The quiet of being at sea, sailing under a night’s sky, contrasted with the sound of the wake rushing off the bow. It was my favorite time to be on watch: alone at night with nothing to slow the progress of the boat as it drove through the dark, smooth water. Although the thought of doing something impetuous and crazy had crossed my mind before, I had never had the guts to act on it. But now, after nineteen days of beating up the coast from Cabo San Lucas, pounded by relentless seas, whipped by wind and almost dying the day before off San Miguel Island—rolling the dice on my improbable gamble didn’t seem so risky. As I contemplated this wild idea, I thought of the event that had almost ended my life.
The day before, we’d sighted San Miguel Island that late afternoon, lying low and white against the blue sea. It was our first landfall in almost three weeks and seeing it seemed to loosen that knot of apprehension that sometimes forms after long periods in the open ocean. We were finally getting to the end of our voyage. My shipmates, Bruce and Pete, were happy to see land, even though it was just an island. It was a comforting sight and with the wind shifting a few degrees, we dropped off to a beam reach. We would take the island on our starboard side. Our 38-foot ketch, Orca, was sailing well under the mainsail’s first reef point with a small headsail. We were making excellent time. As we drew closer to the island, the elation of seeing it faded. Bruce and Pete went below, leaving me at the wheel. The sails were full, pushing the ketch at nine knots. The power of the wind and the sound of the wooden hull cutting the water was hypnotic. It was good to be sailing, good to be close to home.
Alone in the cockpit, I checked the sail trim and gave the headsail a couple turns on the wench. The clean lines of the jib and cut of the main created a winged symmetry against the clear sky. Off our starboard rail, the rugged deserted coast of San Miguel seemed ancient and mysterious. Seagulls and sea eagles flew overhead and I could see large sea lions basking in the sun on big rocks close to the beach.
Then, the tranquil scene broke. Swirls of whitewater appeared off the port bow about a quarter mile ahead. The area appeared to be alive with small, confused waves and as we got closer, they took on a bazaar appearance. It was something I’d never seen before. It wasn’t wind-blown white caps, but more like waves gradually building into something larger. Although we were about a half-mile off shore in what appeared to be clear, open ocean, I needed another opinion on the strange tangle of water that we were rapidly approaching.
I called to Bruce and Pete. “Hey, guys, want to come up and check this out? I don’t know what to make of it.”
Two heads rose out of the cabin hatch and looked at me. Pete wiped sleep from his eyes. “What’s going on?”
“Up ahead,” I said, pointing to the spot. “I can’t make out what it is.” I turned the wheel slightly and dropped off a couple degrees to starboard.
Suddenly, before Bruce and Pete could answer, we were in a maelstrom of confused waves and powerful currents breaking over submerged rocks. The waves came from the left and right, causing the boat to pitch and roll under their power. Whitewater broke all around us throwing thin walls of spray over the boat.
Then it happened.
Off our port beam, a mountainous wave welled up and blocked out the horizon.
“Oh my God,” I yelled, “We’ve had it!”
“Swing her hard to port!” Bruce shouted. I spun the wheel, causing the boat to swing around until it pointed into the huge wave. The sails went limp as they lost their wind. As Orca slipped up the face of the wave, the mountain of water crested, its fury throwing a thick, heavy wall of foam over the boat. The blow was so great that we were knocked down to starboard. Whitewater from the masts cascaded over the decks and into the open cabin. I clung to the wheel with all my strength trying not to get washed overboard.
In agonizing slow motion, the ketch righted herself, like a giant breaching whale rising from the sea, and water showered down from the masts onto the decks. As the wave passed, we recovered from the knockdown, then saw another huge wave bearing down on us, far bigger than the first. I sheeted in the loose mainsail and the boat gained a little headway as Bruce climbed to the rail and sucked in the jib with a few turns of the winch. The boat lurched ahead; gaining on the wave as in came down on us. We braced for the collision as the boat clawed up the wave’s steep face and punched through its thick, feathering crest.
There was a loud explosion as the boat tore through the wave. We held on tight as Mother Nature knocked us down again. But the speed we’d gained had put us past the critical point of the trough. We crashed through and slid down the other side with whitewater flowing off the decks in great white sheets.
We trimmed the sails a little more and gained a couple knots of speed. Orca was moving faster now—away from the maelstrom, the waves, the island, and the small swells that followed the huge waves. Soon, we were out into the safety of the open ocean, away and clean. The rig had held, the sails were intact and the danger was over.
Later, as we headed east toward the mainland, the sun slipped beneath the horizon, gradual darkness fell over the sea. The wind dropped off and the whitecaps lay down and disappeared. The setting sun’s red glow blended with the purple hue of the sky at dusk. A quiet calm enveloped the oncoming night as stars appeared, one by one, in the sky.
* * *
At two in the morning, Bruce touched my shoulder, bringing me out of a deep sleep. “It’s time,” he said. “Your watch.”
I climbed out of my warm bunk and dressed. Pete was asleep in the bunk across from me. I could hear him snoring softly. I climbed out of the hatch and was greeted by a magnificent night. A steady, warm wind pushed Orca over a smooth sea. The sky was hung with a blanket full of bright stars.
Bruce sat next to the wheel, steering with one hand. He was able to do this because Orca was almost perfectly balanced. “Nice night,” I said sitting down next to him.
“It’s been one of those,” he answered, looking at the stars. “Couldn’t get much better than this. We’ve been making good time.”
After San Miguel, there had been little discussion about the maelstrom and the huge waves. There wasn’t much to say. Everything that happened had spoken for itself. We’d done the right things and survived.
“I’ll take her now,” I said. “You can get some sleep.” He gave up the helm and I slipped in behind the wheel. “See you when the sun comes up.” He disappeared into the dark cabin. Now I was alone with the boat, the stars and the sea.
We were sailing on a perfect, broad reach. Orca flew through the water, throwing off a white, glowing wake. My hand rested easily on the wheel. I felt the power of the wind in the sails, the freedom of the moment and the sound of the water against wood. I was invincible, filled with an overpowering confidence. For over an hour, I sat at the helm, occasionally leaning over the rail to watch the wake boil away into darkness.
It was then I decided to do it.
With a piece of line, I tied off the wheel and trimmed the sails. Orca sailed herself now. I climbed out of the cockpit onto the cabin top just forward of the mainmast. The boat undulated under the swells, heeling slightly to starboard as she cut the water. Standing on the cabin top, I held the mast for balance, getting the feel of the boat. Then when everything felt right, I released my grip and edged forward, away from the security of the mast.
Orca had now become a huge surfboard with me balanced precariously on the cabin top. One slip, a sudden gust of wind or a bump in the ocean and I would have gone over the side. I was pushing it to the edge. I don’t know why I did it. Maybe it was surviving San Miguel the day before, the euphoria of knowing we were almost home or just a sudden, overwhelming lust for life. I danced with death.
Time had no meaning. My life had condensed into the infinite space of that moment. I felt a sensation; as if I was flying over the water, unattached to anything. Below, the boys slept in their warm bunks waiting for sunrise. I was risking it all with this irresistible rebirth of my soul, adrenaline rushing through me, night wind in the sails and the water’s song as it flew off the bows.
The stars watched over me and I could feel the deep pulsing ocean below.