An appreciation for the solo passage

August, 1998

By Dodge Morgan

I believe there is no experience as deeply satisfying as a sea passage under sail. One enters a world of absolute independence, a world dominated by the forces of nature and empty of the baggage of our human institutions. There are no organizational charts or social registers at sea. There is water and air and sky and the boat.

But as many sea passages as I have done it still takes me three days to shed my land ways. Enslavement to the clock goes first; the clock becomes useful only as an abstract navigational calculating tool. Grand time is measured by sunrises and sunsets, small time by wave periods and windshifts. Next goes the land agenda itself, all that refuse of business to do and bills to pay and lawns to mow and laws to obey. Priorities shake out to the celebration of one’s loves in life and to a re-recognition of one’s own spiritual ignorance about why life occurs in the first place. The result is decompression into a state of precious humility.

I sail the first leg from the West Indies to Maine alone. It is an 833-nautical-mile passage heading true north from Tortola to Bermuda. The air in Tortola is 98 degrees and the water is 89 degrees. This brutal attack on my Maine-trained bag of protoplasm has me wasting no time getting under way. Wings of Time and I have 8 to 12 knots of easterly wind on soft 3-foot seas. We make a little better than 6 knots. The sky is solid blue and the sun, passing almost directly overhead at our latitude, drives me under cover, which abandons the wheel to the autopilot (mine is optimistically named August Mobius after the German mathemetician who invented the “endless strip”). What I do is play with sail trim, sail into rather than away from the rare squall cells standard in these latitudes, make peanut butter and cheese sandwiches, quaff endless juice drinks, flip flying fish from the deck and gaze at empty horizons. The last couple of days is sailed hard on a 25- to 30-knot wind, fast and easy because no tacks are needed and the seas have little time to build.

I sail into St. George’s Harbor four days 22 hours after departure, a speed for the passage of 7 knots. And I have a reluctant entry back into the civilized world because the passage was too short for my spirit. Drinks with other sailors at the White Horse Tavern are pleasant but too soon. I get happily high anyway.

The leg from Bermuda to Casco Bay is sailed with others. Shipmates are a Bermudian, a Welshman and a Mainer. The Bermudian is a dedicated cook (peanut butter and cheese are immediately relegated to the back of the locker); the Welshman is a youthful eat-and-sleep expert and good sailor; the Mainer (Merle Hallett of Handy Boat) is a wonder of sailing experience and diplomacy. This leg is 720 nautical miles. We depart in a light south breeze with the jib poled up and the main prevented out. Progress is slow and soon we are motor-sailing. Closing in on the Gulf Stream, we get stuck in a foul current, but crossing the stream is uneventful except for acrobatic dolphin shows. Then the torrential rains that swept Maine in mid-June hit us with winds 30 to 35 knots from the southwest. We sail into a cave of fog off George’s Bank and stay there right into Casco Bay. Our Welsh friend has to take our word for it that the Maine Coast is gorgeous because we view none of it right up to the mooring. The bay itself is Mississippi-colored from rain runoff.

This passage takes us 95 hours for a 7½ knot average speed. We are puzzled on learning that two other boats leaving Bermuda in our time-frame ran into trouble. One, a single-hander heading for the Azores, was lost to seasickness and abandoned his boat for a freighter ride. The other, heading for Maine, was abandoned off North Carolina and the full crew made it to Houston, Texas, on another freighter. We were never more than temporarily wet and slightly uncomfortable.

I love to sail alone and I love to sail with others. But the difference between the two experiences is great.

With others aboard, I find they dominate my awareness. A tack worries me that a sleeping person’s lee cloth may not be up. A special sunset or dolphin arrival just has to be shared. When alone, my awareness is totally absorbed by the action of the moment. A sunset is all mine. A tack is simply a matter of trim, sail area and heading results. I may eat worse when alone, but I make fewer sailing mistakes.