another night at sea

Provincetown, Massachusetts

I would write that the Phoenix flew through the stormy night, leaving a phosphorescent fiery trail, but I was too busy puking over the leeward rail to be very poetic. It has been an amazing day, but it was turning out to be a horrible, horrible night.

We left Criehaven on a close haul upwind towards Provincetown. The seas were calm, almost glassy, and we ghosted slowly upwind. We rounded Matinicus Rock, watching for the puffins that mate there, but it was too late in the season, and they were all elsewhere. Then we set course southwest.

A few hours out, we saw a fin approaching us, and the cry went out… “Shark!” As it got closer, we realized that it was a big shark. A really big shark. I was standing on the bow of the Phoenix as it came up and passed under us, and it was easily 25-30 feet long, with a tail 4 feet high. I’ve never seen such a large animal, and it was only 10 feet away. We circled it several times. Every time I saw it below us, my chest tightened with a deep sense of awe and fear. I imagined this monster leaping up and picking me off of the bowspirit, like a tasty olive off of a toothpick. Eventually it dove deep, and we continued on our way.

A little later I was napping in my cabin when the skipper shouted for me to come above, pronto. I rushed up the companionway steps, pulling on my shorts. “Dolphins!” said the skipper, “Here they come!” And there they were, a handful of curved shapes swimming towards us. These weren’t the small, black dolphins we’d seen earlier. These were bottlenose dolphins, glorious beautiful playful creatures. As I watched from the bow, a whole pod swam alongside, 7 of them jostling one another and looking up at me. Two were small and very cute, just 3-4 feet long, and swimming closely alongside another that must have been their mother. One was very large, perhaps 10-12 feet long and magnificent. They were nearly black on top, with a white stripe down each side, and they were light gray below. They looked like an animal designed by Philippe Stark.

We sailed in circles for an hour, as the dolphins first joined us, then swam away. They would swim alongside, dive below us, and then quickly dart away. If the water was warmer, I would have leapt over the side to join them. But eventually they grew tired of us, and just as quickly as they approached, they were gone.

Soon after leaving Criehaven, I had altered out course slightly to bring us out to super-buoy “44005”. Part of the Ocean Data Acquisition System, super-buoy “44005” sits about 50 miles east of Gloucester, Massachusetts. I’d never seen a super-buoy, but I knew that I might not get another chance. “44005” was about 10 miles east of the direct route to Provincetown, and we altered course.

I was really excited about seeing a super-buoy. I imagined a three-story structure, bright yellow and bristling with weather instruments, scientist quarters, and robotic arms. It would me an amazing structure, capable of intricate scientific experiments, while still able to survive a hurricane.

At around 8pm, we spotted “44005” on the horizon. A blinking yellow light came on every 20 seconds. We watched as it slowly grew. My heart was in my throat. A super-buoy! How many people can say they’ve seen one of those?

At 9pm we passed by super-buoy “44005”. It was a yellow raft, perhaps 5 by 10 feet, with a few wind instruments and antennae sticking up from it’s surface. A few seabirds sitting on it’s surface looked annoyed by our spotlight. That was it. “Well,” we said, “that was a super-buoy.” We all looked at our shoes for a moment, and then quietly adjusted our course towards P’town.

We went on shifts. Shorty was taking the 2000-0000 shift, I was taking the 0000-0400 shift, and the skipper was taking the 0400-0800 shift. I went down and tried to sleep.

I say ‘tried’ because I didn’t sleep. We were beating hard to wind, and the ship was heeling hard. I had twisted my arm earlier, and had trouble getting comfortable in the wedge formed by my bunk and the cabin wall. Every so often I would hear a crash as something fell over, and I would desperately try to ignore it. “They can handle it. They can handle it.” I kept saying, thinking of my aunt-and-uncle-who-had-never-sailed-before.

I went up at midnight to find that the ship was plowing through 6-foot waves and heeling dangerously. We were getting 35 knot gusts and over 25 knots continuous wind. Shorty was sitting there, his grip tight around the hand-holds, his eyes saying “We’re going to die!” Cookie was nowhere to be found.

With Shorty on the wheel, I reefed the main and the jib, which calmed down the Phoenix a bit. We were still beating hard against the sea, but we weren’t burying our rails in the water. “Thank you, Ron. Thank you!” said Shorty, with the fervor of someone whose life had just been spared.

Shorty told me that earlier, one of the cabinets had opened. All of the cutlery and cooking utensils had flown out onto the floor. Then the fridge door had also opened, spilling our food. In the fridge was a container of blueberries. It broke open and blueberries were everywhere.

Cookie went below to pick up everything. While she was crawling around picking up blueberries, the seasickness got her. She finished cleaning first, then went to the head and was very, very sick. Then Cookie went to bed, and wasn’t seen until the next morning.

Shorty stayed above during my watch. Soon after going above, I knew I was going to be sick, too. I hung out at the leeward rail, and occasionally leaned over and threw up. Then it started raining. The water came down in sheets. I didn’t have rain pants, and my jeans were soon sopping wet. I continued sitting on the back of the boat, heaving, soaking. It was that sort of night.

The hours passed in a slow nauseous, sleepy haze. The rains passed, but the seas stayed rough. We were tacking back and forth through the wind, making almost no headway. “I am getting off at Provincetown and never going to sea again!” I thought.

The skipper went on watch at 0400, and I went below. Shorty stayed above-decks. (I don’t think he slept at all that night.) I did sleep, forming a ‘nest’ of pillows and blankets in the tilted corner of my bunk. When we tacked, the opposite side of my bunk would become ‘down’. I would curse to myself and rearrange everything, before trying once again to sleep.

I woke up at 8am, very sick. I choked down the first mouthful of vomit as I struggled into my boxers, and then caught the second on my hand on the way to the head. I spent the next five minutes in the head, choking and gagging. My throat was raw and I felt weak.

I went above. The chartplotter showed us with over 99 hours to go. (It was essentially maxed out.) The skipper saw my condition and had pity on me. “You want to motor in?” he asked. “It’s up to you” I replied. “Okay, let’s turn on the engine” he said. With the engine on, we still had 6 1/2 hours to go, but at least the amount was finite. I lay in my bunk as we motored, my eyes closed.

I came up again as we approached land. “Welcome back to P’town, Phoenix!” said the mooring service. In the marina showers, I started to feel human again, but I was very weak. That night I took a slow walk around P’town, dazed, before returning to the ship. I wasn’t looking forward to going to sea again.

coyote

Glossary

bowspirit
A platform or pole which projects forward from the bow of the ship. The bowspirit on the Phoenix has a small wooden seat.
buoy
A float attached by rope to the bed of the sea or lake to mark channels in a harbor or underwater hazards. Pronounced ‘Boo-ee’.
close haul
Sailing as close as possible to directly upwind. Called ‘close haul’ because the sails are all hauled in close to the boat’s centerline
.
heel
A verb describing how a single-hulled sailing ship leans over when under sail. If a ship leans too much, it’s ‘overpowered’, and you need to either adjust the sails or reef them.
reef
A verb describing a process for reducing the area of a sail in response to strong wind conditions. On the Phoenix, we reef by simply rolling on the sail like a window shade. On more traditional ships, the main sail is lowered, the bottom several feet is tied to the boom, and the remaining sail is used.

What do you think?