As we cleared Pollock’s Rip at the entrance to the North Channel through the Nantucket Shoals, it fell dead calm, dense fog rolled up, night fell and the tide turned, setting on the shoals south of the channel. We were not racing now, and I needed only to start the motor. But when I tried to, the exhaust pipe blew out clouds of asbestos, and the motor stopped dead. Nothing would induce it to go. I spent the night at the helm, coaxing Gipsy Moth to ghost eastward with any breath of wind I could detect. I did not like it, but managed to keep clear of the shoals until the tide turned at 3.25 in the morning, and I handed over the tiller to Sheila after twenty hours on the job.
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Although we had some great sailing on this passage home, I was not happy. I did not like sailing with Sheila aboard without keeping a watch. When alone, I had only myself to consider. Now Sheila was not fit enough to take a watch, and in any case did not want to, and would not agree to Giles keeping watch on his own. For a lot of the time I was seriously worried. Sheila had sailed tired out from the efforts she had made with the map publishing business in my absence, and helping to organise my departure from England, as well as our arrangements in America. After flying out to America she had led a strenuous life in New York before sailing down to Cape Cod. Soon after we sailed she began getting severe headaches, and felt sick. We ran into rough seas and strong winds, and I think she was worrying about Giles, who was also in his berth with headaches, and felt sick for day after day. The voyage was a formidable enterprise for a boy of sixteen. The heat did not help. I had aimed for the centre of the Gulf Stream, and often the water was hotter than the air. On August 15, 16, 17, and 18 it was 80 °F. I used to sluice myself down with buckets of Gulf Stream in the cockpit, but Sheila was not well enough to do this. Day after day I logged winds of Force 6, with sometimes Force 8 or 9. We made good 750 miles in five days through rough seas. Even with the help of the Gulf Stream this was a good pace. Sheila could not rest because of the rough going, and after a fortnight I was getting seriously worried about her. On 20 August she had some brandy, and wrote in her diary that she felt well, but had no appetite. I could see no improvement. Giles continued to feel ill, and I suspected that his eyes were causing headache due to the strong light reflected from the sea. I feared that ocean sailing was not for him. Then, at the end of the third week, he made a big effort, came on deck, and began helping me with the sail changing. Every day after that he got stronger, and before the end of the voyage he was changing headsails by himself, working the foredeck alone. Before the end of the voyage he was a first-class foredeck hand.
For Sheila, I did not know whether it was better to sail on regardless of the rough going and reach England as soon as I could, or to halve the speed for easier going, and take much longer over the voyage. In the end I compromised, sailing fairly fast, but not at racing speed.
Had it not been for these worries it would have been an interesting voyage. I found it fascinating to plot the temperature of the Gulf Stream day by day, and also to compare my dead-reckoning position with my sextant fix, to get a rough idea of the meanderings of the Gulf Stream or Gulf River as it might well be called. The lanes of dark yellow sargasso seaweed, considered with the wind direction at the time, seemed related to the direction of the Stream, which sometimes flowed north or south, sometimes looped westwards, before continuing its easterly passage. This sargasso weed frequently stopped the log spinner several times a day. I used my long boathook to catch clumps of it as we sailed past, and when I examined them in a bucket they were full of tiny crabs and shrimps.
Several stormy petrels, Mother Carey’s chickens, came on board. It is easy to understand how these birds have intrigued sailors through the ages. I used to watch them, fascinated, as they crossed and recrossed the logline with their fluttery, irregular wing beats, occasionally pecking at the line as it twisted after the yacht like a thin snake. Sailors have dreaded them as forerunners of storm, and when we saw so many on this voyage we certainly had rough weather, though no storm. The one that came aboard on 24 August I found later in the evening in one of the lockers under the cockpit seat, with its wings outstretched. It was a small bird, and fitted neatly in my hand, cool to the touch. It had long black legs had three long toes, webbed with a membrane like a bat’s wings. Its curved beak was like a tiny parrot’s. I held it pointing into the wind in my hand, and it took off into the night. Then, when I was on the counter looking at Miranda, it flew back towards me, and came quite close, fluttering feebly as if wanting to alight again. When I went on deck two hours after midnight I nearly trod on it. We were having a rough ride on a starry night. At 3.20 a.m. when I next went on deck, the petrel was still there; and it took off from my hand like a black moth.