Christmas at Sea
It's here again, that time of year between Thanksgiving and Boxing Day, and in the spirit of the season, I visited my shelf of reference books full of nautical lore and anecdotes to see if any connection has ever been recorded between Christmas and sailing. In book after book, I found hardly a single mention of the holiday. That 2,000 years of nautical history and celebrating Christmas have never come together in way significant enough to merit mention struck me as amazing.
Frustrated, I then spied the logbook from my years aboard Varuna on the same shelf, its slender, black binding nearly hidden by the hefty tomes surrounding it. Aha! What was I thinking? Fourteen years ago, alone with my cat in the middle of nowhere, I spent Christmas in the doldrums of the Indian Ocean. This mote of a book turned out to have more seasonally relevant information than any whale of a reference book, a personalized connection between Christmas and the sea, and my very own history to rewrite.
The cover of the logbook is creased and well worn, the pages filled with the words and drawings that articulate and illustrate every emotion an 18 to 21 year-old girl is capable of experiencing. The holidays may be an emotionally volatile part of life under normal circumstances, but when Christmas and being alone on the ocean are thrown together—well, let's just say it was a good thing I was alone on the ocean. Here is my first entry on that day: "December 25, 1986. 07:23. Compass course 360°. Speed four knots. Stopped the boat for a while. Seems as though the wind may have veered. We'll see. Opened my presents—one beautiful feather earring and a necklace that he [then my boyfriend and now husband] made. I wonder if he opened mine yet, and if he likes them? [I think I gave him chocolates and whisky.] I am in a rather bad mood, screaming at Tarzoon [my cat, poor thing]. It is Christmas Day and a huge squall is overtaking us and there is at least one more week left before land, probably more. New Year's will also be spent at sea. Opened a can of miniature hot dogs and plan to mix them with ham, sauerkraut and potatoes."
Our last landfall, coincidentally, had been Christmas Island, a speck in the southern Indian Ocean west of Australia, which some explorer with a creative propensity for naming new lands must have discovered on Christmas Day. We were headed for Sri Lanka, which was once named Serendib, hence the word "serendipity." There aren't many Christmas-like or serendipitous feelings in between the lines. Who could be in the holiday spirit if they were looking forward to a pressure-cooked meal of sauerkraut and canned meat of uncertain origin?
For a girl from the north, Christmas couldn't have been the same in the sweltering tropics, and I remember feeling pretty sorry for myself in my environment, imagining my family gathered around a real prickly, decorated Christmas tree, probably talking about me. If there wasn't snow outside, they would still be dressed in turtlenecks and the other wintry outfits I was missing, just because wearing them meant it wasn't as unbearably hot as it was here at the equator. Later that day, I wrote in my logbook: "12:19. Stopped the boat, sails slamming very annoyingly. Please let me have nice wind! Happy Christmas, Olivier [boyfriend]. It would be so nice if we could be together. Reading Clan of the Cave Bear. Had tomato juice and ham. No turkey, no eggnog."
I could see my siblings having a mechanical moment of silence for me, just before gulping down the eggnog. Would they fast, or have some canned ravioli in solidarity with me? No. Perhaps they would talk briefly about what I was eating as they cut into a turkey, or rosemary encrusted roast pork. They might feel a fleeting pang of regret for not having sent me anything as they tore wrapping paper away from a pile of gifts. They might think that out here on the balmy, shining sea, I wouldn't be needing the new sweaters, gloves, and socks they had just received. Oh, lucky me. What did they know?
On the upper left-hand corner of this page in the logbook there is a list of dates and locations: 1986 Indian Ocean, 1985 Tahiti and New York, 1984 New York, 1983 Guadeloupe. I had revisited three Christmases prior to this one, remembering and comparing the differences. In 1985, I had flown home from Tahiti to New York to see my mother for the last time before she died. In 1984, I was in New York, receiving charts, short-wave radios, and all sorts of other stuff in anticipation of my upcoming voyage. In 1983, my father, his friend, my sister and I had made it to Guadeloupe after an Atlantic crossing just in time to go out for a Christmas dinner. Several days before making our landfall, we had crossed wakes with a sailboat from Ireland with a decorated Christmas tree hanging from its backstay. On the Indian Ocean, far from any major shipping lanes, the chances of running into another boat were pretty slim. No matter how this pudding was cut, I was caroling alone. On the upper right-hand corner of the page, I kept a list of books read, and two books down the list after The Clan of the Cave Bear" I saw One Hundred Years of Solitude. My last log entry of the day says: "20:55. Compass Course 340°. Speed four to five knots. Wind coming from NE. Put up sails and we're beating into the wind. Don't know if it's just another squall or real wind. [According to subsequent entries, the wind had come to stay, brisk and from the north, a headwind, which is kind of like a lump of coal in your stocking.] The batten broke again, I fixed it again. Made the sauerkraut. It was very good. Gave Tarzoon ham, but he doesn't like it. Well, Christmas is over—next occasion, New Years..."
And so my entry for the day tapers off. As I write now, and notice every detail of this page from my life, I am able to relive the agony I felt out there, separated from everyone I loved. The watermarks smearing the black ink are obviously from teardrops and I'm sure my loneliness was heartfelt, but no matter how hard I try, I can't rekindle that self-pity. No way. I have everything now that I wished for then—love, children, friends, a house, a garden, and roots. What I didn't know then, as a 20-year-old aboard her own boat, was that I would catch up with the future, and that this day would be a gift to treasure as one Christmas I would remember for the rest of my life.
Never again would my concerns be so basic and essential, worrying about flat calms, slow progress, broken engines, torn sails, leaking chainplates and climbing the mast to replace a dead bulb. Instead, I'd be making lists, worrying about time passing too quickly, budgets, rising prices, and feeling manipulated by the commercialism that accompanies a merry Christmas. Staring at flapping sails and wishing for a steady wind, I didn't see far enough beyond the bow pulpit to know that the wind always comes back. One year flows into the next, and the simplicity of this day stands apart in my memory now, sharply and in a context that no reference book, or all the other Christmases, before and since 1986, could hold a flaming Yule log to.