New Jersey, or Bust

Travel Essay

I am on a sailboat, miles away from the comfort of land on a stormy Atlantic Ocean, and I am convinced that I am going to die. Maybe I’ve seen George Clooney and crew drown one too many times in The Perfect Storm, or perhaps I’ve indulged in one too many paranormal theories on the Bermuda Triangle to be comfortable in this wide span of ocean I once loved, but I have found myself overcome with this growing feeling that if I close my eyes for even a few minutes, something tragic will undoubtedly happen and I will drown screaming, and alone, in the galley of my family’s newly purchased sailboat. It’s pathetic, really, but if fear is indeed the little-death that brings total obliteration, I, my friends, am being completely and totally annihilated. And the fact that this storm is expected to last through the next day is not a reassuring thought.

Every time I look through a porthole all I see is white, foamy ocean when I should be seeing the sky. This is not a good sign. The waves are so powerful that they have broken off large pieces of the wooden frame which surrounds the bow of our boat and the wind is gusting over 50 mph, taking all that is not bolted down along with it. We have already lost our radar, our garbage cans, and our spare container of water. I am afraid that my father or his friend, Christopher, will be next, and the unsettling thought of this makes me check on them every few minutes just to assure that I am not in this alone.

My dear father, on the other hand, is absolutely loving this little surprise of a storm which has hit us offshore Cape Fear, North Carolina , and I hate him for it. While I am inside, shivering, drenched in salt water, and trying to keep my purging to a minimum, my father is at the helm, suited up in a storm suit and beaming, I’m sure, as he attempts to expertly maneuver the sailboat from one wave to the next. At one point, I take a peak outside through the companionway hatch and see him drinking a beer with Christopher. When I see this, a part of me begins to think that my father led us into this storm on purpose. You know, for fun.

Now, if you have ever been on a sailboat- or any boat, for that matter- then you know that the vessel is supposed to go up and down with the waves in a fluid, synchronized motion. On that perfect day of sailing, it even feels as if there is a certain type of unity between the sailor and the sea; as if Neptune wants you to be on his turf and is actually helping you out in having some fun. I repeat, of course, that this is the ideal situation. During a storm, there is no such harmony. Instead, there is a three-way wrestling match between man, machine, and nature. It is as if the vessel is being body-slammed by an ocean a million times its size, getting tugged back and forth on its sides at such sharp angles that it often feels like the boat is about to break in half. No, there is no mercy. Neptune is in charge and it feels like he’s fucking with us, reminding us that he alone, is king.

The worst part of all of this is that our boat is not even modernized at this point. We have just bought her- a beautiful, 45’ Bruce Roberts design handed down to us by a family in Jackonsville, FL, which has cruised on the boat nearly around the world- barely having enough time to fix the engine since hurricane season was fast approaching, and we have not yet splurged on the all-too-important comforts that boats are often equipped with nowadays, like a properly inspected lifeboat, self-steering, or an auto-pilot. That means that instead of setting a course and merely riding out the storm inside- what I assume sane, normal people do- we need two people on deck at all times: one to steer, and the other to take over steering in the case that the first falls overboard. And being that I have clearly voiced both my fear and disapproval for not pulling safely into the nearest harbor, that leaves me and my fears alone inside, praying for salvation. I am convinced that a few more hours of this will without a doubt make me asylum-worthy material.

When I do try and go out on deck for some much needed air, my father sends me back inside because he’s worried I can’t handle it. I have been sailing with my father since I was a little girl and we have been through some really rough weather together, but this is something else. He is right: I can’t handle it, nor do I want to. The sight of a large wave approaching is a strange and terrifying feeling, and a few of those sights is more than enough for me to digest at this stage in my life. It is times like those that I wonder what I have gotten myself into. I expected smooth sailing and constant sunshine all the way from Florida to New Jersey. I did not sign up to be part of The Perfect Storm, and I want out.

Soon enough, thankfully- and by soon I mean roughly 36 hours later- I get my wish. The swell very quickly subsides once the storm passes, and eventually, the ocean goes down to a mere ripple in the water with a few rain clouds here and there. An eerie, windless calm forms that makes no logical sense in a lot of ways, but it’s relief nonetheless.

After over 40 hours of seasickness, I am finally able to drink, and eat, and keep it in my stomach, and most importantly, I relieve my father and his friend of their around-the-clock steering duties. If they are grateful for the sleep I give them, however, they sure don’t show it, and I know it’s because they want the action back. In fact, I’m pretty sure they go to bed dreaming of another storm. For my own sake, however, no such dreams come true, but apparently, I am only bad luck. Just three days after sailing through the most intense weather system I’ve ever encountered on the ocean, the wind is dead. All of it. Sailing is not an option, and we are forced to turn on the engine, but to our surprise, the engine does not start. Tired, dirty, and exhausted from the past couple of chaotic days on the sea, I question which situation is worse: moving somewhat along in bad weather, or, having seemingly good weather, but not being able to move at all.

Now, just so you understand what we’re dealing with, exactly, there is no battery power left to turn on the yet-to-be-fixed engine, and there is not enough wind for the sails to move the boat along. We don’t worry too much at first, of course, because the much needed rest and relaxation feels phenomenal. By late morning, the weather clears up, the water in the Gulf Stream is pleasantly warm, and we have enough water and food to last us for at least another week. No wind? No problem, man! Everything’s gonna be alright, I tell my dad.

But the relaxation soon turns to boredom and anxiousness. We are in a part of the ocean where the weather is unpredictable, and there is a feeling of unrest the entire day we’re stuck because we know that we are powerless in whatever new situation arises. There are no boats around to help us, the night is slowly creeping up and we know that without any battery power we can’t sustain any light source throughout the night, and the fact that we have to be in West Virginia in three days for Christopher to fly out and go back to work in Canada makes us do something sailors promise themselves they’ll never do unless it’s a true life-or-death situation: we call the Coast Guard. And out of all possible emergencies, it’s merely to start our engine.

So, as things sometimes go, the Coast Guard officer charges us over $500 for under a minutes time of work, and speeds off merrily toward shore. And as we get over this cheated feeling, the promise of being able to move forward in our journey is nonetheless realized, and we could not be happier. Motoring off romantically into the sunset with a barely purring engine and the rustling sound of a freshly powered radio, at least we’re safely on our way home again.

**Sylvia Karcz lived to tell this May 2005 storm with a smile, and continues to cherish the thrill of sailing with her dad. She has temporarily warded off her fear of storms, and is strangely excited to experience the next one.