Quetzal - Kaufman 47 "... Never lost, just hard to find ..."

John Kretschmer Sailing

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A Serious Ocean

You know it by the northern look of the shore,
by the salt-worried faces,
by an absence of trees, an abundance of lighthouses.
It's a serious ocean.

North Sea off Carnoustie by Anne Stevenson

Tomorrow will have an island
by William Stafford

Tomorrow will have an island. Before night
I always find it. Then on to the next island.
These places hidden in the day separate
and come forward if you beckon.
But you have to know they are there before they exist.

Some time there will be a tomorrow without any island,
So far, I haven't let that happen, but after
I'm gone others may become faithless and careless.
Before them will tumble the wide unbroken sea,
and without any hope they will stare at the horizon.

So to you, Friend, I confide my secret:
to be a discoverer you hold close whatever
you find, and after a while you decide
what it is. Then, secure in where you have been,
you turn to the open sea and let go.

More Poetry...

Listen to the Mermaid

reprinted with permission of SAILING Magazine

by John Kretschmer


    We were three days into the passage before I noticed the clouds. The stately cumulus castles that stood like fair-weather sentinels over the Virgin Islands had given way to creeping fish scales as we plowed north. A change in the weather was obviously in the air, but I didn't have a sense of it. I didn't feel it in my gut or in the seat of my pants. How long had the sky been overcast?


    Sitting in the cockpit, I studied the twilight. The ugly gray horizon was on the assault, eager to swallow the sun's pale outline, which seemed reluctant to settle into the growing uncertainty. There would be no glorious red sunset this evening. Soon complete darkness ruled. When would the moon rise? Was there any moon tonight? I didn't remember the phase of the moon. Almost nostalgically I thought to myself, "It's not much of a night for star sights."


    I flipped on my handheld GPS. I not only confirmed our position but also our speed, course, cross-track error and distance to the next waypoint. The autopilot was doing its job. I eased the outhaul, pushed the button on the electric sheet winch to shorten up the main and slid into a comfortable corner of the oversized cockpit. I was shielded from the wind by a fully enclosed dodger and Bimini, and suspected that the toughest part of the four-hour watch would be to stay awake. I was wrong.


    Twenty minutes later, something stirred me to take the helm. It dawned on me that although I had been hired to deliver this boat, and was almost halfway to my destination, I hadn't sailed her. I had powered her out of the slip, set the autopilot, set the sails and given my crew the course for each watch. The autopilot had performed perfectly but I had no idea what this lovely 49-foot sloop sailed like, what she felt like. As soon as I flipped off the autopilot, I heard a splash to starboard. A single patch of phosphorescence shined brilliantly. I was certain those bubbly nutrients formed the distinct outline of a mermaid. Then an inner voice taunted me.


   "You've lost your edge," the female voice informed me insultingly. "You rely almost exclusively on your electronics and you spend more time in the engine room than behind the chart table. Just look at the way you prepare for a delivery these days."


   The mermaid had a point. The first thing I used to pack for a delivery, near or far, was my sextant, the current nautical almanac, sight reduction tables and my trusty star finder. I used to check my watch and calculate the rate of error. I always brought my sail re­pair kit, including a palm, and never forgot my log book, which was really more of a journal. I was in constant communication with the sea. I invariably carried a guidebook for seabird identification and brought a hand line for fishing. My motto was simple: If some­thing failed, I'd just figure out why I never really needed it in the first place. I knew that given sails and wind, I could get any boat anywhere and tried not to spoil the passage by fussing over pumps, compressors, alternators and the like. I tied telltales to the shrouds long before taking a screwdriver to the back of a faulty wind direction indicator.


   Nowadays, I pack my GPS and seem most concerned with having enough AA batteries to power the damned thing. My sea bag is filled with digital multi-meters, sticky-backed Dacron for hasty repairs and a spare belt-driven autopilot. I provision with frozen din­ners, expecting the freezer to work. I even bought ice cream for a recent voyage. The freezer went "kerplunk" a week out and the ice cream created a grand mess. It served me right.


    It felt good to sail. I was even singing "A Pirate Looks at Forty," surprised that I remembered the words. I eased the main back out, using the manual winch. The boat was finding her stride, galloping along at 7.35 knots. But the mermaid had some more ad­vice for me.


    "Why did you shave off your beard," she said. "I know, don't tell me, those patches of gray on your chin. But tell me, how are you going to feel the wind on your face with those rosy cheeks of yours? Certainly not with that droopy mustache. Of course everybody cov­ers their cockpit with canvas bomb shelters these days anyway. Neptune help you, if your electronic wind gauge fails. You can't even see the Windex from under the Bimini, much less feel the wind on your face. Do you remember how to listen to the wind?"


    Once again the mermaid made me stop and think. "You're right," I said out loud, speaking in the direction the phosphorescence had formed. I briefly engaged the autopilot and proceeded to lower both the dodger and the bimini top, which was no small task. I took the helm again. I could feel the boat and I could hear the wind. I dumped the traveler, the helm was lighter. The wind was backing subtly, but backing just the same. Yes, we were in for a change in the weather. I turned off the radar and soon my eyes adjusted to the inky darkness. I could see the wave patterns developing. I could anticipate at the helm. The mermaid was right; I hadn't been listen­ing to the wind. I should have known some­thing was wrong the night before when my crew came up to relieve himself in the night, dropped his pants and fired directly into the wind. He cursed and I laughed but we both missed the point. 


There is natural symmetry to celestial navigation: My day revolves around the heavens. I was up for twilight and high noon, and scheduled my watches around sight times.


    I had an unbearable urge to compare the knotmeter readout with my GPS. Hoping that the mermaid wasn't looking, I flipped it on. Cycling through the commands, I paused as the waypoint flashed on the small screen. I was surprised that we still had more than 450 miles to go. By the time I found the speed function, I could feel the wrath of the mer­maid. She didn't have to say anything.


    GPS is one of humankind's greatest achievements, our very own stars hurled into the outer atmosphere and floating around just dying to tell us where we are. I actually conducted a seminar in GPS navigation a few years ago. My main task was showing how to hit the ON button on several different units. GPS has changed the equation for me. Like most mariners, I can't resist the convenience of knowing where I am all the time, especially now that I often sail with my family. But some of the magic is missing. Landfalls have gone from being eventful to inevitable.  Knowing the exact distance makes watches seem monotonous.  Gales seem even drearier than ever because of the excitement of survival, you have the misery of knowing that you're not making progress toward the mark.


    There is nothing to stop me from pursuing celestial navigation but I rarely do while on passages these days. Strange, because it was my passion for many years. There is natural symmetry to celestial navigation: My day revolves around the heavens. I was up for twilight and high noon, and scheduled my watches around sight times. Nothing was more important than a sight, and nothing was more exciting than announcing the results of the noon-to-noon run each day. The celestial navigator had power. And yet this time, as I looked at my sextant on the plane en route to St. Thomas, I was mortified to find mold on the inside of the box.


    The night raced by -- I had been sailing for more than six hours. I decided to continue on until dawn. My crew slept blissfully below and I searched for my mermaid. I had a few things to tell her. I wanted to remind her that I once navigated between Hawaii and Guam, guided only by seabirds. And that I conned my boat through thundering reef passages in Belize by reading the water and the land. I beat around Cape Horn in a ridiculous­ly small sloop, going days without sights and sailing simply by the seat of my pants. But she didn't respond.


    I was quite weary when the red dawn en­veloped the horizon. The wind was rising. A frigate bird was heading due west, no doubt flying directly away from land. I didn't miss the morning's signal this time. As I started to reef the sails, I saw a luminescence on the water and offered a quiet thank you.

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