41 - Dead Run

Elena Vaytsel sits in the companionway of Boadicea, her and Meg's yacht in the North Pacific ocean, north of forty degrees latitude, in the middle of winter. Photographed by Meg Aitken photo elenameg.com

[Image 41-1] Elena sits in the companionway, taking a breather from the war on deck. North Pacific ocean, north of forty, the dead of winter.

Sickly, grey luminescence radiated from the low overcast. Sunrise, I guessed. Throughout the night we took turns salvaging what we could, cursing and crying about what we couldn't. Everything was drenched. Boadicea was pretty much a wreck. The mondo, hulking, house batteries had torn free of their restraints. A couple of the connection posts ripped clean out of their lead cores. We could only guess where all the acid went. One might have exploded. Other than having spewed deadly sulphuric acid all over, it looked like a tin of beans that blew up in a campfire.

It was a damn good thing that our boat had been equipped with bike-theft sized bolt cutters. I used them to hack out what was left of the electrical system, then wire anything vital to the engine's starter battery. The only battery we had left. Nasty. Probably dangerous, but it got the electrics online. Resurrecting the autopilot was a major cause for celebration.

Of course, I made sure we could start the motor, and that its alternator generated electricity. Check! At the time, we didn't need the motor for propulsion or electricity. The wind turbine -- screaming like a banshee in the incessant gale -- gave us all the electricity we needed.

"The yacht is sound?" Elena asked. "I mean, damage was to things that do not make it a sailboat, but make it comfortable, da?"

"You mean life-support? Yeah, that's all wrecked. But we're still sailing, we're still afloat. Still alive. Not sinking. So, sure, it's still a sailboat. If that's what you mean by, 'the yacht is sound'."

"Do we know where we are, and what direction we're going?"

"We're heading south-east, straight for California, I reckon." I'd found my backpacking GPS submerged in the bilge, somehow, it still worked. The wind and waves were behind us, off our right side. It wasn't super comfy, but it wasn't too bad. "If we turn and head north again, it'll be just as crappy as last night, and it'll probably get a lot crappier."

"Right, Meg. In that case, we need to change the sails."

Monstrous waves in the North Pacific Ocean in wintertime. Photographed from Boadicea, by Meg Aitken. photo elenameg.com

[Image 41-2] Storm force wind and waves in the North Pacific ocean in winter. Photo taken from inside Boadicea.

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I grabbed a box of Froot Loops and wedged myself in beside Elena. The galley table, seeing as it is bolted to the boat's frame, works the same way that bar does on a roller coaster. It keeps you from falling out when you're upside down. Ooooh, how I love those frooty little Os! I hoover them down straight from the box. No milk or bowl needed. It's an excellent way of preventing a colourful, sticky mess on the ceiling.

"You are going to eat that now?" Elena looked wistfully at the box in my arms. "One box, you have gobbled up already." She took the cereal from me, held the box, ran her seawater shrivelled fingers over the cheerful, cartoon toucan. "I have not told to you this. But this box makes my heart ache. I know that soon it shall be empty. Then I will put this innocent box in the sea where I know it will decay in a world without light. It could never be imagined that such a thing as this box would be swallowed by those black waves. I will watch it sinking until I can no longer see it."

Meg Aitken stands in the cockpit of Boadicea in the North Pacific ocean. Photograph by Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 41-3] Meg adjusts sail trim from the cockpit.

"Ah hah, that's why there are empty jars in the cockpit." Truth be told, I knew exactly how she felt. There was a lump in my throat too.

"Sometimes I cannot do it, Meg. I think what was in it when I was eating from it. Just having it in my hand made me feel better. Then to imagine this thing that I cherish, that I cling to because it is a part of my world, a part of my life, dropping into the cold, dark. I cannot do it." She got up from the table, returned the Froot Loops to the cupboard and went to the cockpit.

An open logbook lay on the settee. I read what she had written:

So hard to be hundreds of miles away from land and five thousand metres above the abyss. Hard to feel myself a grain of sand. Oh, Meg, they say hope dies last and that hope lies in one word for me now, 'Us.' We did something very different, you and I. We dropped everything we knew. We gave up everything we had and found ourselves running for our lives and fighting for everything we got. It happened so fast, and not for adventure, and that is how we became exiles.

There is nobody but us. Nobody else who knows or cares. If we were gone, the world wouldn't change a bit. The lonely seabird, if even she would be the only creature witnessing our death. But we would have died trying. We would die together, as we always wanted. That is a very scary thought, but you are in the cockpit and Boadicea is sailing and the Pacific lies before us, and I want to have a life with you.

Elena Vaytsel clings to the cockpit wall, staggered by exhaustion in the North Pacific Ocean. Photographed by Meg Aitken photo elenameg.com

[Image 41-4] Elena, hanging on in the cockpit, utterly exhausted.

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Days passed like months, and yet, we were still thrashing our way north. Jon couldn't send enough satellite email, telling us to get fifty degrees north -- the latitude of Vancouver island -- before we even thought about giving up any of our sea-room and making a run for the coast. He vowed we wanted the winter storms behind us at all cost. But by crikey, how hard it was, not to run the boat aground in California or Hawaii, crawl up to the first copper I saw, and say, "Just bloody arrest me!"

We reduced sail going into each front and stubbornly stayed our northern course. The wind got colder, stronger. The rain came down heavier and longer. We knew we were sailing, quite literally, into the ice-cold heart of winter. The three of us -- me, Elena and Boadicea -- were taking an incredible beating. How we faced down that angry sea and got out alive, is still a mystery to me.

Our world had gone from tropical blue to sinister, slate black. How could it have been the same ocean or even the same planet? The horizon had become a ragged chorus line of white-streaked wave crests: an interface of sea and sky, of black and grey, always in motion.

Although we didn't voice it, we were both watching for cracks in the boat, and in each other. Things broke loose, equipment failed, ropes snapped, sails and nerves frayed. Still, we reached northward to either the breaking point, or the time and place we would swing the bow east, and run for home.

Elena Vaytsel and Meg Aitken keeping warm by the engine of Boadicea in the North Pacific Ocean photo elenameg.com

[Image 41-5] Elena and Meg keeping warm by the engine in the North Pacific ocean.

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I crawled from our nest of spinnaker, bedding, clothing and soft stuff and put on the kettle. Elena was outside at the helm waging war with the waves. I downloaded the weather. It was seriously not good. OK, I can tell you now, that for the first time since I had started looking at the sterile hieroglyphics on weather charts, I was absolutely terrified.

Watch keeping in the cockpit of Boadicea, seen from inside the closed companionway during inclement weather. photo elenameg.com

[Image 41-6] Either Elena or Meg (no way to tell in full offshore survival gear) stand watch outside the closed companionway.

Elena looked at the forecast chart, disinterested -- detached. "Is this current? Is it the latest?"

"Uh, yeah, 'fraid so."

She looked again. Muttered, "Force twelve. Huh, isn't that hurricane force? Things do not get better for us. You better dress up in a hurry and get out there with me. We need to deal with this before the wind comes."

The kettle whistled. Coffee! I glanced at Elena's cities list and saw that she'd crossed off Seattle. Blimey, she hadn't said a thing.

I kitted up in just about everything I had and crawled out to the cockpit. "Hey, we've crossed forty-nine degrees. It's time to turn this barge and run for home." That's when I noticed, it was snowing. "What the hell!?"

Elena uncoupled from the helm and made her way stiffly toward the companionway. "It is better than rain. I'm going to bed. Knock when you need me."

Watching the companionway slide shut, and then, standing all alone in an open cockpit on a fourteen metre, plastic, charter sailboat, in the middle of the North Pacific, in the driving snow, in a dead run, ahead of an overtaking hurricane-force front, could have been one of those existential, my-life-is-shit and what-have-I-done moments. It should have been, but it wasn't. We had technically done it. Survive the next several hundred miles and we would be home. Or be at my home. Whatever the hell that meant any more.

I punched a heading for Juan de Fuca Strait into the autopilot and adjusted the precious little sailcloth we had catching wind. Hours flew by with the water rushing under our hull.

Meg Aitken in the cockpit of Boadicea in the North Pacific Ocean. Photograph by Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 41-7] Meg grins for this shot taken by Elena in the North Pacific Ocean.

Nothing specific indicated frontal passage. The wind increased, the waves got bigger. Honestly, I thought it was physically impossible. There must have been a moon above the clouds because something provided enough light to make out the liquid mountains approaching from behind. Perched on a crest and looking back, I couldn't see to the bottom of the following trough. It was like there was no bottom at all. So we fell, stern first, off the edge of the world with each ponderous swell passing underneath.

I wasn't sure when it happened, but around four in the morning things seemed ominously quiet. The wind turbine wasn't shrieking in the blast, and yet, the wind hadn't eased up. I switched on the floodlights. They looked like huge, light-emitting bogies, not light fixtures. The wind turbine was completely encased in ice! Frozen solid. The autopilot used significant power and we only had one battery. I killed the flood bogies, switched to my torch. The rigging, deck, lifelines and sails were coated in a centimetre thick layer of ice. Even the hatch covers were glazed over. No surprise there, the inside temperature was the same as outside.

I chipped ice from the companionway and kicked it open. Elena was barely conscious, burrowed into our spinnaker nest. Her breath was shallow, her skin freezing and she wasn't shivering. We had an alcohol burning, bush stove -- something I picked up in the Canary Islands on a whim -- velcroed to the floor in the main salon. It had long since gone out. "I'm going to start the motor. We need the electricity and probably any heat it gives off."

Elena didn't respond. I pulled off a cover between the engine compartment and cabin. Hauled Elena, spinnaker and all, toward the opening, and flew back topside, begging the motor to start.

Elena Vaytsel aboard Boadicea, with an offshore nautical chart of the waters near Vancouver island. Photographed by Meg Aitken photo elenameg.com

[Image 41-8] Although half dead, Elena smiles, holding a chart with their final destination.

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The wind was from right behind -- a dead run. We were flying! We covered so much distance per day, I thought the chart plotter had malfunctioned. The wind eased slightly, settling on about forty knots, and the temperature rose to a few degrees above freezing. For days, Elena sat on the galley table watching dark, foaming waves flying past the windows. Sitting cross-legged, grasping a rail above her head, silhouetted by windows that were occasionally underwater, she looked like a warrior goddess. She told me she thought of us as gods because: "We alone can control and shape our destiny in the middle of an ocean. We have become hands cranking winches and holding fast, minds analysing and calculating, spirits reaching beyond the horizon. We have become one entity; Boadicea, you and me."

Chart plotter showing the position of Boadicea entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca photo elenameg.com

[Image 41-9] Chart plotter showing Boadicea's position entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A sight Elena and Meg could hardly conceive of a year earlier.

I was at the table, scarfing Froot Loops when something like an atomic bomb went off. Scrambling topside, I saw a tiny speck climb, bank and turn back toward us. "Fighter jet! Cover your ears!" But instead of another supersonic flypast for our benefit, it roared along in slow flight. He was showing us they knew we were there and were keeping an eye-in-the-sky on us. Then it circled a few times, throttled up and thundered off.

"What do you suppose it wanted?" Elena asked.

"I have no idea. We're two-hundred miles out. But we are closing on their coast. It's a sure bet, we are being tracked as a possible threat, given how much it costs to fly one of those jets. My guess is that the US Department of Homeland Security sent the jet to make sure we're not a refugee boat, or rogue Soviet sub."

Thirty miles west of the Canadian coast, we were visited by another American fighter. We were still in international waters -- closer to Canada than the USA -- but they share a border, and Canada is a kissing cousin to America, after all. Let's just say, missile-lock and afterburners aside, we grokked the gravity of hustling our heinies onto the Canadian side of that imaginary line, before the US coast guard came out hunting.

Elena Vaytsel, exhausted, at the mast to take down the mainsail in the North Pacific Ocean. Photographed by Meg Aitken photo elenameg.com

[Image 41-10] Elena, at the mast and utterly exhausted. North Pacific ocean.

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The radar, silent for weeks, went nuts with collision warnings. We fell all over each other in a race to the screen. "Targets! Dozens of em. All over." Elena flew up the companionway. I fiddled with the gain. "No, wait. Just one target, and it's huge. Covers the whole top of the screen."

Elena cross-checked with the chart plotter. "Choomeechka, it is Vancouver Island. It is Canada!" Visibility was three miles at best through steady rain and mist. It didn't matter. She took the wheel, disengaged the autopilot and steered for what the chart plotter told us was Carmanah point. She damn well wasn't going to miss first sight.

"Depth! Meg, we have depth!" The seafloor was rising from the deep. Land had to be near, but we still couldn't see it. The wind eased, dropping below gale force for the first time in weeks, and then, it almost became calm. Elena smelled it before we saw it. "Forest, conifers, dirt. It is there!" Finally, from the top of a swell, a jagged, dark line coalesced from the mist and pulled away from the sky. "Land! It is Canada. I can see trees. Meg, trees!"

First sight of land, the forest on Vancouver island, Canada. Photograph by Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 41-11] Elena makes first sight of land, in this case, Canada! The forest on the edge of Vancouver island. She took this picture, of course.

[[ updated -- photos Apr 24, 19:23 GMT ]]