“Tucker!” I snap at my little brother. “You have to be on lookout!” Two years younger than I am, he just looks at me and shrugs. He continues to stare at his computer screen.
On watch without the calming experience of my parents, I cannot relax. Saphira seems wild and out of control—I start to breathe more heavily. The darkness of the night seems to seep around the corners, leaking in through the portholes like the rainwater dripping through the companionway door. The red cabin lights deepen the shadows rather than disperse them. A shiver runs down my spine that has little to do with the chill in the air and more to do with the darkness of the night and my overactive imagination. Stepping forward into the cockpit, I search the midnight-blue water.
The sudden shape of a massive tanker looms out of the darkness, barely illuminated by the minimal starlight. Its hull is enormous, blocking out my view of the horizon ahead of us. Panicked reactions flicker through my mind: Could I take over the wheel and turn fast enough to avoid a collision? How had the radar not picked up such a massive vessel? Could I wake up Mom and Dad in time to make a difference? I cling to the rail, paralyzed, certain that we are about to collide, and then Saphira’s two graceful hulls lift over the crest of that huge, deceptive wave and the horizon is clear once again.
I was 13 when my parents told me we were going to live on a sailboat for a year. I responded with a reaction befitting my age: I burst into tears and locked myself in my room. Blindsided and shocked, I saw the looming year not as a unique opportunity, but as something that would pull me away from friends, school and horseback riding—the life that I knew. Intense fear and frustration overcame any positive outlook. And in the beginning, I was not the sailor that my parents trusted to keep watch with my younger brother. Not then. That part came later.
The alarm wails incessantly, an angry beeping that slices through the vessel at an ear-splitting pitch. My cabin light is flicked on rudely, and I half-fall, half-climb out of my bunk, eyes squinting as they adjust to the light. I find myself gently shoved aside as my father aims for the source of the alarm: the engine compartment under my bunk. I stand in the shadows, in shock, as he violently strips off my mattress and throws open the hatch cover. Terrified, I do not know what is happening.
Our voyage started in Marion, Massachusetts. The first offshore passage was highlighted by a hose clamp breaking on the seawater intake, which then proceeded to flood the bilge. Though my father fixed the issue easily, the event only convinced me that I was not meant to be sailing on an extended journey. Looking back, it is easy to view the situation with my experience now and be unafraid. At the time, I was terrified. As time went on, though, I learned how to manage Saphira, our Atlantic 55 cat. I learned to sail and how to respond when things broke—because as all sailors know, anything that can break, will.
CRAAACK! I am out of my bunk before I am even fully awake. Tripping over the companionway steps, I race up to the cockpit, terrified, wondering what has broken. No one is in the saloon, though my brother and father are supposed to be on watch. Drenched from the salty spray and the driving rain, I stumble toward Mom and Dad. My younger brother is petrified, frozen with a line in his hands. Where did the spinnaker, that huge turquoise balloon-like sail, go? Looking up, I see the very top of the sail torn to tatters and whipping out of control in the wind at the top of the mast. I try to bury my fear as I join my parents in hauling the rest of the huge sail out of the Caribbean Sea.
As I became more comfortable with my surroundings, Saphira slowly became “normal.” As I learned, I began to discover the wonders of cruising on a sailboat. Despite the challenges of living at sea, my mindset began to mature from that of a young teenager, and I began to see the doors opening to me as we traveled the world by sailboat.
The heat is blistering; the smoke stings my throat, making it hard to breathe. Despite that, I am overflowing with happiness. The tiring walk up the lava fields under the hot Guatemalan sun was totally and completely worth it—because I am holding, overflowing lava, an eight-foot-long branch with a marshmallow on the end. Within a few feet of the glowing red molten rock, my marshmallow bursts into flame. Laughing, I quickly reel in my branch to blow out the flame. The slight tinge of sulfur only heightens the sweetness.
The volcano Pacaya marked the point where I began to realize how much this trip could offer me. In the previous five months, we had sailed through Nova Scotia, Bermuda, the Virgin Islands, Colombia, Panama and Honduras. It was pure fun, with snorkeling, diving and endless beach time. In Guatemala, though, it finally dawned on me: I was fascinated by other cultures. I loved speaking Spanish (or trying, at least) and meeting new people.
Suddenly, I wanted to learn as much as I could in my remaining months afloat. Sailing up the coast, we paused in the Rio Dulce, Guatemala, where we left Saphira to travel inland. The volcano Pacaya was one of our stops, as was Lake Atitlán and the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Until Guatemala, I felt relatively sheltered and normal aboard Saphira. However, that was changing as we experienced various local cultures and I saw how different they were. Although this is fundamental to the cruising life, I was internalizing it for the first time.
The light is low as I sit curled up in the cockpit with a book, the waves lapping against the hull as Saphira sits quietly at anchor. I look up as I hear a slight cough from over the rail. I drop my book and search the water... There! I knew it! A dorsal fin slices through the turquoise Bahamian water. Could I swim with the dolphins? Grabbing my mask and fins, I jump in the water. They approach me almost immediately—as interested in me as I am in them. I hold perfectly still as they circle me and try to contain my excitement.
I never want this moment to end. I am floating in the Caribbean Sea, dolphins within feet of me, and I am happy. Though we are leaving in a few days for the last leg of our voyage up the East Coast, my mind is completely focused on this moment. Happiness rushes through me.
Cruising as a child changed me. Exposure to so many different people and new experiences at a young age made me grow up faster, with an appreciation of both the inherent diversity and similarities of all people, as well as an awareness of my own good fortune. I also discovered a passion for sailing that has carried me through numerous adventures. I am now captivated by the same wind and waves that terrified me just a few years ago.
Holly Francis learned to love sailing while on an extended voyage with her family when she was 14. This article first appeared in the Cruising Club of America’s journal, Voyages. The CCA (cruisingclub.org) is North America’s premier offshore cruising and racing organization.