April 3, 2015
My wife was crouched at the base of Play Actor's mast during a violent squall. She was flattening our mainsail to de-power it for the high winds when there was a crack like a rifle shot and she fell backward to the wildly pitching deck. Her harness and tether kept her from going overboard, and before I could lash the helm and go to her aid, she recovered. A piece of hardware in the boom vang, the block and tackle she was using, had parted. The stainless steel had grown brittle with age. She collected the pieces and brought them back to show me.
"Now what?" she asked over the howl of the wind in the rigging.
"We either need to reef the main or drop it," I said.
It was dawn when the squall struck. We had been trading off during the night, changing watch every four hours, and after a clear, moonlit night, we were taken by surprise. With the full mainsail flying, we were overpowered as the wind piped up into the mid-30-knot range. It wasn't dangerous, at least not yet, but it was a long way from the benign sail that we'd enjoyed through the night, and we still had several hours to go before our planned landfall in St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.
We left St. Martin late the previous afternoon and experienced one of those aesthetic treats reserved for offshore sailors. We were out of sight of land when the sun set. There was a green flash, a rare enough phenomenon, but this one occurred as the disc of the sun sunk below the top of the clouds on the horizon. In our years sailing the tropics, we've seen our share of green flashes, but never one that happened when clouds obscured the horizon. For a moment, the clouds were glowing green, but I've never managed to get a photograph of a green flash.
As the sun's golden glow faded from the indigo water, the moon rose off our stern. It was a waxing moon, a day or two before full, and the sky behind us to the east was clear. As the reddish-gold highlights of sunset faded, our world turned black and white and silver. Except for two whales that breached nearby just before sunset and two cruise ships that passed us just after, we had no other company.
We spent the night sailing, in awe of our surroundings. Sailing itself is magic; harnessing the power of a steady, gentle breeze to move a boat that weighs tens of tons through such an ethereal setting is transcendent. For that night, we were the only two people in the world, and what a world it was.
The sea at night, far from land, has always been our special place, but that night will stay in our memory as one of our best. It ended as dramatically as it had begun; as the moon set off our bow, the sun rose behind us, turning shades of gray with silver highlights to dazzling flashes of gold.
Although it had been a clear night, we had a few brief, misty rain showers. They barely wet the deck, the eerie diffusion of light through the moisture-laden air adding to the sense of otherworldliness. And then, as the golden sunrise became daylight, the light northeasterly wind bought the squall. At first, we thought it was another shower, until the wind piped up.
Thirty plus knots of wind isn't rare offshore. We've sailed in that kind of wind for days at a time. This morning, though, we were tired. We had set out on a single overnight passage to begin a journey that will span the next couple of months. We had not yet settled into the rhythm of watch-keeping, so neither of us had slept during our off watches. We were tired, ready to drop the anchor and get some rest.
We could see St. John looming on the horizon through the breaks in the rain. We looked at each other, deciding whether to reduce the size of the mainsail with a reef, or just take it down. Reefing was more work, but we could keep sailing. Taking it down meant running the auxiliary engine. Looking at Leslie and raising my eyebrows, I reached for the ignition key. She nodded her agreement.
Leslie took the helm and pointed the bow into the wind, revving up the diesel, while I went forward and dropped the mainsail, wrestling the hundreds of square feet of wet, slippery sailcloth into submission and lashing it to the boom. Working one-handed, I held on to keep from being knocked down by the gyrations of Play Actor as she smashed into the waves, wind-driven spray flying, soaking me.
I'm writing this as we sit in a calm anchorage a few yards off a pristine beach south of Caneel Bay, St. John. We've already forgotten the bruises and the sore muscles. They're a small price to pay for what we had last night.
We’re taking Play Actor back to the States for the first time since 2004. It’s good to be making an extended trip for a change as opposed to the short hops between islands that we’ve done for the last ten years.
There will be more posts like this one as we refresh our acquaintance with voyaging under sail, and I expect they’ll form the basis of a third non-fiction book to complement my sailing thrillers.