Experience: Up the Mast

The author at the helm of the good ship Hazel James – Photo by Dan Coate

I gazed aft over Hazel James’ port quarter and patted her well-travelled 31ft hull. “It’s time to sail, girl. We’ve got a long way to go,” I said.

As the Virgin Islands sank below the horizon, my thoughts were filled with Caribbean memories, a curious and sundry collage of trade-wind sailing, cruising friends and shimmering turquoise water the color of Hazel’s hull. After a poignant moment or two, though, I turned my attention forward again, from the past to the future—not some dreamy and distant future, but the imminent challenge of the 1,200-nautical-mile single-handed passage that lay ahead.

By happenstance, the voyage I was on straddled not one but two epochs. I had embarked from South Florida in the “before time,” prior to the pandemic, with the goal of reaching the Virgin Islands via The Bahamas. Not surprisingly the upwind passage against the prevailing currents from The Bahamas to the Virgins had lived up to its expectations. However, as recompense for all my southward efforts, I now hoped to be rewarded with an “easy” downwind island-hop northward, from the Virgins to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the Turks and Caicos, and then on through the Bahamas to Florida, with a sprinkling of single overnight sails. From a theatergoer’s perspective, it was a simple and understandable morality play—good things happen to good people who invest the time and effort. Then, of course, there was the reason I had embarked on this voyage in the first place—to help process the grief from my sister and my wife’s recent but unrelated deaths—by far, the two most awful things that have ever happened to me. I deserved an easy passage home, or so I thought. Unfortunately, the Coronavirus had other plans for me, and with international borders sealed throughout the region, my passage home was now going to have to be nonstop.

In the cockpit I considered my situation and told myself, Oh, well, even if I can’t island-hop, at least I should have hundreds of miles of fair winds and following seas under Hazel’s cruising spinnaker. And with that, I clipped-in to my jackline and tether system and made my way to the foredeck to set the chute…

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