Written by Halle Shirk/ Published on September 30, 2014
What a crazy time. I have to admit, I’m writing this from the safe harbor of Borneo. I had hoped to be able to write to you all every day of passage, but as I’m sure you’ll read, nothing is as you expect on Passage.
This is the story of a girl who got in way over her head (in too many ways), sailed through a storm, became a shellback, saw the deepest darks, fell into a new world, and was humbled by the ocean.
But I suppose I should start at the beginning.
We left Singapore’s fuel dock at about 10:30am and Captain Chris deftly navigated the impossibly busy port where we were cleared by customs. In every direction I looked there were at least 20 barges and dozens of little scows drifting through the mist. The customs guys came by and we all stood at attention at the rail of Argo as they called out our names. Passports were passed ship to ship with a fishing net on a pole, and before long we were cleared to leave port.
We immediately fell into our watch teams and the rhythm of passage life had begun. And with the rhythm of passage came the rhythm of the boat… I’ll leave it to you to check out the video I’ll post of the waves crashing over our bow for a description of the milder rocking and rolling we encountered. At first it was all exhilarating. I was up on the bow staring out at the open ocean before me and a flying fish shot out of the water, skipped a few paces in front of Argo, and disappeared again under the blue. We were finally, finally off the dock! Before dinner, we had our first showers at sea. Everyone got into swimsuits and brought towels and shampoo on deck. Amidst the rocking and rollicking of the ship, we danced under a hose that pumped salt water over our heads, suds up, rinsed in the salty sea, and washed away the salt with a bit of fresh water from our precious store. Old sailors used to call fresh water sweet water. I finally understand why.
At dinner everyone gathered around the cockpit for squeeze (have I mentioned this yet? Squeeze is where you all hold hands, the skipper asks a question like “What is your favorite dinosaur, and what sound do you think it made?” Then the question gets passed around the circle by a squeeze of the hand). We held our cups and bowls carefully and got to know each other more. Everyone was excited to be going somewhere and even though a few people were apprehensive of sea-sickness, everyone was in good spirits. I had on my first scopolamine patch to try to ease myself into passage life as per the suggestion of our Captain. I was particularly excited because as a member of Watch Team 1, I would be standing the midnight to four o’clock watch. The first night watch at sea! I was looking forward to seeing the stars of the southern hemisphere (and was surprised when I noticed a few familiar faces – Orion, Cassiopeia, Cygnus) and sitting on bow watch.
I had no idea how exciting that first bow watch would be! I was perched on starboard side when I first saw it… a bioluminescent glow floating near the boat. And then another, and another! They looked like ghosts. Now, I had been warned about bioluminescence and was looking forward to seeing it; I was excited to have spotted some so soon until I realized that these glowing areas were coming at regular intervals of about ten feet. I scampered back to the cockpit (clipped in to Jack lines*, don’t worry! *cables that run the length of the boat, extra security for night watches) and shouted to Nick, my watch leader, “floats off starboard bow!” At first, we looked around and couldn’t see a thing. I told him that all I could make out was bioluminescence, but that I was sure it was man-made – nothing comes that regularly in the ocean.
Captain Chris popped up to have a look about, but after none of us could spot them again, I went back to bow watch wondering if my Mefloquin (malaria pills) were finally coming through on the hallucinations they warned about. But not fifteen minutes later, there it was again! And this time, my Port side bow watch saw it too. “Floats dead ahead!” we called, and Nick threw Argo into neutral. We got out spot lights and scanned the water. White water bottles shimmered in long lines twisting around Argo’s bow. We had stumbled upon a (most likely illegal) fishing net that was unlit and stretched on for hundreds of feet. With Argo in full reverse, we skirted the long line of white bottles and let out our breaths. Not only could we make some fishermen supremely angry by hitting their nets with our propeller, we were not eager to begin cutting the nets off on our first night of passage.
Unfortunately, during my four hour watch, we encountered at least six or seven more nets. Each time they were only a mere glimmer in the water, spotted once we were already on top of them. Thankfully Argo made her way gliding across them in neutral without any trouble. When I asked Chris why they didn’t just put lights on them he said, “Welcome to East Asia.” Which reminded me of another saying I was told when encountering some of my first major culture shock, “TIA: This is Africa.” Like TIA, I needed to remember that I was somewhere different where my sensibilities about fishing floats and lighting had no bearing.
When four o’clock rolled around, we passed the next watch off to Watch Team 2 and went to bed. Argo was carried safely through the night, managing to avoid any further encounters with fishing gear. The next day I was awakened at 8am by a friendly jostle, “we’re crossing the equator, come up on deck!” I hadn’t realized it would be so soon out of port that we would cross! I grabbed the poem that I posted for you all at the beginning of this blog and rolled it up. When I got up on deck, everyone was gathered around the cockpit nav station counting down the minutes as we edged closer to the great belt of the Earth. In an instant, beneath a shining sun and stunning seas, we were shellbacks (*sailor’s term for someone who has crossed the equator on a boat). I tossed the poem to the sea and then got in line to make my contribution to Neptune.
A note, a cheer, and a pair of clippers to my ear.
Yes Mom, sorry, I cut my hair. It’s quite short. I don’t suppose I meant for it to get as short as it did, but when the razor first struck there was no going back. Ah well, I like it, and I’ll like it even better when it grows out a bit more. Four girls and four guys cut our hair and threw it into the sea behind Argo. I have no idea where or when this tradition started, but I do know that whomever thought of it knew a thing or two about sea showers. I had thought that long hair would be nicer for ocean passages because I’d be able to put it back and keep it out of the way, whereas shorter hair only looked good if I could blow it dry (hint: no hair dryers on Argo). But I had forgotten to consider a degree of hair the razor reminded me of. No hair – no care! I’m not bald, haha, just very short of hair. I have to remember to put sunscreen on for a little while so I don’t burn too badly beneath the hot equator sun, but so far, so great.
The rest of our Shellback Day was spent taking classes, Marine Biology and Oceanography. I spent the time sitting on the floor as the waves had finally woken up the landlubber in me and despite my scopolamine patch I was a little green in the gills. Later that day I learned the hard way not to sleep on my back in the Foc’sle. But other than that mild case, and a diminished appetite for the Bolognese dinner, I felt fine. Watch was far less exciting on the second night of passage, which I was grateful for. Instead I learned to steer Argo and take the rounds of boat-check (my least favorite of the watch duties as I have to climb into the hot and stuffy engine room). The waves were crashing over Argo’s bow with serious ferocity, but she cut through them like she was born to do it.
However, with boats, something unexpected always happens. In the morning Captain Chris was called up on deck when it was discovered that not only had one of our two freshwater tanks been completely drained without the newly installed alarms going off, but the anchor locker (a compartment that shares a wall with the forward most wall of my bedroom, the foc’sle) had completely filled with the missing water. We had no choice but to drain it through the bilges. Argo went on water conservation mode while we turned our water-makers on. The water makers which use a process of reverse osmosis could provide us with plenty of water for our five day passage, but we hadn’t anticipated using them so soon. Further disturbing was that the anchor locker seemed to have a mixture of fresh water and salt water filling it to the brim. It would take us another day or two to realize that the locker was repeatedly filling with sea water due to a faulty design in the windlass drain passages (*windlass – a winch used specifically to raise and lower the 300lb anchor) a fault we hope to address while we are in Borneo. For the time being, it meant draining the locker chamber every 2 hours.
Now for those of you who are wondering what in the world I’m doing on a boat that breaks so much, let me tell you that this is nothing to be worried about. Argo is a steadfast boat that is built to last. She just underwent a $600,000.00 refit in her home Marina in Singapore and we were simply working out a few bugs that had yet to be addressed. Bryant, one of our staff, said that he wished that she had encountered more foul weather on her way to pick us up so that they could have had more of these minor repairs out of the way, but he and the other staff know this boat inside and out. They can repair her land or sea.
Day three of passage was beginning to blend into the other hours. All I knew was where I was supposed to be at the time. On watch. In class. In bed. Eating. On watch. Wash, rinse, repeat. I was still feeling queasy, and was beginning to wonder if I would have been better off staying on land where my stomach clearly belonged. But day four of Passage, my first day without Scopolamine (a 3 day patch) found me in high spirits. I felt great! The weather was blowing well over 20 knots (*knots – nautical measurement of speed), and we had three sails up to help the motor power upwind. I had learned to wedge myself into my bunk at night so I wouldn’t go rolling around the foc’sle, and I felt ready for anything the Ocean could throw at me.
I worked as a dryer for the dish crew, took notes during our professional sailing course for the 200 ton Captain’s license ::side note:: Due to the expense of taking the 5 day practical exam within the first year of taking the Theory Exam for this license (which I have the potential to take aboard Argo), and the further expenses that accumulate if I cannot schedule the exam within a year, I have decided to audit the class (it’s not one that gives me school credit anyway) and take as many notes as possible. That way, if I do decide to take the Exam later, the Theory test will only be review. :: ::
A class on navigation, showers, dinner, and watches rounded out day 4. I spent my evening with my new friend Camilla who is from Germany. Camilla was having a bad day. She felt sea sick, home sick, and was worried that Argo wouldn’t make a successful crossing – that we would die out on the ocean. I have to admit, there is always that chance, but there is such a chance in anything we do in life. I sat with Camilla and hugged her as she cried. We talked long into the night about her boyfriend Felix which helped her keep her mind off her stomach and her fears. Camilla wasn’t the only one to be worried about life at passage. My mind had doubts that were creeping in too. On day five they found me.
Day five of passage was the day we were supposed to arrive in Borneo. I woke up excited to cry, “land ho!” as the first grey sliver of land slid into view, but instead I got the news that we were at least a day behind schedule. The wind, the fishing gear, the squalls, had all set us back, and with each hour we lost in forward momentum, more time was added to passage. That morning we were also told a fact that none of us were aware of when we signed up for this voyage.
60 out of our 90 days of SeaMester will be at sea.
This is the part where I want to tell you I kept a stiff upper lip and embraced the sailor within me. But I want this blog to be a real record of my time out here, and that’s not what happened.
Those doubts about my place aboard Argo that Camilla had had the night before took hold of me. I was sick to my stomach, the boat was pitching back and forth with a ferocity new to her, it was raining, and I felt like crap. I felt stupid because I thought I was supposed to like passage. Some parts I liked, but some parts (especially the being sick part) I hated. My Mother had warned me that there would be parts I liked and parts I didn’t like – I knew that coming into this and was prepared to just deal with the things I didn’t like as an adult. But ocean passage, this time that was going to be not just over half, but the reasonable majority of my trip, was something I was supposed to like! I have been sailing since I was 6 years old, sailing is a part of my blood, so what was wrong with me?
Slowly I began to wonder if I would have been better off at home. I thought about my family and my friends and how much I missed them. I thought about the next 55 days of passage I would have to endure and felt even worse. I missed my roommates and my wonderful home with them. I missed not feeling sick. I felt gypped that my one good day at sea had not been a sign of overcoming sea sickness. But most of all, I felt stupid for thinking that crossing an ocean would be something that I would like. Instead it all felt like one of those “character building experiences” from your Dad. I didn’t want a character building experience. I wanted an adventure! I wanted to love the ocean and all its fury. Instead, I just felt small and ill and homesick. And to top everything off? My job that day was Headmaster. At some point during my misery I had to go down below and scrub clean all four properly disgusting bathrooms.
Everyone I talked to on the staff told me that it would get better, that being sea sick was mostly mental, and that I didn’t have to love ocean passage to love sailing. I was in my bunk before dinner wishing I could call home, or text my friends, or even just open my bible (which I had forgotten at home) when I decided that I felt an awful lot like Moses must have felt as he was walking through the Red Sea. I had to laugh when I remembered that the nine months since I had signed up for this voyage, our Pastor back in Eugene had been teaching his way through the book of Exodus. I was going through an Exodus of my own.
This trip finds me at a crazy place in my life. I am leaving behind traditional school, trying to get into graduate school, trying to find a full time job, moving out of my wonderful home with my friends and into my parent’s home until I can stand on my own two feet. In short, I’m taking the leap into being an Adult. I think I wanted this trip to test myself and see if I could handle something wild and difficult.
I was kneeling with my bead over the side of the boat when I realized how stupid I had been. I was homesick for a place I couldn’t go back to (my place with my lovely roommates), I’d be able to talk to my family soon and I knew that they loved me, and there was no big rule book in the sky saying I had to like anything about Ocean Passage at all. I am a firm believer that when the chips are down you have two choices in life: Laugh or Cry.
Well, I’d already done some crying, so I decided it was time to switch teams.
I think I probably looked a little crazy, but in that moment something in me flipped a switch. I was mad at the Ocean for making me sick and I was going to take that anger and harness it for productive energy. I threw up over the side and marched down below to clean the heads. I threw on my headphones, a bandanna over my face *bathrooms used by 30 people really reek* and got to work. There’s a song by Mercy Me that was blasting through my headphones and my heart while I worked:
“Last One Standing”
“Don’t you count me out cause I’ve fallen, out cause I’ve fallen down
I have landed down on my knees, oh down on my knees again
This is where I find the strength to carry on, this is where I find the strength to stand”
I went back up half way through cleaning the heads to throw up again, the “boot and rally” as it’s called here. When the last head was done, I knelt back down at the side of the boat, now officially Queen of the Boot and Rally. I was on watch for the next four hours, but instead of feeling miserable I smiled. I had fallen down to my knees before the mighty ocean, but I had found the strength to stand. I looked down at the waves and the bioluminescence glowing like the stars that littered the sky above me and laughed. I might be tiny and miserable and insignificant, but I had finally realized what Moses must have had to have realized as he walked through the walls of water towering above him:
My God is Bigger than the ocean. Whatever it throws at me, even death can’t beat the Crazy Universe Creating Wonder I have in my corner. A sense of peace came over me and after throwing up one more time, I sat back for watch and ate an apple or two. (The first real food I’d kept down all day).
I didn’t intend to make this blog into a preaching platform. I think there are more mysteries to this Universe than we’ll ever discover. I believe that whatever you believe or don’t believe doesn’t really matter. In the end we all find our own ways to Peace. I have found my Peace on my knees, throwing up after cleaning bathrooms in the middle of the South China Sea. Life’s funny that way sometimes.
I don’t expect to love passage as much as I thought I would at first, but I do expect that it will grow on me. I’m sure I’ll be sick again, and I’m even more sure that I’ll circle back around to doubts and fear. But I’m absolutely certain that I am not going to be afraid of the ocean anymore.
The rest of watch I spent cozied up close with my watch mates in the cockpit. We told scary ghost stories as Argo strode into a lightning storm and a squall. Watch Team 3 had to take down her sails in the early morning to keep her on course and the lightning knocked out our radar for a bit. But this morning, with all hands on deck for Boat Appreciation *cleaning* Borneo slid into view. It’s a fascinating city nestled up the river. Today we anchored, let customs/immigration on board, and ate dinner. During dinner on deck we were absolutely MOBBED by flying ants. There were hundreds of thousands of them crawling all over the boat wherever our lights shone on the deck. They were in our food, our hair, and everywhere underfoot. Everyone got a serious case of the heebie jeebies so we moved dishes downstairs and spent the better part of the evening swatting the buggers and cleaning them up with dustpans.
Tonight a tour guide from the Orangutan reserve we’ll visit tomorrow (overnight) came to talk to us about the trip. We’ll get to see Orangutans at 3 different stations, plant a tree, see giant crocodiles, even bigger tarantulas (not really bigger than a croc I guess, but they are called Bird eating Spiders), Proboscis monkeys, and fireflies that light up trees like its Christmas. I can’t wait for tomorrow, but my favorite part of today was sitting on top of the charthouse looking at Borneo. The town we’re next to, Kumai, has two Mosques that chanted out the call to prayer tonight. It was stunningly beautiful. I got a video of it that I hope to upload for you soon. There is something ancient and foreign and wonderful about this place. It’s the first time I’ve felt that I was truly away from anything Western, and I love it.
Anyway, I’m up super late writing this and I have the 4am to 5am anchor watch, so I should get back to sleep. More about the Orangutans soon. I plan to keep this blog as honest as I can. The good, the bad, and the Boot and Rally. As always, so much love to everyone back home. I miss you all, and can’t wait to skype or chat with you. No wifi in Borneo, but I’ll think of something soon. Love love love!
Original source of the post: http://www.twelve-knots.com/#!Passage-AKA-The-Boot-and-Rally/c55p/0C744507-2A1A-45C1-A340-425C4B7FFBBC