First Sight of Land

I had been at sea for over a month, thirty-seven days to be exact, which made this my longest voyage, exceeding the 36-Day Survival Voyage during the Around-the-Tropic-World Expedition in 1983. During my time at sea, many thoughts, feelings, experiences, dreams, passions, histories, potentialities, and so on moved through my subconscious and conscious minds, while the Heraclitus cut its way through the deep blue north Atlantic waters.

My inner sea had its ebbs and flows, it rolled with rising swells, and sank with deep troughs, crashed about under strong winds and cresting waves, and became flat and still in the doldrums of a windless mirror sea. My inner sea reflected the ever-changing seascape that surrounded the Heraclitus; clear blue sky, star-studded no moon nights, immersion in fog and mist, a full moon illuminating the mainsail swollen with today’s wind, squalls pounding ship and sailor with rain and wind.

The two seas of my inner and outer experience merged together, flowed into and out of each other, and formed a unique resultant experience, known to some for as long as man has inhabited Planet Water. The sea-persons life, a life that is unknown to those who cling to the shore.

Eleven bodies moved about the Heraclitus, through her inner hatches, across her deck, and up into her rigging. Six men and five women, each traveling in and sharing their man-time and women-space, responded to the Heraclitus’ ever-present need for constant attention. From mid-twenties to early sixties, spanning a range of generations, the older sharing stories of experience and adventure, the younger questioning, wondering, offering insights, whims, and all meeting most intensely in shared music, recorded and live. All seemed to share an interest, expressed or accepted, in some form of personal development, call it enlightenment, reflective experience, and such.

Eleven individuals who represented a multitude of sub-cultures, surface generalities represented by their passports and World Cup favorites, but such designations do little but scratch the surface during a long voyage, and fall away with each passing nautical mile. The pressure cooker of the Heraclitus ensured that even the most unwilling and reticent were forced to engage, reveal, and participate, even unwittingly. All who choose to face it, openly realized that none could get off the boat, and were all in it together. Some rose to the challenge of how to make
the most of such a rare opportunity, while others prayed for port arrival and the accompanying release of pressure. Somehow all eleven continued to laugh. In their own way, none lost their sense of humor. Each one knew that “this too shall pass” and that some day soon we would see land and shortly thereafter, set foot again on solid ground.

The day of seeing land came on July 25th. At about 04:15 (06:15 UTC) I was awoken and called to the deck. “Come now! The moon is setting, the sun is rising, and land is almost visible.” Feeling I did not have a moment to delay, I wrapped myself in my warm comforter and braved the cold morning air. Struggling to contain my rapidly departing dreams and quickly waking body and mind, I joined half the crew on deck. All were alive with smiles and light-hearted banter, silently speaking, ‘something really important is about to happen and I’m not going to miss it.’ Standing on top of Nemo’s for a better view, or back on the poop deck picking the clearest vantage point, eyes reached out into the disappearing darkness for what each was sure would be the first sight of land. “Do you see it?”
“No?” “Look there, see where my finger is pointing. That’s it.”

At that moment I was suddenly transported back to 1983 and the thirty-sixth day of the 36-Day Survival Voyage.
On that morning, the Savage Seven, as our crew came to be known, found ourselves in the Banks Islands, a group of islands in the Pacific located just north of the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu. However, when we awoke that day we were by no means sure of our location or what course of action we would take.

On this recent voyage, we had radar, a GPS, and a compass adorned our binnacle. In 1983 we had none of these. GPS had not been invented yet, our radar wasn’t working, and our binnacle compass had been thrown overboard when a line from the main sail caught on it. We did have a chart and a small hand held compass.

Vividly recalling that morning, I remember spreading the chart out on the deck and turning it to corresponded with the islands that surrounded us. That was about as close as we had known for certain our location in a month. It is difficult to express the comfort and confidence that afforded. Still, without engine, with only the emergency tiller for steering, as the hydraulic steering had failed a week before, and no room for error, a successful landfall was far from assured. We had recently rescued the Heraclitus from grounding in Western Samoa and knew we no longer had it in us to do it again.

Once we were certain of our position, we analyzed the options and identified the main bay on Vanu Lava as the most promising entrance. The southeast wind was just right for our approach. On the starboard tack, with one person on each block and tackle of the emergency tiller, one pulling to starboard, one to port, I piloted us forward, in what still stands as my most electrifying sailing experience. We managed to just skirt the beach, while maintaining enough speed to get through the channel. A couple of young boys running along the beach trying to keep up with us were the first to welcome us.

Once inside the bay, I continued forward toward the opposite shore. The crew anxiously awaited my order to drop anchor, while I patiently waited for the right moment, knowing that once secured we had no means of propulsion other than our sails. I needed to allow sufficient swing space if the wind direction changed, but didn’t want to be too far from shore either, as we only had a few cups of gasoline remaining for our outboard that would carry us the last several hundred yards to the beach.

By contrast, on our first sight of land in the Azores, no one ran along the shore to welcome us. We created our own welcoming party for ourselves. The first island we came to in the Azores group, Corvo, had steep cliffs with a relatively flat top, lush with grass from the volcanic soil. A few goats and cows were visible through the binoculars. It was covered in green life. We could smell the vegetative life. Almost taste it.

In celebration, we spent several hours of the afternoon drifting a few hundred feet off the island. We shared a collective meditative state, absorbing our first sight of land in 37 days. The change in scenery made a palpable change in the emotional scenery of the crew. Many expressed a bittersweet feeling as we discussed our impending
landfall at Horta on the island of Faial. The voyage was drawing to an end and that realization suddenly made our time at sea all the more valuable.


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