40 - Knockdown

I remember once, the plotter was showing us as far north as San Francisco, and I imagined the city with its usual life. We were one thousand miles from human lives, from cars honking in town, from people hurrying home. And outside the boat the huge waves and merciless wind were playing with us, trying to break our will. I didn't see justice then. I realised there is no justice in nature or in the human world. There is one organism swallowing another, and in our case, there was the ocean, digesting us and our boat.


Elena and Meg's position off the west coast of North America. Chart plotter, Pacific ocean, photo by Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 40-1] Chart plotter showing Elena and Meg's position about 900 nautical miles off the west coast of North America. Note the line of death, skulls and cross bones, 250 miles off the US West Coast. The circle in front of the boat icon is as far as they wanted to go West.

I noticed another city on Elena's list had been crossed off. "Well, look at that, we're north of San Francisco!?"

"Yes, we have passed, but a lot west." We might have cheered through chattering teeth. Maybe, we even toasted the milestone with soggy biscuits and a tin of Turkish vegetable medley.

I downloaded the latest weather chart. "This isn't good. There's a deep low headed for the Charlottes."

"Tak shto, what are 'sharr lots?'"

"Islands off British Columbia."

"Are they not far from us?"

"Well, sure, but this storm is pushing a cold front as far south as Hawaii." I had never seen anything like it. "We can't get out of it's way." The wind arrows were bristly with speed notches. On frontal passage, they snapped around nearly 180 degrees. The air temperature behind that toothy line plunged to almost freezing. "Yeah, this is going to suck." I skooched out from behind the nav station. An open bag of coffee had spilt onto the counter. "Bollocks Lenna!? You don't drink coffee!"

Navigation station and instruments aboard Boadicea, Elena and Meg's yacht. Elena Ivanovo wears indoor winter clothing to stay warm in a sailboat without heat. photo elenameg.com

[Image 40-2] Elena at the computer and navigation station.

"No, I smell it. I need to smell something. I stick my nose in the bag, and I inhale."

I clung to the counter with one hand, sweeping precious coffee into the bag with the other. "Well, if you need something to smell, I smell! In fact, I stink! It's been two weeks since I took off my reeking foulies. Maybe longer since I changed, or even saw, my bloody unmentionables!"

"Bladt! I smell nothing, Meg. Maybe there is salt in the air, or rotting clothes, or even my own body, but I am numb to it. I smell your coffee to keep from going insane. To smell something. Anything that isn't the ocean, or what it is doing to us."

"Crikey, Lenna. I didn't know. I haven't really thought about it, or anything at all. Just trying to go on. Like you, I guess." The yacht slammed into a wave. I sacrificed the coffee for a handhold.

Meg Aitken aboard Boadicea attempting to cook while heeling in a sailboat photo elenameg.com

[Image 40-3] Meg in the galley, doing a little bit of cooking. The camera is not tilted. Reference the bag dangling from the doorknob in the background.

"And colour! Haven't you seen? There is no colour! The ocean is colourless here. The sky is colourless. When there is enough light to see, it is all black and white and shades of grey. It is like living in a movie about the war. Grey sky, black sea, white waves." Elena tugged at her scarf, a bright orange, polyester thing an Orange Revolutionary gave her in Kiev. "I look at clothing to see colours. Colours that do not come from the sea." She turned away. "Goddamn it, I want to hear again! The sound of a dog, or a child, or a bird, just once even. Here it is only water, waves -- pain. Nothing else." She fled to the cockpit, slamming the companionway behind her.

I swept up the coffee, inhaled its aroma. It was weirdly comforting in a primordial way. Sensory deprivation coupled with North Pacific gales wore us down, tore at us, immersed us in a world of constant stress, gnawing cold, and despair.

Elena Vaytsel packs the mainsail on Boadicea 1000 nautical miles West of San Francisco photo elenameg.com

[Image 40-4] Elena wrangles the mainsail somewhere offshore in the North Pacific.

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We were overvolted light bulbs, exploding at the slightest provocation. Elena spent more and more time in bed, cocooned in the spinnaker for extra warmth and shock absorption. Withdrawing. Vanishing. Gale by gale, day by day, wave by wave, I was losing her.

It was getting dark. I was exhausted, cold and pissed off. Like it or not, I was going down for the count, and somehow, I didn't care.

A rogue wave hit broadside -- hard. The bow yawed. Sails back-winded. I lunged for the wheel, skidded and slammed a knee into something a lot more solid than the bones in that complex joint. Pain and nausea radiated from the point of impact. I screamed and hammered a fist into the floor.

"You insane!?" Elena screamed back.

"I must be! It's not like I had to sail this boat all the way to Canada."

"Yes, correct! You could land anywhere, be a tourist. For me, there is only ocean. You want to be sick in the head. Fine, be insane, but I am terrified. I am scared all the time. I don't say to you this. I don't tell to you that I hate this. I don't say that I think we are going to die in this sea, but I do. All the time, I am--" Another broadside had her airborne. She came down on the galley table, rolled and bounced off the opposite wall then crashed to the floor.

Meg Aitken at the navigation station of Boadicea, Elena and Meg's yacht photo elenameg.com

[Image 40-5] Meg, below deck at the navigation station.

I watched, and holy crap -- I started laughing! It was like there were two of me. One was horrified. The other was watching like it was some kind of demented comedy.

Elena looked at me -- both of me -- concerned. Afraid. No, that's not it: bloody terrified. "You cannot fall apart, Meg. I trusted you. I go with you because you never break. Never! Nothing could stop you. Now look at where we are, the North Pacific in winter. If this can stop you, it can. It will. Oh god, it really will kill us! I can not see you falling apart!"

A wave exploded under us, and our world canted forty-five degrees.

Outside, the windvane lost control or broke. Boadicea turned drum-tight sails broadside to the blast. The tilt got one hell of a lot worse -- fast. Everything, and that includes the two of us, avalanched to the lower side of the boat. Books, dishes, bilge water, rubbish, tools, clothing, charts landed in one soggy heap.

"Well, shit! Someone has to steer the boat."

"Meg, I will do it. You sleep. Rest, so that later you can steer, and I can rest. It is not getting easier, only harder unless we turn back to the tropics." She looked into me for non-verbal reassurance. "Go, sleep. I will call for you later."

I wedged myself into the spinnaker-nest, shoved in earplugs and slept like a student at one of my lectures.

Graybeards in the North Pacific. Photographed by Meg Aitken aboard Boadicea photo elenameg.com

[Image 40-6] Graybeards form when the wind is strong enough to rip the tops of the waves off and lay them out as streamers.

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I fell out of bed sometime after midnight. At least, I think that's what happened. There was a pile of bedding and sailing gear pinning me to the floor. Except it wasn't the floor. I was lying on the wall! Elena was screaming somewhere far away. My blood ran cold.

The boat was on its side, crashing and violently shifting. I wormed my way out of the cabin. Being on the high side of the vessel probably saved my life. Something shoved the tilt past vertical, and the floor in the main salon came crashing down. It just missed me on its way past. A cascade of floor panels, food, and cookware rained down from the galley above. "We are rolling over!" Where in hell is Elena!? A cupboard door unlatched overhead. I was pelted by a hailstorm of melamine dishes. Faintly, above the din, I heard Elena screaming. OK, she's still with the yacht.

Elena Vaytsel in the steering quadrant of Elena and Meg's yacht, Boadicea, in the North Pacific making repairs while under sail. Photo by Meg Aitken photo elenameg.com

[Image 40-7] Elena in the steering locker making necessary repairs.

The boat was righting itself. I thrashed to the companionway. A mini torch revealed a chaotic scene of swirling water, tangled ropes and debris. Elena dangled from the wheel, arms outstretched, feet kicking uselessly in the torrent of water beneath her. I was only halfway out the companionway, convinced the boat would flip upside down with the next wave. But no, not that time. Instead, the sails rose from the sea in a maelstrom of spray and noise. The wind drove us backwards. The swim platform scooped a wall of water into the cockpit. It was like we stopped for a second. Like everything stopped and just kind of hung there before the bow swung violently through the wind. The sails blew inside out, and then, Boadicea went over on the other side.

"We're turning turtle!" I screamed my throat raw. "Flipping over when the next wave catches the keel!" No time to think. I launched myself toward the helm and its handholds. Zero gravity. Everything dropped into an oncoming wave-trough. Shit! I'm going to fly right past the helm and over the side. "Deep breath and hang on!" The wave hit. The cockpit came up at me like a fist. I slammed into the helm, splintering the natty, Beneteau cup holders with my fanny. The sails slapped the water's surface. The mast sliced into the foaming waves. Elena hung from the wheel. It looked jammed. Pinned to its stops. Her mouth was open in a frozen scream. Her look was pure terror. "You have to move!" If the boat came down on top of her, she was dead.

Meg Aitken at the helm of Boadicea. Elena and Meg's yacht in the North Pacific photo elenameg.com

[Image 40-8] Meg at the helm 1000 miles offshore in the North Pacific above the latitude of San Francisco -- in winter.

The enormous weight of the keel should have levered the sails from the sea. It wasn't happening! "Straighten the rudder. Let go of the wheel. Get ready to swim if this thing goes over!" I screamed into deaf ears. She was frozen. Gone. Far away. "Suka, shit, pizda, bladt, fuck!" I shrieked. "Wanna die?"

She looked right through me. Water sloshed down the companionway. We were bloody sinking! If we didn't get the sails out of the sea, we were going down.

"Get off the fucking wheel!" I shrieked in her ear.

A fist came at me and missed. "I hate you! Hate you--"

"You can't hate me if you're dead!" I pulled the manual trip on her life jacket. It inflated with a demonic roar. She noticed that. "Piano keys! Go! Release every line." I loosed a line from a big winch above my head. Elena figured it out and grappled her way forward. Screaming Russian curses, she snatched at line releases left-right-and-centre. Ropes sizzled through their guides, bitter ends whipped free. I spun the wheel to what I thought was dead centre. The yacht lolled upright but still broadside to the waves and wind. The loose sails cracked like giant whips. The rigging shuddered and crashed. It was going to tear itself loose in short order.

view from one of Boadicea's windows underwater. Photo by Meg Aitken photo elenameg.com

[Image 40-9] In heavy seas windows often submerged.

We were nearly awash. I switched on the cockpit floodlights. The wind speed hovered around fifty-five knots. The boat was dead in the water. Waves washed over the deck and down the companionway, each cascade put us another wave closer to sinking. "Take the wheel. Turn downwind!" I jumped into knee-deep water below deck. I had to find the companionway covers. In a last-ditch attempt to stop the water coming in, I slammed them in place and vaulted back to the helm.

Elena wasn't there. Crap! She'd gone to the mast and was trying to wrangle the viciously whip-cracking sails. The boat spun. She skidded backwards, tried to grab the rigging on her way down and slammed into the deck. Next wave and she'd be over the side. Gone. "Forget it! Get back here!" I screamed from the cockpit. She couldn't, or wouldn't, listen. On hands and knees, she crawled toward the mast. I wanted to look away. I couldn't watch her flying over the side or getting brained by a whipping sail.

Still no helm control. But the yacht was more-or-less upright. Reflexively, I slapped the fuel open and turned the key to start the motor. What sounded like a shotgun blast into a rain barrel came from below. The lights went out. The electrics were dead. "The motor's underwater. Stupid twit! Stupid, stupid, stupid!" I screamed.

Elena Vaytsel on Boadicea in the North Pacific taking a photograph of Meg Aitken photo elenameg.com

[Image 40-10] Elena climbs above deck with her Nikon digital.

"Bring me a jib sheet." I yelled. "We need some sail power for control." She probably didn't hear. My throat was shredded. I shone my torch on one of the thick, whipping ropes. Elena got the message. Grabbing it and holding on with all the strength she had left, she crawled toward me. My fists closed on the line, and Elena tumbled into the cockpit with a splash. I slammed the line into a winch and pulled like hell. The forward sail took on a bulging grotesque shape and dragged the bow downwind.

"We have helm control!" Elena jumped for the wheel, steered downwind. We picked up speed. Slowly, control came back.

I stabilised what functional sail area I could. The windvane self-steering contraption had been destroyed. Not that you could tell, but that time, parts of it were torn away. Simply gone. What was left of the Voyager frame was twisted and broken.

The boat sat low in the water. Waves from behind poured over the transom. "The battle's not over." I worked the manual bilge pump for what felt like hours. At least, I knew it wasn't hooked up backwards. Elena spelt me off when she could. Slowly, Boadicea rose from the sea, and waves stopped breaking into the cockpit. When the pump gulped air, I went below.

Moderate chop on top of swells in the North Pacific North of the latitude of San Francisco photographed by Meg Aitken aboard Boadicea photo elenameg.com

[Image 40-11] Choppy following seas in the North Pacific during winter.

It was a heartbreaking mess. Everything was drenched and smashed, or just plain gone. Ruined books, charts and notes lay in sodden heaps. Water dripped from mattresses, seat cushions, piles of clothing and blankets. Only the food in cans remained viable -- although missing labels would make for mealtime intrigue. The electrical panel was dead. A choking stench and ominous sizzling from the battery banks wasn't a good sign. I knew we'd lost some, maybe all of the batteries. Recalling my idiotic attempt to start the motor, I hoped the system had shorted out before the engine turned over and inhaled seawater. I didn't know if I'd be able to start it again. Neither of us had anything dry. Then, seeing my breath, I realised how seriously cold it was.

I clambered topside to join Elena in the cockpit.

"How far to Canada?" Elena's voice quavered from somewhere in the dark.

"Maybe a thousand miles, and they're mostly all north." I squeezed icy seawater from my mitts. "It's a lot colder. Rougher too."

"Tell me, Meg, can we make it?"

I opened my mouth to speak, but words didn't come. Eventually: "We're in the North Pacific, a thousand miles west-north-west of San Francisco. I've heard offshore racers say 'nobody sails north of San Fran in winter,' and it's winter now."

"I don't care what you've heard others say, they aren't here now, we are."

A distant albatross photographed by Meg Aitken aboard Boadicea in the North Pacific in winter photo elenameg.com

[Image 40-12] Meg and Elena had company almost as high as the latitude of Portland Oregon. The arrow points to an albatross, their faithful feathered friend, and one dearly missed when he finally turned south.

"We were so close. So close, Lenna! One more week and we could have made it. The only reason we're upright now is because we are going downwind. Heading south -- running away."

"I have nowhere to go but north." Elena spoke slowly and clearly. "If we don't go north, my life is as good as over."


"No, let me speak. If going north means we are both going to die, I won't have that. I think we cheated death tonight."

"I think we've been cheating death since--"

"Let me finish." I heard her inhale slowly. "I have been ready to die for a long time now. I think it maybe started for me in the Atlantic. I look at things like it is for the last time. I look into the water and I imagine my last breath. I have grown accustomed to living always with my last sunset, last meal, last look, last feeling. I guess, as you would say, 'I am damned if I do, and damned if I don't.' But you aren't. You have a choice. We can go to Panama, or Mexico, or even America. You might lose this boat, or what's left of it, but you won't lose your life."

Yankee jib on Boadicea, Meg and Elena's yacht in the North Pacific photo elenameg.com

[Image 40-13] The Yankee jib flies close hauled as seen from inside Boadicea.

"You won't--"

"Yes I will, or I might as well. I will be returned to Russia, eventually. My life will be over. It's just a fact. But Meg -- and this is what I need to know -- I don't want to die needlessly in this god damned ocean. If you don't think we can make it to Canada, I don't want to try. You told me you didn't want to watch me die. The same goes for me."

We said nothing for a long time.

Then she went on. "So, if you tell me honestly that we can make it, then we can turn this boat around at first light. Make what repairs we can, and we'll fight the battle again. But only if you say we can win, we can survive, we can make it."

I took a huge breath. What could I say? At least, it wasn't seawater.

"So, Meg, can we make it?"

Five meter waves with 1.5 meter wind waves in the North Pacific during winter. Photographed by Meg Aitken aboard Boadicea photo elenameg.com

[Image 40-14] Nasty sea conditions in the North Pacific in winter time. Five meter waves with chop photographed from Boadicea during a strong gale.

[[ updated -- photos Apr 24, 19:21 GMT ]]