Where’s Lizzy: Episode 5

On our last morning in Zihuatenejo, I turned the engine over to warm her up and a sound like a garbage disposal rumbled from under my feet. Immediately shutting her down, I ripped off the engine covers to assess the damage. The throttle cable had been lodged between the cover and the alternator during the previous night’s engine maintenance routine. It was a bit mangled, but still functional, so I zip-tied it to the exhaust pipe to prevent that from ever happening again. The night before, I had set to an engine oil change and even flushed the cooling system. It had been a messy and comical event. I fell down the companionway stairs sending us both into hysterics and setting the mood for the rest of the night. At one point of the procedure, Swell looked like a twisted science lab with intermediate containers of old lime-green coolant and oil slicks on patches of the floor where I’d dripped used oil. Fortunately, the two mad scientists recovered all the toxic fluids and, later, amazingly even found a place to recycle them! Needless to say, I had probably lodged the throttle cable in wrong when finishing up around midnight that night. It was a simple fix, though, and we soon hoisted the mainsail and sailed off the anchor and out of the bay midday in the steady afternoon breeze.

Our first underway task was making the three-tiered fruit basket. The first step was to choose a braid to weave into the teal twine. This would make up the structure of the hanging arms. We dove into the knot books and agreed upon the zig-zag braid and got braiding. After the first two braids were complete we put them next to each other. Mine was ugly and twisted and Snags’ zig-zagged perfectly the entire 26 inches. I tried and retried to make mine look like hers to no avail. So, she alone commenced the zig-zag braid sweatshop, while I fastened it all together with all the knots that Marty, my ingenious rigger, had taught me.

Despite what many think, there’s still a lot I don’t know about sailing. I had spent nearly a month in Oxnard after leaving Santa Barbara installing a new spinnaker pole and track with Marty while James Lambden installed my autopilot. We never got a chance to sail with it before I left California, and up until that day it had hung from the mast, mocking me up there like a cocky opponent before a game of one-on-one. I knew the logistics of how it worked, but just hadn’t had the nerve to swing the 20-foot long aluminum beast out of its secured chalks on the deck. When the wind swung behind us and the headsail started to collapse in on itself down the swells, I knew it was time to face my nemesis. The wind was a steady 18-20 knots, and we were already pushing 7 1/2 knots with just the full main. I slowly talked myself through the process, while craning my neck to see the mess of lines crisscrossing up the mast. I released the pole from its cradle and raised it out until it was perpendicular to the mast and set it in place with a fore and after ‘guy’ (strange sailing term) or lines that hold it from swinging freely and taking out the rest of your rig. Once we were comfortable that the pole was firmly in place, we slowly rolled the headsail out. The pole holds the sail’s corner way out so that it catches all the wind and doesn’t collapse as you surf down a wave. I shrieked with joy to see the sail set perfectly into the pole. We were flying downwind, like I knew Swell was made to do. I was one step closer to being a real sailor!! (My next challenge is the spinnaker.) We hit 10.8 knots!! It was a beautiful moment. Snags and I cheered proudly and celebrated with a feast of leftover vegetable curry. We sailed that way until after midnight, when the wind slackened. Shannon took the first watch and I tried to sleep despite the thick hot air. It coated your skin in a clammy layer and we decided it was the closest you could possibly feel to being a glazed donut. Sleep was intermittent and I stuck to the already damp sheet like sticky popsicle stick.

I tossed and turned a while, and then the smacking of the sails in the dying wind lured me up on deck. “Uh, there’s an electrical storm that’s kinda close,” first mate Snags declared casually. Just then a bolt of lightening ripped across the sky and thunder bellowed behind it. “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” I screamed and nearly peed my pants with fright! It was way too close. The wind had almost died completely, so we hauled down the sails and revved up the engine. Ironically, the issue of lightning had been skirted at the end of the Swell retrofit project. James, my right-hand retrofit man, had pressed and pressed the matter. To do it right would have cost at least another 2,000 dollars after the haulout and the labor, and taken at least two weeks. At that point I couldn’t mentally or financially take on another big project, so I poo-pooed the thought that there was any real chance of getting struck. And there we were with lightening so close and frequent, you’d have thought it was a strobe light in a nightclub. I knew it would be just my luck to get struck after telling James over and over that I wasn’t worried about lightning. I could see the shape of the storm chasing after us on the radar. At one point it looked like the jaws of a crocodile on the screen gaping towards us. Each bolt sent me cringing into an ulcer-inducing stress ball. Finally, hours later, the storm moved out to sea. Damn lightning. I tried once again to get some sleep.

The next thing I knew Shannon was standing over me in the darkness of the cabin. By the way she said my name I could sense her panic. I sprang from the bunk once again, but this time there was a different danger. A large military ship was bearing down on us. Shannon had waited a bit too long to wake me and as I shook the sleepy daze from my eyes, I realized it was less than a half-mile away. I panicked and spun the wheel {{{90}}} degrees to port. All I could tell was that the lights were getting closer quickly; I couldn’t make out the shape of the vessel or its red or green running lights to show us which side it wanted to pass on. I called to Shannon to switch on our strobe light while fumbling for the VHF receiver to hail the ship. Then a spotlight beamed down from its high decks and I could make out the silhouette of the evil nightrider. I had made the wrong turn. 180 degrees to starboard! As I made out the dark flank of the ship’s port side, I knew we were clear of its path. We were both shaken. To this point I have been a bit amazed and almost frightened at times by Shannon’s lack of fear, but finally I saw fear in her eyes. She swore from then on she would wake me at the first inkling of a questionable situation, whether it be lightening or the lights of a ship.