Make a passage. Do a crossing. Head out there. No matter what it is called, people are always curious about it.
Most of us have spent at least a little time on a boat. It may have been a small row boat or a little fishing boat or a canoe or you name it. Kayaks and paddle boards are popular these days. At first, you are nervous, not venturing far from shore. What if something happens? Stay within easy swimming distance of solid ground. Stay in shallow water. Remember the feeling? You look at those who have ventured farther out and ask “How do they do that? Aren’t they scared? I could never do that. What if ‘something’ happens?” Is this how it was or perhaps still is for you? Close your eyes for a moment and remember back when.
With time and experience, you venture a little farther out. You begin to trust your water craft and yourself. In a lake, you wouldn’t have gone beyond your little swimming area at first. Then you begin to cruise a little distance along the shore, always staying close to it. You look at the boats out in the middle and still can’t imagine going there.
Slowly you venture farther from shore and out to deeper water. One day, you cross a little bay rather than hugging the shoreline. Eventually it happens. You are talking with someone and the possibility comes to mind or is presented. Go across to someplace on the other side. At first perhaps you go with someone who has been there before, trusting in their knowledge, skills, equipment and experience.
You are out there! In the middle. In deep water. A long way from shore. As far or farther to go back than it is to go ahead. You arrive at your destination and do what was planned. You cross back to home. Nothing bad happened. It was ok, enjoyable, fun.
What about the first time by yourself or in your own craft? One person will plan and think and consider and provision and equip and prepare, on and on sometimes to the point of never going at all. The next person takes reasonable precautions and makes reasonable preparations and heads out. Another throws a few things in the boat and goes. Another, perhaps foolishly, just jumps in and takes off, with little consideration about how to handle any problems nor any thought about the potential cost to family, friends or others who might be called upon to deal with the consequences of his poor choices.
You learn more. Your travel horizon stretches. You think back to those first ventures with others and perhaps realize the knowledge, skills, equipment and experience you trusted wasn’t as great as you thought and are perhaps even glad you did not know it at the time.
And someone is now asking you “What’s it like out there?”
Our latest crossing was relatively uneventful. We had been watching the weather and saw about 3 days of modest or no wind before the next system passed through and decided to go. We could tell we would have to motor much of the way. This is not our preferred option, but boils down to: wait for the perfect sailing weather window and perhaps not have enough time to wait that long; sail as much as you can and motor as much as you need; or don’t go at all.
We had a leisurely breakfast while listening to the weather channel again. The decision was made. Go today. Prepare the boat. Dock lines are removed from their cleats and stowed. There will be nothing out there to which we could tie. Anything which could tip over, fall down or move is stored or immobilized. You never know from which direction a wave could come and pitch or roll the boat. Install the jack line. This line runs most of the length of the boat. You clip your harness to it with a tether while on deck so you are hooked to the boat and can’t fall off and drift away. The gybe preventer is installed to keep the boom from accidentally flying from one side to the other at speeds which could break the boat, knock you out of the boat if not tethered, or hit you hard enough to do serious bodily damage. The full startup checkout is done, but perhaps a little more carefully, taking a little extra time to look around at control cables, lines, hoses, etc. “Raw” sea water inlet for cooling the engine and transmission is checked. Its ball valve is turned off, the strainer is opened, the screen is checked for debris, the valve is opened momentarily to confirm water flows freely, the strainer is closed and the valve is turned back open. Fuel level is checked and deemed adequate. Oil level in the V drive is checked. The bilge is checked to see that it is virtually empty. The propeller shaft, drive shaft and packing gland are looked over and it is confirmed that nothing is touching the spinning shafts. Transmission oil, engine oil and antifreeze are checked. Fuel filters and water separators are checked. Wind generator off. Start battery on. GPS on. VHF on. Handheld VHF, water bottle, sun glasses, watch, etc. go to the helm. Start the engine and confirm cooling water is being pumped out the exhaust and that the alternators are producing power and no red lights are on. We are ready to go.
Barbara goes to the bow to monitor and clean the anchor chain as the windlass brings it in. Mud is washed and scrubbed off it as it raises from the bottom. The anchor is secured in place and the chain locked so the anchor will not come loose if we have bad seas. We are on the move.
Other preparations include washing and cutting up celery, moving carrots and other refrigerated snacks to the top. Some meals have been cooked in advance, usually one pot meals which can easily be heated and served. Eggs are hard boiled and chilled. It could be too rough out there to want to cook and we’ve learned we need to eat something. Granola bars are at hand.
It is 10:30 AM when we begin motoring away from the anchorage. It takes us about two hours to get through the harbor and out into open water. We are finishing our lunch sandwiches as we pass through the entrance. We turn to the heading for our first waypoint outside the shallow waters of San Blas Shoals. We expect to arrive there after midnight.
Wind is modest but favorable so we hoist the main and roll out the genoa and shut down the engine. Seas are running 1-3 feet with the occasional 4. They get a little more calm as we move into deeper water. I look back occasionally. Near shore fishing boats shrink to nothingness. Soon only buildings on the shoreline are distinguishable and then they also disappear. Water, water everywhere, and sunshine and partly cloudy skies and birds and the occasional tortoise and porpoise and small fish.
Our watch system begins. There are all sorts of systems for deciding how long a person must stand watch and be off duty. We have come to prefer two hour shifts. When we are tired, standing a two hour shift seems like it lasts forever and making it longer is unthinkable. The first 24 hours are the toughest. My worst are midnight to 2 and 4-6. Barbara’s seems to be 6-8 AM. When the shift ends, you do any needed chores and collapse onto the berth, hoping to fall asleep instantly and knowing your rest time will be too short. You become attuned to sounds. New, different or changing sounds will wake you. What do they mean? Is there a problem? A sudden change in engine RPMs brings you instantly awake. It has become our alarm clock for shift change or a signal to come on deck to help with whatever needs done. The off shift person is always on call.
The wind dies as night approaches. We keep sailing until our average speed drops below 3 miles per hour. Then the genoa is furled and the engine started. We motor along with the mainsail still up and pulled in to centerline of the boat. It helps dampen the rolling. Seas lay down as the sun sets and the moon rises. We motor through the night, reach our first mark and turn towards the next. Our passage length this time will be about 280 miles. If we average 5 miles per hour, we’ll arrive mid day two days from starting. If we travel too slowly, we could arrive in the dark which is usually inadvisable. If we are exceptionally slow, we could be caught by foul weather predicted for 3.5 days out.
By morning the sea is calm, the sky bright and sunny. Last night’s full moon was great. One large fishing vessel was fishing near our first mark. They shined a spotlight on us as we passed in front of them. They were the only boat seen all night. We saw no boats at all next day or night.
When I leave shift, I check the bilge area and the engine compartment. About half way through the trip I see signs of a fluid leak. The engine is shut down and all fluids are checked. This is done every 4 hours for the rest of the trip. No serious problems develop.
There is very little radio traffic at sea. VHF range is limited. We don’t hear much until nearing shore again. We hear of an overturned and partially submerged 40ish foot vessel near one of the major port entrances. Another boat with 4 persons out fishing has lost all power. We cannot hear him. He is talking on a small hand held radio to the coast guard and his battery is running out on it also. The coastguard contacts TowBoatUS for him. It takes about 4 hours for the help to reach him.
Another boat is taking on water and has called the coast guard. We don’t hear how that one turns out. When we finally get service, I see a man has been rescued after being lost at sea for 66 days.
As we approach land mid morning, boats begin appearing everywhere. Many of them advertise their rental source on the sides. This is a holiday weekend and the weather is beautiful and everyone and his dog is out on the water. Some must be first timers. Some act like they know what they are doing but clearly do not.
We pass through the Johns Pass bascule bridge and tie up at Dons Docks for fuel. A novice kayaker runs into our boat as I’m pumping diesel.
We motor several miles to our chosen anchorage. Anchor down, engine off, collapse for a nap. Arise. Sponge bath. Catch up on business and personal email. Have a fun evening and dinner with friends. Back to the boat. Consider possibilities for the next few days before we crash to sleep.
“What’s it like out there?” This time it was very benign. We’ve been on passages lasting many days with no problems or foul weather. We’ve been on shorter passages and were caught in storms. We’ve seen bigger 15 ft seas and the occasional 20 footer. When being in the trough between waves, the trough has been so deep that we could only see something besides water by looking up and had you been watching, it would have looked like we had sank and only our mast was showing. This has been rare.
“What’s it like out there?” Usually pleasant and somewhat boring. I commented to Barbara that this last passage would have been more fun if we had another person or couple along. Rests during time off shift would have been longer. Sharing the experience through someone else’s eyes would have been interesting.
“What’s it like out there?” Go out and see. Want to ride along?