Passage to nowhere
With exotic landfalls out of the question, John Kretschmer discovered a new way to do sail-training passages: make seafall instead
I then continue this cheery talk with our plan for abandoning ship. Each crew is assigned a role, from life raft deployment to radio officer. We talk about putting out fires, the first steps in coping with water in the boat and how we will focus our energies on finding and fixing the problem. If our efforts fail, we will be prepared to make an orderly departure. Finally, I stop talking and make lunch while the crew wonders why they signed aboard in the first place. Fortunately, the poetry of ocean sailing, the rhythm of boat, the wind and the sea, casts its spell and we head toward the horizon aware that blue water sailing has risks but when done well, they’re far outweighed by the rewards.
The first night watch is always a revelation. It’s exciting and exhausting. We have two-person watches, with three hours on and six hours off. Our watch schedule is from 2000-2300, 2300-0200 and 0200-0500. At 0500 point the first watch is back on duty but they’re rewarded with daybreak, that restorative elixir that’s palpable at sea. We rotate watches so that the crew can experience different shifts. Everyone ends up with a favorite and least favorite watch.
Small events have meaning at sea, and a hearty breakfast has a way of heartening the crew. I try hard to create a happy, healthy atmosphere aboard, and explain that it’s as vital a job as reefing the sails. Every morning at sea we take a walk about. We fall off the wind, flatten the boat and stroll about the deck looking to see what went amiss in the night. Sometimes we just toss the flying fish overboard, and sometimes we find signs of chafe, wear and tear and other potential problems. It’s easy to stay in the cockpit and assume everything is fine but the easy way is never the right way. I also like to bring the boat back on course and climb out on the bow pulpit. This is really the best perspective to check your sail trim, the tune of the rig, and to see if the boat is sailing cleanly through the seas.
The crew has to suffer through my philosophy of sailing and I explain the best sailing is organic, sensual and not defined by the digits on the chartplotter and instruments. The ever-present easterly swell is a natural compass, and a better steering reference that a magnetic compass. You don’t need a landmark to aim at, keep the swell at a constant angle and your course will be true. You can anticipate the swell in your wrists, in your ankles, and youremember how you learned to sail in small boats. Darkness falls hard and fast in the tropical latitudes, the nights are full of wonders. The Southern Cross and the North Star are visible at the same time and make a perfect north-south reference. The distinctive belt of the constellation Orion, the mighty hunter, rises and sets due east and west. A voyage to nowhere gives you time to ponder and feel. This is how to learn offshore sailing, it’s not a numbers game.
We made our way south until Grenada was just beyond the bend of the horizon. We declared this spot our “seafall” and hove to. It was breezy but with the reefed main and staysail, Quetzal settled down nicely. We tied fenders to long floating lines astern, plopped the ladder over the side, and dove overboard for a refreshing swim. It’s weird and wonderful to splash about in 10,000 feet of water.
The return leg was different. We had a waypoint, the western edge of St. Croix. Yet, as this point the crew was in tune with Quetzal and with the sea. The trades eased and we were soon under full sail. Everyone was moving with confidence and sailing with purpose. It’s incredibly rewarding for me to see the transformation that takes place offshore. Sometimes I’m not sure what I actually teach people, but I do know that our shared adventures are always memorable. And sometimes, they change lives. Many of my crewmembers over the years have launched voyages of their own, so be careful if you sign aboard Quetzal, you might just find yourself making serious cruising plans.