump on the horizon.

Sailors would call what we were in a gale. Nothing unusual. Uncomfortable, heavy sailing and hard work. If we made it through that first gale, there would be more. Elena was feeling better. The juice got her hydrated and raised her blood sugar. She may have been getting her sea-legs. This means, her lizard brain was adapting to a wickedly, variable-gravity environment. She lay down on a cockpit bench and started complaining about the cold. Yay! Elena was back.

At first, she cajoled me and offered encouragement with every wave. Then just the odd crash and soaking. Then she was down for the count. Sleeping like a baby with the hem of my Gortex jacket clutched in her fist. I tucked her dangling arm to her chest. I would have kissed her forehead, but for the risk of smashing our heads together. I think she sighed and maybe even smiled. The setting sun silhouetted the jagged cliffs of Karpathos Island before she stirred. She slept all day outside, getting one hell of a blistering sunburn on her face.

The wind eased up around midnight. "Hey, your turn. I really need to sleep." We were frighteningly close to the cliffs, although we could only see them on the radar.

Elena set just enough sail to keep us moving slowly southward in the wind shadow of the island. I watched from a foetal position on the bench, barely conscious but confident she'd be OK. The last thing I heard was Elena complaining about, "no wind," and, "hard to steer."

The distant cliffs of Karpathos silhouetted by the setting sun photo elenameg.com

[Image 30-6] The distant cliffs of Karpathos silhouetted by the setting sun.

☸ ☸ ☸

It ranked up there, with the worst hangover I ever had. Only, I hadn't been drinking. My head was pounding -- or something was. I was bruised, aching, sweating, nauseous and waking up, somewhere outside on a bench in the blazing sun. Except I wasn't coming to in a park or uni quad after a night of drunken revelry. Crikey, I was sailing! Or, more to the point, nobody was. The wheel swung lazily back and forth. Elena was sound asleep on the opposite bench. I scrambled out of my sweat-soaked foul weather gear. "Hey! Are we at anchor?"

"I don't know. Where are we?" Elena shot from the bench.

"Holy kapoosta! How long have you been asleep? We could've been smashed on the rocks, run aground, or run over by a ship."

"There were no ships. Nothing was happening. Karpathos ended and we were drifting away from it. I thought it was OK to sleep." She rubbed her eyes, flinching when she touched the sunburned side of her face. "I never meant to sleep more than a few minutes."

sunburn photo elenameg.com

[Image 30-7] Sunburn!

"What do you mean, 'Karpathos ended'?"

"We passed it. It finished."

"And what about Kasos, the next island?" I asked.

"I didn't see it. Only with radar, and we were drifting away from that island also. I could not see anything in such dark. Nothing. Waves were better. The boat cannot sail in such light wind. I could not steer, so I lay down."

Dead calm. I fired an email off to Jon via satellite. I gave him our coordinates and moaned about winds, flooding and equipment failure.

With no wind to move us, nothing to do and wounds to lick, we drifted somewhere east of Crete. We set to work cleaning up and dealing with the leaking deck. A Swiss cheese effect, caused by Harvey's help, was only apparent with the deck awash.

The boat -- our world -- changed position with the current. Charts showed us reassuringly far from land and shipping lanes. Jon wasn't as fond of our aquatic lounging as we were. His textual satellite messages conveyed his concern about getting too close to unfriendly countries. That, and giving up after one gale, didn't bode well for the many thousands of miles we had yet to go.

[[ updated -- photos Apr 24, 17:55 ]]