11 June 2022

Day 8 — A voyage of discovery

Last night I spent 20 or 30 minutes talking to another sailboat on an exactly reciprocal course to ours. We were going south to cross the Gulf Stream (something that's become an obsession with me at this point, it seems so difficult), and he was headed north to Maine. The AIS indicated we would pass port-to-port about 1/2 mile apart.

This was an occasion to chat on the VHF while making sure some freak accident (more on that topic in a minute) didn't cause us to collide head on. We described or boats to each other, our destructions, our crews, the number of lobster pots in Maine and when to start watching for them… Turned out he was originally from Sweden; he was sailing a French aluminum center boarder of a type I really like; he had is wife and 2 kids as crew, and they'd been at it for awhile, sailing from Europe to the Caribbean to Bermuda on his way to Maine for the first time. He wondered if the channel into Portland would be clear of lobster pots because they would probably enter it at night. I said don't count on it!

Anyway, I woke up this morning a lot more at home with the idea of being out here than I had been yesterday. It didn't seem such a lonely and isolated place. It was just the sea with people going here and there as they have done for centuries.

We'd had no wind and had been motoring for awhile, when suddenly a breeze sprung up and we decided to hoist the sails and take advantage of it. Strictly routine. Nothing special at all about it. Until the main halyard stuck firmly with the mainsail almost all the way up.

Oh crap, was what I thought, or something similar of a salty character.

We tried various things to unstick it, but nothing worked. It was well and truly stuck with us about to cross the Gulf Stream, with monster squalls ringing the horizon in every direction. It had to come down.

There was nothing for it but to go aloft and fix it. We dragged out our bosun chair and gear, and discussed our plan as we assembled it at the base of the mast.

I'd first try to unstick the halyard, of course, but if that proved impossible, I was going to have to cut it to let the sail down. I made sure I had the right tools with me, got in the chair, and Helena started cranking me up.

We'd done this many times before, but always on a dock, with calm water and no wind to rock the boat. Here we were at sea, with about 8 knots blowing, and a decidedly not-flat sea. Things would be lively at the top of the mast. Oh, and there had been a steady stream of ships going back and forth just ahead of us, so, yeah, we were close to if not in a shipping lane.

Luckily (we had a lot of luck today), the sea was relatively calm, with just the remnants of those 10 foot waves of the days before. The wind was fairly light. It could have been much worse. But still the motion of the mast was worse than I expected, even just a few feet up.

"Tether yourself to the mast," Helena insisted, so I didn't become a human pendulum, crashing violently into the mast and shrouds.

This I did, but it was still hard work to cling to the mast with legs and hands. I couldn't climb up the steps to make it easier for Helena to lift me. I needed all my limbs and energy just to keep from banging around.
Well, I made it, and couldn't unjam the halyard (it had inexplicably jammed itself between the sheave and the mast and it was impossible for me to both hold on and un-jam it. I was able to open the shackle though, and down slid the sail.

I could practically hear Helena's sigh of relief, 55 feet below.

"Get me out of here!" I said. And a few minutes later I was back on the deck, utterly exhausted, and drenched with adrenaline-laced sweat.

I had to leave the clean up to Helena for awhile, to go rest. She was amazing. It must have been damn hard work cranking me up that mast, not to mention scary. Discussing it later, it seemed she had been more afraid than I'd been. Actually, I hadn't had time to be afraid, except of swinging wildly around up there, and all my thoughts had been on clinging to the mast like a limpet, and getting that sail down somehow. She'd had much more time to worry and imagine worse.

Surprisingly, as I write this at night while on watch, I feel a lot more confident in our ability as crew of Petronella than I did before. I feel not only my various bruises, but that sense of home. That sense of we- can-do-this.

Also, I feel lucky. Those squalls ringing the horizon stayed on the horizon, as if we were in a zone of safety. The stream of ships paused for an hour. The wind and seas stayed relatively calm. We'd been lucky, and a sailor takes his luck wherever he can find it.

We are a better team after today. One of the best days of my life.

But I'm going to do my best to never do that again!


  1. OMG...the Sea gods were with you..
    Bon Voyage!! Tony

    1. The most dangerous thing I ever did in my life, by far!


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