39 - Entropy

Meg Aitken goes for a refreshing dip in the middle of the ocean photo elenameg.com

[Image 39-1] Deep ocean dip

Life adrift -- hundreds of miles from countries and their borders -- became routine. Solar panels generated electricity. Electricity provided freshwater, refrigeration, entertainment and even virtual social interaction via The SIMs computer game. We had plenty of food. At the sound of the fishing reel and Elena's clarion cry, "Deeenner!" I hid below with my headphones turned up. I begged her not to fish, but inevitably, it was death that provided our protein.

Winter wore on to the north, and we watched its ugly weather on the satellite charts. Huge storms spun out of Kamchatka to race across the Pacific. Thousand-mile cold fronts churned the waters north of us. We, however, were safely drifting in the tropical ocean, all alone, unmolested by weather or man. It was so easy to just shut down and give in to entropy.

Despite the relentless passage of time, and life becoming kind of meaningless, we made a pact that should Elena be denied entry to Canada, we would return to the doldrums and live the rest of our lives adrift. She had become convinced, the only safe place on Earth was a thousand miles from man.

Dolphin sidles up for a scratch behind the ears photo elenameg.com

[Image 39-2] Deep ocean friends often came for a visit, or a scratch behind their ears.

Getting in some desperately needed solitude by going out for a swim, I had a mystical encounter with an ancient sea turtle. She seemed as curious about me as I was with her. I looked into her enormous eyes and imagined all she had seen through the centuries, something in my own life changed forever that afternoon. It defies analysis, but something happened to me a thousand miles from land, out in the deep Pacific. Something I will never forget. Something that even now, brings tears to my eyes and shivers up my spine.

Imperceptibly, the weather in our watery paradise was changing. We don't know when the sea surrendered its glassiness to ripples. Or noticed puffs of breeze flipping shaggy locks into our eyes and raising goosebumps on wet, tanned skin. The endless goods train of storms raging across the North Pacific was leaving longer breaks between the gales and fronts. We packed up our ocean homestead and began to crawl north.

Typically, clouds built up throughout the morning and into the afternoon. With them, so did our delusions of wind. Even the tiniest breeze raised our spirits. By sunset, though, the clouds evaporated, along with any hope of wind. Every morning, like some eldritch flag-raising ritual, we ran the spinnaker up the pole. It dangled there until its lazy slapping on the mast finally drove us crackers. Seabirds roosted on the deck and solar panels overnight. Part of our morning ritual was rinsing off their mess with buckets of seawater. We were so lonely that we appreciated their company and loved having them aboard.

Elena Vaytsel with laptop computer in her yacht cabin photo elenameg.com

[Image 39-3] Elena playing The SIMS

We had almost given up on ever getting home when the tiniest breeze imaginable filled the spinnaker. Breathless, we waited for another puff. It felt like hours would go by, then the spinnaker would fill and drag the boat inexorably forward. When it started to feel like just maybe we were going to make it out, the wind would die and we would come to a slowly rocking stop. Aarrrg!

If you think that's bad, try catching breezes at night. I couldn't see the puffs coming, so I held the spinnaker lines like a horse's reins, ready to catch every last puff of air it gave me. When there was any breeze at all, water trickled past the hull for a few glorious minutes before the lines went slack, and I muttered the foulest language this side of Key West. This went on all night for me and all day for Elena. We made about twenty miles a day like that. The further north we went, the more breeze we got; until we were finally starting to put some real miles under our keel.

A couple of hundred miles west of sunny Puerto Vallarta -- that's about halfway up Mexico -- cold wind swept down from the north. It was a blustery wake-up call for what lay in store outside the tropics. Adding insult to injury, it was right on our snout, and we were tacking back and forth, beating our brains out in a rotter of a current flowing south. Something I must have overlooked, or just didn't give a rat's arse about. Sailing into the wind, against the current, in swells and big choppy waves, turned every mile into an uphill battle. Every today was colder than yesterday. Clothing was no longer an option but a necessity, and that took some serious getting used to. Believe me!

Elena Vaytsel at the computer photo elenameg.com

[Image 39-4] Elena anounces the birth of a new SIM. Extreme isolation at sea is a killer, but one finds their community where they can. Pixels -- people; really, it makes no difference in the end.

"Can you smell it?" Elena asked. "It's land." We were about forty miles south of Cabo San Lucas. She has a sense of smell that puts a bloodhound to shame. When the south end of the Baja Peninsula came into view, she was pretty sure she could smell a couple of kids doing bong hits behind the dumpster at McDonald's.

The current was majorly nuts! We figured it was doing a couple of knots against us. Given, we were tacking back and forth with a measured speed through the water of five knots, which put our forward speed on course at three knots, through water that was flowing backwards at about two knots; well, do the maths. We didn't have to. We knew we were standing still, taking a major thrashing in the violent chop. Working like bloody hell to go nowhere!

I looked it up. "It's something called the California current. It runs the whole coast, though. Not just California."

"So, what does that mean for us?" Elena asked.

"It means we aren't sailing up the West Coast." I slammed down a huge tome. "According to the British Admiralty, the only way up the West Coast in an underpowered vessel is around it. From Cabo San Lucas, one puts the wind on their right-hand side and spends weeks, maybe months, looping out into the middle of the Pacific, and then, back into Juan de Fuca Strait." We hung a left, said goodbye to land and tracked right back into the middle of the Pacific ocean.

Satellite weather chart photo elenameg.com

[Image 39-5] Weather charts were not encouraging.

Six hundred miles west-south-west of Cabo San Lucas had to be far enough out to clear the California current. It also put us back in the Tropic of Cancer, so we turned north. It was either that or sail all the way to Australia. Don't think that thought hadn't crossed our minds -- and in hindsight, how I wish we had! Each day further north, the harder the sailing became. We had, so far, managed to avoid the cold fronts spiralling off the deep lows to the north. It was by sheer luck -- which ran out five-hundred nautical miles west of Los Angeles -- that the Pacific hadn't shown us its true colours. Yet.

Just the tail end of a cold front off one of those North Pacific storms, clobbered us. Sailing went from this-sucks! to what's-the-point-of-living? in a matter of hours. The sky was overcast, low, dark. The temperature dropped like crazy. The wind picked up to gale force and clung tenaciously above thirty-five knots for days. We tacked back and forth on eight-hour shifts, fifty-five degrees off our intended course. Infuriated by the lack of progress and how hard we had to fight for it, we put the wind on our side and headed west-south-west. Again.

Being defeated by conditions, and sailing away from one's destination for, like, the zillionth time, is incredibly depressing. Throw Hawaii into the mix, and it's a wonder we didn't just give up, then and there. Heeding the warning we were given about steering clear of the USA. We had drawn a line of skulls and crossbones on our charts two hundred and fifty miles out from any US shore. We had come too far and gone through too much, not to take that line extremely seriously.

Meg Aitken stares at a satellite weather chart in utter disbelief photo elenameg.com

[Image 39-6] Meg downloads the weather.

No matter how far west we went, climbing north meant rapidly deteriorating conditions. It came down to going north and taking on winter, or turning tail and living as castaways. Going feral in some jungle was disturbingly alluring. I might have been losing my mind, and that scared the crap out of me. Insidiously, safety goes away, like hope erodes into dust, until nothing really matters.

Jon spared no satellite bytes sermonising that the wind further north was like nothing we had ever seen. It would come from the north-west, and when it did, we had to have it on our tail to survive. On the side, on the front, it would smash our small pleasure-craft without question. With the thousand-mile chasm between Tijuana and Vancouver, we had to climb as far north as possible, before turning east. Once we were running from that north-west wind, there would be no stopping and no more going north. We would come ashore, like it or not, and everything we fought for rested on landing in Canada, and not the USA.

It was cold. Not just nippy, but bone-chilling. There was no escape from the wind-driven, flying spray. It soaked through everything and never dried. Our clothes became stiff, greasy, itchy and ripe. We wore just about anything -- including my mammoth hide hoodie -- we had left, under our offshore, heavy-weather gear. Day in and day out we watched our track; a deranged zig-zag with occasional loops to the south-west, when we just couldn't take another icy wave in the face without completely losing it.

Once in a million waves, we'd crest a swell and see a freighter in the distance, tracking a course straight and true. Elena envied them. Telling me, "I think of the crew, dry and warm, going about their duties, sitting at a table with a plate to eat from, talking to friends about families and home. Maybe an officer on the bridge sees white sails, looks in binoculars, wonders who is so insane to be out here."

Elena Vaytsel eats yogurt on deck photo elenameg.com

[Image 39-7] Elena enjoys yogurt alfresco. Leaving the tropics everything changed.

Further north, the nights grew longer. The weather, heavier. Every movement was excruciating. We communicated less and less. I suppose we were inmates serving hard time with nothing left to say. Elena kept a list of milestone cities taped to a bulkhead. As we crossed their latitudes far out to sea, she crossed them off. So far, Cabo San Lucas, San Diego and Los Angeles had fallen to her scratch-off pencil; San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, perched on their own clean lines at inconceivable latitudes.

I cursed Boadicea's lack of heater. But, who thinks of something like that in sunny Turkey? Bloody hell! Who thinks at all, of sailing that far north in the dead of winter? Waves had grown into a continuous barrage of marbled slate mountains pushed by monster, winter cyclones in the Gulf of Alaska. The cold fronts they spun off were thousand-mile whips, each packing a gale worse than the last.

One day, marking our position, I ran out of chart. "Lenna! We are well and truly off-the-map!"

Meg Aitken overcome with exhaustion in her cabin photo elenameg.com

[Image 39-8] Exhaustion!

[[ updated -- photos Apr 24, 19:16 GMT ]]