Crossing More Than Miles

Mother-daughter bonding on the high seasAs I dialed my mother’s number on the Panama City pay phone, I told myself not to be disappointed if she’d changed her mind. My father, who’d been worrying ever since I’d announced my decision to sail the 3,200-mile passage from the Galpagos to the Marquesas alone, had e-mailed me the night before. Subject line: “Crew for your
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Mother-daughter bonding on the high seas

As I dialed my mother’s number on the Panama City pay phone, I told myself not to be disappointed if she’d changed her mind. My father, who’d been worrying ever since I’d announced my decision to sail the 3,200-mile passage from the Galpagos to the Marquesas alone, had e-mailed me the night before. Subject line: “Crew for your Pacific crossing.” The message read, “Your mother wants to go with you. She is serious. Love, Dad.”

A lump rose in my throat as I heard her sweet hello. “Mom?” I said.

It had been almost a year and a half since I’d watched her vanish into the distance of San Diego Bay behind my 1966 Cal 40’s bubbly wake. I’d since sailed Swell over 4,000 nautical miles through Mexico and Central America on the sailing and surfing voyage that was the realization of my childhood dream. I’d always had her unconditional love and support, but during my first year at sea I began to feel guilty about our relationship. Since my teenage years, I’d been so focused on my plans that I’d neglected mother-daughter time.

Despite our loving relationship, the differences in our personalities and pastimes, coupled with my schedule, often made it difficult to understand and appreciate each other. I run at high RPM, while she cruises happily along just above idle. I longed for a way to remedy the situation, but I knew it couldn’t happen through e-mail or my patchy once-a-month phone calls. She had mentioned coming to visit me on Swell, but I figured it would have to wait until I was tucked in a safe harbor.

Even though we’d spent every weekend or vacation sailing as a family when I was growing up, Mom retreated to permanent galley duty as soon as my brother, my sister, and I were old enough to help sail the boat. Later, a serious gale off Baja left her with a distrust of the sea. Knowing this, I was surprised (to say the least) by the e-mail; I couldn’t have imagined that she’d even consider joining me on the longest passage of my proposed circumnavigation.

“Mom?” I repeated.

“Lizzy!” Before she could say anything else, I voiced my misgivings. “Mom, don’t worry, you don’t have to come. I’m sure I can do it alone. Did Dad talk you into this? Is he forcing you?”

“I’ve made my decision and I’m sticking with it,” she assured me. So that was that.

Two months later we hugged each other in the Galpagos Islands airport. We spent two-cup-of-coffee mornings catching up, and by the time Swell was fit for departure, Mom had spent over three weeks easing into life aboard. In her free time she made local friends and watched me surf, while I tried to make her as comfortable as possible in my home. Finally the watermaker was fixed, the algae was scrubbed off the anchor chain, and the dinghy was stowed. We anxiously pointed Swell’s bow toward open water.

We headed south the first four days, looking for wind. When the trades filled in on the fifth day, we poled out the genoa, and Swell skipped like a stone across the iridescent blue sea. We were gazing proudly at the results of our teamwork when the jib halyard parted and the headsail slid smoothly down the roller-furling track and into the sea. We leaped into action and eventually managed to lift it from below the hull with a spare halyard. Mom pulled lines and held Swell into the wind. When the dripping mass hovered above the foredeck, I hauled it down and pinned it like a victorious wrestler. I apologized for the rare drama and thanked her for helping me avoid a catastrophic loss. Three hours later, the sail was full again, wearing a bright-blue bottom-paint tattoo.

I was full of optimism the next morning, sure that we’d conquered the biggest challenge of the passage. I passed an egg sandwich up to Mom and turned on our French-language tape. We were about halfway through Lesson 1 when the weather completely deteriorated. The wind and swells spiked, and a wave that rolled over the rail and into the cockpit sent Mom seeking comfort belowdeck.

By dusk I had tried everything I could think of to stabilize our ride. We were flying only a storm jib, and I’d altered our course to take the swells directly astern, but to no avail. We managed to get the dorado we’d caught onto dinner plates that evening, but getting it into our mouths was another story. We sat across from each other, giggling as the plates, forks, cups, salt, and pepper slid back, forth, and sideways in the sharp, violent heaves.

The next day the seas were even bigger. I cringed as I read my father’s faithful daily weather report, explaining that we were experiencing the leftovers of a storm off Peru. “The swells are going to get bigger and steeper for the next four days,” he wrote. “Hunker down and heave-to if you have to.” Any remaining humor in the situation disappeared. Mom and I held each other that night in the forepeak. I hid the fear that seized me every time Swell’s stern was lifted and white water crashed along her flanks. She’d careen down the wave and tail-slide into its trough, tossing our bodies one way and the other. The rigging squealed, teak joints whined, cargo clanged, and the sea roared past our heads.

During those uncomfortable days, even the smallest tasks aboard Swell were challenging, but Mom complained little. She refused to look at the “ugly, roiling” sea, and there were a few murmurs about being airlifted out. I understood; it was downright miserable. I wallowed in frustration as my vision of a blissful bonding experience disappeared. Standing alone on the aft deck, I stared back at the short-period, 15-to-18-foot, seas. As each huge wave approached, my limbs tingled and I grew short of breath. Then I yelled back at the sea, “Enough! I just wanted to show her my beautiful life out here! And you had to go and do this!”

As the stormy conditions dragged on, Mom grew confident in my ability to keep us safe. We scoffed at our early notions of seafaring glory, contrasting them with our present reality—wedged for endless hours into the corners of the cabin. Mom looked up at me from her hundredth crossword puzzle and said, “This is where they should have sent Paris Hilton.”

Just when we thought the torture would never end, the demon swells passed. Now Mom delighted in conditions she would previously have feared. Soon the days began to blur together behind the distorted lens of time at sea. Mom and I were living in a gap in time that seemed to have no beginning or end. We floated along in a trade-wind coma with not a reef to watch out for in a thousand miles and wind so consistent that the sails rarely fussed. In our cocooned world we spent long, peaceful hours analyzing life and love, past and future, and learning about each other. As I learned about her past, I gained insight into the present. We watched dolphin shows and gawked as the full moon rose; we basked together in the afternoon sun until the sky oxidized into deep oranges and reds. I took care with what I said in those glorious moments, fearing that the wrong words would dispel the moment.

Three nights before we made landfall, a fat raindrop hit me squarely on the forehead. As I hauled my blanket below, we were broadsided by a 30-knot squall. I’d neglected to reef the mainsail before dark and struggled into my harness. I was on my way to the mast when my tether caught on a snatch block just as the strongest gust yet threw Swell onto her side. I froze with fear, clutching the wooden rail and straining to grip the almost-vertical deck with my toes. The warm sea rose over my ankles while cold rain doused me from above. The starboard deck was completely submerged. Mom flew out of the cabin. “Liz!” she hollered. The gust subsided, and when Swell righted herself I inched my way back to free the tether. Mom took over the helm, and I hauled down the mainsail. The wind left as quickly as it had come. We both knew she’d been strong at a critical moment.

When a green lump rose from the horizon on our twenty-second day at sea, we high-fived in disbelief. Unlikely as it had seemed at first, we’d made it safely across the longest stretch of open ocean on the planet. We had laughed and cried, teased and played, whined and snapped, and gained an appreciation for each other we’d never known before. While relishing the stillness of the cockpit that evening, we marveled at the distance we’d traveled and gazed at constellations in the star clutter above. I studied her hand as she pointed toward the Southern Cross. I’d never before realized how much it looked like mine. Smiling up at the night sky, I knew that the true triumph of our voyage couldn’t be measured in miles.

Twenty-seven-year-old Liz Clark is currently in the South Pacific, fulfilling her plans to surf and circumnavigate the world.

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