Nine Point Nine

Of all the talents one can bring to the pursuit of offshore sailing--the dexterity to execute an instant rolling hitch on a pitching deck in a full gale, the wisdom to reef deeply as thick clouds gather on a distant horizon, the technical expertise to successfully address an electronic or mechanical glitch far from friendly boatyards--I’ve been blessed with perhaps the greatest gift of all: a short bloody memory. After all, who’d be masochistic enough to keep going back out there if all they remembered were those isolated but recurring bouts of terror, boredom, or wretchedness?

Those hazy notions of repressed woe were brought back into sharp focus last spring in the first windy 36 hours of a delivery trip from the Caribbean to Bermuda. Exhausted, sunburned, constipated, and seasick, I took a look at the bouncy, white-flecked waters and thought about taking a nice, long swim--away from the nearest terra firma.

Before I gather my proverbial sea legs, the first full day under way is generally unpleasant for me, even on the best of extended trips. Knowing this, I do what I can to minimize the pain. Having endured the horrifying side effects from a popular motion-sickness remedy many moons ago, these days I avoid such medication entirely. A touch of nausea I can stand; colorful little exploding heads singing high-pitched dirges of doom are another matter entirely.

As has become my custom, I skipped the bar session and enjoyed a hearty, healthy meal with a single glass of wine and lots of water the evening before setting out on this latest delivery. The next morning’s light breakfast was more aqua and a bit of fruit. But as I watched the sun begin to set on the second funky day of the voyage, there were many things rolling through my mind; food, conversation, reading, or any other sort of sensual pleasure weren’t among them. Before retiring below at dusk, in a dying breeze I helped the oncoming watch set the mizzen spinnaker on our 49-foot ketch, then slunk off to my clammy berth.

When I awoke from a dreamless sleep several hours later, it was to an entirely different world. As I eased behind the wheel to start a new watch, it was immediately apparent that the wind had backed and freshened, and though it was still shorts-and-T-shirt weather, the night air was cool and wonderful. Straddling the helm, the view forward of the North Star through the rigging was crystal clear. To the west, a rising half-moon cast shimmering orange reflections over the sea. For a brief dramatic moment, we appeared to be on a collision course with a little squall line, but it was no match for our split rig and staysail, and we skirted it easily.

Famished, I gratefully accepted a big hunk of a Cadbury bar. It was the best chocolate I ever ate. The only thing tastier was the long, sweet gulp of cold water that followed it down.

Powering along on a mighty broad reach, the well-trimmed ketch couldn’t have been easier to steer. With the rudder light and centered and all the other elements of the universe aligned, in the frequent surfs the boat-speed numbers spun like those on a slot machine: 7.9, 8.3, 9.1, 9.7 . . . 9.9.

We never did see the "10" that elsewhere symbolizes perfection. It would’ve been over the top, and in the big picture, a 9.9 on the scale seemed about right. Still, the magic of the night wasn’t lost on us. Fiddling with his shortwave receiver, my watchmate Ryan locked in to a BBC broadcast, and from distant shores we listened to the news of the world, little of it very pleasant.

Ryan shut the radio off. "We’re pretty lucky to be out here," he said. "Amen, brother," I replied. OK, my memories of misery are selective. But those unforgettable evenings, just this side of perfect, keep drawing me back to sea.

Herb McCormick