38 - Pirates

Meg Aitken whittles a new windvane shaft photo elenameg.com

[Image 38-1] Meg whittles a windvane shaft

Twilight at sea is ominously depressing at the best of times. But that first night out of Panama, hitting a tree made it majorly bad! Yup, we hit a tree, in the deep dark sea; a great big, humongous jungle giant, complete with its own bloody ecosystem. A heavy thump then a deep, rumbling crunch brought us to a shuddering stop. Topside there ensued a cacophony of squawking, shrieking, cursing and wing flapping.

"Holy kapoosta! We've run aground." I swung my torch. "We're in a jungle!" Leaves and branches stuck up above the deck. Upset birds circled, screaming at us for knocking them off their perches.

Elena ran to the chart plotter. "We can not have run aground. We are in the middle of the Gulf of Panama!"

"Ahhh, it's wrong, probably on the duff, like everything else on board."

"Nope. It's good. I am looking on the radar and see nothing. Meg, we are clear of land and the depth sounder, it is showing hundreds of metres."

Elena Vaytsel climbs the mast photo elenameg.com

[Image 38-2] Elena goes up the mast

"Oh yeah, clever lass." I hadn't thought about checking the depth. I focused my ginormous, head-smasher Mag-Lite torch into a narrow beam. Sure enough, it was all a single, complete tree, and we were lodged in the crown. Way off in the distance, wicked-looking roots jutted from the water. Those would have punched right through the hull. "Lenna! Are there branches sticking into the boat? Are we sinking?!"

"No!" She rustled around below. "Hey choomeechka, we could climb on the tree if we were sinking."

"Hilarious, a couple of shipwrecked choomeechkie, sitting in a tree. With a whole bunch of angry birds crying, tee hee hee." I sing-songed. We weren't sinking, and the birds were comfortably finding places in the rigging to re roost for the night. We had wedged ourselves into that tree, but good. I jumped below to get a saw. "We have to cut our way out. It looks like excellent hardwood though. I'm going to keep a bunch to whittle windvane parts and stuff out of."

Whitewater and foaming rough seas caused by an outflow wind off Mexico and shot from a porthole as a wave breaks over the deck. Photo by Meg Aitken photo elenameg.com

[Image 38-3] Outflow wind, stirring things up in the gulf of Tehuantepec

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By hammer and by hand, actually, by stone and by blade, I resurrected our Mad Max windvane using the tropical hardwood we'd stumbled upon. It allowed the boat to drift interminably northward without our participation. Hot, boring, endless, stinky days and nights merged into a timeless morass. The only reason we ran the radar was to avoid being hit by something. It's not like we were moving fast enough to be anything other than slightly directional flotsam.

Somewhere, way off Costa Rica, or maybe it was Nicaragua, while drifting under a black sky crackling with lightning, we found ourselves surrounded by ultra-bright, floating stars: fishermen using mercury-vapour lights to lure their prey. It was like we were adrift in a stellar nursery, a two-dimensional Pleiades. Gorgeously surreal, until the torrential rain and gusty wind started. It reduced our stench somewhat and pushed us north-west to almost the latitude of Mexico before it petered out. Once again, we were adrift.

Filthy cockpit during heavy weather sailing. Elena and Meg photo elenameg.com

[Image 38-4] Tidiness takes a hit during heavy weather sailing.

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Elena was asleep below deck. I was half-asleep, above deck, shooting the sunrise when the radar started hooting. The sea was glassy calm. Our sails hung from the rigging like mouldy bedsheets. I couldn't see a thing around us but water and sky to infinity. It had to be a glitch. I reset the radar, and before I could leave the nav station, the naff warning started right back up. "Dangerous target. Collision Risk." Whatever it was, the thing was moving fast. Doing about thirty knots, straight for us.

Through binoculars, I could make out a tiny object in a greasy, black halo getting bigger by the second. "Lenna! Get up. We've got something coming right at us."

"What are you talking about? Where are we?"

"I don't know. This doesn't look good. It might be pirates." Saying it, dropped my innards into my ankles.

Meg and messy cockpit photo elenameg.com

[Image 38-5] "Whadda-ya mean, messy!?"

A scummy looking, rusty powerboat idled its engines and circled slowly. No flag. No identifying markings. A bunch of heavily armed toughs on deck. Nobody on either vessel said a thing. The ruffians stared, wordlessly sizing us up. An eternity passed in a minute. We sat together in the cockpit, bolt upright and dead still. I thought that was it. The moment of my death. I hoped it was death and nothing worse. At least, we were together. I was with Elena. My heart broke for her. They say your life flashes before your eyes. In my case, it didn't. Terror turned into resignation, sadness. Just get it over with! I took Elena's hand.

On about their third orbit, someone growled a command from the flybridge. The men lowered their weapons, belligerent and pissed off. The boat's decrepit engines roared to life, and it tore away. Frozen, we watched it recede to nothing more than a grease spot on the horizon.

Meg Aitken fixes the electrical system photo elenameg.com

[Image 38-6] Something's always busted on a boat

"Meg! What is happening? Who were those men?"

"We probably aren't worth the bother," I whispered.

"What! What was that? Pirates attack. Those men didn't."

"Look at us. Adrift, filthy. We look like shipwrecked castaways. A couple of nutters on a raft." I was shaking, thinking that maybe we were dead.

She looked at me, puzzled.

"The way I see it, we were pretty slim pickings." I knew she didn't get it. "They saw nothing of value. Our motor isn't running and there's no wind. They figure the boat's a worthless wreck. We probably look insane -- like we expected them to rescue us." I put an arm around her. "Yeah, we were lucky."

Elena slumped. "This time."

We spent several hours below deck. Wrapped together in blankets, holding each other. Freezing cold, despite the heat. I don't even know for how long we drifted like that.

Huge wave off Mexico photo elenameg.com

[Image 38-7] Big wave in the gulf of Tehuantepec

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Email from Jon: "You've barely moved in days. You are way too close to an outflow wind. It can be bad. Suggest you head south to twelve degrees north latitude before proceeding west. There's low pressure off Costa Rica that I don't like the look of. Head south and advise me of your position and plans."

"South to twelve degrees!" I moaned. "That's bloody backwards. All the way back to Costa Rica. Forget that! We're not letting a little wind scare us. Are we sailors, or are we sailors!?" Bravado like that usually portends an epic fail. At the time, I thought it was morale-boosting.

Humongous wave about to flood the boat photo elenameg.com

[Image 38-8] See the open hatch? 'Nuff said.

We pointed the bow west, straight across something called, the Gulf of Tehuantepec. If it doesn't mean anything to you, don't worry, it meant nothing to us either. Just another name on a map. Too much wind was a ludicrous concept. The sails mostly just dangled there. We were making precious few miles on occasional puffs of breeze. It was brain-eating boring and frustrating, and we still had thousands of miles to go. There was that, and the thousand-mile chasm -- called USA -- I wanted to save the fuel for. So, we were flotsam. Frankly, I thought Jon lost his mind, going on about wind and some stupid Gulf of Tehuantepec.

The first hint of breeze came from the north. "Yay, beam-reach!" That's a highfaluting sailing term for, wind coming at you from the side. It's a nice way to sail because it deflects the wind, stabilising the boat. Being a mono-hull, Boadicea heels like crazy: a snooty term for, leaning away from the wind. Heeling is horrible, but, at least you aren't rocking back and forth, like some over-wound metronome in the hands of a demonic piano student. We set the sails and schooned along in the calm water quite nicely.

"Meg, why is the air purple in front of us? And why does the water look ragged?"

"Yeah, that is weird." I'd never seen anything like it. Some kind of Bermuda Triangle effect, maybe. "Probably nothing. Current, I suspect."

Elena Ivonova at the helm of her heeling yacht photo elenameg.com

[Image 38-9] Elena takes on the Tehuantepecker

And then... All. Hell. Broke. Loose.

We'd crossed a line. On one side was nothing but calm and tranquillity. On the other, a forty-knot wind tunnel churning up an unearthly, white water chop. The blast tried to push our sails into the sea. Elena was screaming. I was yelling calming platitudes. Things tend to go from, I'm-so-bored-I-wanna-die to we're-all-gonna-fucking-die! in a heartbeat, around us. We reduced sail to almost nothing, but it was still way more than we could handle.

"Ready to tack!?" I bellowed a sailing term that means, turning into the wind.

"You will kill us! Why tack?"

"Because gybing will for sure, kill us!" Gybing is a sailing term that means, putting the wind on the other side of the boat by turning downwind and letting the wind cross the stern. "It'll bring the mast and rig down on our heads." That's also true about gybing, seeing as the wind will snap the mainsail to the new downwind side of the boat with unfathomable force and speed. The impact of all that sailcloth, hardware, rigging and the boom coming to a dead stop at the end of the mainsheet, is definitely how the boom got its name.

"Why turn at all? You want to sail closer into the wind?!"

"I want to turn around and get the hell out of here!" I got no argument from the crew that time. We tacked.

Meg Aitken uses diving gear to avoid blowing sand photo elenameg.com

[Image 38-10] Meg takes on the Tehuantepecker

Hours later, with the sun setting behind us, we crossed that line out of Jon's fabled outflow. "It's like coming back from the Russian front," Elena remarked. I agreed. There was no wind. The sea was glassy calm, so we packed the sails, turned on the radar and went to bed.

Jon gave us the low-down on what sailboat cruisers call the Tehuantepecker, or just the pecker, for short. High pressure in the Gulf of Mexico is hoovered south through a break in the Sierra Madre mountains, to a low off Costa Rica. He explained that sailors wait for weeks to cross the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Then dash through, just off the beach where the waves are smallest. It made sense to me. It beat sailing south over all the miles we clawed our way north. Or sitting around, waiting for pirates.

Boadicea takes a wave over the bow while upwind sailing, called beating photo elenameg.com

[Image 38-11] Rough seas in the gulf of Tehauantepec off Mexico

"Bollocks, we'll go blind!" And no, it's not what you're thinking! Besides, that doesn't count for girls. The wind was blowing across the beach with so much force it picked up the sand and blasted anything in its path. It was unbelievable. We'd spent days drifting toward the beach just to be thwarted again. No bloody way! We donned full offshore gear and diving masks, despite the sizzling heat. Were we a fashion statement, or what? With just a wee bit of sail exposed, we entered the fray. By nightfall, we were coughing up blood.

We turned away from the beach. The waves grew alarmingly. Again, we fought our way back to where we started; which was pretty much where we met the pirates in the first place. The sun was coming up by the time we were clear, and by crikey, were we in bad shape. Everything was coated in something like ground glass. The mainsail had nearly broken free, and we had absolutely had enough. After sleeping like the dead and getting back enough strength to go on, we took Jon's original advice and headed south.

Upwind sailing, heeled hard over, seen from below deck photo elenameg.com

[Image 38-12] This is what heeling looks like below deck. The camera is level, check out the tethers hanging from the companionway.

It took days. We sidled just close enough to the purple streak and ragged white water to get some propulsion without a right bollocking from the wind and waves. It just went on and on. Watching the latitude counting down all those hard-earned degrees north was disheartening. We taunted the edge of the outflow. It would overpower us and we would retreat. Eventually, we didn't have to. We pointed more and more west until the wind was on our side. We were finally crossing the outflow and weren't even screaming. The wind became lighter and lighter, letting us reclaim some of our lost miles to the north. Of course, we were hopelessly too far west. Quite literally in the middle of the ocean; the middle of nowhere, but we weren't. We were in the doldrums.

There was no wind at all. Boadicea sat motionless and silent in glassy, blue water. The days were clear, sunny and stifling. The nights, a stargazer's dream. We were alive. We were together. We were safe and alone on an ocean planet. Winter storms lay to the north. Forbidden shores, everywhere else. What could we do? Easy. We packed the sails and simply gave up.

Sailing yacht Boadicea on glass water in the doldrums off Mexico photo elenameg.com

[Image 38-13] The doldrums

[[ updated -- photos Apr 24, 17:10 GMT ]]