Memories of Icarus

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A French version of the SAIL Magazine article I wrote as a 17-year-old resurfaced this week. It was published nearly a half century ago about a voyage I made from Florida to New England in a small wooden boat named Icarus.  Courtesy: Thibaud Deves

I am not one who has ever been comfortable waiting around for things to happen.

Today I am in Langkawi, Malaysia waiting for parts to repair the navigational electronics aboard Flying Fish before I set sail across the Indian Ocean.

Forty-seven years ago, I was also waiting. I was counting off the days until high school ended so I could set sail along the eastern seaboard of the United States in an 18-foot plywood sailboat I owned named Icarus.

My brother Bob joined me aboard Flying Fish on the first leg of this circumnavigation. He was also aboard Icarus for the first leg of that voyage. In 1973, Bob was already in college following a sensible path in life studying marine biology, working on a Chinese vegetable farm, and cultivating a crop of high-potency marijuana. He took time off from his busy schedule and we had a delightful passage together. Some days we sailed offshore, on other days we cruised through the Intracoastal Waterway. At Little River, South Carolina Bob went back to Tallahassee for graduate school (and harvest season) while I took a job as a fish gutter on an assembly line with spirited Low-Country black women who sang while they worked and taught me a few words of Gullah. I was broke and happy, and had all of the pan-fried croaker I would ever want to eat.

It was a notable summer. Secretariat had just become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. Former White House counsel John Dean began his testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee. The U.S. bombing of Cambodia ended after 12 years of combat activity in Southeast Asia. But then, like now, I felt insulated from world events. Aboard Icarus, I was lost in the fog–both figuratively and literally.

By mid-summer I was alone on Icarus, transiting Delaware Bay from the Chesapeake to New Jersey. I had no navigational gear onboard and I encountered a fog bank. I am a South Florida boy, born and raised. I had never experienced fog. It was a novelty. I could see the air move when I blew it out of my mouth. But couldn’t see anything else. I could certainly hear things, though. The booming fog horns of ships passing me unseen at close quarters echoed out of the gray nothingness. My intention was to sail toward Cape May, New Jersey while estimating my location by dead-reckoning speed, direction, and time. My charts showed buoys with horns and bells, but nothing made sense to me. I remember the day becoming late. I should have made landfall by mid-afternoon. It was transitioning into night. I’ll turn due north, I thought, and that way I can’t miss the New Jersey shoreline of Delaware Bay. I sailed on through the night. There was no shoreline. Just before daybreak the fog lifted and I finally saw some lights. Land ho? Unfortunately, no.

The lights were from commercial fishing boats trawling the Continental Shelf well offshore of New Jersey. It was calm. I thought I was still in the bay. Instead, I was 35 miles out at sea. I pulled alongside a large trawler and shouted out to a mate on deck, “Where am I?” Soon there was a cluster of crewmen and they tossed me a line and lowered a ladder. Icarus tugged at the end the line like a toy poodle on a leash. “You look like you need food and a bunk,” one of the crew said to me. I was escorted to the captain’s mess for breakfast. The captain walked in, wiped sleep from his eyes, raised a fork to his mouth, then set it it down and looked at me. “Who the hell are you?” he roared. I’m from Icarus, I replied meekly. My boat is tied on rope behind your trawler.

The captain could have called the U.S. Coast Guard and ended the voyage of Icarus at that moment. Instead, after some intense interrogation, he said he would tow Icarus within sight of land and then release the tow line once he was sure I wasn’t going to get lost again. This memory is from so long ago now… but I think I remember seeing the captain’s face soften a little. Maybe it was my youthful naïveté, or maybe he saw something in my face that reminded him of himself. He let loose the tow when I was in sight of the amusement park of Atlantic City. Once again I was alone under sail.

How exciting it was to sail Icarus past the Statue of Liberty, along the shoreline of New York City, under the Brooklyn Bridge, through the Hell Gate passage, and into Long Island Sound. I was full of confidence (somehow forgetting about being lost at sea just days earlier). I was Master and Commander of my little ship–and then I ran Icarus onto a rock in the Stamford, Connecticut harbor and put a hole the size of a basketball through her hull.

I was was sinking. I careened Icarus onto a beach and remembered that a year or two earlier I had crewed on a sailboat race from Florida to Jamaica with Mr. Morgan Ames, Commodore of the Stamford Yacht Club. Help from his club was immediately on hand to haul Icarus out of the water. With his instruction (and checkbook) a crew, including his son, immediately began the necessary repairs. That evening Commodore Ames welcomed me into his magnificent Stamford home. “You’ll stay here,” he said, “and we’ll get you some clothing.” At dinner he introduced me to his family. Then a girl entered the room and he said, “And this is my daughter Bambi.” I nearly swallowed my tongue. I was 17 years old, had been alone on the ocean for weeks, and she was very pretty. I was paralyzed. My mouth finally moved. “B-B-Bambi?” I stammered, “Like the baby deer?”

We were the same age. Bambi showed me around Stamford, introducing me to her friends. My selective memory 47 years later remembers her flaxen hair blowing in the summer breeze. I was enchanted. I had dreams of joining the yacht club, of wearing freshly pressed shirts and a navy blue blazer, maybe even attending a debutante ball! In reality, I was just a wild Florida boy who had suddenly turned up on the Ames family doorstep, dirty, broke, and aboard a homemade boat with a hole in it. Mrs. Ames was having none of it. After a few days she took me aside and I remember her words to me as if they were spoken yesterday. With perfect New England elocution she said, “You should know, Jeffrey, that Bambi already has a beau.”

In quick order, Icarus was repaired and I was sailing again. I will always be grateful to the Ames family for their kindness and generosity, and for the life lessons they imparted upon my young wandering soul. Clearly, I had flown too close to the sun.

At the end of that magical summer I found myself in the storied harbor of Newport, Rhode Island. I put a cardboard sign on Icarus that read: “Send A Kid To College, Buy This Boat.” Somebody did, and all too quickly. Within weeks I was enrolled at the University of Florida. I tried to focus on a formal education but I realized that I was waiting again. Waiting for the next opportunity to set sail.

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As a boy sailor I was given a long lead to chase my dreams. Here I pose with with 18-foot Icarus during a teenage sailing adventure from Ft. Lauderdale, FL to Newport, RI

NOTE: On passages when I have no cell or WiFi signal, I activate a satellite tracking link that shows my daily position, current weather, and includes a few personal thoughts from the daily log of Flying Fish. I will not be able to respond to messages via satellite but I love the idea that you are sailing along with me. If you would like to follow the daily progress of Flying Fish into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean via satellite you can click this link: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

Please subscribe at the bottom of this page so that you don’t miss a new update, and consider sharing this post with others who might enjoy following the voyage of Flying Fish.

To see where Flying Fish has sailed since leaving Key West in 2017, click here: https://cruisersat.net/track/Flying%20Fish

Instagram: FlyingFishSail

Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2020

Dodgeball in the Strait of Malacca

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Whacked out from the lack of sleep and constant maneuvering in heavy shipping traffic–with 500 miles to go. Photograph © Jeffrey Cardenas

It’s not just any dodgeball. The ships I am dodging in the Strait of Malacca are displacing up to 500 million pounds. A collision with one of those is gonna leave a mark. Underway on a rainy night in poor visibility, it is all I can think about. That, and the dozens of unlit fishing boats in front of me laying nets and longlines from the edge of the shipping channel to the shoreline.

I had always known that getting adequate sleep underway aboard Flying Fish was going to be the greatest challenge of sailing alone. A neurosurgeon who moonlights as my health counselor suggested that lack of rest might become more dangerous than any other risk I would encounter on this voyage around the earth. Until this week, lack of sleep had not been an issue. Then I entered the Strait of Malacca.

The Strait is a narrow, 550-mile stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. As the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, it is one of the most important–and busiest–shipping lanes in the world. It is only about 1.7 miles wide at its narrowest point near Singapore but nearly 100,000 vessels pass through it each year. This shipping traffic accounts for one-quarter of the world’s traded goods, including some 16 million barrels of oil each day.  In addition, in 2018, there were eight reported piracy and armed robbery incidents in the Strait of Malacca and near Singapore, according to ReCAAP Information Sharing Centre, an agency that tracks attacks against ships in Asia. In 2019, China raised the alert status to its highest level of security for their flagged vessels transiting this choke point. 

So what was Flying Fish doing among this volatile mix? Answer: Trying to get from Point A to Point B without coming into contact with rocks, drift nets, long lines, high-speed ferries, or tankers displacing a half-billion pounds of crude oil.

Flying Fish covers an average of 130 miles per 24-hour day. The 550-mile leg from Singapore to Langkawi is about four days of sailing. No big deal on a journey that has already taken me halfway around the globe, right? Wrong.

On the open ocean, I can sleep. I go over a formal checklist before I close my eyes: I review my charts for shallow water. I do a thorough 360-degree horizon scan. I look at my radar and check for AIS returns. I check current satelite weather charts, I set a course and confirm the autopilot is holding accurately. Then I arm multiple alarms–depth, wind, shipping, proximity, and time. I set two alarm clocks with different tones and I wear a watch on my wrist that shrieks and vibrates like a creature in extremis. Then I can sleep for an hour or two and sometimes longer in the open ocean with good weather. This is how singlehanded sailors rest offshore.

Inshore there is always high anxiety when I close my eyes. I still use the formal checklist but the alarms are set for 15 or 20 minutes. In the Strait of Malacca I would sometimes find traffic converging in less time than that. In the 15,000 miles until now I had never encountered such busy water. Anchoring outside of the Strait was not always an option so I decided to stay awake at night and take quick catnaps during the day. That didn’t work, either. I became deliriously exhausted.

From the log of Flying Fish 14 January 2020:

“All is well at 03:00. There is traffic in the Strait, commercial vessels and fishing boats, but the spacing is good. An overcast sky hides the moonlight. There is light rain and a fresh breeze. Flying Fish is sailing well to windward. I am tired. There is no place within 20 miles to anchor. It is only three hours before first light, daybreak always energizes is me.

In the next moment it is 03:08! I stare at my watch in disbelief. What just happened? Proximity alarms are blaring. Control lights at the helm are flashing. I immediately look to the bow and see a bright green starboard running light directly in front of the mast. What is happening?

As I jump up from the cockpit seat my head, and then my mouth, collides with force against the hard fiberglass surface of the spray dodger. I hear my front tooth crack and taste shattered enamel.

I disengage the autopilot and swing the boat hard to port. The rain on the windscreen of the dodger distorts everything. I brace for impact.

Within seconds I realize that I am looking at MY starboard running light. There is NO collision imminent. The shipping traffic priority alarm is just notifying me that a fishing boat has entered my radar’s Guard Zone perimeter a mile ahead. Everything is working just as it should—except for the captain.

I lost 8 minutes somewhere. I fell asleep sitting up. I was disoriented and nonfunctional when the alarms went off. It is unquestionably the worst mistake a helmsman can make. I fell asleep at the wheel. In a busy sea lane. With poor visibility … The blessing is that I did not hurt anyone.”

When I am finally at anchor in the lee of a small Malaysian island I put myself through a mental review to understand how to prevent this scenario from ever happening again. I realize that publishing this log opens me up to a rush to judgement regarding this mistake. A ship’s log is something different to each captain but I believe it should be a personal testament. Writing it helps me to organize my thoughts. In this situation, it is also a catharsis.

I understand I must better manage fatigue at the helm when I am sailing alone. I have also decided I am not going to fix my tooth. Every time I look in the mirror and see the chip out of my front tooth it will be a visual reminder to me of how a simple mistake can have serious consequences in a place like the Strait of Malacca.

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The AIS (automatic Identification System) returns shows shipping traffic in only a few miles of the Strait of Malacca near Singapore. Flying Fish is in the crosshairs at the lower left.

NOTE: On passages when I have no cell or WiFi signal, I activate a satellite tracking link that shows my daily position, current weather, and includes a few personal thoughts from the daily log of Flying Fish. I will not be able to respond to messages via satellite but I love the idea that you are sailing along with me. If you would like to follow the daily progress of Flying Fish into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean via satellite you can click this link: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

Please subscribe at the bottom of this page so that you don’t miss a new update, and consider sharing this post with others who might enjoy following the voyage of Flying Fish.

To see where Flying Fish has sailed in the past year click here: https://cruisersat.net/track/Flying%20Fish

Instagram: FlyingFishSail

Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2020

 

 

 

Singapore to Suez (maybe)

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The architectural brilliance of Singapore rises from the South China Sea. Photograph © Jeffrey Cardenas

Just as I was finalizing the complicated routing of Flying Fish from Singapore to the Suez Canal, a war of words punctuated by rockets and drones once again inflame the Middle East. The shipping lane where the Gulf of Aden meets the Red Sea passes a mere .88 nautical miles from the shoreline of Yemen. Suddenly, I really miss Polynesia.

I have returned to Flying Fish after a six-week sabbatical in Key West where I was wrapped in the love of family, friends, church, and community. I even managed a rendezvous with my wife in Paris on the flight home. I also found time to visit the family I love in Havana. I share this personal information because it adds relevance and a point of reference to my decision to continue sailing–often alone–around the world. This short sabbatical at home reminds me that I need to make my decisions very carefully now. 

Flying Fish has logged some 15,000 miles–halfway around the world–since leaving Key West two years ago. There have been visits to paradise along the way (Huahine!) and a few moments of drama (nearly losing a toe to an errant hatch board) but no leg of the journey so far has presented the challenges that lie ahead.

I set sail tomorrow into the Straits of Malacca, a narrow, 550-mile stretch of water between Singapore, the Malay Peninsula, and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. This is the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Nearly 100,000 vessels pass through the Strait each year, carrying one-quarter of the world’s traded goods. Flying Fish will be one small blip on a very busy radar screen.

Ahead lies Malaysia with its historic megalopolis of Kuala Lumpur and the scenic wonderland of Langkawi. At the northern end of the Straits, Thailand beckons with the crystalline water and sugar sand beaches of Phuket. Then it is time to turn Flying Fish westerly and follow the path of Venus into the Indian Ocean.

The journey going forward will take me past Sri Lanka, India, and to the Maldive Islands some 1,500 miles away in the center of the Indian Ocean. The Maldives are made up of a thousand individual islands and some, like those on the Baa Atoll, have bioluminescent beaches that glow at night.

I plan to linger in that glow of bioluminescence because it will be at this point that I will have to choose to sail Flying Fish to either the north or the south of the continent of Africa. Either way I go, this will be a sailing passage that will require my undivided attention.

Cape Agulhas at latitude 34.8311° S is the geographic southern tip of Africa and the dividing line between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It is one of the roughest bodies of water on earth. North through the Suez Canal is the more logical route except for its history of piracy and the fact that the United States and Iran are threatening mutual mass destruction. Conflict in the Middle East goes back 1,400 years to the death of Mohammad in 632 A.D. The Red Sea Passage transits the heart of one of the most contentious places on earth. 

I never anticipated that this sailing voyage around the world was going to be all coconut palms and hula dancers. I have always accepted the risk because the rewards are so great. I can imagine no fate worse than ending my life on earth fat and bored and sitting in a chair in front of a TV with a gin and tonic in my hand…

I know a surgeon who volunteers vast amounts of his time, talent, and treasure working with Doctors Without Borders repairing gunshot wounds in war zones around the world. He sent me a note this week, signing off with the well-known quote from Friedrich Nietzsche:

“The secret of realizing the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships out into uncharted seas!”

And so I go.statue.sm

NOTE: On passages when I have no cell or WiFi signal, I activate a satellite tracking link that shows my daily position, current weather, and includes a few personal thoughts from the daily log of Flying Fish. I will not be able to respond to messages via satellite but I love the idea that you are sailing along with me. If you would like to follow the daily progress of Flying Fish into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean via satellite you can click this link: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

Please subscribe at the bottom of this page so that you don’t miss a new update, and consider sharing this post with others who might enjoy following the voyage of Flying Fish.

To see where Flying Fish has sailed in the past year click here: https://cruisersat.net/track/Flying%20Fish

Instagram: FlyingFishSail

Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2020