On the morning of day seven we are perfectly on course and making great speed in the steady winds. I tidy up the cabin and whip up egg sandwiches with avocado, cheese, and sweet chili sauce as we suffer through the French for Dummies audio CD in an attempt to show up in French Polynesia with at least some basic vocabulary. Halfway through the nasally man's lesson, the wind spikes. The seas increase sharply, and a wave rolls into the cockpit, sending Mom howling below.
I try different strategies throughout the day to stabilize our ride, but the growing swells and strengthening wind continue to make it challenging.
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By dusk, we are reefed down to a sliver of a storm jib and I've altered our course to take the swells directly astern. Even then, we're barreling down the steep ramps of water like a school bus with no brakes.
We manage to get some grilled cheese sandwiches onto our plates for dinner, but getting them into our mouths is an entirely different story. We juggle our grip between the plates, forks, and cups that all slide back and forth and sideways on the little nav table with each roll and heave. In the event that we need something out of reach, Mom must hold everything at once while I traverse the three difficult feet for a napkin or hot sauce. Once we make it through the circus of a dinner, I pull out the computer, check our latitude and longitude, and scan the propagation chart for the frequency with the strongest signal for downloading emails and weather charts, then turn on the Sailmail modem that connects to my single sideband radio. I'm pleased as it buzzes and clicks and successfully downloads the messages, but then cringe reading Dad's email aloud:
“ Ladies. I have some bad news. The swells are going to get bigger and steeper over.
The next five days. Hunker down and heave to if you have to. There's an unusually large storm off northern Peru that is sending wind and swell your way. You shouldn't see anything over thirty-five knots or twenty feet. Love you both so much. You can do this. Love, Dad.”
We look at each other bleakly. “ Five days? ” Mom asks. After studying my other weather sources, I solemnly confirm.
“ I'm going up to check our course, and do some sail adjusting, ” I tell her.
“ You are not going out there! ” Mom replies matter-of-factly.
I try to hold back my smirk. Our captain-crew and mother-daughter roles are confusing. We both laugh. I hug her and assure her I will be okay. She crawls into her bunk in the forepeak for the evening, and I hear her mumble something about “ wishing she could be airlifted out” and that “ this is where they should have sent Paris Hilton for punishment. ” Ha!
The night is long and mostly sleepless for me. Every time the white-water crests of the waves crash and roll along Swell's flanks, she careens down a blue-water wave face and spins into a tail slide, tossing our bodies one way and then the other as the hull retaliates. Cups clang, teak joints whine, halyards slap, cargo groans, and the sea roars loudly past my head, reminding me that less than an inch of fiberglass separates us from all of that wild water.
Day nine finds us more resigned to “ living in a washing machine, ” as Mom calls it. Sarcasm becomes sporadic relief from the constant, inescapable bucking and lurching. The swells remain tightly packed and confused, with fingers of the thirty-knot winds running wrinkles up their massive faces. Every step is a gamble, as the floor constantly falls and twists beneath our feet. Snacks become meals and our already basic hygiene further slackens. When just going to pee is like a bad trip through a fun house, showering and tooth-brushing lose their normal priority.
That afternoon I stand on the aft deck watching the swells with frustration, my body braced between the solar array and the backstay. Some swells come at us from the south and wedge into intimidating peaks behind the stern. Others sneak across from the north, sending Swell bucking to port and complicating the determined lines of westbound water. My limbs go numb and I lose my breath when it appears the next wave will break right over us. I grip the backstay tighter as the stern rises and Swell seesaws as the water mountain moves underneath us. I plead with the sea to calm down as the next lurking giant approaches please, for Mom! But its face is twisted, scattered, and unavailable for discussion.
Like lost tourists on a busy New York City sidewalk, we do our best to go unnoticed, maintain the flow, and stay out of the way of that powerful flood of indifference. Mom complains little but refuses to come out of the cabin the “ roiling sea” is just too frightening. She spends most of her time on the starboard half-berth in the main cabin, bracing her legs against the nav table, brow furrowed and eyes locked on the pages of the ironically named Carefree Crossword Puzzles blog. The woman on the cover is wearing a white one-piece, sprawled across a lounge chair at the beach under a white umbrella. I want to be her.
“ What large diving bird has only four letters? ” Mom asks as the boat careens into a trough. I'm totally impressed that she can focus on all those little letters; the mere thought makes me nauseous. I'm not much help with the crossword puzzles, as I reel between frustration, seasickness, fear, and thinking about the Spaniard. I haven't heard from him for days. The hours bounce on like a bad dream we can't wake up from, and I'm forced to let go of my vision of our dreamy mother-daughter cruise.
On the morning of day thirteen, the aquatic carnival ride calms slightly. I alter our course back to the rhumb line, then attempt to get the wind vane self-steering pilot working. The electric autopilot continues to steer like a champ, but I fear burning it out by running it all these days without a break. The wind vane if I could figure out how to use it is made expressly for long passages like this and operates solely with the push of the wind. I've read the manual a dozen times, and go slowly through each step, but every time I set its steering pin, Swell rounds up to port. I give up and steer by hand for a while, enjoying surfing her down the open ocean peaks. When I finally turn the autopilot back on, I pay out the fishing line for the first time since the swell spiked, and lie back on a cushion. Gaspar appears on the inside of my eyelids. As I doze off we are diving through underwater caves holding hands.
“ ZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzI” Fish on! I reel in a lovely bigeye tuna, then clean and fillet the gorgeous red steaks.
That afternoon, I'm back in dreamland when something strange happens: stillness. My eyes flash open in a panic from a nightmare that we've run aground. I jump up to find we are moving along at seven and a half knots with full sails. The demon swells are gone!
“ It feels like we're floating on a cloud! ” I shriek.
“ It's the strangest sensation! ” Mom calls from below, and now, for the first time in five days, she comes up into the cockpit. We embrace at the glorious respite. Relief. Appreciation. Hope. Mom sips on her precious last beer, and I launch eagerly into a three-pan seared tuna dinner as Swell glides smoothly past the 1,500-nautical-miles-to-go mark. Halfway there.