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.
ChristineShare on Facebook