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Going Aloft: Chapter 8, Crossing the Gulf Stream

Illustration by Gina Ramseur
Illustration by Gina Ramseur

Illustration by Gina Ramseur

The waters of the Gulf Stream were a deep purple hue I had never seen before. The colors of the sea changed from the sand-filled coastal muddiness I was used to into a filtered color: Deep true blue of the ocean refracted through suspended particles of sand in the water column, stirred up by wave energy near the shore.

Yesterday afternoon, as we passed the drop off of the continental shelf, we could look down from the bow and see the deepness of the water in its color alone. It was deep and undisturbed for fathoms and fathoms down—a kind of blue that couldn’t be interrupted by waves on the surface. A true blue that originated from light swallowed up as far down as you could hold your breath, providing a backdrop of shadow. The feeling was similar to looking out into space—amidst the clouds and stars, a glimpse of eternity exists down there.

The current of the Gulf Stream was a conveyor belt to the north, and if we weren’t careful, it could tick us along silently until we were far off course. Captain, pondering his chart in the pilothouse, said, “Our strategy is this. We’ll keep heading south, and when we reach the main axis of the current, we’ll turn to the east and cross it. Once on the other side, we’ll steer for Nassau again.”

Taking us out across the stream meant going into truly open ocean—more than 100 miles from the coast. This was further than the big fishing boats ventured out in my town—their powerful diesel engines and heavy rods built to slay the mightiest of sea beasts. A small voice in the back of my brain reminded me, if we got into trouble, there would be no chance of rescue.

But that was the way the Captain lived his life; he was confident in his own abilities, and took careful and calculated risks in his tireless pursuit of greatness. He once told me he carved figureheads on his boats to “dare the gods to make trouble with him.” The concept of rescue had been pushed out of his mind when he was young and played pirate in the Leeward Islands. He had to be self-reliant, had to make it happen alone. Yet, he, too, was reliant on the help of others—his family, for instance, whose resources allowed him to build his boats. His friends were financing our sailing trip in the hopes he would repay them once the charter service became profitable. And we were with him, too, for better or worse: pulling his lines, steering his ship. There was something magnetic about Captain—his calm manner in the most harsh of environments instilled people with a sense of great trusting confidence. We had gone far enough to literally trust him with our lives, out in the middle of this vast ocean.

I took the helm. As we neared closer to the arrow on the chart, which marked the main axis of the current, the waves grew steeper and pitched higher. The tops began to crumble, like white ghosts that slid down heavy purple-blue mountains. The waves were steeper than normal because the wind was blowing against the current.

“You can really get into trouble out here,” the Saint said, seated next to me. “I’ve heard of guys out here in fishing boats that came up to waves 20-feet high, but with only 10-second intervals between each crest.”

I tried to picture what that would feel like. Silently, I thanked the schooner for seeming so big and indestructible.

Still, our boat was pitching and yawing in the steep waves and my head began to feel light. The Saint sounded like he was talking to me through a faraway tunnel. My arms and forehead broke into a sweat. I turned pale and clammy, and that familiar nausea began to burble in my stomach.

“Are you feeling all right, man?” Saint asked. “Want me to take the wheel?”

I quickly nodded yes. As soon as he grabbed the spokes, I catapulted myself over to the caprail and released my breakfast into the sea. I felt weak and could barely crawl back into the cockpit to lie down. As I pulled myself back in, I saw Passenger emerge from the forward hatch and give the same salutation to the ocean as I just had. It was the first time we had seen him on deck since we left.

“Damn this boat!” he wailed. “Captain, turn around and take me back to shore.”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t do that,” Captain said. “The wind is out of the north, and we can’t sail against it.”

“Then start the engine!”

“We don’t have that much fuel,” Captain replied. “I’m sorry, but you’re just going to have to try and relax until we get to Nassau.”

Passenger groaned miserably and gave a final heave over the side. He disappeared again, back to his sodden bunk.

“I don’t know why he doesn’t stay up here,” Captain said. “The movement is way worse down below, and up here you can feel the fresh air on your face.”

After another visit to the railing, I started to feel better. I could even stomach a little rice and beans and salad for lunch. We crossed the current without any more difficultly; by the time we reached the other side, the wind had picked up. The waves had grown in size, but they were spaced further apart. It made it a much more comfortable ride. We changed course to the south again and ran with the wind.

Captain and Artist tied little strips of old pennant to the standing rigging. We used these telltales to determine from which direction the wind came. We were running downwind as far as she would point, the big mainsail boom hanging way out over the side, almost perpendicular to the ship. Captain made sure we all knew to keep the wind just off to the side from directly behind us.

“Here it’s more important to steer by the wind than by the compass,” he spoke loudly over its roar. “Because the wind shifts a little, you know? It’s more important that we don’t accidentally jibe and risk breaking something than to steer an exact course.”

Artist, growing more and more confident in her abilities, steered the big ship through the charging sea. The wind blew her hair wildly. Rows of waves followed us from behind. Captain and I ventured back to the stern pulpit, the furthest aft we could go. We watched the big ship in front of us do the work she was meant to do.

“A schooner is the best rig for this kind of downwind sailing!” the Captain crowed. I could see he was enjoying himself. He was truly in his element.

“This is great!” I cried.

Together we watched the giant ship spread her enormous canvas wings and, like a magnificent frigatebird over the stampeding waves, fly full speed toward the mystery that awaited us to the south.

John Wolfe is a licensed captain who still gets seasick in rough weather, but goes sailing anyway. He holds a BFA in creative writing from UNCW. When he’s not writing, he can be found on the water, playing music or drinking beer. “Going Aloft” is Wolfe’s nonfiction serialized piece, to be published in encore every other week in 2016.

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