Sea Shanties, Scurvy, and a Sailboat Regatta without Wind

Fair winds and following seas. A blessing for sailors, heading out onto the water, at the mercy of time and tides.

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It was what we hoped for the Arctica, a small but mighty sailboat, with its motley crew of recent surgery patients, pregnant women, and greenhorns.

There’s de facto First Mate Liska Kandror:

“It gets exciting, for sure, you have to move fast, and things drop out of your hands and then there’s a gust of wind that comes up and it’s a good time.”

Her friend Allison Shockley:

(Photo via KBBI - Homer)
(Photo via KBBI – Homer)

“So she invited me and I thought, I’m not going to miss up a cool opportunity to really experience Alaska.”

And mild-mannered yet fearless captain Craig Forrest:

“I’ve been sailing in Homer now since 1977.”

My partner John and I, along with Allie, could all say we’d been near sailboats before. But not necessarily on them. Certainly not crewed them.

On the first day, we learned to sail. It started slow, with the first several hours calm, calm, calm.

“When there’s almost no wind, everything that we do on the boat makes a difference,” said Forrest. “If you step a little too hard in one direction, that makes the boat do something we might not like. If a boat goes by us and puts up a wake, that shakes the wind out of the sails so we can’t maneuver. It’s just really, really difficult.”

It picked up toward afternoon and for the last hour, we splashed through the waves, tacking and jibing, racing around marker buoys. We went home that night, tired and sore.

“Oh man. Crawling around on deck game me some black and blueies on my knees, I’ll tell you what,” said Shockley.

But we came back the next day, ready to hit the water again. We were confident. We hopped up on deck, got her ready to go. Ready for squall and gale were we!

But instead. Nothing.

“Well, we were very close to the buoy at one time,” said Kandror. “We are supposed to go to our next marker and we are not. We are slowly drifting in circles.”

The occasional whisper of half a breeze flopped the sails around. The wrong way.

“What’s happening is the main is forcing our bow upwind and the spinnaker doesn’t have enough wind in it to force it downwind and we keep spinning,” said Forrest.

And so we spun. And spun. And the buoy got smaller and smaller. And then, we got caught by the current, which was moving faster than the wind.

“For some reason we can’t turn. We’re doing 1.5 knots backwards,” said Forrest.

And so we sat, sometimes drifting in the wrong direction, sometimes twirling like a top. But mostly we just sat. Bobbing like a cork in Kachemak Bay. First we turned to sea shanties.

Then, our thoughts turned to the trials and tribulations of our predecessors.

“Back in the day when there were no engines, you know these giant sailboats got stuck in the middle of the ocean with no wind for days, weeks. Weeks with no wind. I mean, they had to store their water and their food and they got scurvy,” said Kandror.

“The old square-rig sailboats were not very efficient at all with the wind,” said Forrest. “They’d have the crew hauling buckets of water to throw over the sails. Some of those boats, the masts on them were 80-100 feet tall. That’s a long ways up for a bucket of water.”

And we thought of those sailors, adrift, maybe, or on long voyages far from home. Captain Craig regaled us with tales of sailors of old, of ships in bottles, of how they crocheted, using their knowledge of knots. Of how they were innovative using citrus, berries, and grasses to combat scurvy. Of how they were at the mercy of the winds and seas.

“You look at it all, the history of boats at sea are an idea of a long way of learning how to do stuff and making it work,” said Forrest.

He told us of his own nights at sea, once in a storm with water filling the cabin and the boat on its side. Once sailing through the Barren Islands with kerosene lamps lighting the small boat and the stars brilliant overhead.

There’s something magical about sailing, learning to read the weather, leaving some things to chance, with more than a thousand years of history behind you.

“Because you feel like you’re moving on windpower instead of motor power and panthering across the water. That’s a good feeling,” said Kandror.

At the end of the day, the race was called. Not enough wind to complete the course. We took advantage of modern technology, and got towed back to the harbor.

Disappointing? Not at all. We came as strangers to the Arctica and left as friends with a greater appreciation for the sea and the art of sailing and revised our hopes for next time:

Fair winds and following seas, but if not, good company, please.