A passage is a difficult thing to try to explain to someone that has not done one, much less someone that hasnt sailed at all. Its a sort of suspended lifestyle where everything that is normally a day-to-day activity is put on the backburner while all hands work towards keeping the boat sailing comfortably to a far off destination.
Leaving at daybreak the first morning everyone is all smiles over morning coffee as weeks of planning and preparation begin to give fruit. A delicious and hearty ‘normal’ breakfast is made while we ride the outgoing tides out of a protected, comfortable anchorage, and we escape out into the open ocean. Afterwards we begin to settle into our ‘passage life’ for the next six days, which is our schedule that allows for at least one person to be awake and on watch at all hours of the day and night. With distances of hundreds of miles between course changes (while Huck averages about 150 miles a day) and a programmable autopilot to keep us on track, theoretically the boat requires very little assistance and mostly just a watchful eye for any unforseen events, other boats, and wind shifts.
So life begins in a pattern of up on watch and down to sleep, mirroring the up and down motion of the boat in the swell as we sail steadily onward. Simple though this may seem, this is still a rather draining lifestyle over the long term. The constant 1-3 meter swell rocks the boat vigorously, pitching and rolling the floor underneath your feet, the bed while you sleep, the kitchen while you cook, your entire life constantly as much as 17 degrees from either side of center. Just laying down in a stable position on passage is an abdominal workout all its own to stay still, and everything you do entails a constant struggle to stay balanced or stabilized. As a result you burn alot of calories during passage with this constant motion, which would seem a good thing if cooking were not so difficult. Boiling water or hot oil present serious dangers like this, as you’d imagine, and stabilizing knives, chopped veggies, or anything you could cook with is a herculean task. Fortunately for Huck, Heidi is amazing at cooking on passage and determinedly cooked a fantastic and much appreciated hot meal once a day, but even so a large portion of our diet on passage consists of easy to eat/prepare and high calorie, carb-packed foods like ramen noodles, cereal, granola bars, boxed mac and cheese, and simple fruits like apples and oranges.
Days on passage are typically pleasant and enjoyable as without the ability or energy to do much maintenance on the boat the entire crew is often in the cockpit together chatting and laughing as everyone pitches in small bits of effort to get things like snacks, keep watch, and adjust sails. Often you wake up to flying fish that have inadvertently flown onto the boat, or cuttlefish that have jumped onto deck and leave puddles of black ink everywhere. Birds, hundreds of miles from shore, often land exhausted on the boat to hang out with us for awhile.
A flying fish that flew up onto deck the previous night
Nights on passage are a mixed bag of stress and calm. Alot of times it can be difficult to sleep while you are off duty due to the noise of the boat, violent rocking, and the smash and shudder of waves crashing into the hull on occasion. No hatches or portlights are open due to the waves so the interior of the boat can be quite stuffy and hot. So after the sun sets and you tuck in for some sleep if you can catch it, its time to come up for your watch. Some watches are restful and easy, where the wind stays mild and steady, the swell stays calm, and every fifteen minutes your visual 360 degree sweep of the horizon yields nothing but empty, dark expanses of water. Some watches are stressful and work-filled, as many were this last passage when the night sky was lit up as though from a city by fleets of fishing boats numbering in the dozens, each dropping or trailing monstrous nets (that are miles long and irregularly marked if at all), and none with any radio contact nor AIS (a collision warning system) to track them with, leading to frequent and abrupt course changes to avoid them and their nets. The weather also plays a big factor. During our last night of passage a torrential rainstorm came upon us, dropping visibility to zero, pulling all hands on deck for lookout, and bringing us and all the nearby boats in our rally fleet to a standstill for fear of now-invisible fishing boats and nets. That night no one got much if any sleep at all, and all the rally boats clustered together to heave-to or drop sail and drift to wait out the rain until we could see again.
Passages are not without their upsides though. Theres a sense of community that develops between boats travelling in a vicinity of each other and everyone shares useful information and checks up on each other throughout the journey via VHF and SSB radio. Though some boats had issues on the passage, the community of boats around and ahead of them rallying to assist in everything from anchoring assistance to crafting makeshift rudders and search and rescue is nothing short of inspirational. You get to watch the dawn every day knowing that you are hundreds of miles from any landfall, a self-sustaining, wind-powered island traversing the vast ocean, which is a thrill all its own. It’s exciting to watch the miles melt by day after day with the knowledge that you are getting closer and closer to a faraway exotic land, to places that few outside its native populace ever see. Some nights you wake for your watch and climb out into a night of crystalline clarity, where the innumerable and uncontested stars in the sky cast the sea in soft starlight. Phosphorescence in the undulating midnight waters causes waves and their whitecaps to glow and sparkle while the wake of the boat leaves an illuminated trail of glittering diamond stardust to rival the skies above. Those nights I particularly treasure, and are some of the most tranquil and beautiful that I have ever seen.
Our first sunset in Indonesia.
Then after all the days and nights sleepless or otherwise, after the drenching rain, after the horrendous and exhausting dance of dodging fishermen and their nets for days on end, after six days and seven hundred miles you finally see the dark silhouette of land on the horizon. The elation, relief, and excitement are immeasurable after having crossed safely, and the gray overcast morning that we dropped hook in front of the bright colored mosques and churches of Debut, Indonesia was a beautiful day indeed. Cruisers often say “passage is hard,” but everything worth doing or having always is.