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Triumph

Alec had asked me to marry him, on two conditions. One, that we wouldn't have children for five years, and secondly that I would agree to sail around the world with him. I had no problem delaying parenthood as I was only 25 years old and just starting my career as a doctor. I had already begun to share the sailing dream, and although I didn't know all that this promise would entail, I readily accepted.

I was surprised we could set sail so soon, as most people do this sort of thing when they are retired. As we investigated further, we found that the reasons for waiting are not just financial, but are related to the difficulties of leaving the commitments of land life. We knew these obstacles would multiply each year we delayed. We punched some numbers into a spreadsheet program on the computer and came up with a conservative plan that indicated we could leave in seven years. By changing some numbers, lowering our estimated outfitting and cruising budgets, and increasing our savings, we got it down to only three years. To do the trip while we were still young and the world was still healthy made sense.

The night before the wedding, Alec revealed our surprise honeymoon: a bareboat charter, our first ever, in the British Virgin Islands. I was a little apprehensive, but the yacht charter operator tried to alleviate my worries, "This is the Disneyland of sailing. If you can't do this, then you can't do anything." They had the right to put a skipper on board, and we checked out the boat and inventory with this dreadful possibility hanging over our honeymoon. They decided that we were qualified enough, but we almost lost all credibility trying to leave the dock. It took all my strength to pull the buried anchor up from the mud bottom and in doing so, I fell backward with the filthy, rusted chain landing in my lap. My lovely white sailing outfit was ruined, but Alec just turned the boat away without looking behind, hoping they couldn't tell we'd never done this before!

The ten days aboard were glorious. Quickly the holiday was over; a blur of exciting sailing, great snorkeling and romantic evenings. "Still married?" the charter guy asked when we returned the boat.

"I still feel I haven't spent enough time with you," I told Alec. "The sailing was so much fun, and I could have done it longer."

Alec looked at me skeptically and then smiled. "Looks like I've married the right girl to sail with me around the world." He gave me a big hug and a kiss.

After the honeymoon, we jumped into our careers, continued to live like students, and hoped that in two years we could store away enough acorns to break free. We stopped talking about it with our friends and families; we didn't want to make any announcements until we were absolutely positive we could do it, and didn't want our work places to hear about our plans to quit. Also, we didn't want to be influenced by any outside negativity. What we were planning went against many of society's expectations.

Through all this planning lurked the worry that we might not be fully prepared for such a huge undertaking. Alec felt confident that he had read enough, but what we were planning also went against what many sailing people would advise. To embark on an adventure of this magnitude with such little experience was foolhardy to some.

We thought out many options. We could do it with crew. Or, do it as crew, on someone else's boat. Or, spend a year in the Caribbean to see if we liked it, and to gain experience. Or, we could buy a boat in Canada and spend a summer afloat in Toronto to adjust to living in close quarters with each other. After many discussions, we both agreed that we were willing to take on the challenge of doing the circumnavigation with just the two of us, and that was really the only way we would want it. Once we had enough money to finance it, we would quit work, buy our own boat and go for it. We decided on a high-risk, all-or-nothing approach.

***

Our fellow cruisers at Chubb Cay Marina were waiting for the verdict. Alec explained that the outdrive casting was broken and we couldn't use our motor. Numerous people offered tools and assistance.

Steve came over and asked what we would do. He volunteered to tow us out the winding narrow entrance to the marina, but he was leaving for Florida shortly. We thanked him for the offer, but feeling devastated, we told him we needed some time to think.

We had two options: sail the 35 miles to Nassau, not knowing what to expect in the way of facilities or cost of repair, or sail back to Florida. We estimated at least two weeks in Florida for repairs, because the parts for the outdrive would have to be sent from England. We would have to tell Alec's parents that there wasn't much hope of making it to the Turks and Caicos Islands on schedule. To return would be such a disappointment, but on the other hand three boats were heading that way, including Island Time and Daq' Attack. We decided on Florida.

With the assistance of Dan and his leaky dinghy, we got away from the dock and Island Time towed us out of the marina. While under sail, we kept radio contact with Island Time who were enthusiastically planning a Super Bowl party back in Florida, and wanted us to come. It was hard to share their enthusiasm.

The sky was solid blue and there was a gentle breeze from the north. We were having a beautiful sail, but my thoughts were elsewhere. "Three months of outfitting, a shakedown cruise to the Bahamas, years of planning and we survived two weeks!" I wrote in my journal. "We're moping around feeling sad, angry, stupid, disappointed and sorry for ourselves. Why didn't we wake Juana and Steve? Why did I tell Alec to hurry? Why didn't I get that line that was dangling in the water? We have blamed each other, then ourselves and eventually decided it was a team blunder. We have left our predictable lives behind us and joined the world of the unknown... We are going back to Florida. I can't believe it! But I know we'll head out again. We still have each other and our shared commitment to our dream. One of these days we'll begin this cruising life... But what of our big plans - through Panama in April? We're going to sail around the world! Everyone at the marina must be laughing at us and our grandiose plans. To sail around the world. It sounds like a joke now."

***

Madeline sailed towards the cut between Gun Cay and Cat Cay to the south. Both islands were flat and dry, with only scrub covering their surface. The turquoise of the Great Bahama Bank gradually changed into the lapis lazuli of the deeper water and then the dark, troubled blue of the Gulf Stream in the distance. The tide was flowing onto the bank so the current between the islands was against us. Without our engine, we made painfully slow progress with all our sails up in the light wind.

I watched closely as the sharp wave-chipped rocks at the edge of the shoreline seemed to take forever to fall astern. Beneath us I could see fish flitting between the coral heads that we silently floated over. Alec was, as usual, full of composure, but my heart was in my throat.

Just when I didn't think I could take it any more, we inched around Gun Cay, getting a view of Island Time anchored in the small bay. Steve got on the radio and offered to tow us in, but Alec told him we were going to sail right over to the beach and drop anchor. Nothing like having an audience while anchoring for the first time under sail, I thought.

When we got close, everyone was jumping up and down and waving, happy to see that we made it there safely. We dropped our hook and launched the dinghy off the transom. Putting on our fins and masks, we jumped in the water and quickly checked the anchor to ensure it was buried safely in the sand below.

Towing the dinghy, we swam towards the coral ledges. Steve was right behind us. Within an hour the guys had speared ten lobsters and Juana had them basted with butter and garlic, wrapped in foil and cooking on the barbecue grill. For a few moments we forgot how depressed we were about going back to Florida.

Island Time and Daq' Attack would sail with us across the Gulf Stream and Steve would tow us into Port Everglades. But what then?

Alec and I had the proviso that if one of us didn't like cruising, or if something dreadful were to happen with the boat, then we would accept our losses and write it off to an adventure. I had a one-year sabbatical from the hospital, and Alec was granted a one-and-a-half-year leave of absence, so our jobs were waiting for us.

At this point, neither of us could imagine quitting; we had just started. Still, we had a big decision to make. Should we slow down and peruse the Caribbean, taking away the pressure of getting to Panama by April? We could go to Panama the following year, after gaining more experience and becoming more comfortable sailing the boat. Or, should we make up for lost time and head straight for the Turks and Caicos, and get back on schedule?

***

The parts arrived on my 29th birthday. Two weeks had passed, but we had made good use of our time in the dirty boat yard. We'd already exceeded our budget outfitting the boat, knowing we wouldn't be spending money where there were no stores. However, now that we were back in consumer land, the outdrive had been only the first item on our rapidly growing to-do list.

We'd been listening to the weather forecasts, and the wind was good for our departure now, but we felt a birthday celebration was due. Alec and I put our anxieties aside and had a rip-roaring night with Daq' Attack, dancing at nightclubs and frolicking on the beach of Fort Lauderdale's strip. They urged us to stay in the Caribbean and cross the Pacific with them the next year, but we couldn't give up so easily.

The next morning we were up at sunrise, popping aspirin and drinking orange juice. I rechecked the weather forecast and bought fresh food while Alec assembled the outdrive. By late afternoon Madeline was back in the water and the outdrive passed our tests.

At daybreak we motored Madeline out of Fort Lauderdale's port and into the Gulf Stream once again. We sailed through the Northwest Providence Channel, through the Bahamas and out into the Atlantic Ocean. As we turned the corner and began heading south for the Turks and Caicos Islands, the wind clocked as predicted. A winter storm system was passing giving us the perfect wind direction. The sailing was comfortable, all downwind and without any difficulty, except for dodging the never-ending parade of cruise ships heading the same way.

During the next two days, the wind slowly turned against us, so we headed into San Salvador, the island believed to be the first landfall of Christopher Columbus 500 years ago. As we brought in the sail for the last beat into San Salvador's shelter, the halyard broke on the genoa. We had some difficulty getting the sail down, but succeeded, and turned on the motor for the last mile to the anchorage. The water was shallow, calm and the beautiful pale blue of the Bahamas.

We had traveled over 300 miles, our longest passage. I felt good about our decision to push onward.

We continued on to Mayaguana, but the next night the wind turned completely against us and we tacked Madeline back and forth making terrible progress. By the next afternoon we gave up, took down our sails and began motoring next to the reef that runs along the north side of the island of Providenciales, or Provo in Turks and Caicos lingo.

The low rising land looked all the same and the waves formed a continuous crashing line along the reef. The islands were undeveloped, but tourism was growing. A British dependency and a tax haven, they were establishing themselves in offshore banking. We were looking for a small break called Sellar's Cut that would take us into Turtle Cove, where Alec's parents had a hotel booked.

Madeline was bouncing around in the tumultuous seas when I noticed a sport-fishing trawler approaching us. I changed direction to get out of his way, but he changed direction towards us. "Alec," I yelled, "this crazy fishing boat's trying to hit us!"

"No he isn't. Why would someone want to do that? And look. You can see someone in the fly bridge at the wheel. They're looking at us."

"Go call them on the radio then."

Alec dutifully headed below to the radio, when it suddenly crackled to life, "Madeline, Madeline. This is Yosemite."

"Yosemite!" we rejoiced together.

Sid was a powerboater we'd met in the Bahamas before the accident. He had steered Yosemite close because he wondered what a small boat was doing out in such awful conditions. Then he had recognized us. Alec got the co-ordinates of Sellar's Cut for the Global Positioning System, known as GPS, and directions into Turtle Cove, enabling us to enter the cut and anchor without calling the pilot.

Even with local knowledge, the cut was difficult to negotiate. On both sides of us waves broke on the jagged reef. We followed the smooth path of water between the surf, and wound our way through the shallow coral to the protected cove.

We rowed over to the hotel and surprised Alec's parents.

***

We passed carefully through Sellar's Cut again with Joan and Jim aboard as we headed out to cruise the neighboring Caicos Cays for a few days. We were fortunate how supportive Alec's parents were from the beginning, and they shared in our enthusiasm for more adventures with Madeline. The day we came back through Sellar's Cut provided just that.

The wind and waves were violent and the sky was gray and overcast. We couldn't make out the six-foot marker at the entrance, as the monstrous seas easily obscured it. Trusting our GPS, we knew where the entrance should be, and we went for it. Huge Hawaii Five-O breakers crashed on either side and even though I gripped the wheel white-knuckled, I found it impressive.

As we entered the cut I could hear a roar of water behind us. I turned around and could see only frothy white. I quickly looked forward to Alec and he was frantically signaling for me to pick up the speed. I pushed the throttle down hard, but it was too late.

The big breaker caught up with us, sweeping us into the cut and pummeling us hard. The wave flowed into the cockpit, drenching me and pouring through the companionway. The floors inside were flooded. Madeline rocked, rolled and shuddered as if she had hit bottom. The depth sounder went out.

"Alec! I think we've hit!" I yelled. "Is everyone okay?" The thought of more damage to Madeline made me sick to my stomach. My second thought was for Joan and Jim's safety. Joan was near me and was holding tightly onto a rail. Jim was forward and he yelled back to me, "What's the speed?" The excitement in his voice revealed the thrill he felt.

Alec yelled back, "Carry on - full revs!"

On later inspection, the hulls were fine. "The depth sounder goes out if there is a lot of turbulence," Alec convinced me. "We didn't hit."

It was a mistake to enter the cut in those conditions, but the fact that the boat was unharmed made me believe someone was looking out for us.

The momentum was with us again. We had our longest passage ever ahead of us, from the Turks and Caicos to Jamaica, but we were back on schedule. Joan caught a flight back to Toronto, because as much as she enjoyed the cruising, she wasn't interested in a passage. Jim couldn't wait.

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1999 Alayne Main