Unrelenting calm, windless horizon as far as the eye can see, not a soul in sight for weeks on end. What happens when you spend weeks on end in a very confined space with no one but yourself for company? Here’s Captain Ryan Langley’s epic solo sail in the doldrums of the south seas.
Story and Photos by Ryan Langley, Illustrations by Simon Vaughan
Before the whole thing happened, I didn’t know I was going to be in the heart of one of the worst El Niño events in recorded history, didn’t know the dead engine would leave me drifting in a 27-foot boat across approximately 4,700 nautical miles of mostly windless ocean, didn’t think that in a few weeks’ time I’d be biting the heads off of dried-up flying fish I found lying on deck to ward off starvation.
My daydreams were full of romantic images of trekking through the Galapagos Islands and climbing the moai on Easter Island, of drinking kava with the locals in Polynesia, and watching the vahines dance to a tropical drumbeat beside roaring bonfires on the beach in Tahiti.
Funny how things turn out sometimes.
Sitting there alone, hundreds of miles from the nearest living person, with your empty sails flopping back and forth and your food supply running out day by day, you realize that no matter how well you plan things out, no matter how sure you might have been of your course through life, sometimes the universe has other plans.
When people ask me why it took 62 days to get from Panama to French Polynesia in an engineless sailboat during an El Niño, I suppress a strong urge to destroy something. It’s not a period of my life I like to remember. I’ve recently read the Dalai Lama’s thoughts on nonviolence. It helps.
People also often ask me what it is like alone on the ocean, expecting me to dazzle them about the grandeur and beauty of the open sea in a few short sentences. But I find it impossible to explain what it is really like at sea on a boat with less space than the average walk-in closet in so brief a description. So, in addition to my usual written logbook, I decided to document this trip by typing up more detailed logs every few days, to share my thoughts when right on the ocean.
This article is that logbook—albeit with after-the-fact additions, edits, insights and extra info when I thought it was helpful, mostly written months later aboard a 58-foot sailboat in the Bering Sea. Also, for the purposes of clarity and just cooler-sounding lingo, you can assume that when I say “miles” I really mean “nautical miles.”
In any case, without further ado, here it is: the story of a sailor and a boat and 4,700 miles of open ocean.
• • •
I type these words at precisely 4.07.04 degrees north, 82.53.02 degrees west. In case you’ve never been here let me describe the location: I am approximately 250 miles south of Panama, about 250 miles off the coast of Colombia, and 250 miles north of the equator.
I am surrounded by water on all sides. The closest land is a small island owned by Colombia about 50 miles to the east called Isla Malpelo. If I remember correctly, the island used to be a prison, and they still don’t like visiting yachts. (As it turned out, I didn’t remember correctly. The island prison off the coast was actually on Isla Gorgona; opened in 1959, housing some of Colombia’s most notorious inmates and surrounded by shark-infested waters said to be a deterrent to escape, it was closed in 1989 amid controversy and turned into a national park.)
It’s grey, hot and muggy outside, with next to no wind, and the boat is ripping along at the invigorating speed of 2.4 knots. For those not familiar with sailing, that’s not very fast.
Today is my fifth day out of Boca Chica, Panama and on board the 27-foot sailing vessel Arcturus, bound for the Galapagos and, ultimately, French Polynesia. I was accompanied out to the “entrada del mar” by a water taxi, which took the owners of the vessel, who hired me to deliver their boat to the South Pacific, back to shore as I headed away from land.
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Many seasoned sailors will cringe when they read this: it was a Friday that I departed. Sailors are often a superstitious lot; but I am not particularly so, and besides, we would make our own luck. If leaving on the wrong day of the week would doom the voyage to failure, so be it.
Perhaps I angered the sea gods in doing so. As I said, I’m not very superstitious, but it would take a true fool to deny that life at sea is dominated by gods—weather gods, water gods, sea monster gods, you name it, they are there, and they love messing with any new target. Five days into the voyage and I can confidently say that I’ve been the target of many of their games.
For example: I hate engines. They are loud, smelly, pollute, and they are always causing problems of one kind or another, and are always making people angry and frustrated, and often stranded, when they choose to break down. I have a friend for whom every phone seems to magically stop working in his presence. I am that way toward combustion engines.
The second morning of the trip, while motoring in calm seas, the engine decided to start making the most awful screeching noises, which told me that it wasn’t very happy. Undoubtedly, the engine gods had decided it was time for me to spend some quality time with the nine-horsepower Yanmar, whether I wanted to or not.
And so began several days of working in the tiny engine compartment, trying this and that, and reading the Yanmar manuals and sending dozens and dozens of messages back and forth to a diesel mechanic ashore. My bonding experience with the engine was coming along quite nicely.
“God**** it, you ****ing engine!”
And so on, and so forth. Engines don’t like to be talked to nicely, you have to yell at them for them to listen at all.
I was attempting to sail in a southwesterly direction with essentially no wind. Just past the Panama Canal, I was in the middle of some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, and with no engine or wind I had no way to get out of the path of an approaching vessel.
After about three days of slowly drifting south at a pace which an elderly land tortoise would put to shame with my head in the engine compartment, the gods decided that I’d had enough fun with the engine for now. Or they decided to test my sailing skills, because I would have no engine. I’d been discussing all the possible issues with a mechanic and he concluded that the problem could only be solved by hauling out the vessel.
I had two options: return to Central America, against the currents; or sail on toward Polynesia through what is notoriously one of the worst stretches of doldrums in the world. (The doldrums—more accurately referred to as the Intertropical Convergence Zone, or ITCZ—is a low-pressure zone around the equator between the northeast trade wind and southeast trade wind belts, where sailors generally experience little to no wind, occasionally punctuated by brief, often explosive squalls.)
I quickly took inventory of the alcohol supplies aboard: five cans of beer, one-eighth a bottle of rum, and one full bottle of wine. Not much for 4,700 miles. But there was enough water and food, assuming the propane held through and we didn’t get stuck in the doldrums too long, to make it to French Polynesia. I would no longer have to fuel up anywhere on diesel and the solar panels mounted on the stern pulpit would keep the batteries topped up.
I’d been told that in the South Pacific there are green mountains that go down to the sea, there are fish and fruit and coconuts for the taking. Having at long last made my long-fought-for escape from society, I was in no rush to return so soon with my tail between my legs.
Polynesia it is, I told myself, even if it takes me six months. And screw the engine—I always hated the bloody things anyway.
Last night I was briefly visited by Charles. Charles is a booby bird, a young one I assumed by the looks of him. He circled the boat for a while and I had to reassure him that I wouldn’t eat him four times before he had gathered the courage to land.
It’s not that I’m opposed to eating seabirds; it’s just that I could use the company, and it’s not very polite to kill and eat your house guests where I come from. Seabirds don’t make very good eating anyway. They are tough, stringy, and taste like salt. Don’t ask me how I know that. Never ask anyone questions you already know the answer to.
I named Charles after Darwin—after all, we are just a few hundred miles from the Galapagos Islands, not that we will get there any time soon, judging by the way things are going so far. There isn’t a breath of wind in the air, and the only reason we are making any progress at all is due to a two- to three-knot current taking us northwest. Not exactly the direction I want to go, but better than backwards.
It was great to briefly visit with Charles the booby bird as most of my companionship out here has been inanimate. My new best friend is Wilson, my Aries windvane. As skillful as he is at keeping us on course while I’m sleeping, most of our conversations have been one sided. Wilson has said only one thing to me thus far:
“If you’re ever in Cody, Wyoming, just ask for Wild Bob.”
I don’t think Wilson has ever been to Wyoming, or met Wild Bob. It seems he was quoting from the book Slaughterhouse-Five. How Wilson ever got his hands on such literature is beyond me, but he seems to be full of mysteries.
They say that solo sailors go crazy on the water after a few weeks without anyone to talk to. I’m sure glad I’ve got Wilson aboard, and that I’m occasionally visited by guests like Charles. Otherwise I’d probably be out here talking to myself.
There are many reasons I go to sea, but if I were to sum it all up with one word, it would be freedom.
Ashore I am not free; I am required to succumb to the societal restrictions put in place by the world in which we live, many of which are necessary to keep seven billion people on this planet without too much chaos. Not that it’s working too well at the moment.
But at sea, one can do whatever one wants. You can sing at the top of your lungs about anything that comes to mind in the most terrible voice and there are no other humans to tell you to shut up. For days now I’ve sailed completely naked; anytime I wear an article of clothing it just gets sweaty and salty in a couple of hours, and there’s no one out here to be offended. Except Wilson, of course.
“You fool; can’t you see how much of an idiot you are jumping around like that on deck without so much as a loincloth to protect your dignity? You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”
“Oh, shut up Wilson, you’re just a windvane!”
For the past few days, I’ve been bummed out because we are sailing past the Galapagos Islands and not stopping there. I understand that the boat owner is not comfortable with his engineless vessel stopping there, with all the crazy currents and rocks and reefs and the like. Still, the fact remains I’ve dreamt of exploring them since I was five or six years old, and to be within a day’s sail of there and still not stop by breaks my heart.
(Aside: I forgot to mention that I had informed the owner right away about the dysfunctional engine by way of my handheld satellite messenger. His response was to explain the situation to a marine mechanic, who concluded the boat would need to be hauled out of the water to fix the problem. We discussed the options—to either return to Panama or go to a resort in Nicaragua that he knew, or continue west to Polynesia—and decided that the best option would be to continue on.)
To distract me from my misery, I’ve been visited by two more booby birds, Bethany and Brunehilda. Bethany and Brunehilda are very rude houseguests; they not only occupied the cockpit but had yet to learn not to use the boat as their personal toilet. I did, however, have a great conversation with Bethany about Che Guevara, before she lost interest and started squawking something about flying fish.
Later, when I had to reef the jib, Bethany tried to bite my hand so I shooed her away and she flew up and defecated on the bow for a while. The next morning, they were gone, and I was sad to see them go.
Today I wake up and row from my anchorage to the beautiful Island of Isabela in the Galapagos, pausing to admire my beautiful vessel and to play with the friendly penguins and sea lions along the way. I walk through the village, smiling and exchanging friendly holas with the locals when our paths cross. I hop on a cheap bus and we bump along rough mountain roads, through farmland and eventually we get to the rim of the largest caldera in the world. Inside is lush vegetation, and all kinds of land tortoises crawling about like we’re in Jurassic Park.
After a day hiking around feeling like Sir Joseph Banks or Charles Darwin, I take the bus back to the village. Here I enjoy a whole pizza to myself, washed down with a few cold beers, and happen to meet a pretty local girl who is happy to accept my invitation to share a bottle of wine on the sailboat. We meet up half an hour later, and as we row toward Arcturus—
“Oh wake up, you idiot!” says Wilson. “You’re dreaming!”
“God****it Wilson, I was just getting to the good part.”
I’m back out at sea, the sails flap, the boat rolls, the wind is nonexistent, and a quick glance at the GPS tells me we are still sailing at less than two knots.
You know all that talk about being “at one” with the sea, and “finding peace” on the ocean? Well it’s real, but you must remember there’s a fine line between heaven and hell out here, and flopping around at two knots in the wrong direction ain’t heaven.
On the bright side, I’ve been experimenting with various forms of prison swish to see if I can make up for my lack of alcohol aboard. Thus far I’ve gotten one batch that appears promising.
Upon checking my prison swish this morning I was saddened to discover that the top was coated in a thin layer of mold. I had two containers going, one of which just had a few small white spots, which I picked out, and the other in which I had to toss the entire contents overboard.
My experiment was just a few days old, and I’d been taking small nips out of both as they matured, to see how they were coming along. They had just started to get a little bubbly. They were mostly floating bits of watermelon in water, which I know probably won’t work, but I’d accidently made hard fruit punch this way on a previous voyage and it was delicious. I added a little flour to prison swish #2 to encourage the growth of yeast. Then I popped my head outside to check on things.
Still no wind.
Calm as the pond in my parent’s backyard.
Speed: .6 knots, heading SE, once again toward Antarctica.
How can I best describe the feeling? Kind of like waiting around to die.
I got so fed up with drifting around that I tried sculling the boat to see how far we would get. (Aside: Sculling is the act of rapidly pushing the rudder back and forth to create forward momentum through the water. It’s usually done on small day-sailing boats, but even then with limited success.) Over the course of 20 minutes, during which I worked up a bit of a sweat, I moved Arcturus perhaps 20 feet.
“It’s going to take me a long time to get to Tahiti, old boy,” I told Wilson.
I went back down below to type these words. Just the fact that I’m able to type down here in the cabin is a miracle in its own right; 10 days ago I’d have sweat out all the fluids in my body by now. I have no thermometer aboard, thank god, but I know that the 90 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit that it was in Panama before departure felt like the North Pole compared to the broiling heat of getting baked alive in the gyre from hell.
Now that I’m feeling the effects of the Humboldt Current, it’s much cooler. At night, sleeping in the cockpit, I can even use my sleeping bag. And the stars are pretty clear. Also, I’m far from the major shipping lanes; in fact, I’ve only seen one ship in the past week, so I get extra time sleeping. It’s wonderful. Out here, it’s the small things that keep you going. Or, sometimes, drive you insane.
Last night, at approximately 3:30 a.m., we crossed the equator. Due to the circumstances over the last few days, and my exhaustion at the time, I did not throw the big party I had planned. I only got the energy together to fill a cooking pot with seawater and pour it down the drain exactly as we crossed the line to see which direction it would spin, as I’d always planned to do. Clockwise, apparently.
My life here drifting at sea wouldn’t be so bad, except for the fact that I receive anywhere from 10 to 300 messages a week from the boat owner checking in on my progress. Yes, you read that right. Three. Hundred. Messages. I’d be tempted to turn the satellite messenger off, but unfortunately that would be unpractical seeing as it might spark a multinational rescue mission sweeping the vast wastes of the eastern Pacific.
When I receive his texts, I always picture him sitting next to the pool, with his stupid sunglasses on, wearing surf shorts, laptop on the table in front of him and a Cuba libre at hand, the ice cubes and beads of sweat on the outside of the glass very visible.
Out on the Pacific, I fight for every mile, essentially getting nowhere fast. I get sunburned, dehydrated. Eventually it gets dark and cools down. I wrap up in the cockpit, in my sleeping bag, kind of comfortable for the first time in days. It starts to rain. I go down below and sleep on the cabin floor, curled into the fetal position.
Give me gales, give me heat, give me cold, give me hunger, give me pain, give me death. But god, please don’t give me calms.
This morning I had rum and coke for breakfast. I had one bottle of coke that I’d been saving to use with the last of the rum and finally couldn’t take it anymore. That was the very last of the alcohol aboard. I drank it and thought, “Now what?”
Then, unexpectedly, we are hit by a gale, from the southwest. For just about the first time in the trip we make actual progress, even if it’s southeast. Of course, the motion is awful, beating into a gale is not a pleasant experience on any boat, but especially not on a 27-foot craft. Life aboard could be compared to living in some kind of carnival ride or washing machine, complete with water. Leaks spring up that you didn’t know about and everything in your “refuge” of the cabin becomes saturated with water. The bilge pump works constantly, and you must regularly sponge up the excess sloshing around above the floorboards.
Then, after a day or so, the gale abated as quickly as it appeared, to once again leave us floating in a windless sea, this time with much more swell to make things far less comfortable. Too much wind or too little wind, but never the right amount.
I got thirsty, went to get a cup for water, saw all the dishes were dirty, so I went to wash a mug. Except there was no sink to wash them in, so I had to get a bucket of seawater from the ocean to wash the dishes in. I was pulling up the bucket when I thought: “If I ever get out of this place, one day I’ll have a sink.”
I pondered that thought for a while as I got my cup of water. The water in the tanks, which had been filled by some stagnant well in Panama, was about one-tenth this brown, flaky, god knows what substance, but I got used to it. I drank the cup of water, then I thought a bold thought: “One day I’ll have a fridge. Just a mini-fridge, but a fridge nonetheless. And it will have fresh fruits and juices and milk and meat and cheese and all the good things in life. Yes, one day I’ll have a fridge of my very own.”
I’d never owned a fridge before. It was a very abstract idea, like becoming the prime minister of Australia, or stumbling across buried treasure. I decided that it wasn’t quite time for death just yet, I could go a couple more days.
I am teased by the tiniest of breezes from the south. It appears and disappears and usually provides just enough propulsion to move west at about 1.5 knots. I try to ignore the fact that if the trend continues we will arrive in Polynesia sometime around September. Then the breeze dies off, and I’m left drifting nowhere once again.
I read a passage by Henry Miller (from Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, and who was mostly quoting Walt Whitman) that encourages me to remember my goal, French Polynesia—at this point, the unattainable promised land to the west.
“‘A fitly born and bred race, growing up in right conditions of outdoor as much as indoor harmony, activity and development, would probably, from and in those conditions, find it enough merely to live—and would, in their relations to the sky, air, water, trees, etc., and to the countless common shows, and in the fact of life itself, discover and achieve happiness—with Being suffused night and day by wholesome ecstasy, surpassing all the pleasures that wealth, amusement, and even gratified intellect, erudition, or the sense of art, can give.’ This view, so utterly alien to the so-called modern world, is thoroughly Polynesian. And that is where Whitman belongs, out beyond the last frontiers of the Western world, neither of the West nor of the East but of an intermediary realm, a floating archipelago dedicated to the attainment of peace, happiness and well-being here and now.”
Neither of the West nor of the East but of an intermediary realm—I like that. Sounds pretty good to me. But first, I have to actually get there, and it seems like the continent of South America might just beat me to it.
Yesterday was the best day in a while. I only screamed my head off at the sails and the wind three or four times, and I spent most of the day reading Bukowski. It’s really the only stuff on board that I can stomach at this point; the rest of it isn’t vulgar enough for my tastes.
(Aside: While sailing in tropical regions near the equator, one often encounters grey or rainy conditions that can persist for days. This is especially bad in the doldrums because in the trade wind belts rain is typically experienced during brief, but often violent, micro-storms called squalls. The wind will be just too little to be able to sail, and then suddenly a squall will arrive. With too much sail up in a squall the forestay bends way too much, and you half expect the mast to come down atop you any moment.)
I tried rereading The Perfect Storm, but reading about all that wind while drifting helplessly in the doldrums was just too much. Without any sun, I don’t need to worry about charging electronics because the solar panels wouldn’t generate any electricity. Ah, the simple life.
The highlight of today was finding a dead flying fish on deck, about four or five inches long, a bit dried out from the sun. I’d been so long with so little protein in my diet—I had just eaten my last can of spam, which I’d been saving for a special treat.
(Aside: Flying fish have evolved to use their fins as wings to glide out of the water to avoid such predators as mahi mahi and other larger fish. When they’re in flight they often end up committing suicide by crashing into floating objects like sailboats. During the time I was drifting, fishing was ineffective because my speed was too slow to attract mahi, tuna, wahoo or other edible deepwater tropical fish; and, while drifting in circles, a line could end up wrapping around the rudder or propeller.)
I grabbed the fish, joy flowing through my very being in greater waves than I’d felt in ages, and took him below to fry him up. Flying fish have an extremely fishy taste, and they are mostly just bones and scales so I probably got only a couple spoonfuls of meat out of the thing. But it was something to distract me from my predicament.
Tomorrow will be a month of drifting, essentially. A short month, because February only has 28 days; but a month, nonetheless. Doesn’t sound that long, but you try it and tell me how “it wasn’t that long” afterward. Time can pass pretty slowly in such circumstances.
You read for a while and there is no wind.
And you plot your position, 10 miles south of your position 24 hours ago, and there is no wind.
And you read some more and there is no wind.
And you type this and there is no wind.
And you make some food and there is no wind.
And the boat rolls in the swell and there is no wind.
And you scream at the sky and there is no wind.
And you go to bed and there is no wind.
And you get up in the night and there is no wind.
And you go back to bed and there is no wind.
And you lie there wishing for the good old days when you had two knots of speed, or even when you were homeless in Bangkok or sinking in the Gulf of Mexico or frozen in the ice off Greenland—and there is no wind.
And you get up in the morning and there is no wind.
Yesterday there was no wind, today there is no wind, and tomorrow there will probably be no wind.
And you look at your food and see you are getting closer and closer to just having rice to eat. And there is no wind.
And you wonder once you’ve starved to death and gone to heaven, if there is such a place and if you’d even go there, would there be wind there. And there is no wind.
And there is no wind.
And there is no end.
Last night I went back to my writing and continued to work on my manuscript. Like all respectable writers, my best work comes from times that I’m starving to death and in some kind of misery, so I’d been churning out some of my most quality material in quite some time, if I do say so myself. I write mostly in the mornings or at night, because it’s too hot during the day to write down in the cabin.
I had just finished a bit about this cop who gave me a ride while hitchhiking when I had an idea for another series of stories, so I opened a fresh page and started typing up some of my thoughts. When I went back to my manuscript, I saw it was no longer there. I opened the document on the desktop, and to my horror realized that all my work from the past week or two had been lost, work that I had put so much into, work that was all I had to show for weeks of hell drifting alone on the ocean running out of food.
I let out a few screams that would instantly turn milk sour and shut the computer.
After I’d had a moment to curse the sea gods and tell them that when we finally met it was on I realized that there was nothing at all I could do about the lost writing so I poured myself a tall glass of wine to calm my nerves and rolled a fat cigarette—except I didn’t have wine or tobacco, so I just imagined those things.
The hardest thing for me about being out at sea alone is that there is no respite. You can’t pause for a shower or a beer, you can’t make a quick run to the grocery store, you can’t crawl into a nice soft bed, and you can’t even ask your mate to hold the tiller for a second while you drain the main vein because there is no mate.
And thank god there’s no one else out here, because I wouldn’t wish the last month upon my worst enemy.
Everybody’s got a sound that they hate, something that makes them want to kill someone; nails on the chalkboard type deal. Might be babies crying or the honking of a horn or your nephew trying unsuccessfully to learn to play the clarinet or the screechy voice of your boss at Taco Bell.
Personally, I HATE the sound of flapping sails. I always have hated the sound, as all sailors do. Someday I’m going to hear something that resembles the sound of a flapping sail and remove the front row of teeth of the person who’s unfortunate enough to be sitting next to me.
You take the sails down and the boat rolls like a barrel, dislodging everything from its place and sending computers, books, sitars, cooking pots and water jugs toward your head at the speed of sound. So you put the sails back up and listen to them flap.
Reading these lines, sitting in a soft La-Z-Boy as I imagine, beside a roaring fire with a cup of hot chocolate with a splash of Baileys on the table next to you, cat in your lap, wife or husband making the final touches to the steak and sautéed asparagus for dinner, you can put this down any time you are bored and go right back to watching Breaking Bad/Season 6. But I’ll still be here, sweating away, wondering about the best way to cook a sea slug before consumption.
Anyway, after my writing fiasco, I decided maybe I should take a break from the keyboard for a little while, so I pulled out my sitar and played a bit to the stars. That was nice. And then there was wind. Not much, perhaps just a knot, not even enough to get us to go anywhere, but enough to give me some shred of hope.
It’s now the next morning and that one knot has become two, and we’re still not really moving, but I do have hope. Could there be an end?
Of course, it’s now died off again, leaving me wallowing once again in a windless gyre of my own nightmares. They say in two days there will be wind, but I’ve been hearing that for the past month. Could it ever come?
Last night, the wind filled in for about half an hour, due to a squall, except this time the squall didn’t reach gale force so I didn’t have to reef the sails, and it didn’t rain like the monsoon, so I didn’t have to sponge up the water pooling up on the floorboards due to the leaks.
We started sailing at about five knots and I almost died of happiness. Then it died right back down and I was right back in purgatory.
I decided to distract myself by watching Trailer Park Boys: Don’t Legalize It. I’d brought a hard drive but that was the only movie on it; it was OK, though, because I like Trailer Park Boys. The movie began with a funeral in a dump that turned into a big fight. I thought “this is going to be good.” And it was hilarious. I laughed harder than I had the whole trip and had to turn it off halfway so there would be some left to watch later.
We’re finally sailing again, despite my feelings that we would be stuck in purgatory forever. The wind didn’t just creep back either, it punched us in the gut and with enough force to make life on board once again like a carnival ride and my primary occupation to hang on.
But that doesn’t matter too much because we are moving west. I never thought I’d see the day. Even the leaks don’t bother me too much. I just sponge up the puddle on the floor a couple times a day and get right back to hanging on for life.
The most irritating part of it is when I settle down in the cockpit with my sleeping bag, pillow and a good book, usually my favorite part of life out here, and get doused by a wave, leaving me throwing my soaking wet bedding and book down below and yelling four-letter words at the ocean.
• • •
When the trade winds finally set in, life became much better. Not without its challenges, for sure, but a moving sailor is a happy sailor and I was finally making progress in the right direction. (Aside: Trade winds are prevailing winds that typically blow from east to west through the tropical latitudes, which sailors have harnessed for millennia to cross the oceans.)
A few weeks after catching the southeast trades, the lush green mountains of Nuku Hiva came into view, surely a sight for sore eyes accustomed to the featureless blue horizon of the deep blue sea. Nuku Hiva, the second-largest island in French Polynesia, is famous as the spot where a young Herman Melville jumped off the whaling vessel Acushnet and hid in the nearby mountains to avoid capture. I spent three weeks in the Marquesas Islands, and could have stayed longer.
Due to my sensory deprivation at sea, everything ashore seemed too good to be true—the mountains, the fruit dropping off the trees, the waterfalls, the animals and the people all seemed like a wonderful dream. And yet all too soon, it was time to leave.
At the airport in Papeete, Polynesia’s capital, I met a nice young lady as I bought a coffee and we got to chatting. We made small talk and then she asked what I do for work, so I explained the whole sailboat delivery deal.
“Wow, that must be wonderful,” she said with true enthusiasm. “It must be great to just sail other people’s boats around to places like Hawaii and Tahiti and get paid for it! Kind of like being on permanent vacation!”
I smiled and thought that if she saw me a few months ago in the doldrums, talking to my windvane, she would have labelled me insane. If she saw me biting through the scales of a raw flying fish trying to get some nutrition to keep me alive, she would have probably vomited.
I could have told her how it really goes, but when I do people always seem to think I’m trying to be a prick, so I told her what my friend Brian, a solo circumnavigator and delivery captain, always says.
“Yeah, it’s pretty great. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.” ***
Ryan’s Ocean Crossing Essentials
- Life raft, EPIRB and Ditch Bag. You hope you’ll never need it, but just in case.
- Delorme InReach Satellite messenger. Made it possible to keep in touch with the real world and obtain weather forecasts.
- Good set of foul weather gear. For when the wind does blow.
- Headlamp. A necessity for keeping watch at night.
- Food. The same type of food in your pantry, but in quantities to last several months. There was no refrigeration on board, so one has to plan accordingly. In Central America, I provisioned extensively with canned goods. I took 20 lbs. each of rice and beans. Eggs were a major source of protein and I took five dozen. To get my vitamins I took four tubs of Amazing Greens superfood powder.
- Water. I took 30 gallons in jerry jugs, and the boat’s water tanks held an additional 30 gallons. To top up en route I caught rainwater with a tarp set up under the boom.
- Fishing Gear. Because it’s good to supplement the diet! I caught one mahi mahi on the journey, and also ate the flying fish that hit the deck.
- AIS System: Having an Automatic Identification System (AIS) warns you of nearby ships, even when they are not visible such as in thick fog, or when obscured by waves.
- Handheld GPS and Paper Charts.
- A journal—you got to keep track of your trip.
- Books. There are few opportunities in the digital age to truly immerse oneself in books. At sea is one of those opportunities. A few solo-sailor must-reads for me are Dove by Robin Graham, The Incredible Voyage by Tristan Jones, and Lionheart by Jesse Martin. I also read a lot of Henry Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, Noam Chomsky and Charles Bukowski on this trip.
- Musical Instruments. There’s no better time to practice than when you’re thousands of miles from civilization.