Though I grew up in a sailing community—Charleston, South Carolina—I am not a sailor. I wasn't allowed to sail because I'm not waterproof. I have no eardrum in my right ear. As a child, I imagined that if the boat capsized, my skull would fill with water and down I'd go, bow first. But when I was 41, I got a call from a childhood friend, Scott Wherry, who told me he was sailing in the biennial race from Charleston to Hamilton, Bermuda. They had an open berth.
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There comes a time in every man's life when he must ask himself, "What can I endure? Of what mettle am I made?" This was not one of those times. I thought this would be a booze cruise to Bermuda.
So on a Sunday in late May 2005, I boarded the Tao, a 45-foot double-masted wishbone-rigged ketch (I don't know what a lot of those words mean), unsure how my life preserver worked, unclear on the difference between a sail and a sheet, the only knot I could tie a Windsor. We cast off, and the boat's owner, Paul Dorn, steered our eight-member crew into the harbor. Then rang the gun! Up came the wind! The sea called! Next stop, Bermuda!
Our mainsail started tearing immediately. It was new, had never been hoisted before, and was a poor fit. I got a quick lesson in making radial stitches on a 50-foot sail loaded with wind. Using a steel palm thimble and a pair of pliers, Eric Walker, a veteran sailor from Charleston, and I drove a six-inch needle through sailcloth stiff as rawhide. If you missed with the thimble, the needle would go through your hand. My pleasure cruise had quickly devolved into a Neolithic sewing circle. But the sail was saved, we passed Fort Sumter, and the land receded over the horizon and into memory. Ahead lay 777 nautical miles of ocean.
We divided into two watches, portside and starboard, taking turns manning the helm. For the next seven days, we would sleep, at most, four hours at a stretch—basically the same pattern Stalin used to break his enemies.
That first afternoon at sea, our power inverter blew out, meaning we couldn't charge our weather station, computers, or satellite phone. It also meant that none of us could jack our iPods into the stereo and crank up our carefully crafted nautical playlists. While this was a disappointment, it may have saved us from a lethal cocktail of Gordon Lightfoot, Christopher Cross, and Jimmy Buffett.
On day three, as we bobbed along in windless conditions, we lost both our toilets. Boat toilets, or "heads," are floating Porta-Potties. Ours, through an understandable oversight, had not been emptied since the Carter administration. We tried opening a relief valve (provocatively called an "ocean cock")—no go. It had to be pumped out by hand. As a father of three, I was used to dealing with other people's waste, so I volunteered, as did two other crewmembers. We took turns using a hand bilge pump to siphon the blue-water slurry into five-gallon paint buckets. After an hour or so, it was getting harder and harder to see out of my glasses. Turned out the gasket at the top of the pump had a poor seal; with every pump, a fine blue mist of aerosolized dook water sprayed into the confined cabin. I dropped the pump and scrambled topside for fresh air, my one great fear of this adventure suddenly vanished. I now knew that I would not drown. I would die from amoebic dysentery.
We gave up on the toilets, relying instead on the same five-gallon paint buckets, one of which was placed in the forward head. After each use, we lifted it gingerly and clambered abovedecks, shouting "Code Yellow!" or "Code Brown!" Not the most complex system, perhaps, but we were trying to convey an urgent message with utmost clarity.
After two days in the doldrums the wind returned, and we started making good speed. But when we used the remaining juice in the satellite phone to check in, we learned that the race had been called for lack of wind. (The winning boat had already crossed the finish.) We dropped sail, fired up the engine, and discovered we were running out of diesel fuel. Without the motor, we couldn't charge the GPS, without which we would be lost in, literally, the Bermuda Triangle.
Day 5: Our onboard water tank ran dry, leaving us with only six gallons of bottled water. Paul appointed me rationing officer. I hid the bottles under my bunk. If someone needed a drink, they had to wake me up first.
Day 6: The radar reflector, a two-foot sphere of aluminum hung from the mast to allow big ships to see the Tao and avoid T-boning us, broke free of one of its stays. It swung about like a tetherball, fouling the main halyard, the line that raises the mainsail. If we hoped to make it to port without engine power, someone had to go up and cut the radar reflector down so we could hoist sail. Paul said, "My boat. I'll go."
We strapped him into a sling called a bosun's chair to haul him up by a different line. Unfortunately, the sail on this boat was raised along a thin rail of metal fastened to the aft side of the mast. Years of wear had given it razor-sharp edges. Paul would be whipping back and forth past this 55-foot-long paring knife as the boat pitched 20 degrees to either side. For the first time on the trip, we called him Captain. "You're gonna be alright, Captain. You just cut that line fast and get back down, Captain."
Just before we pulled him up, the reflector broke its top line, fell five stories, clanged off the boom, and dropped into the water. The crisis had fixed itself! We made it to port the next day—a mere four days behind the winning boat.
The things we endured are not (if you'll pardon the cleverness) what endures. They are all good, grim stories that with each telling lose something of their strength, as each beer and each laugh polishes or embroiders the memory.
What endures is what I can't rightly describe: Looking up at night to see the masts unmoving in your eyes but the stars dancing in synchronized figure eights. Waking to the Tao surrounded by the pink poisonous sails of Portuguese man-of-wars as far as the eye could see. Flying fish slapping against the sail. Mats of sargasso in the Gulf Stream. The mahi-mahi on day two, the marlin on day seven. Falling off the wind to sail around the waterspout. Two ounces of gritty cowboy coffee to start the watch. Eight friends together in a 45-foot world and alone at the center of a referenceless horizon.
I can't explain what all that feels like. I just know I want to feel it again.