Sailing Beneath the Southern Cross

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“The sea doesn’t care what your history is, or what your dreams and goals may entail.  It doesn’t care how much experience you have, or who is waiting for you back home. It simply exists. It is eternal.”

A disclaimer: Sailing across an ocean is one of the most iconic and romanticized of all adventures…it’s certainly one of the oldest, and it has inspired writers and poets far more eloquent than me to expound upon the beauty and wonder, along with the fear and fierceness the open ocean can conjure. I think it’s probably best to leave it that way. Simply put, sailing across the South Pacific was incredible; it’s a mode of travel that seemed to suit my spirit, being pushed slowly along by the wind to a place I’ve never been, and in no real hurry to get there. I felt as close as I ever have to the ancient soul of movement, and found a clarity of thought, a deepness of sleep, and honesty of self that I can only describe as extraordinary.

The following is a small collection of moments from the days and nights I spent aboard the good boat Sea Dragon, sailing from Rapa Nui to Tahiti.  It’s a brief list of some things I will never forget.

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The lights on land disappearing into the darkness during our first night at sea. Sitting with my legs hanging over the bow, the taste of salt on my lips and a ring of clouds circling the boat. Staring at the unbroken horizon line where ocean and sky meet in a collision of infinite blue while listening to the slap, splash, slurp, and sloosh of waves against the hull. Watching a flashing fish draft the bow’s wake. My first time taking the helm…standing with the wheel in my hands, aiming the bow at a bright star on the distant horizon, while bending one leg and then the other, finding the rhythm of the waves and absorbing the ocean surging beneath me with my entire being.  The snap of sails filling as the boat keels over in a graceful curtsy to the wind’s majesty. Staying low during rough seas, head always ducked and eyes always up, moving bowlegged from one hand hold to the next. Damp rope in my hands and the thick canvas of the sails as I struggle to take in a reef amidst a freshening breeze. Pushing a large needle and waxy thread through that canvas in an effort to fix a hole in the stay sail.

The wind changing direction suddenly in a squall during a downward run, watching as the 40 foot boom breaks free from the preventer line in a crash jibe and swings over our heads with the violence of a two ton aluminum baseball bat. The sickening lurch of the boat, screams from down below, while the captain yells, “hard to port!”

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The crackle of line being pulled out when a fish hits. The smell of rotting fruit, body odor, damp clothing, and dirty dish rags below decks. Pastel sunsets and the stars during the midnight watch; a dome of sparkling, pulsing dots of light that flicker and shine in a cadence and language all their own. Shooting stars and UFO’s streaking through the night sky unburdened by any form of light pollution. The inescapable sun, and the crisp, clear blue water when I dive off the bow into 13,000 feet of ocean a thousand miles from land. Floating on my back in the middle of the ocean, looking up at the sky as the abyss below supports me. The tangible experience of my spirit expanding in such unobstructed space. Losing track of what day it is and realizing it doesn’t matter. Jumping off the boat at a remote atoll and being circled by a trio of curious juvenile sharks so close I could touch them.

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The un-romantic reality of life at sea for weeks at a time. Vomit. Sleeping in a middle bunk with six inches of head room. Fourteen people sleeping, bathing, sweating, eating, shitting, fucking, living and breathing in less than 400 square feet of space. The kitchen floor, and the unavoidable spills, squished rice, carrot peels, and crushed Cheerios sticking to the bottom of my bare feet while washing the dishes. The divine smell of freshly baked bread wiping all the other stink away for a few beautiful minutes. The snoring, farting, whispering, banging and rocking of nighttime below deck. The clatter and clang of cooking in a rolling sea and the silence of 4am on deck under full sail, when we feel like the only two people in the world, necks craned at the stars as Orion’s perpendicular belt guides us west while Venus rises slowly in the east. Talking about our lives and dreams as strangers become best friends. Pumping the foul smelling grey water tank in the morning, standing in the rain, hoping it rains hard and long enough to sneak a quick shower in on the bow. Strong hot coffee and fresh popcorn at 4am, letting the smell of it wipe away the rotten guava stench. The teeth crunching taste of tang, used in excess to cover up the brackish drinking water. The click-clack of wrenches locking into place and the steady groan of taught ropes. The ricocheting triangular glare of a low sun.

Finally, watching an island grow slowly on the horizon and the inexplicable but definite smell of earth, a whiff of life fluttering across the desert of the sea’s surface. Those first wobbly steps on dry land that can’t help but turn into a run, and the taste of a cold beer shared with crew mates. The joy of landfall fading quickly against the nostalgic memories of being at sea, and then the dreams, months later, of floating blissfully along under a bright sun or the Southern Cross. Knowing that I would give anything to be back on a boat in the middle of the ocean watching the sunrise over that beautiful blue water.

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