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The First Ocean Crossing

"Final boarding call for South African Airways Flight No. 1477 to Cape Town. All passengers please proceed to gate 27."

Larry and I gather up our carry-on bags, fumble for our tickets, and wander over to the gate. Knowing it's going to be a long flight, we've stayed in the waiting area as long as possible before boarding the confined space of our economy seats.

I'm not normally a nervous flyer, but this flight has us both a little on edge. It's probably as much from excitement as it is from nervousness, since our tickets are one-way only. We're not flying back again, but rather will be making our first transatlantic crossing on a sailboat. Well, I guess you can call it a sailboat. Actually, it's a 50-foot catamaran.

The plane has just become airborne. Larry looks at me and aptly remarks, "Well, there's no turning back now. Are you ready for this?"

"I sure hope so", I reply softly, as I reflect back on what got us to this point.

It was last fall at the Annapolis Boat Show. Our friends, Randy and Melissa, arrived at our boat by water taxi and were bursting with excitement, as you can only be when you've just found the boat of your dreams. First words out of Randy's mouth were "Hey, you guys want to help us sail back from South Africa?" "Sure", Larry responded immediately. Surprising myself, I found I was nodding in agreement simultaneously. I remember thinking, "Boy, have I come a long way in my attitude to offshore sailing".

The boat they had fallen in love with was a Mayotte 50, (with a 28-foot beam!) built in Cape Town, South Africa. We didn't help to dampen any boat-buying fever, when that night we took Randy and Melissa along to a party on our friends boat, who just happen to be South African. To add fuel to the fire, the party just happened to include two other couples from South Africa who had sailed across the previous year. As you can imagine, there was much talk about routes, conditions, time of the year to cross, etc., and the excitement only rose.

The plane just hit some turbulence and the seat belt sign flashes back on. As I buckle-up again, my thoughts drift to what the ride is going to be like on this catamaran. Cat sailors are always telling us "mono-slow" guys that they don't even have to put things away on their counters when sailing. I still need to see this for myself to believe it.

Randy and Melissa have already been in Cape Town for a month, getting the boat set up and doing initial sea trials. Larry and I will be there for three weeks before the planned departure of around January 8 to help with this preparation process. Joining us are four other crew members, all experienced sailors and seasoned cruisers.

But as a crew, we're all rookies in the ocean crossing business. I imagine everyone is going through their own pre-crossing contemplation and introspection. For me, I just want to know what it's really going to be like out there. I've sailed offshore a bunch now, but never many days and hundreds of miles away from any landfall. Will I be bored, or will everything just fall into a wonderful rhythm? How big will the waves get? Am I going to be seasick? What will the crew dynamics be like? And, just how special is it as you cross the equator?

Our planned route is to sail first to St. Helena. That's the tiny, remote island in the middle of the Atlantic to which Napolean Bonaparte was finally banished. From there, we head for Ilha Fernando de Noronha, a couple of hundred miles off the northeastern tip of Brazil. Then on to French Guyana, (Devil's Island, to be specific), and finally ending the trip in Trinidad, where the boat will be left for a while, and the owners will return to slowly sail up the Caribbean chain.

With this proposed itinerary, we'll cover about 5,400 nautical miles, with an estimated sailing time of 30 to 40 days, plus two to three days layover planned at each stop. Hardly the normal amount of time you would think it would take to sail this distance. But apparently, this model of catamaran has reported 350-mile days on previous deliveries across the ocean. Don't worry, I'll be wearing my harness, so this unfamiliar warp speed at sea won't cause me to be swept overboard. "My God!" I suddenly think. "Is Serengeti going to feel like the slow boat to China when we get back to cruising on her"?

From everything we've learned, and if conditions follow the pilot charts, leaving Cape Town should be the worst part of the trip in terms of high winds and big seas. That's when I'm most worried about being seasick, as much from fretting about the conditions as from the actual ones encountered. Apparently, for three days, it's very rough, then the trip smoothes out to the nice trade winds off our stern quarter. But, you never know for sure what the wind gods will do, so of course we have to be prepared for anything.

I like to think that what we're about to experience is going to be very special, and that even if some things go wrong, we'll all come out of it with a very strong bond. Not only will it be a voyage that most sailors can only dream about, but it will be taking place during a very distinct time in our lives. For most people,  bringing in the milestone Year 2000 will be the big event. Certainly for us, it will just be a warm-up for our biggest adventure yet.

I pull up the shade and peek out the window. By now, I figure, we should be about halfway across the ocean. It's dark, and I can't see anything, but I wonder if there are any sailboats down there right now, with any first time "crossers" like me on board. Larry's sleeping head is resting peacefully on my shoulder. We've both taken advantage of the "free" drinks on the plane, knowing they will help us to sleep more soundly in these seats that never really recline back far enough to feel comfortable. I snuggle a little closer to Larry, and start to nod off myself, my mind still full of unanswered questions as to what this ocean crossing will really be like, but full of high hopes.

Sue & Larry is offline  
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