2 Non-stop to Panama

I STRUCK the board and cry'd, “No more;
I will abroad!
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free, free as the road,
Loose as the wind...”

- George Herbert

Across Islands

A handful of friends and relatives waved goodbye to me from the dinghy dock in downtown Fort Lauderdale as I hoisted anchor and raised the mainsail. I motor-sailed Atom between the concrete breakwaters of the river's outlet to the ocean, where I hoisted my largest light-air jib and shut down the noisy engine. Our full sails caught the afternoon sea breeze, carrying us 30 miles southward along a shoreline beach backed by continuous concrete high-rise buildings. That evening I anchored off a sandy islet next to a marina in Miami's Biscayne Bay.

The next day at high tide, I brought Atom up to the beach and secured mooring lines to the palm trees. As the tide dropped, Atom rolled onto her side like a wounded whale drawing her last breath. Though she looked in distress, the intentional grounding was actually a poor-man's haul-out. For two days, working in shifts to match the six-hour rhythm of the tides, I scrubbed the rough beard of barnacles, shells and grass off the bottom and applied new anti-fouling bottom paint. Her old bottom paint had lost much of its effectiveness and needed quite frequent scrubbing – I did this every couple of weeks by diving overboard, while at anchor, with snorkel and fins and a stiff brush in hand. With fresh bottom paint the scrubbing routine could be postponed for a few months. It's essential to begin each passage with the cleanest hull possible, since even a slightly foul bottom makes a boat sluggish, particularly in light winds or headwinds.

Sitting in the cabin at night, while the boat tilted and righted to the tides, I restudied the Pilot Charts depicting prevailing winds, currents and assorted meteorological and oceanographic information gathered from over a hundred years of ship reports on all oceans around the world. As I pondered the course ahead it sunk in, that here I was, finally ready to cast off, with Atom as my ticket to anywhere in the watery world.

The average yachtsman is basically a tourist on a boat who associates mainly with other yachties. That's alright for them. My aim was different. My distant seas held the promise of a boundless spiritual empire; an empire lying within reach of even the poorest vagrant sailor, provided he has a capable boat. To make the most of this precious gift, my quest from the start was about experiencing other cultures, which meant getting off the boat and living among the islanders whenever possible.

With a freshly painted boat bottom, a rising tide lifting and beckoning us on, I hoisted anchor May 2nd, 1984. Ahead lay a distance of 1,500 nautical miles to Panama, a passage requiring navigation through the numerous reefs and islands of the Bahamas against prevailing winds, before turning south to the fabled Windward Passage. From there I could sail free with the wind at my back, or so the Pilot Charts promised.

Our voyage began with Atom eagerly pushing her way into the Straits of Florida with a fair south wind on the beam. Full sails, strong heart and open mind – I was on my way! Here and there, patches of cumulus clouds cast shifting shadows on the indigo sea of the Gulf Stream. As Miami's jagged skyline dropped from view, within me rose the lone voyager's familiar state of calm, yet heightened, awareness.

The genoa, largest of my four headsails, set like a smooth curved sheet, funneling the air aft into the slot between it and the full mainsail. Standing on the side deck between the sails, I could feel the wind accelerate giving us more lift than either single sail alone could provide.

Not long into the afternoon the wind eased until finally we sat becalmed. Without the steadying effect of wind on sail we rolled and pitched, more or less together, the boat and I, as the Gulf Stream carried us inexorably off our course, northward, at about three miles to the hour.

As often happens, one minor misfortune is compounded by another. When a breeze did return it was light and from ahead, which had me barely holding our position as we tacked against the wind and the flow of the current. Meanwhile, the radar detector sounded its alarm several times an hour as other ships passed. Our first few easy miles had turned into the frustrating beginnings of a long voyage.

By the next day I had coaxed Atom through light, shifting headwinds across the 50-mile-wide straits to enter Bahamian waters at the Northwest Providence Channel. The first island I sighted was the barren, uninhabited rock with the grand name of Great Isaac Cay. A mile long and a couple of stone's throws across, the truly “Great” thing about the island is its lighthouse that casts a beacon visible for 25 miles.

For the next few days I threaded a course through small, low islands, some palm-covered and others barren limestone, plotting my position from one to another by compass bearings and dead reckoning (a rough guess of the effects of course, speed and time). For example, if I sail at 5 knots for two hours to the east, I can use the compass rose and parallel rulers on the chart to advance my position 10 miles east where I place an X on the chart and note the time. It can be as simple as that or it can get complicated by frequent course and speed changes, unknown currents and darkness. On a good day it's simple geometry – on a bad day it's all intuition and guesswork until your position can be fixed by compass bearings off points of land or celestial observations.

When near land I kept an attentive watch, and if tired, slept lightly between rings from a kitchen timer set to 15 minute intervals. Most nights I sat in the cockpit, straining to see the land I knew lie out there somewhere and listening for the alarming sound of surf crashing on a reef. Throughout these flat Bahamian islands, unpredictable currents threatened to carry the unwary to destruction. The island of Great Stirrup Cay drifted by during the night as a dark, shaded outline: its non-functioning lighthouse rendering it less than Great, at least for a sailor passing in the night.

Next on my course was the one-to-two-mile-wide by 90-mile-long, Eleuthera Island. After its serpent-like shape fell astern I had a few days of clear sailing in deep water.

Pressed over by the wind, Atom charged ahead, gathering speed as she climbed the face of a wave, then flung her bow into the air, only to protest with a bang and a shudder as we landed in the next trough. My old, patched-up sails were stretched taut as we pushed into the strong trade wind. As the bow speared the next wave crest, water swept the deck from bow to stern. Leaks in the cabin sprouted from straining thru-bolted deck fittings.

The builders of fiberglass boats typically place a core material sandwiched between two layers of fiberglass on the boat's deck and coach roof to gain strength and save weight. Within Atom's fiberglass deck was a waterlogged balsa wood core, which, at the time, I attempted to repair with the half-measure of caulking up the obvious leaking ports and fittings. My boat and I were still in the stage of learning each other's faults and weak points. Correcting and accommodating them would take some time. Now, my make-shift-repair mentality caused old leaks to reappear and kept me bailing cupfuls of seawater out of the leeward lockers at all hours. Anything not well sealed in plastic bags became wet and then moldy during these few days pounding to windward. To keep even more water from getting below I kept the hatches dogged shut, causing the inside of the cabin to become miserably hot.

I stayed on deck getting salted and sunned like a piece of dried beef, retreating down below only after sunset to escape the stifling cabin. Lack of a companionway hatch spray cover, aptly called a dodger, caused me some suffering during the thousands of miles to come, but a dodger and a bimini awning over the cockpit were two of many “non-essential” items struck from my fitting-out list in favor of a more immediate departure. I just had to tough it out until turning downwind brought some relief from the elements.

It's impossible to overstate the difficulties of taking a small, ill-equipped boat to weather against the trade winds. Ocean racing boats are designed for good windward performance, if not comfort, but a small, heavily-loaded cruising boat that tries to slog long distances to windward will eventually shake itself, or its crew, to pieces. Because I had doubled up the rigging wires on the mast, and carried a heavy load of supplies packed aboard, I noticed some lost sailing efficiency. At best, I could make 50 degrees off the wind. In stronger winds, about 70 degrees was all I could manage as course made good, taking into account the sideways slip of the boat through the water, which increased as the boat heeled. To buoy my spirits, I reminded myself that once I cleared these islands, 90 percent of the remainder of the world voyage would be with the relative ease of a downwind ride.

As I made progress along the windward side of the Bahamas, I altered course more to the south. At sunset I passed the long and low Mayaguana Island and by morning approached Great Inagua, the last of the “Great” (and less than great) islands of the Bahamas. Sailing close along the leeward side of Great Inagua, the only visible activity was a mechanized conveyor loading a Canadian freighter from a mountain of salt gathered from the island's extensive salt drying ponds.

I had good reason to delay at Great Inagua: my calculations showed I was still several hours early for a daylight arrival at the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba. I hove-to by back-winding the foresail, easing the mainsheet then lashing the tiller to leeward, and drifted like this for a few hours behind the shelter of the island.

With sunset approaching I trimmed sails for a close-reach at 60 degrees off the wind and resumed my journey. It was a sleepless night of pounding into heavy seas that seemed to drop the boat on solid earth instead of the liquid sea that streamed down the cabin windows and dripped onto my bunk. Conscious of currents pulling me towards a light visible on Cuba, I pressed on at a good speed, knowing that the less time I spent in these waters the less effect the current would have. While the wind vane held her on course, I wedged my body into the lee-cloths of the drier windward bunk and eased the long hours of the night reading about the voyages of Columbus by the light of my gimbaled kerosene lamp. It was an appropriate book for these waters as my little boat crossed the wakes of Columbus' three caravels, all of us setting out to discover a world new to us. About twice an hour I set the book aside and climbed out of my bunk to check the horizon for ship traffic and to bail water out of the leeward bunks and lockers.

At daylight the wind dropped and a few hours later the sea became calm. A line of position from a sextant sight of the sun showed I was in the center of the 40-mile-wide Windward Passage. At a speed of barely one knot, the Triton's motion was easy. There being no apparent danger, I went to sleep. I awakened not long after to the deep pulsing howl of a helicopter hovering close overhead as if attempting to perch on our masthead. A crewman leaned out the open door, took a photo of me fighting to lower sails in the rising tornado of his rotor wash, then they turned to skim along the water to the east towards Haiti. Two hours later a U.S. Coast Guard ship was beside me, launching from her deck a boat nearly the same size as Atom.

As the launch approached the young officer in charge shouted across the water, “We are going to board you. Maintain your course and speed.” I hand-steered in the light wind as they came alongside and two of the armed, uniformed teenagers clambered aboard. “Why didn't you answer our call on the VHF?” the young officer asked.

“I didn't feel much like talking – since I was asleep,” I replied.

After a cursory look through some of my overstuffed lockers, I noticed my two guests losing their focus and swallowing deeply; sure signs of impending seasickness. My familiar pleasure of tormenting seasick guests got the better of me as I told them: “There's more gear stowed under the forward berth you haven't checked yet.” Then couldn't resist, “Also, there's a locker behind the toilet if you don't mind the odor.”

Back on deck and apparently feeling better, they radioed their captain who asked my destination. “Bound for Panama and then around the world, alone, he says,” was relayed over the radio with just a hint of disbelief. The captain apparently had heard even less plausible stories on his sea ventures and in reply simply asked if I needed anything. Since they had intruded uninvited on my sea of solitude, I thought they might as well do something useful and told them I could use some fresh water to top up my tank and a detailed weather forecast for the Caribbean Sea. They returned to their ship and sped back minutes later with several jugs of water, an armful of satellite weather charts and a two-day old Miami newspaper, all compliments of the captain. I wondered if I should have ordered lunch and a bag of ice as well.

“Can you guys come back in a few days?” I asked one of the guardsmen. Thinking I was serious, if a bit mad, he patiently explained they were too busy searching vessels passing through the Windward Passage for drug smugglers and Haitian refugees trying to make their way to Florida. Why they searched me, a southbound vessel clearly not fitting either profile, he didn't say. He did tell me they had picked up 30 Haitians that morning, apparently heading towards Florida on a battered old fishing boat, and were on their way to “repatriate” them to the Haitian capital of Port Au Prince when they intercepted me.

Because I consider myself a man with an independent conscience, unlegislated by either the left, right or center of politics, I had mixed feelings about the right of refugees to travel at will between countries. Still, I was annoyed that the U.S. Coast Guard felt it had the right to patrol international waters and other country's coasts, forcibly removing people from their boats because they might intend to land later in the United States. Even back then, a man need sail long and far to get beyond the reach of the government's minions. I held back any open criticism since I didn't want my trip declared a “manifestly unsafe voyage” whereby they might haul me back to Miami in leg irons. Thank God there were no Cuban gunboats around to “repatriate” me to Florida.

The plight of the Haitian boat people was, and still is, a sad story any way you look at it. Largely because of deforestation caused by poor conservation, the farmlands of Haiti are eroding into the sea, leaving the land scarred and bare. As families grow, their small plots of land can no longer support them. Birth control was unheard of and, without any type of government assistance, many were starving. Often a father decides to gamble everything by selling his barren land to pay a smuggler for passage for one of his sons to America. The young man joins a crowd of others who have paid up to $2,000 each to board an open wooden boat for up to a 30-day ordeal at sea. If he survives to reach Miami, and if he can find employment, he'll try to send money back to his landless family, who now live in a tin and cardboard shack in a shantytown. Many Haitians never make it to the U.S. They get shipwrecked or duped by skippers who have been known to drop them in the Bahamas, telling them they are in Florida. Others have been thrown overboard to drown off the Florida coast because the nervous captain saw a Coast Guard boat approaching.

I was struck by the contrast of these desperate people to my own privileged cruise. The Haitians picked up that morning were pulled from their boat and dumped ashore back to the misery of Haiti; I was given water and a newspaper and wished bon voyage. Where I could move freely about the world by flashing an American passport, the Haitians were usually picked up before they got far from their native shores. Forced to return home, some were jailed and tortured. Others simply disappeared. Around the time of my voyage, there had been repeated popular uprisings in Haiti as the island teetered between brutal dictatorship and a communist takeover, as happened across the straits in Cuba.

As the Coast Guard ship steamed away on its unhappy mission, I looked to the west and spotted the rough outline of Cuba's 12,000-foot high Sierra de Purial. I was now becalmed and drifting close to the 12-mile territorial limit where Cuban gunboats at the time were known to haul in foreign yachts for lengthy interrogations. Not far away, on Cuba's south coast, is the U.S. Naval station at Guantanamo Bay. This thorn in Castro's side was also off-limits to yachts. Now was one of those times to put the engine to use and burn up some precious gasoline. For three hours I motored south towards the open sea to put a few more miles between myself and international politics.

Despite my eagerness to reach less troubled waters, for the next three days I averaged only about 50 miles a day. With a fair wind I could easily sail 100, or sometimes as much as 145 miles a day. The weather charts given to me by the Coast Guard indicated a deep low-pressure area passing to our north. So at least I had an explanation for the slow going. Here, where trade winds are the rule, I had calms and vexing, light, shifting winds instead. A weather map may explain the weather. Unfortunately, it does nothing to change it.

The sun, standing straight overhead at noon, shot its blazing yellow arrows that reflected in a metallic glare off the rolling sea. In the tropics, if you can't find shade on a windless day, you will soon mark the sun as your constant enemy. Yet, even as I sat becalmed under this torpid sun, staring until the sea morphed into a pulsing desert of sand dunes, through meditation I momentarily escaped to the remembered perfume of a cool autumn day by my favorite fishing stream in a northern Michigan pine forest. When I needed something more than illusion, I doused my naked body with buckets of tepid seawater.

At night I found relief from the heat by sleeping on deck where I could detect, and get up to trim sails to, any faint aspirations of wind. During the long hours sitting motionless at night, I watched the parade of stars rise and set, and thought about the distances and oceans ahead. Would Atom be overcome by a storm and be driven ashore or broken up on a reef? Thankfully, those thoughts occurred less and less as the days unwound. Somewhere along the way I lost the feeling of lurking danger and started sleeping soundly, even if only for an hour or two at a time. I was gradually learning to let unproductive worries slip away in my wake and live in the present moment. For the past week, navigating through the Bahamas, I had not slept more than an hour at a time. Either it was a wind shift that required a sail adjustment, an intruding ship that triggered my radar alarm, or the need to stay alert for islands and reefs that demanded my attention. The beauty of calms at night was the glorious deep sleep they allowed.

Stepping on deck one morning, as casually as stepping onto the front porch at home to pick up the morning paper, a scan of the horizon caused me to catch my breath. Not more than half a mile off the starboard bow sat a three-masted square-rigged sailing ship frozen still under clouds of limp canvas. I thought I'd drifted into the pages of The Voyages of Columbus. I knew there were very few large sailing ships still making ocean passages and certainly none that would lay becalmed without carrying on under auxiliary diesel power. The ship's captain and I eyed each other through binoculars until a light wind filled in and they set to hauling their braces to get underway. I hoisted my bright orange and red spinnaker to take advantage of the new wind. The captain hailed me on the VHF and told me they were en route to Bermuda, their engine had broken down and, like myself, they'd been drifting and making little progress for the past several days. The ship close-reached ponderously to the north with barely enough way for steerage while Atom headed south under spinnaker, cleaving the calm waters at a speed that made the sluggish square-rigger look like it was sailing through molasses while dragging an anchor.

During the day the erratic trades slowly strengthened and the seas began to build. From every wave that slapped Atom's side, a burst of fine spray flew up and the sun turned each into a brief rainbow. A small migratory bird perched on the stern pushpit rail and rested there through the night. As I got up each hour to check course or adjust sails, my guest flapped his wings once to acknowledge my presence and settled back down when I retreated to the cabin. Sometime before dawn I looked out expecting to see him there and he had flown off.

I had been in the habit of taking a noon sextant sight, which gave me my latitude, and another sight later in the afternoon to give me a line of position to cross with my latitude line for a position fix. This technique was simple, but prone to error, as it depended on the accuracy of my dead reckoning during the hours between the two sights. Now that the sun was passing directly overhead on its annual springtime journey north, taking a noon sight became awkward as the sun viewed through the sextant mirror appeared to jump around the horizon on all sides. From here on I seldom bothered with the noon latitude sight, preferring to take morning and afternoon sights and later to make morning or evening twilight star and planet sights.

Across Islands

The island of Jamaica was not far away and made a tempting landfall but, as I was well-provisioned and enjoying being at sea now that I had a fair wind, I maintained a course for Panama. With the full force of the Northeast Trade Winds set in we ran free on our 140-mile per day sleigh ride. In a rush we made up for those motionless days. The waves rose to gently nudge Atom's stern as they hissed by. For the next two days I didn't touch a sail as we rode the waves under the singing wind.

In the mornings I would make my topsides inspection to check for chafed lines and sails, or rigging working itself loose. As I moved around deck I disposed of the bodies of flying fish that had hurled themselves aboard during the night. The remainder of the morning I usually exercised my mind by reading from my library of more than 100 increasingly salt-stained books. I had heard Thoreau's books critiqued as “a verbose treatment of the commonplace.” That may be true to a reader harried by the pace of modern city life, but I savored his observations of nature, man and self with all the attentiveness and boundless consciousness of a sailor alone on the sea. In the afternoon I exercised my body. I knew from experience that if I relied only on the activities of handling the boat to keep me in shape, I would arrive at the next port with limbs as weak as a baby.

Sailing alone is exhausting at times but, on the whole, it is a series of brief activities followed by long periods of rest. To build up stamina and general good health for my shore excursions, and to combat the feeling of lassitude that easily creeps up on the lone sailor, I exercised every day, vigorously, with few exceptions. I did sit-ups, push-ups and deep knee bends, working my way up to sets lasting two hours. I also practiced a few yoga forms that can be managed on a less-than-stable platform. After the exercise, a saltwater bucket shower in the cockpit, followed by a rinse with a cupful of precious freshwater in the solar shower bag, completed my afternoons.

At night I studied the stars, memorizing the sky charts by penlight and then locating them in the real world planetarium reeling overhead. Where one man sees emptiness, another man sees his world bursting with fullness.

No matter what I was doing, if there was steady wind, the Aries wind vane took care of the hard work of steering the boat day in and day out. I had merely to get the boat settled on her course with sails balanced, then feather the wind vane's thin plywood vane into the wind and attach the steering lines. Atom would hold a course more accurate over the long term than any helmsman. When the boat naturally tried to fall off course, the slight change in apparent wind direction tilted the horizontally pivoting wind blade which caused the wind vane's small rudder to turn and kick up from the flow of water against its side, pulling one or another of the steering lines connected to the tiller. Back and forth it endlessly kept up its pendulous bowing from side to side. Lacking a sense of compass direction, when the wind shifted it was up to me to make an adjustment, and the wind vane would again carry on. It's an ingenious and simple device and was responsible, more than anything else, for the increasing number of solo sailors on the world's oceans in the 1970s and 80s. This was before the flood of instant navigators was set loose on the seas by the availability of inexpensive GPS satellite receivers in the 1990s.

Across IslandsAs I approached Panama, unsettled weather moved in turning completely overcast with frequent squalls and thunderstorms that kept me jumping to the sails to reef, or unreef the main, or haul down and replace the jib with one larger or smaller. It was a routine that I became so practiced at over the years, I could literally do it blindfolded. For two days now I had been unable to confirm my position by celestial observation due to the clouded skies. At least I knew I was still on the canal approach as ships were passing by more frequently each day. Most shipping passed me unseen, behind sheets of continuous rain. I knew of their close presence by the radar alarm's insistent “Beep-beep!”

Another long night of dodging ships and straining to see land through the blackness brought my reward at dawn, when the dark mountains of Panama stood outlined against a misty gray sky. It took the remainder of the day to make the last ten miles to harbor as I sailed against a four-knot counter-current running along the coast.

When my anchor hit bottom in Cristobal Harbor, I ran up the yellow quarantine flag and fell happily exhausted into my bunk. For the next 12 hours, until a customs launch arrived to clear me in, I lay in the deep unconscious state that few non-sailors will ever know. The passage of 1,500 miles in 15 days had been a small personal triumph. Tiring, yes, but without mishap.

My confidence in successfully completing the world voyage was growing. Next step: test my skills at navigating the greater shoals of Panamanian and U.S. Canal Zone bureaucracy.