Around the World By Thumb
In the middle of the Indian Ocean, a high-seas hitchhiker on a night watch reflects on the progress of a circumnavigation that began with the tying of a Turk's head knot. From our July 2011 issue.
The sky is black. The ocean is blacker. There are no lights tonight; no stars, no ships, not even the glow from a reading lamp illuminates the companionway. Somehow, the crew is finding sleep tonight despite being tossed in their bunks. It has been, after all, a tough week. Great walls of water crash all around us tonight, as they’ve done on every night this week. Again and again, they lift the boat high in the air and push it forward in powerful surges. Above me in the darkness, a double-reefed main and a poled-out scrap of jib strain under the forces of the howling wind, but it’s too dark to see either. I dare myself to look back, and when I do, I feel my heart begin to beat faster; the surreal trail of glowing bioluminescence lying in our wake appears to trail upward into the sky, illuminating a mountainous wave preparing to pounce on us. I spin forward and quickly glance at the compass and wind instruments as I prepare for the whitewater rolling toward our stern.
My hands grip the wheel tightly as the boat begins to surge forward once again. The rudder hums loudly as we accelerate down the wave face, and the roar of the water rushing out from below our transom is nearly deafening. In the corner of my eye, I can see spray leaping up from the starboard quarter in a fantastic stern wave—we’ve discovered that this happens when we’re far exceeding our theoretical hull speed. The humming below me grows higher and higher in pitch. The knotmeter races upward until it peaks at 15 knots, then slowly retreats once again. The wave finally passes, releasing the boat and leaving us to fall into a trough, where we get to await the next monster creeping out of the black night. The skies open up, and rain begins to pour down. I pull up my hood, which the wind promptly plasters to the back of my head. A quick time check reminds me that I’ve only been on watch for half an hour. I’ve got two and a half hours to go. It’s going to be a long, cold, wet night.
Throughout my watch, questions race through my head. I’ve been on many boats, and I’ll be on many more. In the pitching darkness, the boats and the sailors and the days and the nights can run together. Where are we? Which way are we sailing? How fast are we actually moving?
Right. Tonight, I’m at the helm of a Beneteau First 47.7 named Strega. We’re in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Our course is 270 degrees. We’re going directly downwind, and there’s no doubt that we’re moving very, very fast.
My adventure began in what seems to me, now, after so many nights at the helm, like ancient history. When people set out to do something big, it can be difficult sometimes to determine exactly when the first step was taken. For me, I can pinpoint the precise moment when I committed to my adventure: when I wove a Turk’s head knot around my wrist. It was just like the one my father would give me, during our summer sailing trips when I was a young boy, right after we sailed away from the dock. After this ceremonial moment, the rest of my adventure seemed to fall into place, piece by piece: the airline ticket to Panama, dipping my toes in the Caribbean Sea, the symbolic hoisting of my thumb to find a ride. My plan was to circumnavigate the planet by sailboat in a slightly unorthodox way: I would do it by hitchhiking (Click here for more of Clive's tips for hitchhikers).
All right, perhaps a dark and stormy night in the Indian Ocean isn’t the ideal time to reminisce, but sailors know that memories tend to keep our minds occupied at night during long passages. I chuckle when I look back on my naïve and slightly disorganized arrival in Panama 10 months before, when I stepped off the plane into sweltering tropical heat while already decked out—and sweating profusely—in my foul-weather gear. Since then, I’ve sailed on eight different sailboats and met some of the most interesting characters on the planet, each with his or her own unique reasons for sailing the high seas. Not every situation was ideal, nor was everyone’s personality compatible with my own, but all told, not one of my experiences could be defined as negative. Most important, as much as the sailors varied from one another, every single one of them has had one thing in common: For one reason or another, in order to fulfill their dreams, they couldn’t do it on their own. I was no different.