Danger! High Voltage!
It seems darker than usual as Swell plows south again. I blink into the unending blackness, unsure whether my eyes are open or closed. Dark, dark, dark.
An eerily warm breeze grazes my cheeks, but I focus on the sweet evening song of the gecko that crawled aboard in the boatyard three months ago. His melodic chirps help me ignore the sense of foreboding that has become a regular part of night watches during Central America’s rainy season. Thunderstorms are expected. After more than a dozen close calls with cascading bolts both at anchor and underway, it seems like calling it “lightning season” would be more appropriate.
My recent guests and I have ducked and dodged our way through nightly thunderstorms in order to surf Costa Rica’s wave-rich coastline during its most consistent wave season. Other sailors call me crazy, laying low in a protected place for the five or six months of the wet season. It turns out surfing and sailing are not always as compatible as I’d hoped.
Often a region’s best wave season doesn’t coincide with its safe sailing season. Swell-exposed coastlines that are great for surfing generally offer fewer safe anchorages, or unbearably rolly conditions for a monohull. Just finding rideable waves along a stretch of open coast is hard it requires getting close enough to shore to read the surf from the back. This adds distance and time, fairly impractical at Swell’s modest speeds, not to mention dangerous with my basic navigation equipment. When I do find a wave, I have to find a place to safely “park” Swell before I can even think about surfing. It’s clear that surfing can’t be first priority; safety and survival more frequently call the shots. Add the timing of weather and swell, each country’s complicated entry and exit procedures, provisioning and maintenance, crew schedules, and Internet cafe hours. Surf time quickly evaporates.
But when all the ingredients do come together, it’s pure magic. So even after several frightening near misses with lightning, here I am again, pressing my luck on one more surf mission. I’ve always been stubborn. My Auntie Julie Ann always says it’s because I’m a Taurus. My desires often outweigh reason, especially when surfing is involved.
Fatigue steadily weighs on my eyelids as we enter Panamanian waters. I head below to wake my latest crew.
“Jake Jake I’m getting tired, can you take over for a while?” His lids flash open to reveal his wild, emerald green eyes.
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“Hi Lizzypumpkin. Of course,” he replies. He smiles that mischievous smile that drew me to him back in Santa Barbara shortly after Barry’s proposal. We shared a fun love story, full of sea adventures and surf chasing. Jake was nonstop exuberance and charisma. Hanging with him was never boring. His thirst for living on the edge often got him into trouble, but I couldn’t resist his lion heart, self-deprecating humor, and courageous will. He never tried to contain me, supporting me unwaveringly toward this voyage, as he pursued his own commercial fishing dream.
We rented a small studio together to get off our boats at the end of the first year of Swell’s refit, and spent two fantastic weeks there making meals and enjoying a bit of land luxury. But Jake had impossible luck. If there was a one-in-a-million chance of something going wrong, it would. One day he came home looking white as a ghost, saying something about the State of Hawai’i finding a DUI on his California record while he was on probation. I was surprised because I’d hardly ever seen him drink. He was in trouble, he explained, and drove off the next day with panic in his eyes. He spent the next six months in state prison on Kaua’i, and he wrote me a letter every single day.
Left alone in the studio, with all of his belongings, I mourned him. But I was scheduled to be heading down the coast on Swell by the time he would get back, so I began to detach myself from the whole situation. I met a charming carpenter in the surf at Hammond’s Point, and his great humor and fun-loving spirit helped me forget about the pain of losing Jake so abruptly. My new friend helped build a nav station aboard Swell, and he encouraged me through the intense final stages of Swell’s preparation. I adored him too, but my heart was already out to sea. The story with Jake felt unfinished, though, so when he offered to fly in and join me for a couple weeks, I couldn’t say no.
After an hour’s sleep, I wake to the sound of fat raindrops pelting the deck. The noise quickly escalates into a deafening torrent, and I push up off the settee and climb up the steps. Glancing at the radar screen on my way up, I see a massive squall blacking out the entire eight-mile radius of the radar screen!
“Is this normal?” Jake asks.
“Eeesh, this doesn’t look good,” I mutter, surveying the flashes of lightning on the horizon all around us. I had recently heard about a couple whose boat had sunk underneath them in minutes after a lightning strike blew a hole through their hull. I sure hope that grounding plate works.
It seems to be closing in on us from every side. I try to steer us where the radar shows a small gap in the storm, but my efforts are in vain. The sails hang limp in the swirling, convectional air.
“Don’t touch anything metal!” I warn, as the bolts bear down closer and closer. Thunderclaps rumble commandingly as white claws of lightning rip down all around us, illuminating our harrowing reality. I duck below to unplug the radios in a panic, my fingers trembling as I yank out their cords.
“So this is your idea of fun?” Jake asks, aghast. We huddle together, trying to avoid touching anything metal, puny and powerless against the raging sky. My body tenses with each flash of light, bracing for the deafening thunderclap that follows. Jaw clenched, I dig my nails deeper into my calves with each incomprehensibly powerful rumble.
“This is bad,” I whisper.
“Well, if it’s any sign of what’s to come, your pet gecko just abandoned ship!” Jake reports, wide-eyed. He wraps his arm tightly around me. The fiercely independent part of me doesn’t want his support, but this could be it, I’ll take it! The dreadful minutes linger on until three bolts shred the sky just above us.
CRACK! And again. And again.
The thunder hits our chests with visceral force. The third bolt strikes the water just a boat-length away, exploding the surface into a tower of whitewater dressed in the full spectrum of the rainbow. The radar blacks out and the chart plotter flashes a question mark, then goes blank.
I moan with terror and clutch Jake. Silent tears stream down my face. Never have I felt so humbled by nature’s power, so raw, unbridled, and unpredictable. I brace for a direct hit, but the next bolt strikes farther north. We both sit in silence for a long time, as the storm starts to break up.
“You okay, Captain?”
“I changed my mind,” I stutter. “I think I want a white picket fence and a golden retriever.”
Ear infections have plagued me for several months now. I think the problems started from surfing in the polluted waters near the boatyard. I’ve tried everything a potpourri of antibiotics, even by injection, and all the home remedies in the blog: ear cones, garlic, grapeseed oil. I even borrowed a hair dryer. Antibiotics help temporarily, but as soon as I stop them the infections flare up again. Local doctors are baffled. Jake is leaving tomorrow and he’s worried about me. Both my ears are swollen and painful. I can’t surf, I’m fatigued, and I can barely hear.
I decide to accompany Jake up to the capital of Costa Rica where he’ll catch his flight home. After goodbyes, I go see a specialist, who looks inside my ears with a small video camera that projects the image onto a screen. It’s a jungle in there! She determines it’s some kind of rare fungus and uses a tiny vacuum to clean them out, then prescribes me some antifungal ear-drops. I’m to stay out of the water and rest for at least three weeks. With the holidays coming, I decide to fly home and be with my family to heal.
Swell is safe at a dock with friends watching her, so I can rest at my parents’ new apartment in Point Loma. My hearing and balance gradually come back, but my body feels strange. My period is late, and my breasts are sore. I think back to that fateful morning when Jake’s bad luck surfaced again a condom broke. I need a pregnancy test.
Two pink lines on the urine test stick find me facing a decision I hoped I’d never have to make. I tell my mother right away, and Jake too. They both want to support whichever decision I make. I’m appalled by the thought of ending my voyage. I haven’t even been gone a year. I’m just gaining momentum; stopping my dream now seems unthinkable.
A few days later I’m at a private clinic in Los Angeles where my mother and the compassionate doctor reassure me that having an abortion doesn’t make me a bad person. All the controversy and stigmas connected to it weigh heavily on me, though. But
I remind myself of what I know to be true in my heart: It’s not the right time I’m not ready I still have so much work to do on myself.
I curl up on the passenger seat on the drive home, tears streaming silently down my cheeks. It will be my deepest, darkest secret. My mother strokes my arm. I’m unspeakably grateful for her support through this. Nonetheless, I slip into that familiar dark place. I don’t get out of bed for days, don’t accept phone calls, and hardly eat. Nothing even has taste.
When I finally feel ready, I get myself down to the ocean, where the smell of the sea and the blue of the sky helps lift me out of the sadness. I submerge myself in the cold water, wallowing in the slimy kelp strands. No wetsuit. The cold stings me back to life.
I have my health back, and my sailing dream awaits. But it’s not just about my own dream anymore. I feel recommitted to my voyage as a way to empower others to chase their dreams and raise awareness about pressing environmental issues. Now I’m on this journey for something bigger than me.
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