• close family • small boat • big world •


May 4, 2015

by Paula
At anchor, Falmouth Harbour, Antigua

3:14 AM – I knew the precise moment that she would finally join me. It was my watch on our passage from St. Barts to Antigua, and I was eagerly awaiting the moment that the moon would finally appear on the horizon. Just like the sun, the moon rises in the east and glides a smooth arc across the sky. I used to take her for granted, but now she is a cherished friend.

It’s dark at night at sea. Very dark. When sailing at night away from land, the bright stars offer the only way to differentiate the sky from the sea. And on cloudy nights, the deep dark – though a vast expanse – can be a bit claustrophobic to me. I marvel now, at just how brightly the moon can illuminate the water and bring me peace of mind.

For us, with no working auto-pilot on board, night watch means hand-steering for three hours while the others try to catch some sleep. On a smooth sail, such as the 23-hour passage to Antigua, it is a lovely chance to be alone with my thoughts.  Sometimes I sing to pass the time, or compose poems in my head, or just let myself wander through whatever comes. Recently, I recalled driving those long car-rides our family used to take from Virginia to Maine, fifteen hours or so. I thought it a nice idea to compare the car-passage with the sailing-passage.

Getting under way – Driving:
Our family dynamic had me rising before dark to shepherd the others, half-awake into our ready-packed van, and then settling down to drive for hours while the rest of them fell back asleep. We often chose to start before dawn to avoid traffic and because that is the time of day I feel freshest. Once up and full of coffee, Greg takes his turn at driving.

Getting under way – Sailing:
All hands on deck for the start of a passage, no matter what the hour. The time we set for departure is completely determined by when we want to arrive at our final destination. We need to arrive in the light – to navigate unfamiliar ports and for a bow-watch to spot reefs or coral heads which must be avoided. Departure time is determined by backing it out from a daylight arrival, with the course and sailing conditions determining the estimated speed.

Most passages start with Greg on the helm, Nicole at the depth meter, and Cash & I hauling anchor. We set sail as a team, though Cash has settled into the position at the mast. Greg, eager and coffee-ed up, then hogs the helm; we’ve stopped trying to take over for the first few hours. Eventually, I do get my turn on the
wheel, as does Cash when he is not feeling seasick. On longer passages, we set a schedule, with regular three-hour watches.

At the wheel – Driving:
Steering means a second-to-second attention to the road. No break for the driver, who must focus on staying in the lane at every moment. On long drives on the highway, I often found myself “in the zone” where my mind could wander a bit. But it was always a multi-task, with attention to the road ever-present.

At the wheel – Sailing:
Again, no auto pilot on Daystar, so steering must be done at all times by hand. Some sailing conditions require constant adjustment as the boat rises, falls, and heels with the waves. However, in some conditions we can balance the sails and lash the wheel so that the boat steers roughly a straight line with only a bit of wandering. In this case, adjustment might be needed only every 10-30 minutes. This allows the helmsman to relax a bit, and even go use the head. Steering in the ocean takes attention, but it requires less second-to-second vigilance. Things happen slower on the water, and in open ocean, you can get off course a bit and not worry about hitting something.
Occasionally we get a stow-
away along for the ride.

Taking a break – Driving:
Had enough? Need a break or want to stop for the night? Just pull over to a rest-stop or take the exit to find a hotel for the night.

Taking a break – Sailing:
Once on the sea, there’s no anchoring until you arrive at your destination – we don’t have enough chain to reach down 3,000 feet to the bottom…. Passages that span a great distance mean sailing overnight or for days. We have not ventured to cross an ocean yet – but that can mean weeks at sea.

It is possible, however, to adjust the sails so as to "park" the boat. This is called heaving-to. The sails don’t propel the boat forward, but, instead, are balanced to keep her close to standing still. Heaving-to also helps to flatten the waves acting on the boat. There will be some drifting with the current or waves, and some small forward motion, but a boat that is hove-to well will remain largely stationary. One might heave-to while waiting out extreme weather, to give everyone a chance to sleep (though a watch must still be kept), or to more easily prepare a meal.

Cash and Nicole, both down for the
count while Greg steers

Cash sleeps off his sea-sickness

Carsick – Driving:
Cash is the only one of us who gets carsick, but it only happens if he tries to read. Most people who get carsick feel nauseous and uncomfortable, but it is usually manageable.

Seasick – Sailing:
Seasickness is a whole different story; it can be horrible. Throwing up… over and over… is not unusual for some people, no matter what they try. Cash is the most prone, and it usually hits him in anything other than a flat sea. Luckily, he doesn’t reach the retching stage often. The only respite is sleeping it off, and at times this is all he needs to get through it. He is then happy to take the helm. Nicole is set off by bad smells, and her mild nausea is also quelled by a good sleep. Greg feels it from time to time, but he always manages to power through it and stay on the helm. I am the only one who has never been seasick (knocking on wood appropriate here…).

Sleeping – Driving:
Sleep on a car-ride is often intermittent, with great difficulty finding a comfortable way to lie down in the seats.
This simple instrument shows that gravity
is 20 degrees off the vertical!

Sleeping – Sailing:
Ahhh… our nice soft beds are along for the ride. Though getting comfortable while the boat is heeling can be tricky. Gravity is still in play, but no longer on the horizontal surfaces of the boat. On certain points of sail we chose the berth on the leeward side and position ourselves along the wall to avoid falling out of the bunk.  It works well until we tack, and then we need to switch sides!

Paula uses a special belt that clips
to a structural bar in the galley, to
stay in place while cooking under
way. This allows use of both hands.
Eating – Driving:
Hungry? Just stop and grab a quick snack at a rest stop or road-side diner. But if you don’t want fast food, you have to pack your meals before you leave.

Eating – Sailing:
All food stores are within reach so full, hot meals can be prepared as we go. But the lack of a rest-stop means that any meals we want must be prepared ourselves. Cooking under way can be tricky, though, when the boat is heeling. Our stove is gimbaled – this means it adjusts to keep the cooktop level to the horizon, regardless of the angle at which the boat lies. But I’m not gimbaled, so it can be challenging to work my way around the galley. Utensils, dishes, and food slide down the countertops, making it a fine art to manage them. Often, I prepare meals ahead of time that can be easily warmed on the way.

Weather – Driving:
Getting soaked in a Turks & Caicos squall
Too hot or too cold? Turn on the air-conditioning or heating. Rainy weather means a wet dash to a rest-stop, but staying in the car keeps one nice and dry. Recycled car air can be pretty stale or stuffy at times.

Weather – Sailing:
Sailing conditions on our boat are like the little girl with the little curl – when they are good they are very very good and when they are bad they are horrid. Daystar lacks a full dodger and her bimini is not extensive. As a result, we get whatever weather comes our way. Our bimini offers some shelter from direct sun and rain, but it is impossible to avoid the heat or cold. Rain? We’re in it and soaked through our foul-weather gear. Even clear skies can mean we are wet, when waves or spray make it over the rail when sailing to wind (often…). But when the weather is clear, it is glorious. Cool breezes, the delicious scent of ocean air – delightful.

It must be cold if Nicole is in gloves
Driving in fog in Georgia
A storm approaches in the Bahamas

Are we there yet? – Driving:
Keyboard playing while
Long car rides with our kids meant packing the entertainment. We listened to books on CD and brought activity books and a huge pile of graphic novels. When they were little we could always rely on the Alphabet Game, spotting each letter among the road signs. But if these activities grew tiresome or carsickness set in, we were in for the long-haul of boredom.

Are we there yet? – Sailing:
If someone is seasick and not sleeping it off, a passage can be miserable. Cash gets particularly frustrated with those long hours spent feeling bad and being forced do nothing. Like the food stores, all our stuff comes with us. Books, art supplies, computers, schoolwork, musical instruments – all are at the ready for us. Cash enjoys breaking out his acoustic guitar for cockpit sing-alongs. Nicole is most often found with her tablet, fully loaded with e-books. Though, for anyone tending to seasickness, reading is a big mistake. Longer passages, though, devolve into rounds of driving and trying to sleep, with little else accomplished.

The View – Driving:

Most of our road-trips took us on the highway, and endless stretch of pavement and traffic and noise. The New Jersey turnpike is not known for its view.

The View – Sailing:
The deep blue ocean below a bright blue sky – you just can’t beat it. Watching the sun rise or set on an unbroken horizon is glorious, and we never take it for granted. Weeks of nothing but water while crossing an ocean might become tiresome, I’m sure, but we are not there yet. Catching a glimpse of a sea turtle or watching dolphins playing is still a big thrill.

The Caribbean Sea with Saba
in the distance
Looking west in the Turks & Caicos

Car trips and sailing passages each have their pros and cons, of course. When at the helm while a squall is tossing us around, I definitely long for those calm and monotonous car rides. But I do recall times at the wheel of the van on the Jersey Turnpike when I longed for the sea. Car, sailboat, tramp steamer, it's all about the adventure of travel and seeing some place new.

Sailing along the south coast of Puerto Rico