September 15, 1999
It Wasn't All Smooth Sailing
By Kate Ford
Gulf of Maine
HAD NEVER SEEN an ocean so flat. Not a wave, not a ripple, not even the hint of a swell from far away. The knot-meter arm lay flat against zero. We were moving, but only just.
Hamish Laird and I had spent the winter working on the expedition yacht Pelagic, plying the Southern Ocean between Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica, and South Georgia; this was to be a busman's holiday to Nova Scotia in my 28-foot sailboat. We felt a long way from Antarctic gales, as we crept along with a barely visible wake, a blue plastic tarp rigged over the cockpit to keep out the sun and the Sunday paper spread out across the seats.
Captain Laird took his demotion to first mate with good cheer and even accepted my decree that we were going to drift to Nova Scotia. My 30-year-old Volvo diesel belches smoke and sets the whole boat vibrating; we couldn't bear to motor the two hundred miles to Cape Sable. So for four days, we stood watches alone -- three hours on, three off each night; four on, four off during the day.
Shearwaters made water-ski landings on their splayed feet, gannets folded their wings and plunged out of the sky, Wilson's storm petrels flickered over the surface -- perhaps the same ones we'd seen veering through the Southern Ocean waves, for they too migrate north for the summer. We saw several sunfish: huge prehistoric beasts, with a long limp fin poking through the surface. We tried to follow one of them, but we were too slow to keep up with its lazy drift. Their scientific name, Mola mola, means "millstone," and that's what they look like: a bulging vertical millstone, with undersized fins tacked on, and a tiny mouth for slurping drifting sea creatures.
We continued drifting across the Gulf of Maine, pushing through the thickest covering of plankton I had ever seen. Millions, perhaps billions, of tiny shapes floated in the water next to the boat. We could scoop them up in a bucket and stare, sorry we didn't have a magnifying lens on board. For the most part, their bodies were clear, with bright centers -- sometimes a series of red dots, sometimes a blue rectangle, trimmed with pinhead dots of purple around the outer edge, sometimes orange blobs.
For dinner that night, I made spaghetti, dipping the bucket backwards into the sea, so as not to flavor the pasta with blue dots. (We conserve drinking water by making pasta in half-fresh, half-salt water.) Life raft survival experts recommend bringing along a silk net to harvest plankton, but we had plenty of noodles, four times too much rice, and putanesca wasn't on the menu.
After dark, I broke the cardinal rule of two-person crews and rushed below to wake up first mate Laird, though it wasn't an emergency. "Get up! It's the Northern Lights!"
We sat on deck and gazed at the display for the rest of my watch. At first, I had thought it was a low lying fog bank, but then green shooters spread out from the dark line, reaching towards the sky. Occasionally, we'd see the lights of a fishing boat, and once heard the rumble of the Portland-to-Yarmouth car ferry through the fog.
We could tell we were on the direct line for Europe: Every night at five past six, we'd hear the double boom of the Concorde zooming overhead. A steady array of contrails lined the sky as the European traffic made its way to and from New York and Boston.
As we neared Cape Sable, which is known as the local equivalent of Cape Horn, lying exactly 70 miles east of the real thing (and 5,961 miles north) we began to pay attention again. I spent a watch going through the Tidal Atlas of the Bay of Fundy and poring over Reed's Nautical Almanac, trying to pick the best time to be off the coast. We wanted to strike a balance between too close to Cape Sable (within five miles) where the tide rips are fierce and the fog extra thick, and too far (ten miles) where all the North American - European shipping vessels make their turning mark as they steam east and west across the Atlantic. After I'd calculated that we wanted to be five miles south of "The Overfalls" rip just after midnight, I stretched out on the bunk, but woke to rustling as first mate Laird penned through the entire calculation again: just after midnight.
But the lilting computerized voice on the Nova Scotia marine weather forecast brought our math to a halt: strong easterlies. We looked at the chart: "The Overfalls," "The Elbow," "Pollock Rip," "Short Rip," and most frightening of all: "The Rip." The Bay of Fundy tide would be sluicing out west to east, and strong easterlies would be whipping the seas up into a froth from the opposite direction in a classic wind-against-tide situation. Not the sort of place to be in a 28-foot boat. Time to park for the night.
We swung the bow around into the increasing wind and tacked without releasing the sheet, then lashed the tiller hard over in the other direction. This is known as heaving-to: The wind in the front sail is trying to push the boat in one direction and the tiller is trying to push it in the other. Forward speed nearly ceases, and the boat waddles her way along in the seas. First mate Laird reseized the title of Captain for the night, while I threw up. The boat was safe, despite the rain drumming on the cabin top and the dish towels, jackets, and gimballed lamps swinging back and forth with each deep roll.
The memory of seasickness is blissfully short, else I would never go to sea again. I stumped up for my watch at midnight to look out for ships masked by the rain. Though I have no wind speed indicator on the boat, where the waves weren't breaking white I could see black water pitted by the wind -- the first stage of spindrift, where the whole top layer becomes airborne. Roughly 30 knots, not quite a gale. (In the newspaper a few days later, we would read stories of 60 knots, but reported wind speed is often relative -- there were several Maydays that night and a dismasting on a yacht that tried to buck through the rips at the height of the blow.) By dawn, we were able to free the tiller and the headsail, haul up the mainsail once more and continue on our way, now shooting for the afternoon tide off Cape Sable.
Just a few hours later, the diesel was throbbing away. There wasn't enough wind, and we wanted to be away from Cape Sable and its rips before the tide turned. Behind us, a huge three master, every sail set, ghosted along, acres of sail picking up everything from the feeble breeze.
Co-captain Laird looked up from his Patrick O'Brian novel and said, "Give 'em a broadside and board 'em through the smoke!" But they had the weather gauge, so we motored on for the bank of fog piled up against the shore.
By five, we were sailing again past the low-lying reefs called "The Salvages." I received permission from Canada customs -- via cell phone -- to stop for the night at Cape Negro Island, though it wasn't one of their approved marinas. No marina at all, but a windblown island with sheep, a lighthouse, and dozens of smashed and twisted lobster pots that had washed up in the winter gales.
As we turned for the harbor, tacking up in the twilight, a minke whale investigated the boat. Coming close enough to touch, but never actually scraping the hull, the whale was more curious than any other minke I've seen. It followed us well into the approach, white patches on its pectoral fins showing green beneath the water, and the long grin of baleen visible when he rose to fix his low-slung eye on us. We wanted to linger, but it would soon be dark.
We glided into the cove. I luffed the main, Co-captain Laird dropped the anchor, and we drifted back silently on the chain. A Canadian courtesy flag flew at the mast; we'd arrived.