A few days before we were due to leave, I accompanied our ragtag group to the Times Market in Kailua to pick up something to eat and drink for dinner. I noticed a woman standing outside the market, her head bent intently upon a guidebook. She looked familiar and I realized, somewhat to my shock, that she looked exactly like China, the wife of Steve, one of my fellow J35 crew mates who I hadn’t seen since sometime in the 1990’s. They lived in the tiny apple-growing town of Graton, in Sonoma County, California, and Steve had dropped out of sailing. I wanted to go up to her and say something like, “Excuse me, but is your name China?” But it seemed utterly impossible, so I chickened out.
The next day, we were at the Kaneohe Yacht Club and I happened to glance at the family sitting at the next table when, again to my shock, I realized that I was looking at a slightly older version of Steve. And there she was, the woman I saw at the market, sitting across the table from him.
This was more than a coincidence – I believe that I actually conjured them up. As we were anticipating the delivery and its challenges, I had recounted to Mark my most painful night ever of seasickness – and it was with Steve. We were on the J35 Slithergadee (Steve is the guy sitting just forward of the mast) coming back up the coast from the Santa Barbara race. It was the deepest, darkest, earliest hours of the morning and Steve and I were on watch together. The wind was light, the seas were confused, and we were either motoring or trying to sail; it doesn’t matter, either way, we were losing our bearings and, without an auto pilot, spinning in circles. It’s something that happens at night. Without realizing it, you are heading the boat off course and, when you try to correct, you overcorrect, become confused, and start throwing the helm back and forth. Next thing you know, you’re doing donuts.
It was at that point that my head and my stomach joined forces against whatever seasickness medication I had been taking, which had been working for the past 2 days, and the result was a kind of backlash – like, I was seasick times three – one for each day, all saved up and unleashed at once. I was in so much pain dry heaving that it was worse than childbirth. At dawn, to my great relief, we entered the calm waters of Monterey Bay and I immediately felt better.
The next leg of the trip took us across from Monterey to Santa Cruz, a day I thoroughly enjoyed. We sailed the whole way, with me driving. Steve took the photo of me above, which he later presented to me, and I have it in a frame in our “sailing bathroom.” It reminds me that, sometimes, following your heart can take you way out of your comfort zone. But eventually, somehow, it’s worth it.
I went to talk to Steve, and found that he was there with his son, all grown up now and with a kid of his own, and his son lives in the apartments near the yacht club and is a member there. Steve hasn’t sailed since the 90’s. It was so great to see him, but when I mentioned that I was doing the delivery, he gave me a meaningful look and said, pointedly, “And you don’t do well in the ocean.”
“Yes. And you are one of the people who knows that best.”
“YES. I am.”
He was telling me to be careful. And, without saying it, asking: What the heck???? I could only explain that I’d gotten better. It was true; I usually didn’t get sick any more in the ocean, but that was always near the coast, on shorter trips. This one was going to be the real test. It was only fitting that Steve would appear at exactly that time, because I knew that now he would be thinking of me, and wishing me luck as we crossed the ocean.
As we motored away from the KYC docks for the second time, the boat was much quieter, the mood far more serious, than the day before. We reviewed the safety equipment and procedures, including what to do in case of a man overboard situation. As readers of this blog know, we are all too aware that it can happen, and when you least expect it.
“But,” Mark said, “nobody is going overboard. Because we’re all going to be tethered, all the time, day and night.”
As we left the channel and Oahu behind, I think we were all heartened that the weather had improved over the day before – now we had sunshine and happy, puffy clouds, not the mist and rain of the day before. The waves were still big, and coming from two directions, but they would settle down in a day or two as we got away from the islands and the effects of tropical storm Darby. That’s what the weather guy said.
Shana made up a watch schedule. We were in pairs, four hours on, four off, but staggered. So my watches were 6-10 a.m., 2-6 p.m., and 10 p.m.-2 a.m. Mark and Shana were the watch captains, and I would be with Mark my first two hours, and Shana for the second two. Dustin was my other half.
I was feeling good – not a pang of seasickness the day before, and I had high hopes that I would make it through the first three days and be home seasickness-free. I’d been sitting on the high side for the first few hours, near the wheel as the autopilot drove, feeling fabulous, when, out of nowhere, I suddenly barfed! WTF! I didn’t even feel queasy!
Then, I got this ringing in my right ear. Like a warning bell. Uh-oh.
So, here’s the thing. I hear people talk about getting seasick and sometimes they say things like, “I just lost my appetite.” Or, “I felt like crap but I didn’t throw up.” That it NOT real seasickness. I have never read an account of the real deal, and maybe that’s because nobody really wants to read it. YUCK!
But it’s important to understand the stages, because you can really get into trouble. In fact, there was a boat racing in the Pac Cup this year and they had three crew members get seasick. Two got better, one didn’t – and by the time they were 1000 miles from land, they had a real medical emergency. I don’t have all the details but from what I could gather, it sounds like the third crew member was in a diabetic coma, and they didn’t have the medical supplies on board to help him. Fortunately, this year for the first time, the Pac Cup organizers had contracted with a service to provide remote medical consultation to the racers. The ultimate result was that the US Coast Guard airdropped the needed supplies, and a life was saved.
I was thinking about this as I started my downward spiral. One of the reasons I had so much trouble that night with Steve was that my stomach was empty, and I got the dry heaves. This sets up a really horrible pattern that is hard to break, and I didn’t want to go down that path. So, I was determined to keep something in my stomach, even if it meant barfing most of it up.
I started with Coca-Cola (the kind with sugar) and Saltines – which I have never been fond of. After a few hours, the Coke I was drinking began to taste like – guess what? – barf. So then I tried eating an apple. It tasted good, but then – it was applesauce! Ginger snaps and water. More Saltines.
I was laying on the low side, where I could lean over and, you know. I was in the groove, every hour or so. Then rest. But my watch was over, and it was time to go below. One of the hardest things, for me, is to transition – to literally lift my head and move it to another place. It disrupts everything. But I had to do it, so I staggered below, grabbing a bucket to keep near me, and flopped into a bunk in the main cabin – the one that Mark was supposed to be using. I assumed the survival position, which is flat on my back, perfectly still, with my hands clasped over my chest. Like a corpse. If I didn’t move, I would throw up less often. And that was the key. I had to stay in control.
I wasn’t doing all the heaving, though – the boat! It was going up, down, banging through waves, shuddering, slapping, and just generally rollicking along. Just moving around, even for an able-bodied person, was a challenge.
And then. I had to go. To the bathroom.
When I was a little kid, my dad had a daysailer called a Ford 20, which he brought up to our rented cottage on Lake Huron one year. My grandpa was still alive then, so I was probably 6 or 7 or 8 years old. Dad took me, my sister, my older brother, and Grandpa out sailing. It was a nice day, but not much wind. Grandpa went down below, was down there for awhile, and when he came back up he had the bucket, which he emptied into the lake
“Grandpa, are you sick?”
“A little, but I’m ok now.”
“How come you didn’t use the toilet?”
“I was sitting on the toilet.”
And in my young little mind, I got the visual. Poor Grandpa! But he was a stalwart Irishman with a great sense of humor, and we all laughed it off. I guess I grew up to be just like Grandpa.
Anyway, when my turn came to take my watch, I hauled myself back up and Dustin made me some tea, or something. By this time to Saltines were like dry plaster in my mouth. The hours began to blend, the sun went around in the sky, and I really don’t remember much except that I was inside my head, and my head was focused on what was going on in my stomach. Was it time to eat something or give it a rest? Where was my blood sugar? How dehydrated was I? I could feel myself getting weaker. I knew that, if I got weak enough, the dry heaves would come. That. Can’t. Happen.
It’s one thing to be out along the coast, where you can duck into a port in a few hours. But we were committed for two weeks, two thousand plus miles, and I had to get over this thing. I had to. I knew I could, I hoped I could. I’d always heard that, after three days, everybody always got over it. Would I be the exception? No. That would not be acceptable. I would get this thing.
That is what was going through my mind.
At the end of the second day, I said I wanted to stay up in the cockpit all night. I was actually starting to feel stronger, but I just didn’t want to move again. But Shana was worried that I was getting overexposed, to the sun and to the salt spray and air. She was right. Once again, I lurched down below, this time to my aft starboard berth, where I again assumed the cadaver position, happy to have not barfed. When my watch came up, Mark told me to stay below. “We’ve got it covered.” He’s my hero.
But now I felt really bad – guilty. I hate being sick because it lets the rest of the crew down, and makes their job harder. But at the same time, I noticed that I had pretty much stopped throwing up. So for the next two days, I worked on building my strength back up. Dustin made me oatmeal – so sweet it would normally make me gag, but now it tasted like exactly what I needed – although it took two hours to eat one serving. Then, at some point on the third night, Shana suggested miso soup – brilliant! Little by little, I came back to life. On the fourth day, I was delicate but eating. By day five, I was myself again, but where I was sprawled in the cockpit always looked like a homeless encampment by the time my watch was over. Opened and uneaten packages of snacks, water bottles, cups, and other detritus.
Meanwhile, as I was wallowing, the boat was sailing, Dustin was catching mahi-mahi, and we were communicating with our shore support – the “weather routing guy” and Shana’s husband, Mark, about our course. I remember, one time, that we were told that we should tack (we were going north, and then we would tack to the east, for home) on August 11th. “That’s a week,” I realized aloud. That’s when it hit me. We were really doing this. A week seemed like a long time but it wasn’t. Not in the big picture. Would we be in these windy, bumpy conditions for another week?
“As we get further north, the wind will be lighter and the seas calmer.” That’s what they said. It couldn’t stay like this much longer.
Next up: Halfway