Each autumn I sail my vessel “Yuletide” back from spending the summer on Lake Tashmoo, Martha’s Vineyard. I sail across Vineyard Sound, through Woods Hole, and then on for a two hour leg across Buzzard’s Bay to Fairhaven. It is almost dead north from the mouth of the jetty at Tashmoo, to arriving in Fairhaven.
This year I sailed solo. This was not the first time, but this voyage became an extraordinary experience, a test beyond anything I had ever faced, and, in transcending the challenge, one of the most intense tests of my sailing skills, and my self-identity.
I had been following the weather forecast for days. I got out to the boat on Friday night. The lone remaining osprey circled overhead, the others having already departed their southern migration.
Saturday morning I awoke. I had a strict timetable so that I could manage the currents of the sound and the Wood’s Hole channel. It was a narrow window of 40 minutes to get through the hole with a slack tide. A quick coffee, and then preparations: A reef was tucked in the mainsail. Everything below was stowed and lashed down. I made a thermos of coffee, and brought anything I might need into the cockpit and stowed in waterproof bags.
Slipping the mooring. I headed off, with the 120% Genny set. I sailed past the empty Osprey nest, and through the narrow channel that leads to Vineyard Sound. All I could see were whitecaps ahead of me.
As I passed the entrance jetty, I could feel the wind built, and I saw the 15 know breeze stiffen up. No mains’l for this leg… the water was chaotic, swells everywhere, no pattern. It looked like a washing machine. I kept the motor going to manage the current, which was pushing me east, away from Wood’s Hole.
Motorsailing to Wood’s Hole was uneventful. Confused seas, but the wind direction put me exactly on track for the entrance buoys. As I approached the entrance I furled the genny, and motored. Although sheltered by the Elizabeth islands, there was still a good wind.
As I passed Hadley’s Harbor to port, I sighted the tip of West Island, seven miles across Buzzard’s Bay. It was a clear day, and easy to sight the distant shore, the wind was out of the southwest.
I reset the genny to her full 120%, and sailed into the swells. Beyond the lee of the Elizabeth’s the wind and seas started to build. There were no other vessels in sight.
An hour along, halfway across the bay, the wind had really stiffened, and was tearing the tops off the waves. All I could see was the seafoam mixed with the wind. The foam covered the bay, looking astern, the seascape was covered in whitecaps, looking forward was a sea of whitecaps as well. The waves were getting big, higher than eye level, I had to look up at them. The spacing between them was tight, and it was a southwest wind, so I was taking the waves of the port forward quarter.
I sighted a freighter, headed from the Cape Cod Canal, steaming west, directly in my path. It was a big boat, and I had limited options to avoid the vessel. I did not particularly like the odds of successfully executing any change of course by myself in these worsening weather conditions.
I was relieved that the freighter gave way, and I could simply continue on my course. I looked back and saw the waves breaking up and over the pilothouse of the freighter, three stories up. The spray covered the vessel as she made her course. These waves were enormous. The wind was now up to 29 knots, and I was moving 5.5 knots through the waves, taking each wave over the port bow.
In looking back at the freighter I shifted my vision, and a wave broke into the cockpit. A minute later a second wave broke and I realized I needed to give all my attention to what was in front of me.
I did not even have time to take a photo…
The boat handled well and the genoa sail was actually perfect for the seas and winds, driving powerfully through the waves. I needed to keep her on a very precise angle to the wind and waves. With each wave the bow would rise at the exact moment it needed to, and the sea would pass underneath. It took a lot of attention, but the boat was doing fine. I noticed that every ten minutes or so a pack of combers would arrive, usually three or four waves, stacked higher and closer than the others, they looked ominous, I steered across each one, trusting the boat would continue to rise above each wave as it passed.
These waves were coming straight in from the Atlantic. There was no protection. It took all my attention.
I have never felt the intensely of the moment as I was at that time. I was alone, in severe weather conditions in the middle of Buzzard’s Bay. There was not another boat in sight. There was no past, there was no future, just the very immediate present. My reality became the wave directly in front of me. Each wave demanded my total, absolute attention. Time stood still as I addressed and navigated countless hundreds of waves, each one individually, each distinct. Once a wave was beyond the boat, it disappeared from my attention. There was only one wave, the one that was directly in front of me. I was completely in the moment, I was alive.
Time seemed to stop, and I was in complete awe of the conditions around me.
In time I was to the lee of West Island, and the seas became less formidable. One more big gust as I crossed Nasketucket Bay, but I knew it was coming, a familiar slot of amplified winds. I knew these waters like the back of my hand, I was expecting the gust. I sailed through the town anchorage and continued through the narrow, unmarked channel of four foot depth towards the familiar water of Little Bay. No bouys, rocks hidden just below the surface, and a speed of five knots. I flew through the anchorage, waving at people aboard their vessels. It was days later I realized that they were sitting in their boats because the weather was too severe to sail.
I entered Little Bay with four feet of water, and sailed upwind of a canoe who was fishing, and blocking my channel. I strained to windward , realizing he had not a clue where the channel was, nor the many rocks.
Soon the sails were furled, I was tied off to the mooring, and a great sailing trip had been accomplished.
It took weeks and months to sink in, to understand that I had spent my whole life of sailing learning and rehearsing for this one day, that I had transcended time, had never lived in the moment as I had for the last three hours. I addressed each wave, addressed each moment. I had never felt as completely in the moment in my life…..
Moderate or Near Gale
Large trees sway, becoming difficult to walk. Larger waves develop, white foam from breaking waves begins to be blown.