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Trans-Atlantic

In May of '89 we set out across the North Atlantic ocean. We couldn't really afford it ---but that is a paltry excuse. If people waited ‘til they were "ready" to have a baby the world's population would have guttered out long ago. If we delayed our voyage until we were in every way ready, we'd never leave. Instead, we relied on the theory, the faith, the hope, that things will work out along the way. A job will come up, some opportunity will present itself, help will appear, if you need it. Nothing "happens" for those who travel within the silk cocoon of money; why should one help those who have no need of it?

Traveling on the edge, one experiences a culture and its people in a different way than does one who buys and pays his way from place to place. Instead of being treated as a tourist and a source of income, one is seen to be a co-struggler, one who can use a favor or inside advice or a local's discount --- one to whom a kindness done will reflect a plus in one's eternal  ledger book.

Having said that, it’s clear that virtually everybody would prefer to travel with plenty of money, given the choice. Not having the choice we went anyway, and put our faith in providence. If we ran short we could teach English wherever we holed up for the winter, and in the next summer pick up some charters in the Med.

Raff was totally absorbed in his freshman year at Dartmouth so there were only five of us aboard when Breath got ready to jump off from a marina on the French side of St. Martin: Dorothy, Diego, my dad, me and Santos. And actually, Santos had gone AWOL .

We had finished topping up water and fuel, had bought a selection of emergency equipment - sail needles and spare sailcloth, a powerful flashlight, more batteries, rolls of duct tape, epoxy. We had packed the ice chest with block ice, taken on extra water in jugs we lashed to the cabin side, finally pulled the dinghy out of the water and lashed it down securely.

"I think we're ready" said Diego

"As we'll ever be..." I agreed.

"OK, Dorothy, start the engine, Dad you stand by to receive the docklines starting in the bow, Diego you start letting 'em go from the shore... bow first, then the spring lines... We're outta here!"

"Does anybody know where the dog is?" came Dorothy's voice from below and everything ground to a halt while Diego went on a search of the marina premises. He found him, predictably, at the snack bar, under a table where a family with two young children were eating hamburgers. When he heard Diego's voice, Santos tried to look inconspicuous but Diego knew exactly where to look and with apologies to the tourists he snagged the dog from underneath their table.

"I'm sorry. I hope he wasn't begging or bothering you."

"As a matter of fact he was begging and very successfully, too. My kids have fed him most of their hamburgers, I think. Great little dog...is it yours?"

"He belongs to our boat, and we're about to leave, but he doesn't want to go. He hates long trips away from land."

"Oh really. Where to? Anguilla?" He gestured at the long low grey line across the channel.

"Spain." Diego left with the dog tucked firmly under his arm. The tourists called after him, "Spain? Where is... which... you mean in Europe?!"

One thinks of crossing an ocean as getting away from all the hassles of civilization, alone on the big blue, emptied by the vastness of the sea. A high seas passage is like a month-long meditation that stills the brain from the petty chattering of shore and its discontents.

However, in this day and age, trouble from shore can find you just about anywhere. We left St. Martin in calm, picked up the reinforced trades just north of Anguilla and drove hard to the NNE for days, marching up the degrees of latitude until at 27 N the wind began to flag, ever so slowly, eventually leaving us becalmed in a gentle swell. From there on up past Bermuda the breeze had been light and fitful. We flew all our light air sails for days, the oversize jib, the reaching staysail, the main topsail and the flying jib.

As we entered our eighth night out, we were four hundred miles east of Bermuda, ghosting along before a languid westerly breeze that had wafted up after sunset. The night was dark and clear, and we hadn’t seen a ship in days.

After dropping the flying jib and the topsail for the night I turned the watch over to Diego and went below to join the supper with Dorothy and Dad. My wife had cooked beans and rice with scraps of sausage and lots of onion and garlic - good sea fare, and I was halfway through a bowl when Diego called down; “Pops! You better come up here. I think I see port and starboard lights coming pretty fast.”

Diego had just turned 12 but he had stood his own watches alone since he was six, and he was dead serious about his duty. If he said something about the boat I took it seriously, even if it meant leaving a good supper and a glass of wine.

Seeing both port and starboard sidelights is a prime danger signal - collision is a distinct possibility. And of all the potential hazards on the high seas, being run down by a big ship is the likeliest cause of untoward death.

I put my bowl down and mounted the companionway ladder. Diego handed me the “night glasses” and I saw both red and green moving towards us rapidly. I had never seen sidelights grow brighter so fast. Could it be one of those new high-speed freighters capable of making 40 knots, that went from hull down to impact, cutting you in half, in just over ten minutes? People had talked about it as a new hazard for boats not keeping the sharpest of watches. Whatever it was, it was coming fast. I went below, turned on the engine, cranked the proper pitch into the prop and then looked again at the oncoming lights.

My heart jumped into my throat! The lights were much brighter, racing at us, in fact almost upon us! As I watched I saw them start to rise, a sign that the bow was close, almost overhead!

I shouted to Diego, "Full throttle! Hard to starboard! Turn, turn!” then bellowed down the hatch, “Get up on deck! We’re about to be rammed! Get lifejackets!”

Diego, pale and tense, spun the wheel and rammed the throttle full blast. Breath started to respond to the power of the 120 horsepower Ford. She turned and gathered way, her stern sucked down, she started to pull a stern wave, but it wasn't fast enough, the lights were upon us. Dorothy came bolting up the companionway, Dad pulling on a lifejacket right behind her. I strained my eyes into the dark for the giant steel cut-water, the high curling bow waves, and braced for impact. . . when the lights made an impossibly sharp turn and simultaneously we caught the loud wash of sound - the roar of aircraft engines flying 50 feet off the water, rapidly receding.

“Oh my God!” Diego gasped in relief, while I gaped at the single green light fading. The joints in my knees quivered with a surfeit of adrenaline.

“What the hell are they playing at, those bastards!” I said, forgetting the old missionary’s reverend ears. He didn’t blink an eye. In fact he weighed in.

“A damnable outrage! Abominable!”

“What's going on?” asked Dorothy.

Good question. Who would play such an irresponsible trick on us and why? I got a shiver of doubt as I realized how vulnerable we were, all alone out here. I called the plane on VHF but got no response.

Eventually, we settled down and returned below, but an hour later, with Dorothy newly on watch, she called, “Peter, there’s a big ship close off our stern, and it doesn’t have any lights.”

What, no lights? I came rapidly on deck and sure enough, a couple hundred yards off our stern -close! - hung a blacked-out ship with military lines, an inkblot silhouetted by the western stars. Why on earth should it be blacked out? We watched it for a while as it got within a couple hundred yards of our stern.

While I was on deck, Dorothy switched on the VHF and scanned the frequencies.

“Peter, I hear a transmission - American voices - they sound military. Why don’t you try to talk to them?”

I removed the transmitter from its hook. “Vessel blacked out trailing off our stern, this is the sailing vessel Breath. Do you read me? Over.” Nothing. I tried again. “Hey guys, it’s a bit unsettling for a 40 footer to be played footsie with by a 400 footer. What’s up? You want us to move, we’re on your piece of ocean, just say so.” But there was no answer, not a sound on the radio. We’d spoken with a freighter bound for Trinidad two days previously and had carried a range of ten miles easily. Nothing was wrong with the radio.

I got fed up.

“Yo! Butthead! Yeah, you --- yukking it up around the radio! It shows a gross lack of seamanship to harass a small boat with a big ship out here in the middle of the ocean. Do something useful to justify burning up the taxpayers’ money. Rescue somebody, attack Russia....but get off my ass!” Dead silence.

I assumed it was military, but why would the U.S. Navy be harassing us? Or any navy? A scary possibility occurred --- was it smugglers who were supposed to offload cocaine or heroin here? Plutonium? Genetically engineered anthrax? Would they run us down when they discovered they had the wrong boat? The radio news had recently reported the wholesale murder of everyone in a Miami apartment, infant to grandmother, who had been innocent witnesses to some drug deal.

The middle of the ocean suddenly felt pretty vulnerable, but after an hour of being tailed without incident, we got used to it. As the night progressed, the ship came and went.

Dad came on watch at midnight, slipped a cassette tape into the walkman to which he listened on headphones while steering for a star. This evening he was immersed in Hamlet, and in the scene where the ghost of Hamlet’s father beckons the prince to the fearful precipice --- a sudden brilliant light flooded our boat and the surrounding sea. To say it was as bright as day were an understatement – each of us felt like an insect pinned to a page, transfixed by spotlights.

Asleep below, with the engine on, none of us had heard the approach of the helicopter. Now it was directly overhead, its clatter and the down draft unmistakable as we rushed up on deck. Looking up, we were blinded by the light.

Then, as suddenly as they appeared, the lights cut out, the noise clattered away and we were left in peace, this time for good. We were too amazed to complain.

When we got to the Azores I met a delivery captain with many years of experience in all oceans who’d had a similar experience. He’d been harassed by aircraft and Navy ships in the western approaches to the Straits of Gibraltar. After a day, they went away and a sub emerged at the surface nearby, waved, and threw something into the sea, then resubmerged. It was a bottle of good wine with “Thanks!” written on it in magic marker. Apparently, he had been an unwitting participant in a war game, the sub hiding under the yacht so that attacking planes and ships could not claim a kill.

“Well Dad, for a minute there, did you think you were going to ascend to heaven in a staircase of celestial light, like the prophet Isaiah?”

“That was Elijah,” he chuckled, and clicked back on his tape.

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