Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Strange passage 'round Cuba

                   "Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down." -- Ray Bradbury

         Espiritu pulled anchor first light Friday and headed to sea for the 3 day passage from Isla Mujeres in the Mexican Yucatan peninsula, northeast skirting Cuba and heading to Key West, Florida. The 4 boat Armada included Estelle, Tension Reliever and B & B. 

   The morning dawned clear with a warm 15-20 knot wind,  a beam reach and big swells. We were happy to be at sea again. The open ocean feels like a place that anything can happen.

  Only 10 miles out, B & B had to turn back, as the skipper was suffering severe seasickness. So now we were three.

  Friday night, the wind clocked to the nose and strengthened. Sailing to weather in 20-25 knots makes every basic activity on board nearly impossible to perform. Imagine a typical morning in your home: you're making coffee, brushing your hair, cooking breakfast. Now imagine performing these tasks with your home heeled over at a 30-35 degree angle -- and violently bouncing up and down, left and right -- with the occasional "drop and smash" as you fly over a wave and crash down on the other side.

  As you can imagine, in these conditions, it's all about sailing the boat and holding on for dear life. Hair brushing would have to wait.

  Saturday morning, the winds picked up to 30+ knots.

                                     We reefed. And we reefed again! We were double reefers.

  We took a big wave over the port quarter, which left me actually standing in water above my ankles for a couple of anxious minutes while the scuppers did their job and drained the cockpit.

  Meanwhile, while the bilge pump was working like a champ in spite of the conditions, I was distressed to see water coming up through the floorboards for the first time ever. Yikes.

 About 10 minutes later, we heard a pop and Espiritu rounded up wildly. Chris grabbed the helm and took control. And then he rendered those words you don't ever want to hear during a big passage:

  "We lost the auto pilot."

  I grabbed the helm and he dove into the garage to investigate. It seems we lost the main bolt on the auto-pilot arm. Or something (I'm not the mechanic on Espiritu. I'm the cook, nurse, translator, etc. Talk to the skipper about it).

  OK. Here we go. This means we would be hand steering for the rest of the trip. We would take turns, one hour at the helm while the other person rested in the cockpit nearby ready to jump up and let out the sails or deal with whatever might happen. No problem. We can do this.

  Here's the weird thing: at about this moment, I actually thought: I'm really going to miss this.

  As much as we love being at anchor and exploring new places and meeting new friends, I'm realizing that it's the ocean passages that are the real adventure. It's about digging deep, stepping up to the plate, using your experience, knowledge and skills that you've spent years honing to just get you safely to your destination.

 I have the words: "Relax. Confidence. Concentrate." taped at eye level at the nav station. We can do this.

 Suddenly, a yellow warbler arrived out of nowhere and began circling Espiritu.

                                                Yellow warblers are common in Cuba
           The nearest land was Cuba, about 50 miles south.  The little lady landed on the lifeline and hitched a ride for awhile.   Since we entered the waters between Cuba and Florida, I had been keeping my eyes peeled on the horizon for any little Cuban boys that might be floating in inner tubes, Elian-Gonzales style. I never saw one -- but I did take on this little avian Cuban for a spell! It was beginning to look like she wanted a ride to the USA along with the other Cubans -- but after a few moments rest from the blustery wind she apparently changed her mind and headed south again, back to her Cuban homeland.

   Fortunately, saturday night the winds died down, and we fired up the motor.  The temperature dropped 20 degrees and a thick layer of dew suddenly coated everything. We had to forage to the back of our clothing lockers to find our fleece pants, jackets and hats, which we haven't worn since Baja California almost 2 years ago.

  "Fog in Florida? Is it supposed to be so cold here?" we uttered to one another as we snuggled into our fleece.

  As the day eased into night, the moonless sky began to meld with the sea, and a strange fog settled over the glassy ocean. We were unable to see the horizon. With no visual cues to sail by, it felt like we were sailing through outer space or the deep ocean. We were completely disoriented.

 Fortunately, our buddy boat Estelle had a working auto-pilot and was able to stay on the correct course, so we followed her visually through the blackness from about a half mile behind.

 I took my turn at the helm. Up ahead, the two lights of Estelle gave the appearance not of a sailboat, but of two gentle stars twinkling happily and leading us through the darkness.  My eyes began to play tricks on me. The strange environment of the fog, absence of horizon, sky or sea and the two stars leading us through space led to more strange visual hallucinations.

  This is close to what I saw that night, except there were no stars in the background. Only blackness.

 At times, the two twinkling stars had the appearance of a distant small spaceship, benevolently leading us. Weirdly, I began to have the sensation that we were being led through various environments: a canal in Venice; a wheat field in Nebraska; a ghost town main street.

 Never, ever, in my life have I had any such experiences. I'm a rational, down to earth person. "Fantasy" is not my genre. So this was all new to me. I wasn't afraid. I simply trusted Estelle and I didn't fight what I was seeing  (NOTE: exhaustion may have played a part). It's a good thing we weren't in the Bermuda Triangle (which I do NOT believe in) or I might have been a bit freaked out. Now that I think of it, though, the compass WAS swinging wildly...mostly because we were literally driving in circles due to confusion.

  Needless to say, I said nothing of my "experience" (if that's what you call it?) with Chris or with our buddy boats.  And anyway, how would I explain it?

 Sunday dawned warm and sunny, as if the nights cold had never happened. We were back in the tropics. And just like that, we suddenly entered the crowded, crazy, drunken Key West Harbor, jammed with weekend boaters.

 We dropped anchor. We were home. The USA. Exhausted, we slept for 14 hours.

 The next morning, Chris casually said: "The weirdest thing happened to me saturday night, as we were motoring and following Estelle. I started having hallucinations. It felt like they were leading us through a strange maze." He went on to share his experience, which was nearly identical to mine.

 Stunned, I then shared my own very similar experience over the same waters saturday night.

 So, what does it all mean? This life is filled with mysteries that we can never explain. Maybe we were exhausted. Maybe it was the particular appearance of the fog, sky and sea that night that made visual hallucinations more prone to appear. Maybe it was an angel down from heaven guiding us home. Maybe we ate bad pineapple earlier that day and were on a crazy LSD-like trip. Maybe we really did drive through some strange portal (which, to complete the metaphor, happened at the exact time when we were re-entering USA waters after a year and a half at sea).

Later I did some research and found that studies have shown that the simple act of staring at a dot on a wall (or a candle) for several minutes actually induces hallucinations. And that's exactly what we were doing: staring at the dot before us, for hours.

Mystery solved.

  So, here we are in Key West. Should be here for a couple of weeks before we head east along the Keys.

  Espiritu, over and out.


  1. An otherworldly experience, to be sure. Unfortunately, it seems like you've entered an extremely irrational place on earth - the USofA. Recent events sure make "unsafe" Mexico, and "war torn" Central America look like safe havens, don't they? Keep your head down up there!


  2. Hey Liz, How close were you to the Burmuda Triangle. Wow. That was cool, But I am glad you are back in US waters. What next? You coming home?

  3. A harrowing tale. Glad to hear you arrived safely. We just missed you in KW - now relaxing at Daytona Beach.

  4. Hope "over and out" does not mean you will not be posting anymore. You need to give a little warning so we can get used to the idea of no more Liz and Chris. Paul & Judy on Grace (currently moored in Marina Chiapas)