There are no atheists at sea.
I recently had this epiphany in the middle of a three day passage between Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, where the Coral Sea and the South Pacific waters mingle and merge, swirling through trenches thousands of fathoms below, rising up and over sub-aquatic volcanoes, deep sea mountains peaked with treacherous reefs that expose their teeth like a pack of hungry wolves howling at the moon.
We were beating to windward in confused and choppy seas, the fibreglass hull of the Hunter 49 relentlessly slamming into the steep little waves in a tiring and jarring motion. The weather report had assured us of one tricky uncomfortable day with 15 to 20 knots, followed by two marvelous calm days to reach our destination in style “sipping champagne and playing chess on deck”, predicts the Captain.
But by day two the seas had not calmed down and the wind was steadily getting stronger. Not all at once, but gradually slipping in an extra point of a knot here, stealing another degree off our set course there, to which we answered with one more reluctant reef in the sails and a recalculation of our arrival time – later and later. Where was this weather pocket of sunshine and light winds? Surely it must get here soon?
By midday the thrashing has not abated and I am ready for a rest; I slip down the companionway and into my cabin to watch an episode of Glee on my laptop, emerging an hour later with show tunes in my head. I am confronted by a thin-lipped, intense looking captain at the wheel with a rather worried look in his eye. My bubble bursts.
“Shutalltheportholesdowntherenowandgetuphere,” comes the order. Sounds serious. I wonder what is going on. My task complete I step up into the cockpit and take a look around; my heart sinks, I rub my eyes trying to refocus – surely this can’t be possible?
“Putyourlifejacketondoitnowandson’taskquestions.” He doesn’t need to ask, I am already tightening the device around my shoulders, clipping on to the harness, gulping and blinking as my head digests this new situation. The sea was unrecognisable; huge mountainous crests of waves had formed, over three times the size of the 5-6ft chop that I had last seen only an hour ago. They were steep and close together, coming from different angles making it difficult to manoeuvre the boat to quarter them on the bow beam – the wind wasn’t helping… 35 knots and rising. We start the motor to maintain some forward motion and feeling of control.
White-knuckled and unsure of my surroundings, a moment of pure panic rises within me; sparks of electric nervous energy radiating from my heart to my arms, lungs, legs, feet and hands. Pulsing waves of denial, angst and worry follow – we are over one hundred hours from anywhere, feeling vulnerable, far from home, this is big, this is serious. I’m breathing, focusing on my breath, reigning myself in. It’s fight or flight with nowhere to go – I’m going to have to wait this one out, my mortality weighing heavy on my shoulder like a parrot squawking into my ear undermining my confidence. Got to keep it in check. Keep breathing, I tell myself, here I am.
I’m humming. It’s Trinity Roots. “…au contraire to what they say… love comes to pass one day… au contraire to what you do… longs I for you…,” I’m breathing.
And I’m praying.
I’m thinking about my family and getting strength from them, the thought of each one tops me up, calms me down. I’m trying to remember the name of all the gods I know – Maori God of the winds, Tawhiri Matea how strong and powerful you are. Gods of the sea – Tangaroa, Maya, Neptune, Poseidon, Kesoko – I greet you, I see you and fear you, please protect us! Ra, Ranginui, lift up this weather and send me some sunshine!
Something is beeping, high pitched and startling. It’s the gale force wind warning as we start receiving gusts over 40 knots, some up to 45 knots. Every time I switch the alarm off another gust hits and sets it off again. It’s the last thing I need with my nerves so shot, but at least it gives me something practical to do. Beep beep beep. It takes an hour to figure out how to shut the bloody thing up. Only three hours have ticked by since my rest and I have felt every second of them, tick tick tick.
Suddenly I notice three almighty waves coming into sight on the horizon, the horizon that is intense and concentrated, as zoomed in as a close up in a horror movie. One has my name on it; I am sure… the blood drains from my face as we rise up, up, up; the crest of the wave now a powerful wash of white water that catches the light just before breaking over our starboard beam with an electric blue flash.
“Caaaaaptaaaaaain!!” I yell, unsure of what to hold on to or what to look at or what to expect, and for the first time he realises how much terror I am in. We drop violently down the back of the wave, with the next giant one waiting for us at the bottom of the trough; the middle of the yacht seems suspended between the two waves. A churning backwash fills the cockpit around our ankles then sweeps back out with a gush as we climb up and over again, and again… I’m still humming but my voice is shaky and breaking…
We make it.
Finally the Captain gives me some words of reassurance; we are going to be okay, this is not as bad as you think, the yacht is handling herself well, have confidence, we will be fine.
With a sigh and a tear it takes a minute for these few words to sink in. I realise that he is right. I have never been in seas so rough before so I had no limits to my fear – no boundaries of past experience to refer to. This left me imagining the worst, my perception of imminent danger blown out of proportion, fuelled by my limited knowledge of boats and how they are designed to cope with these demanding conditions. My anxiety that had been heightened by a lack of communication from the Captain – who was doing a great job albeit in quiet concentration – dissolved with his encouraging words.
By sundown the wind had relented to 25-30 knots, the swell seems to be following suit but since I was seeing with new eyes any wave below 20ft was no longer a threat. Human adaptability works astoundingly quickly. Now it remains an endurance test, as we pound out the last twenty hours with aching bones and humbled egos.
When land comes into view on the hazy Vanuatu horizon, the thudding in my tightened chest quiets to a steady calm beat, the first time in thirty odd hours. Its quiet rhythm is reassuring, life continues, and I cling to it. I am aware of every muscle in my body from the tips of my stiff fingers, the clenched mandible, the creaking knees and strained retinas to my tight inter-costals… I’m exhausted.
Finally in the lee of the Torres Islands the strong current pulls us towards the sheltered bay of violet waters sparkling like the tearful eyes of a child asking for forgiveness. I am overcome. Although we anchor quickly and efficiently it takes another two hours of speechless stillness seated in the cockpit before I realise we have made it; the test is over. My experience remains nothing but a passing memory, a rite of passage… I give thanks to the gods that I have never acknowledged before in such earnest and retire once more to my cabin for a long, well-deserved sleep.