Into the Wind

Three weeks ago and a few days before the US election, we faced a building storm in one of the most remote areas of Caribbean Panama. Totally alone out on the ocean, our transmission died just as I was hoisting the main sail as we departed from an offshore island. We were leaving an anchorage on a dangerous lee shore, so we couldn’t turn around and safely anchor there again. As if on cue, the winds picked up to 25 knots, and the sea punched our hull with continuous whitecapping waves. We were forced to sail dead on into a storm. 

The closest town, our destination, was over forty long nautical miles away. We had no cell service. Staring down these conditions feels a lot like the fear and anxiety of a presidential unknown–plus the uneasy immediacy of contemplating one’s own possible demise.

We could have turned around, ridden out the storm while losing ground in open water: gone with the wind and waves, a more comfortable direction for the boat. But we had places to see, people to meet, and a sturdy boat that knows how to sail upwind. So we pressed our little boat forward in building seas. We sailed strategically; we used the coastline ahead of us to gain some shelter from the swell and chop. 

When the paddleboards were ripped off the side of the boat by a wave that crashed over the hull, I despaired. I said let them go. But even as I said this, I never took my off them in the churning seas. This is the key to saving anything overboard: never let it out of your sights. With my eyes transfixed on the boards, Josh suggested we at least try to get them back. We calmly discussed our plan. He turned the boat into the howling wind. Even as the storm rattled the wires and my nerves, we sailed back downwind for the boards and, almost miraculously, were able to pull them both out of the angry sea. 

For the first part of that day, we traveled over twelve nautical miles, but made only two miles in the direction of our course. We literally had to tack backwards to go forward. Without a motor, we were forced to be more in tune with our conditions. We discussed turning around a few times. But we didn’t. Wet, cold, and fatigue saturated my bones from constantly shifting our sails and hand steering all day in the gusty wind and driving cold rain. The winds mocked our attempts to steer with capricious gusts. But after a while, we learned how to steer into the gusts and when to expect them.

We eventually got the transmission working and were able to set a more comfortable course into the wind. We had the tools and the knowledge to do this. Around the same time, the winds eased and the crashing waves abated. The ship no longer had to dunk her bow to fight forward. But we persevered through some very uncomfortable, scary conditions in the meantime. There wasn’t so much the absence of fear, but the ability to make good decisions with it present. There was love and trust between the two of us, and we trusted the boat. Even the dog understood the conditions and stoically persevered. Sometimes we forget how good we are as a team; it takes an unexpected failure and a storm to remind us.

We are more ready than we think. The daily, insidious onslaught on women, minorities, the rural and poor, our climate and environment means we have been practicing our whole lives for this. This storm is the opportunity that we needed. 

We may be required to go backwards on the path forward. This calls forth our dragons but also illuminates our resilience. We have each other. We have a good boat. We have wits, grit, and humor, and we know how to keep our eyes laser-focused on our task. We are fortunate to be alive, alive in this time, with this opportunity to hoist our sails, turn into the wind, and take. a. stand.

Oleada heels in a gust as the rain pelts the cockpit.

10 Responses to Into the Wind

  1. Kathy Suter December 4, 2016 at 5:33 pm #

    Geeeezzzzz Jess!
    So good to hear you have such trust in each other and the boat, no doubt this makes you stronger. Still, be careful out there wonder people.

    • Jess December 7, 2016 at 1:38 pm #

      Hi Kathy! We miss you and Al and Margarita and the kitties! We fall waaaaaaaay on the conservative side of the sailing community. Who knows why, but I’m definitely not interested in sailing in bad conditions, so we try to do it as little as possible!!

  2. Denise December 6, 2016 at 9:57 pm #

    My worst fear. But loved reading about it.

    • Jess December 7, 2016 at 1:23 pm #

      Thanks Denise!

  3. Erik Bachmann December 7, 2016 at 11:20 am #

    Well said Jess! Glad to hear you three tackled the task at hand with such focused, calm, determination. I would have been so sad to hear that you lost the paddleboards! Especially since your new one was soooo sweet. Meagan and I nearly lost our new one we bought in Hawaii when it broke its tether without us knowing at anchor. I swam dangerously far out the bay to reach it with 30-knot trades blowing me and the board into the open Pacific. It was stupid in hindsight!

    • Jess December 7, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

      Oh JEEZ Erik!! Glad you saved it but sounds a little crazy. Speaking of stupidity, when we left port we even said that we should secure them better, and we didn’t. It was miraculous that we saved not just one but both of them–they stayed stuck together I think because of the deck grips. But it was a tiny bit devastating to lose the fancy Sunbrella cover I had spent at least a week making 🙁 Hope Alaska is treat you well these days!

  4. Mary Clare December 7, 2016 at 1:24 pm #

    GREAT essay! Yep, good about successfully navigating treacherous waters. Political climate parallel noted and resolve taken!!! Love you two!

    • Jess December 8, 2016 at 9:39 am #

      Thanks Mary Clare! We hope all is well in the great white North, we (almost) miss winter! Hopefully we will see you in the Caribbean!

  5. Polly Kratt December 8, 2016 at 9:30 am #

    Fascinating story – I did a bit of sailing in my younger days and your description of the storm brought back some of those feelings of awe and anxiety.
    I just met Josh’s mom at a yoga class this morning & learned about your blog and research — she was kind enough to share a method to follow your journey through Facebook. I have found stories in other places too — is there a best method to follow y’all?

    • Jess December 8, 2016 at 9:40 am #

      Hi Polly, welcome aboard! The most up-to-date way is Facebook and instagram, I think, but I hope to catch the blog up in the next two months now that we have a port with decent internet!

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