It’s Friday night at 2:14 AM and I’ve just vomited up this evenings lasagna. The wind is blowing rain at 25 mph, the temperature 45 degrees fahrenheit, and I’m gasping for breath. I’m with 15 other people racing a 50 foot sailboat on a 180 mile course from Connecticut around Block Island, a small island off there coast of Rhode Island. It’s nighttime but the unseen full moon lights up the cloud filled, rainy sky enough to see most things around the boat. When more light is needed most people on the boat have a red headlamp so as not to affect the other peoples night vision.
I was fine until I went down below deck to set up the waypoints on the race computer. The tossing and turning of the boat got to me more than normal as we rounded the northernmost point of Block Island. We then went through a series of sail changes to maximize our speed and prepare for the new course. On a 50 foot racing boat the sails can weigh hundreds of pounds and must be heaved from below deck, attached to the controlling lines and hoisted up the mast. Sail changes are a short, high intensity event with lots of coordination between everyone on the boat. My teammate on the front of the boat, John Colburn, helps me get the old sails down and the new sails up. As we bob up and down and side to side, we yell back to the skipper and other crew of when the sails are ready to come up or down. Amidst the scurry, I began to feel ill and on the last sail change, reducing the sail area in the largest sail on the boat, called “reefing” the main, I was overcome. Some question was shouted at me, “Why are you taking so long?”, to which I responded, “Hold on-(blehhhuhhh)” interrupted by an explosion of lasagna onto the deck of the boat. Someone quickly filled in for me until I recovered and helped complete the sail change.
I laid on deck, catching my breath and waiting for a moment to go below, as the rest of the off watch crew one by one went below deck to warm up or sleep. We decided on a 3 hour watch schedule which deteriorated as sail changes became necessary requiring everyone on deck. When I finally made it below to rest, I laid crammed between a bulkhead and bags of gear with a slow drip of cold water onto my head leaking in from under the primary winch, a mechanical contraption for hauling in heavily loaded sailing lines. I pull an extra jacket over myself and try to sleep whilst listening to the creaks of the rigging, splashing of the waves against the hull, and the ratcheting grinding of the winch. The boat is built of carbon fiber to minimum requirements in order to reduce weight as much possible. This stiff and low density material means I can hear everything happening on the boat- the navigators dialogue about the boat we are on a collision course for and end up changing course to avoid and the new course heading to avoid the shallow rocky shoals among the islands.
I wake up hours later to even more wind and just as much cold. I throw on my wet foul weather gear and combo life vest, chest harness with tethers to the boat. Everyone is required to wear these harnesses and clip in to safety lines that run the length of the boat while on deck, to prevent a man overboard event. Only last year, a sailor in this race died, even while tethered to the boat during a sail change. He went onto a small extended pole off the front of the boat called a sprit to release the end of a sail. The heavily loaded end of the pole snapped off, throwing him into the water. A crew member jumped in after him and the crew deployed their man overboard equipment. When the boat was able to get back to his position 8 minutes later, he was no where to be found. I zip up my jacket and high collar to block the wind onto my face, only to be met with the smell of second time lasagna caked onto the fleece lining of my jacket. I decide it’s not worth cleaning at the moment and go out anyway. The only people on deck are my teammates from Oakcliff, the sailing program I’m participating in for the summer.
I sit on the rail draping legs over the side of the boat to extend weight out as far as possible. I vacillate between collar on with lasagna vomit smell and collar off with cold face. I look out over the wind blown, white capping water and think about life, how I got to this point and what the meaning of it all is. Only three weeks ago I was working a corporate job in South Carolina and now I’m focusing on sailboat racing as a stopping point while I try and decide what my next career step is. It’s been a great time so far and I’m learning something new every day. We finished third in the race and will be racing from Annapolis up to Newport, RI in a couple of weeks.