ValhallaOn a bright November day Robert, my husband, gripped the tiller of our 25 foot sloop, Valhalla, struggling to squeeze every mile out of each northerly tack. I hunched over the navigational chart in the tiny cabin, my finger on a point of land south of San Diego.

“Punta Banda. We’re almost there!” I shouted. “Seventy miles more. With this wind, two days, tops.” It was one of the few periods of smooth sailing in the forty days at sea from Mazatlan, Mexico. Hungry, tired and bundled against the cold, I was elated.

In November, flocks of cruise boats coast downwind along the western coast of Baja California to favorite winter harbors in Mexico. Months earlier, we had passed them as they sailed north to avoid the summer chubascos. Being out of synch didn’t bothered us but maybe it should have that time. After riding out one of those storms, we were returning to San Diego for a sturdier boat. Again, we were traveling against the flow.

On our way up the coast of Baja California we had stayed close to shore during daylight so we could navigate by identifying land features. For safety, we had sailed into the sunset and away from that coast with few lighthouses, returning at dawn to a new silhouette framed by the rising sun.

We had sighted Punta Banda after 1400 hard won miles. Strong headwinds of up to forty knots alternated with light breezes and Valhalla sailed poorly under both conditions. Cold food and snatched naps only marginally sustained us. We lived in our down jackets and pants and yellow rain suits. My hands were pickled and painful from the constant immersion in saltwater. Punta Banda was the last major cape before a final tack into a friendly harbor where we would find a hot bath, a warm meal and a soft bed. We were so close.

We were traveling for the adventure. Surviving a hurricane was certainly exciting. In spite of many challenges on our year long honeymoon, we were still having a great time. However, I was looking forward to the end of this episode.

After we sighted the cape, the wind increased. During my turn the tiller, I struggled to point close into the wind to make each mile count toward our northern progress At too close an angle, the boat sailed right off the top of the wave and dropped like a stone to hit the bottom of the following trough with a jarring crash, stopped dead in the water. To build up speed I had to let her fall off and try again. My head ached and the anticipation of more pounding jolts kept me on edge. How much more could I take, and how much more could Valhalla take?

Off watch, I lifted the wooden floorboard and checked for water in the keel cavity under my feet. Valhalla’s bilge was the six inch space between the floor and the top of the heavy lead fin that reached into the sea to keep us upright. Whenever a gust of wind slapped us down, the fin moved slightly slower than the boat, just as it had done during the hurricane.

“Do you suppose fiberglass weakens like metal when it flexes?” I asked Robert. His beard flew in the wind as he concentrated on steering the boat. His eyes drilled mine with that you-don’t-want-to-know look. I tried to imagine what a sailboat might do as the liberated keel dived toward the ocean’s bottom. Not reassuring. No point in mentioning it. Nothing we could do.  I wondered if Robert was working on his own version of catastrophe.

On our tack out to sea that night, light from the moon sliver and sharp stars illuminated the sails. We were lucky. The screaming wind contained only occasional rain squalls that forced us to steer blind. At midnight we tacked back toward land, but at daylight, we were off the same point we had been struggling to pass the previous day.

Twice we sailed out to sea as the sun set on Punta Banda and twice the new day revealed the same point of land when we returned. As the daylight faded on the third day, I willed the wind to change enough to let us leave that wretched point of land behind us.

Late that night, I went below after my watch, unhooked my safety harness and pulled off my rain gear. Soda crackers with peanut butter and canned peaches were all I could manage to eat. I longed for some thick lotion for my salt soaked hands as I rubbed in Crisco, the only oil I had, which did nothing to relieve their aching.

From my damp, salty sleeping bag in the narrow pilot berth I could see the top of the mast waving wildly. I forgot my misery as I watched the masthead connect the stars to make crazy scrawls on the dome of the sky. As I drifted off, I was thankful, knowing things could be worse. It wasn’t raining and it could get colder.

“Harriet. Wake up. Your watch.” Robert’s voice from the cockpit jolted me awake. We kept two hour watches. Not enough for a good nap, but way longer than I liked to sit exposed in the cockpit in this weather. On our way south, those solo watches were a delight. The air then was warm and sailing was a pleasure, leaving time to enjoy the sky, the spaces of the sea. Dolphins startled me when they came along side and exhaled with a burst of air and spray, their paths lit by the tiny sparkling phytoplankton. There was time to be awed by our audacity, out there in a tiny fiberglass boat, and thrilled with our serendipitous adventures. But now, it seemed, we were paying for all that pleasure.

I peeked out of my cocoon. The stars were still visible in the faint light of the new day. The wind still roared and the boat jerked. “Please tell me we’ve made some headway. I am so sick of looking at Punta Bloody Banda I’m ready to throw up,” I growled as I kicked free of my sleeping bag.

“Well, you’d better get up on deck, then, before I say anything,” Robert said.

“Shit,” I shot back. After suiting up again, I jammed my body up into the hatch, half in the cabin and half out. Wind tore at my face. When I turned toward shore, I saw exactly what I had seen the past two mornings. We had again made no northward progress during the night.

I snapped. “I’m SICK of this!” I yelled into the unrelenting wind. “Sick-of-it. I’m SICK of feeling like the Pillsbury doughboy tied to this STUPID Tupperware bathtub. Look at my hands,” I whimpered, ” They’re useless claws, they’re so painful. I want to be dry! And clean-everywhere! I wanna go home!”

“This is your home,” Robert said quietly.

Stupid twit. I knew that. I meant HOME, where it’s dry…and warm…and I can sleep in peace for more than an hour at a time.

“OK, then. I want my Mommy.” I whimpered over the noise of the wind.

“Are we having fun yet?” Robert asked, a gentle reminder of the humor we’d always been able to find in even the most uncomfortable situations. After all, we were out for adventure. By that time, however, I’d had enough.

“Let’s walk,” said Robert.

“Right. Five miles off shore and you want to walk. Who made you Jesus?” I snarled as we changed positions. I took my place at the tiller and snapped the safety line onto my harness. Robert stepped into the little cabin and turned back to face me.

“I mean it. Let’s just drive this mother onto the beach, salvage what we can and walk to the next village. We aren’t more than a few miles south of Ensenada. We might even be able to get the bikes out and ride them. What a trip! Sail out, bicycle back,” he said, gaining enthusiasm as he elaborated his fantasy.

I had to admit even though the idea was really sick, it had a certain appeal. I wouldn’t miss that pile of plastic junk one bit.

“Well, let’s just go in to shore and have a look,” I said, not totally convinced, but willing to entertain the possibility. I pulled the tiller to me and we fell off onto a reach. Valhalla rolled easily and picked up speed as she moved parallel to the waves. The roaring howl of the wind muted and the hull sliced the water with a satisfying shush. I was relieved not to be fighting the sea.

An hour later we were outside the surf line. Rocks framed a little sand beach scattered with boulders. So close. I turned the bow into the wind and let the sails flap. We were being pushed gently shoreward and we had to make a decision or we would soon be in the surf, not a good place to maneuver. My feet itched for the solid land again. The warm bath. The soothing lotion. And tasty warm food. So close.

Of course, there was the little detail of getting from where we were bobbing to dry land. The rocks scattered between us and the shore were a problem, and the soft sand I had imagined five miles out looked much firmer as the waves pounded the unyielding beach.

We studied the situation in silence. I visually plotted how I could weave between those menacing rocks that threatened the thin hull of the (now) stalwart craft. For five months, we had asked her to perform in conditions far beyond what she was designed for, and she had done her best. It wasn’t her fault that her designer had in mind friendly races in a safe harbor.

Robert interrupted my musings. “What if we hit a rock?” he whined in a little-boy voice. “It might hurt me.”

Suddenly, I pictured my puffy broken carcass, encased in my yellow rain suit, washing ashore in the unforgiving surf, limp, lifeless; my American Express card in the pocket of the life vest ready for (almost) every emergency.

Walk or sail? Do or die?

Die? Where did that come from? It was pain I wanted to avoid.

My attention drifted from the shore to the sky where clumps of clouds now flew by overhead. I studied their speed and direction for clues.

“Weelll,” I said, “The sun’s up now. It’s still early… Maybe these clouds mean a change in the weather and we can make some headway today.”

“It can’t blow much longer from this direction. It has to be due for a change,” Robert said.

“Can you handle one more day?” I said, as much to myself as to Robert.

“One more day …after forty? Mmm,” he mused.

We looked at each other. There was a long pause. The walk had lost its appeal and I hoped that Robert’s scrunched up face meant he was thinking the same thing.

“Walk, huh? I couldn’t walk very well with a broken leg and crushed ribs,” he said.

“Face it. We’re cowards,” I said with relief.

He nodded, pushed the main boom to catch some air and we fell off to starboard. With the tiller jammed between my knee and chest, I dragged the slack out of the salt encrusted main sheet, pinching it stiffly between my thumb and hand, trying not to bend my aching fingers. Valhalla turned her stern to the shore and picked up speed for another try at reaching “home”.

Hours after dark the next night, Dave and Sue, our sailing friends, picked us up from the Customs dock in San Diego.  I got the first bath while Robert recounted our adventures to our friends over a glass of wine.  Clean at last, I emerged from the steamy bathroom into the heavenly aroma of hot food. I needed one more thing.

“Dave.  Have you got any hand lotion?”

“Here’s some great stuff,” he said, handing me a pump bottle with “Intensive Care” printed on the front.  “Half a pump is usually enough for me.”

My desiccated flesh sucked up five pumps of lotion and at last, my hands would flex without pain.

When Robert finished up our tale, I thought to myself, Yeah, I did that. I felt smug, and glad it was over.