A Ship In Harbor Is Safe, But That Is Not What Ships Are Built For

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
— William Shedd

A few weeks back I wrote about the transatlantic voyage I’d made on a 53-foot sailboat with three other guys, when I was 25. If you read it, you may recall that I was seasick for a good portion of the first week on the ocean as I fought the waves, the boat and self-doubt.

By the time we reached the Azores, a Portuguese island chain about two-thirds the way across the Atlantic, I’d finally gotten my sea legs – just in time, it turned out.

Gibraltar by June 10 was our goal when we left the Azores on June 4 — six, maybe seven days under sail. But with no wind to fill the canvas, we were flying the Iron Genny from the moment we cast off from the marina in the pretty harbor town of Horta.

As we pulled out of Horta, I studied a concrete wall that jutted out into the harbor waters. The wall served as a barrier to protect ships at anchor from the ocean’s fury. Traditionally, sailors stopping over in Horta paint the name of their ship on the island side of that wall. Over the untold years since the tradition began, the wall had been transformed into a huge mural of pictures and names – tantalizing hints of the courageous lives and fierce struggles that had preceded us.

Horta Harbor on Fazail in the Azores - the concrete sea wall with ships' names stretches to the left. The volcano Pico sits on the horizon. (click to enlarge)

 

Also over those untold years, a long list of sad stories had been collected about sailors and their vessels – stories that inevitably began with the sailors neglecting to paint their boat’s mural on the wall, and inevitably ending with a watery death for the boat and her crew.

We never found the time to paint Jaska’s name on the wall. Ian’s superstitious nature was rubbing off on me, and I wondered if we had tempted the fates through our oversight.

The low rumble of the engine vibrated the hull throughout that first night back at sea, as the wind never hinted at an appearance. By the end of the next day, we were calculating worst case scenarios for our E.T.A. in Gibraltar. Ian, whose judgment had so far been flawless, theorized that a high pressure system reported over Gibraltar was killing our wind, but that, at most, we’d be ten days to Gib.

Throughout June 6 we remained mired in dead air. Finally, on the morning of June 7, the wind picked up enough to justify unfurling the sails. As we achieved a turtle’s pace southeastward, I wished fervently for stronger winds – ignoring the age-old warning about being careful what you wish for.

Those stronger winds arrived with the afternoon. Dark clouds rolled across the sky. By the time my 8 p.m. shift started, the wind was blowing 20-27 knots, and a storm was upon us.

The rain started out light and intensified soon after. The ocean began pushing up increasingly steep, deep swells of frighteningly dark water. I was strapped to the wheel post with my personal harness, but that failed to secure my nerves as the waves rose higher.

Holding a steady course became more difficult. The waves buffeted our hull and pushed us from side-to-side, from ahead and behind. One moment we would pitch alarmingly to starboard, the next moment we would tip sharply backward to stern, looking up into the rain, and the next moment we’d be sliding down the front of a roller coaster swell.

From time to time Jaska would catch an oncoming wave short and dig her pointed bow into the wave’s base. Several times, the sudden deceleration drove me forward into the wheel, Gilligan-style. As I struggled to regain my balance, Jaska would slash back up through the swell, splaying the wave’s innards into the night sky.

At 10 p.m., I retreated to the shelter of my bunk, only to be jolted and jostled into a troubled state of sleep. I found myself frequently half-awake, worrying about the storm or the strength of the hull. The alarm at 3:45 a.m. work me from restless slumber for my next shift.

Trying to leave my worries in the bunk, I climbed into my still-wet foul weather gear and crawled carefully up through the companionway. The stormed had worsened, and Jaska was rolling roughly.

The second I was up top, Ian yelled over the gusts that I had to hook my harness to the deck, but I had beat him to it. Sliding around the wheel, I crouched up close to Ian as he filled me in. The storm had reached “near gale” strength. The wind was blowing unabated at 25 – 32 knots, the seas were still running about 15 feet and the mainsail was reefed back to one-third its full size. The steady rain had become off-and-on periods of intense showers. Ian gave me the bearing to steer, and went below.

This was by far the most threatening and frightening natural event I’d ever experienced.

I looked out into the impenetrable night, hoping to see what was coming before it hit us. But through the darkness and blowing rain, anticipation was impossible; it seemed that the moment I was aware of the enormity of the next wave, it was already hanging over my head, and then crashing onto and across Jaska’s port rail, a foot of white water washing across our deck and back into the sea.

Around 5 a.m., the inky blackness began yielding to a dreary pre-dawn gray. The rain had stopped for a while, but the muscular waves and strong winds remained. My drenching continued at a slower rate.

After a brief interlude, the low dark clouds opened up again. Torrents of water fell from the sky throughout the rest of my shift. Dimitri was a welcome sight when he climbed up through the companionway at 5:45 a.m. to get a look at things.

Fifteen minutes later I was dripping and stripping below. After making a quick entry into the log, I climbed into bed. This time, sleep came easily.

I awoke four hours later to the increasingly-familiar thundering noise of the Atlantic pounding against Jaska’s hull. As the tiny sailboat pitched and yawed violently in the heavy storm, I climbed carefully out of my lee-cloth and made my way to the galley for some late-morning coffee. Dimitri snored on the couch, Dave hunched over the charts, and Ian stood at the wheel up top.

I watched Ian for a moment from the base of the companionway ladder. The utter calm on his face stood in strange contrast to the shifting seascape behind him. As we rode nose-high up the face of each 15-foot wave, the murky, misty horizon behind Ian would disappear at the top of the companionway, and Ian would be framed by a background of angry, gray ocean water.

Then, as we tipped over the top of the watery peaks, the horizon would swing wildly back down again and disappear at the bottom of the companionway frame. With Jaska bow-down, descending the wave’s face, Ian was now framed by angry gray storm clouds.

Through it all, Ian’s disinterested expression suggested apathy, even boredom.

I flashed back suddenly to my early days on the trip, wearing seasickness wristbands in two-foot chop. For a brief second I froze, like a high-wire walker who’d made the mistake of looking down.

Then Dave spoke up, announcing his personal theory regarding what I had been doing in bed all morning. His comment shook me out of my paralysis. I remembered my coffee craving, and the moment passed.

My noon shift brought a break in the rain. Jagged, low storm clouds moved quickly over our heads, pushed by the same 30-knot winds that were driving us toward Gibraltar.

We continued to battle 10- and 15-foot seas, and staying on-course remained a game of averages. Ideally, the wheelman would hold the desired bearing at all times. But surfing these tall swells, often sideways, meant our bow and stern constantly wobbled to and fro. So you tried to keep within a range — if the desired bearing was 100 degrees, you worked to keep the compass between 80 and 120, and as close to 100 as possible.

We knew we were succeeding, as our sat-nav (satellite navigation) system indicated continued progress toward Gibraltar.

At 2 p.m. my shift ended and I hunkered down in the salon. We had rolled past the 24-hour mark on the storm, with no end in sight. Reading was impossible for me in the pitching cabin. So I chatted casually with whoever happened to be hanging out, careful to conceal my concern.

Six hours later, with night already upon us, I climbed back behind the wheel for another exhausting shift. Thankfully, the rain had not returned since noon, and the wind had dropped to 25-to-30 knots. The seas did not give an inch, however. I spent the next two alarming hours watching 12- and 15-foot waves appear suddenly out of the darkness and break an instant later across the deck.

After my shift, now 32 hours into the storm, I collapsed into my bunk, depleted. My brief journal entry at the end of June 8 summed it up:  “Rough day.”

As always, 3:45 a.m. came quickly. But this morning there was a difference. For one thing, the wind’s howling had dropped a few decibel points, and the boat no longer tipped quite as dramatically over the waves. I squirmed out of bed and into foul weather gear, and got up top to get the scoop from Ian.

Seas had dropped to under ten feet and the wind had retreated into the teens. As dawn approached, I could see the storm clouds moving out. By my mid-day shift, the sun was out, the seas were swell and the sailing was great.

In the aftermath of 40 straight hours in near-gale conditions, I sensed another change. Guiding Jaska along the wide-open ocean surface, I thought back to the first time I took her helm, when I had immediately lost control of the boat and sailed her in an accidental circle. More than skill, though something was different now. I was different, somehow.

I had always felt most comfortable at anchor and behind the seawall, protected from the potential risks and storms of life. But I’d also always felt dissatisfied, empty, underutilized somehow.

Now I had struck out from that safe port, thriving as a barback and bouncer in the sometimes dangerous, wild-west atmosphere of St. Thomas, and surviving storms on the treacherous North Atlantic. And like the sailboat driven by the storm’s fierce winds, I had made far more progress as I fought through these challenges than I ever could have in more gentle conditions.

It made sense, somehow. The human beings brought forth by evolution, or by God, or by both, do not function best at anchor. Like young lions who instinctively leave the safety of the pride to find new territory, or history’s explorers who followed a similar instinct to new worlds, we are designed at our very core to strike out and discover, to challenge adversity, to advance ourselves and our species.

We are ocean-going vessels by nature. It is out on the open waters of the unknown, daring greatly, that we find the joy and the exhilaration that we were meant to know in our lives. Guiding Jaska over the five-foot swells that followed the storm, I reflected on all of this, and marveled at how good it felt.

And this elemental need for progress, so central to our being, cannot be satisfied in safe harbor.

 

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