Like most well-planned sea passages, this one began easily enough. I found what seemed to be a good weather window for our departure - a promise of moderate following winds and fairly calm waters, at least for the first day. We were well rested. Our little boat held ample provisions of food and water. We carried every essential item of gear and even a few luxuries that can fit aboard a 28-foot sailboat. Atom is now in better shape than ever during her eventful 50 years of sailing. This was Atom’s first multi-day offshore passage after her latest refit in 2014, if you don’t count that day a year ago when I suddenly put down my tools while working on another boat and sailed Atom unannounced and alone out to sea for an overnight passage to nowhere. I sailed straight east until I saw the sunrise over open waters, then sailed her straight back home and picked up the job where I had left off. I was rejuvenated. My wife understood the call and put up no questions or complaints about my sudden departure.
My crew on this trip was Ian Palmer, a 36-year-old artist, real estate broker, pot grower, aspiring sailor, and film maker from Los Angeles. He joined me to film a documentary as well as to get some offshore experience for his own planned sailing adventure.
Our departure from my home port of Brunswick, Georgia began that cool December morning with us catching the leading edge of a cold front. The NW wind filled our sails from behind as we sailed six miles from the marina through the earthy brown waters bordered by Low Country salt marsh. It was a scene I’d grown used to during the past 16 years since I claimed these as my home waters. I was somewhat dulled to the remarkable scenery slipping past. But Ian’s fresh eyes saw it all. He remarked on the 9-foot tidal range and swift currents; the tops of the marsh appeared as level as a freshly mowed, but winter gold-colored, immense grass lawn.
Five miles offshore we cleared the muddy shoals littering the coastal waters of Georgia. Fifty miles out we were still only in 100-foot soundings, but the waters had turned from muddy to green tea. Hours later, riding atop 125 feet of pure blue roiling waters, we began to feel the Gulf Stream current slowing our progress. That first night the wind freshened to 15-20 knots from the north. Ashore the temps were in the low 40’s but rose to the low 60’s as the wind passed over the Caribbean-warmed current flooding up through the Straits of Florida. We altered course more east to cross the stream quickly at a right angle before resuming our SE course to the Abacos Islands in the Bahamas. The dancing, rushing waters were agitated to confusion by the contrary north wind. Every sailor knows the Gulf Stream is best avoided in north winds, but the winds were moderate, and Atom was no stranger to a punchy sea. We had crossed it before in far worse conditions. A dose of seasick medication taken on departure notwithstanding, Ian set down his camera for the first time, went to his bunk, and asked for the bucket.
My Bohemian friend Ian had flattered his way aboard by presenting me with a proposal to film our sailing and follow me around for two weeks interviewing me about my sailing career. He planned to tie it all in with the stories of my first two books about two circumnavigations aboard Atom. He had invested thousands of dollars in new professional film and audio gear as well as a video drone for aerial shots. Although camera-shy and knowing darned well I was unworthy of such an homage, I was happy for an excuse to take Atom on a passage to the Bahamas and share the magical experience of life under sail.
My first communication with Ian was an email through my website asking for advice on buying a boat for a planned circumnavigation: “I'm here in Los Angeles, Ca, living in the San Fernando Valley where I was born and raised. I'm an adventure aficionado and have started a Non-Profit Organization called PUBLICTRASHART.com. My latest crazy idea is a circumnavigation adventure documentary that I plan to execute as soon as I possibly can.”
He had plenty of obstacles to overcome before launching a circumnavigation. In the conventional sense, it looked as though he “can’t afford to go,” as plenty of folks will remind him. In a more figurative sense, he can’t afford not to go. He has the youth, the health, the intellect, and foremost, the desire. No one should dare squander these gifts by allowing wreckers carrying false beacons to lure them to shipwreck their dreams on Naysayers Reef.
I found Ian to be an unusually sensitive, creative, seeker of life. He recognizes nature’s inherent art in unusual places and brings it to our attention. He survives under a faint cloak of sadness yet remains remarkably intact after his world disintegrated when his girlfriend Zady was murdered by her teenaged son. The boy killed his own mother in a vicious knife attack while likely in a drug-fueled psychosis. That tormenting event sent Ian on a long motorcycle trip into South America. It was equally a spiritual journey that he documented in his entrancing film that can be seen at:
Ian and I butted heads the eve of departure when I asked for some editorial control on this project. I had hoped the film could be less about me, more about the boat, the places, the how-to, instead of focusing on the standard interview technique of “how does … make you feel?” I was used to having control, even considered it my right.
“I need full artistic freedom to do my art,” Ian countered as he handed me a legal document to sign, giving him full rights to use anything he filmed as well as excerpts from my books, photos, and videos. His persistence slowly won me over. Clearly it was Ian’s project, his idiosyncratic art, and he correctly reminded me it was not my place to direct it to my own peculiar taste. Something like too many chefs in the kitchen or two captains on a boat. Yet I feared I would only let him down in the end. The inarticulate grumblings of an old, worn-out, unphotogenic sailor are not the stuff for film awards. Even so, with his skill, I believed he could produce something to entertain and inspire at least a certain audience.
I had plotted a 320-nautical-mile nonstop course to Grand Cay in the Abacos as a likely destination. You can never be too certain of your exact destination or arrival date on a small boat, even more so in this case because we had a limited time and because the shallow north-facing inlets to these particular islets were impassable in times of high NE waves. We had scheduled only a few hours on the beach and an overnight sleep in the anchorage before turning around for more filming at the barrier islands of coastal Georgia.
“Here, have one of my homemade oat bars. It’s like an energy bar but with just a bit of honey added instead of loads of sugar,” I said as I dropped one heavy bar into his bowl. Ian politely chewed half and set it down without comment. Seasickness aside, Ian never did acquire a taste for my oat bars. We came to call them Atom’s Hardtack, referring to that staple of old-time sailors' diets - a biscuit composed of wheat flour and water, triple baked to the molar-cracking consistency of concrete. At least this version that my wife Mei baked for us was way more tasty and nutritious and not nearly so hard as the real thing.
Oat bars were my usual lunch. For breakfast I brought premixed single portion bags of oats, muesli, cinnamon, and milk powder. Dump a packet in a bowl, add warm water, let it soak for a few minutes, and you’re good to go. I had prepared 24 of these before departure. Ian was not a fan of those either. He told me he was used to Espresso and croissants while seated at a café for breakfast. He had the triple misfortune of not liking my menu, being seasick, and coming aboard too lean to afford losing more weight.
That first night at sea I had progressively reefed from full mainsail to 1st, 2nd, and finally 3rd reefs when seas grew lumpy and slammed into the side of the boat. I was essentially singlehanding while Ian concentrated on the filming, although he was available to lend a hand where needed and stood his share of watches. I poled out the furling jib to starboard and rolled it halfway in to balance the forces on the sails driving us forward. We stayed close to our bunks for much of the night while the dodger and cockpit side enclosure kept the salt spray from coming through the open companionway hatch. During Ian’s watch the whisker pole came loose from its ring on the mast. I managed to ignore its banging around for most of an hour before I shook off the lethargy induced by a rough first night at sea, donned my rubber boots, leaky foul weather jacket and pants, and crawled along the wave-lashed deck to sort it out. An hour later the self-steering suddenly disconnected. The abrupt course change and halt of progress with sails back winded was something I couldn’t ignore. I jumped up and found a loose bolt had allowed the steering linkage to disconnect. I hung over the transom with headlamp illuminating the scene and quickly threaded it back together. In two minutes we resumed our wobbly way.
In the morning I dug into the cockpit locker and brought out the urn containing my mother’s ashes. Leaning over the lee rail, I poured the contents into the sea. The swirling wind brought a mist of ash into my eyes and lungs as I laid her to rest on the edge of the Gulf Stream. The water carried her away in the endless cycle of the Atlantic gyre. Helen had loved to sail on Atom. With me again she took her final passage. The haunting, transcending strains of Andrea Bocelli's Time to Say Goodbye filled my being as I mentally drifted over the sea… Con te partirò su navi per mari:
|Time to say goodbye
to countries I never
saw and shared with you,
now, yes, I shall experience them.
I’ll go with you
on ships across seas
which, I know,
no, no, exist no longer.
It’s time to say goodbye…
|Time to say goodbye.
Paesi che non ho mai
veduto e vissuto con te,
adesso si li vivrò,
Con te partirò
su navi per mari
che, io lo so,
no, no, non esistono più.
It’s time to say goodbye…
If you haven’t been filled with the voices of angels in a while, have a listen to them here:
Ian silently retreated to his bunk and bucket after filming the scene. It was hours before we spoke.
On day two and three the seas grew rougher, crashing into us on the beam. There were splashes of beauty on all sides. I fixated on the entrancing movement of water – the underlying swells from at least three different and distant weather systems that wove themselves into an undulating carpet of swells, the local wind waves curling and breaking on top, the slap of those waves on the hull, the whoosh of the curling bow wave at speed, the feathered swirl of our boiling wake as we momentarily calmed a patch of water we passed over. The spotlight of Venus followed the sun into the western horizon. A waxing gibbous moon brought welcome illumination that grew three-quarters of an hour longer each night, further painting the seas in its silvery brush.
All this beauty of nature in her mischievous, blustery mood came at the cost of making life aboard harder for Ian than I had hoped. When moving about we swung like monkeys from handhold to handhold. Ian swallowed a week’s supply of seasick pills in three days. I hand fed him tea, crackers, and cheese, and he sometimes managed to keep it down. One memorable evening I produced a stew of chopped vegetables in a base of condensed cream soup. He dragged his spoon through the soup, took a few mouthfuls, and set it aside. “Don’t feel like eating?” I asked as I braced myself from seas intent on throwing me from galley to bunk and back again.
“I can’t believe you gave me this yak in a bowl,” Ian said with unrestrained honesty. “Tastes like wallpaper paste with pepper. You said you were making soup, ha.” He required his soup thin as water, I learned. Apparently “yak” is a California-ism for vomit.
I’ve known good-natured men who were mean drunks. Ian was also perfectly polite until he became seasick, which turned him into a bit of a griper – not mean, but an even more honest and unrestrained version of himself. And like a fully functioning alcoholic, when he wasn’t handing me his bucket of yak to dump, he did his job, steadfastly holding his camera up while peppering me with questions about “feelings” while trying to ignore how his own stomach was feeling. More than once after a lengthy interview session from my bunk where I had tried vainly to sound intelligent and hide my annoyance, he’d tell me, “Sorry, I didn’t have it on record. Let’s try it again.”
“Can’t you stop those lines out there from squeaking?” Ian snapped. “Sounds like a pig being tortured to death. Hey, oil them or something.” I hadn’t paid much attention to it. To me the squeaky self-steering lines to the tiller were just another background noise within the great orchestra of instruments - some muted, some tormented - of boat, wind, and sea.
Each day Ian repeated, “The smell of kerosene is making me ill.” I didn’t smell it at all, but he was hyper-sensitive to it. I assured him he’d be all right once he was on his own boat where he could have a propane range instead of an old kero cooker.
His griping wasn’t helped when he slammed his back into the edge of the bulkhead and hit his head hard on the low bookshelf fiddle above the head of his bunk. “Sorry, I guess I wasn’t thinking when I built that bookshelf there,” I admitted. “But that’s the crew bunk”… I stopped myself before finishing the sentence with… “and it’s not so important.”
"Who was the worst crew you ever had?” Ian asked with the camera squarely in my face.
“Uh, I’ll get back to you on that one.”
I made Ian a sandwich of sliced cheese, lettuce, and salami he had picked out at the supermarket. We had forgotten to buy mustard, so I served it on dry bread. I tried to cheer him up with the story the double circumnavigator, Jean Gau, recounted about a passage he made with a friend when they ran out of food three days from home. One night Gau was searching the bilge lockers looking for any missed items of food that may have rolled into a corner. He felt a jar in the darkness, pulled it out and joyously shouted to his crewmate, “Jam!” His fiend joined him as they smacked their lips, cracked it open, and eagerly scooped their fingers into the jar. “Mustard, damn!” But their hunger caused the disappointed men to instantly consume every speck of mustard.
Ian countered my story with his experience with Atom’s Lavac vacuum toilet. “A wave hit while I was standing at the toilet yesterday. As I fell back an arc of piss went into the air and into your clothes locker, I’m afraid. From then on I only sit down to pee like a woman. Man, that toilet has some serious vacuum. When I flushed, I felt my junk getting pulled down.”
We laughed together. “Stand up when you're finished and put the lid down next time you flush,” I instructed him and then went forward to wipe up what was left of the fountain of errant urine.
And so it went. Sir Ian reigned over the tiny cabin that now felt too small to both of us, spewing gripes at me, urine across the cabinetry, and vomit into the bucket lashed to his bunk’s lee cloth. Then the would-be circumnavigator broke a bit and said: “I’m not worthy. Your books and videos made it look too easy, but this is hard stuff.”
“Careful what you say, I may quote you,” I told him.
“You can write anything about me, no problem. I don’t hide from it,” he replied without a trace of rancor.
Back home later, I overheard him on the phone tell his girlfriend in California: “It was great, but it was hard too. Like living in a revolving washing machine. A real awakening. The waves never stop. I got thrown around, hit my back and head hard a few times before I got my sea legs."
But he was gaining his sea legs mile by mile. And as he began feeling better, humor replaced the griping. When I put my own video camera in Ian's face to ask how he was getting along, he put on a hilarious show while lying in his bunk like an invalid: "I want to thank my sponsors Depends and Huggies, who saw me through this." Grabbing the puke bucket tied to his bunk, he said, "And I want to thank my sponsor RubberMaid."
When I alerted Ian to a family of exuberant porpoises performing off the bow, he quickly forgot his complaints as he danced around the deck, then perched himself at the bow in wind and spray, camera in hand. The porpoises twisted and turned through the water like marine acrobats, happily performing just for us. They leapt into the air to land with side smacks, even landing belly up a few times as they made fun of our relative slow six-knot progress.
The film and audio gear batteries required constant recharging. Added to our use of lights, radio, computers, and GPS plotter, the mostly overcast sky with lack of sun reaching our solar panels those days meant we were running a serious amp-hour deficit. Atom carries a large battery bank, so we had days of power remaining, but just to make sure we didn’t run out, I turned off my PC and chart plotter except for occasional checks of our position. I also diligently squeezed every photon from the cloud-shrouded sun by turning the solar panels several times a day in their tracker mounts perpendicular to the faint trace of sun.
The wind stubbornly hung in the NE, square on our beam for the remainder of the outward-bound passage. Instead of the forecast lightening of the wind, it slowly increased to 20-25 knots. As we approached the islands at night I got a weather update on my InReach satellite messenger – continued NE25 for another day at least. There were plenty of anchorages lying tantalizingly close, but I knew from experience that none of the passes onto the Bahama Bank would be safe to enter unless the wind reduced or shifted direction. The narrow pass ahead of us carried 11-foot depths while we had 6-8 foot breaking seas piling up at the entrance. A seriously risky approach. If I were intent on a long visit here I could heave-to well offshore and await better conditions. But Ian had a schedule to keep. If we got delayed here a couple days, the weather forecast predicted headwinds all the way back, which would delay us even more. We had only planned on a few hours ashore and one night in the anchorage, so it was not that disappointing to me that we had to give it a miss. Ian took well the bad news that our Bahama visit was a bust. I promised him good filming two days' sail ahead at Georgia’s Cumberland Island.
On a small boat, comfort and perception of sea state are all about your angle to the wind and sea. Turning downwind on our course for Cumberland instantly turned those angry seas into benevolent rollers escorting us comfortably towards home waters. After another day of fast sailing, the wind went south and lightened to the point where we were again under full sail on a flattening sea. Our speed dropped further with the waning wind as we caught a boost from the now helpful Gulf Stream. Ian had recovered his appetite but remained lethargic. He seemed glued to his bunk, studying a German language book. He did resurrect himself just before our arrival, saying, “I need to get some aerial drone footage before we get to land, now that the sea is calm enough.”
“I think you should wait and practice it more from shore first,” I advised. I distrusted the new technology and half expected the thing to take a dive into the sea. Ian brushed aside my concerns as he opened the suitcase containing the Phantom 3 drone, powered by four props. Ian was at the joystick controls as it lifted off the deck. The contraption immediately froze six feet above the water in one position as we slowly sailed away from it. It hovered for a minute, locked in space. Ian cursed and wiggled the controls as it began to lose altitude until it dropped gently into the sea. It gave one gallant effort to rise out of the water with plumes of prop-driven water rising into the air. It gained a few inches and then dropped back into the sea, sinking before I could tack back to pick it up. A software issue, it turned out. We were both crushed and in shock.
Ian quickly shook it off, but his troubles were not over. While in a hurry to catch a final sunset on film, he set a full cup of tea on the cabin sole and went forward to fetch his camera and lenses. On the way back he kicked over the tea cup, which saturated his sock with scalding water. He dropped his camera hard on the sole as he pulled at his sock and hooted with pain. “At this rate I’ll be reduced to finishing this film with my phone camera, and that won’t work,” he quipped. Fortunately, he later found his pricey camera still functioned, although its fancy electronic gimbal mount had stopped working days before.
At the inlet to St. Mary’s River along the border between Florida and Georgia, I turned Atom’s bow straight into a west wind. Our little 6-hp outboard motor pushed us slowly and valiantly against wind and tide straight up the channel. We anchored off the Cumberland Island National Seashore, which is under the control of the US National Park Service. We gathered the film gear and launched the dinghy to go ashore. Once the dinghy was tied up at the ferry dock and we stepped onto solid land, a marine police boat zoomed up to the dock. The officer waved us back. He told us that it was not permitted to land a dinghy there now because the dock needed to have a professional damage assessment after the hurricane that had gone through there two months earlier. I pointed out that the huge ferry boat now loading day-tripping tourists was using the very same dock and that it obviously was secure enough for them. No good. I offered to land my dinghy on the shore instead. Nope. His lips kept moving with rambling explanations, but all I could hear now was, “It is my job and pleasure to act as obstructionist for the state. Reasoning or resistance is futile.” I gave him a bewildered mouth agape stare and said, “Okay.” As we got into the dinghy to row back to Atom, Ian laid into the retreating police officer with sarcastic comments while I mumbled at him to please stop. “Hey, remember you’re going back soon to la-la land, but I’ll be coming back here,” I reminded him.
That night the accumulated stresses and discomforts of the passage melted away. The river was flat calm under a full moon rising above the island tree line as I slept like a dead man on a boat that seemed to be moored in concrete. In the morning we upped anchor and sailed further along the river to another landing spot on the island. Ian got his day of filming in under the sprawling forest canopy of twisted limbs of the grand old live oaks, each branch fantastically draped in curtains of Spanish moss. The next night we moved to another peaceful anchorage and the following day motor-sailed the final 20 miles along the Intracoastal Waterway back to Brunswick.
A few days later, before Ian caught a flight back to California, he cornered me for one more hours-long interview. I was truly sick of hearing myself talk by this point. My replies to more probing, “How did you feel…” questions revealed little of value, I’ll admit. His persistence reminded me of my own interviews with more notable sailors when I was writing for the sailing magazines. Instead of “How do you feel…” I used the “How did you or Why did you…” technique to elicit the story I needed. One of my exasperated victims early on said, “Don’t ask why,” which he repeated nearly every time I asked him a question. That made for a challenging interview and I know I was an equally troublesome subject for Ian.
“How do you feel about making another long voyage?” Ian asked.
“I hope to,” I replied. What I could have said better was that I may never sail across another ocean. There comes a time when your body has given you its last passage to a distant sea, when you have climbed your final mountain. In my mind I will always be ready for another journey. If the body cooperates it may be so. But regardless, other younger and healthier sailors than me will go forth on their voyages. In some way I will be a small part of a few of them just as I carried the legacy of those who went before me. That is a sailor’s best epitaph, his little taste of immortality. This passage left me grateful for yet another chance to be reacquainted with the sea and my boat and our 37-year-long history together.
A video I shot of this trip can be seen at: