Friday, August 24, 2012

The Tortoise Way - Sailing Around Alaska

The Zen of Traveling Thousands of Miles at 7 mph

Traveling via sailboat is slow.  When the wind, waves, current and weather are in our favor our speed is about 6-9 knots (that’s approximately 7-10 miles per hour).  If any one of the above-mentioned factors are not ideal, i.e. too much wind, too little wind, wind in the wrong direction, current against us, sea swells on our beam, breaking waves, etc. then the speed reduces to as slow as 3-4 knots.  Overall, our average speed is about 6 knots.  And that is mostly with the engine running and a few sails.  Without the engine, there are times when the boat would be moving backwards.  Factoring in weather predictions and our travel goals, those of us who love to sail are often making decisions about when and if we can raise the sails and cut the engine, how that will affect our ETA, and whether or not we care about our ETA.
One day a few weeks ago as we departed Pelican, AK, we were faced with one of those decision points.  The wind was almost behind us, and if we headed just a wee bit off course, we had a lovely broad reach and made about 5-6 knots over water, under sail with no engine.  But, with the current against us in Liapinski Straight, we were only making about 2-3 knots over land.  We looked at each other, at the full sails and semi-open sky, and grinned, deciding to push back our arrival at the anchorage an hour or so in order to enjoy the quiet peace of sailing this leg of our journey.  The slow easy lapping of water on the hull, the beauty of Alaskan waters and mountains and sealife, make it an easy decision.  Carmen got the sailing bug during this leg as she became our winch handler.  She loved cranking on the winch handle to pull in our jib.  We have been waiting to see if she would ever find the sailing passion that the rest of us have, and got a glimpse of it that day.  She said, “I don’t like pulling in the sails with the winches, I LOVE IT!!!”
About three days before that, however, as we made our three-day crossing of the Gulf of Alaska at this pace, the world was not so rosy and my attitude not so accepting of this slow and easy pace. 
It was 2:00am and I was on the night shift.  We had spent the day and night before getting tossed about in uncomfortable 8+ foot swells on our starboard beam, with not enough wind to level us out or so much wind we heeled over like mad, and all kinds of crazy currents slowing us down.  I was sleep deprived and angry and totally stuck in my head.  I couldn’t stop thinking about how intolerable it would be if I had to drive 4 miles per hour to the grocery store five miles away, and here I was going hundreds of miles offshore, for three days, at that pace!  As I reached the end of my rope of sanity, I ran belowdecks and shook Bruce awake.  Crying, I declared that the ETA box on our navigation screen had changed from 4:00pm tomorrow to 3:00am the morning of the next day!  “We will never be off this ocean, Bruce!!!”  I shouted as I pounded my fists into his chest.
Always the voice of reason, Bruce suggested that I stop looking at that ETA box, he said that the weather and wind and currents would change and it would all even out.  “Be patient, Jen, it will get better.”  I was reminded of our personal motto, “The only thing constant is change.” 
Well, I was in no mood to wane philosophic, so I stomped around the cabin a bit before crawling into a sleeping bag in the main settee and trying hopelessly to sleep.  Nauseous and full of despair, I curled up beside Carmen and tried to breathe.
A few hours later when I awoke from a dead sleep, I could feel and hear the boat making progress.  Indeed, things had changed.  The wind had shifted enough to help us and we clipped along at a nice 5-7 knots.  Back on track.  Sigh . . .   Once again, Bruce was right.  The ETA box said 4:30pm again.  

As seen only from the open sea, sunset......
Cockpit time during the crossing
Richard sleeping during the crossing

When we aren’t doing a long overnight crossing in treacherous waters, I really don’t mind the pace.  In fact, I don’t even notice the slowness.  The hours go by with the gentle lapping of water along the hull, we make and eat delicious food, watch wildlife, take naps, plot our course for the evening or next day, read aloud, laugh and snuggle. 
Typically, we see whales or porpoises, countless types of sea birds, otters, waterfalls, mountains and glaciers.  I am constantly amazed the light.  Clouds lit from below, from above, from the side; fog whisping between mountain peaks; warm horizontal sunlight making everything glow; light reflecting on tiny ripples in the water; rainbows; alpenglow; sunsets.  I take hundreds of photos.
Somehow, the hours and the day mostly pass by effortlessly.  The boxes I lugged along of “things to do” - knitting, beading, drawing, painting, games, etc. sit untouched.  So far we haven’t needed them.  Six weeks into our journey and they haven’t even been opened.
Full moon rising...early in the night before my little panic attack!
I do not wish to travel faster.  I love our pace and honestly wonder if 60mph in a car might feel like some sort of scary carnival ride the next time I find myself on a highway.  For now, I’ll take the slow way of the tortoise, the way of the S/V Northern Passage.  It is good for us.  Bruce’s worry wrinkles have disappeared, we have each lost weight and have a ruddy, fresh-air look about us.  The kids are happy and reading like fiends, excited at every sighting of a whale or porpoise no matter how many times they have already seen them.  I get it, I get what the author of that children’s fable was saying.  I am reminded of Simon and Garfunkle, “Slow down, you move too fast, you got to make the morning last just kicking down the cobble stones, looking for fun and feeling groovey.  La la la la la la la feelin’ groovey.”

1 comment:

  1. I love that song - Feeling Groovy! So true. As semi-retired people, Nate and I often find ourselves rushing and wondering,why? (mostly me - Natie seems to not have a problem with "slow.") Probably because of habit - patterns set years ago during those hectic (but wonderfully fulfilling) work years teaching, coaching, counseling, parenting etc.
    I love reading about your adventure and am so happy both children are "feeling groovy" too. See you soon.