It’s tough to recount an event like an ocean crossing. I could tell you about our track, the strategy behind said track, the tacks and gybes that were necessary to keep on track. I would inevitably have to include the weather in that discussion and surely the animal sightings along the way would be of note. When I finished you’d have an outline of our trip, you may be able to visualize it from point A to B, you might be able to even flesh the image out with visions of whales, and flying fish, and seabirds. You’d have the linear tale and maybe it’d be satisfying. But in that retelling you miss the minutiae, the nuance of the experience.
At the core of an ocean crossing is movement, we are moving from one point to another. No different in essence than you moving from your computer screen to the bathroom. But the scale and the nature of the movement adds an almost spiritual aspect. It becomes more pilgrimage than movement, bearing expectations of transformation and revelation. A cross country road trip can be laden with similar significance, but it’d be easier to relate. That story is driven by new places, towns, landmarks, and people who spur the migration along. A road trip is a chemistry of addition, new catalysts at every turn. Crossing an ocean is nearly the opposite. It is the stripping away of everything but the essential — no new faces, or places, or landmarks. It is the ocean everyday. The only point of reference is the weather, the sea state, invisible latitude and longitude lines.
An ocean crossing is a physical journey that is entirely framed and colored by the simultaneous inward journey. Inward journeys are almost never linear. What more, they begin, and will end, outside the confines of an ocean crossing. A crossing is an unbridled opportunity for a deep dive into the self, a time for reflection and exploration of inner dimensions. It’s also a time to check back in with your body and focus on your wellness and health. It’s a very personal journey and thus is hard to relate.
I will be sharing kernels of my crossing in an amorphous and reflective format in hopes that you can simulate the mind state that comes with a month at sea. At the very least you’ll have a window into mine. Pieces of the Pacific will be short reflections and stories from our month at sea, I hope you enjoy.
Crosby, Stills, & Nash plays as I see the Southern Cross for the first time. We’re approaching the Galapagos for our unplanned fuel stop and we’re not expecting much sleep. The Galapagos aren’t included in any of our charts, paper or otherwise, which wasn’t an issue — until it was. We were without diesel and without choice, but vigilance, radar, and a spotlight can get you a long way. Good music is a solid ally as well. Our mission set, we made for the few waypoints we could rustle up, courtesy of Tripp’s father via sat phone. As the harmonies of CSN faded, so too did the Southern Cross. Clouds rolled in as we approached land and the sea had its turn to compete with the starry sky.
The ocean is full of magic, but one of the ol’ magician’s standbys is bioluminescence, a near nightly affair. As night falls, the show begins. Each crash of the bow now births a multitude of miniature galaxies spinning out into the wine dark sea. A milky green glow snakes from the prop toward the horizon, like bioluminescent breadcrumbs for an unknown follower. Some nights in particular, this display takes on a rarified form. Our entry to the Galapagos was one such night.
Clouds had now completely overtaken the sky, but I hadn’t noticed. Looking over the side of the boat I found that the usual constellations stirred up by J. Henry were now just a minor constituent in a symphony of aquatic light. Pinpoints of bioluminescence sparkled on the surface, spanning out in all directions. Below, large flashes flared, like lightning illuminating a distant thunderhead. I looked on mesmerized, enchanted. The spell cast on me was shattered moments later as a rush of light materialized in the depths. Like an ethereal torpedo of blue-green neon, a large fish sped toward the boat and wove its way through our wake, gobbling up smaller points of light like a phantasmagorical PacMan. Then, just as suddenly as it appeared, it dove back into the darkness. I understood each explosion of bioluminescence differently now, each flash a sudden turn or lunge or dive that ignited the water. Light and life teemed all around me. I bathed in the glow with a wide grin and understood now why I came this way.
After some time the light began to disappear, the once kaleidoscopic waves had reverted to their ordinary state. I accepted that the show was over, but I lingered a bit longer. A dim glow appeared near our still-illuminated prop wash. It moved slowly toward the boat, a 15 foot almond of light with an undulating tail — a predator was in our midst. For the next half hour, what I can only assume was a very large shark made its way around our boat in a methodical pattern. The intimidating cloud of pale green light followed the same trail like clockwork holding most other light at bay with its presence alone. Satisfied with its patrol it returned the way it came and slowly the sea began to wake back up again.
At some point you have to turn away. The stars had returned and were attempting to colonize my attention, navigation concerns were pressing, and my eyelids were battling the gravity of exhaustion. I wrested my gaze from the sea of light and attended to other things, stealing glances at the marine disco from time to time. Nearly two hours had passed since the light show had begun and my brain had effectively tuned out the sublime sea sparkle that still surrounded our boat. That’s when I heard a strange croak behind me. I turned around quickly, startled, but the culprits were already speeding away from the boat in tunnels of glowing jade. Three shimmering trails led from the hull of the boat then exploded upward into the sky. The dolphins breached all at once, stars dripping off their bodies as they rose into the sky. As they crashed back into the waves a spray of light filled the air. The tunnels wrapped around one another beneath the surface and then shot back out of the water in parting gesture. We had just been victims of the most spectacular dong-dong-ditch imaginable. A cetacean reminder to stay in the moment, complete with their hallmark playfulness.
I watched the water and its lights for the rest of the night, until we found ourselves at the mouth of the harbor at dawn. It’s a night I won’t soon forget and a lesson about drinking in this experience that I’ve carried close with me since.
The smell of coffee rises from the cabin and surrounds me in the cockpit. It battles with the salt air for dominion over my senses and wins. It wraps me in warm cozy dreams of home and summons memories of other cups along the road. Coffee at sea means you’ve made it through another night of watches, a new day of discovery is about to unfold, one day farther from home and one step closer in the same breath. The coffee feels extra rewarding on this misty and cool Pacific morning, it feels at home.
Really any hot offering is a small triumph at sea, from a cup of tea to a full meal. The preparation requires navigating a cramped, hot, undulating environment. It’s a world where ingredients are only tenuously tethered to the cutting board, liquids leap laughing from their vessels at will, and you yourself are one wave from flying across the cabin, knife in hand. The poses and postures one must maintain to prepare a meal are a yoga unique to the galley. Flexibility, strength, balance, and stamina will all be necessary to grab that curry powder from the back of the cabinet on a port tack — now, ‘Chataranga!’ as this wave rolls us and you pivot to catch the carrots that are careening off the counter.
When you’ve finally orchestrated your meal and present it in the customary bowl (the unofficial vessel of sailing), you’ll be the beneficiary of a quite magical feeling. With risk of sounding dramatic, the closest corollary I can imagine would be the moment of presenting Thanksgiving dinner to your family after a day of carefully planned logistics, precision timing, and a healthy dose of chaos. It’s a moment of revelation to a hungry and adoring crowd who are only vaguely aware of the countless times the whole endeavor teetered on the edge of destruction. Your crew mates in the cockpit will enjoy that meal with a gratitude that can only be rivaled by the most sincere of Thanksgiving revelers. They understand what you went through down below, what it means to have a hot meal in their hands without the toil and trouble of making it. Their time will come soon, but for now they’ll eat with gratitude and their food will taste better because of it.
I dare say that every hot meal on a sailboat is delicious. Each meal leaves the recipient and the chef with a deep satisfaction, enough to flavor the most bland of offerings. I often wonder if I can bring that same energy to my cooking when I return to a land based kitchen with ample space and flat, stable surfaces. But I fear there may be no substitute for the spice that galley cooking adds to a meal.
I am sitting in the Pacific. There’s a shadow in the distance. Our course points past the mass and so it will never be more than a shadow, nestled between sea and sky. But, I love it. It’s gentle grey slopes peek out of the mist, a totem for all that has yet to be discovered. It is a Galapagan isle and that is all I’ll ever know of it, maybe one day I’ll look at a map and learn its name, I hope I don’t.
What will it feel like to miss that unexplored island on the horizon? How can you miss a thing you never knew? I thirst for home and the people there because of a deep familiarity, a profound love. But even now, I know there’ll come a day that I’ll long for the shrouded isle before me. The catch, and the beauty, lies in the fact that I can never have it. As soon as the horizon is in hand it loses the essence of its desire in the first place. However, many yet unknown pearls lie waiting ahead in the vast ocean of life and I take comfort knowing I can seize them readily because I’ll always have that untouched adventure on the horizon of my mind.
Standing on the deck of J. Henry, gripping the stays, my stomach drops as if I’m in free fall. I have the sudden realization that I’m hanging above the Milky Way and infinite space, not the other way around. My grip tightens as my world is inverted.
The moon is nowhere to be found, neither is the atmosphere it seems. There’s nothing between me and a never-ending expanse of stars. One false step and I’d slip away forever into the sky’s beauty. It dawns on me that I’ve never seen the night sky before. The dense, rich, depth of starlight before me feels brand new. Strange shapes hang in the southern sky, constellations for a different world.
The cream of our galaxy spirals out from horizon to horizon and I feel our humble rock’s place in the grand order. A speck teetering near the edge of nothingness, a pale blue dot in the boondocks of a celestial giant. It’s never been more clear.
Even the darkness is darker. It looks almost wet in its clarity, like the polished sheen of obsidian with the stars dripping off. Clouds of intense nothingness make themselves known to me for the first time, blacker than black, empty. The invisible made visible by the pervasive brilliance that surrounds it. I ponder the light and the dark, still holding tight. Staring into eternity, no time has passed, but a tap on my shoulder tells me otherwise. My watch is up. The stars will see someone else now.
This ocean is enormous, You know that, I know that. We know it as an objective, intellectual, cold-hard fact. But that’s not why I’m here in this vast blue expanse. I came here to have visceral lived experience of things I could only “know” in theory before. One of my most ambitious hopes was to understand the scale of our planet.
The earth can feel so small with the speed that information travels these days. Our minds have scaled the earth down into manageable byte-sized chunks. With a little bit of free time and Google Earth you could see the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World, the 7 Wonders of the Natural World, and the 7 Wonders of the Modern World in an afternoon.
I wanted to not only see, but feel, smell, and taste the world. I wanted to know the world with my body, not just my mind. Our journey across the Pacific would be an unrivaled opportunity to feel the enormity of the ocean and our planet.
About twenty days in to our passage I woke up like it was Christmas morning. For days I’d been tracking our progress as we approached this very spot. The spot where I’d shudder in awe, overcome by the awesome scale of the world. The spot I’m referring to was the farthest we’d be from land the whole journey, likely the farthest away from land I’ll ever be in my life. From that spot we could sail for 1400 nautical miles in any direction and not see land the entire time. Certain paths would go on for double, maybe even triple that distance.
The time had come. I leapt into the cockpit and looked around, waiting to feel the gravity of the moment. I saw our boat icon on the chart plotter surrounded by blue on all sides. But when I looked back out at the ocean I was faced with the fact that this spot that I’d heaped so much importance on was nearly indistinguishable from any other “place” we’d sailed through for the past twenty days. A cobalt blue circle emanated from me at the center and met a sky blue dome on all sides. The white froth of the clouds mirrored below in the cresting waves. Beautiful, but lacking any aura of unrivaled immensity.
I could close my eyes and imagine the sea surrounding us for miles, and I got close to the feeling I hoped for. But those with strong imaginations can do that from the comfort of their homes. All I really had was the intellectual victory, the knowledge that I’d been to this place. So I sat with it, my participation trophy. Only slightly crestfallen, I pondered the 5 nm ring that my vision allowed me. For the first time, the horizon seemed more like a veil than the wide blue yonder. I knew that countless miles lie beyond that thin line, but the horizon stood stoic and refused to reveal them.
Since that day I’ve come to terms with the fact that some things are beyond human perception. There’s no way for me to see, taste, touch, or smell that distance I longed for, but I can know it indirectly. I feel it in the beard that’s grown on my face since I last saw land. I can smell it in the fruit hammock as our last apple begins to rot. I taste it in the brine of canned peas. These are the sensuous manifestations of time; time being the only gateway to the feeling of the sublime I long for. From the human perspective time is the only way to make sense of distance beyond what the eye can see. That ethereal but impenetrable horizon.
For a month we moved toward the horizon and the horizon moved with us, unchanging except for the clouds.
Time has never felt more elastic. The date, the days of the week, the hours in the day — all of them dissolve in the face of the endless horizon and time is meaningless and still. Yet each day the sunset seems to sneak up on you and days speed by. The weeks behind feel infinitesimal, a three hour night watch can be an eternity, and the ten days ahead loom like a month.
I think about the last time I saw Joanna’s face or the last time I heard my sister’s voice and the time I’ve been away is a vast and barren desert, impassable. I think about the last time I was on Facebook or received junk email and the time away is but a drop in an ocean.
At sea, time is reduced to its circadian origins, unburdened by numbers and deadlines. The rise and set of the sun, the wax and wane of the moon, these are the drivers of time here. A cloudy sky adds hours to a day, a good book makes entire days disappear. Time shows it’s true self here in the middle of the ocean. Stretchy, malleable, and cyclical.
The rain in the Pacific is soft and steady. A dark cloud on the horizon in the North Atlantic brings far different tidings than it does in it’s peaceful sibling. Here it means a chance to gather water, bathe, and reflect — not the wind, waves and wariness of Atlantic squalls. However, it’s not without challenges. It’s been raining for the better part of three days now. We’re clean, we’ve collected water, we’ve reflected. What now?
The close gray sky, wet and dreary, forces our bodies and our thoughts inward. Our hatches closed, the still air of the cabin our only reprieve, we withdraw even further into our minds. Headphones and books make up the walled cities of our psyches, fortifying our illusory solitude. I pull the curtain aside from time to time, only to confirm what I already know — more rain. I nod to my companions and recede to my shelter, better luck next time. It feels almost a sin to question the weather, no one wants to tempt the gentle deluge into a fiercer alternative. But ‘will it stop?’ is the question on the tip of my tongue as I spend another watch huddled in the companion way.
“Stir” brings to mind a thin wooden stick in a cup of coffee and a creamy vortex swirling. “Stir” is the first movement someone makes as they wake. It’s the rising in your chest when someone speaks to the truth within you. It’s a tiger pacing back and forth in its cage.
Space is a precious thing, a Pacific crossing makes that crystal clear. Recently on midnight watch I was possessed by the need to actually quantify the space that I and two others had been living in. “Stir.” I quieted the urge until day time, sparing my crew mates the undeniable certitude that I’d lost it when they awoke to me with a tape measure in the middle of the night.
In the light of day I found that our cabin space comes to a grand total of 144 sqft. In that space you’ll find our galley (refrigerator, stove, sink, pantry), the head (or bathroom for the boat illiterate), sleeping space for three, our “kitchen table,” and quite a bit of storage. “Stir.”
The v-berth has roughly 30 sqft of space that has been entirely converted to food and sail storage. It’s packed to the brim for a passage of this length and you only go there if you need to grab something. We call it going to the grocery store. “Stir.”
Outside the cabin there’s 70 sqft of space in our cockpit. It’s where a majority of our time is spent on passage because it’s breezy and comfortable. This space is notoriously wet though and is liable to be drenched by a wave at any moment, just to keep things interesting. “Stir.”
That’s 214 sqft for three people to cook, eat, sleep, bathe, and live in for a month. On top of that insanity, you can’t forget that we’re at sea. That means that that 214 sqft is vascillating between a 15 and 40 degree tilt at any given moment and is constantly rocking. The other x-factor is rain. If a storm rolls your way you lose the outdoor space immediately and the 144 that’s left becomes damp, humid, and dank. “Stir.”
Envision the space in your mind. Now add three people with their own needs, desires, and moods to the picture. Crazy.
The first rule about approaching land is don’t talk about land. The spectre of salvation just beyond the horizon can scare up all sorts of things that were neatly tucked away for the passage. Benign but insidious thoughts begin to creep in; ‘it will be nice to make a phone call,’ ‘I’ll google that when we get in,’ ‘wouldn’t a run feel good?’
When indulged, your brain quickly tires of maintaining the illusion of diligence. It puts aside your watch schedule and ETA-expectation-management to feast on junk food daydreams of a full night’s rest and early arrivals. Once resolute and ready for however long the crossing may take, you now watch the nautical miles tick away with glee. And don’t you dare indulge in the opium of the “Waypoint Time to Go” calculation — it undulates enticingly producing date and time arrival projections that fluctuate wildly with the whims of your boat speed. Logically, you pay no heed to the slowest of these predictions.
Some days are worse than others. The day after a bender of land-based fancies is usually followed by a sobering meditation on the value of being present as your brain’s firewall kicks in. But as you get closer, those level-headed days become harder to come by. There’s no way to put out the excitement and anticipation and I know that when the Marquesas do finally pierce the horizon, my body will be ablaze. But as we drop anchor and prepare to go to customs will this landfall feel different? As emails and notifications flood our reintegrated consciousness, how strongly will we miss the quiet, careless days of creativity and reflection? Will the grass of the blue ocean seem greener immediately? Or will it be a slower process as the passage dry-ages and cures in distant memory.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. It’s been fun to look back to these pieces before we depart on what will be our second Pacific crossing to Hawaii. It’s been a reminder of the wonder that the passage had as well as a reminder of pre-COVID days with all the hopes, dreams, and plans that came with them. It will be interesting to undergo the process again and see how things differ.