Two years after I decided to hang up my stethoscope in Ireland, leave the hospital in Dublin behind and move back to the US to organize the Floating Doctors, here we are in Lake Worth Inlet on the Southeast Coast of Florida waiting for a weather window to make the crossing the Haiti.
So many generous hands and hearts have made FD a reality. I am thinking of our friend Don Capo, who helped us save thousands and thousands of dollars, guiding our work on the hydraulics and running gear, and hull repairs, and the refurbishment of many other systems. He finished the survey of our vessel the very morning we sailed from the dock at St. Augustine Marine Center and headed to the inlet to anchor. He stepped off the boat, and he grew smaller and smaller on the dock we left behind. His kindness and generosity are part of what we will carry with us and pay forward on our mission.
On the 200 mile transit to Lake Worth inlet on Florida’s southeast coast we broke up into three watches of three crew each, 4 hours on duty twice a day, 8 hours apart. My own was the 12-4 AM/PM watch. I am usually up till 3 or 4 AM anyway–when you are working on the boat all day and leading a crew, the quiet night hours are the best time to get paperwork and admin done. I have no difficulty sleeping till 9 or 10 AM after coming off watch at 4 AM, even with the morning noises accompanying the other two watches getting up to begin their day. Some of the crew are inherently early risers–you know, those folks who wake up around 5 or 6 AM every day and have no trouble falling asleep around 10 or 11 at night…lucky devils. Some have sleep patterns more like mine, so we were able to do a pretty good job spreading people around into watches that suited their natural sleep/wake cycles.
That being said, this was the first open ocean, multi-day transit for many of the crew, and being on a boat at all is exhausting–being responsible for actually operating and maintaining the boat you are on pretty much wipes out insomnia, as you are far too tired at the end of your shift to consider staying awake for much longer.
I am really proud of the way the crew managed the transit–as with every other challenge thrown at them, the crew chose to grow and learn and, by the end of the transit, I had great confidence that this crew would be able to handle the serious duties and deprivations of sleep and comfort that are an inevitable part of open ocean crossings.
I think most people envision being on a ship in the open ocean as sailing gaily along, a martini in hand, perusing the galley menu, watching the water and relaxing as the miles slip away astern. In fact, this is only a small part of open-ocean voyaging, experienced primarily by passengers on other people’s ships. The reality for a crew that is actually sailing a ship is often a mental and physical marathon.
What is the weather report for the next 6 hours? Is the barometric pressure in the atmosphere rising or falling? Is there any water in the bilges? Is the dinghy towing astern still with us? Do the sails need to be trimmed in again? When should we make our next tack? Have we established radio contact with the cargo vessel off to the East that may be on a collision course with us unless we alter our heading? Is coffee made for the next watch coming on? Is our position plotted correctly on the chart? Should we change course to avoid that squall on the horizon? Is the mainsheet chafing against the sheave box in the mast? Why is the port engine tachometer twitching instead of steady? Are the batteries charging adequately from the alternators? Does the starboard shroud need to be tightened? Is the current pushing us off-track? The depth is shallowing,.. can we move farther offshore or will that put us too deep into the opposing current of the Gulf Stream? How much should we slow down to ensure that we arrive at our destination in daylight? Does the fuel in the fuel filters look nice and clean? Is all the cargo still well-secured? Where is our ship’s cat?
In short, actually being responsible for a large ship underway makes you keenly aware at all times of one important fact–you may be 50 miles offshore, but land is only a few hundred feet away: straight down. There is no pulling over to get out of the boat, as in a car. You experience what it means to be truly free in all its stark detail.
Freedom is the reward; the price is the responsibility that true freedom always brings. Only your continual actions, without fail, stand between you and the bottom of the ocean. This is mentally and physically exhausting, even when it all becomes second nature–the state of hyper-alertness is taxing. It is also exhilarating and makes you feel powerful and in control, but, at the same time, you feel humbled and aware of your ultimate powerlessness–storms don’t go away through wishing, fuel filters don’t change themselves, and while you command your ship, the sea commands you.
Like commanding a ship at sea, personal responsibility for one’s health is challenging. It is also exhilarating and allows you to simultaneously experience your own power while making you constantly aware of your ultimate powerlessness. Neither high cholesterol nor storms go away through wishing, fuel filters and poor diets don’t change themselves. While you steer your ship and the body you live in, the requirements for action demanded by both the sea and your body command your attention. We are none of us passengers in our bodies, just as I and my crew are not passengers on Southern Wind–we are all Captains while we are at the helm.
When the horizon is a blue line marking the division of sky and sea for 360 degrees around you, all the distractions and stimuli that constantly bombard us while on land are stripped away. You can learn a lot about yourself , if you have the courage to listen in the silence of offshore waters to the voices in your head and heart that whisper constantly but are rarely heard through the din of modern life. For a small taste of what this feels like, try turning off your phone and radio in the car the next time you have a long drive. Most people find this uncomfortable; we are very used to
constant electronic stimulation and data flowing into us, but it is only in the silence behind the sounds of the world itself that we hear our inner truths.
We saw several large turtles in the western edge of the Gulf Stream, we caught our first trolled fish (a bonito…yum!), we saw the sun rise over the eastern ocean horizon (a novelty for those of us from the west coast, where the sun rises over the mountains and sets over the water) and bottlenose dolphin accompanied us for several hours. But, my favorite moment was seeing my sister Sky at the charting table plotting our position along our course and seeing her at the helm late at night under our red bridge lighting. She came on watch at 4 AM, taking over the helm from my watch, driving 77 tons of boat and 10 tons of supplies 50 miles offshore through the night.
As it turns out, Sky steers a marvelously steady course–and it is very difficult maintaining a good course at sea. We do not use an autopilot; so every yard of sea we cover has to be steered by a helmsman. In a car, the direction you travel comes from turning the steering wheel. In a boat there are four major factors at work.
There is the steering wheel, which, at the slower speeds and much greater mass of a cargo ship versus a small car on the highway, means that the ship is much, much slower to respond to changes in rudder than a car is to its steering wheel.
There is the speed at which both engines may be running. If the port engine is running at higher RPMs than the starboard, for example, it pushes your bow to starboard.
There is the wind, which may drive your sail but can also push your boat itself sideways.
There is the current, particularly relevant as we skirted the western edge of the Gulf Stream en route down the coast.
A helmsman’s job is to constantly consider these four changing factors and to determine what changes in engine speeds or rudder angle are necessary to maintain a given compass heading. Growing up in L.A., where half your life is spent behind the wheel, may have helped prepare Sky, but regardless–that girl can steer straight as an arrow.
Of course a helmsman must also monitor contacts appearing on our radar, monitor the depth, continually note our position on the chart, monitor the radios, read the weather, monitor any engine and electrical systems that may be operating, and keep a visual lookout for floating hazards to navigation (a floating log, or cargo container, or a drift net, or any number of objects that can quickly make tangled metal out of your propellers and shafts or punch a hole in your hull).
Captain Ryan said, and it is true, ‘If you can drive a small boat, you can drive a big boat’–however, the consequences for everything get exponentially bigger as the boat size increases. I am very proud of Sky and the crew for managing Southern Wind and keeping her on track.
We set the sails–the main and the jib; the cutter sail cannot be deployed until we unload some of our deck lumber cargo in Haiti–but had only 5-10 knots of wind, not really enough to do much for us as heavily loaded as we are, but the water was smooth as silk, and we ran the engines at low rpms with the sails up for whatever help we could get. We need closer to 15 knots of wind to get the power necessary to really drive Southern Wind under sail, so although we made about 2 knots/hour with sails alone, with one or both engines idling in gear and consuming hardly any fuel we made a comfortable 6 knots.
Tweek and Giles took to the boat right away–Tweek in particular was made for it, He got a little seasick the first day and then, once he got his sea legs, he was tearing all around the boat, picking out vantage points and settling into the dashboard to keep us company on watch. They did their jobs–Giles handled leftover food disposal, and Tweek hunted small bugs that had stowed away onboard. They were pretty tired when we finally pulled into Lake Worth Inlet, and so were we!
The spot we had intended to anchor (anchoring out is often free, but coming into a slip for the night can be very expensive) was blocked by dredging, so we scrambled around looking for a dock. The Riviera Beach Marina allowed us to tie up to their dock for a couple of nights. Captain John on the charter vessel Sea Witch let us use his mooring just inside the inlet for a couple of days. Thank you, friends.
We are now waiting for the weather to favor the crossing of the Gulf Stream. A north wind and the Gulf Stream kicks up into a violent churning maelstrom. An east wind, and it blows directly from the direction we wish to travel (and the prevailing winds here are almost solely from the east). This is the time of year when occasional northwest winds blow, and we are following my own preference and the advice of every old salt who has looked at our route–‘wait for the weather.’ While a ship can weather storms at sea (or it might not!), the goal is to test our luck as little as possible and to make our crossings in the right weather.
It is frustrating, as we have worked and waited so long, and we have people waiting in Haiti for the materials we are bringing, but if we and the material end up on the ocean floor, it will all have been for nothing–and we have not come this far to end our mission that way. The weather is supposed to swing round on Thursday, and fingers crossed–we can race the weather through the Gulf Stream, run down the old Bahama Channel, skirt the northeast coast of Cuba and turn south through the windward passage for Haiti. If we pick our weather window right, we should arrive in Haiti in about 4-5 days from our departure.
Members of the advance Floating Doctors team have been active in Petit Goave. Our medical student Wendy was constantly in the operating room, using every resource possible to serve her patients. Dr. David Cutler and his family connected with and generously served at the clinic and traveled by boat to otherwise inaccessible people who had had no medical care. They reported an acute need for the supplies we are carrying, so we must take care with our cargo.
As I sit in the bridge on anchor watch in the rising and falling tide, my eyes continually flick to our weather station, and I try–against all experience–to will the wind to clock around till it pushes us East over the horizon to the people we are so anxious to meet. Meanwhile…..patience.
In the silence, I am listening…..
“Say that he loved old ships; write nothing more upon the stone above his resting place; and they who read will know he loved the roar of breakers white as starlight, shadow lace of purple twilights on a quiet sea…” -Daniel Whitehead Hicky