Tricks of Tired Minds


After hours of trying to sail in a calm ocean with nothing to see but water and sky, the senses are dulled and the brain can be easily fooled. At sea, that can be fatal.

Robert and I are anchored in our twenty-five foot sloop behind Punta San Hipolito about half way down the outer coast of Baja California. Our run south that day was another one of light breezes and again, when we turned into our anchorage behind the point, the light breeze funneled over the land and increased dramatically. Why can’t we find that wind when we need it, we wonder.

While Robert and I are eating dinner, a young Brown Pelican skids onto the water near the boat. It studies us and paddles closer. For fifteen minutes it remains, watching us. The wind pushes it away and it flies back. It is not interested in the bread we throw out and eventually flies off.

We study our charts. We had crossed the coastal indentation north of Turtle Bay without major problems, a jump of about 150 miles, and are feeling cocky. We navigate with an ancient sextant, using landforms for points of reference when we can see them. It isn’t much different from hiking. Choose your goal and set a course. The winds cooperated

Another opportunity to sail point to point lies south of us, shorter than following the coastline, and we prepare our course. This one is longer that our previous jump, about 175 miles. We calculate it will take two days after a short hop to the next anchorage.

Winds from Punta San Hipolito are too good to pass up and we decide not to stop for the night. While we are still within sight of land, two sports fishing boats roar past us taking clients to their secret fishing holes. The decks bristle with holstered poles ready for use. We don’t see any other traffic.

Porpoises next to Valhalla

A pod of porpoises catches us and plays around us, but without a bow wave for them to surf on, they move on. The sun sets at nine and we begin our two-hour night shifts, two hours on watch and two off to sleep if we can. Someone is always on deck and alert for ships. We see only a few lights far to the west where they should be. The shipping lanes on the chart put the freighters further out to sea than we are, or at least where we think we are.

At midnight, the wind dies again.

At noon on the second day, we expect the winds to pick up as they have on previous afternoons. We barely have enough wind to keep us on course. Oily smooth swells roll languidly under us and with each one, the boat rolls and the sails snap, rasping my nerves. Occasionally, the breeze strengthens, just enough to get our hopes up that we will make real progress. Then it dies again. Our tiny Seagull outboard is stored in the motor well, too small to help us at sea. I am tired after staring way too long at the same water and sky.

Unable to sleep, Robert mopes around from cockpit to cabin, trying to find a place where his stomach does not churn. I am just bored, ready to shred the damn sail if it cracks one more time. A wave rushes under the hull, the boom swings and the sail pops again.

By evening we strain our eyes for Cabo San Lazaro. The cape is 1200 feet high and should be visible from quite a distance but haze on the water hides it if it is out there. A wind rises in the late afternoon but we know we cannot reach land by nightfall. It would be too dangerous for us to approach land at night without a motor. Our speed is a guess since our sum log broke the second day out. It trails behind the boat and measures speed, when it works. Now we revert to a method used by square-riggers, timing the passage of debris as it transits the length of our hull. Not very accurate and not too useful anyway since our speed changes every hour. The truth is, given the fluky winds and unknown currents, we could be almost anywhere.

We do think we are still in a safe zone and away from night freighter traffic. We take down the sails, turn on the masthead light in case another boat does appear, and turn in. Robert lies down on the floor near the center of motion hoping it will quell his nausea.

Anxiety and caution are attributes of a good sailor, at least of a live sailor. I know neither of us will sleep for long if at all.

The boat rocks gently and the halyards ping on the metal mast with an annoying racket but I am so tired I sink into a short but deep sleep.

When I awake, Robert is on deck setting up our little Honda generator to charge the battery and keep the mast light bright. The boat is so small, only thin fiberglass separates his feet from my head but I feel drugged and unable to help. Once he gets it going the soft chug of the motor is soothing and sleep drags me into its grip.

The next time I wake, Robert is on the floor, opening the drawers to muffle the clattering of their contents which keeps him awake. It’s my turn to go on deck. I drag myself out of my bunk, zip on my life vest, and climb out into the night.

I snap my safety line onto the stanchion and look around. It is pleasant now. Without wind, the temperature is mild and I can hear only tiny noises, the snick of a wavelet as it licks the hull, the light click of a loose metal fitting. I look around and report back. “I can see stars on the horizon so I think the haze has cleared. No navigational lights so no boat traffic. Looks good.”

Robert grunts. I stay on deck to enjoy the night. There is no moon but the blanket of stars illuminates the ocean.

I am startled by a loud whoosh. I turn in time to catch a glimpse of two slippery dolphin backs rolling into the sea next to me. I can almost touch the slick they leave behind.

Dolphins, seals and turtles are our only companions. “Hi, guys,” I whisper and hug myself.

The curious pair returns for another look and then they are gone. My eyelids droop.

I return to my bunk for another hour of half-sleep and then once more climb out to scan the horizon. Nothing. I get my flashlight and check the speed of the debris. Without sails, we are sideways to the swells which have grown a little and we whip more violently side to side when they hit. We seem to be drifting about one knot faster than the debris to the southeast. I look closer at the water. A cloud of detritus surrounds the boat. Among the seaweed bits and kelp pieces are some two inch long orange spider-like wigglers, long legs on a tiny body. I lean over the side and scoop one up in a cup. It is a tiny shrimp.

“Robert, we’re surrounded by shrimp,” I whisper so I don’t wake him if he is really asleep.

He groans a reply.

“I’m going to catch some for breakfast.” Anything for entertainment.

Another groan, but soon he drags himself into the cockpit, clips his lifeline and rigs a small net on a coat hanger and pole, hoping activity will distract him from his discomfort. I catch about 25 squirming crustaceans and put them in a blue metal bowl. I am thinking of a shrimp omelet for breakfast. Small as they are, I will be occupied for the rest of the night. Robert tries his net but nausea makes him clumsy. Another wave hits the boat and Robert lurches outboard. He saves himself from an involuntary bath by grabbing a stay. Still feeling ill and unsteady, he tells himself sternly, “Robert. This is not going to work. Go below.” And he obeys.

We sail past the shrimp and now I am wide awake. The wind may be strong enough to sail and I begin to put up the genoa, our large foresail. Robert hears me pull out the sail bag and comes up to steer while I crawl forward, hauling the awkward bag behind me. I sit on the overturned dinghy and clip the snaps on the stay. Out of the corner of my eye I see a pinprick of light on the horizon. I turn to Robert, pointing. “Check that out. Is that a ship or a star?”

He stares into the night. “Oh. Yeah. Probably a ship in the shipping lane. Too far to worry about right now. ”

Absorbed by my task and do not question his judgment.

I should have.

Once the sail is hooked on, I creep back to the mast. Another swell throws me off balance and I hang out over the cold water with a death grip on the shroud. I pull myself back aboard, hoist the sail and pull in the sheet. Valhalla has just enough headway to steer and when I reclaim the tiller and return to our best-guess course to the cape.

The mystery lights are dead ahead.

We can see a red light and several white ones. I only see the red navigational light but look closely for the green one. I hope I don’t see it because if I do, the ship is headed straight for us. I only see the red one, the one on the right side of the ship. Even so, I change my course and steer slightly left of whatever is out there.

Now we can see more lights than we expect on a ship under way and the array is confusing. If a ship is far away and moving past our course, we see just one of the navigational lights and the one white light at the stern. The distance between them tells us the size of the vessel and its direction of movement. If it is a large vessel, there might be deck lights but at night they are usually off. We are seeing a lot more than a few. What is out there?

Robert brings up our binoculars and we take turns trying to make sense of the lights. How big is this vessel? What kind is it? It could be anything from a tiny boat like ours, which is nothing to worry about, to a freighter, which is.

“I wonder if it’s a shrimp trawler. Those shrimp we saw might mean there are others out here,” I say.

“Let me see.” I hand him the binoculars and he studies the lights. “Yeah. I think I can see the booms hanging out over the water. Those lights must be deck lights so the men can see while they work. That’s why we can’t see any stern light. What do you think?”

He returns the binoculars to me. “Well. Yeah. I can just make out something that could be booms. Yes. Look. There is a man on deck. Maybe.”

We saw what we wanted to see, colluding on the details.

“Let’s see if we can get closer. I can’t hear a motor, so he’s just drifting. Getting the nets in, I’d guess,” Robert says.

That would be fun, to watch a shrimper at work. How many people get to see that?

Likes moths, we are drawn to the lights.

We only have the genoa up and the wind is still very light from astern. I turn the boat and we waft our way toward the trawler. The images through the binoculars, and without them, shift and merge. We verify and then question what we think we are seeing. Is it a trawler? Are those really deck lights? And if they are working nets, would they leave their running lights on? Maybe the red light we see is not a running light, though that is odd. Maybe they forgot to turn them off.

We are too tired to realize that no ship uses running lights unless it is moving.

Robert keeps his eye on the light while I concentrate on getting the most from every puff of wind.

Suddenly, he bolts upright and shouts, “Oh, shit. That’s no shrimp boat. That’s a freighter, and she’s headed straight toward us.”

Shocked to attention, I pull the tiller toward me and haul in the sheet, heart racing. At first, the actions seem to have no effect, but slowly, we turn away from the ship’s course.

Then I can feel vibrations in my feet, the throb of a very large motor.

Robert rushes below and turns on our spreader lights to illuminate the sail and make us more visible. I look up and see how small the lit sail is in this vast night.

“The motor,” I shout, energized again.

“Ten minutes to set up and it may not even start,” he shoots back.

“What about oars?” I plead.

“Wedged in beside the motor. Keep working the wind. It’s our only hope.”

Dry mouth, I want to get out and push. I work the tiller back and forth, sculling. Anything to get this tub going. It works near a dock, but this is hopeless. Our sail flops and fills with every swell. Are we moving at all?

We sweat and watch the lights grow brighter and more distinct. The motor’s deep thrum becomes audible, and then threatening. The lights rise high above the water to crown the terrifying shadow that blots the stars. They disappear at an alarming rate.

Robert tries flashing the spreader lights off and on, hoping to alert the wheelhouse lookout. Off and on. Off and on. The motor continues to throb. The lights on the deck of the ship don’t even flicker. The sinister shadow eats up more and more stars.

Roberts returns to the cockpit, cursing.  He automatically clips himself to the lifelines. “I’ll bet he’s having coffee, or chatting with the mate. Or maybe they are just on autopilot. Why would they worry? It’s such a calm night and they have lots of sea room.”

Neither one of us says what we know: fiberglass does not show up on radar.

“If there is anyone on the bridge, he’s looking for a freighter sized blip. If we did show up, the blip would be so small it would be lost on his screen. Nothing for him to be concerned about.”

We sit. Nothing more can be done. My heart threatens to burst out of my chest. We watch. Wait. How much longer? I lick my desert-dry lips.

Robert startles me, commanding, “Unclip your safety line.”

“Why?” I ask.

Then I know. If Valhalla goes down, she will take us with her. I do as he says.

Through tight lips, he says, “It wouldn’t be the first time some big honker plowed under a little boat like ours. We’ll be lucky if they even find enough debris to know what happened.”

I take a deep breath, preparing for the possible.

“They won’t feel a thing when we collide,” I say.

“Yeah, but we will,” says Robert, stating the obvious.

A quarter of the sky is black now. The motor throbs deep in my chest.

A new sound. Shhhhh.

The bow wave.

“Look there.” In the starlight I can see a line of foaming white like a toothy grin.

How big? How close? Wary of misinterpretation now, I try to determine the size and distance of the ship but it is impossible without a comparison.

“Hey! I can only see one side of the wave,” Robert says.”That’s good. It isn’t going to hit us.”

He laughs with relief and my eyes water. The white line moves behind us. We have been spared.

The stars behind the shadow begin to reappear. I exhale perhaps the first time in too long. The red glow from the wheelhouse is momentarily visible as the ship passes directly behind us, but the wheelhouse looks empty. From the angle and size of the glow, the ship is further away than I had feared.

Then, the surge from the bow wave swoops us up and we surf unceremoniously away from the monster.

We sail the rest of the night, alert and humbled by our experience. We have plenty of time and adrenaline to debrief. The newly risen moon is at the wrong angle to show us the cape but we know we will hear the surf and dawn is not far off.

“A ship that big is on autopilot,” I speculate. “A bucket-of-bolts freighter I’ll bet. Captain below and the crew sleepy. We would have been lucky if any one was on the bridge to toot as we went down.”

“Even if someone had been on watch, a blast from a vessel that size would have muddied my shorts,” Robert says.

Robert unwinds enough to sleep a bit, and I do as well. Unfortunately, I am on the tiller. Our speed is negligible so I lash the tiller and concentrate on staying awake. I fail when I scan again and find another ship sneaking up on us. Robert jumps out and starts the motor that he had installed too late for the last ship. When we both clear our heads, we see that the ship is passing us with room to spare.

At first light, we can see the cape on the horizon.

Mexican Fishing Village, West Coast Baja California

Robert goes below to study the charts. After a few minutes, he pops his head out of the cabin. “I’ve run the angles to the bluff. We were in the shipping lanes. Cabo San Lazaro is where they turn so they come quite close to it.”

I’m feeling a bit more relaxed with the daylight. “Aha. I guess I’m not surprised. But I am sorry to have missed the tour of that shrimper at work.”

“Next time, let’s order more wind so we can make the crossing in a day like we thought we could.”

“Amen to that.”

When it is light, I boil the tiny shrimp and pick minuscule pieces of meat from each one. It is difficult to see the pink bits in the yellow mass of my delicious two egg omelet. Robert can manage only a taste.

We sail at a moderate pace. During the day, four whales blow nearby and pass us, one quite close. It is hard to tell if our boat is attracting them or we are just on their course. They are bigger than we are and we hope they will not surface beneath the boat.

By four pm we are still several miles from Santa Maria Bay, our first possible anchorage. Not a great one, but our preferred anchorage in Magdalena Bay is not possible before dark. Sailing at night so close to land would be fatal. Robert says he thinks we have enough gas to motor into the bay, so we do.

Again, the blast of funneled wind hits us. We anchor stern to the wind so the boat will ride easier. After dark, the wind dies.

The shallow bay shelters our little boat and our chastened souls. We are glad to have arrived in one piece, having learned a hard lesson about fatigue, curiosity and vigilance.