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Truly A Sailboat

Just Before Hilton Head Island a channel led out to the Atlantic Ocean. Instead of following the waterway, I turned the wheel over and followed the buoys out to sea. Swirling winds bounced off the rounded, woody islands on each side of the channel, and further out, the ocean looked ruffled by waves. I watched the green shores pass astern with a new longing.

To my relief, the wind faded away, and as the sun sunk below the horizon, the burnt orange rays reflected off a calm sea. When darkness took over, the sky became so black that the horizon was barely discernible beneath it. I could only guess where it was by following the stars down to where they stopped.

I chose the first watch, feeling too on edge to sleep. My duty was to look out for ships, and I watched intently, scanning continuously. My eyes began to play tricks, creating a zigzag, light and dark effect. As a perfectionist, I took my responsibility seriously. I tried blinking, just hoping that I wasn't going to miss the lights of an oncoming vessel. But what would they look like? I had no idea.

Then I saw a red light!

I immediately went inside to wake up Alec. He had insisted I wake him if there was anything that concerned me. He came outside, groggy and squinty-eyed, saying, "Where, Alayne? Where is this ship?"

"It's there!" I said, pointing. "Can't you see it?"

"Oh. There. Well, that light is so tiny that if it is a ship, it's very far away. We'll just sit here and watch it for a while."

So we sat. And we watched.

The little red light slowly got a little bigger, a little brighter, until it rose above the horizon and into the stars. "Congratulations, Alayne. Your first ship was an airplane!" he roared with laughter.

That's okay, I thought. Now I knew what an airplane looked like, and I wouldn't get it confused with a ship again.

A half-hour or so went by, and I saw another red light. It rapidly grew in size, and I couldn't deal with the anticipation. I called Alec again. He came out all chipper this time, probably because he hadn't completely fallen asleep from the last time.

"Wow!" was his response, and I smugly felt that my concern was warranted. "That certainly is a big red light. What the heck is it?" He watched and I bit my tongue, waiting. Before I broke the silence, we saw the glow lighten and transform into a sliver of waxing moon rising above the horizon. His query was answered.

"Okay, so you had me for a minute there," he admitted.

"I just don't have the patience to be at sea," I said shaking my head.

Alec assured me, "You'll get used to it. Nothing happens quickly on a sailboat." But there was still a crucial time when decisions had to be made. I seemed unable to discern when things were okay and when they were not. An uncomfortable feeling of insecurity and incompetence seemed to take root inside me.

***

Fort Lauderdale is the self-proclaimed "Yachting Capital of the World", and in early November we docked Madeline at Hendrick's Isle. This put us within reach of six marine stores and in the heart of the live-aboard sailing scene. The boat outfitting would become our full-time job and a 24-hour-a-day preoccupation.

We discovered that most people spend years preparing for a trip like ours, but with both of us working all out on the project, we figured that we could leave within three months.

Our plan was to transit the Panama Canal in the spring. Alec had a long list of equipment to be bought and projects to be completed before we could set off. He had prioritized the jobs depending on necessity, with safety being considered first and luxuries, such as a refrigerator and new wood floors in the hulls, coming second.

On the first day, he wanted to start with a simple job on the foredeck. During breakfast, he briefed me on our first job together. Suddenly it started to rain. He looked at me, shocked, and then said, "I can't believe this! I didn't figure rain delays into our schedule!"

We changed our plans that day and went shopping for parts for some of the interior jobs on the list. While I could see that Alec was scrambling up the learning curve, I felt like I was just standing at the bottom of a mountain, already far behind him.

I asked how I could contribute. I wanted to help independently and take partial responsibility for preparing the boat. I didn't want to end up somewhere remote and find myself blaming Alec for things he did or didn't do. We went through the list and other than preparing our medical kit, a very important job in itself, there were few significant jobs I could take over.

Alec needed my help, even if it just meant holding a screwdriver or cleaning up. It seemed I was only wiping his brow and fetching beer. It was all towards our ultimate goal, but in the meantime, I was going out of my mind. I hated looking for things to do, trying to be useful and I resented it when meal preparation fell to me.

I had just left a rewarding career as a physician. I had been in charge of the entire emergency room in a busy downtown Toronto hospital. Eighteen months after Alec had first told me about his dream, I finished my Honors Degree and was accepted into medical school. After graduation I had interned in Toronto where Alec was hard at work and often traveling out of town.

I enjoyed the challenges of the Emergency Room, dealing with patients and discussing cases with my colleagues. My energy and self-esteem were bolstered by the people around me and my environment. I also worked at several clinics and family practices, sometimes logging 100-hour weeks. While Alec did most of the research for the trip, I was content contributing financially.

Now I realized I hadn't done my homework. I hadn't taken the time to visualize what would happen once my medical work stopped. I was accustomed to feeling confident in my undertakings, but with the boat, I felt lost.

Alec encouraged me, but I constantly felt subordinate and no longer the expert. In medicine, my skills at memorizing had served me well, but did little to help me understand the forces of wind on a sail. I started from scratch, and learning was a struggle.

Alec, on the other hand, was a problem solver. After obtaining his degree in electrical engineering he had worked in manufacturing, designing and implementing control systems, and then later as a high-priced management consultant with Andersen Consulting.

On the boat, he enjoyed taking things apart and figuring out how they worked. He wasn't afraid of breaking things or doing something wrong, because he trusted his ability to work out a solution to any problem. "If I break it, it was going to break anyway," he would say, claiming a corollary of Murphy's Law. He was calm and logical, and leaned towards being an introvert. From the outset, he was in his element.

Undeterred by my predicament, I remained disciplined and goal-oriented. I had made a promise and I wasn't going to give in easily. Even though it was an unexpectedly difficult time, I was sure the frustration wouldn't last long and the fun would soon begin.

***

In less than three months we had completed the major work on Madeline. She had been reviewed, renewed, and had several systems newly installed or completely updated. With most things taken care of, we were ready for a week-long Christmas "shakedown", a trial run to the Bahamas and back . It was time to put Madeline and ourselves to the test.

We turned Madeline into the channel that leads to the Florida Straits and the infamous Gulf Stream. The evening's forecast was for a light wind, but as we entered the channel, large swells rolled in. We debated turning back, but refused to be defeated on our first trip. The engine throbbed and spray blew over the bows. Once offshore, the wind and waves lessened, but our struggle continued, motoring against the wind.

We carefully monitored our progress across the Gulf Stream. I was determined to equally share the responsibilities, but found navigating down at the chart table nauseating. Alec insisted I could do other things but I stubbornly refused, and paid the price. Within minutes I was hanging over the rail in the darkness, feeding the fish.

The hours passed slowly as Madeline lurched and pounded. We were growing weary, but were fueled by our adrenaline.

We sighted the Bahamas early the next morning. Madeline was coated in salt. As we approached Bimini the spectacular baby blue water redeemed the misery of the night. Alec stood on the bow looking at the clear aquamarine beneath us. We could see coral on the bottom and stingrays undulating over the submarine sand. We both kept doubting the depth, fearing we would hit something, but I called out the readings on the depth sounder, "thirty feet... twenty-eight feet... thirty-two feet..."

"This is it! This is what it's all about," Alec merrily yelled. "Unbelievable."

The anchor splashed down and was quickly buried in the sand. We stood on the bow in each other's arms, happy in our accomplishment.

It had been worth it.

***

On New Year's Eve we returned successfully to Fort Lauderdale from our trial cruise to the Bahamas. After two more weeks of provisioning and last-minute tasks, we felt our preparations were complete. On the night of January 18th, we departed Fort Lauderdale for what we thought was the last time.

We planned our passage through the Bahamas, a southeasterly route against the prevailing trade winds, with our destination being the Turks and Caicos Islands at the bottom of the Bahama island chain. Alec's parents had arranged a holiday there for the last two weeks in February. We all felt that we would have plenty of time to meet them and take them aboard for a cruise.

In calm winds we motored across the Gulf Stream to Bimini, where we checked in with Bahamian customs and immigration. Our next trip was across the Great Bahama Bank to the Berry Islands about 80 miles to the east.

We picked up anchor before dawn a few days later. It was a quiet morning and it was just us and miles of light blue water as we set across The Great Bahama Bank. The depth was only ten to twelve feet and although we were out of sight of land I could clearly see the bottom rushing past.

Out of nowhere I spotted a boat. A collision course I thought, but, no, they were coming to our boat. Three black guys in a small Boston Whaler approached and turned their boat around to motor alongside us. The boat was bare. The men were well dressed; two teenagers in the bow and one adult in the stern, obviously in charge with his hand at the controls. I was stunned, but continued our pace, motoring at five knots. I waved and the two guys in the bow shyly waved back. The small boat came closer.

"Where's Great Isaac?" the man in the stern asked with a thick Bahamian twang.

The name sounded familiar, but when I turned to tell Alec, I saw him inside the salon with the emergency signal kit open, loading the flare gun! Remaining calm, I turned back to the three guys.

"So, where are you from? Where do you live?" I asked, ignoring the pounding of my heart.

I couldn't hear over the noise of their outboard motor. I made out the word "Andros", a large island to the south.

"Pardon?" I smiled, struggling to maintain my composure. I turned to Alec again, "Alec, they want to go to Great Isaac. Please get out the map. I'm sure I saw it in the Yachtsman's Guide." Alec was still wrestling with the flare gun. He put it down, now loaded, and came out into the cockpit.

"Great Isaac?" he shouted. "It's over there." He gestured to the north and without a word they spun the boat around and headed away from Madeline. They went north, but not exactly in the direction that Alec had indicated.

We were both taken aback. What were three Bahamians doing out here? Why did they need directions to a rocky, unpopulated islet in the north? Were they checking us out for some other reason?

Later in the afternoon we were passed by a fast cabin cruiser. They could make it across the bank in one day, but we stuck to our plan to anchor on the banks for the night. This is a common tactic of sailboats in this area, preferring an uncomfortable night anchored to dodging coral reefs in the dark. As we sipped our rum and coke in the cockpit, I marveled at what awaited us in this cruising life.

"It's amazing how vulnerable we are," I commented.

"I'm going to leave the flare gun loaded in the signal kit," Alec responded.

***

A few days after crossing the bank, the weather turned sour. We chose to dock in the marina at Chubb Cay, an island that was demolished by Hurricane Andrew six months earlier. They still had some docks and slips, and we weathered the strong winds and rainstorms with fifteen other boats.

Misery loves company, and on the first night, we met Juana and Steve. They were our age and owned a seasonal bar in the panhandle of Florida. They also owned a catamaran named Island Time and were spending their second winter in the Bahamas. As the wind roared overhead we discussed catamarans, drank rum and got silly. When they discovered our plans to sail around the world, they insisted we meet Liz and Dan on Daq' Attack.

We had seen Dan zip past our boat a few days earlier. He was standing up in a dinghy that was powered by an eight-horsepower motor. His blonde hair was blowing back off his suntanned face and his eyes were hidden behind stylish sunglasses.

"Check out this guy driving his dinghy," Alec had called to me.

Liz and Dan were also starting a circumnavigation, but were not planning on transiting the Panama Canal until the next year. They had a large monohull and the next day as the gale raged on they invited us over for cocktails. They'd already spent one year in the Caribbean preparing the boat and themselves for the cruising life. It turned out that Dan stood up in his dinghy because it leaked so badly that he got wet if he sat down! Dan had collected coconuts that had fallen in the wind. He poured out some of the water and topped them up with rum.

"You just picked these coconuts off the ground?" I asked, wondering if that was allowed.

Alec and I had finally joined the much-vaunted cruising community. After months of hard work, everything was falling into place. We were constantly learning, meeting interesting people, and having a blast together.

That evening the wind began to taper off and the forecast indicated that we could head in our separate directions. Madeline was off to Nassau early in the morning, and the others were heading back to Florida. Steve told us to wake him and he would help us cast off.

***

When the sky faintly lightened the next morning, we prepared to go. The wind was good for the trip to Nassau and it would help blow us off the dock. I thought about waking Juana and Steve. Then I saw a light go on in Island Time.

"Let's just get going," Alec said. He always hated taking help from anyone.

Alec loosened the lines while I stayed at the helm. He stood on the dock at the bow and he let the line free. The bow slowly swung with the wind away from the dock, just as we wanted.

I got excited, as I tended to in these situations. All I could envision was drifting away, leaving Alec behind, and then having to dock again by myself, with Juana and Steve watching.

I called out to Alec, "Hurry up and get on the boat!"

Alec was still onshore, now holding the stern line and I knew Madeline wasn't going anywhere until he let go. Responding to my panic, Alec untied the line and hopped on board, but it was probably too soon and too hasty. I turned and noticed the line was not entirely in the boat; a portion seemed to be dangling over the stern. I reached to grab it.

"Stay at the helm, Alayne," he reminded me. I guessed he was going to grab the line. He went to the bow to make sure we would clear the other boats as I tried to motor us around. Madeline was only halfway into the 90-degree turn. We had acted too quickly and should have let the wind pivot the boat. Just to be sure, I put the engine into reverse.

BANG!

"The prop has popped up!" I screamed to Alec.

Alec looked back with a scowl. "Impossible. I'll do it."

Our propeller was on a pivoting leg called an outdrive. It was like the outboard prop on some motorboats. It rose up so that under sail, the prop was out of the water, reducing drag. When we motored in reverse, the outdrive had to be locked down or it would "pop" up.

"It was locked when we came in here," Alec said as he hopped into the cockpit. "We haven't touched it, so it should still be locked." We continued to drift away from our dock.

Steve came out of Island Time and waved. A few other groggy cruisers poked their heads out. Alec tried the engine, but to no avail.

We were quickly closing with three boats on another pier.

Suddenly people materialized and there were fenders, hands and bodies pushing Madeline as she smashed into the sterns of the other boats. I cringed at the awful crunching sound, but luckily the boat we hit hardest was steel. With our forward motion now halted, we tossed our lines to the helpers and were once again tied up and secure.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

One of our new neighbors staggered out of his boat awakened by the commotion and banging. "What's going on?" he asked as he scratched his ruffled hair.

"Everything's fine," someone said. "No one's hurt, no damage, just a few scratches."

"It looks like there's a line in your propeller," another cruiser hollered from the opposite dock.

We couldn't see our stern because our dinghy, lying on the back transom, was blocking our view. Alec grabbed some tools and jumped overboard. I could hear him free our dock line and inspect the outdrive as he splashed in the cold morning water.

"Oh, my god." I heard him say quietly. "We're fucked." He climbed aboard with a ghastly look on his face.

"We snapped the outdrive in half. We're now truly a sailboat."

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1999 Alayne Main