By Hilary Halpern It's funny how special experiences can shape our tastes. Roast beef with horseradish on sourdough has never been a sandwich I order at the deli, but after eating this particular sandwich sailing downwind on a light, breezy day on the Monterey Bay, it has become my favorite sandwich. And I've always liked Sierra Nevada's Torpedo Extra IPA, but drinking one now makes me nostalgic for Wednesday night races on Rocinante - it was the skipper's favorite beer.
Whenever I am able to catch a glimpse of the coast at night, I gaze out on the horizon and imagine all the activity happening beneath the surface. I imagine the plankton glittering in the water like fireflies as their environment is ever so peacefully disturbed by the natural wake of a living creature; a whale, or a sailboat. I like to think of sailboats as alive. The moody breeze whirls past the sails, manipulated by the lines, which are held by the sailor, who is steering the boat to get to perfect synchronicity with the wind, the sails, the hull, and the water all working in unison. Then it is alive, a sea creature gliding silently through the water amongst the other sea creatures.
It was a cloudy August morning. When I arrived at the harbor I had butterflies in my stomach that were so debilitating, they dulled my senses. We were rafted up next to another Santa Cruz 27' and were passing our personal cargo for the race from the dockside to their boat to our boat. Even though I have rigged these boats dozens of times in my sailing classes, I was blanking on how to run any of the lines. The butterflies were making me light - my sea legs had escaped me and I awkwardly moved about bow.
In a blur, we had cast off from the other boat somehow and were on our way out the harbor mouth. We sailed to and fro until the countdown and set ourselves up for a perfect start. As the gun went off, my butterflies were scared away - the anticipation was over. It was not a particularly windy day, which, being a novice sailor, I was secretly relieved about. My first race on this same boat was short and sweet with winds blowing over 25 knots and a near catastrophe that could have brought our rigging down, but that is another story for another time. This would be only my second real race aside from the Wednesday night beer-can regattas, and the longest race I have ever participated in. We would sail back at night! My feeble duty at this point was to keep my weight evenly distributed about the boat to maintain speed and keep her from heeling too much. I would have liked to work the lines, the pit, or the foredeck, but I had to prove myself as rail-meat first. I was just grateful to be on the water.
The advantage to being rail meat is the observation time. Going upwind I loved dangling my feet off the railing and feeling my weight flatten this roughly 4000 pound vessel. I would watch the coastline get farther away and listen to the water lapping up against the hull. I loved feeling the wind sting my face. I would listen to the skipper talk strategy. He would give everyone full access to his thought process and game plan as he spoke his mind, his focused stream of consciousness. When we would tack over I would do my best to time switching sides just right as to keep the boat balanced. If it was really windy and the boat was heeling heavily, it could never be guaranteed whether I could make it to windward or not; I've come pretty close to slipping through the railing of the lee side and into the cold water. I would grip the mast for dear life and struggle across the bow as swiftly as possible and ideally, without any help. A good rail-meater doesn't need a hand and is completely self-sufficient; a complete gift of weight distribution, allowing other crew members to focus on their own duties. On this mellow race day I didn't have to worry about any of that — the breeze was light and we were leisurely sailing along.
After we rounded the Natural Bridges mark, most of the course was downwind. We lunched on our roast beef sandwiches courtesy of our skipper and he even popped open a Torpedo. It was going to be slow-going. It was an oddly chilly summer day and we all had on our foulies, anticipating the cold, but as the afternoon rolled around the breeze grew warmer and the high fog was bright white with the sun shining just above it. The conversation would ebb and flow like the current; we would talk sailing or just share stories. At one point I laid on the bow and gazed up at where the spinnaker met the mast and savored every sight, sound, and scent of being on the water. It was one of those moments I drank up so much that if I close my eyes right now I swear I could teleport back.
Things started to get exciting as we neared the other side of the bay. We were almost to our final mark - the Elkhorn Yacht Club. I think as much as we love to be on the water, most sailors have an innate sense of relief as the comforts of land approach and are ever more certain. We were tied up just in time for dinner and festivities at the yacht club were well underway . . . this is when the whirlwind of the night began. As we walked into the warm twinkle-lit flag adorned yacht club, everyone was rosy-cheeked and wind-blown from the elements and the booze. There was live music for the race celebration and everyone shared stories of the day and spoke tales of the past and plans for the future. As the night wore on, people got warmer and fuzzier off their buzzes and declarations of respect and loyalty were made amongst sailors and dancing ensued.
Midnight approached and it was time for us to go. Some were getting a 45 minute taxi-ride back to Santa Cruz and some were camping in their boats to sleep off the booze and sail back in the morning - we were the only bunch that wanted to undertake the five-hour journey on the water that night. We received warning after warning and reason after reason not to go, but our skipper was determined. I had been looking forward to my first sail at night ever since I knew I would be on this race, but I began to build up some fear as everybody gave me their phone number and pleaded that I call them if anything were to go wrong (as if I could make a phone-call as we sink into the deep). However, I trusted my skipper completely and respected whatever decision he made — and this time it was to rig the boat for take off. I had a little buzz going all night but as soon as we started inching out of the harbor, I was sobered with task at hand - making it back home in one piece.
The breeze was still light and the fog was high. We couldn't see any stars but I was grateful we could see the dim lights of the coastline. We wanted to keep these lights in sight for the entirety of our voyage, even if it wasn't the most direct line. We started out motoring on low RPM's; the feeble puffs of wind could barely blow the wisps of hair off my face. The water was eerily serene. The sails were collapsed. We were all silent. It was very dark and I couldn't see anyone's faces. When I looked at my skipper all I could see was the red glow of his cigarette. I started to relax. I was chilled from the damp air and glad I had on my foulies. Every once in a while I would go down below and check on my snoozing crew-mate while also huddling next to him for a shot at warmth. I could never stay below for long because the setting above was too special to miss. It was worth battling the elements.
We started to get stronger puffs and I asked the skipper if we could turn off the outboard engine. We set the sails. Now I could hear the sounds of the sea at night. The mile buoy was whining in the distance with the subtle swell. The water was softly lapping against the hull of the boat. There was a splash here and there and I assumed it was the fishing sea-birds, but I couldn't be certain it wasn't a dolphin or whale breaking the surface for air, a curious shark, or perhaps a mermaid. Who knew what reality was happening below us — I loved imagining it all. As for the crew, we were mostly silent. It was incredibly peaceful. The skipper only broke the silence to tell me to look over the railing and dip my hand in the water. When I first stared at the passing sea-water, I could barely make out something glowing just beneath the surface. I looked back at our wake and saw that we were leaving a phosphorescent path. I dipped my hand in and to my delight glowing plankton jumped up my arm, glittering just for a second before disappearing back into the water. The disturbance of my hand was also leading a glowing path. It felt like I was creating magic. It was the moment that I became one with the sea. I was in love. I felt magical. I felt connected. I felt at peace with myself and the universe. I felt incredibly alive and unafraid of death. I will never forget that rare, beautiful moment.
We made it back to the harbor at 5am. This was the last time I sailed on Rocinante before I moved away and it was the perfect way to say goodbye. Until I get to experience the magic of sailing at night again, all I can do now is gaze at the horizon, eat a roast beef sandwich and raise my Torpedo IPA to Rocinante, my skipper and the crew, the sea, and that beautiful glittering plankton.
Republished with permission from What's It About?