The sea rolled gently under the bow as we sailed offshore, but within sight of the coast. As Ollie and Ed oriented me to the various lines and gauges, tools and hazards of Elska, I looked up to see familiar landmarks, seeing them for the first time in several years from five miles offshore, looking back from a place which I usually looked toward, leaving behind all that was familiar.
Ollie was jovial, almost happy-go-lucky and talkative. Ed also liked to talk, but was more taciturn and suffered spells of serious cynicism. Ollie just laughed at Ed's bitter moments; they had been friends for 20 years, so Ollie got away with making light of Ed and his carping. While Ed seemed the more intellectual and technical of the two, Ollie was filled with the wisdom of common sense and practical application. Ed committed himself to celestial navigation, precise and mathematical, with complex tables and scientific formulas; he would hang his reputation as a captain on accurate calculation and proof of position. Ollie would navigate by dead reckoning; he was quick to understand the relevant landmarks on the coastal charts. And, when there was no coast, he felt his way across compass points, current, drift, and apparent speed. He logged our daily progress in his mind, tracking our course over the charts without the need of
noon sextant shots. He always knew where he was.
Elska was a thirty-five foot Dickerson ketch with six tons displacement. She wore a white deck and navy blue hull; the hull had a hard chine (I later learned this as we slammed hard, instead of slicing, into large seas). An attractive, classic wooden yacht, but with no special features to distinguish her, she was solid and tracked fairly well with a shallow draft keel, but she would win no races. Her interior was comprised of saloon with starboard berth and convertible dining table to port. There was a forward V berth just past the head. The galley was conveniently located just at the foot of the companionway steps to starboard, where the crew on watch could reach down for a cup of hot tea in the chill of pre-dawn.
She had few modern amenities. The dinghy was fiberglass with a 5-hp outboard that did not work. She had only a CB radio, no VHF or SSB: the radio barely worked. None of the sails was self-furling, and Elska carried no self-steering gear. We contrived self-steering the old way, by tying off the wheel to the aft mizzenmast. She did, however, boast the basic gauges for wind speed, boat speed and depth below keel. At the time, few pleasure boats were equipped with LORAN or any sort of satellite navigation system; nor was Elska.
My first night in the bow berth I slept poorly, but rested well. I could not help but listen to the sounds of the sea rushing past the hull, the clank and slap of rigging and sail, the soft breathing of the wind. I listened and reveled in the noise of being afloat, of travelling by wind over water. I was tired and sore from my first day as crew of a small yacht, but I also was too excited to feel like I was missing anything. Ollie woke me for the
2 to 6 watch. I crawled up the steps to the cockpit and said goodnight to Ollie as he disappeared into the pitch darkness of the cabin. I felt very alone.
I surveyed my world. Waves and swells, invisible, lifted and splashed the boat. I could feel the pull of the sails and the dampness of the salt spray hanging on the wind. In the extreme distance, I made out the darkest edge of my world, the horizon, where the brightness of a star-dusted sky collided with the total blackness of the sea. I thought I could see all the stars in the universe; never had I seen such a sky. I paused to be sure that the sky was not in fact smothered in stars, that there were constellations beyond the cloud of Milky Way that draped over the night.
Alone, I settled into my first watch at sea, absorbing all that I could hear, feel, taste or see. Alone, my confidence began to emerge as I gripped the wooden wheel, occasionally checking my course by the compass' red night light, feeling the course by the motion of the boat over the swells and the tracing of the mast against the sky. I was alone, but in no way lonely; the boat was my friend, something at once new and familiar, a relationship of mutual care and responsibility. The night passed quickly into my first dawn at sea, another new world that carried all the wonder, excitement and beauty of coming home after a long journey to a place that is different, but again familiar. Of course, the change was all in me.
At sunrise, when Ed came on watch, we tacked back toward the coast and began to estimate our location, trying to match towers and other landmarks on shore with our charts. We were off
, having made less than 60 miles in 15 hours; the loss of directional mileage due to tacking at night was greater than I had anticipated. We eased through another pleasant day of clear skies and moderate breezes as we sailed south, searching for Topsail Island inlet and the channel into Cape Fear Southport; Ed had decided that our progress offshore was too slow, so he wanted to return to the ICW for a while. The marker for the inlet was with its nineteenth century lighthouse, now defunct. We would know we were close when we recognized Frying Pan Shoals, one of the three great hazards on the Bald Head Island coast (the others being North Carolina Cape Lookout Shoals and, of course, Diamond Shoals off ). Cape Hatteras
Thus began many days of motoring the canals of the Florida ICW. We watched coconuts drifting by and eventually developed a game of catching them with a bucket as they slid along the hull. More afternoon storms, but the wind and rain did not bother us in the quiet and protected waters of the ICW. The only thing that broke our journey was the periodic drawbridge that opened only at predetermined times, so we would wait as long as an hour or so for the next opening. At night, we docked or anchored. By the time we reached Fort Lauderdale, I was ready for some action.
, we discussed our next move. Crossing the Gulf Stream took some planning to avoid being swept northward in its current while trying to make a landfall on the western side in the Bahamas. Neither Ed nor Ollie wanted to lose the time it would take to stop in the Bahamas, clear Customs, and be distracted by the sights. So, they decided we should plot a course that skirted the southern edge of the Grand Bahama Bank, a massive sandy shoal extending west of Andros Island 25 miles or more that varied in depth from 0 to 25 feet. They wanted to reprovision in Miami, then sail open water without landfall from Miami toward Andros, turning south and east to pass through the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba, then turning west for Jamaica. They estimated a week of hard sailing if we had good wind. Fort Lauderdale
We stowed the provisions, food for a week, and motored out the channel toward open sea once again. Ed plotted a course aiming farther south than we wanted to go, but allowing for the northward drift of the Gulf Stream. When we cleared land, we set sail as the sun began to settle its warm evening glow over a rolling ocean. I was excited but also a bit nervous as I thought about being offshore for at least a week; I was excited that the next landfall would be our destination, Jamaica.