Nothing happened when I pushed the tiller hard to leeward. Gecko remained on a starboard tack, and the 15-foot waves continued to roar under her bow. I was in the strongest section of the Gulf Stream on day two of my planned solo circumnavigation. In defiance of the weather forecast, a 40-knot easterly had sprung up, and was methodically pushing me north onto Cape Hatteras. The large paddle on my Monitor windvane had blown out of its bracket, and I was steering with my foot while I desperately tried to fit the smaller paddle into place.
Although I was mentally exhausted from the intensity of the storm, I wasn’t worried about the integrity of Gecko. I had just finished a 10-month-long overhaul, and she had never been more seaworthy.
I found Gecko, a Grinde 27 double-ender built in Denmark, when I was laid up in Maine, recovering from a mountain-biking accident I’d had in the Philippines. I broke my wrist in the last week of a three-month solo backpacking trip in Southeast Asia. The accident sent me skidding home to completely rewrite my summer. It was the first time in four years that I wasn’t transient, and I quickly grew bored with the predictable routine. I felt the need to introduce some uncertainty back into my life, so I decided to get serious about buying a boat. I’ve wanted to sail my own boat around the world since I was 11 and my parents moved our family ashore after a 15-year circumnavigation. My siblings and I had been raised along the way, and our boat was my first home. There aren’t many activities you can do with one hand, but boat shopping is definitely one of them.
It wasn’t just my current condition that was perfect for spending hours browsing boats online. I also was living with two resident experts on bluewater cruising boats. My parents—Dave and Jaja Martin—met in the Caribbean when my dad was solo sailing on his Cal 25 Direction. They fell in love and decided to circumnavigate together; they recounted many of their adventures in stories written exclusively for Cruising World. A 25-foot boat is small, but they were only two people. Why would they need anything bigger?
When they were halfway across the Pacific, they discovered they were going to become parents. Instead of selling Direction and flying back to the States, they continued sailing. Chris was born in Australia, and I was born 18 months later in New Zealand. Four years later, having just finished their circumnavigation, my parents had their third child. Teiga was born on Direction, delivered by my dad. Shortly after, we traded Direction for a 33-foot steel-hulled sloop, Driver, and headed to the Arctic. After five years of high-latitude sailing, we settled down in Maine, where my parents designed and built their off-the-grid solar home. To say they were supportive of my decision to buy a boat is an understatement.
The first boat I looked at was Gecko, which was the only boat my dad was visibly excited to go see. On a rainy May morning in 2017, the two of us set off on a three-hour drive to Salem, Massachusetts. Gecko (then Seamark) was on the hard, and my dad and I first walked underneath her to inspect the hull. With her fin keel and transom-hung rudder, we were already salivating before we had even checked out the topsides. We climbed aboard, and I wiggled around with my cast held aloft, trying not to get too excited, because this boat seemed perfect. After my dad conducted a thorough survey, the two of us convened on the bow to have a private conversation. “I think this might be the one,” I said. My dad, ever the silent type, just grinned.
I didn’t sign the final papers until Gecko had been launched and proved seaworthy. My mom spent the first night on board with me, and then traded out with my dad, who drove down to help me sail Gecko back up to Maine. The electrical systems weren’t working, so we used suction-cup running lights and a chart plotter borrowed from my dad’s Wharram catamaran, which we hot-wired onto one of the batteries. That night we steered by the stars, with the occasional flick of a flashlight onto the compass to check our heading. The following afternoon, we were in Round Pond, Maine, and my real work began.
The first project I tackled was to pull out the holding tank and all the plumbing. The tank had not been completely flushed since it was installed, and the smell was unbelievable. The only way to get rid of the odor was to throw out all the cushions, and paint or epoxy-coat every stick of wood on the entire boat, including the insides of the lockers. Once I could breathe freely, I pulled out the wiring and redid the whole electrical system, adding LED running and cabin lights.
Next, I stripped and refinished the floorboards, and painted the faded bulkheads white. I ripped out the entire galley and rebuilt it to include better storage, a new sink and countertop, and a two-burner stove with an oven. In the main cabin, I converted the pilot berth into lockers, and pulled out the sink in the head to make more space. Since I’d thrown out the old cushions, I had to learn how to make new ones. I glued together foam scraps, and sewed new covers from fabric remnants. Sewing was far more stressful than the carpentry projects I’d been working on. My sewing battle-face scared away a few visitors, but the sweat in my eyes prevented me from noticing.
On a trip to Washington state that spring, I found a used Monitor windvane at a salvage yard. I shipped the frame back to Maine, and flew home with a 4-foot-long box containing the delicate paddles—not your average carry-on item.
When my mast finally emerged from the melting snow, I turned my attention to the rig. I replaced all the standing rigging and added a set of spreaders I’d found at a local marine salvage yard. Since the spreaders changed the whole rig design, I had to measure out all the new shrouds with my mast lying on sawhorses next to Gecko. This led to a tense moment when the mast was being stepped in the parking lot near the launching ramp. I had a stack of shackles waiting in case I’d made a mistake, but everything miraculously fit.
Gecko’s 10-month haulout was a marathon through which my dad acted as encyclopedia and mentor. I completely trusted his knowledge and skill set, and he was an amazing teacher. The sailing community in Maine also provided invaluable assistance throughout the refit process. I was humbled time after time as seasoned professionals offered their skills and expertise, and even gave me parts for my boat.
Over winter I had been commuting between Maine and Antarctica for my contract-based job as a marine technician for the United States Antarctic Program. In this way, I was able to maintain a reliable income while dedicating all my time off to renovating Gecko. Finally, in late October 2018, I was ready to head south.
On a crisp fall morning, I set out from Pemaquid Harbor to cross the Gulf of Maine, bound for Cape Cod. It seemed that every ship and fishing boat in the Northeast also thought this was the best time to head out, and I spent the night dodging running lights. It was just above freezing, and I shivered in the cockpit, wrapped in a sleeping bag and all my warm clothes. Picture a colorful maggot, clutching the tiller and siphoning oatmeal. At sunrise, the wind died, and I motored, steering by hand because the tiller pilot wasn’t working. I kept falling asleep at the helm, and at one point as I drifted off, I remembered thinking: It’s OK to sleep. Holly’s on the helm. She knows what she’s doing. Luckily I made it to Cape Cod unscathed.
Nor’easter after nor’easter barreled up the coast that November, and there was never more than a two- or three-day weather window at a time. I sailed down Long Island Sound to avoid the 50-knot storm that blew offshore for three days. Snow was chasing me down the coast, but luckily I was always a few days ahead of it. I lived in my down jacket and wool long underwear. The wind continued to blow with a vengeance. Coming around Sandy Hook, New Jersey, in 35 knots of wind, Gecko was almost completely knocked down. I clung to the tiller as the cockpit became vertical and the sea lapped at the leeward cabin top. Everything below ended up on the floor in a puddle of water, but I couldn’t leave the helm to rescue it. When I finally turned back onto my course, Gecko was surfing downwind at 10 knots.
That night, as the sun set and the windvane was steering in gloriously sweeping S-curves, I went below to begin the first in my series of 20-minute naps. It was so cold that I was sleeping in my full foul-weather gear and sea boots. I would just start to get warm when my timer would go off, and I’d have to get up to check my course and look for ships. Without an AIS or radar, these checks were critical.
At about 0200, I discovered that my biggest problem wasn’t outside the boat. Although conveniently out of the wind and weather, the trouble was alarmingly located in my forward bilge. A disconcerting splashing prompted me to peek forward, where I found standing water above the floorboards in the head. It wasn’t a significant amount of water, considering the beating I had taken for the previous 12 hours. Even if there were a leak, it wasn’t serious. But where was the water coming from?
This is my least favorite game to play on my boat, and I started in unenthusiastically. After some time, I discovered that the water was entering through the anchor chain hawse holes, flooding the locker and overflowing into the entire V-berth, and eventually into the forward bilge. My bedding did such a good job of filtering out the salt that I momentarily considered marketing it as an off-brand watermaker. Grabbing a bucket and a hand pump, I emptied 5 gallons of water out of the chain locker. Next, I turned my attention to the water intrusion. Using a hair tie and a plastic bag, I sealed off the starboard hawse hole completely. The port side had the anchor chain coming up through it, so I stuffed handfuls of plastic bags into the hole, and kept up with the pumping until I arrived in Cape May, New Jersey.
I had to wait three nights for the next nor’easter to pass through, and I took advantage of the delay to get some exercise by accidentally trespassing on the US Coast Guard beachfront. A few days later, I jumped out on the back of another nor’easter and rode the winds down to Norfolk, Virginia.
It was fairly late when I dropped the hook the next night, but I was itching for a walk. Rigged up in my duct-taped down jacket and faded sea boots, I set off for my favorite destination: the nearest grocery store. While walking home with a full pack, I found myself suddenly flanked by two women with suspiciously cheery grins.
“Our church is giving out free dinner tonight,” the short one said. My exhausted mind tried to make sense of the situation. Was she trying to get me to donate money to their dinner? It seemed a worthy cause, and I tried to remember if I had any cash left.
Then the tall one spoke.“Everyone is welcome,” she said. “It’s just right down the street.” Suddenly my genius brain put it together: They thought I was homeless! I desperately tried to explain that I wasn’t homeless—I was a sailor. But the current between the two was strong, and I felt myself unwillingly swept up and whirled through a series of food tongs and well-wishes. Apparently, people dress a bit differently in the South.
After Norfolk, the going was easy. I shed layers as I motored along the Intracoastal Waterway. I arrived at my final stop—Oriental, North Carolina—on Thanksgiving Day. I was drawn to Oriental because my family and I lived there for a year on my parent’s first boat, Direction. My sister was born in Whittaker Creek Marina, and I had a long-dead hamster buried somewhere in the woods. Family friends Jennifer and Tim helped me find a slip for Gecko, and agreed to look in on her while I was gone, it was time to go back to work. I patted Gecko on her stupid leaky bow and told her I’d be back soon.
Returning to Oriental in early March. I had about a month’s worth of projects to complete before I could to take off, and I tackled them with vigor, excited to sail to warmer climes.
My plan was to sail from Beaufort, North Carolina, to Culebra, Puerto Rico, by heading due east and then hooking a right at Bermuda, a distance of about 1,200 nautical miles. I didn’t have a way of getting weather while I was at sea, but the forecast looked good, and I was anxious to start.
I headed out of Beaufort on April 4, and motored all day in no wind. With a 10-horse engine, motoring is slow, but I was in high spirits. All the old salts had warned me about the Gulf Stream, but the forecast looked great, and I was determined to prove them all wrong.
The following morning, I was only halfway through the Stream when the weather changed; the 15 to 20 knots from the southeast became 40-knot easterlies. By the time I realized I was getting swept north, it was too late to turn around and head back for Beaufort. I had already been pushed more than 10 miles up the Stream, and going south was no longer an option; I was getting pushed north no matter which tack I was on. If this keeps up, I’ll be back in Maine soon, I thought. The sun was setting, the waves were 15 feet, and the wind was blowing a steady 40. Having just swapped out windvane paddles and struck the main, I decided to heave to. Although I was sailing with just a storm jib, I discovered I could heave to using the current. My worry was that I was now drifting toward the nasty shoals lurking around Cape Hatteras. However, there was nothing else I could do, so I curled up below, using my iPad to keep tabs on my course.
As the sun rose, the wind veered slightly south. Seizing the moment, I put up a triple-reefed main and pointed my bow east. I slowly eased out of the Stream’s sticky clutches, and the last of the current slipped below the keel. I’d done it! The wind mellowed throughout the day until midnight, when I was completely becalmed. I bobbed around with limp sails for a full day until a breeze took pity on me and pushed me onward.
On day seven, I was on the same longitude as Bermuda and ready to make my right-hand turn. If I’d had access to a weather forecast, I would have hightailed it for Bermuda instead and hidden out for the next few days. However, I remained ignorantly blissful until sunset, when a storm cloud approached over the horizon. I quickly clipped in to switch out my genoa for a working jib and throw a reef in the main. Here was another storm to contend with.
The first wave broke over my boat at dawn, while I was below napping. I waited as Gecko sorted herself out, hoping the wave had been an anomaly. The second breaker hit a few minutes later. Green water rushed over my hatches and poured into the cockpit. Grumbling, I suited up and went topside. The cockpit was full of ankle-deep water, with a few dead flying fish floating around in it. Never get a pet, I said to myself. You can’t even keep a fish alive in a flowing-seawater aquarium.
I was already closehauled, but the seas were hitting me right on my beam. I unhooked the windvane and hand-steered, pinching so that the waves would strike just forward of the beam. This prevented them from breaking over my boat, and made for a smoother ride. Five hours of hand-steering later, I was exhausted and soaking wet. My foul-weather pants leaked so badly that I’d given up wearing them a few days before, and my feet had been immersed in cockpit water for hours. I decided to see if my windvane could handle pinching. Taking a deep breath, I hooked it up and then let go of the tiller to see what would happen. It took a minute, but the vane held Gecko exactly where I wanted her. I retired below to my sleeping bag to dry off and warm up.
The storm blew out overnight and was replaced by the beautiful easterlies I’d been so eagerly anticipating. I watched a rainbow grow from sea level up inside of a squall, starting as a red fire on the horizon and then lazily unfurling into a low-slung arch. On my last day before landfall, I hand-sewed my quarantine and Puerto Rican flags in the cockpit. At 0300, I poked my head out of the companionway to see St. Thomas glittering off to port. Puerto Rico lay waiting for me in the dark. I was excited to take my first steps onshore, but 14 days at sea had made me patient—and a little reticent to hurry up and get in. As the breeze quieted and the sun broke, I left my small headsail up and enjoyed the slow approach of the scrub-covered hills of Culebra. I had been out for two weeks. A few extra hours weren’t going to make a difference.
The subsequent months of sailing in the Caribbean were blissful and lazy. Because I left the States late in the season, I was also at the tail end of the Caribbean cruising season. But I’m in no rush. Most of the leaks and repairs from Gecko’s shakedown cruise were quickly addressed, and life became slow and peaceful. I’m excited to test my skills on the longer passages of the South Pacific, but after the trip from Maine to the Caribbean, the overnighters between islands were perfect. I finally felt that I was right where I belonged.
After a spring and summer thoroughly exploring the Caribbean, Holly Martin sailed to Panama, with immediate plans to transit the Canal and carry on into the South Pacific. For more on her continuing adventures, visit her website.