Six days before the mast: a seaward journey—Day Three

By Hamilton Cowie
Editor’s Note: In the first installment Chef Cowie covered the first two days of his journal.  Come on board for the next episode of this seaward journey.

I relieved John at 4 am.  He looked like he was having a good time sitting there in the cockpit.  Auto-pilot makes life easy out there.  I hoped he was keeping an eye on the horizon.

We maintained single-man watches because we had the auto-pilot.  I wore foul weather gear (‘foulies’) because it was another layer against the cool night and if conditions deteriorate I would ready.  I’d gotten the Gill OS2 jacket and bib overalls and sweet, sweet Dubarry boots.  I’m too old to buy crap anymore.  Give me the good stuff and it will last forever.  My purchasing philosophy is that when you buy cheap you end up buying it twice: the first purchase is the crap you settled for (that usually fails prematurely) and the second purchase is the one you wanted in the first place.
Chef Cowie wearing “foulies”

I saw one or two ships on the horizon during my watch, but nothing on a collision course.  Captain thought we overshot The Stream because our speed wasn’t that great, maybe 7.5 knots.  In the stream we would be at nine or ten knots.  The wind was light and directly from behind which he told us was no good because if sails were up we would be jibing all the time in the rolling waves which were about five to six feet in height.

The sun came up behind the building clouds near 6 am, an hour after a nice red moonset. At 7:30 Captain emerged from the companionway and there was a quick rain.  The bimini, we discover, was not waterproof.  We might as well be standing under a shower head.  It lasted about five minutes and was over.  Another item for the Captain’s report.

By 8 am was it Jerry’s watch and the wind had picked up considerably to 20 knots; waves were running at about 6-8 feet and starting to break at the tops. Captain decided to turn the auto-pilot off and hand-steer for awhile. He taught Jerry–always ready for his watch eager and early–how to anticipate the wave slipping under the boat, how to turn briefly into it once the stern rose and then quickly aim back down.  The wave then naturally brought the bow back into line and we  got a nice surfing action.  Jerry was a natural and, because I was down making coffee, he taught me later what he had learned.

Breakfast:  Every man for himself.  Cereal and milk was the path most chosen.  And coffee.  Always coffee.
Lunch:  Deli sandwiches, Sun Chips.

Dolphins were everywhere.  None of us had ever seen this many playing around any boat we’d been on in the past.  Anywhere from two to seven were in our bow wake at any given time.  They turned sideways just under the surface to get a better look at us looking at them from the bowsprit.  I heard their little dolphin squeals.  I like to think they were communicating a plan with each other…working out a way to overthrow the humans and return the world to its proper state.

We saw schools of flying fish and swarms of jellies.  So much life. 

At this point we still had yet to raise the main.  A little disappointing, but we understood that the winds had not been in our favor.  They were still directly behind us and I suspect that the Captain knew most of his crew was green or old and didn’t want us to make any big mistakes under sail.  He couldn’t be watching over us all the time.  He had his own work to do.

In a few hours, after the winds had calmed a little, Captain engaged the auto-pilot again.  The result was a sharp, unexpected turn to starboard.  He hit ‘Standby’ which disengaged the auto-pilot and manually returned to the course.   He engaged again and when the boat lurched yet again to starboard he tried to activate the minus 10° button to try to compensate.  No go.  Auto-pilot didn’t care.  Auto-pilot said “F*** you.  I’m done.”  Rick tried to find the source of the auto-pilot’s apathy, ripping though cabins to get to secret panels, removing the life raft hidden within the transom to get a better view.  He finally saw what he thought may be the problem.  Captain and Rick talk over a questionable plan to fix it that may or may not result in a total loss of steerage.  They agreed it was not worth the risk, that we would hand steer for the rest of the trip.

John’s watch came later and when he took the helm Captain and Rick watched him carefully because there was no auto-pilot anymore to help him.  He took the wheel and in a few seconds we were 60° off course.  Rick brought it back and told him to try again, gave him some pointers.  Once more, 60 degrees off within a few seconds.  He couldn’t hold a course.  He’s old and usually kind of out of it so neither Captain or Rick pressed him too hard, which was nice.  Rick took a seat behind the opposite wheel and took the helm.  John sat there looking like nothing happened.  The rest of us stepped in once in awhile to give Rick some relief by steering for an hour here and there.

Dinner:  Chile and cornbread, chocolate chip cookies.

As night approaches and the wind and waves picked back up, Captain revised the night watches to two men on every four hours since the difficult helm tired us out somewhat.  Rick–the best sailor onboard behind Captain–was for the rest of the trip on watch with John.  Rick would drive and John would scan the horizon.  Still four hour watches, the rest of us would take the wheel for two hours while the other scans the horizon and does whatever else needed doing that can’t be done by someone married to the helm, then we switched jobs.  Captain pairs Jerry and I together because he observed that we had enough experience, helm skills and enthusiasm to trust us unsupervised.  A nice feeling.  Captain, Jerry and I would come up and steer occasionally for Rick.

In essence, John had been quietly banned from driving the boat.  Jerry and I liked it because we would get better faster with more time at the wheel.  We sympathized with Rick’s position, but he took it like a pro, because he was that kind of guy.  John’s a nice guy, but he shouldn’t be offshore sailing anymore.

I still had not slept since leaving the dock.
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To be continued in the next episode…
Hamilton Cowie is a professional chef taking the year 2014 off for adventures on land and sea before it’s too late.  Originally from Florida he moved to Colorado in 1996.   His fearless grandmother taught him how to sail when he was a boy. She also taught him to always say “yes”.  He can’t say he always does.     

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