Home | Sailing | Confessions of a Long-Distance Sailor |     Share This Page
"Confessions of a Long-Distance sailor"
Copyright © 1991 — 2005, P. Lutus

An account of an around-the-world solo sail in a 31-foot boat, 1988-1991

Chapter 1 — Introduction, San Juan Islands
"Selene" underway

What would you have done? I didn't expect to be on the bow of my little boat, changing sails, when the big wave came and tried to wash me into the sea. I was several days' sail west of Fiji in the South Pacific, at a time of year when the sea is supposed to be calm and predictable. Several hours before, my two-way radio had come to life — "Sailing vessel Selene, this is Take Two, how do you copy?" I recognized my friend Ursula's voice — I talked to her on the radio each day since we met in French Polynesia several months before. Ursula and her mate Bob were sailing around the world on Take Two, a fast German boat. But this wasn't our normal time to chat, and Ursula sounded worried, so I picked up the microphone. "Take Two, this is Selene, you are loud and clear, what's up?" She responded, "We've just picked up a weather warning from New Zealand — there's a storm coming with 50 knot winds!"

I didn't believe it at first, and wasted time looking at weather charts that said storms never happened at this time of year, and tuning my radio to hear that, sure enough, a bad storm was coming our way. The timing couldn't have been worse — I was only twenty miles from an island I had just sailed past on the gentle trade winds, and the storm's reversed wind would try to blow me back onto the island's rocks. I realized that to escape the island, I would have to sail upwind against 50 knots — I would have to change all my sails, now. As the sea began to pound my little boat, I pulled on my foul-weather gear and strapped on a safety harness, went out on deck and watched a dead bird float by.

I clicked my harness onto the deck safety line, and as I pulled the storm sails out of storage, I posed the question I had been asking myself since I began sailing two years before — "What am I doing out here?" Could a computer programmer really sail around the world in a 31-foot boat? I thought I had seen every cold, wet, out-of-control, salt-water-in-the-face adventure while sailing from Oregon to Hawaii and French Polynesia, but I was still a beginner — in fact, in five more minutes, the safety harness would save my life.

But I should explain a little about myself. Please don't picture a world explorer, born to adventure, native to sun and wind — no way. I sunburn so easily that if I lose my hat I begin to cower like Dracula. I have spent most of my life working indoors, fixing TV sets as a teenager, then designing electronic gadgets, eventually working on the NASA Space Shuttle, finally learning to write computer programs.

Yes: a nerd. But I have a working brain, and that has saved me. When I was young I read a lot of books, observed people around me, and came to the conclusion that most people's lives are completely boring. So I made a rule for myself — find out what most people are doing, and do something else. I know that sounds almost too simple to be useful, but it works for me.

So, while I was designing part of the Space Shuttle, as successful as I had any right to expect, I remembered my rule and bought some country land. When my Shuttle work was done I moved to Oregon and built a cabin on the edge of the wilderness. I grew vegetables and hiked around in the woods for a year. It was pleasant but eventually I got a little bored.

One evening I was sitting by my wood stove, reading a magazine by a kerosene lamp, when I spotted an advertisement for something called an "Apple II personal computer." It was 1977, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were living in a garage, "Personal Computer" was almost a contradiction in terms, but it came to me that I could own a computer.

Now I realize you may have a hard time believing someone can get all tingly about owning a computer, so I ask that you stretch your mind a little bit. Picture the thing you care about the most — a Lamborghini, or the perfectly written real estate contract, or an exquisite watercolor, or a woman on whom nature has smiled, or whatever. Now take that feeling and multiply it ten times — yes! Cover your face and make a sound only dogs can hear! I could own a computer! Equations quickly executed, magical worlds of computer images, the perfect cold wind of logic, a computer!

Well, you've always wanted to know what nerds think, haven't you? So I bought an Apple II and it was just as exciting as I expected. I started writing programs for it, because there weren't any, and I got pretty good. Then, one day, a magazine asked me to write an article about Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Since they offered to pay me and I had almost no money left, I began writing the article.

The basics of Relativity are not hard to grasp, but there are a lot of ways to explain it, and I soon had filled several scratchpads with ideas. Then I realized I might be able to program my Apple II to be a big electronic scratchpad. Maybe I could write a program to let me experiment, put words in different ways quickly and efficiently. So I wrote a scratchpad program and used it to write the article.

The Apple Computer company, no longer in a garage, heard about my program and asked to see it. I added some things to it, made it presentable and stuffed it into a big manila envelope. As I rode my bike to the post office I thought, Who knows, maybe they'll like my program. It might be worth hundreds of dollars.

Even I didn't see what was coming. I had written what is now called a word processing program — Apple Computer named it Apple Writer, it became an international best seller, and it is why I sailed around the world.

For the next eight years I wrote new versions of Apple Writer, translated it into foreign languages, and learned a lot about computers, people, and money. Finally it seemed as if everybody was writing a word processing program, so it was time for my rule again — do something else.

I had been sitting in dark rooms, punching computer keys, for years. I had always wanted to learn SCUBA diving, hike around in the tropics, so I booked a flight to Hawaii. But a month later I was in — are you ready? — a traffic jam on Maui. I wanted to climb Mount Haleakala, the island's biggest mountain, but first I had to get to it. I gazed along the row of cars stretching away in the distance. Occasionally I moved about a car length. Then another tourist banged his car into mine. I gave up and went back to Lahaina, the tourist ghetto on the West side of the island.

I spent the day walking around Lahaina, and eventually made my way down to the marina. As I walked along the row of boats, I saw a sailboat was about to depart, and the skipper asked if I would kindly cast off for him. I figured out he wanted me to untie his ropes from shore. The skipper motored away from the dock, then turned and began gliding out of the marina. He waved to someone on another boat, then, outside the breakwater, he turned off his engine and put up a sail. The boat heeled over and began to move, and in a few minutes all I could see was a pretty sail surrounded by blue water.

I understand now, from the moment I touched that sailboat's dock lines, I was doomed to sail. First I realized to actually see the Hawaiian islands I needed a boat. Then, slowly, the idea of sailing away from everything began to play itself over and over in my mind. I started meeting sailors, visiting boats, asking questions. Can you live on a boat? How long can you be away from shore? Are there pirates? How much does (ahem) a boat like this cost? And why doesn't the boat just fall over when the wind fills the sail?

The novice sets out
I read books about sailing. Most of the respected ocean sailors think you should buy an old-fashioned heavy boat, with a keel that extends from the front to the back, and a rudder attached to the aft end. And, after wandering San Francisco's marinas, that's what I bought — a heavy, clunky, old-fashioned boat that looked as though it would stand the sea's abuse. It wasn't very expensive, because that kind of boat isn't popular any more (most sailboat owners don't sail across the ocean). I started adding equipment I thought I would need — a radar, two-way radios, a satellite navigation receiver. Soon I had the most high-tech old-fashioned boat around.

I knew I had to do something about the boat's name. The former owner had named it "Pagan Princess." Since then I have seen about a thousand boat names, and "Pagan Princess" is still near the top of the dreadful list. I renamed it "Selene," which is the Greek goddess of the moon. The former owner heard about the name change and said, "It's bad luck to change a boat's name." I said "It's bad luck to have a boat named 'Pagan Princess.'"

A little digression. You only get to name your boat once, so you should give it some thought. A lot of men name their boat after the woman who tolerates the boat's existence — this is dangerous, because the boat may outlast the relationship, then you have to start over. But most people try to show some personal cleverness or make a statement. While I sailed I kept lists of boat names — most pretentious (example: "Born Free," a boat probably owned by a bank), banal (please, no more "Sea Breeze"), hard to spell out on the radio ("Thalassa Experience III"), and just clever (a tie between "MicroShip" and "AllSummer's Disease").

Selene is a "double-ender," meaning it resembles a big canoe — the hull comes to a point at the back as well as the front. It's an old-fashioned design and it looks old-fashioned. The keel is long and not very deep. The rudder is attached to the aft end of the boat, with a post rising up outside the hull. A big stick called a tiller attaches to the post.

At first I wondered whether I was being too conservative in my choice of boat. But in the years since then I've banged a lot of coral reefs and rocks near shore, and out at sea I've collided with big things that went bump in the night. If I had bought a modern, lightweight racing boat I would have sunk somewhere by now. Also, Selene is the heaviest, therefore the slowest, boat in the fleet — it always arrives last. On the other hand, when the weather gets terrible I just take down the sails, go inside and read a book until it's over.

It's not easy to get seasick on a heavy boat. But that might just be me — I don't get seasick very easily. I did get seasick once, before I started sailing on my own — Apple Computer had chartered a fishing boat for a day, and I was in town so I went along. The boat made its way under the Golden Gate Bridge, and then things got bumpy. At first I was afraid I was going to die. Then I was afraid I wasn't going to die. They say motorboats are the worst, because of the exhaust fumes. Also they don't weigh very much, so they bounce like corks. But I never got seasick again.

After I equipped Selene the way I wanted, I decided to sail to the San Juan Islands in Washington State — this was to be my shakedown cruise before sailing to Hawaii. First I sailed from San Francisco and tied up in Brookings, Oregon, a short ride from my house. Then I worked on the boat for several months, installing more equipment and making overnight test sails off the coast. I waited until June to sail up to Washington, because the weather is supposedly better then.

A word about weather along the Oregon coast. At the time I am writing this I have seen weather all over the world, and the weather in Oregon is consistently the worst. One day, in the Red Sea, the weather was almost as bad as an average day in Oregon. For two days in the Caribbean, between the Virgin Islands and Panama, it was just as bad. But on the Oregon Coast it goes on for weeks.

Most of the shelters along the coast are river outlets. Over time these outlets develop piles of debris called "bars" at their entrances, and they must be dredged regularly to keep them passable. When the wind comes from the West and the waves are high (as they usually are), the waves break on the river bars. This makes these entrances deadly.

On the first of June I sailed for Cape Flattery, the point between Washington State and Canada that leads to the San Juan Islands. But I should have sailed earlier, no matter what the monthly weather summaries said — the wind blew at 40 miles per hour, directly from the North, all day, every day, and the waves were huge. I had to motor all the way between Brookings and Cape Flattery, a distance of 370 miles. It took 15 days, an average speed of one knot. A person walking on a beach of hard sand can make four knots, a thought that crossed my mind more than once as I bashed and banged through the water. I tried to stop as often as possible, usually to refuel as well as sleep.

I ran low on fuel near one small town, and ducked in just before dark. I got a good night's sleep, and the next morning I got my fuel and was all ready to go — I asked the Coast Guard station about the bar conditions. They told me the bar was dangerous, so dangerous that they would be obliged to physically prevent me from leaving if necessary. And why? Because the wind had shifted around to the West during the night. I realized if I was outside the bar with a West wind I would be sailing happily along on a beam reach (meaning a nice sail, with the wind blowing from the side). But I had to wait three days. Finally the bar was safe again. Why? Because the wind had shifted back to North. I motored the rest of the way.

At anchor, Echo Bay, Sucia Island
The San Juan islands were beautiful. I learned a lot about sailing in a relatively safe and sheltered area. I sailed up to Canada and saw snowcapped peaks in August. And I discovered that a certain number of sailors are complete morons.

One day I anchored in a big, big bay (this is a form of literature called an "anchor story." This anchor story is simple. Later on they get as complicated as relativity). I dropped my anchor out in the middle of the bay, well away from everything, and took a nap. After a while I woke to the sound of country & western music. I came out of my cabin to discover another boat had anchored directly in front of me, about two boat lengths away, over my anchor. I couldn't leave, because my anchor was beneath the other boat. I had to listen to country & western music all day and half the night. It was two miles to shore in any direction, all perfect anchoring. Why were they here?

The next place I anchored was called "Echo Bay," on a beautiful outlying island. This time I decided to make it impossible for another boat to anchor near me. I used my navigation chart to locate a pass, between two rocks, that led to a small anchorage off to one side of the bay. Anyone that followed me in there would have to be very experienced or a complete idiot.

During the afternoon the tide came up and covered the rocks I had passed between. About 3 PM I was working in the cabin when I heard someone motoring nearby — very nearby. I came out of the cabin and saw a boat headed directly for one of the submerged rocks!

I waved my arms and yelled "Submerged rock! Turn to port!" The skipper yelled back "Okay — which way is port?" But he managed to miss the rock. Later he told me he thought he was in the clear since I had anchored so far off to the side. He had no chart.

Most of the time people left me alone, which was just as well, since I was making plenty of my own mistakes, learning how to sail and anchor a 16 thousand pound boat alone. I was willing to do completely embarrassing things, but not while drifting sideways into someone's expensive yacht.

If I had to tell the truth about my summer in Washington, I would say I began to depend on Selene — for a sense of purpose and for consistency as well. If I was lazy about anchoring on a certain day, the wind would blow, something would break, I would pay for laziness right away. Another day, if I stayed alert to the details, things would go well, I would have a nice time and begin to think myself embedded in nature, in the wind. At the time I thought how charming those lessons were, even though they were really just coincidences. Yes: I had a lot to learn.

Soon it was September, time to sail the boat back to Oregon and prepare for the Hawaii passage. I was looking forward to sailing down the coast — I had fought those fierce winds all the way up, burning an ocean of diesel fuel. Now I would sail back on wind power, downwind, really fast.

I rounded Cape Flattery on a sunny afternoon with brisk winds, I put out my largest sails and began to move. Within twelve hours the wind died and fog rolled in. I had to motor back to Brookings.

During the winter I installed more equipment and filled the lockers with things I thought would be useful. I installed a wind generator and solar panels, so I could charge the boat's batteries without having to run the engine. I went out for more test sails.

One day I decided to visit a bay a short distance up the coast called "Hunter's Cove." It was supposed to be okay for anchoring. How did I know this? There was a little anchor drawn on the chart.

There was no wind so I had to motor, and by the time I got there it was after dark, not a good time to enter an unfamiliar bay. But this wasn't a reason to change my plan, after all, I had just come back from a long journey to Washington State and Canada. I was a hotshot sailor.

But, just to be safe, I turned off the engine so I could listen for breaking waves, and scanned the bay with binoculars, looking for rocks and white water. Things seemed calm in the bay, there was no wind, so I got the boat ready — I untied the anchor so I could go forward later and just drop it off the bow. I motored into the bay, using the radar to find my way among the rocks.

I watched the depth sounder too — I wanted to stay in water depths of 20 feet or more, because waves might break in shallower water. I saw the depth I wanted and began turning the boat around to face the waves. Just then a huge wave entered the bay, broke, and came careening down on my boat! It sounded like a freight train — as it collided with my boat it almost drowned out my plea "But I'm in twenty feet!"

Because I was turning around, the wave hit the boat beam-on, the worst orientation. The boat rolled down so the spreaders on the mast nearly touched the water, the anchor fell off the bow, and everything movable flew across the cabin. Water poured through the hatch.

The wave pushed the boat a considerable distance toward shore, which meant shallower water and more breaking waves. I hit the throttle, hoping to round up into the breaking seas and get out of there. But the engine speed wouldn't rise above an idle — something was wrong with my engine! I dove into the cabin and pulled the engine covers off. As I examined the engine two more waves hit the boat, pushing it closer to shore. The water depth was now 12 feet. I finally realized the electric fuel pump had quit and wasn't delivering any fuel. I started hitting it with a wrench as another wave broke aboard. My engine came to life!

I jumped back into the cockpit and tried to point up into the waves again. The boat turned and took the next wave on the nose, a much less violent experience. But then the boat just stopped! It was then I realized the anchor had fallen off the bow. That was why I hadn't been thrown onto the rocks, but it also meant I couldn't just motor away — I would have to raise the anchor first.

I put on my safety harness and went to the bow. Between each of the breaking waves — which completely covered me — I was able to reel in the anchor chain a bit. Finally the anchor cleared the bottom — I ran aft and started motoring.

When I reached safety, clear of the bay, I stopped and listened. I still couldn't hear the breaking waves, and the sea seemed calm in the deeper water outside the bay. I learned my lesson — after that night I didn't try to anchor along the coast any more. Instead I would get well away from land, make my tests, take sextant sights in the evening, let the boat drift around while I slept until daylight, then sail some more. It was safer than going near the shore.

Sometimes when I was at home I would jump out of bed and try to figure out where I was — I would look out the windows, see houses and trees and begin to panic. I would try to find the tiller, turn away from the land. Then I would wake up, standing there, and it would come to me that I wasn't on the boat. This made me realize I was a lot more afraid of sailing than I admitted, and the fears I was hiding came to the surface after dark.

I would sit in the dark and ask myself what I thought I was doing. Could I turn myself into a sailor? What did I want to do with my boat?

But I knew, I knew. If I sailed far enough, if I didn't crash my boat against some rocks, I would put my anchor out in some foreign land. I would climb a hill and meet a goatherd. We would sit under a tree, drink wine and eat goat's cheese. He wouldn't have heard about Chernobyl or disposable diapers, and I wouldn't tell him.

He would tell me his story and I would tell him mine. We would look at the hills, the sky. And I would walk down the hill with the fine touch of a natural person, someone who belongs to the earth, to the sea. Someone beyond the reach of the evening news.

And that would be enough, the fear would go away. I could lie down again and sleep.

Finally it was May — time to leave for Hawaii. I had conducted every test I could think of, and packed lots of interesting treats for the passage.

Home | Sailing | Confessions of a Long-Distance Sailor |     Share This Page