March 2, 2014

A night of quiet contentment

The Disease Called Cruising
18. So Nice When You Stop
IN ONE RESPECT at least, ocean voyaging is like hitting your head against the wall. It’s so nice when you stop.

Life offers the long-distance sailor few greater pleasures than the contentment of lying peacefully at anchor in a safe harbor after an ocean crossing.

For the first time in more than two months, a great silence has fallen over our 31-foot sloop, Freelance. Not since we left Cape Town 5,500 miles ago have we enjoyed a sheltered anchorage like this.

At St. Helena Island we bucked, rolled and tugged at our chain as the tradewind swells came romping around into the lee of the little island. At tiny Fernando de Noronha, 200 miles off the coast of Brazil, we lifted, fell, and tilted in rollers that crashed mightily on to the beach 100 yards ahead.

But now, after a boisterous 16-day passage from Fernando, we are lying folded in the arms of a large natural bight called Port Elizabeth harbor on Bequia island, near the southern end of the chain of islands forming the West Indies. Little cat’s-paws come skittering toward us across the flat water, darker patches on a midnight-blue sea sprinkled with quicksilver reflections of lights ashore. These little breezes spring against the bow in a popple of wavelets.

As I keep anchor watch, my wife, June, is stretched out serenely on a saloon berth, glad to be free of the stiff canvas leeboard she needs at sea.

My 17-year-old son, Kevin, is deeply asleep on the V-berth in the forecabin, limbs spread-eagled at odd angles as usual, his hair blowing gently in the warm draft from the open forehatch above him.

There is no clinking in the lockers any more. There are no alarming thumps against the hull. There is no rolling, no surging, no champagne-bubble hiss of waves passing the cockpit. Freelance has tucked her head under her wing, too. All is stillness and peace.

Ashore, where the palm trees are trying to touch their toes in the brisk tradewind, people and machines are making noises. After so long at sea, they sound strange to my ears, quiet but very clear, as if I were hearing them in a seashell.

I go below to shake Kevin. It’s time for his watch.

Back in the cockpit, I find June has come up for a breath of fresh air. We hold hands, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the dark night.

Kevin pokes his head up through the hatchway and rubs his eyes. He sits down in silence.

Ours is a deep and peaceful family love. This boat, this voyage, has bonded us tightly together. But in a few months, when we reach America, Kevin will go to college.

He will leave us and start his own voyage through life. He has proved himself a man on this trip. But he seems so young to abandon.

No matter. Time yet for a few more safe harbors. The West Indies lie strewn before us like pearls in wine. Time for a few more nights of quiet contentment like this before the sadness of parting.

Today’s Thought
There be triple ways to take, of the eagle or the snake,
Or the way of a man with a maid;
But the sweetest way to me is a ship’s upon the sea,
In the heel of the North-East Trade.
— Rudyard Kipling, The Long Trail

Quote from a church newsletter:
“A pleasant time ended with the singing of hymns.”
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