Perhaps some voyages begin smoothly. When Jason and the Argonauts boarded the Argos in the Volos harbor thousands of years ago and sailed off toward the Black Sea in search of the Golden Fleece, it's likely their friends and families gathered on the shore and thought to themselves as they waved goodbye, "Those Argonauts sure know how to handle a boat." Or perhaps the Christians from Antioch, waving to Paul from the wharf in Selucia as his ship headed off toward Cyprus in 47 A.D., noticed that the captain looked sure and steady.
That is not the way it was for Janet and me in SailingActs.
On the morning of June 18, we woke early. I noticed, checking the barometer, as usual, the first thing in the morning, that the hand had fallen considerably overnight and was still dropping. Locals had been commenting on how unsettled the weather had been that spring, so this didn't surprise or discourage us from leaving that day as planned. Janet and I scurried around taking on fuel, checking our e-mail at the Internet café for the last time, buying last-minute supplies, and saying goodbye to our boating neighbors whom we had learned to know in the six weeks we were in Volos.
We had aimed for a noon departure, but at 1:00 the insurance agent still hadn't brought the necessary documents to the boat as promised. And besides, we were still stowing things and chatting with friends. Janet was on the shore talking to Jenny, who came to see us off, when the agent arrived and handed me the insurance documents. Suddenly we were ready. It was exactly 1:35 in the afternoon.
With so many people watching our every move, I was a little nervous about pulling out, even though it seemed like such an easy task. We'd been living aboard the Aldebaran since May 7, during which time I had started her engine, hoisted the sails, spun the wheel, and changed her name. But she'd been tied firmly to the wharf the whole time. We had no idea of how she would handle.
We began to unfasten the mooring lines. Somehow, it seemed, a growing and bemused crowd began to gather out of nowhere, anticipating some sort of "inept American" spectacle. With Jenny looking on apprehensively from the wharf, the Austrian boat neighbor on one side shouting encouragement in German, and the Dutch couple on the other side defending their immaculate boat from an assault they seemed to anticipate, I threw SailingActs into gear and moved smoothly away.
For a few feet all was well. Then suddenly a mooring line caught and we were almost rubbing against the fine Dutch boat -- a boat you do not want to scratch, especially when the alarmed Dutch owners are standing on deck. This was a situation in which the famous Dutch tolerance perhaps would not apply! To avoid disaster within the first 10 seconds of voyaging, I hurled myself to the rear rail to free the line, then heroically lunged face down across the hatch of the rear cabin and grabbed the wheel in order to get back on course. From this undignified position -- flat on my stomach, legs sticking straight out over the stern rail like a human wind-vane -- I steered SailingActs away from the wharf. For some reason the Dutch woman found this amusing. I could hear her thunderous laughter above the throb of the 42-horse-power, diesel engine from 100 yards off shore. But who needs dignity if you have adrenaline? We looked back and everyone was waving and smiling and so were we. We were off!
We watched the disappearing shoreline where we lived for six weeks. How small it seemed compared to the open sea in front of us! Farewell, Volos, the Internet café down the street, the helpful shopkeepers, the international boating neighbors, Captain Steve and Jenny.
We rounded the harbor entrance, the motor throbbing. Janet and I were still congratulating each other when we noticed dark clouds rolling in from the north. Thirty minutes later, the sky turned black. We stared uneasily, then with alarm, at the dense sheets of rain pouring in the north, then around us, and finally directly on us from above. We continued to motor as the wind increased, whipping the water into whitecaps. I shut down the motor and just ran with the wind, doing three knots with no sails. Janet steered SailingActs as she pitched and heaved in the squall, while I went below to check our bearing and position on the chart. I'd never been seasick in my life, but on this day of many firsts, I got seasick instantly. This was not good.
We needed to get some sail up to steady the boat. I managed, in 45 minutes of nauseous struggle with the wind and the waves battering the front deck, to raise the storm jib, then the mizzen, and SailingActs settled down as we picked up speed. I pulled on the foul-weather gear Janet gave me for Christmas the year before and ploughed through the torrents of rain and great gusts of wind, peals of thunder and bolts of lightning. I realized, with gratitude, that we had purchased an extremely seaworthy boat.
Then the squall passed, the sun came out, and for the final hour that day, we followed the course we had plotted over waters we had never before crossed, on a boat we had never before sailed. We were heading for the island of Palaio Trikeri, some 16 miles from Volos. The charts made sense, the descriptions were accurate, and we found the harbor -- full of charter boats. As in Volos, when we had pulled away from the wharf, everyone in the harbor seemed to be watching us as we drew near. Not wanting to demonstrate to the spectators that we had never dropped SailingActs' anchor before, we decided on a secluded anchorage just west of the harbor. Janet released the brake on the windlass, and the anchor dropped but did not seem to hold.
"Let's try over there," I suggested to Janet, pointing to a patch of sandy bottom we could see through the crystal-clear water. "I'll push the button to run the windlass and raise the anchor. Then I'll move the boat and you release it when we get directly above that spot."
I went back to the cockpit and pushed the anchor-windlass button. Nothing happened. I tried again harder, jiggling then pounding the button. There was no movement or noise from the anchor windlass. Did Captain Steve forget to tell me something?
Although Palaio Trikeri is a very small and rather remote island, and even though the anchorage we chose was even more remote, there were a couple of houses on the cliffs overlooking the little bay in which we were struggling. One of the island's few inhabitants watched the whole nautical circus with binoculars from the porch of his house above the little bay. Others joined him. I ended up cranking endless yards of chain up with my hands, which I thought were quite tough by this time, but I had blisters before I finished the job. We finally got the anchor up, found another anchorage on our chart, and headed toward it with the hope that in this one there would be no spectators. If it's this difficult to anchor smoothly, I thought to myself, what will it be like trying to back into a crowded berth? Tomorrow we're going to do some practice maneuvers, I vowed.
We tried again in the isolated anchorage we spotted. Watching the depth sounder carefully, we crept into 12 feet of water and dropped the anchor, which set firmly, then backed the boat toward the shore. As our cruising guide recommended and is often done in the Mediterranean for extra protection, I took a line to shore with the dinghy and fastened it to a tree on the water's edge. Before boarding SailingActs, I checked the depth under her keel. There were only about six inches -- too risky. Though very tired, we decided to reset the anchor a little farther out. I'm still not sure what happened next as Janet attempted to payout the line tied to shore while I winched up the anchor by hand, then motored forward in order to drop the anchor in deeper water. Somehow the line became tangled, and as we moved ahead, the rope suddenly whipped through Janet's bare hands and she screamed with pain and fear. It was terrible. She sat in the cockpit sobbing with the pain and frustration.
We eventually got the anchor reset and the boat tied off properly, but Janet was still in shock and pain. That evening wasn't quite as idyllic as we imagined it would be in our first anchorage. We had sailed only 16 miles that day but were physically and emotionally exhausted. And we still have several thousand miles and 14 months to go, I thought to myself.
Around 9:00 that evening we made something to eat, then climbed into our bunks. I lay awake, thinking and praying. Please, God, help me make wise and safe decisions on this journey. Help me to stay calm, to be helpful and encouraging. Bless Janet tonight especially, and help this voyage be enjoyable for her.
Sailing the Mediterranean hadn't changed a lot in 2,000 years, I realized that first evening on the water. We had already experienced the reality of sea travel on the same sea as Paul sailed. We faced some of the same kinds of perils that Paul experienced and were no more in control than he was. I thought about how my resolve to continue on had wavered that evening as we were overwhelmed and confused. Did Paul ever waver during his "trials at sea" that he writes about? I wondered. Maybe, but he endured and triumphed. So will we, I thought as I drifted off to sleep.