Eight months earlier, late on a sunny autumn afternoon, we had parked the rental car at the town docks in Manteo, North Carolina. After two long days of driving, we were both excited. "Let's go have a look at her," Alec said as he hopped out of the car.
"We can take these boxes later," I said, nodding in agreement.
I made sure the car was locked, as it held all our belongings for the next three years of our lives. The current owner had given us keys to the boat so that we could sleep the night on board. Alec swung me off my feet kissing me, and laughing we walked hand in hand down the boardwalk to where the boats were tied.
There she was! A 33-foot offshore catamaran made by a reputable English builder, Prout. Being wide for her length, she had an odd, boxy, but streamlined shape. She was solidly built and had the ability, or so we had been told, to take us around the world.
"Doesn't she look great?" Alec asked enthusiastically. We both walked around her in admiration.
"I can't believe we're actually doing this," I said. "She looks perfect."
We unloaded the car of what remained of our worldly possessions. A month earlier we'd had a garage sale and sold most of our household items, many of them wedding gifts that were just two years old.
I tried to take it all in: the smell of the ocean, the brisk fall breeze, the sound of the boat moving with the waves and tugging at her dock lines. Everything was so new and magical. This was the little boat that we hoped would fulfill our dream
"Not yet," I said. "We sign the papers tomorrow." I told him of our plan to sail around the world.
"That's our dream too. We've been living aboard for three years now, and hope to leave in the next year or two. But my wife's mother isn't doing well, and it's difficult to leave." A woman poked her head out of their companionway. Her clothes had the soft wrinkled look of someone who lived on a small boat. We had more introductions and continued to chat, sharing plans and dreams. I was feeling elated. We'll be meeting such interesting people, I thought, and it had started already.
Alec came outside. He briefly said hello, and then said, "Can I see you inside, Alayne?"
I excused myself from my new friends and joined him. "What is it?" I asked.
"What are you doing out there?" he demanded.
"Just being friendly."
"Well, now isn't the time, Alayne. We have one last night to decide if this is the right boat for us. Once and for all. It's our last chance to take a good close look at her."
This hadn't even occurred to me. We had seen the boat once, two months ago, and she looked fine then, as she did now. I was unsure of what to look for, and I didn't think my opinion would be valued. This was Alec's job. He had done the research, the investigating. He had flown to Acapulco to see her sister ship, and was more able to compare which boat was right for us.
Alec had always wanted to sail around the world. When he was eight, he'd written a class assignment entitled, "Occupations". Most kids probably wrote that they were going to become doctors or firemen. Alec wrote: "When I grow up I am going to be a diver, because I want to try to talk to a dolfin (sic)... I would study the sea. And make books about the ocean. I would go all over the world and I would make maps of how deep the ocean is... And! That is my occupation!"
But it wasn't until his teens that Alec first committed to the dream. He was a national caliber swimmer and was at a sports psychology seminar in a session focusing on the power of the mind. The aim was to convince the swimmers that they could achieve anything they set their minds to. The coach went on, "You can do anything. For example, you could even... sail around the world!" Alec turned to his teammate, and whispered, "That's it! I'm going to sail around the world."
A few years later, I met Alec while competing for our university's Varsity Swim Team. He was an engineering freshman and I was a third-year science student. Since I had skipped two grades, we were actually the same age. I remember one late-night conversation at a party when Alec shared with me that he wanted to sail around the world. I was immediately attracted. I thought, "This guy is different. He's a dreamer." I liked that, without realizing he was also an achiever.
Although I saw the dream as Alec's, and somewhat far-fetched, I encouraged him, and even joined him in his research. We volunteered as crew for boats racing on Lake Huron. Feeling the need for some formal training, we signed up one summer for a course on basic keelboat sailing. Together we raced as crew during weeknights in Toronto, but it was Alec who devoured the sailing books and magazines, researching boat designs and equipment needs.
Now, at last, we were buying our own boat! Alec was a romantic, and I thought he'd be enjoying the moment with me - he was actually following his dream through. But for him, there was nothing romantic about the night. He was tense, stressed by the huge decision before us. Not only would it be the biggest purchase we'd ever made, but he had to choose the right boat; a safe boat that could carry us through storms and currents, and across oceans on trade winds. He had to outfit her, maintain her, and then fix anything that would break along the way. All this weighed heavily on him.
He wanted my agreement and participation, but I was acting as though I was just along for the ride. Our expectations had clashed, but we compromised - I helped him complete the inspection before nightcaps in the cockpit.
Our first night aboard though, and already we'd had a disagreement.
Originally the boat was named Jellicle, after one of T.S. Eliot's cats, but it had been changed to Diva by the second owner. Since the superstition surrounding the changing of a boat's name had already been broken, we decided to change it again.
I reminded Alec of his Dieffenbachia plant he had named Guenevere. "How about a name like that?"
"I like Madeline," he responded. I did too, so I wrote it down on the ownership registration form.
I unlooped the last of the dock lines and Alec reversed smoothly out of the slip. An early winter storm had held us up in North Carolina for a week, and we were thrilled to get started on the trip south. The bare essentials had been purchased, with the plan to fully outfit the boat once we arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Winter was fast approaching and we wanted to get somewhere warm to do our work.
Alec explained that we had two options. We could loop north and join the Intracoastal Waterway, or we could take the shorter route and cross the shallow Pamlico Sound before joining the waterway. Since we now owned a catamaran, it made sense to take advantage of our shallow draft, so we both agreed on the more direct route.
There was a winding, marked channel that led out to Pamlico Sound. After about an hour of motoring, we came across a huge multilayer tourist boat, with people fishing over the side.
"Alec, don't you think it's strange that they're fishing in the channel and not out in open water?"
We passed two fishing trawlers, rafted up together on the side of the channel. Then I noticed that in front of us there was a huge barge with machinery on it. Alec commented, "That's a dredging machine. We should be okay if we just stay behind it."
What we should have known was that the Pamlico Sound area was full of sandbanks that shifted with severe storms, sometimes filling channels. We remained in the middle of the channel, red markers on port and green on starboard. All of a sudden, there was a "THUD".
The boat shuddered. "THUD, THUD, THUD!"
"Put it in reverse!" Alec shouted from the cabin top.
I did, but to no avail. Alec jumped down into the cockpit and floored it in reverse. Behind us was churning mud and sand, but we didn't move. Two hours into our circumnavigation and we were stuck aground!
The wind suddenly picked up and choppy waves lifted the boat, dropping her down with more awful thumps, while pushing us further onto the bank.
"What do we do now?" I asked. Alec checked the tide tables, hoping the tide would rise and lift us off. No such luck - the tidal range was three inches. Not enough to make a difference, since the wind was blowing us up onto even higher ground. We had never operated our VHF radio, but I thought out loud, "Maybe we should call somebody."
"Not yet." Alec was not willing to admit defeat. "Look! It's the United States Coast Guard. They've come to rescue us!" We waved as they zipped past, and about 300 feet further, they too went aground! Their engines roared furiously as they revved in forward, then reverse, then forward again, like a car stuck in snow. Clearly we had to rescue ourselves.
Alec took our small anchor and, using the dinghy, dropped it in what we hoped was deeper water. We tied the line to our windlass on the bow, and slowly, by hand, rotated the links in the gypsy with a lever, pulling the line in tight. The anchor was set, and it was just a question of which would give first - the anchor, the line or the boat. It was a painfully slow process - the line came in only fractions of an inch with each turn. Alec soon lost his patience.
"It's not going to work," he said. We both sat there, depressed, feeling helpless. Alec paced the large foredeck, periodically cursing. Huffing and grunting with the lever, I continued to work at the bow. I thought, why not? It was something I could do, and just sitting around was not helping things. Another Coast Guard dinghy approached and our hopes momentarily soared. They roared by, not to help us, but to rescue their comrades.
Alec joined me again, and took a few turns. I took a few more and then felt something give. Could it be working? I turned and turned, and the line came more easily.
"Way to go Alayne! You did it."
Alec pulled in the anchor while I quickly started the engine, and we motored ourselves off, heading back the way we came.
We felt very proud that we'd solved this one on our own. Brute strength and perseverance would become our battle cry when problems occurred in the future.
Our pride faded as we passed our starting point a few hours later. We carried on north laughing at ourselves, before joining the Intracoastal Waterway and eventually turning south.
The first day of our circumnavigation did not take us far in distance, but we had taken a big step up what we were soon to discover was a steep learning curve.
We had made some informal arrangements before we bought the boat. Alec would be captain. This seemed obvious, although in all fairness, the position was offered to me. I declined, not wanting the responsibility. Since I was more extroverted and liked to talk, I assigned myself as communications officer, in addition to other appointments such as medical officer and admiral.
The Intracoastal Waterway is a protected strip of water just inland from the coast. Formed by natural waterways, rivers and canals dug and dredged by the U.S. Army Engineer Corps, the ICW stretches most of the eastern seaboard, permitting small vessels to avoid ocean sailing. Traveling down the waterway required the opening of bridges to allow our mast through. There were all sorts of bridges - drawbridges, swing bridges and pontoon bridges.
Approaching our first bridge, I balked and debated who should call on the radio to request an opening from the bridge operator. What if I didn't request an opening correctly? What if I couldn't answer the questions? I would hate to defer to Alec on the air, when other boats were potentially listening. I crumbled, and made Alec call.
I was surprised at my lack of confidence in such a simple task, but I didn't like trying something new, unless I was fairly sure I would get it right the first time. It seemed we were having to try new things all day long, everyday. I often deferred to Alec using my favorite excuse, "I've never done that before." It was new to Alec too, but he was more willing to risk failure. Challenges ranged from docking the boat against a current to making dinner for the two of us.
Many years earlier, when we first started going out together, I invited Alec over for a home-cooked meal . I'm not sure why, because I rarely cooked. It seemed the proper next step in some ancient stereotypical dating ritual where I was supposed to prove my femininity and my love for him by cooking like his mother. The first meal was a complete flop, but I stubbornly repeated my burnt-pork-chop routine twice before accepting defeat. We fell madly in love despite my lack of culinary skills, but the task of planning and preparing our meals for this trip remained a daunting one. Now our budget forced us to eat in, and this meant having to make three meals a day, seven days a week.
Our plan for heading south was an ambitious one; we rose everyday with the sun and started ticking off the miles. The kettle went on and we ate breakfast under way. One person had to steer at all times since the course constantly changed as we wound our way amongst deserted marshes, down straight canals, past golf courses and small towns, often in the company of local fishermen, regular boat traffic and fellow yachtsmen also making the trek south.
One evening we anchored amidst a sea of tall golden rushes blowing dreamily in the breeze. Alec opened a bottle of wine and romantically led me to the cabin top. With his strong arms around me, we watched the shrimp trawlers ghost along, seemingly on top of the marsh as they weaved their way through the delta.
"Think of all the beautiful nights like this, that lie ahead of us," he said, raising his glass.
"This is great," I said, snuggling closer to him as the last rays of sun disappeared.
"To us, and to exciting times," he toasted.
I was pleased to be coping with the challenges so far. However, through Georgia, the Intracoastal Waterway became tortuous, and it made sense to cover several days of mileage by sailing overnight in the ocean.
It would be our first night alone at sea.
©1999 Alayne Main