Friday, January 21, 2005

Nicole's final entry

I know that I have been remiss in writing, but my reasons are many, and good. Foremost is that we have fried the computer, something that is apparently common in a moist environment such as this. The circumstances through which this occurred will become evident as I tell the tale of the last several days.

Day before yesterday- or perhaps the day before that, we had reports of some incoming weather. Not just some windy seas, as when we left the Dry Tortugas, but some bonafide storms. In the evening we strike the highest sails on the ship, at the moment that is the t'gallant sail on the main mast, three tiers up from the deck. This is the same yard that we put in place last week, and it does not yet have a back rope attached. This means that you can clip into the foot rope you are standing on, but that there is not the added feeling of security provided by the line that runs across the middle of your back, against which one can lean and take comfort. It was just at sunset, and as I have not yet been that high up on the ship- I volunteered my services to furl the sail. It is not a terrifically difficult sail to furl, as it is relatively small and so comparatively light. However, it is quite high up , and it does move about a bit when there are six people standing on it. I put on my rig belt (knife, flashlight, marlin spike), my climbing harness, and my best game face, and began to climb. The first tier of shrouds is familiar to me, the second less so, but the climb up to the sail itself was a bit daunting. When I get scared up there, I simply repeat to myself "Just pretend that you are five feet off the ground, it's just five feet." This of course, is not true, because I would surely die if I fell from the t'gallant yard, and likely not from a height of five feet, but fear is a beastly boogey man and panic gets me nowhere good, so I simply repeat my mantra and climb. One of the things you learn on a ship is that when there is work to be done, you DO it, whether or not someone else could, or would be more comfortable, is not the issue. You do not ask questions, and you try not to whine, you simply do your job, end of story. So up and up we went, and when I finally got there, out to the end of the yard, 90 feet off the water, the sun was setting and waves tinged with golden beams were rolling into the vast distance as far as I could see...

A ship such as this presents an interesting dichotomy in that one is perpetually reminded both of how large and how small the world is. Our floating home is 180 feet by 30 abeam, and it seems smaller sometimes, especially when in search of solitude. But the vastness that can be witnessed from this vantage point is expansive and indescribable. This may not be the end of the earth, but sometimes I am sure I can see it from here.

As you all may know from other posts, the students each took one shift as “Mate” for their watch, essentially responsible for the ship, though still well supervised for the sake of safety. Some of us were skeptical, both about how we would perform, and about how our new “authority” would be perceived by a crew who are more capable by far than any of us for sure. Well, all in all I think the exercise went well. Most of the students got to take the boat through an evolution, to be thought of as a single maneuver, such as wearing ship (jibing for those smaller boat sailors).

I managed to escape this exercise because mother nature decided to provide me a unique task of my very own. “A” watch was on the 4-12, which means you are awake and on deck at twenty to four. My wake up came at 3:36. Four minutes later I was standing next to the capstan, clothing on backward, no tea, eyes crossed, while eight people shouted “Nicole has the deck!” It was then that I noticed the lightning. Sweet.

Our watch split off into rotation and I went into the chart room (think chart hut) to figure out how to use the radio, maybe get some weather info, and take a better look at where we were and what we were in for. It was a good place to be, because shortly thereafter, it began to rain. I felt bad for my compatriots who were standing bow watch and helm in the weather, but sometimes that’s just the luck of the draw. It was clear that storm was coming up, the rain got heavier, and so too the wind. The forecast said our wind would be changing, coming around almost a full 180 degrees, and by now you all know what that means for this rig.

Just before dawn began to lighten the sky, I went up on the weather deck to check our wind and saw that it had shifted quite a bit, but that the weather itself had seemingly lightened. I thought it time to brace the ship and called hands to the deck. By the time they arrived two minutes later it had begun to rain. Within ten minutes, the sky was becoming light and the rain was horizontal. We braced the ship up sharp but the sails were still screaming and everyone was getting drenched, even inside their foulies, and it was at that moment that I became aware that I was well out of my league. The whole of “A” watch was trying to sheet in the forestays’l so it would keep some wind, but was luffing like crazy and we were getting nowhere. The deck was slippery and we all dug in as Jamie called “TWO…SIX” and we heaved first down and then back, trying to get a single slippery inch. I looked at Jamie, who is a damn fine sailor if ever there was, and hollered over the wind “What can I do to make it stop doing that?” he said, “I’d try falling off the wind a little.” Right. So I run back to the helm, ask the Captain (who is by now awake and in the chart room) of we can change course. he ok’s it and I ferry the order back to Elettra, who is at the helm. Jamie comes aft and climbs into the rig on the mizzen mast, hoping to daisy chain the spanker sail into complacency. The boat begins to come off the wind and the sails cease their tantrum and fill. I breathe. I am soaked, hair matter to my head, t-shirt freezing by my chest. I thank everyone because they all know their jobs and perform them with such competence that it almost looks as though I had a clue. Ten minutes later our watch is over and I descend into the belly of the boat and lose consciousness.

Just before I fall asleep, I have one moment of triumphant musing. This is what sailing is made of. This is why people do it for fifty dollars a week, three meals a day, and a place to sleep, and I have been a part of it, even if only for a moment. It is this cooperation, this common experience of the rain in your eyes and slipping hands and grey sea skies that blend into a grey world where nothing is solid, but nothing at all, except the company you keep and your trust in your combined ability to survive.
posted by Nicole