Fifty Two hours on the edge of Nausea

And quite a few right over the side of it.

Early in the trip, with Mallorca just receding into the distance; the captain doesn't seem to think much of the skies

I know, you were almost jealous; you were picturing me bobbing about on a placid Mediterranean Sea, eating toasts spread with paté de fois gras and sipping prosecco under an azure sky, a flip-flop dangling from one suntanned toe. That’s certainly how I was picturing myself, but it didn’t work out quite that way.

Last Friday at about two in the afternoon we finally set sail from Palma de Mallorca, armed with an expensive and personalized weather report from Commanders in Boston. The nasty influences of the two storms which we had been waiting out had apparently moderated, and although the wind direction was no more favorable, its velocity had diminished. The seas north along our route were thought to be less of a churning toilet bowl. Above us, clouds still clogged the sky, but here and there showed patches of blue. Outside the harbor the water was smooth and the breeze light. Putting up the mainsail, we enjoyed a blissful two or three hours sailing west along the south coast of the island. They were to be the only relaxed moments we would spend aboard.

Rounding the tip of the island we felt for the first time the full force of the wind and waves into the teeth of which we were to turn, should we hope to sail to France and not to Africa.

“Better get your foul weather stuff on,” said Jan Glinski, our wild-haired polish captain. Glinski has triangular straw-colored protrusions of sun and salt-bleached afro jutting out from the sides of his head, and looks something like a cross between Klaus Kinski and Klaus Nomi. Nonetheless, he inspired me with total confidence, as he had that quality essential in great leaders: his emotional temperature seemed always appropriate to the crisis at hand. In the many long hours of terror and discomfort to come it was always some relief to look at Glinski and realize that for him, nothing we were experiencing was remotely threatening or out of the ordinary.

I put on the largest pair of black goretex bib overalls to found on the boat, but found them rather snug. As we turned upwind and the first massive wave cascaded over the dodger to catch me full in the face, however, I realized they would keep me more or less dry.

Within minutes I felt queasy. I sat gripping a winch and staring fixedly out at the horizon, wet and apathetic and dejected, trying desperately to control the roiling demons of motion sickness that churned within me. Asked to go downstairs for one brief moment to retrieve something, I returned green, and promptly launched the morning's breakfast over the side in a pathetic but violent column of yellow bile. They say that one feels much better after actually puking. This is manifestly untrue. I felt as horrid as I had felt before, but with the additional miserable sensation of having had someone thrust a wire-brush vigorously down my esophagus.

Aah, sun-dappled medieval streets of Mallorca, why did we ever leave you?

The seas were huge, the winds ten knots stronger than we had hoped. The boat heeled over at an alarming angle, its toe-rail in the water for much of the time. Blasts of chilly spray doused us with absurd frequency. To remain seated rather than tumbling head over heels into the ocean (for I had by now given up all pretense of the Mediterranean being anything so gentle as a "sea") required almost standing, wedged against the opposite cockpit bench. It was exhausting, and as we were soon to start a rotation of three-hour shifts, Jan urged Kuba and myself to go below and to rest at every opportunity. I told him if I were to go below I should surely upchuck once more. "Just close your eyes and get directly into the berth; don't bother to take off any clothes," said Glinski. It was excellent advice. I crawled in in full foul weather gear and curled up into a moist and wretched foetal ball, where I lay, unsleeping, for six hours, my eyes shut tight, while the boat slammed its way through some five to ten waves a minute, bucking and rolling. It was like being a ping-pong ball trapped in a washing machine. I did not, however, barf again. Not until later.

Kuba, looking slightly green around the gills himself.

Update: If you can read polish, check out Kuba's account of the trip.

My shift behind the wheel, watching out on deck from midnight to three, was actually rather a relief. Dazed by exhaustion, dehydration, and the late hour, I relaxed into a hypnotic consideration of our heading, which I meticulously adjusted on the auto-pilot. I even managed to urinate off the stern. Actually going below and using the head was out of the question, as it was permanently slanted at a thirty-degree angle and was in any case buried so far in the interior of the vessel that to visit it was to invite permanent and fatal retching; I determined conclusively that such on-board toilets are not for use underway, but rather for convenience in port or at a mooring. Therefore, on passages, one pisses over the side, or rather off of the stern, something which terrified me, as the open cockpit of the racing boat had only three wobbly steel cables behind the wheel to prevent the driver from stepping backwards off the yacht and into watery oblivion. Jan and Kuba would fearlessly turn their backs to the wheel and duck between the top two wires. Wedged there, they did their business with apparent effortlessness. I, shy, with a combination of performance anxiety and terror, found it almost impossible to free myself of my accumulated fluids through the proper channel. That my coveralls were at least one size too small made it all the more difficult, as the zipper of the dry-suit ended just below my belly-button, far out of reach of my traumatized, shriveled and frigid member.

Extracting enough of myself to get anything done required removing first my parka and then the shoulder straps of the overalls, a monumental effort of such concentration and exertion as to guarantee a repeat bout of murderous retching over the side. Then, if ever once freed, my dimunitive and horrified pecker was seized with paralysis. Gripping the cold cables for safety with both hands, as the wind whipped and the surf crashed, I was never able to coax forth anything more than the most meager of dribbles. After some minutes standing there half naked I would conclude to my horror that there was no other option than to bundle everything away again, with the result that I spent most of the trip not only nauseated, but in a chronic agony of bladder-fit-to-burst discomfort. Finally I developed the technique of kneeling on the deck and clinging to the lifelines while spritzing pitifully onto the stern, prompting Jan to comment that "with an act like that" I should "join the Cirque de Soleil."

My shift over, I went below for a few more hours of sleepless slamming about in the bunk. Reemerging at midday, I was greeted with the grim news that the GPS navigation system had failed. In the night the running lights atop the mast had also gone dead, and a fiberglass batten was working its way steadily out of the sail. Some twelve hours later it finally clattered onto the deck, narrowly missing Kuba. That afternoon one of the shrouds on the port side came loose. As we were on a starboard tack (the wind blowing from the starboard side of the boat) this was not for the moment a crisis. "Except that we can't tack," said Jan. The shrouds are steel supports for the mast, in this case a $200,000 column of carbon fiber composite. We were headed directly for the coast of Spain and could not turn onto the port tack without the risk of snapping off the mast. In which case we would be swimming to Barcelona. As the afternoon faded into evening, faced with a choice between crashing into the shore and breaking off the mast, I puked a few more times, while Jan and Kuba considered our options. "Can anything else go wrong with this trip?" Jan asked.

Approaching Spain the wind dropped from 25 knots or more to an almost manageable 18, and Jan seized the opportunity. While I steered, doing my best to keep the boat pointed into the wind, Jan and Kuba reefed the mainsail, and we tacked, heading northeast almost directly towards Marseille. But Jan didn't like the look of the mast, even with the smaller area of the reefed mainsail diminishing the load. Up into the wind again, and down with the sail. As the wind rose, even the jib tugging on the mast on the port tack gave cause for concern. We took this down too. Now, to add to the misery of my bursting bladder, churning stomach, and general wet, salty chafing was added the ignominy of motoring! We were no longer even sailing, just plowing up into the headwind on diesel power. The wonder of a sailboat, of course, is that its majestic sails, filled proud and round by the wind, hold it in tension with the water, letting it carve through the sea. If I had found the ride rocky before, I now discovered that our earlier travels had been comparatively smooth. Without sails we were nothing better than an overpriced lobster-boat with a mast, rocking this way and that with each and every wave. Now even Jan felt queasy. "The puking captain," he said, heading for the rail. But he managed to resist. Looking rather green and sitting back down, he said, "I hate powerboats."

I had been counting the minutes, so it was rather a disappointment to find, when we consulted my hand-held GPS for a coordinate position, that we were some eleven hours behind schedule. All through the rest of the long night we motored, dead into the wind, which wavered between 25 and a ghastly 35 knots. I took the nine pm to twelve and six am to nine shifts. I may possibly even have slept for a few minutes in between, as totally exhausted as I was. By now I had eaten nothing for almost 48 hours, and despite drinking as little as possible I had the constant sense that if I did not soon pee, I would pop. Every splashing wave and crash landing of the hull against the water was a torment. Would this ever end, I wondered. At last, late on our third afternoon, the industrial refinery smokestacks of Port Napoleon appeared on the horizon. We plowed on. Our goal had been to reach this, the yacht's home port, at 5am, in order to negotiate its tricky entrance in the morning light. Instead we arrived just before sunset thirteen hours later, squeezing through the narrow channel in the last of the day.

It feels so good when you stop. Once we had tied up, we rushed to the bar. Nothing has ever tasted quite so divine as the first beer at the marina restaurant. Over a bowl of peanuts and some chopped salted pork fatback, we commiserated. "It probably wasn't the most fun trip we've ever had," concluded Jan.

What ecstasy! Pulling into Port Napoleon with the setting sun. Note the jib, crumpled and sad, laying out on the deck


Anonymous said...

shucks, what fun! i knew you guys would have a good time.

Ted N. said...

Rich - Excellent writing. Very enjoyable. I totally warned you. I hope that you got some positive tastes of the sea as well. Perhaps we'll go sailing together someday. That would be nice.

ps - check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nljxi4E4-4Y


antimanti said...

tanx for whipping up such paroxysms of mirth at your failing urinary tract

the insouciant skipper and the neophyte