A rudderless life

by Christine Kling

We arrived today at Majuro atoll in the the Marshall Islands in late afternoon. I am sitting here in the corner of a local restaurant in total sensory overload having just downloaded more than a thousand emails and there is over-loud music playing through speakers and a TV behind the bar and I just ate salad with loads of fresh lettuce.

For those who have just randomly found this blog on the Internet, let me digress and tell you how I got here. Back in November, a fellow commented on a blog post I made (via my dog Barney) and he and I started chatting online. It turned out he was on his boat in Fiji and preparing to make a singlehanded passage north to the Marshall Islands. Coincidently, I’d been writing about how much I yearned to make a long passage again. He offered to give me the chance to do just that and against all the advice of friends, I took him up on his offer. So about a month ago, I hopped on a plane and flew to Fiji to go sailing with this stranger. Crazy, right? Yeah, I know. Friends warned me that he might be an axe murderer and I might end up as shark chum, but as those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know, I believe in serendipity. Sometimes we try to oversteer our lives, and the result is never good for me. So, I decided to just go with it, and I hopped on a plane for Fiji.

On our first sail out to the island of Navadra, the autopilot failed. At first, I thought I should take that as a warning sign. Let’s face it, among the things that can most mess up the “fun” factor of sailing is broken gear. But, it turned out this guy had the parts necessary to repair it on hand, and he laughingly referred to his boat as a floating parts department. I liked that, and I decided not to hop on the first plane back out.

So now, it’s just over a month later, and I’ve been on a boat at sea for 3 weeks and my psyche has experienced a seismic shift. There is something so vibrantly exciting about living life along that tightrope that is suspended without a net – and it makes the return to the everyday (even if it is the everyday in a very exotic locale) a little less alluring. Reality TV cannot hold a candle to reality.

So, on this passage from Fiji to Majuro in the Marshall Islands, we covered something like 1800+ miles. I had many hours on long night watches to think and be unplugged and contemplate the universe. The question of what is important in life always rises to the top for me, and I had so much time to put my priorities in order. I love looking at the night sky and thinking about how minuscule I am in regard to the blazing Milky Way. As it turned out, the axe never appeared and Wayne, the captain, and I had lots of time to talk and laugh and think.

But when we were 211 miles south of Majuro, I took the helm and tried to steer through a major squall and I discovered that our steering wasn’t working. After several attempts to fix it – including filling the hydraulic fluid – we finally decided that Wayne would have to go into the water to see what was going on with the rudder. He donned his snorkel and fins and tied a single rope around his slender waist.  You need to know that we were in seas about 10-12 feet high and with the strong trades, the boat was moving at over a knot. I was terrified that the stern that was bouncing up and down like 6 feet into the air and then slamming down onto the water was going to hit him in the head and kill him. I kept repeating to myself silently “Don’t make me pull in a body.”

It turned out that the rudder shaft had broken and we had a rudder that was still resting in the bottom of the skeg-hung shoe, but it was no longer connected to the steering gear. We were no longer able to steer the boat, and we were sitting on the equator hundreds of miles from the nearest land.

The funny part of this was that we had spent a good part of the early part of the passage complaining about the lousy ability of the RayMarine autopilot to steer the boat. Now, the autopilot was useless, and we had to figure out some way to steer this huge 52-foot steel boat. Wayne climbed out of the water and we talked it through. He came up with the idea of tying ropes around the rudder.  The difficult part was that this required him to go back into the water with his mask and snorkel twice more, and do what we came to call “rudder wrangling” as he dove down on this bucking bronco of a boat and managed to get not one but four ropes tied around the rudder – two for each side. He said he felt like Gollum from Lord of the Rings clinging to the rudder as the elevator rose and fell up to 12 feet at a time.

I cannot convey to you the terror I felt at the idea of being left alone aboard this enormously complex piece of machinery. Yes, I’d been slowly learning how to sail her, but I wasn’t in any way ready to do it alone to transport an injured man to a hospital. I was so relived each time he made it back aboard merely bruised and not beaten.

We tested the new rudder system and made marks with Sharpie pens and we discovered that we were able to balance the rig so that the boat wanted to round up into the wind and the rudder was angled to fight against that pressure and Voila! we had steerage. Balance! Of course, every squall, every wind shift, every overly large wave sent the boat off on another course altogether. We didn’t have the ability of a helmsman to counteract these acts of nature. But we were amazed at our ability to balance the boat and make her sail on her own with a lashed rudder for hours. It certainly makes you think differently about your autopilot.

So, last night we hove to off the western end of Majuro and caught some ZZZ’s and this morning we made our final attempt to get to the pass into this atoll. And what else? Some sort of thing — bigger than just a squall — some ITCZ (Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone) beast reared his head and blasted us with 40-50 knot winds on the nose as we tried to tack our way up to the pass. I have to admit in all my sailing, I have never been on a boat that sails through weather like that. We had already blown out one headsail, and now we were carrying the bullet-proof 90% heavy weather jib and the main with 2 reefs and with spindrift flying off the tops of the breaking waves, heeled over at 35-40 degrees, we kept beating our way to weather and the boat took it. With the rudder lashed we had little to no control. I kept thinking that if she rounds up and goes into irons and tacks over, we will experience a knock down. But it didn’t happen. The boat was balanced and she sailed us through every gust and every equally dangerous lull. In these last three weeks, I’ve grown to love the strength of this boat.

As often happens after a major blow, the sea goes quiet. When we were about 10 miles out, we lost the wind entirely. Up to that point, we had used the opposing forces of wind in sails and rudder to balance the boat. Suddenly, we had to learn how to center the rudder and use the motor with our jury-rigged rudder set-up. With very little practice, we had to find this new balance in order to get in before the fast approaching night fell. We had arranged for one of Wayne’s friends to come out and tow us through the pass, but in the lull following the blow, we decided we didn’t need help. We made our own way through the pass into the atoll lagoon. I was at the helm and Wayne was on the stern of the boat tweaking the lines that led to the rudder. It worked amazingly well. In fact, we crossed the rest of the lagoon with one or the other of us going back and pulling on this line or that, and we motored right up to the mooring ball in the lagoon. A friend caught the line I tossed to him, and he threaded it through the mooring pendant. I don’t know if there is any way I can convey to you the satisfaction we felt at having done this all on our own — and even more important, we had fun doing it.

So, tonight as I sit in this overload atmosphere of noise and music and loud voices, I keep thinking about how autopilots can be great, but they can also be the antithesis of what I want from life. I’ve been oversteering my life for quite a long time. I’ve been trying to force plans and destinations onto my life when in fact, I should have been embracing the randomness of it all. Losing your rudder, breaking the autopilot can sometimes be the best thing that happens to you. It teaches you that you can find a natural balance. It’s there just waiting be discovered.  If you are brave enough to let go of the autopilot. If you are brave enough to take a risk on a rudderless life, you have no idea what riches or joy you might find. I can attest to the fact that you just might find love. Like I have.

Fair winds!

Christine

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About Christine Kling

I have spent more than thirty years living on and around boats and cruising the waters of the North and South Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Caribbean. I’ve written articles and stories for many boating publications including Sailing, Cruising World, Motor Boating & Sailing, and The Tiller and the Pen. When I was married, I helped my husband build a 55-foot custom sailing yacht. After launching her, we sailed through the Panama Canal to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands where we chartered for over two years. While in the islands, I received my 100-ton Auxiliary Sail Captains license. It was that sailing experience that led me to set my first nautical suspense novel, SURFACE TENSION (2002), on the waterfront in Fort Lauderdale. Featuring Florida female tug and salvage captain, Seychelle Sullivan, the first book was followed by CROSS CURRENT (2004) and BITTER END (2005). The fourth book in the series, WRECKERS’ KEY was released in February 2007. At the end of the 2010-11 academic year, I took the motto of this blog to heart. I quit my day job as an English professor at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale (just when they offered me tenure, I said no thanks and took early retirement). I was living the dream of full-time cruising on board my 33-foot Caliber Talespinner on my very tiny pension and whatever I made from my books having parted ways with the big publishing establishment. I self-published two books on my own: a small collection of four short stories entitled SEA BITCH: Four Tales of Nautical Noir and my first stand-alone sailing thriller set in the Caribbean, CIRCLE OF BONES. In 2012 I was offered a publishing deal with Amazon's mystery/thriller imprint Thomas&Mercer and they reissued CIRCLE OF BONES. The sequel to that book, DRAGON'S TRIANGLE came out in June 2014. And as for me, I'm no longer a singlehander on my little boat. I met Wayne Hodgins in 2013 and after a whirlwind Skype courtship, I flew to meet him in Fiji and we sailed a nearly 2000 mile passage to the Marshall Islands for our "first date." We now sail together aboard LEARNATIVITY, a 52-foot motor sailor with our family including Barney, the Yorkshire Terror and Ruby, the Wonder Dog.
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21 Responses to A rudderless life

  1. Bob Proteau says:

    Wow, Christine, your 17 January blog is a terrific tale of adventure, potential peril, and enormous fortitude. Congratulations on your and Wayne’s successful ocean crossing. You are my hero and I just knew you were going to find love on this trip, of one sort or another. Thanks for sharing your experience.
    Oh, and Max the dog says “Way to go Barney!”.
    Bob

  2. Garry says:

    I’ve always loved the way the sea brings you back to the essential elements of life. Bravo, Christine!

  3. gerald dowling says:

    Chris,

    You went a long way out of the way to find a big Adventure. Think you just did it, but it will get better. My Grand Paw says these kind of things are just like giving birth, you remember but never quite feel the intensity of the process, but what did he know? All he had ever given birth too was a god story. And this could turn into a part time job, bobbing around and selling boat parts.

  4. Cindy Hudson says:

    Christine, You are living the adventure just like in your book. Bravo for your bravery to jump on the airplane. Thanks for the wonderful descriptive blog to let us in what you see and feel. What about Barney? Is he going to join you eventually?

  5. Conrad Brown says:

    Unplug the computer and enjoy your new found love, the boat and where you are. Congratulations and best wishes!

  6. Kathleen says:

    Hooray! Another successful passage. Thanks for letting us know you are fine. Wishing you and Wayne continued safe adventures. OX kg

  7. Terry Shames says:

    Christine, I read your post aloud to my poor, landlocked husband and we just grinned our way through it. What a wonderful post. I can’t tell you how much I admire you and Wayne for being so intrepid. I have a low panic threshold and stories like these make me feel braver and more ready to face the storms of life. I’m feeling ridiculously happy as I write this.

    I think last time we talked I told you that David and I bought a sweet little 42′ boat to take down to Mexico to keep there. There were lots of things to iron out to get it ready, but David likes that part of things and he wasn’t in any hurry. In December he took her down to Ensenada, intending to go to on to Puerto Vallarta, but something else went wrong with a piece of new gear he wasn’t familiar with, so he had to wait for someone from San Diego to come down and repair it. And then, just as he was ready to go back to continue the journey, the Mexican government did this crazy thing and impounded over 300 boats for not having papers properly filed. The problem was that the marina had the papers, but hadn’t bothered to file them. The whole thing is hard to take. We have no idea when they will release the boats–all of them. This has been in the newspaper–there’s a big uproar.

    Meanwhile, I’m working hard to get my third book written. So it’s not such a big deal for me. And David is being patient. After all, there’s nothing he can do about it. But it’s hard to have a boat and not be able to take her out.

    That’s why reading about your amazing journey was so meaningful for us. Fair winds to you! And thanks for the vicarious adventure.

    Terry Shames

  8. Hey, Christine, what a beautiful beautiful composition. What a marvelous adventure.
    I’m proud to know you and a little about your life.
    Fair Winds!

  9. Bravo, Christine! What a fantastic adventure you are on. It must be amazing to be back in the South Pacific again. I’m not sure how you will ever come home, but when you do…I look forward to sitting in the Downtowner listening to tales of your adventures.
    All the best,
    Victoria Allman
    Author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain

  10. I get what you’re saying, but all I could think of as I was reading this was, “I NEVER want to do that. Nope. Not me. Never, ever. I’ll have another baby via C-section again, before I do that.” Does that make me a wimp? Probably, but that’s okay. A woman has to know her limitations. I still love you, though.

  11. Gail Isaacs says:

    You go girl! What an amazing story Chris on every front…we are going to need to talk! I didn’t have quite the excitement sailing to Mexico that you experienced. It turns out that I was on a sailboat that used his sail only for auxiliary purposes!

    I’ve decided to rent an apartment for the next two months in Puerto Vallarta, I’ll write more about it on my blog next week.

    I’m glad that your safe and happy!

  12. Linda schrade says:

    I love your writings!!! Such a life you are leading! Going sailing with Wayne is no crazier than leaving Maui with a bunch of guys on a boat sailing to New Zealand back in 1974.. Right??? Love you Chris , Linda

  13. John Urban says:

    Christine,

    An amazing adventure, a great post, and I was so happy for you when I read the last two lines.

    And the next time someone asks, where do you get ideas for your stories?

    All the best,
    John

  14. Herbert Payson says:

    I was excited to learn you were in the Marshalls, and, I believe, in Maloelap. We spent a year there, during which I wrote “Blown Away.” (Rewrote 2/3 of it in Fiji a year later.) N’s brother Dan Crain served the Peace Corps in Maloelap, and someone there (if not dead) may remember him. Capital is the one I remember. I always laughed at the images of Marshallese ignorance, as most of them spoke several languages (German, Japanese, Marshallese, and American), whereas most of the sailors I knew spoke only one. Thanks for the article.

    Herb

  15. Marcia Spillers says:

    I’m always amazed when I read your blog to find out where your journey has taken you. May your days be filled with sunshine and great weather, and your sails be strong!

    Let’s touch base soon….

  16. First, congrats on the journey. All of it. Trusting your gut. Daring to go. Lashing yourself back to those stars above the briny blue. Oh, and seriously brilliant resourcefulness on the rudder and steering solutions.. Your post grabbed some of the deepest, hardest to access, life-changing, soul-affirming moments from my decade on the ocean and yanked them right up into the present, into the beat of my heart. Once again, Christine, thank you for taking us along on the voyage.

  17. trish says:

    Wow! Great blog!!

  18. Dave Stovall says:

    I’ve always believed in the idea of “Leap and the net will appear”. Great read. All the best.

  19. Marianne Glassen says:

    Dear Christine,

    I have had the pleasure of knowing you for about 48 years and I have known you to “lose your rudder/auto-pilot” several times in your life. In high school, you decided to “break away” from your junior high school friends and go your own way. You decided to graduate from high school a year early and moved away. Most of us lost touch with you for many years. You lost your husband, found work, lived on a boat and raised your son. Please forgive me if I am simplifying too much, as that is not my intention. You decided to retire early and sail away on fascinating adventures. You have decided to be on “a road less traveled” and I admire all of your numerous accomplishments VERY much! I am in a book club (for about 12 years now) and look forward to reading your books in the future. I wish you all of the best in love and life. I am grateful to re-connect with you through Facebook. I treasure you as a special friend…I always did.

    Much love to you always,
    Marianne Woodall Glassen

  20. Steve Taylor says:

    Wayne was right, you are a much better writer than he is. Wayne and I go back a long way and seem to drift into each other’s lives at odd moments. I am glad to hear two kindred souls have hooked up and look forward to reading your blog. Wayne’s blog alternates between a boat maintenance manual and a Harlequin Romance. Maybe you can give him some pointers.

  21. Glenn Nilson says:

    Fantastic Chris. Fair winds on your next leg. You make us all feel like mariners.

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