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 Story & Photo: Captain Oddworm, SV, “Mariposa”

For me, ocean passage making has become little more than a task to be accomplished for the sole purpose of arriving; which begs the question, “why not fly?” I mean, after all, nothing goes to weather quite like a Seven Forty Seven. So maybe I should be writing for one of those over-glossy, stiff- paged rags you find behind claustrophobic economy class airline seats? Now hold on a minute, before you start pelting me with those empties, and let me explain. I love sailing! O.K.?


  My wife, Sandra, and I have been living aboard and cruising our 37 foot cutter, Mariposa, for twelve years now and we are not about to quit. It's just that our cruising style has changed, and this has led me to new insights. What a bummer! Just when I've finally got it all figured out, I discover something new.

You see, it's like this: For ten years we have been day-sailing in the Caribbean. Of course, we've sailed overnight and have even stayed out for several days at a time, but until we transited the Panama Canal into the Pacific, our passage making consisted of relatively short hops. I have often compared this type of sailing with sporting events; we start out before daylight, beat into building winds and seas until mid-afternoon, and then duck behind a conveniently placed island for cocktails and dinner in a placid anchorage. Battered and bruised from battle, we arrive early to eat and relax in peace before resuming the fight on the morrow. This is not so much a choice on my part as it is simply the natural result of Eastern Caribbean geography. The gem like islands lie in a tight little string. And it seems that no matter what I plan, Mariposa is always beating, close hauled, into gusty trades and steep, short-set seas. For years we have thrilled to pounding into the swells with our lee rail buried and the spray flying high like diamonds cast to the wind; hanging on, squeezing, pushing, fighting for every degree of easting. Like a wild pony ride, a Caribbean day-sail is rowdy, rollicking, and fast. And of short duration.

But now things are different. Since we have joined the fellowship of ocean cruisers, the “sailing experience” has changed and this old dog is being forced to learn new tricks.

Mother Earth is a water planet. I have known this fact since I was a kid in grammar school but today I understand it in my heart. Mariposa is a life sustaining machine cut off from civilization. We have food and shelter and plenty of air to breath but the whole program hangs precariously balanced on the edge of disaster. I don't mean this to sound overly dramatic or to imply that our vessel is unsafe. But it has been my experience that, while at sea, everything is copasetic right up until it is not. Then all hell breaks loose. Although we make daily contact with humanity via the SSB radio we are, like the astronauts, physically cut off.

Time becomes meaningless. We exist in the centre of a blue disc and there is no visible proof of any forward progress. Waves crash and hiss past our bow. Astern, the sea boils in our wake. The boat pitches and rolls to the rhythm of the sea but nothing moves past. We hang suspended in the exact centre of a blue disc beneath a perfect dome of blue. We can not reach the horizon ahead nor leave the one behind. Day after day, and night after night, we are always in the centre. The sun rears its arch across the sky and the moon follows, growing brighter and then fading as the month grows old. In the inky blackness of night the sea and sky become one and close in upon us. We can sense no progress. Like the astronaut, the Blue Water sailor has only his scientific marvels to assure him of his progress. I find that I can not resist this comparison.

I remember the disappointment I felt watching John Glenn make the first space walk. Our teacher had told us that he was orbiting the earth at an astonishing thirty thousand miles an hour, but when he threw open the hatch, nothing happened. Then we watched as this bug-like figure haltingly crawled out into empty space. No wind tore at his suit, and nothing flew by. Despite the assurances of the scientists, we could perceive no forward motion. He just hung there, suspended! For me, this is the essence of ocean sailing.

I am suspended in space and time; between Heaven and the Deep Blue Sea. The tedious monotony of the unreachable horizon is my daily bread. Every six hours we record our position as established by the scientific marvel of GPS. The satellites assure us that all is well. They insist that, against all sensual perception, we are indeed moving ahead and on course. And I am bored.

It was on passage from Tonga to New Zealand that I once again found myself in a mind numbing haze of boredom. Unseen, North Minerva Reef lay only a few miles to the south as a fiery red dawn awoke. I surveyed my surroundings. Yup, everything looked the way it always does; blue, wet, endless. Sandra was up and making coffee in the galley as I begged off my final half hour of watch.
“Hey”, I called, “how 'bout you come and relieve me? I want to go to bed!”
“So go to bed”, she shrugs.
“O.K. Log us every thirty minutes 'till we're past the reef. I'll leave a reef in the main. If we catch a squall, roll in the jib and don't wake me. O.K?”
“Ay ay, Captain Bligh”, she salutes as I stumble off to the head. A moment later I'm asleep in the sea-birth.

I am beginning to suspect that there must be some perverse cosmic law that requires unusual, exciting, or dangerous events to occur whenever I'm trying to get some sleep. The universe is consistent and so, of course, just as I began to dream of space-walks and school rooms, I was startled awake by Sandra's near panic shouting.
“Dan, get up here quick! Hurry!”
I rolled out of bed and flew up the companion-way steps to find Sandra standing on the starboard cockpit bench, staring at something in the water close astern.
“Look! There! In our wake!”

I spotted the marlin before she finished. And not just any old marlin either. This was a monster! The huge fish soared along as effortlessly as a sea bird riding a thermal. With the sun overhead there was no reflection to obscure our view.

His navy back creased the surface while his golden tipped tail fin protruded above the crystalline waves. His peck-fins stood out like thin, sharp wings. Twice, he raised and lowered his great dorsal fin before sliding aft into the deep.
I grabbed my fishing rod from its stanchion mounted holder. Still rigged from the previous days troll, I lowered the bait.

“Don't catch him!” Sandra begged as I carefully fed out the line.
“Catch him? Hell! I'm just going' to tease him up a little. This rig 'ill never hold something that size.”

Slowly, foot by foot, I played out the line until the bait was trailing about ten feet astern. The giant golden sickle of fin broke the surface like the periscope of an attack sub. The monster shot forward as I frantically cranked the handle of my Penn 60 high-speed reel. He stopped just short of the bait skipping in the wake off our transom, and again faded back. I fed out some more line. We watched in awe as the huge fish charged again and slid off to ride along on our port quarter.
“Look at this, will yah? He's so close I could spit on him… or harpoon the bastard!”

With my hunter instinct at full alert, I imagined myself standing on the gunnels, poised with a long harpoon raised and ready to strike; the pivoting barb glinting before the throw, the black nylon tag line threading through the barb and along the tapered shaft to the feed bucket, my sturdy mates standing by with clip-on bullet floats and fiery eyes awaiting the fatal pitch. With a savage grunt I heave the lethal shaft. The sea explodes in silver and crimson as the wounded beast dives. One heavily gloved mate grabs the singing tag line while the other clips on bullet-floats just ahead of his hands. Excited yet cool, they play the fish. Back and forth the battle rages, hauling in line and removing floats only to play them out again, over and over, until the poor creature is hauled along side where I stand ready with a stout gaff. Dipping the shaft beneath the thrashing fish, I jerk it upwards and feel the blade edged hook bite deep into his flesh.

Vanquished at last, the beautiful scarlet streaming beast is unceremoniously hauled aboard, butchered, and packed away in the ice hold. The hunters return to their positions and resume the watch.

The colossal fish dives and I am roused from my day-dream. Suddenly aware of the fact that I have neither harpoon, nor hearty mates, nor ice hold, I shake off the fantasy and return to my fishing rod. Again I lure my giant friend in close. I have come to the realization that I will not catch this fish; no matter how much I would like to. To hook him would be to waste of good equipment and possibly damage a beautiful animal. And with this realization comes a feeling of peace and love. I want him to live and grow bigger, to be a king of beasts, to live forever. At last tiring of the futile game we are playing he disappears into the abyss, and I wish him well. I feel we are friends. Sandra says something softly but I miss it.

“What was that?”
“I said, 'this was a gift from God'.”
I too am feeling reverent and blessed. “Yah” I agree, “This was indeed a gift. Wow!”
Returning to the sea-birth, I replay the encounter over and over until it's all mixed up with spaceships and other odd bits of scrap memory, and I fall asleep.

So, there you have it. I start off talking about the tedious nature of ocean sailing and before you know it, I'm into some “wonder of nature” narrative. And maybe this is the truest picture I can paint for you. It seems that every time I find myself staring out to sea in some mind numbing trance, something happens to awaken my sense of awe and gratitude. Cruising is often difficult and sometimes dangerous but, for me, the rewards have trivialized the hazards…so far.