CHEW US UP & SPIT US OUT
Luke arrives with one large sail bag. In it are some shorts, t-shirts, one fleece, a smock, two pairs of socks, three pair of underwear and Sperry Topsiders. I’m unsure where he thinks he is going. When he is not paying attention I start a list : Socks. Underwear. On top of his fair weather packing is a back up VHF, GPS, a hand bearing compass, weather disc, charts, and a GoPro. My mind shifts from “bad job” to “good job”. Shoved in-between the bad packing and the good packing are 8 glass jars of Bovril (salty beef broth he considers heaven on earth) and packaged beets (per my request). Just when I begin to think “good job” again, he discovers one of the Bovril jars has shattered. All contents inside are stuck together with salty beef. Bad job.
We take 24 hours getting organized in Montreal, and take the following 24 to motor sail 138 miles into light headwinds and bewildering tides towards Quebec City. Our list of projects is extensive. I knowingly left Michigan with things undone. It is now time to complete them. We started with the most exciting project by swapping out old sails with 6 new bombproof HydeSails. Silicone coated woven polyester, pro-radial main, mizzen, and genoa. Cross-cut 10 ounce woven Dacron stay sail. Woven nylon mizzen stay-sail, fiber max asymmetric spinnaker. Fancy language that I am just beginning to understand. And then we tackle the rest of the list :
Change all hardware from old main sail to new
Fit 3rd reef
Finish fitting inner-forestay
Put on stack-pack and lazy jacks
Raise Hydrovane rudder and finish installation
Put together a better ditch-kit
Find fishing gear
Set-up jack-lines and tethers
Do something about the 440 pounds of loose lead in the bilge
Connect second solar panel
Calculate water and diesel usage
Calculate battery usage
Find more charts
Fix the dodger
Top off water /diesel
Go grocery shopping
Three days are gone. No breaks. The weather is not ready for us to go. But we are ready to go. We are eager despite the forecast, and choose to disregard it all together. Ready to test ourselves. Test our teamwork. Test the boat. We depart Quebec City with the tide into a romantic sunset and live happily ever after, for one hour.
The wind rips out of the north-east on the nose. Honeymoon shifts to hurricane. Light chop turns to standing waves. I am at the helm riding a bull. Luke is on the bow reefing the main and raising the stay sail. The standing waves break over the bow. Luke is in the center of a washing machine and I am on the sidelines getting sprinkled on. For the first time I understand how difficult it is to watch the person you care most for getting thrashed around. I want to close my eyes. I tell myself to relax and get used to it because this is the new normal. I focus on holding a steady course because I fall off every time I focus on Luke. We tack back and forth into 25 knot headwind and white water. The channel narrows, and the earth becomes black. For 5 hours we tack 35 plus times in-between ships, a mountain, and shallows with only a 1/4 mile of space. Exhilaration shifts to exhaustion.
We both sleep for 2 out of the last 24. The wind forecast is expected to build out of the same direction. It requires all hands on deck to make it through the night. We turn left up the Saguenay River after 110 miles into a 7 knot ebb tide ripping out towards the St. Lawrence. Don’t ask why, but we try it anyway. Two hours later, with full main, genoa and high engine rpm, we make it two miles up the river.
It takes another full day to “get our shit together”. I make a list of everything that needs to be secured better. Luke sorts out the stay sail reef, all of the rigging, and drills holes in the 44 pound bars of lead that sit loosely in the bilge so we can tie them down. We wander town with empty jerry cans in search of diesel. We gather more fresh food. I ask Luke to be in charge of meat and cheese, I’d take care of fruit and veg. I was expecting some chicken, maybe some lunch meat. We left the market with horse patties, liver pate, and filets. He would have bought the market out of Foi Gras if they had it. I didn’t expect horse (cheval) to be on the menu, but I won’t turn down a local delicacy.
Everything takes longer than we think. Nothing is convenient. Chores are endless. Boat life requires strong effort from both of us. No time to think about home. No time to miss anyone. No time to spend scrolling the internet. No time to pay attention to everything that’s wrong with the world. By the time each days’ list is checked off, I am exhausted again. It sounds kind of horrible, but it’s not. I love to bitch about it, even though… I love it. Everything requires more work than I have ever put in on land.
May 27, 6:45 am, departing Tadousaac. This time out with the tide and the sunrise. Fog settles in thick on the river, visibility drops to 1/2 a mile at best. We plug in our AIS/VHF as we skirt the shipping channel. It doesn’t work. I start to pull things apart. The metal prongs on the cockpit repeater are smashed together. I disconnect the repeater from the hard wired unit. The unit itself seems to be fried. I check all connections. Fuses. Nothing. I make a few phone calls. Nothing. It’s broken. Luke gets out the fog horn and makes our presence known. We hear ships’ horns in return, and stay as far out of the channel as possible.
Fog lifts like a stage curtain. Someone switches on the sun. I wear a t-shirt for the first time in days, and enjoy the ride with the possibility of freckles. Luke tests out the new sails. All of them. Spinnaker flying. Full main. Mizzen. Mizzen stay-sail. Then he tinkers with the genoa. Then the stay sail. We are sailing in every combination one could create. I send photos to my the Wizard. He would love this. We sail along leisurely for hours. We see Beluga whales. We have a curious finch passenger. I name him / her Sarah. Sarah lands on my head. She’s not shy. She doesn’t sit still. She lands on everything bright – hence my head not Luke’s. We try to feed her bread but she wants bugs. I feel sad when she doesn’t come back. I continue my desperate search for whale friends. We set up the fishing pole, neither of us know a thing about fishing. I take a nap. Luke reads. The Auto-pilot drives. We catch no fish. We settle for pig and horse from the market and Luke whips up a delicious snack. Both of us are on toddler nap schedules. We try to settle into 4 hour shifts. By 7pm it’s Lukes turn to nap.
Four hours later and everything has changed. The nighttime brings with it the nightmare, the one I’ve been anticipating. Without providing the detailed weather report, let’s just say…the mouth of the St. Lawrence seaway is chewing us up and spitting us out. More of a regurgitation than a spit. We are receiving neon rejection signs and starting to think we should read them. The 20 knot headwind predicted, is substituted with a force 9 gale. It’s raining. It’s black. It’s building. The waves grow into hills. The hills push us back in the river. The wind becomes an impenetrable force. We tack back and forth. We cover no ground. Second reef in main, and stay sail have Desirée pleasant to helm. The wave chop treats us like a rocking horse, we are stationary. Teeter- tottering on springs. We tack for a few hours with the engine on so we can point just a few degrees higher. The engine shuts off after it sucked in air instead of fuel on a starboard tack. Rookie mistake. I go down below to bleed fuel in a gale. Diesel is everywhere. She starts running. I start to feel sick.
1:00 am we agree to turn around. Luke drops the main. We oscillate between the rolling hills and run downwind with just the stay sail. The closest port is 33 miles backwards. I am shaking, almost violently. I can’t get my body temperature up. I don’t know if I am shaking from adrenaline. Shaking from exhaustion maybe. I feel weak. On the edge of hurling. My mind and body are not working together. The engine shuts off again. I can’t deal with it now, and we don’t need to deal with it now. Why can’t I stop shaking. I am fatiguing myself.
We surf double over head downwind and take turns between 20 minute naps and helming. We pass through upbound and down bound shipping channels. No VHF. No AIS. No engine. Ten foot waves and 40 knots of wind. I throw up. I still can’t stop shaking. But I seem to be functioning. Luke is okay, he might even be perfectly fine. I need him right now more than ever. I see tired in his blood shot eyes. He is serious. A light smile here and there. He stares at the sunrise and appreciates it fully, while I can’t seem to find space to appreciate. Focus takes all of me.
I bleed more fuel from the engine when we near port. Tons and tons of it. So much that I pour it back into a jerry can. I spill diesel everywhere. All over the floor. All over my boots, legs, hands. The inside of Desirée looks like it’s rolled over a time or three. Shit is everywhere. Even my underwear drawer came hurling off the wall. I pass Luke the can of diesel, and he tops off the tank. He too spills everywhere. All over his sperry’s, legs, hands. All over the cockpit floor. The engine starts and stays on. We keep the boat flat as possible upon approach.
We tried. I believe we tried really hard. We had to turn around and there is no shame in that. The only thing I am disappointed in is my physical self. I just couldn’t get it together. Couldn’t warm up. Couldn’t stop shaking. Couldn’t get past nausea which I so rarely experience. Could barely stay awake at the helm. Frustrated by the way my mind was perfectly fine, even comfortable, but my physical self was not. I think it’s the first time I was unable to talk myself out of being cold, tired, and sick. I thought I could do that. But I couldn’t. As a result I felt un-fit for the job. Wanted to give up. Luke thinks I managed perfectly fine. So maybe I did, I honestly couldn’t tell you. I remind myself there is always tomorrow. We will try again tomorrow.
This was an accurate trial run of what’s lies ahead. A blunt grasp on how challenging this whole exhaustion thing is going to be. I am not worried about how Luke and I operate together, if I am impressed by anything it is by our team work. He is an animal up on deck, a legend. agile, quick footed, and precise. He can raise, drop, reef, untangle anything in seconds. He knows exactly what to do and when to do it. And as for me… well, I know how to get the engine started.
Tomorrow. We will try again. And we will keep trying. We will make it out of the St. Lawrence River. Past the sadistic tides. Through these ruthless headwinds. Into the Gulf of St. Lawrence where the next set of elements will demand our persistence. Even when I’ve had my ass handed to me, I always feel ready to go the next day. I don’t know why it takes these kind of extremes to stir up fervent motivation, but it’s addicting. And the thought of going back to light switches, thermostats, stability and shelter is in a far-away corner of my mind.