In this award-winning excerpt from her in-progress memoir, a young woman has to decide if the squall she is sailing into is bad enough to wake the captain, and waking the captain is the last thing she wants to do, but trying to handle the boat by herself in the storm could endanger the lives of everyone on board.
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The Good Captain
“When the sea is calm, every ship has a good captain.” ~sailing proverb
I watched the sleeping ocean from a corner of the cockpit. In the deep darkness, waves broke and collapsed in rhythmic, drawn-out hisses, luring me to sleep as they misted me with spray. Even in sleep, the ocean swell rolled forward, constant, like a shark that never stops swimming. I had felt that I could go on forever too, sailing west without stopping across the great expanse of the Pacific.
Then a few hours before sunset, a faint smudge had floated into view amidst the clouds on the horizon. A Marquesan island, hazy through the atmosphere, marked our entry into Polynesian waters. Sighting land awakened in me dormant memories: limitless freshwater, a bed that didn’t move, the quiet pleasure of a walk. Having sailed day and night for three weeks, I’d already spent the time I’d wanted with the open ocean. Having seen land, I was now starved for landfall. But the distant island was not a port of entry, and we could not lawfully stop there. We had to carry on; we still had one more night till our destination. We were headed for Nuku Hiva, a dead volcano thousands of miles from any continent.
I still had three hours and twenty-seven minutes before Chet would relieve me from my watch. After dawn, we’d trade places and I’d flop into one of the bunks he and I and Cyrille, the other hitchhiking crew member, all shared, the cushions still warm from his body. In the meantime I stared down the sky.
On night watch, the very real (albeit unlikely) possibility of annihilation is balanced against total boredom. I watched for signs of changing weather or a ship’s light on the horizon. A 900-foot container ship cruises at around thirty nautical miles an hour with minimal crew to keep costs down. On autopilot, the captain literally asleep at the wheel, a container ship could run us down without ever knowing it had hit us.
In the groping dark, inky cumulus clouds were assembling behind us along the eastern horizon. The clouds could have been nothing, an annoying obstacle between me and the sunrise, or they could have been a squall, a localized storm. Without a moon, I couldn’t tell. I could barely see the clouds—gobs of black in an even blacker sky.
A squall could bring strong winds that might tear sails, break rigging. We couldn’t afford breakages so far from help. I turned away from the horizon and closed my eyes to relieve the painful pressure behind them, exhaustion from straining into the night. I just wanted an easy final watch. I didn’t want the hassle of deciding whether the clouds were going to coalesce into a squall. If, in fact, a localized storm was forming behind us on the eastern horizon, the trade winds would blow the squall over us. Then, I’d need to determine if we could ride it out, or if I would need to wake the captain. And waking the captain was the last thing I wanted to do.
Chet didn’t like to be called “captain.” He’d told me and Cyrille, “I don’t want to create a weird dynamic. We’re all just part of the crew.” Once, after he made some unusually pointed request, I said as a joke, “Alright, Cap.” Cyrille winked at me, but Chet cringed and went below without saying anything.
Still, on night watch by myself, when I needed to decide whether or not to wake the one person who charted our course, who rebuilt and rewired every inch of this boat, his boat, the one person ultimately in charge, I thought of him as captain.
For the most part, he was right: we were all just part of the crew, though as the newest member, I felt I had to prove myself. I knew Chet trusted me, but he trusted Cyrille more. Cyrille had joined the boat three months and three hundred miles before me. His experience showed; while I milled about gearing up the gumption to ask Chet what needed doing, there was Cyrille coming down the dock with a chipper smile and a cart full of potable water jugs anticipating our need to top up the fresh water tanks before Chet had asked. Cyrille was Johnny on the goddamn spot, a valuable member of the three-person team we had fast become. Still, I wanted to be first among equals.
I had connected with Chet—and by extension Cyrille—through Latitude 38’s online crew list. Other boats had dismissed me, saying they wanted young, strapping (they didn’t explicitly say male) crew to help with heavy lifting. Those boats that did welcome me aboard wanted a cook and a maid, often asking if I would be open to a relationship. One captain old enough to be my grandfather declared himself a balding sex machine. Chet, thankfully, just wanted me to sail the boat. He was impressed that a twenty-six-year-old had a decade of sailing experience. I had a lot more if you counted the years I captained my childhood home, a fifty-foot sailboat, from the safety of my father’s lap. I liked that Chet and Cyrille were only ten years older than me and European; I was hoping to sidestep the American bro culture that I was all too familiar with. Chet was a certified skipper, and Sudden Stops Necessary (Stops, for short) was a seaworthy boat—big enough for three people, with a galley, a navigation station, two cabins that were already taken, and a salon for me to sleep in when we weren’t underway. Chet and I emailed, Skyped, and checked references, until there was nothing left for me to do but fly down to Mexico for a get-to-know-you sail. Since that first night passage along the coast of Jalisco, the guys had trusted me to stand watch while they rested below.
First light glowed indigo on a distant edge of the horizon, while the clouds bled into a continuous line. Every fifteen minutes it was time to look again. If I saw a ship on the horizon ten miles away, closing half a sea mile a minute, I would have twenty minutes to determine if we were on a convergent course, devise a plan of action, and alter our heading to avoid a possible collision.
I stood to scan the horizon, and the cloud line behind us, now a fully fortified rampart, startled me with its height and solidity. I leaned closer and looked without blinking, trying to let in as much light as possible. Beneath the cloud line loomed the darkest corner of the sky. Pushed by a following wind and fast approaching, the clouds would soon be on top of us.
I circled my ankles, flexed my calves and checked the self-steering wind vane keeping us on course. Stops was steering itself. All was in order. I took one last look and went below. At the nav station, I turned on the radar as the deck lurched out from under my feet, and I stumbled backwards, disoriented. A large swell rolled under Stops’s hull. I grabbed at the edge of the chart table to keep from falling across the cabin, then leaned back hard in the opposite direction, as the counter-roll tried to throw me into the radar. That was a big one. Pay attention. If I let myself forget where I was, I could break a rib being flung across the cabin.
Embarrassed despite the lack of observers, I shook off the large swell, assuming it to be the tallest wave in the set, and pulled myself toward the radar. I didn’t consider, perhaps chose to ignore, a fact I knew: big waves are often pushed by big winds.
On the radar screen, large green blotches marred with red announced squall clouds with a lot of rain. Since a few degrees north of the equator, we had been skirting around and through the doldrums. The doldrums, or the intertropical convergence zone, are not a place marked on any chart. Between the reliable prevailing winds, they are a shifting region of low pressure known for days or weeks of windless calm punctuated by squalls. At first we had motorsailed around the squalls, altering course a few degrees to dodge each pregnant, low-slung cloud. Then one afternoon we had come across a squall too big to avoid. Chet had taken the helm and driven straight through the gusty downpour. Since leaving the doldrums we’d been pounding through one squall after another.
North of the equator, I had known to expect a predictable burst of wind and rain. Squalls in the South Pacific, however, had taken on different personalities. Would this squall be calm, almost windless, absentmindedly dripping a wet, persistent drizzle? Or would it have no rain but a lot of wind, or both? A squall could push strong winds and a torrential deluge, a wall of enormous drops that rip into the water like gunfire, obscuring the horizon and shrinking the visible world around the boat. My favorite squalls started thick and close, then eased out, pulling back the curtain of rain to reveal undulating silver hills embossed with braille.
In the last few weeks, I’d sailed through more squalls than years I’d been alive, and still I didn’t know what to make of this one. Sizable lakes of green and red pooled twenty miles wide on the radar screen, but size, as they say, doesn’t tell you everything. We had double-reefed at dusk, significantly reducing our sail area to safely ride out the inevitable squalls. The only reason I would need to wake the captain was if the winds were going to be so strong that we needed to shorten sail even further. The radar, whose radio waves echoed off rain, but not wind, couldn’t tell me either.
The captain lay a few feet from me in the salon and I let my eyes wander over his sleeping body. Chet was curled on his side in gray, checkered boxers, limp on top of his white sheet, unable to tell me what he wanted. The thought occurred to me, Maybe he isn’t really sleeping. If he wasn’t sleeping, I reasoned, I wouldn’t technically be waking him. The steady rise and fall of his white T-shirt, however, confirmed he was asleep.
I sat there at the nav station in the captain’s chair, watching him. A week before, we had sailed across the equator. Crossing the equator, a maritime rite of passage, transformed me forever from a pollywog, a rookie, into a shellback, an experienced sailor. I still believed in tests of skill and willpower, and the possibility of arriving on the other side stronger, wiser, truer. Somebody different, somebody new. A person could cross a line that meant she had gained enough experience to know the answers in difficult situations. I believed that I’d already arrived at that other side, and I loathed myself for not knowing what to do now. The squall felt like a test whose sole purpose was to humiliate me. If I were a better sailor, I thought, I would be able to reef single-handed, to handle this on my own.
The waves were gathering force, and to keep from falling, I crawled on all fours back up the companionway ladder. The deck pitched at steep angles. All around me in the dim morning, more night than day, the gray surface of the ocean throbbed rhythmically, the pulse of waves visible only as movement. I couldn’t see their height, but I could feel them growing. Big winds, I allowed myself to remember. If only the squall could wait till Chet’s watch.
As the only girl on board Stops, I didn’t want to sound the alarm unless I had a good reason. I had to divine the true nature of the squall as well as the moment when the captain wanted me to wake him, if it got bad. Too early and I was afraid he’d be angry, lose respect for me; too late and we’d be in trouble.
I could feel the squall’s power even before it reached us. The steady wind speed hit thirty knots and gusts struck with surprising force. The sea around Stops heaped up as the wind tore the foaming tops off waves in white streaks. On land, this wind would throw whole trees into motion.
Adrenaline flaming through my veins screamed bigger winds were coming. I had to wake Chet. How could I have waited this long?