22 The Blue Highway

Everything can be found at sea, according to the spirit of your quest.

-Conrad's “Mirror Of The Sea”


Along the west coast of Martinique, Atom moved quick and easy through the familiar waters, both of us aware we were homeward bound. I looked up again at the mainsail, so old and patched, but still pulling like a steady old plow horse. On my chart I plotted a nonstop passage of 1,400 miles through the islands of the Caribbean to Ft. Lauderdale. I knew most of these island coasts along my course almost pebble by pebble, and knew also that to avoid the frequent calms on the leeward sides of the high islands, I should give them a berth of at least fifteen miles.

I sailed there on a glorious beam reach – a point of sail where the boat balances well with steady heel and little rolling as she reaches out with long steady strides parallel to the lines of wave tops. The navigation chores, initially, were nothing more than counting off the passing island peaks as they appeared in succession off the starboard bow. Even from this distance the volcanic peaks stood out bold and dark against the blue sky. At night I identified the main coastal settlements by the clusters of lights shimmering on the horizon.

The long and high island of Dominica appeared first. Several years earlier I'd walked through the rugged interior jungles of that last stronghold of the Carib Indians. Here they held out against the white colonists for another century and a half after Columbus visited the island. Originally from coastal South America, the Caribs populated the islands from Trinidad to Puerto Rico with their frail-looking dugout canoes. Today, just a few of these remaining pure natives of the Caribbean reside on an Indian reservation on the harborless windward coast of Dominica.

My visit to Dominica three years earlier occurred during a time I call The Great Banana Glut of ‘83. When I approached the anchorage at Prince Rupert Bay at the town of Portsmouth, I was met two miles out by an outboard-powered skiff bearing two young men shouting at me to buy their bananas. Their impatient tone was something between a demand and a prayer as they lashed their boat alongside uninvited. I kept sailing, towing them along with me until they received a fair price for their box of ripe bananas. As I approached closer to the island, they cast off just as another boat boy arrived with more bananas at half the price of the first boat. So I bought more, thinking how clever I was not to have bought too many earlier. I'd heard of cheaper by the dozen but these were cheaper by the mile.

Once Atom's anchor was down more boat boys surrounded us, dropping banana crates on deck and begging a mere dollar per crate. Such a bargain I couldn't resist. In minutes I had ten crates of ripe bananas filling the cockpit and deck. Along the shore, boat boys were spreading the word, “That man out there loves bananas and can't get enough.”

Finally, through binoculars, I saw the town docks piled high with ripe and rotting bananas. Later I found out the last two scheduled banana ships never arrived to pick up the entire island's crop. Despite my little contribution, this was a disaster for the local economy. Stupefied by my greed, I spent the next week eating almost nothing but bananas. I baked banana muffins, boiled them into preserves, and dried them in strips on deck in the sun until I couldn't look at another banana. Just as a sweet potato instantly reminds me of New Guinea, I still can't eat a banana without the fond memory of those days in Dominica coming back in perfect detail.

The French island of Guadeloupe hove into view the next morning even before Dominica fell out of sight. I well remembered exploring this high, lush island three years before, traveling its dusty roads through sugar cane plantations and into highlands of waterfalls, forests and small farms.

The following morning I greeted three more old friends: the triplet islands of Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis. St. Kitts' symmetrical cone-shaped Mount Misery wore a cloud halo over its peak. Behind the mountain's flanks, the glow of an orange-yellow sunrise gave to the island the appearance of a dark painting, cut out and pasted on the horizon. Due to the island's small size and the lack of proper harbors, this group was still so isolated in the 1980s that it was said the blacks spoke their distinct Creole laced with a trace of Irish brogue picked up from the early settlers.

The Dutch Island of Saba loomed up from ahead, rising sheer in one huge rock pyramid. As I passed close to its landing dock I exchanged waves with a fisherman casting a line from shore. High up and then down into the island's extinct volcano rests the main town, appropriately named The Bottom. On the top outside edge of the crater sits the village of Top. From my short distance offshore, I watched people walk along the road and disappear over the crater rim on their way into the pit of the verdant ex-cauldron.

At this point I turned downwind for the hundred-mile crossing of Anegada Passage. With current and wind in my favor, I crossed most of it during the night and by next morning lay a few miles off St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Lovely as the Virgins are, I had spent enough time in their over-developed, touristy, charter boat-filled waters to know they held little of interest on this particular voyage.

In the center of Virgin Island Passage, I sailed close to the bleached white cliffs of Sail Rock. It does resemble a sailing ship from afar, one with sails set but forever riding at anchor. Beyond Sail Rock I turned north into the open waters east of the Bahamas. For the remainder of the day, the silhouette of distant Puerto Rico bent the horizon. By night, a glow of diffused light pointed the way to the city of San Juan.

The darkness that night was further interrupted by curious rapid flashes of light over the straits between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. When I tried to discern some natural or man-made pattern to the lights, the silence was broken by a shrill whine that instinctively made me duck and think of an incoming missile. Probably I was sailing past an area where the U.S. Navy was holding war games and the intense light flashes were the firing of a ship's cannon. Perhaps in the darkness, my stealthy vessel had sailed near a target. They could have incinerated me in a moment and who would know – just another luckless sailor lost in the Bermuda Triangle. The next afternoon a U.S. Navy ship passed close off my stern. As the gray hull thundered by, the crew lining the side deck shouted greetings while Atom footed across the sea in her butterfly stance of sails set wing on wing. In their wake floated an empty whiskey bottle.

Somewhere northeast of Turks and Caicos Islands I lifted a five-gallon water jug at an awkward angle while transferring it into the forward water tank. The sharp pain of a pinched nerve raced up my spine. I crawled carefully and slowly aft to my bunk where I lay tormented for two days enduring shots of paralyzing pain at each roll of the boat. As I lay there, I kept an eye on the telltale compass above my bunk. Fortunately, the weather remained fair and Atom mostly looked after herself until I recovered. Emerging slowly on deck, I sighted the long, and low, snake-like island of Eleuthera in the central Bahamas.

In the Northwest Providence Channel I navigated from island to island in company with several other ships taking this shortcut through the islands to Florida. At last, the reef-crowded Bahamas lay astern and I aimed Atom's bow across the Straits of Florida. The sun's great orange coin dropped for the last time into the sea off the bow. My seemingly endless days of riding the winds and chasing constellations across the sky as I furrowed my path across the seas, were nearing an end. The events of these two years branded my memory as a banquet spread before a starving man. Even now, these many years later, the sights and sounds come back with surprising clarity.

Cruising sailors wander the world's oceans, tucking into islands here and there, staying “as long as it's fun” as they like to say. I had pursued that kind of aimless travel before and would do so again, but this particular voyage carried with it a sense of purposefulness that focused my energies and brought me some of what I was looking for, and more that I hadn't expected. A sailor will go to sea again and again because the accumulated burdens and distractions of shore life seldom satisfy our genetic desire to roam through the world, experiencing nature one-on-one. At sea our expectations dwindle to the essentials and the immediate: are the sails trimmed and the boat on course, will we clear that reef off the bow, is the squall on the horizon heading our way?

From the afterdeck, I stood holding the backstay with one hand and looked beyond Atom's foamy wake as if I might see my way back to certain lands. Sunsets often remind me of a girl back there, a reminder as ethereal as the fragrance of flowers wafting in the open hatch above my bunk. I wondered, as time passed, did she also feel nostalgic about me? Did a sail on the horizon ever cause her a second wistful look?

Somewhere along the way, that nagging loneliness slinked away in the awareness of the difference between being lonely and being alone. Someone considering a solitary voyage, but afraid of being alone, should understand that they merely fear being face-to-face with themselves. If you have a reasonable grip on reality, it is a false fear. Besides learning to know yourself and your abilities, there are other benefits to voyaging alone. When truly alone on the wide ocean, your senses become acute, dreams more vivid, and the landfalls sweetly emotional. Even with the most personable companion, a group of two experiences a totally different world than the lone sojourner. Their impact on the environment, and each other, can be too overwhelming for them to observe the subtle, natural state of things. When ashore, the lone traveler cannot help but disturb the social order of the places he visits. Two travelers disturb it exponentially, without absorbing one half the experience.

I also had the added benefit of no one to say that my temperament at sea was disagreeable. Like Thoreau, I had yet to find a companion as companionable as solitude. Over that long road of 243 days alone on the ocean's blue highways, I learned to live within and beyond myself. In one of his books or articles, sailor guru Bernard Moitessier called it “sailing in a state of grace.” You won't find it on your first day or week alone offshore. But with experience comes a competency and calm acceptance that brings peace to your world.

It is true the solo sailor has perhaps sometimes too much time on his hands. Through many days of solitary reflection, the soul alone on a broad horizon tends to imagine himself the center of the universe and proprietor of all that is wise. It's a compelling and foolish fantasy to indulge. At best, if his mind tended towards wisdom before he went to sea, he may cultivate it further out there to come home wise enough to live in the simple pleasures of the moment with a compassionate connectedness to everything around him.

Atom had also evolved. Ill-suited gadgets had gone over the side to be replaced by honest seamanship skills. Admittedly, my conservation in acquiring the latest comforts and electronic technology for my boat was a fortunate result of my poverty. If the money had been available, I'd surely have been tempted to buy more equipment, ending up slavishly devoted to things of doubtful value. Society's cult of spending large and living little, I turned on its head. I had long ago given up reliance on the boat's engine and got along well with only a sculling oar and a large dose of patience and forethought. My next projects on Atom were to remove her tired, old engine to make her the pure sailing craft that suited both our temperaments.

Across IslandsWith the graceful motion that only sail can give, Atom flew across the Gulf Stream, pushing up a curling bow wave that dipped as it ran along her sides. A sign of her designer's gifted hand revealed itself off the stern, where barely any evidence of her passing was visible in the bubbling waters of our wake. Taking a lesson from Atom, I strive to follow the minimalist creed, to make the most of the least. In my wake I leave little on this earth; in my passing, take even less.

When I sighted the Miami skyline, I had the curious feeling of not wanting the voyage to end. It had become a way of life that I wished could go on and on. Perhaps I feared it marked an end of youth and freedom when there were still so many places undiscovered. How we worry and make excuses for our inaction – we convince ourselves that someone needs us here. Shortly before I began this world voyage, my 93-year-old grandmother was moved to a nursing home after having lived with my parents in my unused bedroom for several years. On a trip to Michigan, I visited her where she lay ill with a “weak heart,” the doctor told us. I sat on the side of her bed thinking of all the lives she had touched over the years. She was so weak she could barely sit up or speak more than a few words at a time. “How's your boat doing?” she asked. “Are you going on this trip you've been working toward?”

“The boat's ready, Grandma, but I can't leave now with you so ill,” I said as I fought back the tears.

“Jimmy,” she said softly, “I've lived a good, long life and I'm ready to meet God. I'm not afraid. Go on your sailing trip and don't worry about me. I won't be here when you get back but don't be afraid for me and don't be afraid for yourself. Go now and see the world.” She was one of the few people to encourage me to begin this trip. At the end of her life she realized, if she had not before, that to worry over finances and perceived obligations was wasting precious life. I went, and though we never actually spoke again, we remain close in my thoughts. I always felt her courage and selflessness was her greatest gift to me.

In many ways I had come full circle. Curiously, when you consider the effect of following the sun across twenty-four time zones, I was now one solar day younger than if I had stayed at home. After a circumnavigation and two years absence, there is a sense that somehow things have changed upon your return, as if to mirror the distance traveled. Of course, nothing of consequence had changed in Ft. Lauderdale during those two years. It was slightly more crowded, the marine police a bit more diligent in enforcing city council ordinances against unwanted live-aboard sailors, and the cost of living ever higher. The sameness of the city brought within me an impression of closing a circle, of coming back, in more than a literal sense, to the same place it all began. To circumnavigate the world is not important. Many a solo-sailor have made perfect, and perfectly pointless, circumnavigations. It's how you live and sail that gives the journey any meaning.

Of course, solitary homecomings are bound to be anti-climatic. The voyage had been full of promise until the goal was realized. Strangely, the fulfillment was tinged with betrayal. My distant oceans had been crossed and my mountains climbed and still there remained the question; what does a man do after he has fulfilled his obsession? Then suddenly, I remembered what I already knew – to arrive is the end of a journey, not its purpose. I am here to make paths, not follow them. When the all-absorbing obsession is fulfilled, if one's heart remains open, another one looms up to take its place.

There would be another voyage, a return to those blue highways, I told myself. Soon after coming home I began working towards making it happen, and within months, I was underway again. At whatever age you begin your voyage, I hope you take with you that young person you remember yourself as throughout the voyage of the rest of your life.

As I let the anchor settle down into the mud of the yacht basin I thought of the old Tikopian navigator who asked me, “Which star will you follow from here?” In the many years since, I have rolled down countless seas, seeking something beyond the horizon. Note to self: go seek what you will, where you will, but be a seeker all of your life.