I just arrived back on my boat Seefalke. She is currently docked in Marina Gaviota in Varadero, Cuba and after two weeks of painful separation, the two of us are finally reunited again. I caress the womanly curves of her wheel tenderly; I know she feels how much I missed her.
When talking with friends on land, I am often asked what I love about life on board and at sea. Now I sit down in the cockpit after more than 14 hours of traveling, finally relaxing in the mild, starry night. I decide to light a Cuban cigar to celebrate my return. It is one of the lighter ones, “Romeo y Juliet”. I lean back looking at the twinkling stars, take a deep drag and recall one of the most recent conversations.
We are sitting in a cozy restaurant in downtown Halle (Saale), Germany with home-style cooking and our drinks just arrived.
“I love the sea. I love to sail. I love to explore foreign countries. I love to meet people” I explain to my friend and former colleague Frank, “But even more than all that, I love arrivals. And departures!”
“But arrivals are the best! You just can’t have them without departures. Now close your eyes and imagine this. (Ehm, if you close your eyes, you can’t read this, so don’t close your eyes but imagine this):
You have your passage carefully planned. You studied all available handbooks, charts and tables. You downloaded the newest weather forecast. You made sure your charts are up to date, the waypoints are set. The provisions are bunkered, you are good on water and fuel. The dinghy is stowed and secured. The cabin is secure, hatches are closed. The winds are great with tide in your favor. Check.
You are going through the departure checklist again. You know the passage ahead will be long and challenging and you don’t want to miss a thing. You loved it here, but you feel your restless sailor soul is dragging you out to sea again towards new horizons and beyond. You make your final round on deck and through the cabins.
David Bowie’s “Space Oddity“ plays in the background: ‘Commencing countdown, engines on. Check ignition and may God’s love be with you…’ You feel a little like Major Tom. You just don’t want to end like him.
Lazy Jack bags are open, sails are ready to hoist. Check. Rig is ok. Nav lights are ok. Check. Check. Deck is clear. Cockpit is clear. Check. Check. Bilges are dry. Seawater filter is clear. Check. Check. Sea cocks are closed. Check. The batteries are charged. The navigational instruments booted. Check. Check.
Then you report to yourself: Ship is ready to weigh anchor.
One last glance at the sky and you start the engine, hit the ‘up’ button for the electrical windlass. Comfortingly, the familiar clack-clack-clack-clack lifts the heavy chain, coming up, rumbling over the windlass and disappearing in the anchor locker, leaving a trace of stinky mud and mussels on the foredeck. It takes some time for the 40 m (130 ft) chain to come up. Finally, the anchor, a 30 kg (66 lbs) Bruce, comes out of the water, swinging staidly before it noisily settles in its bracket.
Then BEEP-BEEP-BEEP breaks through the silence. You are alerted at first but then you realize it’s just the anchor alarm that you forgot to turn off, triggered by the boat slowly drifting away from the programmed position. If you forgot that, what else might you have forgotten? You switch it off and you return back to the foredeck to secure the anchor for the passage while your boat continues to slowly drift aft.
You put the motor in gear, heading out of the protected bay of your anchorage that was your home for the last two weeks. As the space allows, you turn the bow into the wind, hoist the main sail, furl out the genoa and set course to your first waypoint.
Motor off. Silence. Just the wind and the waves. Peace. Tranquility. Solitude. All synonyms for pure happiness.”
I see Frank nodding dreamily, as if he was on board with me. He takes a sip of his beer and I continue…
360 Degrees of Freedom
“When you have rounded the last rocks and reached the open ocean you know, this will be your heading for a week. You trim the sails and the autopilot is doing its work, reliably, untiringly. Good fellow! You set AIS and radar alarms, just in case. When you head into the cabin you feel a little redundant, which makes you smile, because it will allow you to take your first nap. Being redundant is not a bad thing.”
Frank interrupts me, all upset and agitated: “I was just made redundant. It is a bad thing! It is a very bad thing! I didn’t like it too much. I have a new job now but being made redundant totally sucks!” He slams his hand on the table, some beer spills. I feel ashamed. Yes, the land has different rules than the sea. I clean the table with my sleeve and after a short moment of silence, I continue:
“It will take three days until the rhythm of the sea routine finally kicks in where you and your boat are working like well aligned clockwork. You and your boat become one, literally moving along on the same wavelength. Nothing but water in your entire field of vision. 360 degrees of water. 360 degrees of endlessness. 360 degrees of freedom.
Everything falls off you. All the hassle of the world seems so unimportant and petty. Impeachments, oil prices, stock exchange crashes, Corona virus, stress with your wife, nothing could be less important. Whereas on land you check the news and your social media accounts a hundred times a day. You realize that you survive well without it. Quite easily in fact. And you love it.
For you the world stands still. You are right inside your comfort zone in this wormhole where time and space bypass the rushing rest of the world. The world keeps turning underneath you, but you are independently floating in space. You think to yourself, ‘This crazy Einstein nerd was right after all.’
Days go by, maybe weeks. It doesn’t really matter. But then all of a sudden LAND, expected yet surprising. Spotting first land after a long passage is always a lifting moment, magical and deeply moving. First you think it’s an illusion, a fata morgana. You only believe it when it is confirmed. Too often you have been tricked by a cloud formation or simply a stain on your binoculars.
You are longing for it and dreading it at the same time. Sheer ambivalence got you. You dread the hassle when you get to land, clearing in, how to get cash and cell service, how many emails will be waiting for you, what else do you need to catch up with, etc… But you also envision a cool drink, a juicy steak and a close dance with a pretty girl. It doesn’t take much to make a sailor happy after landfall.”
This seems to have an effect on Frank. He suggests: “Let’s order some food, will we?! I’m getting hungry. They are supposed to have excellent steaks here.” The waitress takes our order but apologizes that the steaks are going to take about an hour today, as the restaurant is full and the kitchen busy. We are a little disappointed, but we order steaks anyway.
“Landlubbers cannot imagine how long it can take to actually make it to a harbor after you first spotted land on the horizon. Now assume the mountains at your destination are 1,000 m (3,280 ft) high, clear skies provided, you will see them crawling over the horizon at a distance of approximately 60 nautical miles and at a speed let‘s say of five knots it will still take you twelve hours to arrive at the approach channel. Twelve very long hours.”
The hour we have to wait for our steaks all of a sudden doesn’t seem too long after all.
“Approaching land has visible signs. The first land-based birds arrive, the water is changing its color, while waves slowly and almost imperceptibly change their shapes and their frequencies. Almost intangibly the land is growing out of the horizon. Higher and higher but endlessly slow. You discover new details every time you check on it with your binoculars. First individual mountains, then forests and fields, later individual trees and buildings and eventually the shoreline. Then cars, people and life. You can smell the city, barbecue, car exhaust, eventually even the penetrant smell of sunscreen from the beach.
During the last week on the open ocean you saw one container ship in five days. Here, the sea is swarming with small fishing boats, freighters at anchorage or approaching the harbor, pilot boats going back and forth. You even see other sailboats. Where have they been all the time? Immediately all of them require your undivided attention.
Then, finally, the approach buoy, you turn into the channel, following it past shoals and reefs, islets and rocks. Whereas further out the approach experience was like a still, like an image with no noticeable movements, now it is more like a movie, with sound even. Seagulls are screaming, waves are smacking against the rocks, the roaring motor of a speed boat is drowning out everything else for a moment until the deep triple tooot of a huge cruise ship leaving its dock is letting everyone know her engines are in astern propulsion.
You pass endless piers and huge docks, you feel like a Lilliputian among all those giant ships and structures, like Lilliputian and Alice in Wonderland at the same time.
You call the marina on VHF. They give you instructions how and where to dock: Med-mooring, stern in. You prepare fenders and lines as you squeeze into the narrow entry. Wedged in between an array of giants, the marina seems even tinier.
One more time tension comes up as you back into your assigned slip. Whereas it was calm during the approach, sudden gusts make your docking maneuver the last challenge of this passage. You remember Rocky’s famous quote ‘It’s not over until it’s over.’ as you throw the lines to the helpful dockmaster who is waiting for you on the pier.
When the boat is secured you jump on the pier to shake his hands. From the first moment you feel warm and welcome. This first moment is so important. It decides if you will like this place or not.
Then you switch off the motor, make your last logbook entry, switch off the instruments, stow away the binoculars and put covers on the sails. You check the lines and fenders one more time before you grab your documents and head out to clear in.
The pier is still rocking under your feet, but you know: You made it.”
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