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Cruising the South Atlantic with Captain Woody

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Memories from November 17- December 31, 2004

1:30 pm by my Swiss Army watch and I'm still in the customs office at Cape Town's International Airport trying to make my way to the Royal Yacht Club and a grand adventure. The agents don't want to grant me entry as I don't have a return plane ticket. I try to explain that I'm not leaving the country by plane, but by sailboat to Recife, Brazil. How do I know the owner of the boat? Well, I don't. He's on his way around the world and I'm crew on this leg of the trip. They're not convinced, who sails 3600 nautical miles across the South Atlantic on a 33' sailboat with someone they've never met?

My guess is that most people are presented with extraordinary opportunities throughout their lives, but reject those opportunities without first giving them full notice. This adventure started with a trip to Barnes and Noble one evening. Tania Aebi's book, Maiden Voyage, was displayed on the shelves marked "Staff Recommends." Three months later, I'd purchased and restored my 19' Starwind sloop and was already thinking about bigger boats, deserted islands, and convincing my family to consider a life at sea.

Cincinnati isn't exactly a sailing haven so I dreamed of life at sea through photos and stories in various sailing magazines. It occurred to me that I had no idea what to look for in a cruising boat. Flipping through the classifieds in Latitudes and Attitudes one evening, I found an ad that invited me to "Come Sail with Captain Woody." I laughed to myself and fired off an email. An opportunity.

To my surprise, Woody wrote back. He was in Darwin on his way to Cocos, Rodriguez, and Durban, and was looking for crew for either the leg from Durban to Cape Town or the leg from Cape Town to Recife, Brazil. The latter would take about a month but should be good sailing and an opportunity to learn something about boats. We emailed for a couple of months and in September, I bought a ticket to Cape Town.

At the airport, the customs agents were pleasant, but questioned me about not having a return ticket. I showed them the email from Woody and in the end, they decided it was not worth an argument about return tickets and let me go. The trip across town was stark and sobering and a good reminder of what a gift it was to have the opportunity to make such a trip. Any doubts I might have had were soon satisfied as I walked to the end of the pier and there she was: "Low Key" Woody's 33' CAL. Woody's laid-back California smile greeted me and I knew I'd made the right decision--it was going to be a great trip.

After provisioning, checking weather and navigation, and ensuring everyone back home could track us, we set sail leaving Table Rock to our backs and the wind in our face. The weather was nice--warm and sunny, but by the second day out I introduced myself to the rail. In fact, the rail and I became fast friends for several days. and so by day five, Woody started talking about heading for Namibia or detouring to St. Helena. I was pretty sick, not to mention embarrassed. I'm a commercial pilot with experience in all sorts of weather and had been sailing for over twenty years without ever feeling motion sickness, but the ocean is a totally different beast.

We'd established a three-hour watch. I'd not been able to keep my last two and in addition to the seasickness, started doubting the wisdom of my choice to make the trip. All of the questions you'd imagine came with the waves: what was I thinking? I'd just missed Thanksgiving with my family and would probably miss Christmas too and on top of it, all didn't even help my sailing partner.

The next morning, I climbed the companionway steps and faced the stern, looking back toward Cape Town. That would be quitting and I don't quit anything. Woody said that overcoming seasickness was in your head. Just decide not to be sick. He was right.

Three hours of sleep at sea was like a full eight hours in my own bed. At home I have a feather top for my queen-sized bed; on the boat, I had a bunk with a cozy pillow and lines to keep me in place. The first couple of weeks found the nights cool and us on watch in our foulies. At home I have a place for everything and everything in its place; on the boat I found that I didn't need much that I couldn't put under my pillow: my sweatshirt, shorts, sweatpants, and socks as I moved from one climate during the day to another at night. My foulies found a home under the companionway steps. After my late evening watch, I'd curl up in my bunk not able to get warm. I'd wake to find that Woody had tucked his Army blanket around my feet as I slept. These things he balanced with reminders about boat safety. About the importance of tying knots correctly and looking after my long hair so as not to clog the bilge. Until now, such things had not held much weight. My knots were sufficient for lake sailing, but you can't see the knots at night, in rough seas, and rain. We had to tie our knots correctly--and the same way so they could be worked by feel. We only had one spare sail; therefore, care was taken in hoisting and jibbing so as not to shred what we had.

The moon and stars rose clearly around 2100. By the time I took my early watch at 0200, constellations took shape overhead. Constellations that actually looked like the pictures in my field guide, but with such brilliance they cast shadows on the sea. My first morning on watch, a large grouping rose over the horizon: one very bright star with a band below, and below that one that shown with the brightness of a small moon. I was elated. As Woody climbed the companionway steps to assume his watch, I said "Look--isn't that the Southern Cross? It's beautiful." Quietly, he turned and smiled "That's Orion. The Southern Cross is over here" he added pointing to a faint kite-like constellation across the port stern.

Sharing a space about the size of your bathroom at home for a significant period of time requires trust and respect for one another. We shared many conversations about family and life. Most every evening we handed off our watch with a coolie: one of Woody's homebrews and a good CD. The seas consistently pushed us toward Brazil and for the most part, the winds kept to our back. I read, he wrote in his journal, and spent the afternoons in one sort of maintenance activity as I kept watch. He replaced the tiller handle, cleaned the bilge, repaired sails, and patched a leaky exhaust manifold. We started making bets: how many miles would we travel in one day? That was worth one point. What time of the day would we cross this fix or that mile marker? One point. The day and time we'd set anchor in Recife? Ten points. First to sight land? Five points. Catching a boat on someone else's watch? Two points. A whale sighting? Two points. A flying fish in the lap on watch? No points, but rather cool.

I made yeast bread once a week. Woody made Raman noodles for lunch and ensured homebrew for the duration. I settled into a calmness and stopped counting the days. As Christmas approached, he mentioned how he wanted to spend the holiday on land in the company of other cruisers, but it didn't seem likely. Our food stores were sparse as the trip was running about a week behind. I held a can of pumpkin and raisins back from the rest of our provisions for a holiday dinner, and started thinking about a project to put in our stockings from Santa. My fishing sweater seemed just the thing. I unraveled the gray wool and made a yarn ball, then whittled a crochet hook from a clothespin. As my wool project took shape, I decided that Woody could use an alternative to his standard red ski cap and so crocheted a ski hat with a long tail sure to be the envy of Bob Marley himself. I rolled a couple of paper towels around the finished product and secured it with some leftover yarn and a tag from Santa.

We tied anchor at the Cabanga Yacht Club in Recife on Christmas Eve. A quick trip to town for food and Reais and then back to the boat for popcorn, pumpkin raisin bread, and a movie on the VCR before opening our stockings from Santa. Woody gave me a ball cap, well worn and marked with his name on the sweatband.

Looking out my library window as I write this story, the sea seems far away. My family and friends ask about the trip; I tell them about the whales and knots and navigation and saltwater showers on deck, but I can't describe the blue I woke to each morning, or describe the heartbeat of the sea as I fell asleep.

And they can't see the Midwest Southern Cross.

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