31 - Facing Death

Meg in bed with earplugs in photo elenameg.com

[Image 31-1] Elena took this shot through a hatch of Meg braced in bed.

It's a phenomenon called stern slapping. Something boats with our hull design: a high-tech, sugar-scoop stern do in minimally choppy water. Wavelets get under its enormous, flat, sloping stern and thump the living crap from anyone aboard. It's like living in a bass drum, and it was driving us mental. We didn't know a boat could even do that! Back in Marmaris, its huge, plastic arse was either tied to the dock, or in motion, moving through the water faster than the tiny little waves that were making life a living hell.

"I bet the wankers designing yachts, never spent any time on one!" I wished the stern would just break right off, then and there, finally, just bloody ending it all.

Elena stuck her face through a hatch. "Wind! There is breeze. Ripples are making this, as you call it, arse pounding." We hauled up as much sail as we knew how. It got us moving about as fast as swimming might. Faster than the wavelets though, so the arse pounding stopped for the time being, anyway.

"The brochure never said anything about that charming feature." I grumbled.

"Neither, I think, did the survey." Elena poked the autopilot's on button. It beeped several times and died. The boat drifted off course. The sails slapped lazily. The arse started pounding. "So, we must steer always now?"

Elena Vaytsel stares into the abyss aboard Boadicea photo elenameg.com

[Image 31-2] Elena contemplates the abyss.

"It's all part of the adventure." I went for the manual. "How much fun would it be if things went right all the time?"

Elena spent hours at the helm going through the instructions, trying out a myriad of different settings and configurations. Technically, she commissioned the autopilot. Probably something we should have done before relying on it in heavy weather. There is likely an insanely expensive, Crown commissioned inquest on the failure to commission. What can I say? You live and you learn.

When things go well, or at least not we're-all-going-to-die bad, you start thinking you just might make it. Knowing how to use the autopilot, and sort of figuring out how to set the sails in a reasonably steady breeze, put us back on course geographically and emotionally. If we had a schedule, we would have been seriously behind it. But seeing as we had only a vague notion of where we were going, and absolutely no idea of how long it ought to take to get there, it really didn't matter at the time.

About twenty kilometres south-east of Crete, with a glorious sunset off our bow, while barely moving through glassy water, it struck me: "Life is good! We need to toast merciful Neptune with a couple of tall, frosty brews."

"Huh, shto sloochieless?"

"Beer, that's peeva in your colourful language. Barley champagne!" I hopped below, hauled open the refrigerator's lid; a slab of kitchen counter atop an electrically chilled tub, and holy crikey on a stick. The pong! The system shut down when the electrical supply dropped below a critical threshold. Some kind of safety feature to make sure there was power for things more important than refrigeration. "Lenna, this is a disaster: the beer is tepid!" Despite solar panels and the occasional spin from the wind turbine, we weren't generating as much electricity as we consumed.

Meg Aitken and Elena Vaytsel in offshore sailing gear, take a selfie south of Crete. Photo used by the BBC photo elenameg.com

[Image 31-3] Meg and Elena took this selfie somewhere south of Crete.

Over limp pickles, warm beer and a twenty-three egg omelette, we reassessed our electrical needs. "Stereo playing; movies and video games on the big laptop; microwave oven; lights blazing, like it's the bloody palace of Versailles. Can we live without these luxuries?" I said.

"I am fine. It is not me that I am worried about. It is you."

"Me!?" I sputtered. "I'm not playing computer games until the cows come home."

"Yes you. All that popcorn you microwave. You are popcorn addicted. I worry for you. I do not think it is healthy." She was right. Not about the popcorn addiction, but about the power consumption, and not having enough of something. I had never really experienced an insurmountable deficit of anything, until then.

Combing through specifications, assessing needs and balancing the numbers was a rather sobering experience. Aside from popcorn popping, the biggest power draws were the refrigerator, the freshwater desalinator and the autopilot. Three items we considered necessary to survival.

Jon suggested: "You have to have the engine going constantly to run the fridge, water maker and autopilot. DO NOT USE THEM. Make water only when it is necessary for DRINKING. You should never have a fridge running. They are unheard of for long distance cruisers. Eat what is going bad and shut it off. DON'T USE THE AUTOPILOT unless you are motoring. You have a windvane for self steering, USE IT."

Meg Aitken at the wheel of Boadicea photo elenameg.com

[Image 31-4] Meg takes the helm!

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Days, creeping west in light wind, bled into nights adrift on the current. Time was meaningless. Distance: nothing but points on a chart. Somehow, it didn't seem to matter. We were together and safe. I managed to rig up the windvane self-steering contraption. It was like a plate-spinning trick, but it worked when there was any wind. We watched old TV shows from the stack of DVDs Bernadette sent. Elena fell in love with the Mary Tyler Moore show. She watched it over and over with the English subtitles. Eventually, she didn't need them.

Closing on the western end of the island of Crete, the breeze picked up, and we were finally putting some hard-earned miles under our keel. Until, that is, a sharp crack and an ominous clunk reverberated through the boat. Boadicea swung violently. Elena was thrown to the floor, breaking my own fall, which was nice. There was some shouting, cursing and fisticuffs before Elena got to the helm, grabbed the wheel and got us back on course. The steam-punk windvane wasn't steering the boat for some reason. Then, it dawned on us, Elena shouldn't have been able to turn the wheel at all with the windvane engaged. The ropes were OK. The various quick releases were all locked. The skeletal Voyager frame looked intact, but what in hell?! A wildly flagellating, stainless steel fish was struggling to keep up in our wake. No, wait a minute, we were dragging the windvane's rudder by its quick-release cord.

Shattered stainless steel rudder shaft, corroded by years of electrolysis photo elenameg.com

[Image 31-5] The wind vane self steering contraption's shattered rudder shaft. "Broke like a clay pot."

"Dear Jon," I texted. "The windvane's rudder shaft shattered like a clay pot."

His reply: "It's got a steel shaft. It can't SHATTER!"

I assured him, "It shattered. Looks shiny on the outside, like Terra-cotta on the inside, and it crumbled like the flower pot I knocked off the window ledge onto my dad's new car."

Jon suspected it: "Probably sat for decades corroding in a marina full of electrolysis. Strips the steel of everything but the iron. That is why it looks like Terra-cotta. Can't be fixed. Can't be welded. It's worthless, and you two aren't west of Athens! MOVE. Hand steer as much as you can. Use the autopilot for breaks, or when you're running the motor. Conserve fuel. You need to make it to Gibraltar. Maybe you can get a new windvane or parts there. I will look into it."

Meg Aitken on the deck of Boadicea photo elenameg.com

[Image 31-6] Meg models the latest in personal flotation and beach wear.

☸ ☸ ☸

We had some fishing tackle stowed for emergencies. As far as I was concerned, it was just more junk we had to find a place for. Elena, on the other hand, was stuck at the wheel and bored beyond belief. She just had to try her luck with a little trolling. It's not like I could stop her. Besides, everything I knew about fishing came from hours in a small, open boat with my grandfather. He would tell me fish stories while trying to start the outboard. Of course, he never caught anything, except a major bollocking from grandma for tracking sand in on his Wellies. In our case, the silence was shattered by a wild buzzing from the fishing reel, and then, Elena's blood-curdling cry, "Deeeeeen-nerrrr!!!" Line spooled out like crazy. Elena tripped on her own feet, getting to the fishing rod. "The net! Meg, get the net! Hurry."

Elena Vaytsel aboard Boadicea fishing for tuna in the Mediterranean photo elenameg.com

[Image 31-7] Elena, trolling for dinner.

Boadicea drifted aimlessly. Sails luffed and we came to a stop. Elena fought with the fishing reel, furiously tightening it, reeling in some line. Then tightening it some more, when whatever was on the other end fought harder for its life. Crikey! It must've been huge. Maybe she caught a submarine. I ran for scissors. We had to cut the line before the fishing rod broke or tore right off the back of the boat. A half-hour later she hadn't given up. Neither had whatever she caught, but it was now hiding under the boat. A couple of sharks circled for an easy kill. "Come on! Let's cut the line. All you're going to do is feed those sharks, or maybe, you caught one." I wasn't terribly thrilled by the hunt, my knees were feeling kind of funny. Something was fighting for its life.

"Go in the water, untangle the line. Maybe it is around the propeller." She had to be kidding! Who knew what she hooked, how big it was, or how dangerous?

"That's it! You've majorly cracked your pot. I'm cutting the line." I wasn't dying for my dinner.

"No!" She gave the rod a pull that by all rights should have snapped it. Then, staring up at us from just below the surface, behind the swim platform, were huge, dark, round eyes in a silver-blue face.

Elena Vaytsel with a tuna she caught in the Mediterranean photo elenameg.com

[Image 31-8] The sea wouldn't mourn the loss of one tuna.

I had never seen such a beautiful creature. It was a tuna. Its body, sleek and muscular. Its scales, a gradient from silver to the darkest indigo. Long sleek fins projected like swallow's wings.

"The net, blin! Now! It's going to get away."

I hoped it would. "You want to kill that fish?! How can you?!"

"It's dinner! The sharks are going to get it. It is bleeding. It is not going to live, no matter what."

I jabbed the net toward the sharks, and they spooked out of range. The tuna didn't react. We scooped it from the water. It left a trail of blood from the edge of the swim platform to the cockpit, then lay tangled in the net going through terrifying death throws. I tried to rationalise what we had done. Like any hunter must. I couldn't. I still can't. The end was truly horrible. Eyes that once saw its world, clouded up. Dazzling silver turned to grey. A powerful, sleek creature lay tangled in a net on the cockpit floor. Its blood, vomit, and shit made a lazy delta around the floor drains.

Elena sharpened knives below deck. The wind picked up and Boadicea cut through the calm water. It was technically a beautiful evening -- perfect sailing. I was glad it was too dark to see the sad pile on the floor. Elena came up to butcher her catch. I engaged the autopilot and went below to listen to music with headphones. I had no idea it would hit me that hard. Facing death took away its heroic importance. There was no magic. No angels. No soul. No dignity. No glory.

The sea didn't mourn the loss of one tuna. The sun would rise on a world that was less that one fish. One facet of watery perception from one living window had closed. Something echoed in my mind about looking into an abyss with nothing looking back. An existential reality we live every heartbeat denying. Holy crap! I looked. I couldn't look away, and there it was -- absolute certainty. Should something happen to us out there, our own deaths would be as undignified, inconsequential and unnoticed.

A glorious sunset photo elenameg.com

[Image 31-9] The sun would rise on a world that was less that one fish.

[[ updated -- photos Apr 24, 17:56 GMT ]]