32 - Friction

Meg Aitken at the wheel of Elena and Meg's yacht Boadicea photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-1] Meg, in one of her moods.

Four hundred miles of open water lie between the west end of Crete and the south-east corner of Sicily, and that's in a straight line. It was our first truly offshore passage. But, don't forget, sailboats can't go in a straight line. If where one needs to head, even alludes to where the wind is coming from, it means zigzagging, three times the actual distance back and forth across one's intended course.

As it is, it's bloody demoralising, but then, halfway to Sicily, the sky turned brown, and we were pelted with mud. When it wasn't raining mud, the dust was so thick it was worse than fog. Yup, we were in a dust storm. At sea!

Elena was one cranky sailor. "I'm eating sand, shaking it out of my ears. We can't see anything, the waves are huge. There's mud everywhere. Why would anyone do this?"

I wound a salty, mud-encrusted rope through a winch. Its precision, internal mechanism crunched and squeaked. I tasted dirt, ground grit between my teeth. "Hey Lenna, we're really blowing the black snot now!"

"That's disgusting."

"It's a lot like hobby farming. My Dad would get off the tractor, all covered in dirt, blow his nose and say: 'You know you're a real farmer when you're blowing the black snot!' I'm thinking the same applies to sailing, it's not real unless it's really shit-awful."

"He was wealthy. Why did he do farming if it is so terrible?"

"For fun!"

Yanmar marine diesel engine photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-2] Boadicea's diesel engine, accessed by removing the companionway.

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We sailed far enough north to get clear of the dust blowing off the Sahara. The corollary to, no more dust, was no more wind. We ended up adrift, in mist so bright it watered my eyes. "Arrrg, becalmed again!"

"So what? We motor."

"Not a chance! Who knows how much petrol we need to reach Gibraltar? Besides that, we're basing a landing in British territory, entirely on a good feeling Jon has about cruisers on sailboats."

To motor, or not to motor, was suddenly made moot by the radio crackling to life. "This is NATO warship blah blah blah, calling vessel at position blah blah blah." VHF has a range of about twenty-five nautical miles: way too close for comfort. They were asking questions we didn't want to answer. Like: embarkation port; destination; type of cargo; and the most frightening of all, the nationalities of those on board. We fired up the motor, turned off the radio and got the hell out of there.

The wind eventually picked up, and yet, the fog never lifted. It got thicker. Then, the poxy radar failed! Long-distance sailing isn't as much about endurance or skill, as it is about balancing risk and equipment failure. Kind of like a juggler, and someone is tossing her more balls -- or chain saws, as the case may be -- to keep aloft. It's just a matter of time. A Good thing the wind let us shut down the motor. That way, we could hear the ships about to run us down. We sure couldn't see them. When we did, they loomed suddenly out of the fog, only to disappear seconds later. We didn't talk about it. There were a lot of things we weren't talking about. Like, does one's life flash before their eyes, or just the bow of a freighter?

Sicily's southernmost point is called Capo Passero, and we almost hit it, by the time we saw it through the fog. We hugged and danced around, congratulating each other on our first successful offshore passage. Then we came around the point, into the Strait of Sicily, and all hell broke loose. We were head-on into some blustery, Mediterranean wind of lore. It was ripping down the south coast, churning the sea into a frothy, violent stampede of white horses. We gave it all we had, for maybe five hours, before turning tail and beating a hasty retreat.

Elena and Megs yacht Boadicea heeled while beating into the wind photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-3] Heeled, hard-over near the east end of the Strait of Sicily.

I hollered over the din. "This is what dyed-in-the-wool sailors call, beating into a gale! It's bollocks! I checked the weather. No end to it! It is stable." Turning around probably saved our boat, our lives, and certainly, our relationship. The Strait of Sicily was no longer an option. Giving up and heading north put the Sicilian landmass between us and that vicious wind.

Jon objected to our plan in capital letters. "RECKLESS-RISKY-STUPID. Between Italy's big toe and Sicily is something called the MESSINA STRAIT -- DON'T FUCK WITH THE MESSINA STRAIT!!!"

"Ah, what does he know?" We had the charts. The Messina Strait didn't look like much. A narrow passage between the Italian mainland and Sicily. "Sure, it might have some heavy sea traffic, but how long can it take to get through a little traffic?" It sure beats thrashing hundreds of miles into the legendary, mutiny inciting, relationship destroying Mistral."

"I don't know. Maybe we should listen? He knows a lot."

"Sod it! We're here. He's not. We're going north!"

"Then, do it yourself!" She burrowed into her cabin and slammed the door so hard the whole boat shook.

Meg Aitken looks toward the Messina Strait between Italy and Sicily photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-4] Meg looks toward the Messina Strait -- narrow passage between Sicily and Italy's big toe.

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A hot, dry headwind blew south through the Messina Strait. We had to zigzag back and forth between Sicily and the Italian mainland, and there's not a lot of room. The non-commercial traffic is heavy and it's insane! We had some really close calls and screamed Italian language lessons from jet skiers and kite surfers. I'm thinking, it wasn't the kind of language one would use at the dinner table in front of Mama.

We hit the narrowest part of the strait just in time for sunset. A rusty ferry shot from its berth and came so close to ending-it-all for us, I still get the screaming meemies.

Meg and Elena jousting with jet-skiers in the Messina Strait photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-5] Jousting with jet-skis in the Messina Strait

"Maybe, that is what Jon is talking about in your fucking Messina strait!"

"Yeah, maybe." Sure, the ferry traffic in the strait put the East River to shame. "But, I think he meant those." I pointed at an aggressive powerboat with official markings. Bristling with lights, antennae and a gun. I had a feeling those gentlemen wouldn't be our friends.

Centre channel, ships and tankers ploughed up huge wakes going opposite directions. Those man-made mini-tsunamis collided into rogue waves that simply tossed us off course like a ping-pong ball in a room full of cats. That sounds bad, and it was, but worse was Elena pointing ahead to a landmark we had tacked past an hour earlier! A strong current from the north added to all the crap we were already dealing with. I majorly had enough sailing for one lifetime. "Drop the sails! We're going to motor."

"Drop em, yourself!"

And people tell me, home renovations cause friction!

Ferry in the Messina Strait Italy Elena and Meg photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-6] Close call in the Messina Strait

Pitch dark. Crazy wave action. So close to out of the Messina strait you could spit an olive pit, and the bloody autopilot stutters, grinds, hoots and self destructs.


"Oh, I see, we are on speaking terms again?"

"I think there's something wrong with the autopilot."

"Duh, ya think!?" I poked restart. It caught, ran for a second or two, hooted a complaint and died. "Bollocks!"

Watches were interminable! One couldn't leave the wheel for a second. Taking a leak, was at the mercy of the other, and usually engendered a snide comment or two. Sleeping happened more often but with way less effect. Something had to give, or there would be mutiny.

Elena, by then, was a competent sailor. It wasn't as though she had a choice. It was a sink-or-swim, or in our case, sail-or-die situation. I had an epiphany about it one morning, below deck, sipping coffee. Elena was at the wheel with Boadicea close-hauled and beating to windward, and that's when it hit me: I completely trusted her with my life. It was disturbingly weird. I was in the habit of trusting no one.

Meg Aitken works in the steering compartment beneath the cockpit of a Beneteau Oceanis photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-7] Meg in the mechanical compartment below the cockpit floor.

She steered. I crawled through lockers and access ports under the cockpit. No matter how much blood and skin I left behind, I couldn't resurrect the autopilot. I did, at least, diagnose the problem: a failed, hydraulic pump motor. I yelled from under the floor. "Power on. Engage auto!" Then, the pump motor got hot and smelled like that time I drove Dad's car for miles with the parking brake on.

Good thing we had a scrub brush! I hacked off some of its handle, hammered it into the windvane's busted rudder shaft. Jumped off the back of the boat with what was left of its rudder, and impaled it on the wooden stake I whittled from the scrub brush.

It worked! We didn't know for how long, but every second away from the wheel was golden.

One of the Aeolian islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Sicily by Meg Aitken and Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-8] One of the volcanic islands Elena and Meg tacked between north of Sicily.

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Endlessly tacking -- that's zigzagging -- into barely a hint of wind was boring beyond belief. My moaning about it, on the other hand, was highly under-appreciated.

"You want to make this worse than it is for me? You would prefer gales? At least we are safe out here. Nobody is going to get us." She was right. We were alive, together, charting our own course and reasonably safe -- as long as the weather held.

I worried that winter would come before we even got out of the Mediterranean. All around us, yachts, ferries and cruise ships -- plying the seas for a good time, and allowed to land -- heightened my sense of exile and isolation.

Weeks of high pressure and oppressive heat gnawed at us. I tried to sleep through the midday furnace while Elena babysat the boat and studied English. Good thing Bernadette sent all those American films and TV shows on DVD. It enhanced Elena's language acquisition but gave her an American accent. Computer games -- notably, The Sims -- provided her with another distraction, and virtual community, that she nurtured throughout our psyche crushing isolation.

My own hours of consciousness were consumed by jury-rigging, makeshift repairs and coaxing just a few more miles, minutes, days, watts, litres and calories from the boat, its systems and our dwindling provisions.

Ominous Thunderstorm in the Mediterranean Sea off northern Sicily Meg Aitken and Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-9] Thunderstorm in the Mediterranean off northern Sicily

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Drifting glacially toward the south end of Sardinia, an explosive series of thunderstorms heralded a change of weather. The pace of everything picked up. A welcome break from the stultifying morass of inactivity. Strong wind from behind felt great. Boadicea surged forward but wallowed in waves overtaking us. "We have got to put up the spinnaker! In this wind, we could be flying!"

Waterspout tornado at over the Mediterranean sea photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-10] Waterspout! A tornado at sea

"Are you crazy? We have never used it. Do you know how to set it up?" Elena objected.

"Yeah, it's not rocket science, but we'll go like one! Come on, are we sailors, or are we sailors?"

With the giant, colourful sail flying before us, the knot meter shot into the double digits. Dolphins came to play in our bow wave. Elena, clinging to the bow-rail, shrieked with joy at their antics. The boat quivered with speed and sliced through the water like a knife. Everything was perfectly stable, so I engaged the windvane self-steering and joined Elena at the bow.

It started with a sharp crack, followed a half-second later by all hell breaking loose. The yacht veered broadside to the wind, pitched on its side and drowned the spinnaker. Elena was thrown into the water amidst tangled lines, brightly coloured sailcloth and curious dolphins goading us into taking up the chase. We weren't exactly sinking, but the boat wasn't righting itself either. The spinnaker pole was like a mast that worked best with the boat on its side. It was catching wind and dragging us sideways.

Elena Vaytsel photographs dolphins from the bow of Boadicea in the Mediterranean sea photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-11] Elena (reflection) photographs dolphins at the bow.

"Mamatchkie!" Elena spotted the dolphins. "Do they bite?"

"Only if you upset them. Forget the dolphins. Get on board before you get tangled and dragged under." I tripped the spinnaker cleats. The boat bobbed upright. Elena clambered aboard, and oooh, was she narked! Again, the floorboards were afloat. The inundation was extensive and clean-up took hours in a rough sea. The windvane was re-busted. Not the scrub brush handle, astonishingly, it held! It was another steel component that shattered. Gibraltar and repairs were a long way off.

Elena Vaytsel in the cockpit of her yacht, Boadicea with the spinnaker photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-12] Elena in the cockpit after retrieving the spinnaker following a knockdown, when that horrible, stupid, steam-punk pile of garbage, windvane self steering contraption, freaking broke.

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The weather went from crap, to crappier. Blustery gales came at us from all over. The yacht was heeled hard over and slamming its way through steep waves. Without any self-steering one of us was always on deck, taking the full brunt of mother nature. The other one, down below, was no better off. It was a shambles of wet clothes, dirty dishes, tools and rubbish. All of it, in constant motion and crashing around.

We'd taken to eating right from tins, chewing through our ample but uninspiring supply of actual food. Weirdly, our provisions included a ludicrous supply of hyper-salty olives, pickles and condiments. Cooking was out of the question. Doing anything at all was a slippery, uphill fight. As a result, maintenance took a hit, and things started breaking down. One system after another, jury-rigged or not, failed in a horrible, slow motion cascade. Sailing became a matter of hang on, shut up, and endure.

Meg Aitken below deck looking for an electrical work-around by Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-13] Meg, jury-rigging something in the bowels of the yacht.

Approaching the Spanish Riviera, the wind died, but the waves didn't. They just kept right on bashing away. We had no choice but to run the motor before the ass pounded itself right off -- or we killed each other. Then, the fog settled in. Don't forget, the radar was dead. It was a bloody good thing Bernadette sent my hand-held backpacking GPS from home. It became our only source of navigation when the chart plotter conked out somewhere between tripping on our own spinnaker and ending up in a pea-soup fog.

Next morning, if you can call two AM morning, a desperate need for coffee revealed a failure in our freshwater desalination system. With a lot of swearing, a metal bar, a hammer and continuous dashes down from the helm, I managed to put about sixty litres of freshwater in one tank. Then the unit failed catastrophically. The explosion blasted seawater everywhere and embedded shrapnel in the plywood sides of the water maker's compartment.

"Meeeeeeeg." Elena moaned. "I'm trying to sleep. Did we hit something? Are we sinking?"

"No, everything's fine. I was just making coffee."

"Well, please make coffee a little quieter."


Following seas in the Mediterranean photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-14] Following seas: wind and waves from behind.

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A couple of days out of Gibraltar, we lost all our electrical power. The engine was running, but the alternator and batteries were dead. Since there was no way to start the engine, we kept it running. "No big deal." I reassured Elena, "Diesels are meant to run continuously."

I unscrewed an access port on a water tank, stuck in a drinking straw, sucked up mouthfuls of freshwater and spat it into the kettle. Without electricity, it was the only way to get at it. Getting propane to the stove was another challenge. Swearing and thrashing around for tools, I performed a quick and dirty bypass of the cut-off solenoid. Nothing gets between me and my coffee!

Meg Aitken taking a picture by Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-15] Meg takes a picture into the wind.

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We were blind, deaf, dumb -- and probably stupid -- motoring into one of the most congested shipping lanes on the planet. Something about how we assessed risk and valued our lives had changed by then. Eventually, safety goes away, one failure at a time.

I was counting on Jon and his sage advice to get us into Gibraltar. Trouble was, the satellite communicator ran off the boat's now-defunct electrical system. The solar panels didn't gather enough diffuse sunlight through the fog to do anything for the huge battery banks. They were, however, generating enough electricity to power the satellite transceiver directly. I scrounged wire from an extension cord, and hard wired the transceiver's power input to the solar panels' output. Its lights went green and it found a satellite. I hooked up the laptop and emailed Jon. "We're 50 hours from Gibraltar. Looking forward to stopping for repairs and rest." For good measure I added: "Current condition: failed radar; failed autopilot; failed wind vane self-steering; failed water maker; failed engine alternator; no onboard electrics or engine starter, but it's going now; two functional sails, shredded the spinnaker, ripped the Genoa; almost no freshwater; no maps for the Atlantic; estimate adequate fuel to make Gibraltar."

Daylight drained away. The solar panels' output dropped. The satellite communicator went dead. And we still hadn't heard from Jon.

Meg Aitken and Elena Vaytsel on their six month anniversary at sea toasting with beer and chess photo elenameg.com

[Image 32-16] Meg and Elena celebrate their six month anniversary, somewhere in the Mediterranean. Poster putty facilitated chess playing at sea.

[[ updated -- photos Apr 24, 17:58 GMT ]]