Night-shift notes

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JUNE 6 // En route to ILE DE LA MADALEINE 

2:35  – The moon is nearly bright enough to light the pages on my book. If I concentrate hard enough I can almost make it through a sentence.

2:45  – Silver fins slice the surface. I can’t see their details, only the shape they take as they pass through a tunnel of moonlight. My friends are back and here to keep me awake. They play around the transom just long enough to check in and make sure we’re okay. We are okay. They move on.

3:00  – I meet a painter. The artist takes a brush and walks the horizon with deep blood orange. She walks back and forth blending it into navy, and then into black. Color is added again and again warming the seam. On the opposite side of the canvas, the moon tucks beneath the covers.

3:15 – A satellite passes over head. I start to think about space. I stop thinking about space, understanding that maybe there are some things meant to be misunderstood. I set the thought down with intentions to pick it up later.

3:25 – I find a half frozen chocolate in my pocket. Better than finding crinkled cash in old blue jeans. I melt it in my mouth. It tastes like jersey junction, the local ice cream shop where I grew up. I’d roller blade there and spend all the quarters I made ironing my mother’s work clothes on candy.

4:00 – This morning’s sunrise is the greatest present. I want to unwrap it forever. I am embarrassed with myself. Everything makes me want to cry. I set up the fishing pole to distract myself.

4:17 – Staring at a fishing pole is less entertaining than staring at the wind indicator. I take my boots off, peel my socks back, and stare at my toes instead. This is interesting.

JUNE 7 // En route to ST. PIERRE & MIQUELON

21:43 – I reach my peak of anxiety as the sun sinks. Another breathtaking setting sun I find little appreciation for. I try to stop and like it, love it, try to marvel  in its hot pinks and purples. Instead I notice the steam pouring from my exhales, the instant temperature drop and the jolting shiver that shakes me from my toes up. Night time is coming again.

23:20 – I play games to stay awake. These desperate games distract me from looking at the clock.  The first game a play is called “stand up, sit down”. It’s as simple as that. I stand up and tell myself to do so out loud, “stand up.” I stand for roughly 4 seconds. And then I sit down, “sit down.” I do this again and again. Interestingly enough, the forced physical movement via vocal instruction gets difficult.

The second game I play is a balancing game. The seat that sits behind the helm is in the shape of a dome. I take my hands off the wheel and feet off of the floor grates. I balance on my ass and count how long I can do this before I have to use an appendage to break my fall. I feel my abs weak, and get discouraged quickly.

The last game comes out of my mouth. I hum. It comes out by default as “The Little Mermaid.” When I finish humming Disney I upgrade to Celine Dion “My heart will go on forever” Then I realize I am not far from ice berg alley. I stop humming this song.

1:30 – I wake Luke up 15 minutes early and am feeling awful about it. But I am a hazard behind this helm.

JUNE 8 // ST. PIERRE // FRANCE 

5:43 – We arrive at the St. Pierre Yacht Club just after sunrise. We drink wine and eat triscuits for breakfast. After 240 miles and nearly 3 days we fall into a very very deep sleep.

8:00 – Two French men (customs) knock on the hull. Puffy eyed and half asleep we welcome them aboard. We provide them our passports and documents. My hand is shaking as I sign papers because I am still cold from the night before. The empty bottle of wine sits on the counter. Luke’s zipper is wide open. The boat is a mess. We are a mess. They seem to respect that we have just sailed for 3 days and don’t ask any unnecessary questions. They leave and we fall back into a coma.

17:30 – The weather forecast is a disaster. A gale is passing through for the next 4 days. Thirty-five knots of wind has us heeled over at our dock. Exercising patience on this secret French island. We walk the streets. Hike the hills. Eat fresh bread. The list of chores and tasks aboard Desirée grows like bamboo. Every day trim it down.

JUNE 14 // AVALON PENINSULA // NEWFOUNDLAND 

21:00 – We have entered the ice berg zone. We are in the region where 7 have been reported. The sun has set…again…like it always does. Can’t see anything…again. It’s foggy and windy. We turn off our running lights to eliminate the back glow, in hopes of seeing just a few more feet ahead. We drop all canvas besides a 2nd reefed main to slow down. Lightning flashes twice a minute but there is nothing to see besides birds circling. Fog, wind, lighting, blackness, circling birds. I have a bad feeling in my tummy. We agree to take shorter shifts tonight. I go down below to try and rest.

21:35 – Laying in my bunk with the lee cloth. Waves rock us from the side. I wish I could say it feels like being rocked in a cradle, but it doesn’t. My body is flexed to stay in place. I’m doing better burning calories than I am sleeping.

22:15 – I smell ice. I think about the fact that I smell ice for another hour, maybe longer and I don’t say anything. I don’t trust that it is possible. I tell myself that it is not possible. You can’t smell ice. But I do.

12:00 – Luke goes down for a nap. My eyes are glued to blackness. We move forward under power at 3 knots. I may as well be asleep because looking ahead is completely useless. We are traveling blind. We are gambling. This is torture. A few minutes pass and I think we are really stupid. Another few minutes pass and I feel like an arctic explorer. This goes on for the next three hours.

3:00 – We switch shifts. For a moment we sit together in the companionway watching the eastern sky start to change color. My anxiety lifts for a few minutes by having Luke awake, and next to me. We stare into the darkness. I give him a detailed report of my watch.

3:15 – I squint my eyes to focus. I squeeze Luke’s arm, my fingers form a vice-grip with alarming pressure. I extend my opposite arm full length and point, “Look…….look.” My seriousness is relayed in my grip, not my voice. We pass a wall of white 1/4 of a mile away off the port side. It’s an ice berg. It’s a fucking ice berg. A chunk of glacier the size of a three story house silently drifts into sight. We stare it harder than we’ve ever stared at anything in our lives. It disappears into the fog within a minute or two.

I am just a little girl from Michigan, this is hard for me to wrap my head around. I feel the exact same way I did when I was 12 years old, in the front row seat at the movies watching “Titanic” for the first time. My eyes round as grapefruits, my arm hair standing on end.

We spend the next hour staring into the abyss. Looking for more. Looking for anything. Having a sophisticated conversation – “Wow.” “Yeah.” “Wow.” “Yup” “Wowww.” until I exhaust myself and have to leave Luke alone.

4:00 – I lay down debilitated. I never expected to have so many emotions about a piece of ice. I can’t get over it. It took my breath away. It froze me just as solid as it.  It was magnificent. It was petrifying. It put in perspective what I have been willing to risk.  I have absolutely no proof. No video. No photo. It was just a minute in time that only Luke and I will remember. I think we just shared one the most epic minutes of our lives.

So I did smell ice. Ice berg sighting no. 1 – check.

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The truth about d o u b l e – h a n d i n g :

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En route to ILE DE LA MADELEINE // JUNE 3

6:42 am // My hair is mopped under a winter hat and explodes out the bottom, it wraps around my neck like a fur scarf. I look like a lion. People pay a lot of money for these kinds of things. It attaches itself to the velcro on my jacket. A few strands secure themselves to my bottom lip. I am on the morning shift. I’ve cracked a beer-mosa (Budweiser topped off with orange juice) and am dodging lobster pots. Out of character for me to crack a beer this time of day. But there is something about wherever I am, doing whatever I am doing, that qualifies this as an appropriate moment. Miranda Lambert is singing to me and she typically only does this when Luke is asleep. I drop the back of my Gill trousers and sit indian style off the stern, holding onto the backstay. This is my new bathroom. It’s more relaxing than any other box I’ve ever sat in to do the very same thing.

Lobster pots appear out of the fog and I miss them by meters. Feeling more and more British speaking in meters not feet. I see fishing boats displayed on the B&G AIS overlay. I do not see them in real life. In fact I can see nothing in real life until it is a Desirée’s length away.  I sit in the fog. We move forward under engine over a sheet of mercury. There is no wind. Not even a breath. The circle of visibility in which we sit in the center of, is 1/8th of a mile at best. It’s thick. In every direction I see a block of the same color. White. As if I was staring at a mountain of snow. The sun penetrates just enough to assist my body in heating up. The condensation drips from every surface facing downward. It rolls off of the boom and onto my head. I type words but do not look at the computer screen. Women are so great at multi-tasking. Pardon any typos.

I day-dream of what I will make for breakfast when Luke wakes. I only have one hour left of my four, but I am perfectly happy and wouldn’t mind sitting here for longer than required. A McGriddle. That’s what I will make. Mcdonalds at sea. I do feel the need to step up my game. Luke has prepared the most impressive boat meals I have ever tasted. I have been eating like a queen. He’s prepared Tournedos Rossini, Croque Monsieur, and Scallop Mac’n cheese. I place my breakfast ingredients on the counter in my head, and I like how they look. Pumpkin spice pancakes, with grilled ham and and a fried egg. Christmas at sea. Any diet I have ever considered is completely gone – out the window. My body is changing I can feel it. I don’t care. I am in survival mode. Give my carbs. Give me sugar. Give me a beer for breakfast. What my body wants is what I will give it.

33 miles ahead is  Ile De La Madeleine, an island situated on it’s own in between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. 130 miles behind sits Gaspe, Quebec, the mainland that we have finally left behind. People say Ile De Le Madelaine is where people eat lobster, make babies, and never leave. I’m not opposed to the trio. I’d happily take the first and the last, the second might not be the wisest of decisions. We are just miles away from reaching the Atlantic Ocean now. Sometimes I just want to scream, to shout, the celebrate “Do you have any idea how long it has taken me to get here?”

The fog lifts and I can finally separate sea from sky. There is no land in sight. The idea of being completely alone out here does not scare me. I know that people are out there, they are everywhere, everywhere but here. We have found a place where they do not go. Most of them not a clue we are here. Some of them anxiously awaiting our safe arrival. But right now there is no one. Just the birds. They fly parallel Desirée with curiosity. My curiosity is stronger than their’s because they move on too quickly, while I sit here wishing I could keep up.  Their company alone is almost enough. I know that disconnecting from people for a short while is okay. I know it is important. I know that in my normal land life, I am connected beyond explanation. I do find safety in people. It would be nice to find safety in solitude, but it’s not easiest of tasks.

The truth I have learned about double-handing, is that you are alone more often then not. I sleep. You sleep. I am on watch for 4 hours. You are on watch for 4 hours. I sleep. You sleep.  And so it goes. We do our best to cook and enjoy meals together, and when we do get to hang out for an hour it becomes the quickest hour of the day. The rest of the time we chit-chat in passing.  We speak in wind speeds and headings. I count down 240 minutes until I can wake him up.

We might be only 6 feet apart, which is mutually preferred over an ocean apart. But the word “solitude” continues to cliff note our current state of existence. Do not let this take away from the opposite, in which teamwork is every reason we are able to carry on. But this kind of teamwork requires one to be working while the other recovers.  You never want to wake the other up, even when you feel desperate. You understand how important it is for the other to rest. You understand how important it is to maintain your watch. It is in fact, exhausting and quite lonely.  And being the incredibly social person that I am, this is difficult. When I see something – anything – a bird, a seal, a dolphin, a bug, a fishing boat… I am instantly comforted by the existence of something else. These little things have become my greatest joy. I have become an emotional old lady, hunched over in her chair, who writes letters and waits for visitors.

Grandma over and out – onwards to Ile de la Madelaine.

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Chewed us up and spat us out

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Luke arrives with one large sail bag. In it are some shorts, t-shirts, one fleece, a smock, two pairs of socks, three pair of underwear and Sperry Topsiders. I’m unsure where he thinks he is going. When he is not paying attention I start a list : Socks. Underwear. On top of his fair weather packing is a back up VHF, GPS, a hand bearing compass, weather disc, charts, and a GoPro. My mind shifts from “bad job” to “good job”. Shoved in-between the bad packing and the good packing are 8 glass jars of Bovril (salty beef broth he considers heaven on earth) and packaged beets (per my request). Just when I begin to think “good job” again, he discovers one of the Bovril jars has shattered. All contents inside are stuck together with salty beef. Bad job.

We take 24 hours getting organized in Montreal, and take the following 24 to motor sail 138 miles into light headwinds and bewildering tides towards Quebec City. Our list of projects is extensive. I knowingly left Michigan with things undone. It is now time to complete them. We started with the most exciting project by swapping out old sails with 6 new bombproof HydeSails. Silicone coated woven polyester, pro-radial main, mizzen, and genoa. Cross-cut 10 ounce woven Dacron stay sail. Woven nylon mizzen stay-sail, fiber max asymmetric spinnaker. Fancy language that I am just beginning to understand. And then we tackle the rest of the list :

  • Change all hardware from old main sail to new
  • Fit 3rd reef
  • Finish fitting inner-forestay
  • Put on stack-pack and lazy jacks
  • Install inverter
  • Organize ballast
  • Raise Hydrovane rudder and finish installation
  • Put together a better ditch-kit
  • Find fishing gear
  • Set-up jack-lines and tethers
  • Do something about the 440 pounds of loose lead in the bilge
  • Register EPIRB
  • Connect second solar panel
  • Calculate water and diesel usage
  • Calculate battery usage
  • Find more charts
  • Fix the dodger
  • Top off water /diesel
  • Engine check
  • Go grocery shopping

Three days are gone. No breaks. The weather is not ready for us to go. But we are ready to go. We are eager despite the forecast, and choose to disregard it all together. Ready to test ourselves. Test our teamwork. Test the boat. We depart Quebec City with the tide into a romantic sunset and live happily ever after, for one hour.

The wind rips out of the north-east on the nose. Honeymoon shifts to hurricane. Light chop turns to standing waves. I am at the helm riding a bull. Luke is on the bow reefing the main and raising the stay sail. The standing waves break over the bow. Luke is in the center of a washing machine and I am on the sidelines getting sprinkled on. For the first time I understand how difficult it is to watch the person you care most for getting thrashed around. I want to close my eyes. I tell myself to relax and get used to it because this is the new normal. I focus on holding a steady course because I fall off every time I focus on Luke. We tack back and forth into 25 knot headwind and white water. The channel narrows, and the earth becomes black. For 5 hours we tack 35 plus times in-between ships, a mountain, and shallows with only a 1/4 mile of space. Exhilaration shifts to exhaustion.

We both sleep for 2 out of the last 24. The wind forecast is expected to build out of the same direction.  It requires all hands on deck to make it through the night. We turn left up the Saguenay River after 110 miles into a 7 knot ebb tide ripping out towards the St. Lawrence. Don’t ask why, but we try it anyway. Two hours later, with full main, genoa and high engine rpm, we make it two miles up the river.

It takes another full day to “get our shit together”. I make a list of everything that needs to be secured better. Luke sorts out the stay sail reef, all of the rigging, and drills holes in the 44 pound bars of lead that sit loosely in the bilge so we can tie them down.  We wander town with empty jerry cans in search of diesel. We gather more fresh food. I ask Luke to be in charge of meat and cheese, I’d take care of fruit and veg. I was expecting some chicken, maybe some lunch meat. We left the market with horse patties, liver pate, and filets. He would have bought the market out of Foi Gras if they had it. I didn’t expect horse (cheval) to be on the menu, but I won’t turn down a local delicacy.

Everything takes longer than we think. Nothing is convenient. Chores are endless. Boat life requires strong effort from both of us. No time to think about home. No time to miss anyone. No time to spend scrolling the internet. No time to pay attention to everything that’s wrong with the world. By the time each days’ list is checked off, I am exhausted again. It sounds kind of horrible, but it’s not. I love to bitch about it, even though… I love it. Everything requires more work than I have ever put in on land.

May 27, 6:45 am, departing Tadousaac. This time out with the tide and the sunrise.  Fog settles in thick on the river, visibility drops to 1/2 a mile at best. We plug in our AIS/VHF as we skirt the shipping channel. It doesn’t work. I start to pull things apart. The metal prongs on the cockpit repeater are smashed together. I disconnect the repeater from the hard wired unit. The unit itself seems to be fried. I check all connections. Fuses. Nothing. I make a few phone calls. Nothing. It’s broken. Luke gets out the fog horn and makes our presence known. We hear ships’ horns in return, and stay as far out of the channel as possible.

Fog lifts like a stage curtain. Someone switches on the sun. I wear a t-shirt for the first time in days, and enjoy the ride with the possibility of freckles. Luke tests out the new sails. All of them. Spinnaker flying. Full main. Mizzen. Mizzen stay-sail. Then he tinkers with the genoa. Then the stay sail. We are sailing in every combination one could create. I send photos to my the Wizard. He would love this. We sail along leisurely for hours. We see Beluga whales. We have a curious finch passenger. I name him / her Sarah. Sarah lands on my head. She’s not shy. She doesn’t sit still. She lands on everything bright – hence my head not Luke’s. We try to feed her bread but she wants bugs. I feel sad when she doesn’t come back. I continue my desperate search for whale friends. We set up the fishing pole, neither of us know a thing about fishing. I take a nap. Luke reads. The Auto-pilot drives. We catch no fish. We settle for pig and horse from the market and Luke whips up a delicious snack. Both of us are on toddler nap schedules. We try to settle into 4 hour shifts. By 7pm it’s Lukes turn to nap.

Four hours later and everything has changed. The nighttime brings with it the nightmare, the one I’ve been anticipating. Without providing the detailed weather report, let’s just say…the mouth of the St. Lawrence seaway is chewing us up and spitting us out. More of a regurgitation than a spit. We are receiving neon rejection signs and starting to think we should read them. The 20 knot headwind predicted, is substituted with a force 9 gale. It’s raining. It’s black. It’s building. The waves grow into hills. The hills push us back in the river. The wind becomes an impenetrable force. We tack back and forth. We cover no ground. Second reef in main, and stay sail have Desirée pleasant to helm. The wave chop treats us like a rocking horse, we are stationary. Teeter- tottering on springs. We tack for a few hours with the engine on so we can point just a few degrees higher. The engine shuts off after it sucked in air instead of fuel on a starboard tack. Rookie mistake. I go down below to bleed fuel in a gale. Diesel is everywhere. She starts running. I start to feel sick.

1:00 am we agree to turn around. Luke drops the main. We oscillate between the rolling hills and run downwind with just the stay sail. The closest port is 33 miles backwards. I am shaking, almost violently. I can’t get my body temperature up. I don’t know if I am shaking from adrenaline. Shaking from exhaustion maybe. I feel weak. On the edge of hurling. My mind and body are not working together. The engine shuts off again. I can’t deal with it now, and we don’t need to deal with it now. Why can’t I stop shaking. I am fatiguing myself.

We surf double over head downwind and take turns between 20 minute naps and helming. We pass through upbound and down bound shipping channels. No VHF. No AIS. No engine. Ten foot waves and 40 knots of wind. I throw up. I still can’t stop shaking. But I seem to be functioning.  Luke is okay, he might even be perfectly fine. I need him right now more than ever. I see tired in his blood shot eyes. He is serious. A light smile here and there. He stares at the sunrise and appreciates it fully, while I can’t seem to find space to appreciate. Focus takes all of me.

I bleed more fuel from the engine when we near port. Tons and tons of it. So much that I pour it back into a jerry can. I spill diesel everywhere. All over the floor. All over my boots, legs, hands. The inside of Desirée looks like it’s rolled over a time or three. Shit is everywhere. Even my underwear drawer came hurling off the wall.  I pass Luke the can of diesel, and he tops off the tank. He too spills everywhere. All over his sperry’s, legs, hands. All over the cockpit floor. The engine starts and stays on. We keep the boat flat as possible upon approach.

We tried. I believe we tried really hard. We had to turn around and there is no shame in that. The only thing I am disappointed in is my physical self. I just couldn’t get it together. Couldn’t warm up. Couldn’t stop shaking. Couldn’t get past nausea which I so rarely experience. Could barely stay awake at the helm.  Frustrated by the way my mind was perfectly fine, even comfortable, but my physical self was not. I think it’s the first time I was unable to talk myself out of being cold, tired, and sick. I thought I could do that. But I couldn’t. As a result I felt un-fit for the job. Wanted to give up. Luke thinks I managed perfectly fine. So maybe I did, I honestly couldn’t tell you. I remind myself there is always tomorrow. We will try again tomorrow.

This was an accurate trial run of what’s lies ahead. A blunt grasp on how challenging this whole exhaustion thing is going to be. I am not worried about how Luke and I operate together,  if I am impressed by anything it is by our team work. He is an animal up on deck, a legend. agile, quick footed, and precise. He can raise, drop, reef, untangle anything in seconds. He knows exactly what to do and when to do it. And as for me… well, I know how to get the engine started.

Tomorrow. We will try again. And we will keep trying. We will make it out of the St. Lawrence River. Past the sadistic tides. Through these ruthless headwinds. Into the Gulf of St. Lawrence where the next set of elements will demand our persistence.  Even when I’ve had my ass handed to me, I always feel ready to go the next day. I don’t know why it takes these kind of extremes to stir up fervent motivation, but it’s addicting. And the thought of going back to light switches, thermostats, stability and shelter is in a far-away corner of my mind.

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M o n t r e a l

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MONTREAL  // MAY 14

We ate and drank our way through Montreal. My mother, sister and I. The city was alive. Cultured. Historic. Flavorful. Our taste buds navigated the streets. I didn’t want to ever lose my appetite. I didn’t want them to leave. I thought I was looking forward to a few days alone. I’ve changed my mind. Let’s stay here and eat and drink, and learn French – forever.

ROYAL ST. LAWRENCE YACHT CLUB 

They are gone. Everyone is gone. I viciously chew my fingernails. I sit alone indian style mid-ship. My back against the starboard hull, eyes darting bow to stern, floor boards to deck, and again. Alone on this boat for the first time this month. The cabin feels spacious, almost too big. The callouses wear away. Ruminating. Raw. Sensitive. Soft. I can finally feel. Even a little bit more than I’d prefer. Sailing does the oddest of things. Processing the last 1100 miles. Where did everyone go? Come back and distract me from my self.

I continue to chew my fingernails until I pry them out of my mouth and place them on the keyboard. This requires a vice grip. And glue. Up and down they argue until the glue secures them to the keyboard.

Luke arrives in 4 days. Now I wait. How in the world did I arrive ahead of schedule? I have a long list of projects to do before he arrives. But today I will do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Maybe jot down some more choppy sentences. Recognize all the things I haven’t been able to. My mind shifts to the next leg of the trip. The part where Luke and I try to sail across an ocean. I’ve only made it 1/4 of the way without him. The other 3/4 is Luke and Jess on a boat . com. He is our new main character.

I do a lot of one-sided writing. Which is all I really know how to do. People might feel like they know me. Might be able to relate. They might wish I used more commas instead of periods. They might wish I wrote less introspection and more statistics and logistics.  But I can’t speak for other people. I can’t summarize my crew’s experience. I like full stops better than half stops.  I can’t speak in numbers. So before I start writing about Luke without his discretion, I want to tell you a few things about the protagonist before he arrives. He is a great story, a fascinating human, and the very reason my  world has shifted.

Luke Alexander Yeates. Also referred to as Jude Law.

He is English. He is tall.  He is a sailor. He is a racer. He is a helmsman. He is a tactician. He is a navigator. He is a weatherman. He is a boat-builder. He is live-aboard. He is precise. He is thorough. He is sarcastic. He is a rule-follower. Sometimes he breaks the rules. He is a risk taker. He is a salesman. He is a deal closer. He is ambitious. He is tenacious. He doesn’t believe in sympathy. He is a history buff. He is wikipedia. He expresses opinion purely to get a reaction. He is inventive. He loves to try new things. He is well traveled. His passport is full. He listens to BBC every morning. He is a minimalist. He lives very simply. He is an older brother. He pretends to be cold-hearted. He’s not. He is cold-blooded. He is deeply in love with Jaguar XJ13. He splurges on Negroni’s. He can’t sit still. He needs to be reminded that it’s not always a race. He wants to sail around the world non-stop. He will sail around the world. We will sail around the world – and I will probably make him stop. He dreams of building  a sailing lobster boat. He sings a great sea shanty. He has two left feet. He is not shy. He is motivated by all the right things. He is a chef. He is a teacher. He is creative. He does not get embarrassed. He writes me letters. He has a way with words. He is my biggest motivator. And at the end of the day I am convinced I am the only human who has ever had the pleasure of knowing his sweet and sensitive side. That side is a secret which I will keep.

Six months ago this was an implausible idea – sailing across an ocean. A year and 7 months ago we didn’t even know each other. To take what was once an idea and move hastily forward into action – we’ve had to learn together, to rely on, to trust and to believe in the other. Everything we are about to discover about each other good or bad, by the time we make it to the other side… will be our greatest reward. I can’t promise it’s going to be pretty. But it will be one hell of a story.

We have pushed and shoved the itineraries and safeties of our daily lives…to be completely self-reliant together…to be in the middle of a roaring sea together…to be ugly and exhausted together…to be our worst selves… to be our best selves…to experience emergencies together… to see that many stars together… call me a romantic, call me mental – that’s fine. I have never been more exhilarated about anything in my entire life.

Four days couldn’t come sooner. Our tandem existence has revolved around count-downs. This countdown feels like my hand is in the shredder. Hurry up Luke. I don’t have any fingernails left.

The Royal St. Lawrence Yacht Club has welcomed me this week. I have acquired a new family. The employees and the members have offered their assistance time and again if needed. I will be sad to say goodbye. Anyone transiting the St. Lawrence Seaway needs to stop here for some fish & chips, fancy showers, and a fantastic community of sailors. I would be happy here if this were the final destination.

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Where is everyone?

Mom-17

May 7 // 1 0 0 0  I s l a n d s //  “Anchored snugly in a beautiful quiet spot amidst multiple islands. I am loving Navionics, which makes cruising so much easier. Jessie and I have switched roles. She is the mom. She is in charge. I like it ” – Claire. My mother.

May 8 // Departing 1 0 0 0  I s l a n d s // The olive oil has congealed. Snowflakes rest on my Gill gear. The lines wrap stiffly around the winches. The northerly air sears the side of my face. I ice skate on the frosty deck to hoist the anchor. My nostrils are smokestacks.

I knew leaving this early in the spring was questionable. I knew it would be brutal. I knew it wouldn’t be a joy ride. I’ve always been a believer in having control over my attitude in awful conditions, and do trust greatly that bitching is a waste of energy. Don’t get me wrong – I do bitch. I bitch most often in the form of writing but very little in the physical presence of other humans

It’s snowing. Not just a little bit. It’s actually snowing. When it began to fall this morning it looked like specs of glitter. We motor through Islands, mansions, cottages, all appearing to be unoccupied. It’s beautiful.  For a moment I think to myself how amazing this is – cruising the St. Lawrence River in the snow. There is absolutely no one. Just us.

The wind picks up out the North. Glitter morphs into wet bullets. We have over 30 miles to go and my enthusiasm turns to panic. That moment I had with the remote islands, mansions, and glitter is history. I am wondering what the hell we are doing out here.

Where is everyone?

MAY 9 // En route to C h r y s l e r  P a r k // The river is flooded. Cabins look like they are floating. Trees, branches, and pieces of dock float down-bound alongside us. Marinas are closed. When we phone ahead  to find out if any docks can accommodate us – voices are weary. This is the highest anyone has ever seen the river.

 I am inside warming up while mom is at the helm. The current is moving us swiftly. An easy two knots accelerate our progress. Rain instead of snow today. When cold days stack on top of each other I find there is only way to distract myself from the situation. Taylor Swift. By default it is her album I turn up loudly.  I look up to see my mom swimming in her multiple layers of foul weather gear, but it’s more than just a swim. She is dancing. She is smiling. She is getting rained on. All by herself. She looks so happy. I can’t help but think to myself – w o w – there she is, a prime example of how to shift your mind in unpleasant situations. I must have learned this from her. I am instantly proud of her. Proud to be hers. I join her in the cockpit for a Taylor Swift dance and we float on down the river on auto-pilot in the rain. I am not cold anymore.

Where is everyone?

May 10 // En route to C o r n w a l l // We slept like babies who were given sips of whiskey. Borderline comatose. This morning we took turns taking hot showers in the marina. By the time I was done with mine, mom had banana walnut pancakes prepared. Role change again. She is the mom. I am the daughter.

The river is glassy today. Everything mirrors the surface. Double Desirée. Double clouds. Double birds. Double ships. Double me. Again, no one is around. Just us, the cormorants, and the swallows floating on a surface of mercury.

Mom is nervous about the locks because she has never been through one. As we drift up to the cement wall painted with colors scraped off  large ships, she wraps a line around the floating bollard. We begin to go down. Down. Down. Down we go. Looking up at the colossal cement chamber surrounding us, her eyes widen. Here we are at the bottom of a water elevator, sinking deeply into its’ engineering. The leaky gates open. We are released back onto the mercury river. Mom isn’t a “lock virgin” anymore. Her confidence is immediately restored.

MAY 11 // En Route to V a l l e y f i e l d  // I like rivers. I like locks. I like shoreline. I like the birds. I like the houses. I like the floating debris. I like talking to ships. I like waving to fisherman. I like watching the clouds pass from one tree line to the next. I like not knowing whats around the next corner. I like seeking the next buoy. I like that they lead you to oceans. But I am scared of the ocean. It’s not that far ahead of me. I wish this river would take me all the way to England.

May 12 // En Route to M o n t r e a l // Sitting at the helm eating cookies, unsure how else I should spend this time. Driving in circles, being ignored by the Valleyfield bridge operator.

Forty minutes later we are acknowledged by the bridge man, who grants us special permission to pass under the next two bridges, and through two locks. They do not technically open to pleasure craft until tomorrow. I was supposed to be given permission by the seaway ahead of time to pass through – but like the bridge man – they never responded to me. We are only the second sailboat to transit the seaway this season. Where is everyone?

The bridge opens. We stop traffic. We pass under and thank the bridge man for making an exception. We arrive at the next bridge and wait. I eat more cookies. Do a few push-ups. Forty minutes later a ship comes roaring by and the second bridge opens. The ship ignores my call. The bridge ignores my call. We follow in his wake. We arrive at the first lock. Tie up to a floating dock. I eat another cookie. Do a few dips. Mom calls the lock master. We wait. An hour and  half later, two ships have locked through and we get the green light. It’s out turn.

We lock down. Motor through a canal 1/2 a mile long, and pass another up-bound ship. The ship is from Holland. The men wave. We wave back. They wave again. And so do we. This goes on until we are out of sight. I imagine what it was like to cross the ocean on that ship. I imagine what it will be like to cross in Desirée.

We lock down again. The gate opens.

I CAN SEE MONTREAL! The city skyline… It’s right there in front of us.

I REPEAT : I CAN SEE MONTREAL ! I would like another cookie please.

WE MADE IT TO MONTREAL !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

There everyone is. 

Mom-2

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Spice Girls

Leg 2-39

In 18 days I have had 3 sets of crew and together we have traveled 902.69 nautical miles, averaging 64 miles a day at 6.1 knots.

14 of those days were traveling, 4 of them down days for weather and maintenance.

A fraction of Lake Michigan, and the whole of Huron, Erie, Welland Canal and Ontario are complete. I am pleased to say they are behind us now.

We have made it to the gateway of the St. Lawrence seaway ahead of schedule. I repeat – ahead of schedule. Unheard of.

 

We arrived in Kingston, Ontario at 7 am after 128 mile overnight from Whitby, Ontario. That day, I couldn’t even muster up the energy to stand up, to eat, to drink water, until 5pm. It had all caught up to me. The Lakes. The wind. The rain. The unbearable temperatures. The tight quarters. The change of diet. The lack of sleep. The sense of responsibility. The maintenance. The heightened awareness. The constant anxiety of making the right decision. The friends. And maybe some of the beers. All of it caught up with me. I was defeated.

This was however, exactly what I wanted. This was what I signed up for. I paid money for this. And when I was hit with total exhaustion I thought – Hell yes. Just let me sleep for a second. I’ll be ready again. I promise. Just let me rest.

This is only the beginning.

The perfect person showed up that evening. My mother.

Leg 2-16

My co-captain and celebrity guest Katie Smith, AKA Katie Girl, flew all the back from California to help me sail through Lake Erie and the Welland Canal. Two of my other closest friends signed up to be cold, wet and miserable with us. One whom I’ve known since kindergarten Olivia, AKA O- Dawg, found herself as a very creative chef, a galley genius to say the least. One of my other bestest from college Erica, AKA E-Money, researched and delivered the history of each landmark we passed and expressed genuine interest in life aboard.

Leg 2-14

We wove through hundreds of fisherman and a handful of ships southbound on the Detroit River. I do guarantee we were the only sailboat with a chock-full of women in the cockpit listening to the Spice Girls. I was bound for England after all, figured if I knew some classic English pop by the time I got there the locals would accept me. We spiced our way to the mouth of Lake Erie.

O-dawg and E$ both got sea-sick on day one. Bless their little hearts they toughed it out and learned how to avoid it there-after.

We sailed into Put-In Bay and docked in an empty marina where there was no one to greet us, or charge us any fees. What is known as one of the hottest party spots in Ohio,  was shut down aside from one bar. I considered it my bachelorette party.

A lovely gentlemen by the name of Jake Byers welcomed us into his local yacht club in Cleveland, with a slip and cold beers waiting. Thank you so much Jake, for your hospitality.

Our first overnight sail was 138 miles to the entrance of the Welland Canal. The girls did awesome while I hid my nerves, which I tend to do well. Katie and I helmed through the night. For hours we had a consistent 35 knots of apparent wind at our back, gusting to 40, in the pitch black. Wooo baby.  Focused. On a mission. I was so tense I could barely move my neck and shoulders the next morning.

Waited a day and half in Port Colborne to lock through the Welland Canal. At 17:30 we hear a knock on the hull – it was time to go. Canal traffic called for us and two other pleasure craft to lock through together. The canal is 28 miles long, with 8 locks that drop you 326 feet into Lake Ontario. It was almost a perfect night time operation. Until we waited for 2 hours for an unbound ship to pass, when of course, I couldn’t start the engine. There was a problem with the starter. Traffic control requested we get towed through the last lock and to a safe place to tie for the night. The sailboat in front of us kindly towed us through, and released us near a cement wall to tie up. It was not the most graceful pass off – but it worked. The following day we sorted out the problem. The starter was dangling from it’s bolts. One of which was stripped.

My Spice Girls hopped off in St. Catharines. But not Katie. Katie booked a later flight so she could stay on for 5 more days. When we sailed overnight and found ourselves keeled over laughing and exhausted at sunrise, I realized I needed her. Who else could make me laugh that hard when I am cold, tired, and nervous? God we laughed so hard. About absolutely nothing. My abs hurt.

Leg 2-18

In 18 days I’ve begun to learn most everything I was hoping.

I’ve learned and am still learning the boat. How 18,000 pounds moves through the water. How to get her perfectly balanced. How to maneuver in small spaces (still scared of reverse) I am learning to adjust my course depending on where she wants to go not where I want to go. I am learning her systems, from plumbing, to electrical, to mechanics. I have been forced to dabble in each subject.

I am falling deeply in love with Desirée. I feel proud of her.

I am feeling self sufficient. Feeling self reliant. Feeling resourceful. Feeling well prepared.

I toggle between thoughts ” I’ve come a long way. I think I actually know some shit.” and  “Who in the world do I think I am? This is not wise.”  It’s constant. I sit right in the middle. Which could be a good place to be sitting. On the edge of my seat at all times, even in my sleep.

I’ve needed to build confidence before Luke is on board. I’ve needed to know that this is something I can handle on my own if anything were to happen to him. I’ve needed to feel like a captain, not a passenger. I’ve needed the time to be scared and not able to ask for help. I’ve needed the time to make tough calls. I’ve needed to be so cold that 50 degrees felt like summer. It’s working. I have a long way to go. But it’s working.

My mother and I will cruise the next leg. 163 miles, 7 locks and a favoring current. Montreal here I come.

See you soon Luke : )

We are looking to have 6 sails shipped to a reliable address and contact in Montreal, if anyone has any suggestions or could help us with this please contact Luke or I ! Jesszevalkink@gmail.com // luke.yeates@hydesails.co.uk

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“It’s just a lake”

APRIL 22 // 2017

It’s been 6 days since I have showered. Not really bothered about it. In fact I smell Fantastic. Literally. I’ve been spraying myself with Fantastic.

What’s been worse is that it’s taken 6 days for the sun to shine. When the temperatures rise above 40F, sunshine feels like god. Today sunshine is god. It is Earth Day after all. I could go on and on about how cold it’s been this week…let me rephrase – how arctic it’s been this week. I don’t care for anyone to worry about or sympathize for the crew and me, so I will spare you the weather details because it’s boring and that’s what people talk about in elevators. I will say it once and be done with it… from frosty decks to snow flurries and 20 knot winds out of the north I am happy to be alive today. Happy to get a few freckles. Happy to gain a few wrinkles. Wrinkle me up, make me a raisin. And when I am older, leathered, and decorated with cavernous wrinkles – I will remember today.

Monday morning, April 17 we waved Northport goodbye. Jason Thibedeau my (right hand sailor), Cody Brown the (deck bitch), and Mallori Sheets our (galley dude) courageously on board as team-mates until we reach Detroit. Each of us hyper, myself in particular with red-bull wings. I don’t know if my crew understood what this week was going to be like. I don’t know if I understood either. Together we would figure it out.

“It’s just a lake” as my fiancée Luke likes to say, purposefully angering us Great Lakers. I stood there at the helm, Northport got smaller and smaller and I thought to myself “It’s just a lake. It’s just a lake. It’s just a lake.”

For seven days, three humans looked to me for answers, for direction, and to make good decisions. I’ve never been a captain before. Only a co-captiain. The hazards that go along with sailing through the Great Lakes in the middle of April begin with 37 degree water temps, freezing nights, arctic and unpredictable winds, harbors that have yet to be dredged, buoys and markers that have yet to be placed. My crew was trusting me. I was trusting Desirée.

I have felt heavily weighted with responsibility this week. To keep the boat safe. To keep the crew safe. To make smart decisions. To understand my experience level and stay within those regions. I’ve exited those regions a few times this week merely because there is nothing sensible about sailing the Great Lakes this time of year. I’ve kept my chin up, been a bit ambitious, a bit exhausted and am grateful for the three people keeping my morale high and to have push-up, dip, and plank competitions with me just to stay warm. Did you know that the world record for holding plank is 8 hours and 1 minute? Seriously. Two minute plank in a rocking cockpit and I thought I was going to die.

I didn’t cry when we waved goodbye. Which I kind of expected to. I can be such a child in that way. Not ashamed. Okay, Mallori may have caught me glassy eyed. But I will admit to crying the day before, Sunday afternoon the 16th. It was unexpected. The Wizard was helping me rig up the mizzen. He knew it was our last day together for some time. He was calm. Giving me diligent direction and walking me through yet another hourly lesson. All of the work, all the time, the money, the persistence… it extracted a puddle of water from somewhere unknown in my body and shoved it out of my eyes. I just couldn’t believe what he had done to make this happen for Luke and me. I couldn’t believe he was letting me take his boat. His Desirée. I lost it. I thanked him. I told him I loved him. I wiped my eyes dry. And that was it. We carried on rigging the mizzen boom.

Day one :  Covered 65 miles with light headwind and anchored off of St. Helena island just west of the Mackinac Bridge.

Day two :  Woke up to hoist the anchor in 25 degree temps and frosty decks. Took Jason and myself to get the anchor on deck while we ice skated on deck. Tacked into 20 knot head winds and 5 foot waves while passing under the Mac bridge. Called it quits after 25 miles of hell because the weather continued to build. Docked in Cheboygan.

Day three : Ran downwind 96 miles to Alpena. Trying to cover 96 miles in daylight was a questionable maneuver. Huge rollers and 20 knot wind at our back was humbling. A few accidental jibes, and a handful of engine issues as it continued to shut off. To say I was nervous every minute of that day is an understatement. We prepared to dock under sail just after sunset, but decided to bleed the fuel lines one last time, got her fired up and she stayed on.

Day four : Waited out nasty weather in Alpena Marina. Heavy sleet and 30 knot winds all day.  Bled a bunch more air from the fuel lines. Went on a mad mission to top off water and diesel tanks. Found a bar to self medicate. Befriended Aplena Locals.

Day five : Made a run to Port Austin, 65 miles and across Saginaw bay. Bitter cold. Never warmed up despite desperate attempt to exercise in cockpit. Beam reaching all day, Desireé was happily balanced. The auto-pilot, whom I have yet to name drove us the entire way.

Day six : Today. 85 mile run to the mouth of St. Clair River. The sun shines. Wind is at our back. Wing on wing (two dogs f&$i*g as Katie and I used to call it)  Everyone has energy. Mallori prepared us a full pancake, egg, and bacon breakfast. Cody is dancing on the bow with a cocktail. Jason is basking in the sun. I can’t sit still. I am feeling wildly motivated. Motivated enough to write a few things down for the first time this week. I’m warm. I mounted our super sexy B&G chart plotter and geeked out over first use of the AIS when we saw ships.

It already requires focus to piece the days together. It took one week to remember what it means to simply exist on a boat. Only a handful of things matter. Food, water, shelter and Luke’s favorite quote, “Take care of the boat and the boat will take care of you”. He is right. His little obnoxious comments sit on my shoulder as if he himself is sitting there. Which must be the case cause my shoulders are sore and I don’t know why. I am sad he is not able to be here for this epic delivery to the sea and I know he is too. All of this is for him. Because of him. For us.

The crew and I have found our rhythm. Jason sweats positivity. He breathes gratitude. He understands sailing. Together we discuss scenarios and situations. He helms with confidence. Cody became a sailor for the first time this week. He holds a course like a boss. When he is not busy being the easiest going guy I have ever known, he shocks us all with a wild dance move. Mallori and I became sisters this week. She took over the galley. Prepped meals, and cooked in shitty conditions. She is the cutest button who flew all the way back from California to be freezing cold with me.

I am really proud of everyone. I don’t want them to leave.

Satisfied from the inside out.

My next crew arrives Monday in Detroit… AKA the Spice Girl crew (starring Katie Smith)

Next leg – Lake Erie & Welland Canal.

It’s just a lake. It’s just a lake. It’s just a lake.

On the edge of my seat and paying attention at all times.

One eye is always open.

I can’t believe I am where I am. Doing what I am doing. Going where I am going.

P.S. Just because the following photos depict rainbows and butterflies doesn’t mean that it is always butterflies and rainbows. But every once and a while – it is.