Adrenaline in the Moonlight

No amount of gear or preparation can prevent the unavoidable. When it’s not your time, just give thanks, ’cause it’s not your time

April 30, 2003


Bernadette Bernon

Trees may not grow in the ocean, but they can float. In the dark of night, 94 miles offshore, as we sailed between the Rosario islands of Colombia and the San Blas islands of Panama, a big one, longer than Ithaka, jerked us from seven knots to a teeth-rattling dead stop. Bernadette was on watch, in the cockpit, and I was asleep below when we hit. Jolted horribly, Ithaka rose up, fell, and shuddered, throwing me off the settee.

I knew we were pounding something and hoped it wasn’t the sharp edge of a container. In the seconds it took to race up the companionway, my mind’s eye flashed to where we store our hole-repair materials, underwater epoxies, and abandon-ship bags. I hoped to need none of them. Bernadette told me later she’d thought we’d glanced off an unlit ship, and she immediately jumped to her feet, unlocked the autopilot, grabbed our most powerful light, and looked to see if there was a black wall above us. No ship, but in the light’s beam, under our bow, we saw that we’d T-boned the trunk of a great tree, complete with a massive root system; in the swell, over and over, we continued to sail and crash against it. Stuck on that perch, Ithaka first turned broadside to the wind, then swiveled some more and became backwinded.

Neither of us managed sentences; we just kept exclaiming phrases of disbelief. But adrenaline packs some serious mojo, and we kicked into gear with righteous speed. I rushed below to check our bilge. The hull wasn’t breached, and we weren’t taking on water. Luckily, too, in the wave action, Ithaka hadn’t climbed completely over the trunk, where it could have lodged between keel and rudder, done heaven-only-knows-what damage, and been nigh on impossible to dismount or extract. Bernadette quickly turned on the engine, and we managed to back off and float free. Instinctively, I hit the MOB button on the GPS to fix a waypoint, for what I’m not sure.


It was a close call but not our time, and we were thankful for good fortune in chaos. A less sturdy boat wouldn’t have fared as well, but Ithaka is gloriously overbuilt, so this unavoidable collision wasn’t catastrophic, just inconvenient and, at the time, frightening. Other than scraped bottom paint, the only casualty, which we’d discover the next day when we closed in on our landfall and its shallow reefs, was our depth sounder, whose transducer must’ve been smashed by the tree; it now reports that we’re eternally off soundings. Perhaps that’s its idea of heaven.

Here, too, we were fortunate. In addition to carrying a lead line, last year at haulout we’d installed a spare transducer on the other side of the bow, just in case. After anchoring safely in the lee of Isla Pinos in the San Blas for a half an hour of rewiring, we were back in business.

Horrors and joys often find homes as flip sides of the same coin, one being the cost of the other. In cruising, there are distances to cross succeeded by heady arrivals, exhaustion followed by exultation, near-miss accidents of all kinds trailed by the high-octane kick of surviving them. Snorkeling, shooting stars, and the freedom to come and go are balanced by no-bluff life-and-death accountability for vessel and existence, a responsibility for life I never felt so keenly on land.


The times we’ve grazed coral heads, navigated for the wrong island, or dragged in the dark (honest cruisers will fess up to these screwups and plenty more), we’ve had to look in the mirror and own what we saw. With unpreventable accidents, like our tree, we’ve felt like well-prepared fatalists, living through moments of terror, then thrilling to being full-well alive, unburdened by illusions of control.

Much of life’s good stuff seems to embody such symmetries, and save for the tree–no, maybe even including the tree, which gave us a new meaning for the term “log of Ithaka”–this was one of the most beautiful evenings we’ve known at sea. We had a gentle 15 knots, a following sea, and a roaring beam reach on a gorgeous boat in which we were filled with renewed confidence, and once the cloud cover broke around midnight, we had a nearly full moon–plus the energetic buzz to enjoy it. Passagemaking doesn’t get much better than that.

For three years, since they left Rhode Island on their Shearwater 39, Bernadette and Douglas have chronicled their cruising life on CW’s website. See the Log of Ithaka at for the complete archives.


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