ALONE ON THE SEA
The Jolly Roger with Skipper, Roger LiebmannI sailed up to Rotto (an island in the Indian Ocean 11 kilometers off Fremantle). Noreen wisely drove up to Perth and went over to the Island by ferry. My trip was rough but rapid. I was able to run before the strong wind with the big jib out to port and the main out to starboard. The “Jolly Roger” surfed down the big swells all night in the general direction of Rotto (or Rottnest Island, if you are into proper names). The night sky was filled with stars, and as Orion rises at sun down and sets at sunrise, I have a celestial clock. I prefer to sail without lights as the phosphorescence of the sea and the brightness of the stars are diminished by unimportant things like navigation lights. One can always sail by dead reckoning (so called because if you reckon incorrectly, you’re dead).
I dropped anchor in Rotto’s well protected Thompson Bay 23 hours and 40 minutes after setting sail from Bunbury’s Koombana Bay. This was the fastest that I had ever accomplished the trip. As a lone sailor I felt proud of the accomplishment. The “Jolly Roger” looked great with her pirate flag flying. I had to swim to and from the JR as bringing a tender up from Bunbury was too dangerous, if the weather turned nasty. After two weeks of sunny island bliss I waved Noreen off on her ferry and set sail for my mooring in Koombana Bay.
I sailed west along the north side of Rotto until I rounded the west end and faced the strong winds coming from south-south west. Since I needed to run south these winds were not all that helpful. The best I could do was run south-east toward Garden Island off Fremantle. I arrived near the north end of the island at sun set and changed tack to the west in the face of what were now south-west winds; and these winds were growing stronger. After battling these conditions all night, the winds hit gale force and I gave up and ran before the gale for protection on the far side of Garden Island. Thus giving up all the hard won distance earned since sun set. The sky was so over cast that there was precious little sun in this sun rise.
The trouble with this “running for cover” maneuver was that I had no experience of this stretch of water where the charts show a large number of reefs, many of which are just below the water line. Fortunately, I spotted a stink boat (all motor; no sail) far ahead which was passing through the reef area; she stayed just to port of a jagged rock which rose high above the sea. I imitated her course and soon saw reef close by, to port and starboard, just under the water, and a small beautiful channel of green water through which the Jolly Roger rushed with a surge of sea swell and wind pushing it along. Behind the island I dropped anchor in relative protection and waited out the stormy conditions.
The next day I seemed to sense an easing of the winds. I set sail for the south end of Garden Island. It took most of the day. When the Jolly Roger cleared the protection of the island the fresh gale force winds shredded her storm jib. I gave up for a second time and ran before the wind to the mainland looking for protection and fresh water as my drinking water was getting low. I found a new sea wall and sailed around it into calmer waters. Here was an industrial area and a small boat about JR’s size tied up to a jetty. I tied up next to her thinking that the owner might have pity and let me stay on his jetty until the weather improved. This turned out to be the case. I waited all the next day. Although the winds had eased greatly and more importantly had shifted and were now from the east, which would have pushed me toward Bunbury’s Koombana Bay quite nicely; the forecast was for storm and I hesitated.
The good winds lasted into the next day defying the forecast. The frustration at missing those winds was palpable. I could resist no longer and set sail for Koombana once more. I wanted to sail around the north end of Garden Island as I had come, but by the time I reached it the sun was too low in the sky for me to see below the water line. I couldn’t avoid the reefs if I couldn’t see them. I headed south along the east side of the island again. As the JR reached the south end of the island she had to go under a bridge which connects the island to the mainland. It was very dark. The JR had not gone under this bridge before. Was there enough clearance for the mast? Although the wind was gentle it was now from the west and in our face; and the tidal current was running against us under the bridge. Would the Jolly Roger’s 4 horse power outboard be strong enough to get us under the bridge? I found out by trial that the answer to these questions was in the affirmative and we sailed out to meet a gentle rolling sea.
I have used the term “we” on occasion, because lone sailors tend to give personalities to their yachts and a bonding takes place during rough weather. During the night the lights of Mandurah could be seen ahead. I had hoped to see the taller buildings of Bunbury at dawn. This was not to be. The wind had changed during the night and was now coming from the south-west and was growing stronger by the minute. Clouds blacked out the stars.
The storm predicted for yesterday was upon us.
The JR was tossed about like a cork in a washing-machine. I’d come too far to turn around and go back now. I wasn’t willing to give up all those hard won miles again. The jib was too big to be of any use in this tempest. I crawled forward on the deck which was constantly awash. Holding onto the forestay with one hand I pulled down the jib and stuffed it into the pulpit while being soaked by the spray of each wave that battered the Jolly Roger to a standstill.
We floundered well out to sea. A 20 foot boat was not meant to withstand these conditions. It went on hour after hour. I hoped that with the dawn conditions would ease. It was not to be. By morning light Mandurah was slipping astern and I could see the devastation that was wrought down below. Everything that had been stowed on the port side ended up on the starboard and everything stowed on the starboard ended up on the port side, and then it all ended up in the middle; where the bilge was overflowing with sea water. Clothes, safety gear, and food were floating in the wash. Everything was soaked. My jaws chattered in the cold (or was it fear?). Bunbury could not be seen. For miles one could see sand dunes and scrubby vegetation but no sign of human life. I bailed out the bilge. The hatch was completely closed now, to try to keep the sea spray from going below. I clogged up the air vent with rags to keep the sea from pouring in via the vent.
Relieving oneself of one’s solid waste material in such a small boat in such a wild sea is a real experience, but riding a bucket in such conditions is not recommended for those who like the quieter pleasures of life. On the sail up to Rotto I had infected my bladder. Even in good conditions at sea it is hard to use a catheter in a sanitary way.
Had I forgotten to mention that I am an incomplete paraplegic?
It is true. When my wife heard that I was an incomplete para she said: “You couldn’t even do that right.” I took up sailing because one could do most of it sitting down; I need to sit a lot these days. I took an antibiotic to fight the infection, and found that I was allergic to the antibiotic. I had taken this antibiotic before but for some reason this time I was allergic to it. However, in the situation in which I found myself, the itching of the hives on my skin were not noticed at all. I was fighting this storm for my survival. Nothing concentrates the mind more than the prospect of one’s imminent demise.
The Jolly Roger would reach with half her length into the air as a huge swell would lift her up, until gravity made her smash down with a heart stopping bang, into the trough between the swells. This was repeated like a broken record. There seemed nothing one could do to stop it. As the bow plunged below the surface of the sea, I held my breath, but each time she rose again, bringing huge amounts of water with her. The howling wind threw this water down the deck and into my face.
One can experience too much reality. The banging sound of the waves striking the Jolly Roger brought a sense of terror. How long before she cracked and let in the Ocean (I use a capital letter here for there is now great respect).
Only a fool would not be afraid and, usually, when it comes to fear, I lead the pack.
This was a religious experience. I prayed a lot:
“Please change the strength of the wind, even if only a little bit.”
“No! Not stronger; WEAKER!”
“Just get me out of here, please! I’ll be good!!”
“I won’t do anything this stupid again – I promise!!”
One might expect that belief in the God of unconditional love would fill one with peace, even at a time like this. I did not find this to be the case.
As night came on the agitation of wind and sea did not improve. In last dying light I noticed that the jib was slipping from the pulpit into the sea, putting a drag on what little southward movement we had. Crawling to the bow, once more, on the slippery deck while the Jolly Roger reared and plunged, I lashed the jib into place and returned as I had come, holding for dear life, onto something solid every inch of the way.
I had an E-Per on board to call for help in case we sank. Since we were not sinking there was little use in calling for help. I had a working radio as well, but what could I say: “I’m scared!” or “I’m not having much fun!”? There was nothing to do but ride it out if I could.
It is hard to keep the spirits up when the howling of the wind in the rigging is so frightening. The night was pitch black. I felt unreasonably cold and alone.
How did David Lewis sail single handed to Antarctica? Or Jon Saunders around the world three times without stopping; also single handed (no, not as in disabled – rather, as in alone). Because the night was so dark I could not see the usual reflection of moon and star light off the beach. Consequently I sailed sea ward. Ending up on the beach would be too embarrassing after coming through so much.
I have a machine which picks up the signal from seven satellites and tells me my longitude and latitude. In the still dusky dawn, with the help of this machine and the soggy charts I could make out our position. We were more than 30 miles from land and the waves were still vicious and the swells still huge. I could make out a large freighter, which seemed to be heading to the Port of Bunbury, and it was between us and land. We had sailed right through the shipping lane at night without any lights showing (the batteries gave out long ago). If the Jolly Roger was hit by one of those ships there would be nothing left. I’d never sailed this far from shore. I had always kept well to the landward of the shipping lanes. I instantly “came about” and headed where my compass told me land should be. I hoped that when we came within sight of shore again we would see something of Bunbury. It was not so.
I began to wonder if I had passed it during the night. The brain is playing up. Of course I hadn’t passed it. Where else was that ship heading? I looked down the coast and saw what I had seen for so long now miles of sand dunes and that white sandy beach stretching away to the horizon. Where was Bunbury? I had had more than enough of this. I wanted off the merry-go-round. My spirits were low.
Then I noticed it… the winds slowly easing to the south-east and the sea calming bit by bit; we were now sailing straight for Bunbury which was just visible on the horizon. I used the radio to call my ETA to the sea monitors and asked them to pass it on to Noreen and ask her to meet me at the Koombana Jetty. The sun came out and we glided toward Bunbury. I was so full of relief that I was stunned.
I had sailed from Rotto on Sunday morning. It was now Saturday afternoon. It felt a long time to be alone at sea. When friends ask me why I do it; I reply: “Some people climb mountains.” I’m not sure that is a particularly good answer, but it seems to get me off the hook. How do I explain the philosophic moments on a calm sea when all seems right with the world?
©Copyright 2004 by Roger Liebmann