The fourth night was sleepless again. I rose constantly to check the wind direction—still ENE!!?!? Swell bashed into the waves more than I’d have liked, but we really needed to make some distance. If the weather panned out as now predicted, there were howling easterlies on the way. If we didn’t make it before they set in, we’d surely be blown west of our destination.
Finally, after dawn the wind gradually shifted down into the east and miles started to melt away on. My mate was clearly back among the living and things started looking up. I cooked some pasta, read, but couldn’t get myself to fall asleep with the boat leaping and crashing around like she was.
Around 10pm, the predicted easterlies set in with a vengeance. I shortened sail over and over until we were left with only a 3rd reefed main and a little swatch of jib. For the third night in a row, I couldn’t get my body to sleep. With the creaking, moaning, bashing, and the howl of the wind I’d have had as much luck falling asleep on a rollercoaster.
At 5am I gave up resting and climbed up into the cockpit. We’d deviated badly off course in the last four hours. The horizon illuminated slowly in the east, revealing the enormous mountains of water bearing down upon us one after the next. I’d taken down so much sail in that we were only going about 2-3 knots. We had 150 miles to go and were loosing ground quickly to the west.
Raiarii emerged from the cabin. “What is it?” he asked. I must have been wearing the anxiety on my face.
“I…I…I don’t know if we’re going to make it…” I replied. “We’re so close, but in these conditions it’s really going to be tough.” I was thick and slow with fatigue after days without sleep and the thought of the ensuing battle was more than I could bear.
“I’m going to hand steer,” he declared. “Let’s put some sail back up.”
His determination fueled my own. We rolled out more jib. In order to point into the wind, we needed more speed. He took the wheel and I went down and tried again to rest. Swell was launching over wave crests and exploding into the following trough with sickening air-drops. Imagine trying to sleep while your buddy crashes your car into a wall over and over…
I finally gave up and went to check on the pilot. The seas were enormous! The sky was dangerously blue from horizon to horizon. Wind drove the crests furiously off the wave tops. They tumbled toward us, often colliding just at the right angle to explode over us. Despite my offers to take over, Raiarii held the wheel for 7 hours straight. Swell was taking some blows, but we made forward progress. I slammed into walls and corners while fetching items below. Halfway through cooking popcorn, Swell made such an appalling ‘drop-roll-slam’, that the pan went flying off the stove. Kernels exploded across the cabin and the oil spilled into the flame as I leapt to cut off the gas…
Needless to say, it was crackers and cheese again…
Around midday Raiarii reluctantly handed over the wheel. His eyes were beginning to cross and he was crusted white with salt. He poured a bottle of water over his face, and collapsed in the corner of the cockpit in his wet clothes. Some of the towering seas stole my breath as they approached. It looked like they might just swallow us whole, but despite my white-knuckles, Swell climbed up and over each wave face. Steering required constant maneuvering and anticipating the sea’s next move. But time and again, an unscrupulous wave mafia would gang up and send a rush of sea over us and on down into the cabin.
We carried on like that into the evening—switching off at the wheel–and made significant distance until a squall from the NE swallowed us. At the same time, I was trying to decide whether to carry on to our destination—89 more miles upwind, or cut north to an island a little farther away but at nearly at a beam reach to the wind. We were both hungry, exhausted, and badly wanted to make port—any port!–the following day. The squall made it easy to decide, pushing us off to the north, and we quickly agreed to shift our destination to Ua Pou, rather than Fatu Hiva. Raiarii’s seasick ‘patch’ stated being effective for ‘3 days’, meaning the following day it would start wearing off!
With our shift in direction, the wind was dead at the beam, making for a MUCH smoother ride. I managed to sleep nearly two hours after our dinner of Ramen soup and took the wheel at 10pm feeling quite refreshed. Raiarii had steered most of the day, and crumpled into a deep sleep on the floor of the cabin. I held the wheel through the night. I turned off the GPS, steering solely by the compass. With Zen focus, I was determined to keep the bow aligned within the two glowing lines that marked our course. There was only blackness all around and a burning in my arms and shoulders from fighting Swell’s starboard pull towards the wind…but with the wind at the beam, we were now cutting cleanly through the nasty waters at 6-8 knots! I ignored my aching muscles, the occasional wave in the face, my thirst and hunger, and my cold wet feet. There was only one thing on my mind…get there, just get there!!!
By the time Raiarii woke, Swell and I had put 50 miles behind us. My eyes blurred. I was soaked, salty, and shivering. My back and arms burned with fatigue. I fetched two pairs of socks from below and put them on my chilly pruned feet and laid down in my foulies, poking my nose into the fresh air out of the hood of my NanoStorm Patagonia jacket because the cushion stunk so badly of mildew. But mildew or not, I closed my eyes knowing we would make landfall by the afternoon…We were 35 miles away!
I awoke after two real hours of sleep to see Raiarii’s face glowing out of the blackness by the light of the compass. His face was stoic, focused, but riddled with fatigue. We switched off again…
In the light of dawn, a squally morning was upon us. Weaving in and out of the rain for a few hours, suddenly something could just barely be made out behind the clouds…A craggily rock spire emerged before us, revealing what we so desperately longed to see—an island!! A real-live, dirt, rock, flower, and tree-covered island!! Oh the joy!! We passed a tiny village on the southernmost point, and sailed north, finding a deserted bay and snagging a tuna on the way in…
The tall surrounding cliffs, the sprawling green valley sprawling , the awe inspiring rock spire atop the mountain, the waterfall pouring into the sea at the mouth of the bay, the echoing bleats of baby goats high on the cliffs, the round black stone beach, and the river running out along the cliff…I was overwhelmed! I find it amazing how the excitement of arrival can so quickly wash away the pain of a torturous ocean passage!
We made poisson cru with the tuna, which seemed to immidiately restore the vitamins we were lacking after 6 days of eating soda crackers, plain pasta, and popcorn. I felt a surge of energy–enough to haul the soggy cushions, clothes, books, foulies, towels, etc up into the sun.
“That was one hell of a maiden voyage,” I told Raiarii. He’d exceedingly proved his worth and courage, even in the thralls of seasickness.
“I loved it!” He declared. Either he was nuts, masochistic, or both… The makings of a great sailor!
“This just might work out,” I thought.
We laughed, still hardly believing we’d really arrived. Then I curled up in a dry, shaded corner, and fell into a long, healing sleep…