Three Years Before the Mast

Thoughts, Lessons, and Observations

A thousand miles from land… what happens out here can only be resolved out here. © Photograph: Jeffrey Cardenas / image by remote

“There is a witchery in the sea –Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast, published 1840.

On this day three years ago, Flying Fish slipped the lines from her berth at Safe Harbor in Key West and was underway on a passage that has carried her nearly 22,000 miles and two-thirds of the way around the globe. Along the route there have been wonders and joy, injuries and illness, moments of fear, revelation, and accomplishment. There has also been disappointment. This year, as the COVID-19 virus infected the world, Flying Fish traveled 5,000 of those miles alone–from Thailand to Turkey–on the deck of a freighter as I waited impatiently in quarantine on the other side of the world. I certainly do not seek sympathy for being separated from a boat when millions of other people are separated from their families, some permanently. These are days in which we all live in some form of isolation–physically and emotionally–as a result of health issues, personal decisions, or just simple fate. My isolation was self-imposed when I set off from Safe Harbor. It has been a journey both inward and outward, and one with eyes wide open. Here are some of the thoughts and lessons learned from these three years aboard Flying Fish.


Patience

When things become complicated I have learned that I have two simple choices: I can either let impatience darken my horizon, or I can seek strength in what I cannot control. When I sail alone, I navigate a fine path between what is manageable and what is not. It is essential at sea to know the difference. On a 1,300-mile passage between Tonga and New Zealand in October 2018, I knew that even the best weather window at this time of year would include at least one full gale raging eastward from the Tasman Sea. We can understand the weather but we cannot control it. On this passage I watched satellite weather maps, and, later, the darkening clouds themselves. As the gale approached I braced for impact. Howling wind and massive breaking seas made it seem as if the world was ending. It wasn’t. It was just a gale. I knew that this would pass. And it did.

A face reflecting the wear-and-tear of sailing through consecutive gales en route to New Zealand. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas / image by remote

Sanctity of Life

Who doesn’t believe in the sanctity of life? But the complex decision of what lives and dies at our hands is a gray area that can only be defined individually. These three years before the mast have given me a different perspective regarding co-existence on this planet. Aboard Flying Fish some days pass with no sign of life, nothing beyond my own beating heart–not birds or porpoise, not even any fish. Fish have been an important part of my life. I earned much of my livelihood as a fisherman. For decades, my job was to catch fish every day and catch as many of them as I could. In this pursuit the fish themselves became something less sentient. Sportfishing was entertainment and fish were a commodity. Catching or not catching represented profit or loss. But aboard Flying Fish, when sea life finally did appear, the creatures around me became companions during my long solitary journey. I loved watching shoals of tuna feed on the surface. My eyes followed the flight of every airborne flying fish. I was fascinated by the predatory saga when flying fish soaring above the wave tops were pursued by dorado from below and frigate birds from above. When I was hungry, I would catch one of the dorado. As one fish came to the boat it was often accompanied by dozens of its brothers. Initially, there was an overwhelming impulse to drop a line back for “just one more.” As the days and weeks at sea passed I wondered why I felt I needed more. I was just one person aboard Flying Fish. Why catch two fish when I could only eat one? I began having difficulty justifying why I wanted to feel the life struggle of another living creature? Two thoughts evolved as I gradually transitioned from anthropocentrism to a modified and more Eastern philosophy that holds all life as sacred: I learned that it is important for me to tread more softly. Equally important, I learned not to judge how others view the sanctity of life. I can live only within my own skin.

Co-existence. A Humpback whale breaches next to Flying Fish in Tonga’s Ha’apai Islands. © Jeffrey Cardenas

Changing Environment

I keep a worn copy of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us aboard Flying Fish. Published in 1951, she wrote: “It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life.” I was horrified when I learned of Indonesian fishermen who poisoned and detonated homemade explosives on their pristine coral reefs. Granted, it is an effective method of fishing. The stunned reef fish float to the surface which makes gathering them more efficient. But how was it possible that those who were throwing explosives could not see that they were killing the reef for future generations? I considered this in the log of Flying Fish on August 25, 2019: “Many areas of Indonesia, including Flores Island, show evidence of reef bombing and cyanide fishing. I spent six hours on the not-yet-bombed shallow reefs of Sabibi Island yesterday. I was immersed in a dazzle and diversity of life that was simply difficult to comprehend. It was also beyond my comprehension that a person could drop explosives and poison a reef like this for the one-time opportunity to put some fish in a basket. That said, who am I to judge? My child has never been truly hungry. But would I blow up a coral reef to feed her?” How do we identify the line between immediate need and preservation for the future? And who gets to define that line?

Shallow water reefs still thrive in many parts of the tropical ocean where water quality is untainted by runoff, effluent, poison and explosive fishing devices. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Orangutans Meet Global Economics

On the rugged island of Borneo in Southeast Asia’s Malay Archipelago there is a limestone cave believed to contain the oldest figurative art on earth, a depiction of a bull, carbon-dated to 52,000 years ago. Nearby is one of the largest coal mines in the world. Borneo is known for its ancient rainforest, home to wildlife including orangutans and clouded leopards. Soon, because of sea level rise and overpopulation, the Indonesian government will move its capital of Jakarta and 1.5 million new residents into what is left of the East Kalimantan rainforest. I have learned that even in the most remote areas of the world nothing is sacred when global economics are at stake. My daughter Lilly and I hoped to see the remaining wild orangutans so we sailed Flying Fish upriver from the south coast of Borneo. At the town of Kumai we anchored the sailboat and hired a riverboat guide to take us to the headwaters of Sekonyer River in Tanjung Puting National Park. Our destination was Camp Leakey, named after the legendary paleo-anthropologist Louis Leakey. We were amazed by the wildlife: Proboscis monkeys vaulted from the trees along the river. We heard the call of a rare rhinoceros hornbill. A False gharial crocodile warmed itself in the sun on the riverbank. And, finally, we saw wild orangutans. At the junction of two tributaries, the tannic but clear water flowing into the clear Sekonyer became jaundiced yellow in color. I asked what was causing it. Was this mud from a rainstorm upstream? “It’s always like this now,” our guide replied. “This tributary brings the runoff of mining and palm oil cultivation into the Sekonyer. Nothing lives here now.” Nothing lives here except more people with better jobs and higher incomes. But what is the cost to the natural habitat in one of the most remote places on earth?

From the security of her arboreal perch, a wild Kalimantan orangutan nurses her infant. © Jeffrey Cardenas

Vulnerability and Strength

I underestimated the level of mental and physical strength required to sail a boat around the world. It’s just sailing, right? It’s not that complicated. But when things go wrong at sea, they can go very wrong. Minor complications are exacerbated when sailing alone. Preparation is essential but even the most organized and experienced offshore sailors cannot completely prepare for the unexpected. In April 2019, I departed New Zealand for Fiji, a solo passage of 1,200 miles. Flying Fish was in better-than-new condition following a months-long refit in Opua. I was personally tuned up, too, eating “heaps” of healthy local produce and strength training daily in a nearby gym. My April departure date was based solely upon readiness and weather conditions. A dozen different weather routing sources finally established my best departure date as April 13. With a fresh Antipodean fall breeze aft of the beam I set sail from New Zealand to Polynesia. Fast forward three days to Latitude 29° 22′ 56” S and 174° 8′ 58” E, or about 700 miles SSW of Fiji. I am asleep in the cabin. Flying Fish is sailing a broad reach on autopilot in moderate but manageable conditions. All is well onboard, until it is not. I awaken suddenly to the roar of water. My world seems to turn upside down as an awful shower of glass, canned food, cookware, and a drawer full of cutlery rains down upon my head. I leap out of my berth onto shards of broken glass that tear into the soles of my feet. Water is pouring through an open hatch. In my semi-wakefulness I am convinced that Flying Fish is sinking in 13,000 feet of water. The boat has been knocked down–mast to the surface of the ocean–rolled broadside by a wave that must have exceeded by multiples any wave I had experienced since my departure from New Zealand. This rogue wave, perhaps caused by seismic activity near the Kermadec Islands, has flooded the cockpit of Flying Fish with nearly a ton of water. Gallons of seawater are inside the cabin and engine room. The boat is sitting heavy and deep. The breaking wave has stripped the deck of loose gear and canvas. A spare container of diesel on the deck has opened spreading a sheen of fuel oil and noxious fumes across the boat. I am disoriented, hyperventilating, and bleeding from the head and feet. I have never felt more vulnerable. Or alone. When my heart rate slows I realize this was a single, freak wave. The sea is once again normal. I pump water from the boat and assess damage. The hull is intact. The initial sense of vulnerability is replaced by an odd and unexpected feeling of inner strength. With the engine dead and the interior of the boat in shambles I deviate course to New Caledonia, the closest boatyard for repairs. I am still hundreds of miles and days from land but something within me has changed. I feel now as though I can face adversity at sea with a different level of confidence. I go below to make a pot of tea and attend to the debris aboard Flying Fish.

Prepping the foredeck of Flying Fish in anticipation of a gale in the Coral Sea near New Caledonia. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas / image by remote

Gratitude

I returned briefly to Flying Fish in Turkey during the 2020 COVID season, but I sailed with a sense of survivor’s guilt. Was it right for me to be on a boat while others were quarantined in their homes? Now, in retrospect, I have replaced that guilt with gratitude. When we can choose the course of our lives we should consider it a privilege and act upon it. When fate chooses a different course for our lives we should seek positives along that route, even when none are immediately apparent. I recognize that this opportunity to navigate the globe is a privilege. I also know that at some point it will end. It may end sooner than I choose. Health, politics, and natural aging constraints are factors that will determine what remains possible for me aboard Flying Fish. It is essential that I live my best life, regardless of whether that life leads me to Borneo or to my backyard. During these three years before the mast I have learned that I cannot waste a single moment.

Turkey’s spiritual peak Babadağ, rising directly from sea level to a summit of 1,969 meters, watches over Flying Fish at anchor. © Photograph: Jeffrey Cardenas

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I return to Flying Fish in January 2021. Once the voyage restarts you can follow the daily progress of Flying Fish into the Mediterranean, and onward, by clicking this link: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

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

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Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2020

Let this be a time of grace and peace in our lives   –Fr. John Baker