Monday, July 9, 2012

The Sea Abhors a Coward

The weather report suggested 4 foot seas, up to 20 knots. We set out from Glacier Bay National Park to travel the potentially most dangerous part of our journey: crossing the Gulf of Alaska where we would be out in open ocean for 44 straight hours with no breaks, and no land in sight. In the highly unlikely event Room 7 (the name of the 42' trawler) were to capsize, we went through the drill of donning survival suits and contemplating "what-if's".  Safety measures.  We'd had 18 days to learn the boat; work out the kinks. We had a few situations like losing steering, losing power in one engine, and water seeping in the anchor locker (all of them fixed BEFORE the big crossing).

Glacier Bay
The plan: the guys would pilot the boat in 8 hours shifts, and Julie and I would keep them fed and awake for the duration. 

All was well, until the predicted 4 foot seas turned into 8 foot, then 10. For the next two days, we rode the sea like a bucking bronco rider, tossing from wave to wave in an endless battering of our bodies and sleep-deprived minds. It was impossible to sleep in the V-berth at the bow (you'd catch full-body air time there), so the once highly organized cabin turned into what looked like an adolescent's bedroom: sheets and pillows askew and scattered sundries tossed about the floor: a bag of potato chips, chunks of crusty bread and a jar of Skippy peanut butter (anything to settle a queasy stomach). Guide books slid off the counter; nautical maps, The New Yorker and everything of the I domain: iPad, iPhone, iPod (most of them useless on the open seas) marched along the floor.

They say it's always best to face your danger, but I couldn't stand up long enough to stare down those angry waves. Comfort was to be found sitting on the floor and fixing my gaze on something...anything...and I chose the silver door handle on the refrigerator; to keep a steady concentration, and calm myself by fixating on one spot. That's when I noted more fellow floor-mates in my peripheral vision: a 1/2 empty 6-pack of ginger ale, component parts of the automatic coffee maker, an errant candlestick; a bruised, but still rolling, tangerine. 

Back to the glaring silver handle. I stared and began to chant: if Tori can do it, we can do it...if Tori can do it, we can do it...only Tori's story is a trillion times more frightening than one could ever imagine. During those moments of being tossed about uncontrollably, I was grateful I had read her book because just thinking of her ordeal gave me a quick burst of courage. 

Tori Murden McClure wrote the book: A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean.  Tori rowed across the Atlantic Ocean in a 23 foot plywood boat, alone, without physical support and with no motor or sail during the worst hurricane season on record. She was at eye level with the sea, facing the obstacle of simply staying alive while being tossed around inside her boat (all hatches battened down!) during a storm that raged for hours. She endured the epitome of helplessness and being face to face with the formidable forces of nature. 

Whenever I looked up and saw the collision of waves, I thought of Tori in her tiny boat facing the fight of her life. And those fierce thoughts gave me courage. 

Then I realized the real reason we accomplished a successful and safe crossing: it was due to the skill, patience, and fortitude of our captain, Steve, a meticulous, detailed planner who leaves nothing to chance; and his co-captain, my husband, Kent.  

We made safe crossing because the guys were in control of an uncontrollable situation. Because they  knew how to use the forces of nature to their advantage; because they never let fear dictate the outcome of the ultimate challenge of navigating in rough waters.  We made safe crossing because the guys knew how to quarter waves, muscle the controls, and stay steady and alert for however long it took to reach the other side.

My husband promised me a calm sea. And I know he's right. Nothing abides. Eventually the sea lay flat. After 44 hours of bone-vibrating chop, we entered home waters, our summer playground, Prince William Sound. I have never been so happy to see Prince William! 
home waters

There is no place like home. Though we had another 6 hours in the Sound to complete the trip, we were finally and truly HOME: where the islands and coves are familiar and wedded to scores of savored memories; where we recognize the stone cold faces of every major glacier; where the best fishing spots and shrimp pot sets are known to us.

Like coming home to your block where everyone knows you and waves hi.

We were thoroughly ready to relinquish our sea legs though; get back to our houses in town, walk on solid ground and dig in our summer gardens. 

Until Kent shouted, "Port side; real close, 2 whales!"
"Whales, schmales," said Julie. "I just want to see my cats!"

Still, we all jumped up from our seats, flung open the cabin door and stood silently on deck. A whale rose up, then splashed down so close we could hear it take a long deep breath underwater, then shoot a spout into the air.

Instantly we shot back into our, Oh my God, holy moly, did you see that? mode.


killer whale
We did it. We successfully and safely brought Room 7 to her new home in Alaska. And she brought us, doing what she is meant to do. Float. On the high seas. Like a bobber.

Thank you, bright captain and crew. And thank you, Tori.


4 comments:

  1. Great post, Monica, and welcome home! Tori and I went through the Spalding MFA in Writing program together. The result of her studies was the book A Pearl in the Storm -- a terrific read. She's the one I climbed McKinley with, and she's as good a guide as she is a writer. So glad you're safe and back. Let's talk horses sometime.

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  2. Yes, and as you'll recall, you offered her book at one of the Christmas gatherings, and I picked it! At the time I was astonished. I didn't realize people actually made serious crossings of major oceans in rowboats. What a page turner. Let's get together; I'll pop you an email.

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  3. An amazing story! I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. Stumbled across your blog via OBN and now follwing.

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  4. Hello! And I reciprocate. You should try fishing up here in Alaska. We fish the lazy man's way: via a fish wheel on the Copper River.

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