The morning of day four. The sky is a perfect blue; wind and sea, present but calm; and in the cockpit, Axel is operating our “washing machine” (i.e. a plunger in a bucket of water).
I watch him with a smile. This is more like it! Sun and light winds; smiles and fresh laundry. I almost feel human again, I think to myself, as I finally clamber over to the fruit net to check on the pineapples. They are already weeping sticky juice, however, and must be tossed overboard; which inspires me to go below to sort through our stockpile of fruits and veges that I’d been ignoring for the last four days.
I pick them over, extracting the ones that look worse for wear. The carrots in particular are already wilting in the heat, so I finally venture into the galley (boat-talk for kitchen) to make a coleslaw.
The task is bearable, even though I do have to sit down in a sweaty heap once I’m done. Immediately, my head fills up with plans – plans about FOOD: I’ll make falafel for lunch, with fresh tomatoes and coleslaw and chutney…and in the evening I can prepare dough for bread tomorrow…or maybe, maybe I’ll bake muffins! Mmmmm muffins…
The solar panels are charging like crazy, and the batteries are almost full. We take advantage of this abundance of power by running the desalinator to refill the water tanks; and even turn on the fridge (our main energy guzzler) so we can enjoy a cold beer in the evening.
I sit (upright!) in the cockpit, as a mellow breeze brushes past hanging laundry to sweep the hair back from my face. It can’t get much better than this, I muse happily. Nope. If this was a musical, I’d break out into joyful song right about now.
I sit in the cockpit to read my book, which is embarrassingly titled – Stress Management for Dummies.
There are three ways to deal with stress, I learn:
1. Remove the cause,
2. Change your beliefs and values, or
3. Manage your reaction.
When I tell this to Axel, he thinks briefly, before announcing that his favorite is 1. Remove the cause. I nod, sagely, fully agreeing with his pronouncement, before eventually realizing that we are sitting in a boat in the middle of the Pacific ocean, and might be best for me to focus on options 2. and 3 for the time being.
By 5pm, I’m hot from the inside out. Only after I climb down into the relative coolness of the salon do I realize that sitting in the sun all day might not have been such a good idea. Still, the mild headache in my temples does little to dampen my spirits.
The sunset is spectacular, as usual. Axel and I chat together, eat leftover falafel with a side of beer, and watch the stars appear in a sky that shifts from glowing orange to deep purple to midnight blue.
We lie on our backs as Axel shows me how to find the compass points using the stars; and when he eventually goes below to rest, I don’t feel alone at all. I read, and think, and stare up into the cloudless firmament; marveling at Venus, the brightest star in the sky.
Day five and I wake feeling fine, fine, fine!
Axel is taking pictures of the sunrise. As I step into the cockpit, he turns his camera in my direction, before grimacing a little and lowering it without taking a shot.
“What?” I ask.
“Bruce Lee hair,” he replies, motioning with his chin to my mop of hair, which used to be stylishly “New York” but is now…not.
I make a mental note to chop off my blossoming mullet during our next calm day at anchor, flop down beside Axel, and lay my head in his lap.
The wind is blowing a steady 15-20 knots; the parasailor is strung tight in front of the boat, pulling us forward; and although we are still rolling with the waves, the movement feels bearable – calming even – after the lurching of the last days.
Today is going to be a good day!
I hock around below decks all morning, escaping from the sun. I bake home-made Twix Bars (which get a yell of delight from Axel), then lie with my head propped up on a pillow as I read up on how to identify negative thought patterns, eliminate environmental stressors, and control my breathing to release unnecessary tension.
Axel is happy too, but not entirely satisfied. The whirr of winches from the cockpit comes quite often now, as he adjust the sails to the changing wind, and every now and then he’ll come below muttering things like: “The wind is coming from the north-east <head shake>. It doesn’t make any sense!” or “ We might have to go further south if it continues like this…”
In the afternoon, he comes downstairs to download a new weather report and plot our course on the map.
“Ahhhhh!” he shouts, a few minutes later, in typical Axel style.
I look up startled, because even though we’ve known each other for almost six years, I still haven’t figured out how to distinguish his “Ahhhhh! This thing I just discovered is amazingly awesome and cool!” from his “Ahhhhh! I just stabbed myself with a sharp object or something equally horrible!”
I look over, concerned; but he isn’t bleeding profusely, which is always a good sign.
“196 miles!” he exclaims, “We did 196 miles on Tuesday!!”
I think back. Tuesday, I remember Tuesday. Tuesday was horrible and painful, with rain and wind and all sorts of uncomfortableness…
“Wow! That’s so cool…” Axel is flushed with excitement; but is soon dipping his head with a grimmace, “Dammit! I really want to make 200 miles one of these days. If I’d known we were so close I would have tried harder!”
And I can’t help but feel a little guilty, because I know he’s been holding back.
Axel, you see, is the type of guy who’ll grit his teeth and tighten the sails and do all he can to race the wind and the waves. But with me on board he will, more often than not, look sadly at my inert form stretched across the cockpit, and say something like: “Well, I could leave the mainsail up to get a few extra knots, but it’s less rolly with the parasailor,” and then he’ll go and put up the parasailor…
There are some beautiful moments. Like now, as we sit, cuddled together in the cockpit. Bob Marley is crooning softly in the corner, our bellies are full, and we sip contentedly on our sweet, chilled, gin and tonics.
Just thirty minutes later, however, the light fades from the sky. The magical sunset is past, and the night has an ominous feel to it…perhaps it’s the looming clouds.
My iPad lies next to me, full of books and games and sailing simulations; my iPod sits snug in my pocket, brimming with funk, jazz, French lessons, and audio books…but somehow I can’t bring myself to turn them on.
My head is already too full of the days reading. So I stare out across the changing sea, thinking fondly of my past lives in Berlin, Ottawa, New Jersey, and New Zealand; and of the friends I’ve left behind, and what I wouldn’t give to be able to meet up with them for Sushi or a Kebab later this evening…
Axel sits next to me, and we look at each other with the same thought: It’s only 7pm; barely evening. And then, after that there will be another evening, and another, and another…
Neither of us asks our usual “Why are we doing this again?” question, because we both know the answer by now. Because we are stupid, that’s why. And perhaps, just perhaps, we are searching for something else; something other than the stress and ache of modern life.
“I don’t know what to do,” I say.
“Neither do I.”
“Do you want to argue about something?”
He laughs: “About what?”
“We could argue about whether we’ll get a puppy once we get to New Zealand?” I suggest.
But we don’t argue. We simply hold hands and sit together in silence.
My night watch passes uneventfully. I read, learn French, and make plans for tomorrow: If it’s nice weather, I’ll make muffins in the morning. And perhaps I can even sit down and do some writing!
The thought cheers me up immensely. I want to DO something with my time! It is almost a physical pain inside me. I need to work! To be productive! To do something USEFUL!!
But then again, when I consider this urge towards productivity in the quiet moments of the night, I’m not entirely sure if that’s really what I should be doing, or if I’m just being pushed forward by the echoes of the people back home.
I can still feel the wistful envy in their eyes as they’d lay their hands on my arm and say things like: “You have to take advantage of this opportunity, Liz,” or “Be sure to use your time wisely. You are so lucky!”
At 11pm, feeling bored, I switch over to my “How to meditate” audio book. What better time to learn to meditate than on a voyage out at sea, right?
I’m supposed to sit for fifteen minutes and focus on my breathing. If any physical sensation or emotion comes up, I should name it, and repeat it in my head until it goes away – “Itch itch itch,” for example, or “Sad sad sad.”
So I sit cross legged in the cockpit, set my watch alarm to fifteen minutes, and my thoughts go something like this: sore foot, sore foot, undies need adjusting, itchy nose, itchy nose, itchy nose, wave, wave, wave, WAVE, I open my eyes briefly to grab on so I don’t tip over, before closing them again, wave, wave, wave, itchy nose, bored, bored, bored, WAAAVE…
I have this great vision of me sitting on a sailboat, all zen-like, contemplating the nature of the universe and my place in it. And, you know, sometimes I do! Perhaps 0.2% of the time. The other 99.8%, however, I’m just the same old Liz, who thinks about food a lot, and stresses out over getting all salty from seawater and running out of vegetables, and is much too easily startled, and would like nothing more than to hang out with friends in a dimly lit bar in Neu-Koeln.
I open my eyes to sneak a peak at my watch: 3:45 minutes have passed.
It takes all my will-power to sit still for the full fifteen. And after the time is over, I sit there trying to feel something valuable going on inside.
But no, there is nothing going on my head. No feeling of calm or relief; no great realization or sense of progress. I’m not on my way to becoming enlightened, or actualized, or whatever it is I am supposed to be when it all comes down to it.
In fact, all I feel, right at this moment, is a deep and abiding sense of boredom; as if I had just sat there for fifteen minutes wasting my time, when I could have been out there Doing, or Learning, or Creating Something of Value…
I turn on the audio book again and listen a little more. The meditation speaker gives my French instructor a run for his money when it comes to enthusiasm. “The point is to be present in the moment,” he effuses, “It’s not your job to care about the outcome. It is your job to sit there for fifteen minutes each day and try to still your mind…”
I finish my watch and crawl into the pilot berth. Not long after, however, the boat begins to lurch. The waves are back with a vengeance, and we rock steadily from side to side, making it necessary to tie the lee cloth on the side of the bed, so I don’t fall out.
The cabin is hot and musty; there is a strange smell rising up from the bilge and up through the floorboards. I jostle about in the bed for a while, tired but unable to sleep, before getting up and climbing woozily into the cockpit for some fresh air.
But just then, rain drops start to fall, heralding the arrival of a squall. So I climb back down the ladder and sit on the bed, unsure of what to do with myself. Axel comes down too, and we sit, looking at each other as we listen to the contents of the boat shift back and forth.
Clank, clatter, bump, the boat leans to the left.
Clink, bump, donk, and back to the right again.
Clank, clatter, bump, great, there we go to the left again.
Clink, donk, clatter, oh, the fun never stops, does it?
I listen, on edge, expecting any minute to hear one of the clanks to eventually turn into a smash-tinkle-tinkle; but for some reason I can’t bring myself to get up again to check that everything is stowed correctly. That deep unhappiness in my stomach has returned, and all I can do is lie there, anchored to the bed.
Never again, never again, never again…
I wake with a start,
Is it morning yet!? No, it is still dark.
Only then do I register the strange banging noises coming from outside. It sounds terrible! As if Axel is running around madly on deck.
I bolt upright. Perhaps he is battling with the sail…or, or, what if he is in trouble!?
I jump out of bed and run to the entranceway…only to find Axel sitting quietly in the cockpit, looking up at the sails.
“What was that noise!?” I ask, eyes wide.
“It was nothing, just the sails,” he shrugs.
So I lie back in bed, and use my newly acquired deep breathing exercises to calm the restless flutter in my chest.
I lie in a strange, sometimes-conscious state, and only slowly become aware of a strange noise coming from underneath the floorboards.
I sit up immediately, having wisely learnt that an unknown noise coming on the boat is not something that you should ignore.
I lie my head against the floorboards, clicky-clicky-clicky.
I pull them up and peer curiously into the bilge, clicky-clicky-clicky.
But there is nothing there; so I do what I always do when I don’t know what to do: “Axel! Can you come down for a second?”
Axel comes down, and we both crawl around on our knees trying to locate the sound. After a few minutes, we have to conclude that it must come from outside the boat, around about where the keel is.
“Well, we can’t do much about it now,” says Axel with a shrug, and climbs back into the cockpit.
I stay below, sitting on the floor.
If Axel isn’t worried about it, I shouldn’t be either, I think as I put the floorboards back in place and try very hard to channel his faith and trust that things will work out just fine.
I climb back into bed, and try to ignore the sense of impending doom bubbling up inside me; because although I’m almost positive that something terrible is going to happen at any moment – a killer whale attack, for example, or a freak tsunami – past experience has shown that it usually doesn’t.
Still, my mind creeps back to our latest adventure on the rocks in the Galapagos.
Axel promises that it’s impossible for the keel to fall off, but I still have this vision of this little piece of metal, which is sticking out from the side of the keel. Clicky-clicky-clicky. And although it is doing it’s best to withstand the roiling waves and pressure, it is only small, you see, and just can’t manage to hold on. And eventually, it will start peeling away from the side of the boat; slowly slowly; and as it peels, it gets bigger and bigger, until great chunks of the keel are being twisted and ripped away from the hull; and soon, water will start trickling in…
Don’t be silly, nothing is going to happen, I tell myself sternly.
Yes, replies a small but insistent voice, but what if it does?
I just had a wonderful dream. Axel and I were supposed to be sailing for three weeks, but one week in, we find an island with one of those old fashioned american diners at the top of the hill. We laugh ruefully as we drive up to the drive-thru, because we probably should have gone the whole three weeks, but now we are here, we might as well go and eat a burger, right?
This time when I wake, the sun has finally arrived. I look outside to see Axel huddled in the cockpit. Exhausted; asleep. It must have rained a lot in the night, because his wet weather cocoon is soaking wet as it hangs in the companionway.
He stirs as I sit next to him, and murmurs a sleepy good-morning.
“Why didn’t you come inside?” I ask.
“I didn’t want to wake you.” he says.
Which I think is a very silly reason not to come inside.
I don’t know what day it is anymore. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
I’m pitched about in the cockpit. The two-to-three meter waves look magnificent in the dirty gray daylight; sweeping up powerfully behind us, before falling away to force themselves under the boat.
“Twelve squalls,” Axel mutters, as he stands beside me shaking his head. And I turn to look at the tell-tale ‘anvil’ clouds around us, as he points and counts again “One, two, three, four…”
The clouds look pretty, in the distance at least, with their veils of rain flowing downwards to touch the horizon.
Thankfully, Axel has perfected his technique of avoiding looming squalls by judging their speed and sneaking around behind them. The rest of the day passes slowly. Axel dodges the squalls, and I lie in the cockpit, moving only now and then to let out a line, or to winch another a little tighter.
“Shit,” says Axel, some time in the late afternoon, and lunges over my barely conscious form to let the parasailor out, reducing our speed, “I didn’t expect that.”
I sit up to look around. The wind whips at my face, and the boat heels alarmingly to the side in choppy seas. I feel the first splatters of raindrops on my face. Axel has been outsmarted by the weather, it seems; and we are running before a devious black cloud that had been hiding behind the one he just dodged.
I sway dopily as the boat is forced sideways by a rouge wave. The autopilot whirrs in disagreement as it tries to regain control, and the parasailor swings alarmingly as we heel over enough that the sea almost pours into the cockpit.
Once we are upright again, I scramble over to grab our canvas spray-guard, which was ripped free by the strength of the wave and is only hanging on by a few lonely cable ties.
“Stay inside the cockpit!” Axel barks. I give him what I hope is a “I-can-look-after-myself” look, but decide to abandon my attempts to rescue the spray-guard, and instead run around the cockpit, throwing any loose items – pillows, buckets, books, and the like – down into the relative safety of the companionway.
Axel starts muttering unhappily behind me.
“Scheisse,” he says, “The BBQ.”
I look over to the empty spot where our BBQ used to be. It must have been ripped off the cleat where it was attached and is, right at this moment, sinking slowly to the bottom of the sea…
“I have to get the parasailor down” Axel yells down into the salon. It’s evening already, and I’d been sleeping.
The rain is constant now, with squalls lining up, one behind the other, as they wait patiently for the privilege of raining down on our sad, wet, Gudrun.
I put on my jacket and waterproof pants and go outside to see what is going on. The wind is gaining momentum again. I feel the rain on my face, and try to contain the urge to go back below, where I would crawl into the pilot’s berth and get myself as unconscious as possible.
For the next two hours, I sit in the cockpit and watch fretfully as Axel clips himself to the safety line, and wobbles his way forward to battle with the parasailor. The wind has picked up to over 35 knots, and the sail billows out with great force, making it difficult to pull down the sock and get it back in the boat.
Every now and then he shouts, “Plus 20 degrees!” or “Pull the downhaul!” or “Let the starboard sheet out!” and I scramble around the cockpit adjusting the autopilot and lines. And although I know that the wind isn’t that bad, and that Axel is clipped in and won’t fall off the boat; I still feel a great tightness in my chest, like a spring being wound tighter, and tighter…
Finally, the parasailor is down. I cheer mightily as Axel crawls back into the safety of the cockpit, and we furl out the headsail.
Both drenched, we sit side-by-side, enjoying the closeness that comes from achieving something together. And for a little while, I simply enjoy the moment, smiling at the coolness of the raindrops, as they spatter onto my bare hands and feet, and dribble over my rain jacket to sneak onto my face and neck.
It’s not long, however, before I feel the need to scurry back into the safety and warmth of the salon.
I pull off my gear, towel myself dry, and jump bodily into the bunk, to snuggle into the safety of the pillow. It’s only after I am lying there in comfort, that I hear the clinking noise of our glass cups, which we had washed after dinner and placed to dry on the galley counter. They sway back and forth at the boat swings, with ominous clinks, and I can imagine in my minds eye the mess they’d make if they fell to the floor.
I should put them away, I think. But I can’t. I’m stuck here in bed, afraid to get up, or move, or do anything. Paralyzed with something. Seasickness? Fear? Stress? I’m not sure which.
A clink-filled hour later, Axel comes in, exhausted as well, and flops down on the couch on the other side of the salon.
Now, Liz, you can’t be such a wuss. Don’t just sit there sniffling like a girl. Be a real man! You don’t see Axel lazing around in bed, do you?
I look over at Axels still form as he lies there motionless, however, and feel the need to change my tactic: You need to push yourself if you are going to get stronger! Don’t give in to the fear!! You can do it!!!
So I lift my head from the warm, cosy pillow, and stumble over to the galley to put the glasses away. On the way, the boat heaves and I’m pushed against the navigation table and almost fall to the floor.
Everything sucks. Everything sucks. Everything sucks!
Finally, I make it the endless two meters to the galley, pick up the damn glasses and open the dish-ware cupboard to stow them away.
But…they won’t fit. Everything has shifted. The cupboard is a mess, with the plates and cups, and containers and thermoses all jumbled together. As I stare upwards into the cupboard, trying to decide what to do, the boat sways again. The contents of the cupboard rattle and teeter, as if they will fall on me at any minute, and one of my numerous snaplock containers is the first one to take the plunge – falling out and hitting me on the crown of the head.
And what do I do?
I burst into tears. I close the cupboard, put the glasses in the sink, sit down to the ground, and cry my little heart out.
Axel, hearing the commotion, gets up and pats me with a there-there, before putting the glasses away; and soon after I crawl back into bed and fall asleep.
You know what I miss? I miss the freedom of regular life. I miss the importance of it all. I miss getting up and having a coffee, and then walking out the door on some important errand…
The day is wearing on. It’s Saturday, almost a week since we left. The weather, at least, has cleared up a little, but I still can’t bring myself to venture outside.
The mysterious clicky-clicky sound has disappeared, but the smell in the bilge has only gotten worse. I don’t know what it is. I spent four days in Shelter Bay Marina in Panama cleaning the damn thing…
Finally, Axel can’t stand it any more; he gets out the salt water pump and starts cleaning it out. It makes so much noise! This endless whirrr-whirrr-whirrr, and all the floorboards are up, and of course, that makes the smell that much worse, and I have this dull achy headache, and I’m sitting here crying because all I want is for everything to be STILL for once!
I get up and go outside. It’s sunny, at least. So I do some washing, and try to ignore the bulb of unhappiness that has wedged itself in my throat.
Axel informed me that we passed the one-third mark this afternoon. Woohoo. Can you feel my enthusiasm?
Axel has this thing where he says we are almost there. By his logic, one-third of the way is a great confidence boost. Because, after the one-third mark, there is only a short leap to the half-way mark; and from half-way, it is only a little further until you reach two-thirds, and then three-quarters, and bam! before you know it you have arrived at your destination, still wondering where the time went.
So he’s all happy about that. But, you know, I’m not sure if his logic is quite correct. Because by my calculations the last week lasted an eternity; which means stretching out before us, across the endless expanse of sea, is nothing less then two-times eternity…
But, on the other hand, Axel was always much better at math than I…