The trouble with sailors

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[Editor’s Note: This is the third part in a series chronicling the writer’s voyage with friend Casey Williams.]

The trouble with talking to a sailor is that sometimes what they say to set you at ease has quite the opposite effect. 

It was the end of our first day on the water, evening was drawing on, dinner was safely stowed in our bellies, and Casey had just climbed down the ladder to the cabin. That meant it was time for me to start my first watch on deck. I stood and watched the sun sink into the sea, the wind in my face. The water turned darker, the glow of the clouds faded, and the wind began to pick up speed. Since the sailboat was being steered by autopilot, my job was to keep my eyes on the horizon, looking for other vessels and for squalls. After dark, my tool for spotting trouble ahead was the radar: boats and oil rigs would appear as yellow slivers on the screen, and squalls would look like a splatter of yellow dots. 

I was already wary of squalls because of our experience with a storm that morning, but before he went to bed, Casey had popped his head back up and warned me that a squall can cause sudden changes in wind direction. Under these conditions, the energy-filled mainsail can snap back and forth wildly and unpredictably. It’s kind of like being in a rodeo arena when a bucking bronco is let loose – it’s best to get someplace safe, and call the wrangler. Of course, Casey only told me about this formerly unknown danger to assure me it was okay to wake him up if we got close to a squall and things got wild. But I was not reassured. I spent most of my time on that first watch anxiously scanning the radar for the tell-tale splashes of yellow, on edge and ready to wake up Casey at any moment. 

In one of our later afternoon conversations, Casey confided that even though an out-of-control sail can be extremely dangerous, it can sometimes be comical. “One time,” he chuckled, “My wife Jamie went forward to put up the stay sail and it started flapping crazily. She fought to control it, but it suddenly knocked her down and started spanking her.” Casey started laughing so hard that he had trouble getting his wife out from under the sail. Jamie wasn’t amused. Casey didn’t finish the story, but she probably made him pay for laughing at her expense. Note to self: laughing out loud is all well and good on Facebook, but in real life, it’s liable to bring you trouble.

Before it got completely dark that first evening, I remembered to keep my eyes open for ocean trash, another peril of the open sea that Casey warned me about. The pieces of trash might be as small as plastic sandwich bags or as large as shipping containers, which have been known to fall off of cargo ships during storms. There, they float just beneath the surface, their sharp steel corners ready to slash the underbelly of whatever unlucky vessel happens to pass over them. No wonder I was on edge. 

It was a good thing that Casey hadn’t yet told me the story of his nail-biting passage from the Falkland Islands to South Africa. On that voyage, he and Jamie encountered a storm churning up gigantic waves five-stories tall. He told me he was standing on deck when one of those waves rose up on the starboard side, its far end already breaking in a rolling crush of whitewater. Eyes wide and mouth open, I asked what would’ve happened if the wave had laid the boat over on its side or turned it upside down. Casey replied that the lead in the keel was there for that very purpose. “In fact,” he continued, “There’s about 8,000 pounds of lead in the keel of this boat. It creates a very low, very heavy center of gravity that pulls the boat back upright when its been laid over. Unless, of course, the boat is filled with water.” Then what happens, I foolishly asked. “Then the lead just drags the boat to the bottom of the ocean like a stone,” he replied. Me and my big mouth.

The further we sailed, and the more Casey confided to me, the more I realized that there are more dangers at sea than a pencil-pushing banker like me really cares to know about. But there are also wonders at sea, beauty unlike anything to be had on land. Someday, perhaps, I’ll tell about the rest of the trip from Mexico to Galveston. But as I wedged myself into the corner of the cockpit that first night, I promised myself I would stop asking so many questions and just mind my own business, which right then consisted of keeping both eyes on the radar and watching for ominous yellow splatters. 

– Mike Simpson was born in Spain to missionary parents, and subsequently lived in Ecuador, England, California and finally East Texas. His early travels abroad blessed him with fluent Spanish, a certain restlessness and a strong aversion to guinea pigs. He is a married father with five children, a dog, some cats and a chicken.

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