Oh honey, have I got a story for you, it starts like this…..
It’s 4 P.M. and I’m on an aluminum dinghy in the Blue Lagoon. I’m thinking about how Fiji is a real easy place to never leave, all the islands, all the wind, all the magic. I spent the morning staring at baby sharks and blue polka dotted rays. And the afternoon showing Lilou how to hear the call of the ocean through a conch shell. You should have seen her four-year-old face, lit right up like a Christmas tree.
Now I’m chasing a helicopter out of the sky and onto an island. There is the sound of me giggling, and water flying, and blades orbiting, and coconuts falling, and stonefish smiling, and if I listen close enough I can hear some things being born and other things dying.
My friend, Diarm, is on the chopper and I want to watch it land. He hitchhiked the ride from Denarau, didn’t even pay a dime, isn’t even on the manifest. I invited him to sail with me, so he called a friend and asked if he could catch a lift to any island in the Yasawas. And the next day, here he is, coincidentally landing on the island across from where I’m anchored.
He’s Irish. It’s the luck of the Irish. His entire life is made of luck like this. My French friends say, “il a des long bras” (he has long arms) meaning he has a lot of influence or power. And he does, life seems to bend to him like he’s the sun.
I make it to shore just as the whirling bird is landing on a little patch of sand encircled by a palm tree forest. A man is playing a welcome song on the guitar. People are hugging, birds are humming, and I’m looking at everybody thinking about how an explosion of stars created the iron that is pulsing through all of our veins. Somewhere in the ping pong of my life it makes sense that I am here, right now, in this place.
Diarm and I go back to Juniper and pour over nautical charts and wind reports. We hatch a plan to sail from west to east. The first day we will travel 60 nautical miles to Yadua Island. From there we will make our way to Savusavu.
It’s our first time sailing together and I’m a little nervous because half the time I’m naked and afraid on the water and Diarm’s never afraid. He’s the captain of a fancy sailboat and he likes kitesurfing in really heavy blows, and Juniper might bore him to death with her caterpillar pace.
We wake before sunrise and weigh anchor.
The sky is full of water, I can feel it in the dark, bubbling and brewing and on the verge of breaking into drops. Lilou and her parents follow us as we exit the pass and enter the Bligh Water at the dawn of dawn.
Mainsails are hoisted, genoas are unfurled, staysails are raised, clouds are rolling. We’re on a close reach with 15 knots of apparent wind. We’ve got one reef in the main and we’re sailing between 5.5 to 6 knots. The French boat takes the lead, they’re one nautical knot faster than my caterpillar.
All around us there are reefs and an immeasurable blue. The clouds are the color of satan’s armpit and rain is falling in random places across the horizon. The squalls are making the wind moody too, dumping 20 plus knots, then sucking the air dry as they pass us by. Diarm and I are forever adjusting sails to keep Juniper moving; reefing, furling, shaking, reefing, unfurling. We’re running down the sun, trying to get to the Yadua pass before it slides out of the sky.
We’re getting deeper and deeper into the Bligh and it’s kind of like a river, because you know how the deeper you get up a river, the dirtier it gets. Well it’s getting dirtier out here, and the lazy jacks just busted on the windward side while we were shaking out the second reef. The sail is spilling milk and I’m crawling around on deck with a lot of little lines in my mouth and lacing the grommets at the foot of the sail.
I just got back to the cockpit and now we’re getting suffocated by the mothership of all squalls. It is foul-mouthed and fat and froth-filled. Juniper’s rails are dipped under the ocean and saltwater is reaching for her portholes. She’s heading for a knock down. I turn off the autopilot, grab the helm, and with the ghost of Captain Bligh beating beside me, fall off the wind to a broad reach. It’s all I can do to keep the helm over, and the helm is hard over.
Diarm blows the mainsheet to spill air, but Juniper keeps trying to round up. I say, “I can’t control her, we gotta get more sail down.”
Diarm says, “It’s ok Liv, it’s only 20 knots.”
I can’t see the instrument from the helm, but this is the heaviest 20 knots I’ve ever felt. It’s like this wind is high on a fountain of crack, caffeine, and crystal meth.
Diarm furls the genoa, then goes on deck to drop the staysail and throw the second reef back into the main. Neither of us are tethered and the preventer is not rigged. I’m in a delicate dance of keeping Juniper off the wind without accidentally jibing. I can’t think about anything but steering and keeping my ship from kaleidoscoping into the ocean.
My head is full of frogs. Everything is loud. The main is bashing around like a tiger in a temple. And there are sea monsters, and sea nymphs, and sea dragons smashing all around us, and they want to eat us, or lick us, or do something weird to us.
Make it stop. Make it stop. Make it stop! Stop. Stop. Stop.
The squall passes after I don’t know how long and we’re back on course in the afternoon delight. Diarm says, “That was so exciting! I loved it.”
I say, “I knew you would, you wind freak. I didn’t. This is my home. Are you sure that was only 20 knots?”
Diarm says, “No, it was 55 knots of wind and at one point our speed through the water was 9 knots. We were getting skull dragged across the ocean.”
My caterpillar is almost full keeled, it’s a miracle that she was moving at 9 knots on a flat and current-less and swell-less sea! Also I’ve never seen 55 knots of wind on the water. That’s a 10 on the Beaufort scale, whole gale or storm. That’s strong enough to uproot your trees, kidnap your kittens, and burry your secrets. And do you know what sail configuration is recommended for that much wind? Staysail or storm sail only, and we had all three of my sails slapping when that wind hit.
The squall bashing must have knocked a seam loose on the mainsail, because I just went to harden it and a volcano-sized hole ripped right through the center of it. It’s heartbreaking and a touch paralyzing to see your “main” sail split into two. Blown out and blown up, letting the sun peek through.
I feel like a piece of seaweed in the mouth of something fang-toothed, I feel like I’m halfway up a mountain without any legs, I feel like my skin has been ripped right off my body and I’m down to my bare bones. Goodbye wing of wings, I can’t fly far without you.
In the end I’m the fortunate one, because my mainsail can be sewed back together. That same squall picked up 5 more knots of speed as it traveled towards Denarau. It peaked at 60 knots, made a lot of anchors drag, dismasted an Outremer, and broke three superyachts loose from a dock.
Compared to all that, I’m laying in a field of four-leaf clovers. I guess the luck of the Irish is rubbing off on me.
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4 Replies to “BLEW OUT MY MAINSAIL IN A BLOW”
What a story. You could share with your grandchildren one day. Whew.
I was on the edge of my seat! Tether, Tether, Tether! Xoxo
Another great sailing story. Wow, made me nervous.
Request . . . some video of Lilou being Lilou? Cruising kids are the coolest by far!