“Anchoring When Solo – The Head-to-Wind Drop Under Sail or Power”
This is an article from Good Old Boat (a magazine we like a lot), written by OCH Guide Karen Sullivan. Good Old Boat and Karen have graciously allowed us to republish it for OCH members.
No matter how you anchor, the basics are the same: have your ground tackle ready for instant use, choose your anchorage with care, and visualize your boat spaced evenly among the neighboring ones while riding along the perimeter of a circle drawn by your rode as its radius. Good ground tackle and knowing how to use it are your boat’s best insurance policy. Two properly sized anchors and enough chain, marked rode, and chafe gear are the minimum for a cruising boat. I’ve rarely had to use more than two anchors, but when I did, it was mighty good to have them.
When choosing a spot in a crowded anchorage, it sometimes works to drop your hook just astern of and a few yards to one side of the boat that will be lying to windward of you. That will allow you full use of your swinging room. Be sure to note whether other boats are using all-chain rodes or a combination of chain and rope, and try to anchor nearer to boats of similar size to yours that are using similar ground tackle. A large, full-keel boat on all chain will swing differently from a small, fin-keeled boat on a combination rode.
It’s discourteous to anchor too near another boat if there’s room elsewhere, so when given the chance, I always anchor as far from other boats as possible. That way, if the wind shifts or pipes up, I can let out more rode without crowding anyone. A parking-lot mentality pervades some harbors when boats anchor practically atop one another, but you’re less likely to have problems if you stay away from the crowd — even if it means moving to another spot because someone’s crowded you. Pay attention to the weather forecast and perhaps choose a less crowded anchorage if the sky looks threatening.
Assuming you’ve chosen a reasonably protected spot, the most critical pieces of information are the depth where you’ll be dropping anchor and the nature of the bottom. Both can be obtained from the chart, which should be kept within reach of the helm, or from an old-fashioned lead line with a wad of tallow in its hollowed-out base. Knowing the nature of the bottom is important because it determines how well your anchor might hold and even help you decide what kind of anchor to use.
When you reach an area near your anchorage that’s calm and clear enough of obstacles for you to leave the helm unattended for a moment, heave-to or stop the boat. Walk forward and, if you have a bowsprit, ease the anchor off its bow roller, letting it hang above the surface of the water. Keep the dangling anchor high enough so it’s clear of the water and can’t be pushed against your hull by a wake, and secure the rode to a cleat or a bitt. If you don’t have a bowsprit and are worried about the dangling anchor hitting the hull, just have it ready to tip off the bow when you reach the drop spot. Eliminating the need to fiddle around with releasing the anchor will reduce the chance of drifting out of place once you’re in position to drop it.
The most common way to anchor is to glide upwind or up-current, stop, drop the hook, and back down. If you have a rope anchor rode, prepare a length that's three times the water depth to run out initially. Rope can be “flaked” on the foredeck in a large figure eight laid perpendicular to the direction it will run, or piled loosely, fisherman-style. If you have all-chain rode, just let it feed out from its locker.
If you’re under sail, furl or lower the headsail before or just as you make the turn to coast to windward, because you won’t be needing it. If you don’t have a furling headsail, have sail ties ready at the lifeline, and after lowering the sail to the deck, pull the sheet tight so it doesn’t flop into the water.
You should already know how far your boat will coast upwind in different conditions. Fix the helm so the boat continues straight. As you approach the drop spot, either lower the mainsail — the halyard should be ready to run — or raise its topping lift while easing the mainsheet. This de-powers the sail and it will act like a flag, but the boom may swing around, so be careful. Topping up the boom and easing the sheet to de-power the sail is a modern version of an old trick called “scandalizing.” Back when most boats were engineless and gaff-rigged rather than Marconi, they didn’t lower certain sails until they were sure the boat was securely anchored. On a gaff sail, you’d ease the peak halyard to scandalize it, but on most modern sails, lifting the boom with the topping lift does the trick. If you have a mizzen, sheet it in tight to help weathercock the boat into the wind.
If it’s your first time solo, or if the harbor’s crowded, it might be best to try anchoring under power alone. Motor up to the drop point, stop the boat completely, and center the helm (you should be facing into the wind or current, whichever dominates). Make certain your dinghy painter won’t foul the prop, and engage reverse gear at low rpm if you need the engine’s help to slowly back down. Walk forward and lower the anchor, keeping an eye on your position relative to neighboring boats or other obstacles. Pay the chain out on the bottom slowly as you go backward so it won't land in a big pile on top of the anchor and foul it. If your boat’s small enough, you might be able to slow the rumbling chain with the sole of your boot as it feeds out, but do this carefully.
Backing down under sail
If the boat drifts sideways to the wind and the mainsail is still up, push or pull (depending on where you’re standing) the topped-up main boom to windward on the side opposite the direction you want the stern to move. For example, if the bow is falling off to starboard and you want to move the stern to starboard to straighten out the boat, push or pull the boom to the port side. On sloops or cutters, the sail will backfill and push the stern away from the wind as the boat pivots around its keel.
One way to manipulate the boom from the foredeck would be to hook up its preventers before going forward. If your preventers are led from the end of the boom to turning blocks on the foredeck, it might be possible to reach down and grab one to pull the boom to windward, because you probably have enough leverage to do that in light to moderate wind. On many boats, a scandalized mainsail won’t fill even if the boat turns sideways to the wind, but you can still use it to swing the stern one way or another as you back down on your anchor. Sails are for so much more than sailing!
1. Preventer lines to the boom have been rigged and are reachable from the foredeck. The mainsail is scandalized and luffing and the helm is centered. The anchor has been dropped and the boat is moving backward.
2. The boat turns sideways as the anchor rode is payed out while backing down. Pulling on the preventer to moves the boom to windward causes the sail to fill and the boat to swing back, head-to-wind.
3. The stern swings as the mainsail is backed. The preventer can then be eased, the anchor rode lightly snubbed, and the bow comes into the wind. (Preventer lines are omitted on steps 3 and 4 for clarity.)
4. The scandalized sail resumes luffing. This can be repeated on the other side if the bow falls off to port
If you use a combination of chain and rope (we have 65 feet of chain and 300 feet of rope on our main anchor) and you have a small enough boat, you can let the rope feed through your hands once the chain’s gone out. Begin a series of soft tugs to straighten both the rode and the boat and to start “milking” the anchor into the bottom. Only a light touch is required; a tiny snub every 10 to 15 seconds is all you need or you’ll upset the anchor. If you wait until you have a 3-to-1 scope or more let out before lightly snubbing the anchor, the weight and friction of the chain on the bottom could stop the boat before the anchor does, and you won’t know for sure how it’s holding. The idea is to let the rode slip through your hands, lightly snubbing and assessing the “feel” of the bottom while the anchor digs itself in.
Meanwhile, keep pulling out enough rode to ensure there’s enough slack on deck for cleating it off. If the boat’s big, or if it’s windy, or you’re going astern too fast, wrap the rode around a cleat, bitt, or samson post to slip and snub it.
This technique of feeling the way the anchor begins to “bite” tells you if the bottom promises to be good holding or not. For example, the difference between the feel of an anchor biting into sand or slipping over rocky shingle is dramatic. You can gauge this only by the feel of the rode. You can't do it from way back in the cockpit. Don’t forget to keep an eye on nearby obstacles, and interrupt the process to reposition the boat if necessary. When the anchor begins to set firmly, “sway” it in by leaning back slightly, with your feet spread wide fore and aft for balance, while alternately snubbing and slipping the rode. This is what I mean by “milking” in the anchor. It’s like a gentle tug of war. Repeat the "milking" until you feel the anchor grab hard enough to stop the boat, or begin to pull the rode out of your hands, then quickly get that rode secured on a cleat or bitt. I’ve done this on boats as large as 66 feet.
It goes without saying that you must use extreme care when handling any line under load. Tune out all distractions when handling anchors, chain, and rode. Even small boats can exert big forces. You risk injuries to fingers and feet if you let the rode run with insufficient line faked on deck and then try to cleat it off. If things feel out of control, stop the boat using the engine, have a think, and re-start the process.
If your rode is all chain, you can still get a feel for the bottom by resting your hand lightly on the chain forward of the bow roller while using the chain stopper. Chain rumbles and transmits vibrations up to the boat, so learn what these feel like. Rocks and mud make the chain feel and sound different as it moves over them. Even with a combination rode, you can sometimes hear the chain rumbling on the bottom if you’re below deck. This can be a signal to check whether the boat is changing position or the anchor is dragging.
So far, so good. You’ve determined in advance how much scope you’ll need. Don’t scrimp. Let out the right amount as the boat continues downwind, then secure the rode and walk back to the cockpit. Increase the engine rpm very slowly until the boat is pulling hard enough to confirm that the anchor’s set, but not so hard as to break it out. The biggest mistake is in reversing too much too soon, which can pop the anchor out before it’s been able to bury itself. So be patient and let the anchor work itself in. This is especially important on bottoms with marginal holding.
While the engine’s in reverse, select an object abeam of you as a visual mark. Watch your mark to see if it stays in place against the backdrop of shore or other boats. If your mark moves forward against its backdrop, it means your boat is moving backward and your anchor may not be holding. Once the anchor’s set, remain alert for an hour or so while it buries itself under the surface from the force of gentle tugs by the boat.
Some boats have the tendency to “hunt” back and forth at anchor, while others stay put. If your boat has a bowsprit, you can reduce the amount of movement, not to mention chafe on the bobstay, by bringing the rode out to the end of the bowsprit. A sturdy snatch block that opens to admit the rode, and can be unshackled when not needed, will steady the boat. In crowded anchorages, this is a plus. A couple of Spectra loops of the type used in climbing gear, are strong enough to attach the snatch block to the bowsprit under all but the heaviest loads. If your boat doesn’t have a bowsprit, a bridle rigged to center the anchor rode in front of your boat can give the same reduction in movement.
It’s a good idea to mark your anchor rode so you know exactly how much scope you have out. Scope is the ratio of the length of rode deployed to the sum of the water depth and the height of your boat’s bow above the water. For example, if you want a 5:1 scope in calm weather and you’re anchored in 20 feet and your anchor roller is 4 feet above the water, you need to have 120 feet of rode out (5 x 24).
If bad weather threatens, you’ll want more scope. In the Pacific Northwest, we try to find places where we can let out as much as 10:1 or more if a gale is coming. If your tidal range is large, you’ll need enough scope for high tide. In Alaska’s Prince William Sound I had to account for a 33-foot tide range, which could have put me on the beach at low water if I wasn’t careful. If you cruise in northern waters, a longer length of chain is often a good idea, because it helps to shorten the amount of scope you’ll need, and thus the amount of swinging room your boat takes up in an anchorage.
We have found when marking rode that smaller increments, like every 30 feet, are easier to use than larger increments, like every 50 feet. We have tried a variety of techniques: twine whippings with contrasting colors; sewing sail tape or sailcloth tabs into the rope in combinations of one, two, and three that can be felt in darkness; or using the pre-marked tabs you can buy at chandleries. Since we use headlamps at night, there’s less need to rely on feel, so we have been using the pre-labeled colored tabs. Cable ties also work but can be hard on your hands.
Paint works well as a marker on an all-chain rode, but it has to be renewed periodically. An easy way to do that is to put a loop of chain into a plastic bag and spray paint it inside the bag, which spares your deck or dock surfaces. There’s no standard system for marking anchor rodes on yachts, so create one that’s easy to remember and works for you.
Karen Sullivan sailed with her partner, Jim Heumann, from Port Townsend, Washington, to New Zealand in their Dana 24 from 2011 to 2013. Before that, she cruised in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and soloed down the Inside Passage in her previous boat, also a Dana 24. A long time ago she sailed between Maine and the Caribbean in various boats. She is now at work on a book about their Pacific crossing. You can read more on their blog.
Turning the Page – Karen and Jim’s Excellent Adventure
OCH Guide Karen Sullivan and her husband Jim Heumann have made incredible voyages aboard their Pacific Seacraft Dana 24, SOCKDOLAGER, including through the South Pacific to New Zealand. In this entry from their blog, Karen and Jim's Excellent Adventure, they arrive in Seattle, after they passed along SOCKDOLAGER along to her new owners, with their newly obtained motor trawler RAVEN, which we visited back in 2013. Aboard RAVEN, they head out to greet the Clipper Round the World fleet arriving from Qingdao, China, and along the way, stumble upon notable members of the race.
SOCKDOLAGER has been sold. Our eyes mist over a bit, but we know her new owners will take good care of her, and she, in turn, will treat them well. May their voyages, no matter how large or how small, leave a wake of fine and happy memories, including lovely scenes like this one, that found SOCKDOLAGER anchored at Wolf Bay, where we discovered to our delight why it was called “Wolf.”
Not counting six or seven dinghies, rafts, and kayaks, we are now down to two boats: RAVEN, and… did I mention that Jim bought a half-interest in a 53-year-old Thunderbird (26-foot racing sloop) that with his buddies he races the living bejesus out of? Port Townsend has a large fleet of T-birds and most of their owners are so gung-ho that Jim felt he had to go down to the docks last Saturday a couple hours before the remnants of Typhoon Songda were to hit to make sure everyone knew the race that day was canceled.
Catching up: Although much of the summer was spent on boat maintenance and getting SOCKDOLAGER ready to sell, not to mention Jim racing in the T-Bird Regional Regatta, we did have some spectacular cruises. In April our Colorado-based friends Tom and Alex joined us aboard RAVEN in Seattle, to greet the incoming Clipper Round the World fleet arriving from Qingdao, China.
Twelve boats, 40,000 miles, 9 countries, 3 great capes, 6 ocean crossings… wow! The four of us knew that the crews of these Clipper 70s were going to be exhausted after their 5,868-mile slog in the frigid, stormy North Pacific in March while burning an average of 5,000 calories per crew per day. Hmm, we thought, what might such people need besides sleep?
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston is the originator of the 20-year-old Clipper race. For those of you who haven’t heard of him, let’s just say that he’s one of the most major gods in sailing’s pantheon. He won the first around-the-world non-stop solo race ever, in 1969, and at 78 he is still one seriously bada$$ sailor.
Tom had raced aboard the Clipper boat GARMIN from Cape Town, South Africa, to Airlie Beach, Australia, via the southern route, and he participated in the Sydney-Hobart Race. Hoo boy, the stories that man can tell!
Some of Tom’s friends were still aboard GARMIN, and he was eager to see them. But… one does not greet such a fleet empty-handed, does one? Alex and I organized a shopping trip, and off we went to pick up goodies for the incoming crews…"ohboyohboyohboy," we chuckled, "are they ever gonna be surprised!" Piles of food disappeared into RAVEN's commodious storage spaces, even filling the dinghy.
Now we can hear you saying, "Wait a gol-durned minute. These race boats are coming into the land of the Big PX, and you’re shopping for food? What were you thinking?"
Over the space of a week or so, we went roaring up, full throttle, to every incoming Clipper boat we could find, all of us honking and waving wildly, making RAVEN look like a boat full of spiders. "SLOW DOWN! WE HAVE FRESH FOOOOOOD FOR YOU!" we yelled.
Eager as they were to get into port, their stunned expressions said it all as a boathook was extended from RAVEN’s bow to their sterns, loaded with bags containing fresh oranges, sandwich meat, cheese, bread, cookies, pastries, fruit juice, and pizza. "Eat it before you clear Customs," we meant to say, but that was not necessary.
We ambushed three Clipper boats about 10 miles north of Seattle, and later two more off Port Townsend. One of the skippers gushed in an on-camera news interview at the Seattle dock, “...and then there was this little boat that dashed out from shore and gave us PIZZA!”
One of the Clipper boats, LMAX, had a French skipper named Olivier who observed the food transfer and drily asked, “What, no wine?”
“Red or white?”
“Oh, white, s'il vous plaît.”
We tossed him a Bota Box. “Don’t worry,” we said, “it’s good boat wine, and it bounces!”
Knowing well in advance that Tom and Alex were coming to visit, we had started trying in January to make a reservation for an April moorage at Seattle’s downtown Bell Harbor, where all the Clipper boats would be staying.
It’s too early, the marina staff said. So Jim called every week. Still too early, they said. Then: It’s too late, we’re all booked up. In one week? Rats, we said, and made plans to moor at Bainbridge Island across Puget Sound and take the ferry to Seattle each day. But on the day we arrived, we radioed Bell Harbor Marina to ask permission to drop off Tom and Alex and the family of another GARMIN crew member. “Can we stay for an hour, just to see the boats?” Sure, they said. An hour later, Jim asked, “Can we stay for the night?” Sure, they said. "You got the last berth; stay as long as you want."
We tied up among some bazillion-dollar yachts, feeling rather smug. RAVEN was on the main dock fairway, and everyone on the Clipper boats had to walk past us to get to the gate to street level.
“Tom, do you think Sir Robin’ll be here in Seattle?” I asked, gripping a well-thumbed first edition of Sir Robin’s book about that 1969 race, called “A World of My Own".
“Oh yeah,” said Tom, “He always shows up at race stopovers.” And so begins the Tale of the Little Rogue Hospitality Boat.
Alex and I each had our copies of Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s book, so we lay in wait for him to walk down the dock. Here he comes, I said.
Leave this to me, said Alex, and called out, “Sir Robin! Would you sign our books?”
“Why sure,” he said.
“Would you like to come aboard?” asked Jim, followed by, “And, would you like a beer or glass of wine?”
“Red wine, please.”
Thus began an epic that did not end for three whole days.
At first: “Sir Robin…” said Alex.
“Stop calling me Sir, it’s just Robin,” he said.
"Okay," we said.
“Have you got any more wine?” he asked.
So there we were, a gathering crowd listening to the man himself spin yarns late into the evening, over mostly liquid dinners. It was, to put it mildly, an astonishing development.
“I’ve got an old friend who lives in this area," Robin mused. “John Guzzwell, it’s been years…”
“I KNOW HIM!” I exclaimed, then thought, just call him. Won’t that be a surprise? So I went below to call John, and he was pleased to hear from me. I told him who our guest was, and he said, “Oh, put him on, I’d love to talk to him!” So, walking up the steps from the cabin, I held out my phone and said, “Robin, John Guzzwell would like to speak with you.” He looked at me, stunned, then looked at the phone and blurted, “Oh for God’s sake!” and reached for it. I laughed. They had a great conversation and we arranged to get these legendary sailors together, two nights hence. For those of you who haven’t heard of John, he sailed his 21-foot self-built Trekka around the world in 1959. Robin told us that he himself had been utterly inspired by John.
During daytime, racing sails needed mending, so for the next few days, Alex and I patched, sewed and glued a gigantic genoa, with sail palms and sewing awls. We put in more than a dozen patches.
Many sail repairs we could not tackle because the damage was too bad, so those went to the professionals.
GARMIN was also one of three or four boats that broke their carbon fiber bowsprits.
There was plenty of damage after this exceptionally rough passage.
On the first evening, the well-stocked RAVEN filled with sailors from around the world. Robin held court as everyone listened.
Around 7 PM a couple of well-dressed men stood on the dock and peered in. "Come aboard!" I said, but they demurred. What they wanted was for Robin to come to their boat, which was one of the bazillion-dollar babies parked nearby, because they were ready to host him. A collection of other equally-well-dressed people were evidently waiting, too. Jim and I figured it must have been the official hospitality boat. Uh-oh, I thought, we might be interfering with official functions.
“Right. I’ll be over straight away,” said Robin.
An hour later, the envoy was back. “We’d like to INVITE you to come over to our boat,” they said, pointing. So Robin and his crew went, but were back aboard RAVEN within 90 minutes, and stayed until what in a pub would be called “closing time.”
“We’d better buy more boxes of wine,” I said to Jim. “That was fun!”
Our cruising friend Will Sugg could hardly believe it when I posted what was happening on Facebook, so he joined us for sail-mending over the next two days, and naturally, for the evening’s activities.
Will Sugg helps Catherine, GARMIN's crewmember in charge of sail repairs.
Robin stopped by in the afternoon, pressed a wad of cash into my hand and said, “Take this. No arguments. I’ve been drinking up all your wine.” So each evening I filled Robin’s glass — fuel for the best stories we've ever heard.
Around 7 PM, three well-dressed men stood outside RAVEN, but would not come aboard. “We were hoping you might come over to our boat,” they said to Robin. “Be there in just a minute,” he answered. An hour later I whispered to Jim, “Here they come again, I think they hate us.”
Next day, more sail repairs, third night, more wine and tales aboard RAVEN, but this time there were two well-dressed men and one well-dressed woman in the 7 PM envoy. I was feeling sorry for them, but hey, it was party time on good ol' RAVEN. And not only that, John and Dorothy Guzzwell were aboard, and the Clipper crews who recognized them were amazed. We’d ordered pizza for everyone and were all having the time of our lives. In this photo, Robin Knox-Johnston, Tom Reese, Jim Heumann and John Guzzwell are discussing offshore sailing. Jim said later, “I was about to say how long and tiring our 37-day passage from Mexico to the Marquesas was until I remembered just in time, who I was talking to!”
“Really,” said one of the well-dressed men standing outside RAVEN, as nicely as possible, “We would like to have you come over to our boat. We have a fully stocked bar and hors d’oeuvres.”
“I promise you, we will be over soon,” said Robin. At this I was thinking, "nuh-uh, they don't want me, not in these Carhartts." Just then, the VISIT SEATTLE Clipper race boat arrived from China, and the entire RAVEN party, along with the bazillion dollar boat envoy, went down the dock to cheer them in. Speeches were made and VISIT SEATTLE’s crew were whisked off to Customs to clear in, and when they came back we were dangling slices of pizza at them. The other boat’s envoy did not know who John Guzzwell was, so Robin explained it to them, in deservedly glowing terms, and the envoy invited him and Dorothy to their boat, too. By now they had stopped making eye contact with me, even though I was trying to tell them with my conciliatory smile, "we didn't steal Robin, he just likes it here."
As Robin, John, and Dorothy were leaving with the envoy, I said, “We’ll see you later,” but Robin looked at Jim, Alex, and Tom, grabbed my hand and said, “Oh no you don’t; you’re coming with us!” So, like pirates at a Blackbeard barbecue, the entire RAVEN party boarded the bazillion-dollar boat, and its owners were mighty good sports about it. Jim and I made an early exit (I mean, Carhartts and Gucci, really) but within 90 minutes the gang was back aboard RAVEN. “We drank them dry,” someone said.
Earlier that evening, we had told Robin that this would be our last night in Seattle, as we had to get back home. “You can't leave!” he said, “What are we going to do without you?” So the evening grew merrier and continued, shall we say, “quite late,” with stories and yarns. At one point Robin was standing near RAVEN’s starboard (dock) side telling a story, and when we all crowded around him, the combined weight of all of us together caused RAVEN to heel over a little, and the next thing we knew, Robin was doing a slo-mo-backwards fall off the boat. But being the athlete he is, he managed to grip with his knees the boat’s rail as he went over, which softened his descent into what looked like more of a melting than a fall. He landed on the dock with his feet still in the boat and knees draped over the rail, without spilling a single drop of wine.
There was a stunned silence. Good god, I thought, the great Robin Knox-Johnston just fell off our boat. What the hell do we do now?
Without missing a beat he let out a laugh, to which we breathed a huge sigh of relief. Handing me his wine glass, he reached for peoples’ arms, and we all pulled him back aboard, apparently none the worse for wear. A few more stories and we bid each other fond farewells.
Since then, the Clipper boats have returned to England and are getting ready for the next round-the-world race. Guess who’s going to be on it? Alex. You go, girl!
Not counting a few short jaunts, there were two more cruises this year, both to Canada via the San Juans, and another 4-day sail in the San Juans aboard the 137' schooner ADVENTURESS. But we’re going to save them for the next post.
All At Sea
Here's a brief excerpt from Karen Sullivan's book in progress, chronicling the transpacific voyage she and Jim Heumann made aboard their Pacific Seacraft Dana 24, SOCKDOLAGER.
Underway, the boat is the center of the universe. Out here, it is not so much a platform for our enjoyment as it is a container for our lives. Though it’s our tiny dot on a big ocean, to me the boat feels neither tiny nor big. It’s simply my world, my Gaia Firma, a small parenthesis of motion beetling across pelagic fields. It’s hard to express how excited I was to draw a penciled line representing nearly three thousand miles, a line with waypoints of latitude and longitude that we would follow like a breadcrumb trail, across the Pacific.
Being on a moving, rolling sailboat on a long sea-voyage is an oddly dissonant form of sensory stimulation in monotonous surroundings. Every few seconds gravity pulls your body back and forth, off balance. To counter it you reach and grip, reach and grip, for handholds that are dry or wet, cold or warm, wood or not. Your legs flex and relax, flex and relax, against the opposite side of the cockpit, the cabin, and even in your bunk to stop the involuntary rolling. Every step is taken with a glance and grab for the next handhold, because inattention will hurtle you across the boat into a bad landing. You learn to appreciate small interior spaces, because they keep the lurching from getting too far out of control. You learn to appreciate being horizontal more than you ever thought possible, because that’s the best position to keep queasiness at bay. Your body begins to develop muscle memory, not unlike the instinct that once kept us from falling out of trees. More than a week of this makes you an isotonically fit, or a very bruised, monkey.
The sound of waves is a constant companion in a moving sea that itself is a visual and visceral mixture of background and setting, mystery and metaphor, and, occasionally, threat and terror. The sounds on a sailboat underway vary between relaxing, mesmerizing, surprising, irritating and alarming. Some sounds that might soothe a landlubber will alarm a sailor, such as the roar of breaking surf. With the slightest mistake or wind shift, a boat to windward of a surf line is in mortal peril. On the other hand, sounds that may bring relief to a sailor might scare a landlubber, such as the loud hiss of a wave cresting smoothly astern that’s about to pass under the boat. I had wondered what effect a prolonged spell at sea would have on my perceptions, and I was finding out. For one thing, my dreams were more vivid. In good weather, I found sea sounds soothing; in bad, they made me tense, especially while waiting for the next wave to clobber us.
Another element in a soundscape is time. In the same way you get the effect of a poem or a song through participating in the hearing of it over a short span of time, so does the long duration at sea mark the effect of a voyage. A song lasts several minutes; a poem can take an hour to read; a sea voyage can take a day, a week, or a month. The long line of thought and feeling throughout this voyage interacting with its unique soundscapes interested me. On a sailboat there’s only one sound channel. No forest, no desert critters, no crickets. Nor can you adjust the volume or tone, except in minor ways by changing the boat's speed and direction.
If the boat had veered upwind, the splashing on the port side would have grown louder and more insistent because we’d be speeding up. I might also have heard splashing to starboard if the course change had been excessive enough to need correcting. The boat would have heeled over rather than come upright, due to more wind coming to bear on the starboard side. While writing those notes I didn’t have to look up to know what the boat was doing, or how much we had veered. When we returned to our course, I heard the old sound again and thought, ah, we’ve straightened out.
Not every noise has a word to describe it, but let's see if I can paint a wordscape of the world of sound we lived in. Let's say the wind is 5 knots. The sounds we’d hear are soft: blubbedy-sploosh on the weather bow, light chink-chinkle-choosh near the stern; and a soft hoowassshhh of a large wave sliding under us. There's also an occasional flutter of the sail or the canvas awning.
If the wind is 15 knots, sounds will harden; the boat might be doing 4.5 to 5.5 knots and there'll be a Pah-POOSSHHH at the bow wave, Chooloosha-loosha-BOISH! as a small wave to windward crests and collapses under the stern quarter, plus the odd BOP! as a wave crest smacks the hull amidships. Occasionally there'll be a CHOOP! Sheewishhh, as a wavelet dumps a small splash into the cockpit. We learned which waves to duck from and which ones to ignore simply by their sound. There is one point of sail—a broad reach at this wind speed—where the wind turns our metal boom into a low flute. Wind fingers find the assortment of holes along the length of the boom, and play them. It sounds like the whistle buoy outside Brenton Cove in Newport, Rhode Island. Like music, this sound evokes such pleasant memories of fogbound days at anchor that I don't ever want to fix it.
If the wind grows to 25 knots, sounds grow harsh; the boat is moving fast, sometimes even surfing. We hear a loud HOOOWOOSHHH! at the bow between louder Pah-POOSHes, and a Shhhhhwahhsh of foam as a big wave crests nearby and slides past. A cresting or breaking wave goes CHOOP! followed by a pause, then ZZZZZZHOOOOWAAAHHHSSSHHH as it climbs over the rail and into the cockpit to soak us. I will never be able to not associate that sound with cursing. Waves that crest or break directly on the hull's windward side go Shhhp-Cha-BAM followed by a hiss of foam. At this wind speed the rigging is humming, maybe whistling.
The frequencies of wind and wave vary endlessly, but are never absent. In music, duration without measures or marks feels as meaningless as a blank page, and is the difference between drifting and sailing. A ship at sea that is moving forward is usually a happy ship; one that is becalmed and drifting aimlessly is not, because she has lost her rhythm. One night after being becalmed for a week, we drifted sixteen miles backwards. With that Flying Dutchman feel, I was impatient to think we had to sail that same patch of ocean three times. Though I didn’t know it at the time, we would endure three weeks of calms and near-calms. But a duration at sea is never unmarked; on even the most windless, painted-ocean days, there is still the great attenuated rhythm of a low ground swell, as unnoticed as our own heartbeats.
Jim and I had been at sea for 24 days, long enough for this—this lurching, this splashing, to become what’s normal, and for the memory of being on land to begin receding to something fond and novel. We had unspooled ourselves from civilization, and for now, we lived out here. Who could go to sea and not hear the inner voice growing louder? Let it. The more unpredictable it is, the better. The more attention we give to the moment, the more detached we become from our other life. Gray liquid spaces grew larger between my sea of thoughts trying to reconcile this. My mind is housed in a small body, my body is housed in a small boat, the boat is on an enormous ocean that’s only inches away. The distance between mind and ocean has been drastically shortened, making me aware that I may no longer know what I know.
Will my three wrinkled pounds of fiery neurons encased in thin round bone remember everything as clearly, as exactly as it happened? Of course not. My brain is a distillery. Which volatile elements will boil away first? What details will evaporate? What condensed content will remain? I had no idea, but I had hope. What else can be distilled besides memory? Whiskey and cognac, seawater and applejack, diesel and wood. Ironically, it’s seawater that loses all taste when distilled. Sometimes I want to keep everything, and though I know I can’t, I feel like I need to avoid tilting my head too far to the side, for fear that something precious will spill out of my ear. But sometimes it feels too heavy, and I want to throw it all away.
From the top of a wave, I can look across the sea stretching to the horizon and imagine that these lines of waves look like measures on sheet music, and our boat, with its pitch, roll and yaw, is the note that plays across them, up and down, crest and trough, warp and weft, always moving, shimmering, riffing and improvising. No wonder it makes me want to sing. But what exactly is the music of the sea? Is it the cacophony of animal sound echoing unheard beneath us, or the wind ruffling the surface all around us? Is it the diurnal breath of ebb and flood tide wetting the edge, or the eternal carousel of great ocean currents flowing around the center? Is the sea an instrument, an orchestra, a musician or a composer? One thing for certain is that Jim and I, in our rocking, swaying boat, are only one tiny note in a busy symphony.
Good Reads: Recommendations by Karen Sullivan
OffCenterHarbor.com asked our guides to share their favorite books that should be in every boater’s library…
When someone at a party asks me to play my guitar and sing something, I tend to freeze. Not because I’m reluctant, or stage-struck, or disinclined or anything, but because there are so many good songs drifting through the ether that I’m often struck dumb trying to choose. The same thing applies to books, but in spades. Choosing only three essential books? Talk about killing off your darlings.
So my first choice is a category. I know this is fudging, but every sailor should have on board books that answer the questions, What bird is that? and What kind of whale/dolphin/fish/invertebrate is that? Half the fun (for me) is learning about the critters we share the sea with, so at a minimum I carry guides by Audubon, Sibley and Golden for birds, plus the Field Guide to the Marine Mammals of the Pacific Ocean, plus Ed Rickett’s lyrical Between Pacific Tides, augmented by various waterproof fish guides, and oh, stop me now. That uses up the count if we play by the rules, but really, if you can know the way a bird flies by observing the graceful curve of its wing and the subtle markings on its body, you will learn to be a better observer at other things, too.
James Hamilton-Paterson’s Seven-Tenths: The Sea and its Thresholds has been called “the Songlines of the Sea.” It is a meditation on the sea and what it means to humanity, history, science and the imagination, and though it’s not what I’d call an easy read, it belongs in the literary pantheon alongside Conrad’s Mirror of the Sea.
My third choice is The Rigger’s Apprentice by Brion Toss. Not because Brion is a friend, but because Jim and I both learned more from this one book than from any other (except for my bird field guides.) It’s comprehensive, humorously written, well illustrated, and answers just about every question that could be asked on repairs, tuning, upgrading, splicing, working aloft, calculating loads, rig maintenance, plus a lot of knot and rope work. If you’re out cruising with no professional help nearby, it could save your rig.
For extra credit and because I can’t not recommend it, here’s a fourth: Oregonian reporter Don Holm’s 1970s compilation of summaries from dozens of cruising narratives, called The Circumnavigators, was my introduction to the ocean voyaging community and the routes they traveled. At the end there’s a source list of cruising books from the turn of the century through the mid-1970s that is alone worth the purchase price. It’s out of print but available in used bookstores and online.
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