Sunday, April 7, 2013


    The day before leaving Michigan I took my dog for a last walk to the Lake. The Lake. Superior. The biggest freshwater lake in the world. And for as far as you could see there was only ice and snow. I threw snowballs for Lincoln. He'd run to where they'd bored into the snow and dive in and come up with a snoutful of slush, and then stand and stare at me, waiting for the next one to be thrown.
     And from that world, I landed in Recife, Brazil. Charades with Portuguese speaking airport workers about my luggage, which wasn't where it was supposed to be-wasn't even on the right continent- and then met my driver who also didn't speak English, and he drove me an hour to Suape. An industrial park with cargo ships and a massive shipyard and acres of container fields and our boat.
     We were there because we knew the area from having shipped our twenty-seven meter sailboat across the Atlantic a few months ago, and we had friends and agents in the area that could help us resupply and refuel for the next leg of our journey.
     Picture a swan among crows. A white glove in a bag of coal. A pristine blue and white yacht shining in the sun while rusted, listing, smoke belching bulkers grumble by.
Our view, listening to the grind
and whine and clanging of industry.
    So we spend two days there. Fueling is a process because we have to get a driver to bring barrels of diesel in a trailer to the dock, which is built for cargo ships, so we can pull up alongside and use an electric pump to transfer the diesel to the boat through a hose we drape across the dock.
     And it's in the sun, and it's hot. There are people on the dock who've never seen snow, let alone imagined a frozen lake to walk your dog on. And I sit and gulp down water and slop sun lotion on and pull my hat low and hide my precious skin because the sun is trying to eat me.
     There's so much work to do and there are five of us to do it, but we're all in each other's way and the stewardess is opening bilges to store groceries while the engineer's trying to replace displays on air conditioner units and we're leaving in the morning but a compass has to be remounted first and lines have to be run and the aft lazarette needs to be reorganized and everything stowed and lashed down and ready to be tilted forty degrees and shaken.
     The evenings are calm though. The captain has to stop us from working when it's time for dinner. He makes us end our workday and come eat together in the pilothouse, which has two tables and bench seats around which we all like to talk and relax and discuss our day and what we have to do tomorrow.
We all generally go to bed about the same time, or at least, we disappear into our rooms. Chef and stewardess to their room, engineer to his, Captain to his, and me to mine. I don't know what everyone is doing in their rooms for the hour before sleeping, watching downloaded movies or shows, reading, planning, organizing.
     I read and then sleep to a very gentle rocking. I love boat sleep. Something about motion, rhythm, being connected to the swells and being part of something enormous and great.
     My cabin is one guests normally use when they come with the owner. Large enough for two small bunks and a separate shower and head, and not much else.
     We start the morning with coffees and breakfast. Everyone shuffling around one another in the galley, making bowls of yogurt and muesli and taking them up to the pilothouse tables. I like to be slow in the morning, the longer I have to wake up the better my day seems to go. I drink two cups of coffee, not because I need the caffeine, but because I like to sit and sip from my mug and let my brain find its proper settings.
     Everyone else seems to be ready to work and move and bustle. So I get dragged into a project too soon and I'm out in the sun before nine and slathering on lotion and sweating.
     Anytime someone needs to go ashore it involves a tender ride. We have one tender in the water, and have to drive the departing party in to a dock about half a kilometer away. Container ships are tied up at the docks, and everyone turns to me with their questions of what they're like aboard. I answer politely, but don't keep the conversation on big ships. I've spent enough time on them too recently to want to talk much about big ships. Though, I was asked if I could pilot one through the narrow opening in the breakwall, and I did brag that on a regular basis I make turns into narrowing gaps with rocks on either side, in the dark, without tugs, while having a conversation with a bearded guy named Fishbone about country music from the 1930's. River piloting is the one thing I miss about that job.
     I've never had a regular morning commute, but tender driving in to pick-up and drop off the crew gets to be a regular part of my time in Suape. Hauling bags of groceries and gear into and out of the inflatable boat is good exercise, and I enjoy the splash and spray of being on a hydroplane as opposed to pulling out the garage and driving up a highway to workCrossing to Fernado de Noronha is a twenty four hour downwind sail going with the seas. It doesn't get much more comfortable on a boat. Wind over your right shoulder, sun on the left, surfing along the seas and with the sails balanced the boat wants to hold the course and driving is natural and just feels right.
But the seas were a touch big, two meters. And when we got to FDN, we found there was only one place we could anchor, by law. And it's an anchorage exposed to the full brunt of the seas. And the wind was blowing ninety degrees to the waves, holding us beam to. So we rolled. Rolled back and forth so hard you couldn't set anything down because it slid away. Couldn't walk without balancing yourself or hanging on, couldn't eat without holding your dish in your hands, couldn't sit on a toilet without holding yourself in place.
     Getting into the tender was a gamble with your life because as Vivid pitched down, the tender could be coming up and a simple step from one to the other was a jarring collision, or if it wasn't timed right, you felt yourself stepping into nothing as the two boats pitched away from each other and your easy step down just became a jump into nothingness. I ended up swimming a couple times.
We were miserable, and there was a tremendous amount of work for five people to do getting the boat ready for an owner's trip. No one could sleep at night, we had to just go slowly during the day, removing covers, organizing equipment, servicing winches, whatever had to be done to make the boat beautiful for the guests to come aboard and have a great trip.
     Day workers were hired to help. Two guys for the deck, and a guy and a girl for the interior. Great people who spoke a little English. I only worked with the deck guys, polishing stainless, washing the decks, brightening the teak, cleaning the hull, scrubbing everything. It doesn't sound like much, but there's three solid days of work for four guys there.
     And the whole time, ever present, is the rolling. Both interior workers got seasick and could sporadically be see on deck hugging their stomachs and trying to breath deeply to keep from vomiting.
     The deck guys and I all were fine, laughing when we could and trying to learn each other's languages. But Portuguese is completely foreign to me, and I've pretty much given up on the language. I laugh universally, and everyone gets pointing and thumbs-up or down.
The buggy.  Our daily commuter from the pousada to the port.  
     To help prevent mutiny, the crew started spending nights ashore. The Captain was on the island most days to set up logistics for the upcoming guests, so he stayed on the boat at night, and we were on the island. But the entire island is a nature preserve, and the beaches close at six thirty, and by the end of the day we were so exhausted we weren't feeling very adventurous, so we just sat in our pousada (a house we rented for the week) and had dinner and a few beers and relaxed, normally going to bed early so we could be on the boat by seven in the morning.
Walk from parking lot to tender looking at
breakwall and anchorage beyond.
     But we had our own beach buggy, which was a adventure in itself. Finding reverse takes a fair amount of jiggling and forcing the stick around, and I just gave up on down shifting into second for fear I'd grind the gears off. But sitting in the backseat your head is above the roof of the buggy and you hold onto the rollbar, because if you don't, you'll be dead. And we're whizzing past this tropical culture and terrain, the smell of bloom and decay on every inhalation, and humid pollen catching in the salt left on my skin from a day in the wind and the low-latittude pink and blue everyone paints the buildings with blurs, so the island is all one mass of indistinguishable tropical convergence of color and scent and warmth.
     Fernado de Noronha has three of the top ten beaches in the world. I didn't see a single one of them.  But I found things in my days on the island the average tourist doesn't get.
     We'd get to the boat about seven thirty and have a cup of coffee. We'd talk over the day and what needed to be done and raise any concerns. Then I'd almost always be the one to take the captain in and drop him off at the shore, and on my way back to the boat there was normally a pod of dolphins swimming through the anchorage. I'd cut the motor and coast right into the middle of them,
dangling my hands through the water and whistling hello as they cruised by. I'd look at the other boats in the anchorage, fishing boats and tourist dive boats and catamarans, no other real sailboats. Then I'd start the motor back up and press back to the boat to start the day's work.
     During the guest trip there really wasn't much to do on the boat. Just the other engineer going over systems and teaching me the ways of the boat, her personality and quirks. There's a lot of pressure to learn, as he's leaving and it's just going to be me in charge of making sure the boat runs once he's gone.
So we're mostly just going over systems and lists of how to start up, how to shut down, when to do maintenance, when it's beyond the normal scope of what should be expected of a sailboat engineer.
The Old Man watching over us.  
     And over everything on this island there's a mountain. A volcanic explosion of rock that's created the unmistakable and undeniable shape of a man's head. As the light changes and clouds pass his eyebrows darken and his mouth turns up and down and his mood changes with the day. You find yourself checking on him randomly, seeing if he's giving you the benevolent glare only a mountain can give, or if he's lost in the clouds.
     A highlight was working in a restaurant kitchen we rented so the chef could make a meal for the guests. We had one of the restaurant's cooks, and our chef and me doing prepwork and dishes. Watching the chef work in a real kitchen was impressive. A screw-off gangster kind of guy who I'd never seen take anything very seriously pulled it all together and was professional and fun and created a five star meal better than anything I've ever seen. Fish we bought from a fisherman that day made into steaks and sashimi, and then a roast and homemade sorbet and a baked cashew and honey with feta on salad greens that blew my mind, everything done and presented just a little better and of higher quality than I've ever seen done before. And then there's me in the background stuffing my face and passing food to the stewardess as unused cuts and extras stuck in the bottoms of bowls gets passed around. And I'm doing dishes and watching the sunset out the kitchen window and it occurs to me once or twice that working on a sailboat means you'll never have the same kind of day twice, because here's a bachelor's in business administration with an unlimited tonnage mate's license doing dishes in the back of a restaurant, and I'm more than okay with that.