Three Days of Heaven, Three Days of Hell
By Carol Fleetwood
When I was a girl, one of my favorite places to visit was the dome theatre in Seattle, Washington. For two dollars, you could lay on your back in a huge dome shaped room and watch a video of the night sky. Billions of stars glittered around a crescent moon, while shy, white clouds fanned their existence. Sometimes dark clouds would appear and throw thin knives of static lightening upon the scene..always moving, always changing, I was spellbound by the beauty. It was a spectacular show.
I am lounging in the cockpit of WindCutter, reclined in my favorite chair, gazing at the night sky. It is my ‘watch’ (meaning I have one eye on the ocean scanning it for ships).
I know now that the ‘sky movie’ from my childhood was filmed from somewhere in the ocean because I am looking at a similar scene!
The sun dipped below the horizon awhile ago. Craig is peacefully slumbering below. I am sipping an iced coffee and munching on the last few Oreo cookies that I pirated & brought out of hiding after Craig went to bed..sorry Craig!
On my left, a crescent moon winks at twinkling stars that light up the twilight sky. Reflective light shimmers off the glassy sea below. On my right, billowing, dark clouds throw spears of lightening towards the tranquil scene. WindCutter is in the middle, trimmed and under full sail, rocking gently to the rhythm of the warm wind and the ruffle of waves below. This is my favorite kind of sailing. A beautiful night, one that reflects life I think: joy and sorrow.
It seems impossible that only a few days ago, my mind was screaming to get off of WindCutter and find an island airport that could lift me out of the hell we had found ourselves in! But like the scene above, that is the way of life, ups and downs. You have to accept both.
I’ve blogged before about bad weather and will spare you the redundant details (high winds, high seas, blah blah) except to say that all that “bad weather” I talked about before pales to the last three days. It really was ‘hell’ and I wasn’t sure we would survive!
Foul weather is relative I guess because bad weather is only as bad as the sailors ability to sail in it. Once you survive, you no longer fear it because you know you and your boat can handle it! That is, until it gets worse and than the process begins again. In other words, newness brings anxiety. You’ve never experienced weather “this bad” so you are not confident you or your boat can handle it!
And that’s where we found ourselves. in a gale for three days that pushed WindCutter and her crew(Craig and I) to our limits. By the end of three days, we were physically exhausted, mentally drained and emotional spent.
But before we get to that story, let me tell you about “three days in Heaven” .. our last three days in fiji.
With the decision made to leave Fiji, we decided to spend our last days in Fiji on our favorite island in the Lao group. So, before checking out, we sailed back to Vanua Balavu and anchored in our favorite bay, at our favorite spot (next to the jungle noises and tall cliffs). Life couldn’t be better. We spent the days exploring new beaches, enjoying the tranquil sea and hiking the beloved ‘plantation’. In the evenings, we watched beautiful sunsets while sipping tropical drinks and listening to Frank Sinatra (we love Frank).
Our last night there was especially magical. It was a night like the one I described above, starry sky, calm sea, and a light, warm breeze. We laid on our backs on the aft deck, mesmerized by the stars, reminiscing about how much fun we’ve had exploring the South Pacific. I was overwhelmed with joy. Thankful to be here, thankful to do this. What a wonderful gift we have been given! I suddenly realized we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Craig’s vision and God’s sweet timing of it all!
Craig dreamed about sailing to the South Pacific long before we met, and made it a “claus” when he asked me to marry him! Even when we got comfortable in life, It was Craig who kept the dream alive (I was content)! Years of working, planning, and saving paid off. Doors opened, and the ‘dream’ become a reality. We were here!
The magnitude of what we had accomplished suddenly overwhelmed me with incredible gratefulness. Grateful that our prayers were answered, and grateful to have a husband like Craig with the tenacity to stick with his goals! In a moment of sheer mush, I turned to Craig and said, “ Thank you for sharing your dream with me! This is the best thing I have ever done! No matter what happens ,I will never regret this!”
Little did I know, in a few days, I would eat those words…
We planned to spend a week in Vanua Balavu bay, but after three days, Craig had a sudden impulse to leave. He couldn’t explain why, but felt like we needed to go, now. So we did.
We exited Fiji and headed for Samoa, with a planned stop in Northern Tonga to rest.
We pulled up the weather two days before we left. The week looked good with only a day or two of moderate-high winds. What we didn’t see was a new ‘low’ forming over Fiji threatening a cyclone, and gale force winds with high seas in our path.
By the time we hit the storm, it was too late to turn back. New weather data showed a low possibly forming into a cyclone behind us ( near where we came from!) We braced ourselves and pushed on.
As the wind and waves increased , the auto pilot began popping off and GPS quit working. Waves crashed over WindCutter’s Bimini and flooded through cracks soaking everything below.
After hours of fighting seas on deck, Craig yelled at me to stay below where it was safer. We are a team, I said. You are exhausted . We take turns. It’s my turn! I’ll come inside if I get scared. Exhausted, he relented, shutting the companionway behind him. I got scared, but I didn’t go below. I knew he needed rest. It had been twenty four hours since he slept.
For three days we fought the storm. Small comforts were not to be had. Sleep for both of us came in short spurts. It’s hard to sleep when you are violently being thrown around and worried that your mate might be dangling over the side!
With the cabin closed up tight, the temperature below was stifling! Eating was difficult because opening cardboards resulted in the contents being thrown on the floor. Good hygiene was impossible because holding a toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush (etc) all required you to release a hand needed to keep your balance! Showering was too dangerous to attempt ( slippery) and changing clothes was a balancing act.
On deck, and down below, things broke and came loose from the violent shaking and powerful waves crashing down on WindCutter. The anchor broke off the chain, banged into the hull and sunk. The bow sprint light began shaking and flew away. The headsail hub cracked. Water appeared in the generator. The freezer went out and so did the stove (propane ran out).The dinghy came untied and the top lifting lines came loose dangling long lines in the water. Fearing these lines might get caught in the rudder (and fail the engine) we had to go on deck to retrieve them (if the engine fouled, the waves could topple us).
I offered to go (I am pretty agile) but Craig over ruled me . So with seas breaking over WindCutter, the captain went on deck. Tethered, we ran a line from Craig to the halyard so that if he was knocked off, I could use the electric winch to pull him back on board. We had to do this twice (once to secure the dinghy and then again to secure the top lifting lines) I kept my finger on the electric winch button, my eyes on Craig and my mind in prayer… Please God… I was terrified he would be washed overboard!
Wind gusts blew at gale force, seas topped the second spreader and waves crashed over us for three days. Three days of hell. For the first time ever, I questioned our wisdom in being here and silently screamed that I wanted off at the nearest island, to catch a plane and go home (so much for mushy words)! The problem was, the closest island was hundreds of miles away..
So we put on “our game faces ” and tried to get ahead of the tropical storm that threatened to smash us. Outwardly, I was calm, but inwardly, I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. Would WindCutter hold up through all this beating? I silently prayed she would so that my mother would not have to suffer another loved one lost at sea. I jokingly told Craig, “She’ll kill me if we die this way”!
Three days of being tossed around like rag dolls was bad but the severity of the situation became even more repugnant when on day three, we spotted a New Zealand Air Force jet flying low over the ocean. Soon, they radioed us on VHF, “Would you please be on the lookout for “two souls” on an 18 foot boat, missing since yesterday?” Suddenly, our discomfort paled compared to the torment these men and their two families must be going through (I knew ‘that hell’ too…)
For the next 24 hours, Craig and I stayed on deck, binoculars out, scanning the ocean… hoping, praying we would find the vessel and rescue the two men aboard.
Sadly, we didn’t find the missing fishermen.
On day four, the sun came out. We anchored near a small island named Nuatopulapu, in Northern Tonga. Somber but thankful to have reached land, we radioed the island for permission to disembark (country requirement).
Ironically, the customs official who boarded our boat to ‘clear us’ was the sister of one of the missing men. She said she was praying they would be still be found.
Once on land, the woman who took our paperwork (Sia) told us she too was related to one of the men. She said they were experienced fisherman and loved by everyone on the island. She invited us to church and offered to show us around the island.
We met the next day to tour the island. Just as we were climbing into Sia’s truck, she got a phone call. Her eyes clouded up, and I knew. The capsized boat had been found, hundreds of miles away… empty except for one glove. As Sia began to cry, we hugged and backed out of the days commitment. She needed to be with family.
I understood all too well.. My father died the same way… ocean fishing, a storm, missing and the boat recovered empty. I was 13 .
Sia then did an usual thing, she asked if we would go with her (at that moment) to comfort the families. She insisted it would help. So we did.
Sia and I went house to house. While the men (Craig and Sia’s husband, and son) waited in the truck..We met the wives, brothers, sisters, mothers and children of the missing fishermen. Driving along a dirt road, a man leading his 2 cows approached us. He was also a brother of one of the lost. He stopped and took a moment to visit with the men in the back of the pickup. Someone brought out an icebox of popsicles and passed them around. Sia told me most people don’t have refrigerators or freezers on this island. We all ate popsicles and talked about his brother. He was one of the best fisherman on the island. No more big fish for the village he said.
Most of the homes we stopped at had visitors. At one home, a widow was sprawled out on the floor crying while family sat nearby. Outside her door, fish was being cooked on an open fire. Sia ushered me in, and said something to the woman on the floor. She stopped crying and sat up. Our eyes met and I knew she knew I understood her pain. She introduced me to her 13 year daughter.
This was all too real for me and brought back a flood of emotions. I struggled with the irony of it all and was forced to remembered what that day felt like. Meeting the families was painful. We talked, we cried, we prayed. But somehow it was healing..a reminder that we can go on..if we want to. We told the little girl that God had taken care of me and He would take care of her too.
Was this why we were here? . The families we met did not speak english, and we do not speak Tongan. But Sia spoke both and was able to use my story to offer hope.. And although no words were exchanged, I could see in their eyes, they knew it to be true.
Before we sailed away, we returned a second time to visit the families. This time we brought cake and clothes for 13 year old “Cas”. . It was Sunday, so we attended church. The singing sounded like heavenly angels.
Later, Sia invited us to her home for a traditional meal. We learned that the lost fishermen were the main source of food gatherers for the village. I asked who would take care of the families..Both men left behind wives and young children. Sia said that the men have grown sons who live on other islands and will return to take care of the family. One of the sons is at college on scholarship but will have to return now; sad because most families can’t afford college and this one had a scholarship.Since there are no jobs on this island (other than custom officials), families depend on the men to travel to other islands part of the year to find work. Fishing, and growing crops are the main food supply, with one tiny market that gets restocked once a month .(I think that’s where the popsicles came from as we saw a cargo ship in the bay that morning).
After dinner, Sia’s husband, Niko, announced that he found work and would be traveling with the cargo ship to Australia for six months. Teenage son, Charles will have to take care of the plantation. He graduates from High School this year and would like to go to college. He dreams of being a pilot but there is no money. Young daughter, Sia (age 4 I think) will help mom. She is a daddy’s girl and not yet aware that he is going away.
With sad goodbyes, and good intentions of visiting again one day, we sailed away from Tonga with somber thoughts and heavy hearts. Three whales breeched nearby, a gentle reminder that life goes on. We won’t forget the people we met here or the lives that were forever changed. Long into the future, I will be praying for the families who lost loved ones to the sea…especially for “Cas”.
So, after fighting gale force winds, pounding waves and broken hearts, the sobering truth is that the sea is not a force to be reckoned with. Lives were forever changed that week.
When I think back on the timing of this event, I can’t help but wonder. Why did Craig feel compelled to leave on that day? Were we supposed to find that fishing boat and failed? Or was it that God knew they were gone, and there was a little girl who needed to know she would be okay. I don’t have the answers and it troubles me that we didn’t find those men. But life is like that.
Life’s a little bit of heaven, and a little bit of hell. You have to ride through the storm. Someone once said that rain makes the sunshine even brighter.
It’s true. The sun, the stars, they all look brighter now.
So as I lounge on the deck of WindCutter, marveling at the kaleidoscope of galaxies around me, I think of life, it’s joy, it’s sorrow and a little girl that I pray will one day, like me, be able to see the beauty again.
I leave you with a poem written by Robert Stevenson that came to me the the night after we left Tonga.. I think it’s fitting to end this blog with that poem. In memory of those who made the sea their final destination.
Under the wide and starry sky
dig my grave and let me lie
Glad did I live
and gladly die
and I lay me down with a will
This is the verse you grave for me
Here he lies where he longed to be
Home is the sailor from the sea
and the hunter home from the hill
Update: We made a brief stop in beautiful Samoa for fuel but didn’t stay long because of poor holding (we dragged anchor all night) also because another storm was moving in.
A few hundred miles east, we ran into a small, steel rowboat. Four young woman aboard from San Francisco. The side of their boat said, “Saucy Horse, CoxLess Pacific Row Team” (I love the name!). They had rowed from San Francisco with one stop in Hawaii! They were headed to Australia, trying to break a world record!
We warned them of the storms in Tonga and Fiji and the one approaching but they were not detoured!. They said they had been through storms already and survived! Amazing! I hope and pray they will be safe (the mother in me wanted to herd them off that boat and onto ours!). I can’t imagine going through what we went through in a rowboat! They promised to email me when they arrive in Australia.
We just arrived in beautiful Nuka Siva in the Marquesas Islands. It is a safe place to be during cyclone season. We look forward to some R & R time before we take off again. It took 21 days to get here (from Samoa).
Along the way, we had some challenges.
The biggest being my kindle broke (just kidding about that being the biggest challenge!) The biggest problem was all the light and confused wind that left us at a standstill! Most of the time, we had no choice but to motor-sail which eventually ran our fuel down (now that’s a problem)!! We were forced to ‘tack’ which took longer and proved difficult because of finicky, ‘twirling’ winds. We actually began cheering at the nightly squalls because they brought the wind that propelled us forward..that is, until a few days ago.
A few days ago, the cracked head sail hub (from the Tonga storm) fell into the ocean. This meant each time we reset the sail (after every squall), we had to go on deck to manually feed the line. Because the squalls were frequent during the night meant less sleep (two on deck for this dangerous job).
Now that we are here in Nuka Hiva,, we will make repairs, catch up on sleep, eat (did I mention the stove went out?) and wait for hurricanes to settle down in the Pacific before making our way towards Hawaii or Mexico. Just last week, Hurricane Patricia hit Mexico making her the largest hurricane on record! We don’t want to mess with ‘that’ kind of storm, so we are not crossing the equator until it is safe!
So until next time, remember to count your blessings and when life takes a ‘dive’, remember to keep looking up anyway. The sun is still shining..it’s just above the clouds. Even though you can’t see it, it will shine again!
Safe and sound for now,
Craig and Carol