Saturday, January 12, 2008

Day 1- Inexperience the Unknown

We arrived dockside at the appointed time. Le Capitaine ferried the bags out to the boat, along with some of the passengers. Angie and myself missed the first run out to the boat, so we were forced to wait before we could get on the boat. It was while waiting that I experienced my first proper interaction with the bizarre J2. He revealed to me that he had once spent an hour in rough sees somewhere near Thailand, and thus considered himself quite learned in the field of all things maritime. For some strange reason he considered me to be a fellow expert in the area, and proceeded to relate to me a bizarre scenario (that he had obviously been thinking about for some time) in which everyone else on the boat was too stupid to make it to the liferaft when our boat sank and it was “Just me and you, buddy!!!” left in the confines of the floating orange tent. Just to make sure I understood (I still don’t), he repeated his theory a few times, confirming that if it did come down to it, I would be leaving him in the liferaft by himself.

While J2 was still in the throes of his ridiculous theorising, le Capitaine mercifully appeared and took us out to the boat, where we waited for the remainder of our party in the glow of our final South American sunset.


The time came for us to haul anchor, hoist the mainsail and baton down the ship’s log or whatever it is you’re supposed to do when starting a sea voyage. There was a lot of novel pulling on ropes, tying of knots and unfurling of fabric. Le Capitaine immediately relinquished the wheel to Paul, who navigated us out of the harbour. It was around this time our admirable captain displayed the delightful quirk of confusing left and right. Having directed Paul to steer us toward the green buoys marking the exit of the harbour, he disappeared below deck, and upon returning saw that we were slightly off-course. ‘Right!’ he declared, even though on our right was a beach lined with hotels and the buoys were clearly off to the left. Thinking it was just a change of plan; after all, captain knows best, Paul dutifully flicked the huge wheel clockwise. When the captain next appeared from below, he took stock of our position and immediately exploded, veins popping, eyes bulging and mouth spewing guff about what the hell was wrong with you I said turn right and you head towards the beach?!? You want a hotel!?! Right!! Right!! He bellowed as he took the wheel and pointed us off to the left.

Luggage hold

Once we were through the markers the sea picked up a little. The boat wasn’t being tossed around, but it was definitely starting to feel smaller than when we were relaxing in the harbour watching the sun go down. It was now that the engine made some grumpy noises and ceased to function. Le Capitaine went below and we heard the clanging of a toolbox. He appeared a second later with a set of verbal instructions for Mark, who was to push back and forward on the throttle as le Captain indicated. From below, our captain began to bawl a series of non-sensical Continental vowel sounds, apparently instructions but completely unrecognisable as actual words to any of us. He re-emerged, furious that Mark had failed to understand. Once again he repeated his commands, once again replacing these commands with nothing but moans and howls. Then a really, really big wail, and a second or two later he came up with a badly bleeding finger wrapped in toilet paper. He said it was ok, repeated once again the commands for back and forth, then went below, but not before unwrapping his finger and childishly waving it to all so we could feel nice and guilty about what had happened. Another red flag, but too late to worry about now.

It was also at this time we experienced the captain’s wonderful grasp of swearing. Rather than curse in his native tongue, he would mix Spanish and English expletives, spitting them out like bad cheese with the kind of ferocity and disgusted passion certain uppity Europeans reserve for occasions when something is entirely unsatisfactory. ‘Mierda upon mierda!!!’ he cried as the engine failed in another half-hearted attempt at kicking into gear. ‘Puta de Madre!’ (that one is incredibly rude).

The sun had long since set, and dinner for the night was ham and cheese sandwiches. It seemed South America was having one last go at getting me to eat it’s beloved jamon y queso. ‘Not going to happen’ I said as I watched the last silhouette of the continent shrink on the horizon and settled into a plain cheese sandwich. I had beaten it, the omnipresent sandwich, omelette and pizza filling of South America. Victory!!!

We each took turns at steering the boat. It was over dinner that we learned that one of us would always be here in the drivers seat, taking two hour shifts through the day and night while le Capitaine attended to all the ropes and things that were scattered about this little boat’s frame. The moon was out, and we were directed to keep the boat on a course with the moon, while keeping an eye on the GPS. The Global Positioning System kept a constant tab on our position, as well as our heading. A constantly changing number displayed the direction of our boat on a compass, and for tonight we had to stick as close to 260 degrees as we could. But steering by the moon was fine, and much easier. It was a beautiful feeling; the silence of the boat not under engine, a sky full of starts completely unfiltered by civilisation’s lights, pointing the vessel down a path created by the reflection of the moon on the sea while phosphorescence glowed in the water as we were gently rocked up and down by waves lulling into the boat from the east.

Last view of South America

I finished my test run on the wheel and went below for a nap. When I returned deckside a couple of hour later, I walked into a situation rapidly declining from the idyllic maritime romanticism of before. The waves had grown, and the moon was sinking behind low clouds in a dirty yellow haze. Le Capitaine seemed a little on edge, and Paul was steering under his watchful gaze. The sea slowly intensified, and soon the moon was gone. We were now alone in a thick black mist, the sea churning below us. Paul watched the numbers on the GPS with pure intent, but rogue waves kept pushing us off course, the boat moving through ninety degrees in one second when a swell got us just right. After one such movement, le Capitaine ordered Paul below to go sleep. Relieved that in these increasingly testing conditions, the actual Captain was now going to steer gave us some much needed confidence. When he instead pointed my way and told me to get behind the wheel that confidence did not sustain.

With me at the helm, the ocean took its cue to thoroughly kick it up a notch. Soon we really were being tossed about through the salty darkness. The winds were joining in the fun too, and it wasn’t long before my stress levels were redlining while I watched the GPS flick through numbers like a cheap digital watch stuck on the ‘time set’ function. As the display glowed seemingly random numbers at me- 280-198-240-320-127- one twenty seven? Where the hell did that come from?!?- waves crashed over the railing of the deck. Angie was ordered below deck and le Capitaine latched the door shut. Huge chunks of spray splashed in my face and the boat listed at ever-increasingly vile angles. ‘Spirit of Pugwash! Save Us!’ I prayed in silent urgency. Angie was downstairs praying to more conventional god, all the while being assaulted by flying books, papaya and potatoes. The ferocity of our tipping had freed the unconventional projectiles from their hanging baskets and shelf space, and the cabin had become a place where the rules of gravity and physics were broken in half and then redoubled on unsuspecting white tourists.

The boat tipped with real purpose, and a wave crashed over us. Our bags, which were stored above the cabin, unprotected, seemed done for as the saltwater pushed away everything not tied or bolted down. From below deck, there was an urgent cry:
‘Water!’ in crisp English enunciation. Slight pause.
‘Salt water!’ the voice came again, this time with feeling.
‘Boo!!’ cried Mark, in reference to his girlfriend Emma, whose confused and sleepy exclamations we had just heard, the result of the particularly eager wave. He dashed below to attend to the aquatic/bedding emergency. With him gone, I was alone with the elements and a Captain both figuratively and literally half there.

With Pugwash not paying attention, I also tried invoking the spirits of Captain Haddock, Captain Kirk and finally Russel Crowe, when from above me a depraved ripping sound could be heard through the wind. As the boat was pirouetting through the sea, the sails and booms and other weirdly-named moving parts of the vessel were at the mercy of the wind. It was now that the storm took hold of the sail above me slashed and a massive right-angled chunk out of it. I called el Capitaine’s attention to the anomaly.

‘Shot!!’ he exclaimed. He actually meant ‘shit’ but his lingual heritage prevented him from getting the intonation just right. As I would learn, this was a special curse he only used for problems with sails, of which there were more to come.

‘You changed the wind!’ he exclaimed. I stared blankly, but even when he repeated it multiple times at me, It still meant nothing. I still don’t understand it, unless he for some unknown reason thought I have power over the weather. ‘Shot!’

With me still playing roulette with the big wheel and little numbers, el Capitaine started the engine and hauled down the useless linen flapping loudly above me. He was still going on at me about changing the wind, which I definitely would have done if it were within the realm of my influence. Following the captain’s instructions, I performed a couple of full turns through the compass, which caused him no end of despair. And his despair, combined with the impossible conditions, led to my despair reaching previously unexplored depths.

Eventually, mercifully, the sea calmed. The remaining sails ceased their ghastly rasping against the bitch-goddess wind. Harmony between boat, nature and inexperienced, terrified gringo began to re-emerge. This signalled the end of my shift. Beyond exhausted, I stumbled below and fell asleep to the dull roar of the diesel engine at full power. In the intense heat of the cabin, next to that enormous hammering engine, I wondered why I paid $300 to feel like this.

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