Thoughts at Sea by Erin and Brian

Our friend, Joe, e-mailed us to ask what it was like to be at sea for so long. I thought it would be fun if we wrote separate answers to that question. Here they are, below.

Erin’s thoughts:

After 16 days of sailing and 22 days since I’ve stepped on land, being at sea feels almost normal to me now. I’ve fallen into a comfortable routine and I don’t feel deprived of anything. I’ll be happy when we make landfall, for sure, but I’m not going stir crazy out here like I thought I might be.

I’ve gotten used to the constant motion of the boat and the strange angles at which we live our lives. I can walk and cook and sleep and even shower when the boat is tilting sideways at 20 degrees. I don’t like confused, lumpy seas or the jerking of the boat when it’s struggling to find wind to fill the sails. But I’m now lulled to sleep by the motion of the boat, even when I’m pressed up against a piece of wood (or a leeboard) to keep me from rolling right out of bed. It’s going to be strange to step onto solid land again, and I imagine it’ll take a while for my body to get used to having terra firma under it.

One thing that has surprised me is that the ocean is really devoid of scent. There’s not even the smell of salt that I assumed there would be, unless I’ve grown accustomed to it. Over the last few weeks, I’ve really begun to crave the smell of land — the rich, fecund bouquet of warm soil, grasses and trees. Especially at sunrise… I didn’t realize how much I relied on the smell of land to signify the beginning of a new day, when the rising sun warms the dew-covered ground.

When we were sailing across the equator, the moments just after the sun set were electric. There was hardly a breath of wind, but we’d keep the sails up to take advantage of whatever breeze we could find. There weren’t any swells to impede our forward movement, so we moved slowly and quietly through the water. Each night, after the sun dipped below the horizon, the puffy clouds overhead turned shades of gray, orange, pink and gold, and the water revealed hues of silver and purple. As the sky grew darker, bioluminescent plankton glowed in the wake of the boat and a few of the brightest stars revealed themselves in a dusky sky. It was unlike any other sunset that I’ve witnessed at sea — there was something almost magical about it.

The transitions between night and day have been striking, though, on all stretches of this passage. But I’ve stopped trying to capture them on film. In a snapshot, you see just 1/360th of the circular world we live in. The horizon isn’t broken by straight lines or right angles, but goes on forever in all directions. The clouds blend with the sky, which blends with the horizon, which blends with the ocean. It’s impossible to contain in a photo.

I do miss being able to sleep the whole night through. At night, there’s always someone outside keeping watch. We rotate every three hours from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. and it’s always a chore to pull myself out of bed, especially for the 12 a.m. to 3 a.m. watch. But when I get outside I remember that the nighttime hours I spend on watch are often my favorite of the day.

It’s very quiet on the ocean, day or night. But especially at night, when Brian and Brady are asleep, the only sounds that I hear are my own and the boat’s. There are no meals to cook, no dishes to wash, no books that should be read or French lessons that should be completed. My only responsibility at night is to keep us from hitting another boat. So every 15 minutes I check the radar and make sure our course is clear. Then I go back to stargazing or writing or just listening to the sound of the water moving past the hull.

Sailing 3000 miles across an ocean isn’t trivial-and even when it begins to feel ordinary, it’s never boring. We’ve come a long way! And, now that we’re getting closer, there are moments where I can almost taste landfall and how sweet it will be to arrive. We’re all pretty tired, too, and I’m looking forward to a few weeks of uninterrupted sleep. I will miss the space out here in the ocean. In all directions, for hundreds of miles, it’s just us. I often think this is how the early pioneers felt when they left their busy towns and discovered miles of empty land on the west coast. But it’s time to find a spot to park our covered wagon and step onto land once again.

Brian’s Thoughts:

I’m sitting on the high side of Delos’s cockpit staring over the side watching the endless swells on their march from horizon to horizon. Delos is on a tight reach right now, about 50′ off the apparent wind. Her motion is comfortable with the bow rising to greet each oncoming swell before letting them continue harmlessly on their path.

We left La Cruz, Mexico March 27th. Including our Manta diving adventure at Isla San Benedicto this is our 22nd day without setting foot on land, and our 16th day of sailing. This is my second long passage, the first sailing from Hawaii to deliver a friends boat (Capaz) back to Seattle.

I find the first few days of any voyage are all about adjustment. About trying to find my sea legs, get into a watch schedule, and adjust to the noise and motion of the boat as she moves forward, up and down, and side to side. If you’re lucky enough to be sailing the boat will also consistently heel (lean) at 15′-25′. I remember at the beginning of this passage being terribly sore. My legs ached, my back was tight, and my stomach felt like I had just done a ridiculous number of crunches. It seems my body was trying to compensate for each and every movement of Delos instead of loosening up and going with the flow. I really do think sailing on the ocean is a great core strengthening exercise.

It usually takes me 2-3 nights before my body adjusts to living life in 3 hour segments. When Erin and I sail alone we alternate watches with 3 hours on and 3 hours off. Unless you’re a pro at falling asleep when your head hits the pillow most likely you’re sleeping 2-2.5 hours at a time before it’s your watch again. The first few days leave me in a zombie like state craving sleep, and taking a nap at any available instant. I find by day 3 I can lie down in the bunk, close my eyes, and be dead asleep in seconds. Mostly due to sheer exhaustion. It’s also about this time I become impervious to the natural noises of the boat. The water and waves on the hull, the creaking of the sheets and winches as sails are trimmed, the whistling of wind in the rigging, the whirling of the wind generator as it makes electricity. Everything blends together and becomes common to my world, much like street traffic outside the bedroom window.

As days move on I adjust to life underway feeling in tune and in the groove. Time off watch is mine to enjoy, assuming I’m not napping. Most of our time during the day is unstructured with informal watches. We make sure there is always one person in the cockpit checking the horizon every 15 minutes. Other than that Delos and her trusty autopilot take care of everything else. On this passage we’ve sailed for multiple days at a time on the same tack with little or no sail changes required. During times like this I spend time reading, writing, fishing, napping, watching movies, and just staring at the sky or ocean.

It’s not all leisure time however. This morning I pushed the button on our trusty generator to recharge the batteries and run the water maker. After a brief clicking sound I heard a pop and then nothing. A second push of the button and nothing at all happened, not even a click. Delos is a very “electric” boat with electric toilets, winches, autopilot, freezers, fridges, radar, navigation computer, radios, etc. All of these are heavily dependant on a constant flow of juice from the battery bank. Although we have wind and solar we still need the generator to recharge after a night of sailing. So into the engine room I went. With the boat pitching and rolling I crouched over the engine in the small, enclosed, hot, somewhat smelly space and started troubleshooting. Good thing this didn’t happen before I got my sea legs. Luckily I found the problem rather quickly- a shorted ground isolation solenoid that was tripping the DC generator circuit. A few strikes with a big wrench temporarily fixed it but we’ll need to replace this piece when we get back to civilization. I’ve also had to install a fan on our overheating nav computer (100F+ cabin temps), disassemble a bulkhead cover to fix an annoying squeak, replace a burned out light on our propane shutoff switch, and unplug a stopped up holding tank that wouldn’t drain overboard (YUCK).

During most of the passage I try not to think about our ETA. Within an hour it can vary by days depending so much on the current, wind, course, and sea state. As the distance grows shorter and the ETA more steady questions begin to pop into my mind. What will I do first? Will it be weird to be on solid ground? What will the land smell like? What will be my first meal? These are all topics of discussion as a long passage winds down. As we near Hiva Oa in the Marquesas we’re daring to nail down an ETA, trying to figure out if we’ll make landfall in the day naturally or if we’ll need to slow the boat down to make it happen. We’ve heard from friends already arrived that the cheeseburgers are pretty good and the land smells like flowers. Only 400 more miles to go!