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.
Strega has been my home since Cairns, Australia. Her crew is participating in the World Cruising Club’s World ARC round-the-world rally. The rally has attracted other high-seas hitchhikers who, like myself, have long dreamed of sailing across oceans—or at least a part of one. When I made my way across the Pacific, sailors on the boats I caught rides with continually came and went. With every island that appeared on the horizon, so, too, did new hitchhikers, ready and willing to fill in the gaps left by those disembarking. However, crossing the Indian Ocean on Strega has been different. Not only are there fewer boats, but fewer hitchhikers as well. At this point in the rally, a definite symbiotic relationship has developed during the last few passages between the owners of the sailboats and the crews. We rely very much on each other. It may appear that we need one other merely to share the mundane responsibilities of cooking duties and night watches, but in fact, the connections go much deeper and reach to the very heart of the big picture: We’re helping each other to fulfill our dreams.
There’s a kind of diametrical contrast at play when a group of strangers go to sea together. We all work as a team to move the boat and the adventure forward, yet as the days wear on, our identities as individuals—rather than as teammates—often intensify. We’re here in the middle of the ocean out of our own doing, each with our own personal ambitions that allow us to push onward. The strength of those ambitions can often determine how long we’ll function as team members before retreating into personal cocoons once the fatigue and cabin fever of a long passage set in. After hitchhiking for so many months at sea, I’ve witnessed the entire spectrum of ambition, from a captain terminally ill with cancer and determined to live it up to young people disenchanted with everyday life to people who’ve accomplished so much in this world that sailing around it seemed, somewhat matter-of-factly, like the next logical step. My own ambitions had long brewed, since those summer sailing holidays in my youth that I once shared with my father. Over the years, we’d both secretly dreamed of seeing exotic islands on the horizon and sailing night after night beneath star-filled skies. My ambition, when I set out on this journey, was to accomplish that dream for both of us. However, when I reached the halfway mark of my circumnavigation, the farthest point from home, that ambition was dealt a blow. Soon after sailing westward from Australia on Strega, I received news that my father had died.
Now as I sail across the Indian Ocean, each night I blink away the tears in my eyes and remind myself that completing this difficult ocean passage would make my father very proud.
My watch tonight draws to a close as the sky begins to lighten. Overnight, we’ve passed the midway point of our 2,000-mile passage between Australia’s Cocos, or Keeling, Islands, at 12 degrees south, 97 degrees east, and the island of Rodrigues, at 19 degrees south, 63 degrees east. Strega has been averaging almost exactly 200 miles a day as the consistent trade winds push us across the ocean in the company of waves, seabirds, and dolphins. A lucky crewmember takes over for the beloved sunrise watch while I set about turning off the navigation lights and putting on the kettle. The sun warms our backs and begins its climb into the sky. Our world is once again filled with diamondlike sparkles on the brilliant blue water that surrounds us on all points of the compass. Holding my mug of coffee, I look back off the stern to admire the spray and foam from our wake. Watching it trail far off into the distance behind us, I imagine that my journey is painting a thin white line across a big blue canvas.