Joy of landfall never diminishes

To the editor: The sky was fairly clear; the easterly wind varied between 10 and 15 knots. The swell was short, 3 to 4 feet high; together with the wind and the 1-knot easterly set current, it slowed us; we motor-sailed at 4 miles per hour against it. We left Guanaja, the easternmost of the Bay Islands, the day before, taking advantage of the rare calm for heading east of Honduras. Bar and Netta were asleep in their cabin. They were up on watch half the night, talking and laughing — catching up on one year of not seeing each other.

Yoav was fiddling with hooks and lures, preparing his gear for when we would cross the shoals. I poured myself a cup of coffee and looked at the computer screen. Our boat, Summerwind, a small green icon on the electronic chart, was 86 miles west of the first marked waypoint: the Vivarillos — a reef complex north of Cape Gracias a Dios, the corner where the coast of Honduras takes a sharp turn to the south.

I zoomed in the chart and studied our route indicated by a dark-blue line. The little boat icon moved in tiny jumps, leaving a pixilated, pinkish trail on the chart. I zoomed out again, measuring distances from one waypoint to the next all the way to Panama — about 600 miles. I listened to the sound of the water along the hull, and a swirl of thoughts assailed me, “Will landfall still be magical in this age of modern technology?” I remember the days that we used a hand-bearing compass and the trailing log (which was jammed half the time) to plot our way along the coast. Later, on our first ocean crossing, we had a Transit sat-nav receiver, the first satellite navigation system before GPS. The sat-nav gave us up to eight fixes a day if it was switched on, but we were quite satisfied with just two, which we carefully marked with a pencil on the paper chart. Times have changed; will the adventure and the excitement of sailing the oceans change?

“Did you get the weather?” Yoav asked me.

“Oops,” I looked at my watch and realized that I missed the first part of the weatherfax, which is broadcast twice a day by NOAA’s Tropical Prediction Center in Miami.

“I’ll get it right now; I hope I didn’t miss the 48- and 72-hour winds-seas forecast,” I said as I switched on the SSB and tuned in to the proper frequency. I then plugged in the audio cable — one end to the radio, the other end to the computer — and watched as the series of arrows and lines scrolled down the computer’s screen. It was a little fuzzy, but we made out the shape of the land and the area that concerned us: an arrow with 1 1/2 “tails” (15 knots of wind) and the digits 4-5 (the waves’ height in feet). There were several cloud shapes — tropical waves — to the east of us.

As soon as the 72-hour fax was through, I wrote a short email to our families in Israel. Again, I connected the radio-modem-computer, this time with a different cable, scanning up and down the radio channels for a free frequency to send the messages. I received three messages: one from my parents, one from my brother, and one from a friend that was planning to fly and meet us as soon as we arrived at the San Blas Islands.

At 0800, I switched the radio to 8188 for the Northwest Caribbean Net.

“Good morning, this is Summerwind.”

I checked in when the net controller called for vessels underway, “We are en route from Guanaja to the San Blas; we have 10 to 15 knots from the east, doing fine. I would like traffic with Walkabout, please.” Walkabout and Hugalig left Guanaja a few hours before we did; they were 20 miles ahead of us. We exchanged positions and decided to meet again at 1800 on the same frequency. The net controller then moved on to the weather, information offered and needed, and regular check-ins.

As soon as the net was over, I switched off the radio and went on deck. I watched the sky and inhaled a breath of the humid, salty air. Could arrows and numbers stand for the sea and sky? I asked myself. Does it feel different to be out at sea now that we have the technology to receive weather forecasts and communicate with other boats? Is it less of a challenge?

I reflected on the time we first sailed across the Indian Ocean in 1990. We had no weather information and had to rely solely on our knowledge and feel for it. “We can only choose the day we leave,” we used to say. “Once out at sea, we have to deal with whatever comes.”

We were out of touch with our families from the time we left Darwin, Australia, until we reached Kenya, six months later. My father was thinking seriously of organizing a search party to look for us.

“We’ll buy you a satellite phone,” they offered when we prepared to sail across the Atlantic, but we sternly refused.

“We don’t want to receive any phone calls when we’re out there.” An SSB radio was out of the question, too.

“I am not a radio person,” Yoav used to say, “and besides, I am out here not to have schedules.”

“But what if something happens; what if you need help?” people used to ask us.

“When you’re out there, you’re alone — you and the sea. That’s the beauty of this life; it demands independence and self-reliance.” And it was so until a few months ago when our older daughter moved off the boat; we finally decided to buy a radio so we could easily keep in touch with her. Most boats nowadays carry electronic equipment and computers that enable them to receive detailed weather information and communicate with their families and friends from anywhere in the world. There is a lot of criticism of how advancements in navigation and communication technologies have changed the cruising life, of how easy sailing has become, and how much less of an adventure it is nowadays. But is it really? I ask myself again and again. Won’t we have the same joys and fears, the wonderful moments and stressful times, the weary nights, the high spirits and the dreams? The dreams of landfall?

Our sixth night at sea. Our little green boat icon had left a 585-mile-long track on the electronic chart. By now, the wind, which was blowing at 18 to 23 knots for the last couple of days, had eased, and the 11- to 14-foot swell had dropped down to a comfortable 4 to 6 feet. We had another 25 miles to the San Blas Islands. I zoomed in to the detailed chart. There were several deep channels through the reef; they seemed easy and straightforward; nevertheless, we decided to slow down and wait for daylight. I was tired, but I could not fall asleep; I was excited and anxious.

As daylight broke, we were four miles off the easternmost of the islands. The wind had dropped considerably; there wasn’t enough to fill our sails; we turned on the engine and motored slowly. The sea resembled a smooth blue blanket; the sun played hide-and-seek with the dark clouds gathering in the southwest. Yoav climbed up the mast and scanned the water for the deep channel through the reef. The islands grew bigger by the minute, first the colors, then their features; I could smell it. Warmth filled my heart. As ordinary as I know that it might be in this age of electronic navigation, for me, a landfall will always remain wreathed in magic.

Pnina Greenstein has voyaged with her husband, Yoav, and her daughters, Bar and Netta, aboard their 32-foot steel sloop Summerwind for the past 16 years. They started from their home in Israel and are currently in Panama.

By Ocean Navigator