Monday morning, I woke to the sound of Casey opening the hatch, his silhouette blurry against the light. I blinked, trying to focus and stumbled up to the deck, woozy from the effect of the seasickness pills I’d taken the night before. A watery yellow sun shone through rain clouds pushing in from the east. “Looks like we might hit a squall this morning,” Casey called as I came on deck.
“How soon do we head out?“ I asked, itching to begin our trip.
“First we need to check in on the Net,” Casey replied, going below and turning on the radio. The “Cruiser Net” is a big part of the sailing life. The Net happens at a specific time of day, on a predetermined VHF radio channel. It’s a kind of party line for all the cruisers in a particular port (“cruisers” is what people call themselves that sail full-time). Casey informed me there is a particular order and protocol for the Net “meetings”. First there’s a check-in to announce emergency or medical needs. Then, a list of ships underway that day is called out, followed by a general check-in, where newly-arrived cruisers introduce themselves and people announce parts or equipment they are looking for or want to trade. As I listened to the Net that morning, I was amazed to realize that the cruiser community had its own terminology, idioms, protocols, heroes, and history, like any other social group – and it’s one that I never knew existed.
Once we’d checked in on the Net, announcing our departure and receiving blessings and wishes for fair winds, it was time to go. Casey hauled in the anchor, set the sails, and swung the boat around toward the west. With a loud popping sound, a gust of wind ballooned the sails, and we were on our way.
We had just barely cleared the bay when the squall hit us. Wind, pelting rain, and cold, fast-moving waves rushed on us. The waves slapped the side of the boat, soaking us, and then rolled underneath, trying to tip us overboard. Casey had already showed me how to wedge myself into a corner of the seat so I wouldn’t get thrown around, so I felt ready. I grinned. This was the kind of adventure I’d been looking forward to. Suddenly, a blue light flashed across the sky followed by an ear-splitting crack and boom. That lightning bolt was followed by another one, and then another one even closer, as if a mad giant in the sky were blindly trying to stab us through the clouds with his crackling, white-hot staff. I glanced at Casey. His lips were pursed, his eyes worried, and I knew something was wrong. He ordered me below deck into the cabin, where we hung on to post and bulkhead as the boat rolled and bounced like a cork.
Several times on this voyage, I asked Casey questions that I later regretted. This was one of those days. I inquired what would happen if lightning were to strike the boat. “It’s hard to tell. Lightning is a fickle thing,” he replied. “It might fry all of the boat’s wiring and electronics, including our radios and navigational equipment. Or it might set the boat on fire, in which case we’d have to abandon ship in survival suits and our small dinghy. Or, if we’re really unlucky, the lightning will strike down through the mast and blow a hole in the bottom of the boat.” I wasn’t grinning anymore.
The storm lasted much longer that Casey expected, but it finally calmed, and we went up top to take stock. We hadn’t lost sails or gear, and there were blue skies ahead. As the waves continued to roll under us, tossing us around and making me feel a little queasy, I mumbled to Casey that I was looking forward to smooth sailing.
“This is smooth sailing,” he laughed, “So you’d better make sure you’ve used your Lubriderm.” I pondered this for a minute quietly, like many of us do when we don’t understand something. I was tempted to smile and nod so I wouldn’t look dumb. But I’d already decided early on that there was too much at stake on this trip for me not to ask questions.
“Um, Lubriderm, you said?”
“Yeah, so you don’t get ‘baboon butt’”. He explained that if you don’t apply lotion to your hindquarters, sitting for hours in the cockpit with the boat moving under you can rub a rash on your behind, making you look like one of those National Geographic baboons with the ridiculous red buttocks.
I did as the captain ordered, applied some “Lube-your-stern”, and we settled ourselves in, each wedged in a corner of the cockpit. I’d imagined that sailing was all work, but here we were like a couple of barefoot Tom Sawyers, enjoying the murmur of the wind and the rise and fall of the waves and of our lazy conversation. This became one of our favorite rituals—sitting in the cockpit with the auto-pilot doing the steering, watching the sea and talking. We were only halfway through our first day on the open water, and there was much ahead to enjoy and to learn. But for now, I leaned back and closed my eyes, letting the sun warm my face. This is the life, I whispered to the salty wind.
– Mike Simpson was born in Spain to missionary parents, and subsequently lived in Ecuador, England, California and finally East Texas. His early travels abroad blessed him with fluent Spanish, a certain restlessness and a strong aversion to guinea pigs. He is a married father with five children, a dog, some cats and a chicken.