Perfect-Moment Picture Puzzle

The pieces are variously colored and shaped--both beautiful and threatening--and they’re all essential to the harmonious whole of an instant in time

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Lin and Larry Pardey absorb the water's colors and textures as Taleisin works quietly to windward.©billy Black

Our bow wave appeared to have doubled; extra streaks of biolumines-cence marred the perfect ribbons of foam spreading from Taleisin's surge down each sea.

"Darn, we must have a sheet overboard," I thought as I walked forward. Then I heard the blowing of half a dozen dolphins as they streaked clear of the water on each side of our bow, transforming my watch from simply a grand night into the most perfect sailing moment.

Taleisin, our 29-foot cutter, had been running wing and wing at an easy six knots under full main and working jib. Larry had just climbed back into the pilot berth after helping me strike our 600-square-foot nylon drifter. I'd cleared up the decks, bagging the sail and stowing it below, coiling halyards, and adjusting the topping lift on the spinnaker/whisker pole. No light was visible as I scanned the horizon--not one fishing boat or cargo ship in sight--although we were only 50 miles off the Uruguayan coast. Above me, the sky was ablaze with stars; below, the water glowed with the light of a million marine organisms, turning Taleisin's wake into a sparkling mare's tail. Astern, the wedge of a new moon poked clear of the horizon.

I watched our frolicsome visitors weave daisy chains below me as they rode the pressure waves of our bow one minute, then streaked off to port and starboard the next, only to return and dart beneath our bobstay as if they were trying to dare Taleisin's bowsprit to touch their gleaming backs. Fifteen miles ahead, a low bank of clouds marked the huge estuary of the Río de la Plata. Intermittent flashes of lightning added a grace note to the display above and below me.

The high barometer and steady but mild wind gave me hope that the lightning didn’t herald a strong pampero wind off the Pampas. We’d hove to through three frontal storms since leaving Buzios in Brazil, only 1,000 miles ago. Each time, winds had howled at 50 knots or more for 12 to 18 hours, and seas had built to 20 feet. I wasn’t the least bit interested in yet another storm. In fact, I was eager to reach Mar del Plata in Argentina, 300 miles ahead, so we could begin preparing for a foray to Patagonia before the Christmas holidays shut down the services we’d need, sailmakers, galvanizers, and provisioners among them.

Rather than go below to read my book, I stayed on the foredeck and let my mind wander back over the miles we’d covered since we decided, at 35 degrees north and 45 degrees west, roughly midway between Bermuda and the Azores, to head for another of those would-be-interesting-but-sure-is-out-of-the-way destinations. We’d head for Argentina--land of the tango, polo, gauchos, the Pampas, wild mountains, even wilder politics, and, if I could work up the nerve, gateway to the windswept wilds of Tierra del Fuego.

To avoid constant head winds and foul currents, we decided to follow the old sailing-ship routes described in Ocean Passages for the World. This meant heading east at about 39 north latitude to roughly 600 miles from the Azores. Then we’d go southeast until we were in sight of the Cape Verde islands before heading toward the equator to cross the doldrums at their narrowest point and weather the bulge of Brazil. Our end-of-July departure from Bermuda plus very light winds as we sailed farther into the Atlantic meant the first hurricanes of the season had begun to march west just a few hundred miles south of our course. "Perfect excuse to spend a few months exploring the Azores," Larry had commented as WWV radio located the second named tropical depression of the season between us and Cape Verde.

The Bad Days Pay for the Good
As I reflected on almost 8,000 miles of passagemaking in five months, including three short stops of five days each for reprovisioning, my first impression was that it had been a real grind. "Sure glad this wasn't my first taste of cruising," I muttered. "Doubt I'd have carried on." Slatting days in the Azores High; wet, lurching, muggy days of running in 35-knot winds over lumpy seas to Cape Verde; 10 days closehauled with 30 knots of wind and squally rain to get to the equator and across the South Equatorial Current; then the recent storms. I counted the good days--20 out of 82; the others were either frustrating, boring, wet, uncomfortable, or found us hove to.

Now, as I watched the dolphins weave their spells, then heard the ship’s bell chime five times to mark 2230, I began to think of what made those good days irreplaceable. I recalled the first true breeze filling in after four days of fickle zephyrs on the northern edge of the Azores High. The boat began to move at a soothing two and a half to three knots over an absolutely smooth sea, the drifter steadied into a fulsome, wind-catching shape, and Larry was reluctant to go below and climb into the bunk even though it was almost 2000 hours and the sun was well below the horizon.

I'd put an acoustic Eric Clapton disc on our new CD player, and it blended perfectly with our mood. Larry had brought the quarter-berth cushions into the cockpit to form a generous double bunk, just as we'd planned when we built Taleisin, and we'd lain together the first watch, caressed by the tropical air and savoring the northern stars we'd be leaving behind--the Big Dipper and Polaris, our constant point of reference in this hemisphere. A shooting star marked the edge of the Milky Way as we lay entwined.

I lay wide awake while Larry dozed, accustomed to the rhythm of our three-hours-on/three-hours-off watch system. I savored the last hours of my 57th year as he slept there, and only when the eight bells of midnight rang in my birthday did I reluctantly disturb him to return our bunk cushions and bodies to their proper watchkeeping places.

Under the Moonbow
Only a few squally days later, for just the second time in over l50,000 miles and 32 years of sailing, I saw a phenomenon that took my breath away: a moonbow. I'd first seen one in the North Pacific almost 22 years earlier, on our 24-foot cutter, Seraffyn, and it happened so quickly that there wasn't time to wake Larry so I could share it. Now, not only was the event slow and stately, but it also occurred as the two of us were preparing to change watches at 0200.

Rain showers had marched over us most of the day, fortunately having little effect on our 12-knot northerly breeze, so we kept reaching along at close to seven knots, three sails set and pulling, seas comfortably sized and spaced. Between rain showers, bright sunshine had quickly dried our decks, and the same pattern held all night, giving me half-hour moonlit patches on deck and half-hour turns below, donning my foul-weather jacket every 10 minutes to check for ships or for lightning or black clouds that could portend stronger winds. A shower had just passed to leeward when I woke Larry and then went out for my final look around.

The moon cleared the next shower in the line, and a perfect moonbow--shading from pale platinum through silver to gray--formed to reach across the horizon until it touched the whitecapped seas ahead of us. I called Larry, who climbed the companionway ladder to stand behind me. Slowly, as if dancing a classic pavane, a second moonbow took shape, just beyond and above the first. As Taleisin raced forward toward the two shimmering arches, Larry hugged me, and, without words, we agreed that this was exactly where we wanted to be.

Life-or-Death Drama
The log entry for our third day out of the Cape Verde island of Mindelo reads: "0300--Really nice sailing, probably making 5 1/2 knots wing and wing." Larry took over at 0500, and the sailing was, if anything, even better than it had been on my watch. It's almost become custom: Larry lets me sleep as long as I like on this last watch of the morning. I often clock five or six hours of luxurious, uninterrupted sack time, especially when the sailing is as good and smooth as this. Thus I was doubly confused and alarmed when Larry shouted, "Linny, give me a hand quick. I need you out here." I'd barely cleared the companionway before he headed up onto a beam reach, even though the jib was on the whisker pole.

"Keep an eye on that green fishnet," he yelled. "Poor turtle’s caught. It’ll die if we don’t help it." At first I couldn’t see the net; then, a dozen waves and a quarter of a mile astern, I saw the smooth patch of water created by the net--and then the turtle that lay in it.

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| Lin Pardey|

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| On this particular night, the view off the stern of Taleisin was spectacular.* * *|

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"What headsail are we going to use?" I called as Larry went forward to douse the big jib, and I remembered the man-overboard drills we’d practiced. We were on a beam reach now, steering slightly up to get to windward. All right, I thought to myself, Larry will drop the jib, then the pole, then set the staysail if we need it. Now fully awake, I began to enjoy this chance to put our practice to use in a real life-or-death situation.

As soon as Larry had the jib down, I sheeted in the mainsail and brought the boat over onto the starboard tack. Then Larry and I traded places; while I spotted from the foredeck, Larry steered, judging the force of the six-foot swell and wind-generated chop so he could stop Taleisin just to leeward of the turtle. We did it right the first time, and I cheered as we dropped the mainsail.

With the boat hook, Larry snagged the net enclosing the three-foot turtle and tried to drag both the turtle and the net on board, hand over hand. Only then did we realize how much of the heavy-duty fishnet lay below the surface. I rushed below for my serrated bread knife while Larry lay on his stomach trying to work the net free from the turtle’s flippers. I’m still amazed at Larry’s determination and dexterity as he lay over the side of the boat and worked at freeing the struggling creature, despite the drag of the net, the rolling of the boat, and the blood rushing to his head. Within five minutes, the turtle plopped clear of his snare, took a few strokes with his flippers to see if they still worked, then dove for freedom.

We were elated as Taleisin drifted downward, away from the scene of the rescue, but we realized we had some unfinished business. "If we leave the net here, it'll snag a lot more creatures," Larry said. "Guess we better complete the job." This time it took two passes to stop Taleisin alongside the net, and as we began hauling it aboard, a W.C. Fields quip came to mind: "No good deed goes unpunished." Dead fish, tiny crabs, barnacles, strands of seaweed, plus a three-foot-high, eight-foot-long pile of fishnet filled our 24-inch-wide side deck.

As soon as the net was on board, we set sail, debating the best course of action. We couldn’t keep it on board; there was no possible place to store it on our 29-footer. The smell was already strong, and a day or two in the tropical sun would turn up the stench a few notches. For more than an hour we discussed the possible choices, then we finally agreed to cut the net into small pieces, figuring they would be unlikely to ensnare creatures and more likely to sink as soon as barnacles and mussels grew on them.

So for the next two hours, we cut, sharpened knives, cut some more, chased crabs overboard, and reluctantly dropped a trail of two- by three-foot net rectangles overboard. Taleisin ran south at an easy seven knots, the two of us talking of other encounters with creatures of the sea--of whales, dolphins, petrels, and albatross, and, just a few days before, of the amazing flight of a hundred flying fish, chased by a school of royal-blue and gold mahimahi, fanning out ahead of us.

Thunderbolt Currency
By the time we'd disposed of the net and sluiced the last goose barnacle, crab, and fish scale off our side deck, it was well past our normal lunchtime. Larry had missed his morning and noon sextant sights, but with 600 miles of clear water on all sides, these mattered little. Now, 2,000 miles later, I heard the first rumble of thunder from the pampero clouds ahead of Taleisin, and I saw some flashes of lightning.

I reluctantly shoved aside my reminiscing and shone my flashlight over the sails and rigging, making sure all halyards were coiled and ready to run freely should Larry have to douse the sails quickly on his watch. The light beam flashed into the water and, for just a moment, glistened on a leaping pair of dolphins. In unison, the pod streaked off as if surprised they’d had a spectator watching their frivolity.

Another bolt of lightning filled the sky. This time I counted, "One-a-thousand, two-a-thousand. . . ." Forty-five full seconds--nine miles between us and a stationary squall line. "Good," I thought, "we won’t get into it until I’m sleeping. Maybe Larry won’t have to disturb my off watch."

Suddenly, I realized that the squall line’s threat was a vital piece of this perfect-moment puzzle. Each thunderbolt reminded me of how fleeting are such times--how changeable our life at sea can be. The highs or the lows, we can never be sure when either will happen. We can only be sure that they will.

Just before Christmas 2001, Cruising World Hall of Famers Lin and Larry Pardey arrived in Mar del Plata, Argentina, to rejuvenate Taleisin for an early 2002 Patagonia cruise, moving ever closer to Canal Beagle at the southern tip of Argentina's Tierra del Fuego for a run at Cape Horn.