The next morning the trade winds pick up hard from the southeast. Wind waves build steadily across miles of fetch in the lagoon, quickly making our anchorage unsafe. Gaspar proposes that we sail to another island to the northeast and spend the holidays with his friends who own a pearl farm there. Part of me still wants to salvage what we’d shared in the Galapagos, plus the passage will be all upwind something I would never attempt by myself. Maybe I should take this chance to learn from him about sailing against the wind? The few attempts I’ve made like the propane-less passage with McKenzie proved extremely difficult. Learning how to sail Swell proficiently upwind would open up a whole new array of destinations.
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There isn’t much time to think, as the wind waves in the lagoon grow steadily. I agree to his plan and ready Swell for passage. I’m not sold on his skills as a lover, but I do trust his sailing knowledge. Gaspar talks me through our strategy. “We going to tack mucho. Is better if the wind direction change. Don’t hold Swellito too close to el viento (the wind). Give her enough room to dance. Make sure your sails always tight and flat. I stay close by. No te olvidas (don’t forget), Ussy, we are not hurry!” he says.
I nervously double-lash the dinghy on deck and stow everything more thoroughly than usual in anticipation of the upwind slog. I’ve learned time and again that Swell with her long boom and big mainsail can be easily overpowered. I’ll have to stay on my toes to keep my sail plan balanced between being shortened but in control, and overpowered but making headway. If everything goes as planned, it will be three days and two nights of upwind sailing.
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We raise our anchors at the same time, but my chain sticks on some coral below. Gaspar had scolded me for not diving the anchor every day to be sure it didn’t get wrapped on the coral, but I hadn’t listened.
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Octobasse heads out the pass, Gaspar not realizing my predicament. I desperately try to motor in different directions to see if the chain will come free. When that doesn’t work, I dig out my mask and snorkel. I will need some slack in the chain in order to untangle it from the coral, so I drive the boat forward into the wind. When Swell is as far to windward as possible, I dash to the bow and dive in, pulling myself down the chain. I must reach the place it’s stuck, thirty feet below, before the boat blows back and puts tension on it again. To my dismay, I see that the chain has wound itself around a large coral head. I manage to unravel one wrap before the slack tightens. Then I shoot for the surface, haul myself up over Swell’s rail, and hop behind the helm to motor her forward again. On my second attempt, I remove one more wrap. As I surface, I see Octobasse has moved farther out the pass. I haul myself back on board and drive Swell forward a third time. My nervousness about the upwind passage is making everything more difficult. I cough out a few sobs while slipping the shifter into forward again, then sprint to the bow for another descent. I swim down, but I’m already short of breath. I fight the chain out of the last few snags and twists, slicing my hands on the sharp coral in the process, but one final link has entered a slit in the coral hardly big enough for it to pass through.
My lungs scream for air, so I get ready to lunge for the surface. Just before I push off, though, something comes into view from behind my head. My body freezes as a silhouetted pack of reef sharks swims over, paying me no mind. Once they’ve passed, I flee to the surface, sucking air heavily and seeing stars. When I’ve caught my breath, I pull myself aboard and lie flat on the deck to rest. From where my cheek presses against the rough nonskid deck, I catch a glimpse of Octobasse coming back into the pass.
“About time,” I mumble.
Irritated and prideful, I hype myself up for one last go. I don’t need his help. I repeatedly breathe deeply to saturate my lungs. This time I know exactly what I have to do. I motor Swell forward a fourth time, pull the shifter back into neutral, and leap over the side in one motion, kicking straight for the bottom. I grab the chain on either side of the small opening and work it back and forth with all my strength into the perfect position so that when the tension catches, it will yank the chain free. I watch the slack steadily disappear, and then, Pop! The stuck link bursts out of the small opening. I kick to the surface once more. By this time, Octobasse is circling.
“iQuepasa?” (What happened?) the Spaniard yells over the wind.
“I got it!” I call back proud, bitter, and light-headed.
I haul the anchor into its cradle and lash it to the nearby cleat. “Hell of a start,” I say to myself.
The first challenge is in my wake, but each gust of wind that roars across my ears foretells the coming sea trials. I breathe through the fear and remind myself to move slowly and focus only on the next objective. First, I have to navigate Swell out of the tricky pass without hitting the reef. I steer her into the narrow passage and watch the bottom jump to frighteningly shallow depths, but Swell slides cleanly over. When the current spits us out into deep water, I turn the bow into the wind, raise the mainsail to the third reef, roll out a little headsail, and fall in behind Octobasse.
Our first day out goes better than expected. My growing confidence is reflected by the increasing amount of sail I raise. We tack every five to six hours, which Gaspar explains will keep us centered in relation to our destination in case the wind shifts. But as night falls, the wind and seas increase. Swell bucks and bashes, and every fifth wave washes across the foredeck and leaks into the hatches. The cloud cover and new moon make for an extra dark night. I squint into the blackness, hoping to see approaching squalls before they hit us.
Items begin to work themselves loose in the cabin, and it soon looks as if I’m hosting a nautical yard sale. Wood joints and chainplates moan, and as much as I want to deny it I’m seasick. I lean into the leeward corner of the spray dodger and shut my eyes for a moment. What am I doing out here? I’m scared, I feel like shit, and I’m wrecking my precious floating home. I hate this. But I’m committed now. Gaspar and I speak every few hours over the radio, and I spill my concerns about feeling weak against the heavy gusts and bully seas.
“We’re fighting so hard and I feel seasick. And the squalls are on top of me before I can see them.”
“Calmate, my little rider. Try to relax. We making good progress. Everything harder in the night. I know is uncomfortable, pero try to remember that Swellito is made for this!” he encourages.
Relax? Impossible! I stare at the radar through the night to track the incessant squalls. The cuts from the coral on my hands sting as I pull lines and raise and lower sail to accommodate the varying winds. It’s already cyclone season, meaning more squalls and atmospheric volatility.
The next morning, I lift my head from the soggy cockpit cushion in a fog of nausea and fatigue, to see a dark cloudline bearing down upon us. I dash to the mast to reef the main and I make it back to the cockpit just before the massive squall slams us with fury. I’m almost in tears as Swell heels over on her rail, even with the tiny amount of sail left up. When the second gust hits, Monita, the wind vane, loses control of the steering, so I leap to the wheel. We lean over and increase speed, but to my surprise, we’re not overpowered, and Swell cuts cleanly through the water.
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