Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Our Life at Sea

Many famous authors can give you wonderful accounts of life at sea. One of my favorite is the classic, "Two Years Before the Mast." This blog however tells about how Libby and I experienced it.

Several times before, I wrote about exhaustion from lack of sleep. This time we were out long enough to adapt our sleep to what seemed to be a sustainable schedule. The secret was that Libby is less tolerant than Dick of not having an uninterrupted block of sleep at night. Here's our watch schedule.

0000
-----Dick

0700
-----
Libby
1100
-----
Dick
1400
-----
Libby
1600
-----
Dick
2000
-----
Libby
0000


After a few days at sea I felt lonely. I realized that our two person schedule didn't allow for much togetherness. Each of us was either on watch or eating or trying to sleep. Libby and I barely got to say hello to each other as part of the situation briefing when changing watch. In retrospect I also understand that the watch schedule didn't allow me time to think through command decisions. There were two or three things I might have done differently en route that would have gotten us to Isla Mujeres or to Belize despite the weather. The point is that to make good decisions requires some time to focus on the problem and to investigate alternatives. The two person schedule doesn't leave time for that.

What can one do about the two person problem? What do single handed sailors do? One solution is to not keep watch. The boat can steer itself and the crew can stay below decks. I reject that as irresponsible in any part of the world where we may meet ship traffic. Twice on this voyage we had to alter course or speed to avoid coming dangerously close to a ship. The ships will gladly run us over. It is up to us to keep out of their way.

The other solution is to have more than two people. Libby and I talked before about getting a third crew member for long passages. Our recent experience confirms the wisdom of that. On the other hand we're reluctant to take the risk with a stranger. If we don't get along with the third person it could be a terrible experience. We're also reluctant to commit ourselves to dates and places far enough in advance to arrange for crew. We'll have to overcome our reluctance in the future; that third person is needed.

To understand our life at sea it is essential to know that things are totally different when the wind is abeam or astern than when it is forward. With a following wind and following seas boat motion is gentle and quiet. The crew can relax, and take time to cook meals or to read a book. That is why 90% of long ocean passages are planned to take routes with following winds 90% of the time.

Sailing into the wind and into the waves makes everything different. The boat is heeled over 20 to 30 degrees all the time. Boat motion is violent. One needs to hold on tightly and brace oneself every moment, especially down below. At the end of a watch, it felt that every muscle in my body was sore and aching from overuse. Only when lying in a leeward bunk can one relax the muscles. Once, poor Libby didn't hang on and she was thrown across the cabin and landed on the stove. The blow to her kidneys hurt her badly. Luckily there were no major injury.

We often hear other cruisers talking lovingly about their boats. One of the prized qualities of a cruising boat is a dry cockpit. Alas, Tarwathie has many wonderful qualities but not that one. As we sailed into the wind in the Yucatan Channel against 28 knots winds and 7-11 foot waves we were heeled 30 degrees. At that angle of heel, our rail is under the water most of the time. Worse, about every 5th wave comes over the rail and carries a flood of water all the way back to the cockpit where you're sitting. Every 30th wave slaps hard on the windward flank sending a huge shower of spray 20 feet into the air to rain down on anyone above deck. Several times per day the winds change enough so that I had to change headsails. That means going up to the bowsprit to raise, lower or to secure a sail. On the bowsprit I get dunked water up to my waist about once every 30 seconds.

As a result of all that, we were wet most of the time when sailing to windward. I developed a bad salt rash on my backside as a result of sitting too long in saltwater soaked underwear. When sitting on a rocking boat that rubbed the sore part and irritated it even more. Poor Libby changed clothes so often that she ran out of clothes after only 48 hours of windward sailing. Part of the solution is to wear foul weather jackets, pants and boots more often. That protects your clothes from salt water. However, since we don't have the expensive Gore Tex type of gear, our suits don't breath and we get soaked in sweat instead. Don't think cold and wet, we were warm and wet.

We also experienced some leaks, although not so bad as when we sailed near Cape Fear. The leaking water ruined all of our supply of pasta. Horrors, not the pasta! This week in Marathon, I'm recaulking all the stanchion bolts. I believe that's where water comes in when the rail is held underwater.

A small disaster was caused by storing oatmeal on the shelf in a cardboard container. In the rough weather the glass bottles and jars on the shelf were shaken together with the cardboard one and they battered the cardboard container out of shape until the cover came off. When I opened the shelf door I saw everything inside covered in wet oatmeal. We postponed cleaning up the mess several days until things got more gentle, but by that time the oatmeal had mildewed, making the clean-up even tougher. Food on the boat needs to be stored in rugged waterproof containers, and food accidents need to be cleaned up immediately no matter what the weather.

From now on I will appreciate it better when I hear others talking about dry cockpits.

Of course we've yet to experience a true storm while at sea; something with winds of 50 knots or more. In that case, we heave-to the boat and both of us go below decks. The person on watch maintains the lookout for ships using the radar. World cruisers report that they experience storm conditions less than 2% of their time at sea which is 0.4% of their time onboard the boat.

Horrified? Don't be. Just remember that 90% of the words go to describe the heavy weather conditions that we experience only 10% of the time at sea and only 2% of the time living onboard the boat.

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