This is Clouds Form Over Land, weekly writing about life at sea and going ashore.
Ever since we chose our route from San Francisco to the Chesapeake Bay, the Caribbean crossing contained uncertainty.
We could go for the famed “Windward Passage” between Cuba and Hispaniola (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic), island-hop the Eastern Caribbean, or complete one long sail from Panama to the Yucatan.
As we learned more about seasonal wind directions and currents from guidebooks, forecasts, and old salts, the long sail on the Western route held the most appeal. This way, we could go with the prevailing winds and currents, rather than against. If we’ve learned anything by this experience, it may just be to go with the flow if it gets us where we want to go.
We considered making the jump in December as fall blended into winter but decided to wait out the season in Cartagena instead. Making this eastward progress from Panama improved our wind angle on the passage to the Yucatan, and the months delayed meant we wouldn’t be sailing against cold northerly winds in Florida and beyond. Plus, we could spend our time in a relatively more affordable place, practice Spanish, and attain new levels of ship-shapedness.
For the weeks and months prior to departure, the trade winds blew continuous reminders of the task ahead: 1000 miles of open water. We knew the wind should shift with the changing of the seasons, but there wasn’t much indication until mid-March. Suddenly boats began departing and arriving after months of stagnation that felt a bit like being snowed-in. We spotted our weather window, got an extra friend onboard, and went for it.
Here is a mix of my notes app and reflections now that we’ve landed in Mexico:
Wednesday, March 15, 7:47 AM
Javier, Miguel, Karen, and Steve see us off the dock. Our final tasks were shifting storm sails to the v-berth, the triangular bed at the bow of the boat where we typically sleep. We added sheets to the couches and set up mesh lee cloths to keep us tucked in as the boat heels and rolls. I woke up at 5:30 and took Cypress for the last walk about the marina, yoga session above the bar, and last shower for a few days. The cityscape left us incrementally as skyscrapers dipped below the horizon and boat traffic fell off to next to nothing.
The first two days felt like an enjoyable haze. We settled into our schedule of four hours on, eight hours off. My watches were 3-7 AM and 3-7 PM, the transitions from night to day to night. Scott prefers the night owl shift starting at eleven and John got the convenience store shift (7-Eleven). We made some unmemorable meals, snacked on snacks, and felt more energy by Friday. We hired a weather router before leaving, and he advised checking in via sat phone on the 18th for an update.
Friday, March 17, 4:41 AM
The waning crescent moon is a quarter of the way above the horizon and the Big Dipper looks back when I peak around the starboard side of the dodger. Cypress is sleeping on the step, guarding the space between me and Scott, who is sound asleep on the starboard settee, a fancy way of saying the couch on the right. What a gift to do just this for nearly 1000 miles. We seem to be ahead of schedule, zooming along these first two days. There's something magical about being awake and observant in these early hours, with my piping hot thermos of instant coffee and powdered milk. The boat rocks side to side every two seconds, but mostly we glide forward, slicing the sea on our trajectory. I'm sleeping every moment I can. We never know how much a passage will require of our reserves - stored sleep, stored fat. I love sleeping in the pilot berth and think it'll be my chosen spot going forward. It's almost coffin like, but cozy and out of the way.
I've been thinking about butterflies and cocoons and chrysalises and crucibles, inspired by my friend Dahlia who recently moved from sea to land too. Before the butterfly emerges, it becomes soup. A sailing passage feels like a container. The limited access to the outside world turns the focus on only the vessel, the crew, the conditions, and self.
In the months prior to this passage, I'd been thinking about fortifying myself, becoming as mentally strong as possible. Facing down some unhelpful habits, having some conversations, clearing some expectations of self and others. For much of this journey, it's seemed helpful to name just how gosh darn hard it is to be out here, but that no longer seems to fit. My difficulties are mostly chosen and mostly worth it. 675 miles to Mexico. 12 more shifts? These last two years have challenged me more than I imagined, but my strength was there to match. Now I'd like to be as soft as possible. My stress levels have dropped off the map since we left the dock. I'm rested and calm and ready, come what may. I'm not expecting things to go wrong, but if it does I'll meet it with a soft urgency.
Saturday, March 18, 4:05 AM:
We have settled into a rhythm, this crew of four. Everyone is making incremental progress in adapting to our environment, which compounds and passes on to the next person on watch. I think we do this when it’s just me and Scott driving, but it's easier to see with John here. The miles remaining jump down almost impossibly quickly. 519 to go. 8.5 knots speed over ground. Cypress had stood watch with me these last two nights - preferring to sit in the top step overlooking the guys while being within reach of me. John requests new weather reports and Scott builds the new route. We each act as a link in the chain, communicating course changes and weather updates. Keeping an eye out for new messages to the sat phone, acting as receptionist for each other. I'm thinking about going for a run when we get there. I'm gobbling up audio books and zooming in and out of the map, trying to conceptualize just how far we've come. Yesterday we all took showers and had a steak dinner and the first unclouded sunset. The stars are so bright tonight. The moon is almost new, it is almost spring. The astrologers cautioned against doing anything major this week as there are many planetary shifts in the sky, but I prefer to zoom in on the shifts closer the earth. Suddenly summer seems so much closer, like when I'm next in the watch rotation, rather than two away. I trust that I already have everything it takes to get there, and that anything missing will arrive or be learned on time. I'm trying to zoom out like a drone taking flight to see our stout vessel out here, mostly alone now that we've passed north of the Panama Canal approach. We talk about what the next sea voyage may be, and we know we need the solidity of land to form our next dreams. The waning moon has risen, just a little sliver left. Menstruation is nearly complete as well, energy returning and this extra care burden almost cleared from my shipboard duties.
Sunday, March 19, 3:59 am:
Tucked in with two blankets I made and the cat who joined the journey in San Diego. DJ-ing audio books, swirling subjects. More instant coffee in a thermos I bought to commute on the NYC subway from Crown Heights to Midtown. Sometimes it feels like a straight line to get to the present moment, others a windy path. These are reminders that everything is always changing, always weaving in and out. We got a route shift suggestion and are considering a detour to the Caymans. We are likely pressing on. I had swirling dreams of a work opportunity, fragments of a book, and being in an office. Other nights I've hazily thought about errands to run in Cartagena, my dream state not realizing we won't step off this boat to those surroundings again. Our dock at the last marina was a tiny sliver and required vaulting over our stainless steel railing and balancing breifly on one leg. I must have done it a thousand times and was reminded of this with the care and caution others took when trying to get on board.
I never feel like writing in the afternoon. My mind feels sharpest and quietest here in the dark.
The afternoon shift from 3-7 is usually somewhat social with Scott and John joining between naps down below. Do non boat people know that the ominous "down below" refers to our small kitchen and sitting room? Two guys playing Mario kart on the couch. The last two days my shift has overlapped with spa time —quick showers to wash off the salt, sweat, and sunscreen. We also survey the fridge and brainstorm dinner, sharing the tasks of deciding, slicing, cooking, and washing up. I feel acclimated to my schedule and the motion of the sea. I'm working on a sweater sleeve and have considered, but not yet taken, the leap to reading paper books. The wind shifted advantageously, so I get up to adjust the autopilot 10 degrees. We need to point a bit more west, but don't mess with the whisker pole at night if we can help it. We're running full sails for the first time at night, but the weather is supposed to stay light. Two hours until sunrise.
Tuesday, March 21, 3:47 AM:
The bioluminescence is so bright on each cresting wave of this bumpy, lumpy sea. I'm cold for the first time! Huddling under my constellation quilt which is sopping wet, but warmed by my heat. My neck and back hurt from banging around and sleeping strangely for nearly a week now.
The gaps in my informal log coincide with uncertainty on board. Because this passage was a lengthy one and overlapped with two differing weather patters, we would have leave one port with awareness and willingness to bail out along the way. When we received updated weather data on the 18th, the cold front from up north was filling in and bringing uncomfortable conditions. After lots of back and forth with our weather router and second opinions from other sailing friends, we decided it was safe, but slightly uncomfortable to press on. We sailed an indirect route to give the front time to move through and dissipate. A shore bird took respite after likely being caught in the wind somewhere near the Cayman Islands. We sat in flux together as comfortably as we could, and I think were all relieved when we could stick to the original course.
I had the final shift of the passage and was responsible for slowly sailing to pass the time before sunrise. We hoisted a Mexican flag and yellow quarantine flag. We then had a comedy of tasks at the harbor entrance, including the engine dying, quick sailing and anchoring, a visit from the Mexican Navy and their Germand Shepard, and a thorough inspection of our cupboards and cat.
What I downloaded before take-off:
Black Earth Wisdom is the must-read of this list. How Far the Light Reaches was both a mirror and window into the experience of growing up and figuring out who we are. The Arawak filled some knowledge gaps and Magdalena brought me right back to the magical realism of Colombia. We Are What We Eat got me thinking about each meal-time as a possibility for creativity and connection to the earth. Also, Alice popularizes the idea of free, healthy, local school lunch for all — let’s do it!
For tunes, I had albums from First Aid Kit, Polo & Pan, Andrew Bird, Kurt Vile, Bayonne, Lucius, Little Tybee, and the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack. Kevin made us the Mariner's Revenge playlist for this passage and I revisited the Papagayo playlist that Scott made while cruising the same latitudes on the Pacific side.
Do something that makes you sweat.
Read a book about the indigenous people in the land you occupy, or of a place you will visit soon.
Dream up a voyage by train, bike, or other slow mode of transport.
Written in the spirit of not letting what we can’t do get in the way of what we can.
Did you try any of these? I’d love to hear about it.
Wow. Incredible. One of my favorite passages. Keep writing. Keep sharing. Keep sailing. You're in our thoughts every day.
'go with the flow if it gets us where we want to go' -- AMEN. I love sailing along with you through your words ... also, hat tip to Carter's guest advice last week. Words of wisdon!