Vulnerable, Together: The Ocean and the Sailor

On the ocean, the horizon can feel crushingly wide. From the cockpit, we can only react to what the expanse reveals—and what it doesn’t, with frustratingly vague clues. As we sail through the tropics in rainy season—filled with towering thunderclouds and sudden, violent storms at any hour—we find ourselves often peering nervously into the horizon. As black clouds mushroom, we can only guess at many factors: how hard is it raining? Will it continue? Which direction will this storm go? How much wind does this storm cell pack? Do we need to shorten our sails? Now? If there isn’t lightning now, will there be? Should we turn around or forge ahead?

A sailing adage calls the sport ‘hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.’ But that leaves out the gnawing uncertainty of reading a horizon and the edginess that can accompany complete vulnerability to the elements.

Off the Pacific coast of Panama, Josh and I sit in the cockpit and discuss the darkening horizon. We left Islas Secas in a good breeze and clear sunshine one hour earlier. Now, I watch with increasing dread as the indigo underbellies of storm clouds billow higher into a wash of white above the mainland. These storms grow rapidly, packing powerful winds and terrifying lightning that could easily destroy our boat’s electronics, punch a hole in the hull, and electrocute Josh and me.

Maybe we can beat this storm, I wonder aloud. I sit on the edge of the cockpit and we watch the clouds for a few tense minutes. The wind increases on our bow, and our silence is carried away by the headwind that flogs our jib, leaving it snapping angrily.

Watching.

I want to make it to the mainland and the promise of calm anchorage. It’s been two weeks since I’ve slept well, and I can feel my nerves fraying under my salt-stained skin. We have been taking shelter behind offshore islands, where storms and swell wrap into our anchorages in the night, causing the boat to toss and turn, leaving us doing the same.

We could stop at Isla Brincanco, a small, steep island between us and the continent, but it’s a “roadstead” anchorage. We would be potentially exposed to wind and swell, and the guidebook warns that the only solid holding (for the anchor) is at least forty feet deep—fifty-five feet at high tide. Deep anchorages are not ideal because they require we pay out extensive chain, at least 200 feet, and this is tiring to pull up manually. Plus it leaves us vulnerable to an invisible bottom, along which rocks and trees could snag our anchor in this seldom-used location, and freediving to unsnag the anchor would be at Josh’s limits.

I watch the leading edge of the storm, a distinct line of black sweeping south, giving us an idea that it’s traveling north—towards where we want to go. No. No, I don’t like the look of the clouds. I make our decision.

I pick up the VHF radio and hail our friends Jon and Shannon on Prism, sailing half an hour behind usWe have been sailing with this young couple off and on for seven months, and we frequently chat on our VHF radio to check in and to help each other. “I think we’re going to tuck into this island and see what happens with these clouds.” The wind picks up, and we roll in all but a fraction of our jib.

“Well, we’re going to keep going.” Shannon’s cheery assertion causes me to cringe internally. Am I overreacting? Should we do the same?

I don’t want to find out. We round the corner into the bay of the tiny island, and Prism disappears from view. Here, the tall ridge of the island protects us from the mounting winds. We search for a spot to anchor along the steep shore, using our depth sounder and eyes. The water along the shore is an opaque, brilliant turquoise. The wind is blowing off the shore, an ideal direction keeping us safely away from the eerie tree branches poking out of the water near what our charts tell us is a steeply sloping bank.

After driving the boat in a circle to check the depths, I lower the anchor and carefully feed out chain with our windlass. Josh uses the motor to back down, stretching the chain until I feel the boat bounce back against a firmly set hook. I give him a thumbs up, since we can’t hear each other on opposite ends of the boat with the wind and motor noise. I use a metal hook attached to the thick line, called a snubber, to allow the weigh of the anchor and chain to rest and pull on the large deck cleat, instead of on the windlass that I use to lower and raise the anchor.

I gratefully retreat below decks, a reprieve from the wind and the mounting storm. Within half an hour, a scratchy call comes over the radio.

“Hey Oleada, is there room in there for us?”

Prism tries to beat the storm under shortened sail in the howling wind.

Prism comes onto the horizon, the black storm opening up to swallow their tiny ship. As I watch through binoculars, the wind forces Prism to heel heavily on her side. I can see the sienna color of their bottom paint, usually hidden underwater. On shore, the trees on the ridge howl and whoosh, bending until we hear loud pops as branches break under the strain. Watching their boat fight so hard into the wind leaves me grateful to be sheltered and hopeful that they can reach us before the full force of the storm hits. They attempt to short tack into the wind, zig zagging to move forward. But the wind keeps laying them over.

Filming long distance with a short lens from a moving boat in a storm doesn’t make for great footage. But this footage still illuminates the struggle of a boat upwind in a stiff breeze. The video shows how slowly they move and how much they are heeled over. Their main sail (the tiny crimson triangle) is shortened as much as possible so they aren’t blown down, and they fly a small jib (the white sail on the front) to keep their momentum moving forward. They stay as close to the wind as possible (which means pointing into the wind as much as they can) without heeling over so much that they would lose more speed than they would gain. Prism hobbyhorses as she fights the choppy wind waves that meet her hull stiffly and slow her progress.

Finally, they drop their sails in the sheltered lee of the island, cruising into the blissfully flat water. They arrive with wild hair and eyes to anchor beside us. We wave from the cockpit, but shortly thereafter the sky breaks open and heavy rain blankets us. We settle into our boats and watch the trees at the top of the ridge above whip violently in the wind. Sheets of rain periodically sweep over the boat for hours.

Shannon, at the helm, cups her hand to her ear as she attempts to hear Jon on the bow while they search for a place to drop the anchor in the wind and rain.

We feel safe. But our problems have only begun.

That night, in the deep, inky blackness that is a tropical rainstorm, Josh stands up abruptly from the table on Prism. The wind shifted, now blowing our boats toward the shore, and the hum in Prism’s rigging whispers that it’s increasing. Shannon, a subtle master of the galley, made chicken pot pie for dinner, and I’m just eating my first steaming bite as Josh moves rapidly out into the cockpit. He hops on his paddleboard and disappears into the dark, heading for Oleada. (Rather than launch our dinghy, which is securely tied down to the foredeck, we use our paddleboards to move around if we aren’t stopping for long.) Moments later, his voice calls on the radio telling me to return to the boat right now.

I hesitate, then mournfully put down my uneaten dinner. Shannon offers to send some to go, but I can tell from Josh’s tone that I don’t have time, and I bid a hasty goodbye to our friends, stepping over their deck combings and onto my board as the cool, wind-driven mist turns to a constant patter of rain. Uly hops onto the paddleboard, slipping lightly under the lifelines to drop gently onto the board.

Back on Oleada, our lights illuminate the branches of a tree mostly hidden underwater, only a few feet from our stern. The tree lurks ominously, like a treacherous monster under the hull, waiting to chew on our exposed rudder.

“We’re in eight and half feet of water.” My heart jumps. Our boat is almost seven feet deep—we are inches from the bottom, and the tide continues to fall rapidly as the wind stretches our anchor chain toward the greedy tree branches.

I grab a headlamp and my raincoat and rush to the bow, mumbling curses and considering how to assign blame. But we are here to find ‘safe enough’ harbor, and all I can do is fight back my fatigue and protect our boat and home. Using a long metal handle, I ratchet the chain into the locker in which I stand on the bow. Midway through 150 feet of chain, I tear off my raincoat—I would sooner be soaked than hot, since heat is always a recipe for seasickness and (even more) irritability.

40,000 raindrops sting my skin. It hasn’t rained this hard for days.

Anchoring is notoriously difficult, but it’s extra challenging in wind, rain, and the darkness only a stormy tropical night can produce. Getting this wrong means dire consequences: in the dark waters we could crash into an uncharted reef or hidden log and catastrophically injure our boat hundreds of miles from safe harbor where we could repair it.

After puttering around in the black hook of land to find a new spot, I drop the anchor and let out what seems like a mountain of chain. Once the anchor is set, we can see with our flashlight that we are alongside a point of land, and I don’t want to swing towards it in another wind shift. I haul up the anchor for the third time that day. This is five to ten minutes of strenuous work. Empty belly. Sleep-deprived mind. Rain. Wind. Uncertainty.

Under the rumble of the motor, Josh drives the boat around the cove while both of us feel the creeping frustration and helplessness to find a safe spot. When we drop the anchor and rode again, our chain extends back and we are only a few yards from Prism. Too close.

Furious—with the darkness, the unrelenting rain, the fact that our friends picked the best spot in the anchorage despite arriving after us—I flail as I crank up the anchor and chain a fourth time. My elbows burn with tendonitis. My left shoulder feels like rubber, a dull and spreading ache from a decade-old injury. I scream at the anchor. It starts as a tearful growl and turns to a howl into the unsympathetic black wind. I am melting in the rain. We move again. Finally, Josh finds a spot he likes, and I tremble on the bow as I wait for the anchor to catch.

The anchor holds. We can rest for now.

Shaking with exhaustion and sleep-deprived rage, I fall into bed, only to discover the boat kicking and heaving against the anchor. It reminds me of leading a stubborn horse that makes quick, unrhythmic jerks, tossing its head on the reins. In the boat, we are just clinging to the mane, helpless to stop the motion. What was a serene anchorage all day now becomes a night of being flung around the boat, which creaks loudly and indignantly with each unpredictable roll and dunk.

But underneath my bed and my suffering, buoying or bashing me, the ocean suffers far more. Just as the ocean steals my sleep, human civilization has burdened it beyond compare, saddling it with a task that chips away the health of the planet’s life support system. I do not suffer alone.

The world’s oceans bear the enormously heavy task of dealing with the consequences of global warming, and in fact do more than anything else on earth to regulate the climate. They deal with the two main stressors of climate change: carbon dioxide, emitted by burning fossil fuels, and the extra heat caused by those greenhouses gases in the atmosphere.

First, the oceans absorb massive amounts of carbon, just like forests. In fact, they take up around 30 percent of all carbon emitted on earth, the largest sink in the world. The ocean can do this in two ways. First, CO2 dissolves in water, a physical process. Some of the carbon reacts with water to form carbonic acid, and this causes ocean pH to drop—0.1 so far, a frighteningly observable amount.

Second, phytoplankton, billions of tiny living organisms that create an ocean “forest” at or near the surface, can capture CO2 biologically. Over time, both of these processes “store” carbon by cycling the top layer of the ocean (the top 250-500 meters) to the bottom. This movement of carbon in the ocean is called flux, and right now the flux gets rid of 1.1 billion tons of CO2 annually.

But we produce 40 billion tons every year. The ocean has been working overtime to keep up with this increased production, absorbing more into the top layer, and for a while it could cycle the same amount into deep storage on the bottom. Until recently. Now, as the top layer absorbs more CO2, it doesn’t get cycled down at the same increased rate. So the top layer of the ocean is getting more acidic.

This ocean acidification has implications for all the creatures in the water that use calcium carbonate to form their skeletons and shells, since studies show that slight changes in acidity disrupt calcium carbonate formation. This is already wreaking havoc on shellfish like oysters and clams and, ironically, on the fragile skeletons of the phytoplankton that absorbs CO2.

In some places, not only are people and industries observing this degradation, they’re already taking action. In a first-of-its-kind grant, Washington state allocated funds to plant sea grass near oyster beds. Sea grass, an underwater forest that not only produces oxygen but cleans the water of harmful bacteria, can process CO2 and reduce the acidity of the water, allowing more calcium carbonate back into the system.

Calcium carbonate also supports entire ecosystems. It’s one of the main building blocks for corals, the foundation for reefs. Without it, not only are reefs systems threatened, but so are the fish species—along with the fishers and populations that depend on fish as their main source of protein.

Fish, even this mighty bonito, all start tiny, in need of protection and food. This is one of the many functions of reefs.

Finally, acidification appears to be reducing the amount of sulfur flowing out of the ocean and into the atmosphere. The ocean, turns out, provides the majority of the sulfur in the atmosphere, thanks to phytoplankton. These photosynthetic microbes produce dimethylsulfide (DMS), some of which enters the atmosphere and reacts to create sulfuric acid. This clumps up into microscopic airborne particles, or aerosols, which seed cloud formation. Clouds act to shield the earth from the sun. Sulfur is not a greenhouse gas[1], and this process in fact acts as a global coolant in the atmosphere.

Researchers have found that as acidity drops in the ocean, phytoplankton produces less DMS. With fewer aerosols to seed clouds, less sunlight is reflected away from the earth. Consequently, less sulfur could mean a warmer world.

But the sea doesn’t just regulate the climate by taking up our extra carbon. The oceans are also the largest solar heat collector on earth. They absorb the extra heat being generated by the greenhouse gases.

How exactly do greenhouse gases work? First, sunlight comes streaming through space and beams onto our planet. If it makes it past the clouds, it reaches the earth’s surface. Many things on earth reflect this radiation, some of which is visible as light and some of which we feel as heat. As the sunlight bounces off the earth and back into the atmosphere, it meets gas molecules such as carbon dioxide, water (the most abundant greenhouse gas) and methane, that are stuck in our atmosphere. These molecules vibrate in such a way that they now reflect the sunlight backdown to earth again, like billions of tiny mirrors. This heat was supposed to escape back to space, but instead it’s trapped. Once again, that top layer of the ocean graciously absorbs much of this heat, providing a crucial climate stabilizing mechanism.

Heat is energy, and as we all know from high school physics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. So, the heat in the oceans gets moved around by currents and eventually returns to the rest of the earth systems, either by melting ice shelves, evaporation (creating weather,) or direct reabsorption into the atmosphere. The ocean will take up and store this heat for a while, often for decades, before it gets cycled out again. This means that heat trapped in the ocean yesterday will eventually be released decades from now, adding even more heat than will be reflected by our increased greenhouse gases.

Josh freedives on a healthy reef on Panama’s rural west coast. The coral is showing small signs of stress: white tips on the coral indicate some bleaching.

Extra heat in the ocean also has enormous consequences for life not only in the sea, but on land. First, many fish species have moved toward the poles, discomposing fisheries worldwide. Next, in addition to the reefs’ struggle with acidification, warmer waters contribute to coral bleaching, leading to dying ecosystems. More than 60 percent of the world’s reefs are considered under direct threat from overfishing and local pollution. Since corals already live within one to two degrees Celcius of their upper limit, they can’t take the additional heat.

Finally, that extra heat is extra energy, and this gets translated into melting ice and powerful storms. This heat isn’t distributed evenly throughout the ocean, and the poles are warming at twice the rate of the rest of the sea. The Greenland and Antarctic ice caps hold 99 percent of the earth’s freshwater. With increasing heat from above and below, the most recent publications warn of possible ice cap “collapse:” the ocean could rise six feet within this century. Coastal populations already struggle with the current rate of 3 millimeters per year—but if the rate increases to centimeters per year, there’s no time to adapt infrastructure. Coastal cities would have to be demolished and rebuilt.

But none of this passes through my mind as I lie awake, trying to get comfortable on the sea. Does my struggle without sleep mirror the deterioration of the ocean? With each passing day, I can’t catch up, and my physical and mental state erode, either as a trickle or in catastrophic chunks. Although we take shelter in the flat waters of Bahia Honda for three days, this small reprieve isn’t enough to fully recharge my depleted system. As we dodge storms and wait for weather, crawling our way towards the Panama Canal, we find the anchorages increasingly exposed. Most nights I am lucky to get three hours of fitful sleep.

By the time we reach the Bay of Panama, the treacherous home stretch before Panama City, I ache where my skin touches my cheekbones. My throat burns, and even breathing feels like an exertion. But most of all, I can barely trust myself: I’m clumsy, careless with my movement, and small decisions become exasperatingly difficult. What’s for lunch? I stare blankly into our cabinets. I can’t remember how to make anything other than spaghetti and sauce—and we have depleted all of our fresh food weeks ago anyway.

Thousands of frigate birds over Isla Iguana.

Is this how the ocean feels? Exhausted from the onslaught? Undernourished and overworked? I turn to the water that surrounds my home, looking for an answer. If it feels the strain, it says nothing. In fact, it gives us an endless feast of miracles: breaching whales, fields of intact coral, colonies of thousands of circling frigate birds.

After living for two years by the rhythms of the sea, sometimes I feel like I am suspended on a body of deep, silent consciousness, a great beast that has a mysterious life all its own, with each of its unique organs pumping life into the fragile body. When I started this sailing adventure, I thought of the ocean as a savage beast, untamed and furious. But as I listen to the stories of other sailors and fishers and gain experiences of my own, I find the seas shockingly forgiving to those foolish enough to travel on them. Just like pulsation of heart and breath, the tides rise and fall, the greatest daily rhythm of our delicate planet, reflected in the smaller pulsation of the waves in their endless push to reach the shore.

Just another daily storm at Isla Iguana, a couple day sails out from Panama City.

If nothing else, one of the greatest gifts from the ocean to the sailor is change. Even as I cried from exhaustion, I knew it wouldn’t last. All storms will pass. On the ocean, low pressure gives way to high, and smooth seas will eventually come. For us, we finally reached Panama City and gratefully collapsed into calmer waters.

How much can the ocean take before it, too, must collapse? I can only hold my breath for so long, and as I finally fall asleep on the receding waters, Panama City twinkles on the horizon, a million breaths rising and falling with the tide.

Panamá.
The view to the city, obscured by a storm.

[1] Sulfur mostly hangs out in the atmosphere as a monatomic molecule, S2, two sulfur atoms bonded to each other, which means that when they vibrate, their electrical charge doesn’t change. As a result, they are almost completely unaffected by infrared radiation—which we can’t see, but we can feel it as heat.

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2 Responses to Vulnerable, Together: The Ocean and the Sailor

  1. Alex Spear July 31, 2019 at 9:24 am #

    Hi Jess,
    What a fascinating and informative story you have told. Being a lifelong sailor and waterman I can so appreciate the predicament of being caught by shifting winds in a previously secure anchorage. Your description brings it all so uncomfortably to light. I also appreciate your concise and clear explanation of the effects of these increasing temperatures combined with all the additional carbon we are all contributing to. The ocean and all it’s denizens are crying out for some relief to the onslaught of the human race.
    Again thanks for all your efforts to investigate and communicate. We met both you and Josh in Los Barriles at the Sasha’s coffee house at the beginning of your southern voyage. I will be intrigued to hear more….

    Sincerely….Alex

    • Jess July 31, 2019 at 9:56 am #

      Thank you Alex!! I appreciate the feedback (and the shared experience of being uncomfortable on the water!) More coming up!

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