Growing up, my family left an average life in Santa Cruz to sail around the world. Almost 15 years later, one adventure, in particular, still feels like it was yesterday.
By Joel Hersch, Santa Cruz Waves
I was 15 years old in the summer of 2002 and approximately 1,000 miles from the nearest port, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic midway between Bermuda and the Azores islands. With my mom Monica, my dad Marc, a little black dog named Jackie, and myself comprising the crew, we sailed east aboard our home, which, for about five years of my upbringing, was a 42-foot sailboat called Songline.
Our travels up until that point had taken us on a meandering route from our home in Santa Cruz, south along the Mexican and Central American coastline, through the Panama Canal, into Colombia, and then north again through the Caribbean. When we first started talking about sailing abroad, we figured one year was realistic, but the one-year mark came and went and we carried on.
In the summer of 2001, we were docked in Annapolis, Md., on the Chesapeake Bay, working jobs, making boat repairs and contemplating our next move while I attended a local high school for a semester. And then the September 11 attacks happened. At the high school I attended, a large number of students’ parents had jobs in the World Trade Center, and Maryland went into a state of emergency due to its proximity to the Pentagon. With the ominous gears of war beginning to turn and cries for retaliation echoing all around us, my dad made the decision that we make the trans-Atlantic voyage—putting some distance between the country and us.
Now, in the midst of our first ocean crossing, we estimated landfall to Isla Flores at eight days out if we kept up our speed. Most days on the water were tame, often lumpy and slow. When I wasn’t helping to sail the boat, I read books or sketched, trying to stave off an almost aggressive force of boredom. When tasks and nautical upkeep arose, I would pull myself out of power-save mode and busy myself. But at that age, there was a level of occasional short wiring that occurred purely from being stuck on a boat, as far from civilization as one could possibly get, with only my mom and dad—a kind of oceanic cabin fever specially tuned for my adolescence.
Some days I hunkered in my bunk for many hours at a time, and once scrawled “The voyage of the damned!” on my wall with a Sharpie, which my dad thought was hilarious, until handing me cleaning supplies and instructing me to “make it gone.” We had daily routines that became like clockwork: hot coffee with sunrise, breakfast together, and gear stowage. And before dark: dinner, Single-SideBand radio check-in for the weather report, and hot tea with sugar. I configured our little rituals to the old ship’s clock mounted below and its cheerful clanging bells.
Ships in the Night
There was one night, however, that stuck out from the slow-trekking monotony. It was 3 a.m. late, or early, depending on your sleep rotation—and the hull was pushing across a heaving dark ocean, our sails harnessing a steady wind. I had just gone below for some rest. Good sleep did not come easy for any of us during much of the crossing, but it was important to get some when possible so we could keep a rotation up for night watches—two hours on, four off, scanning the horizon every 15 minutes. Songline held a steady rhythm, climbing slowly up the back of a wave, reaching the peak, which, with daylight, would present a 360-degree view of endless breaking waves, before sliding down the face with powerful kinetic energy into the trough. And then repeat. The sail was out at a wide angle on the port side—the “left,” in nautical terms—catching a cold wind whipping in from the southwest, steady at about 20 knots, which is about 23 mph. The bow was bucking up and over 7-foot waves, white capping at their peaks. It was a very dark night, with a sky full of stars but no moon, and it was easier to hear the rolling breakers rising up behind us than to actually see them.
With a view of the stars through the port hatch in the ceiling, and the sense of infinite depth, cold and mystery far below, I felt very small and insignificant skimming along the surface aboard our tiny boat. But there was something else there, also, feeling the boat creak and groan under the tireless sails above—a sound, or a vibration, deep in my chest, like a battle drum, filling me with a desire to keep moving forward, faster, to push the boat harder. The sensation was paradoxical, I thought, somewhere between a sense of extreme vulnerability and absolute freedom and power.
Rules of Three
There’s a saying about life that problems have a way of occurring in threes, and if the superstition holds any truth, then it has a steel grip over life at sea.
I was half asleep below deck listening to the water whoosh around the hull when the first problem occurred that night, and it came in the form of a burned-out compass light. In and of itself, not a serious issue, but with visibility already so limited by the moonless night, it meant that our most basic form of navigation was temporarily compromised.
My parents were on deck: Marc at the helm, and Monica in the cockpit, tucked under the dodger. My dad wore his foulies, a heavy-duty yellow jacket over red waterproof overalls, and an orange beanie pulled down over his head of thick black curly hair. My mom, like me, was dressed similarly. Both wore tethers that clipped to harnesses, which would prevent a rogue wave or a misplaced step from sending them overboard. The engine was running but idling out of gear, causing the deck to vibrate gently. We fired it up for an hour twice a day to charge the batteries and run the refrigeration’s cold plates to keep our perishable foods chilled.
Eating meals during long ocean crossings was normally one of my favorite parts of the day. Just tasting decent food was a source of entertainment. It was a chance to get creative with provisions, and meals marked the passage of time—another dinner, another approximate 200 ocean miles behind us, another 24 hours on the clock marking us closer to landfall. But conditions during the previous two days had left me feeling slightly queasy. The pounding waves also made eating meals more difficult; dinners were confined to bowls or between slices of increasingly stale bread.
I was lying there on the bunk, very aware of my empty stomach yet lack of appetite, when I heard shouting on deck: “Watch out! Head down—boom is coming over!” and almost before my dad finished the sentence, a sequence of things happened very fast. Marc was behind the wheel steering, cutting a course up and over the swell and catching a ride down the face, when the compass light failed. The loss of reference to our bearing on the wind angle momentarily disoriented him. We carved down a wave and veered too far off course, allowing the wind to catch the mainsail on its far edge, causing an unexpected and hugely powerful jibe.
Problem number two.
The boom, an 18-foot aluminum pole that supports a 50-foot sail, came crashing over to the opposite side of the boat, luckily not connecting with any body parts. The mainsheet, however—the length of line that runs through a series of pulleys and is used to adjust the angle of the sail—went from being stretched out very far to slack and whipping about in the cockpit. With a surge of adrenaline, I dashed up on deck and crouched.
In the several seconds the jibe took to occur, the slack mainsheet writhed itself into a coil around the idling throttle handle, and then the sail filled with wind on the new side. The boom whipped out to starboard and the mainsheet followed, catching the throttle and snapping it forward into full gear before ripping it off where it connected to the raised steering console. The engine screeched over the wind, revving at full rpms. My dad hit the kill switch and the mechanical shrieking fell silent.
We stood still for a moment, listening to the sound of the waves and wind and the boat plunging onward through the water.
No more than three minutes passed before the next dilemma came knocking, completing the trifecta. We had re-established our course using the autopilot configured to our GPS and were just catching ourbreath when: “We have a ship bearing down on us from up ahead, fast,” Marc said, scanning the horizon. We gathered together and peered forward, trying to hold a line of sight over the waves floating us up and down. We didn’t need the binoculars to see two bright lights, red and green, positioned just a bit apart and holding steady—a ship’s running lights. Seeing both red and green meant it was a head-on converging course. If there was anyone on the other ship’s bridge looking, and that was a big if, they would see the same green and red lights coming from us.
With a view from 6 feet above the ocean’s surface, the visibility to the horizon is about three miles before the curvature of the earth rounds off and begins to disappear. But since a tanker ship can be upward of 100-feet tall, it’s not easy to say with certainty how far off a ship is without radar. Our speed was approximately 7 knots, while a tanker can travel at an average speed of 20 knots, and, well, some people are better at math, but at those speeds, we all knew our convergence would occur within minutes. And that wasn’t all.
“I’ve got another red and green behind us,” my mom said, picking up the binoculars.
We had not one, but two ships bearing down on us, one from the east and one from the west and us in middle, with no engine readily available, which meant battery power was also on limited supply if we couldn’t figure out a way to charge them. Marc hustled down the hatch, clicked on the radar and its display screen, and began hailing the tanker ships on the radio; stating the name of our vessel, course, and exact latitude and longitude, and requesting acknowledgment of our existence.
No response. Harnessed in and with my jacket collar popped up around my cheeks and mouth to block the cold wind, I positioned myself behind the wheel, checked the instruments, felt the hole and raw wiring where the throttle had been ripped off, and read- ied myself to shutdown the autopilot and maneuver us out of harm’s way. My mom held sightings on both cargo ships, which appeared to be positioned to pass each other on either side of us, scissoring our boat in between. We veered a few degrees starboard so as not to cross the path of the ship coming from the east.
The rhythm of the waves continued and we sailed onward—up and over and down again—and the ships materialized out of the gloomy night like little cities perched high on top of red steel walls, bright white floodlights spreading an industrial glow.
The first ship wasn’t that close, but much too close for comfort, perhaps three football fields away, and it appeared to me as so surreal that it could have been a Hollywood set. But the rumbling engines and deep groan of the ship’s steel was all too real. It passed to port. The second ship was coming up fast behind us, several football fields to the southwest. I disengaged the autopilot, gripped the wheel, and waited for my dad’s directions. He was below hailing the ship repeatedly, though I couldn’t hear him over the wind and waves.
A minute passed and the ship behind us grew into a massive steel wall, smelling of rust and oil and new cars.
Finally—I would hear from my dad later—a voice speaking English with a thick accent came over the radio: “Stay your course, sailing vessel. Stay your course. It is too late. I repeat, it is too late.”
The ship was now a football field away and seemed impossibly huge—imposing and lethal.
With the radio cord’s coils stretched, my dad came up and watched with quiet horror as the giant ship moved past. The floodlights filled the dark sky, blotting out the stars. And just as quickly as the two ships had converged on us, they slipped past and away toward their respective horizons.
When it was over, there was deep exhaustion in my dad’s eyes and purple circles below them. He was sleep deprived and, in retrospect, very likely drained emotionally from how close his family had come to real danger. I, on the other hand, was fired up with adrenaline and recounted to my parents every detail of the encounter with coffee-fueled glee. My dad was frustrated and visibly rattled, going on about what went wrong and why none of it ever should have happened. My mom grabbed him by the face and told him to take a deep breath, go down below, pour himself Courvoisier Cognac—which he kept in a cabinet, normally reserved for landfall after a big crossing—and close his eyes.
“We’ve got this up here,” she told him. “Please just sleep, as long as you can just rest.” He did, and for the rest of the night, my mom and I held watch on deck, taking turns scanning the horizon, and telling stories about where we’d come from and where our course would take us next, which was our way of passing time. My dad and I enjoyed conversing as well, but it was more difficult with him. While I might have wanted to talk about surfing or art, he preferred to discuss the elements of meaning and consciousness, which, on some days, caused me to recoil and seek escape. That was just his way.
As the sun rose before us, we managed to reduce the throttle manually with a lever on the Yanmar engine. With a pair of vice grips inserted delicately into the cavity where the handle used to be, we jury-rigged a form of control over the motor once more.
Over the next few days, the swell flattened out, the wind backed off, and there was some beautiful sailing and even some real meals eaten off of plates. We fell back into the groove of daily life aboard Songline.
Home At Sea
Growing up at sea and in exotic ports along our path was never easy to explain to the kids I met who were living traditional lives. But more often than not there were other children living a similar lifestyle with their families, sailing one way or another, and in them I found community. Other times I felt very alone, and thinking back, that was good as well. Short of fully understanding at the time exactly why I had been swept up into this migratory life, beyond the generic “to see the world” explanation, I knew, even at the time, that there was greater meaning in our family’s decision to sail away. My parents had undergone rigorous planning for several years, saving money, clearing themselves of financial debt, selling possessions, finding the right boat, and finally renting out our Westside home to family. On a cold, foggy September morning in 1999, when I was 12, we motored across a glassy Monterey Bay with dolphins on the bow.
Almost two years ago, not long before he died in March 2014 from cancer, my dad and I discussed the essence of our family’s travels. In the spirit of Ram Das, whose writings were always a source of meaning for my dad, we talked about the nature of truly experiencing a moment. With many medications contorting his verbiage, Marc reflected on our manner of migration, settling and departing, and all of the strange and beautiful people whose paths intersected with ours. In his own way, he spoke more clearly than I’d ever heard him before.
Thinking back to our years in California, with our home, cars, full-time jobs, cable TV and daily routines, my dad described a life that seemed to him formulated for an existence that slips by with very few opportunities to be fully and purely awake to the world. It was one of the core reasons that sailing captivated him, from an adventurer’s perspective as well as a Zen one—sailing demanded a form of absolute presence, self-reliance, and open-ended problem-solving that rippled out into the way he wanted to learn to live and experience each day.
The concept was there, and it held true, but it was a double-edged sword. Coming home to California when I was 17 felt, in some ways, like the first time I lost the dad I’d come to know abroad. Marc had always liked things that were new, challenging, and constantly changing. Before sailing away, he loved to sail small boats and go snow camping and trekking through the High Sierras. But upon return, he fell into an unfamiliar depression, like a caged animal unsatisfied with simply existing. I wondered if crossing oceans and exploring the world wasn’t just happiness for him, but perhaps also the only way he knew how to feel alive. We arrived in the Azores on June 27, 2002 with strong wind in our sails. The most western island was Santa Cruz Das Flores, a tiny dot of land made of steep green hills, rolling pasture and several fishing villages. The land smelled of mud and flowers and grew on our approach from a small grey mound to a mass of colors, nature and civilization.
On the foredeck, I dropped the anchor and signaled for my dad with a thumbs up to set the hook. With a smile, my mom kissed him on the cheek and thanked him for getting us there safely, which was her own ritual. I raised a hand to shield the sun from my eyes, measured the swim to the beach and kicked off my shoes.