In the last week, we’ve experienced an incredible array of sailing conditions. Our third afternoon out was sunny and comfortable with 15 knot winds coming from the northeast. We took a northerly course, and held a fast paced beam reach as the sun set, washing the sky in lilac and magenta.
But things didn’t remain so peachy—that night we had highly variable winds and passed through squalls, meaning downpours and sail changes in the dark. The winds kept piping up, the swell kept rising, and we kept reefing; by 0940 on our fourth day, we sailed under a triple reefed main and staysail. A front had come on, bringing 30 hours of rainy skies and sloppy seas that built to three meters.
We found ourselves providing safe haven from the stormy surrounds to a wayward traveler; as the winds built over the afternoon, a swallow swooped into the cockpit. He perched on the outboard motor, the solar panels, and the bimini mounts. This usually landlocked bird was over 350 miles off shore, and exhaustion had cured him of his fear of humans. He flew in front of my nose and underneath the dodger, perching on reefing lines and winches, showing no interest in nesting in fleece or sipping from the water we put out for him.
In the evening, he went down below. We named him Jack, and after a testing a variety of perches, Jack decided to roost on the fiddle just above our navigation station. He snoozed through the bumpy night, a comforting presence each time I went down below to make an entry into our sailing log.
When I woke up, I looked to the nav station to see if Jack was still onboard. His bunk was empty.
“Did Jack depart?” I asked my dad, who poked his head down from the cockpit
“Departing is one word for it,” my dad said.
Then Dominic told me he woke to find Jack on the floor, his head buried in the red ruffles of our throw pillow. Dominic tried to revive him with a serving of sugar water, and then placed him in the sun to see if increasing his body temperature might revive him. Nothing did.
And so it was that we had our first burial at sea. Jack was wrapped in a towel. My dad remembered enough from the Book of Common Prayer to officiate a modest burial for Jack before we committed his body to the sea. We hope that Jack, most adventurous of the swallows, rests in peace.
Aside from a bit a of melancholy, the sun was shining, raising moral through the heavy conditions. None of us were particularly comfortable, but we took naps, ate light snacks, read books, and binge watched the final season of Downton Abbey during night watch, all the while working to subdue intermittent bouts of nausea. To keep our spirits buoyant, we started planning our adventures in Fiji and gave each other pep talks about how awesome it is to be out having an adventure.
The wind subsided, and we spent a full day motoring through a mild swell with moderate surface chop, looking at a bank of towering cumulous clouds on the horizon. By nightfall those clouds turned into squalls, and by 2200 on our sixth day underway, we found ourselves in the midst of a lightning storm—or as Dominic put it, a “thermonuclear lightning display."
Dominic and I have had many squally nights under our belts, but we’d never seen lightning while underway before. The clouds seemed illuminated by strobe lights, and the occasional bolt struck the water in eyesight. It was scary. We knew the worst case scenario: our mast could be struck, likely zapping our electronics into oblivion. We stowed the satellite phone and portable tech devices in the microwave to keep them insulated, and Dominic took the helm making a sharp turn to curve around the storm and get us out of those conditions as soon as possible.
By morning, the sun was out and Helios was unscathed. Despite our mast being the only piece of metal in the area for miles, the lightning seemed much more attracted to the water than it was to us (as it has been in the past; we’ve been at anchor with a number of boats during lightning storms and not one was struck). We all woke feeling very lucky that there was no damage.
We debriefed in the cockpit after the storm was behind us and we all had the chance to rest. I wonderedif there were any point along the way we could have foreseen and avoided this. We knew we were going to be sailing into head winds when we left; but the wind patterns were typical for this area of the ocean and not severe. We knew we would likely pass through a front; but we’d done that many times, once before in these very waters, and never seen lightning nor heard a crack of thunder.
“Were we insane to be leaving New Zealand under these conditions?” I asked.
“No,” Dominic said with a laugh, “We were insane to ever leave San Francisco.” He pointed out the unpredictability of conditions in our environment, despite our access GRIB files, weather routing software, and on land meteorologists.
So there is passage making: an experience to be endured on the way to months on end in island paradise. Worth it? Yes. Challenging and uncomfortable? Definitely.
But it’s not all so tough. As if the seas were trying to make nice with us, conditions have calmed completely today, and we spent a balmy afternoon cruising in the sunshine. A tropic bird flew by, the second I’ve spotted since leaving New Zealand. There were just enough clouds in the sky this evening to give us a technicolor sunset; nothing to suggest a squall, but enough to form a canvas for Helios’ fiery paint brush as he finished his day’s journey across the sky.