Long Way Home…A Sailing Journal

      Inspired by a poem written by Louis Stevenson, I wrote the following poem a few days before heading ‘home’ (USA) from the South Pacific. Little did I know, without divine intervention, it might have become our eulogy.

Under the dark and gloomy sea

bury me deep and let me be

or carry me far with sails up high

and I lay at Your feet my will

This is the life you planned for me

sometimes bound and sometimes free

Open my eyes that I might see

Don’t cast me out on my own

Craig and I began sailing ‘home’ from the South Pacific on November 28th, 2015. We were towed into Mexico on January 4th, 2016. My foot stepped on U.S soil on January 7th, 2016, forty days after departing the Marquesas islands.

The events are too unbelievable to describe in a short blog, and too incredible to shorten, so I’ve decided to limit this blog to a few journal entrees that I made along the way. I apologize for not writing sooner but honestly, I couldn’t talk (or write) about the things that happened to us without breaking down.

Even as I write these short words, tears fill my eyes. I am so thankful to be alive! I am even more thankful that Craig is alive! While trying to keep us afloat, that man defied death four times. To those of you who know Craig, you can start calling him, “Superhero” because that’s what he is. The man sprouted a cape and literally flew through the air and sea in several desperate attempts to keep us afloat!

Prior to sailing back across the Pacific Ocean, Craig and I logged over 12,000 nautical miles together sometimes facing gale force winds, numerous storms and high seas. We were confident in our boat and each other.

It took 21 days to travel from Samoa towards Marquesas (west to east) in order to set ourselves up for the easterly trade winds that blow towards Hawaii.

While waiting for a weather window in Nuka Hiva, Marquesas, we caught up with sailing friends who questioned the wisdom of making a Pacific crossing during a strong El Nino year.

During typical (non El Nino) years, weather is controlled by tropical storms that are somewhat predicable. Traveling across the Pacific north to south is relatively safe and easy if you travel during the “sailing season” (mid March – May). Winds and currents are in your favor during that time. But traveling south to north any year is difficult because you are going ‘the wrong way’ and winds and currents are contrary. Traveling during an “El Nino year” is throwing the dice. South to north across the Pacific is unquestionably outrageous because winds and currents are significantly altered, as are the storms.

It was an El Nino year. Cyclones were forming early in the South Pacific and late in the North/East Pacific. Typical cyclone season in the South Pacific is Mid November until April but already, a named cyclone had formed over Fiji (it was the reason we left). In North America (East Pacific), hurricane season is June – October but already  the largest hurricane in history (Patricia) hit Mexico.Two hurricanes a year typically reach Hawaii but this year, several storms were headed that way. We new this, but we went anyway.

 We reasoned that the risk of getting caught in a cyclone was greater on the South Pacific side of the equator (where activity was increasing) than on the north side where activity would be decreasing. We truly believed once north of the equator, we would be safer.

Our plan was to make as much “easterly” direction as possible, pick up the east to west countercurrent (slightly north of the equator) then turn towards Hawaii or Mexico depending on weather forecasts. Heck, we could always turn around and head back, right? Right.

So, with bittersweet goodbyes, we left Nuka Hiva;  vowing to keep a close eye on weather and alter our coarse immediately if danger loomed ahead. What a mistake that was.

Here is a basic outline of our journey across the Pacific taken from my journal:

Day 1: On a sunny, calm day, we sailed from Nuka Hiva, Marquesas heading east with 18 -20 knots of wind. We traveled 119.8 nautical miles the first day.

Days 2-4: Weather remains sunny, with calm seas and light winds. It’s perfect for sailing! We continue east with winds 18-20 kts averaging 134 nautical miles each day. On day four, Craig announces that at this rate, we will be home before before Christmas! He can’t wait to tell our friends in Nuka Hiva how easy it is to head East. I quote the  ‘wait  til all the chickens hatch’ proverb and he laughs. We are at latitude S01 and longitude W130. Our goal is to continue east to W110 before turning north to cross the equator.

Day 5 – Today, the skies turned cloudy. The wind picked up and changed directions ( it’s on the nose now). The freezer stopped working. I cook up all the meat and store it in the refrigerator.

Day 6-7: Wind against us, we push on motor sailing through and around squalls before deciding to change direction to conserve fuel. We will sail northeast towards the equator, crossing the “ITCZ” zone along the way. 

Note: ITCZ is short for ‘Inter Tropical Convergence Zone’. Also called the ‘doldrums’, it’s a region (band) of high temperature and low pressure along the equator. Sailors dread this area because of unpredictable weather. Sometimes violent storms form here and other times the seas and winds stop (stalling your movement). 

When we crossed the ITCZ coming from Mexico (two years ago), it was as flat as a pancake! We bobbed around for several days. The ITCZ unpredictability isn’t just in the weather but also in the width; it ranges from 50 to 300 miles and can change daily. Before we left Nuka Hiva, the ITCZ band was narrow, beginning at 0 degrees and ending at 4 degrees north. Crossing it should have been a piece of cake! Not so..

Day 8- 10 Heavy rain and squalls are assaulting us constantly now and the ITCZ is quickly expanding by the minute! Three days ago, it was at latitude North 0-4 degrees, the next day it expanded to 8 degrees, then it grew to 12 degrees and now it extends to 15 degrees…WHAT??? 

We are being pelted by heavy rain, and very high seas. Winds are 25-30 kts . Storm after storm. We are getting clobbered! We are motoring out of most of the storms and trying to make more easting but the winds are blowing against us. Progress is very slow. Where is that countercurrent??? Navigation stopped working (we think a wire got knocked loose). We are using our ipad (isailor) as a backup .

Day 11 – Storms continue. Starboard Flag halyard line broke loose and a cleat attached to another line flies around the deck like a baseball bat. Craig crawls on deck to retrieve them. Sail Mail is down. We can’t get weather. We have Delorme on our iphones as a backup but it’s limited to text messaging. Our son, Corey contacts our weather router who will relay daily weather to him to forward to us. Friends Guy Young, David Pincus and Greg Stainer also start checking weather and send frequent updates (via Delorme text messaging).Thanks guys!

Day 12 – Clear skies appear in the morning. We let out more sail (reefed until now) and start to relax. Within minutes, black clouds appear behind us (we are still in the ITCZ zone). We motor sail to get away but we are too slow. The clouds expand and turn into a giant monster cloud that quickly overcomes us from behind.The storm gobbles us up (like pac-man) shaking WindCutter violently! We have no time to reef (although we try). Wind gage breaks at 50 kts (Craig estimates winds are 70+) We can’t hove to because the wind is swirling. Giant waves swallow up the deck and water rushes down the gunnels. Craig orders me below while he stays tethered on deck trying to get the sails down. A giant wave follows me down companionway stairs. I take at seat in the captain’s chair just as we get knocked down. I am on my head. Sails and rails are in the water. The auto pilot pops off and the alarm sounds. WindCutter rights herself and rides to the top of another wave, spinning on top. I am in the perfect position to manage steering from below so I put her back on coarse. I yell at Craig, but he doesn’t answer. I start to climb on deck to check on him when another wave hits and knocks me to the floor! I am horrified. There is no way to check on Craig without loosing control of WindCutter! I sit in the captain’s chair and reset our coarse again and again, knowing if I make a mistake, we could catapult over a wave, de-mast and sink. WindCutter rides four gigantic waves like a surfer and I am thankful that I watched that storm video last week that taught me how to steer down waves. The whole time, I am praying Craig is alive. Finally, the storm settles and I scurry top deck to check on him. He’s there! The railing has snapped,and the bow light is gone. The Stay sail is shredded, but he’s there. He is laying on the deck, completely soaked, and exhausted. Stunned, we sit quietly for several minutes before we can talk, “Did we really just survive that”?

Day 13-18 We are no longer confident. We are not making progress because of high winds and currents against us.We reef at the sight of every dark cloud and motor away. This slows our progress and uses precious fuel. We consider turning around, but tropical storms are forming behind us. We consider heading for Hawaii but Alaskan storms are hitting the island. There are literally storms all around us. Strong high pressure system off of California is causing severe thunderstorms ( headed our way ) and a possible hurricane is forming off of Mexico. So much for an escape route. We don’t have one. We reason the hurricane off of Mexico will disappear before we get there so we head for Mexico. Bilge pump stops working. We manually pump out.

Day 19 Nighttime: no moon, pitch black out. It’s my watch. Head sail line frays and snaps. I wake Craig. A squall is approaching. Forgetting his life vest Craig runs on deck to retrieve the line before the approaching squall hits. The squall is fast and hits as he is manually pulling the sail down. At the same time, a rogue wave slams over the bow and knocks him into the railing, entangling him in the sail. He is holding on for dear life. I am manually steering (auto pilot popped off again). He is screaming for me to point WindCutter into the wind. But once again, I can’t because the wind is twirling making it impossible! After several minutes of me trying unsuccessfully to stall WindCutter, Craig tells me he can’t hold on any longer. I am shaking, begging him to hold on and yelling all the way to Heaven, “Where are you God?” Just then, the wind stops twirling and I get WindCutter stalled. I lock the wheel into place so I can help Craig. Once Craig is safely back in the cockpit, I can’t stop shaking..and I don’t, until the morning.

Day 20-22 We don’t have anymore lines for the headsail. We splice two short ones together. And it seems to be holding. Dinghy line snapped and is hanging vertically from the davits. Craig crawls out on deck (in heavy weather again) to repair it. Kayak lines are also frayed so he replaces those as well. Batteries are still not holding a charge. We turn off the refrigerator.

Day 23-25 We can no longer make water. We have a 5 day supply left. Food is running low (although we have lots of dry rice and pasta). Top lifting halyard frayed and snapped in the middle of the night (during another squall). Craig replaces it. Seas average 8-12 ft. Winds average 25-35. We look at each other and say, “Well, things can’t get worse..” Just then, the top-lifting on the boom line breaks and the boom comes crashing down onto the solar panels ( top of the Bimini). Luckily, the rack holding the solar panels catches the boom. 

I hoist Craig up the main where he rigs a temporary line to hold the boom. Strong winds smash him into the mast and he gets bruised all over. We reef the mainsail almost all the way in.We can no longer put a heavy load on the main. We are left with the head sail which has a line that is starting to fray again so we reef it to lighten the load. Another bad storm could snap the line and we are out of spares.

Day 26 I come up for my night watch. Craig has just motor sailed around another squall and the engine is still running. I notice the head sail line is missing from the winch. It’s in the water. No, not the rudder! I quickly turn off the engine and lock the steering wheel. Waves splash over the deck as Craig climbs on deck. He lays down on his stomach and starts pulling with all his might to release the line that is caught in the shaft. He is not wearing a life jacket again (he was on his way to bed). Waves crash over him. It is dark. He is screaming (well, swearing) and yelling and pulling with all his might but the line won’t release. Finally, exhausted, he stops pulling and announces that we are ‘screwed’. 

It is the one thing he told me could not happen. No lines in the rudder. We have been careful. How did this happen? He goes to the bow to cut the head sail free (it can’t be lowered with the line wrapped around the shaft). Once he cuts it, we will loose our last sail. I am exhausted (we both are) and once more I desperately pray for a miracle. At that exact moment, I get a feeling I should pull on the line ‘one more time’. I reach over with one hand, grab the line and gently pull. 

It releases!! With the biggest grin on my face, I yell at Craig, holding the line up so he can see it. Dumbfounded, he asks, “How did you release that line..I pulled on it for 20 minutes?” I smile and say, “ I didn’t, God did!” We start the engine and miraculously, our steering is working again (although Craig thinks part of the line is still caught in the rudder since the end I was holding appears to have been burned off).

Day 27 It’s Christmas. The sun comes out! We eat our last meal; spam (ugh) and mom’s famous Christmas quiche..(I saved 3 eggs for this). I try to cheer us up by decorating the boat and writing a Christmas poem. We read it together, making a video for our future grandkids. We give each other mock Christmas gifts. We stuff each others stocking (yes, I brought stockings ) with items that symbolize what we wish we had. Craig gives me massage oil, I give him an empty water bottle and a picture of a turkey(torn from the cook book). 

But the best gift of the day is when Craig turns on the generator and the water maker works!! Yippee! We make a few gallons of water and drink gleefully! We stop short of filling the tanks (we will finish tomorrow).. but when ‘tomorrow’ comes, it doesn’t work.

Day 28-32 By now, the coast guard has been alerted and are ‘tracking us”. We are reporting to them daily. We are almost out of fuel, water and food. We are in the Mexican shipping lanes and since we are hand steering, we sleep in two hour shifts (sometimes less). 

Last night, Craig dozed off while steering, I took over and fell asleep standing up. We are a mess! The good news is the weather has improved. Actually, the wind has almost completely stopped and the sun is shining! It feels wonderful! We have no water (except a three year old gallon I recently found) and no meals left. We are not catching any fish (although we did catch some rain water a few days ago). We are not using the engine (we are saving the few gallons we have left for entering a marina in Mexico). The stove gas is out.. Barbecue propane is empty. The toilet stopped working (good thing we have two) . We stopped showering a week ago to save water (so we smell really bad).. Our energy is low and our morale is even lower. The light wind we have is blowing us the wrong way.. we are actually being pushed backwards.

Day 33-34 It’s New Years. We decide to break our “No drinking while sailing rule” and open our last bottle of wine. We tell ourselves it’s because we are out of water.. but really we are desperate for something sweet on our tongues! We know alcohol adds to dehydration but at this point, we don’t care. We have been at sea 33 days now. We have traveled 2,800 miles. We are less than 200 miles from the Mexico border and we aren’t moving. Really? We toast to survival and savor every drop! 

The next day, Craig makes a decision to call the coastguard for help. Is there a boat in the area that could deliver fuel? We are in luck! A Panamanian registered vessel is close by. They have a crane that can drop a container of fuel onto our deck. 

While we wait, we discover two of the three bolts from the roller furling have backed out. We find them in the gunnel. Amazed they stayed on board , we can’t get them back in because the load has shifted. This means the roller furling has one bolt holding it in place.

Day 35 The Panamanian  vessel (manned by an Indonesian crew ) arrives. Made of steel, it is over 300 feet long, and at least 70 feet high. They ask us to motor close so they can use a crane to drop a 500 pound container (52 gallon drum) of diesel onto our deck. At the same time, a Northerly  wind starts to blow (and I mean blow – 15-20 kts! ). It’s the wind we have been waiting for! But we can’t sail away now, can we? The tanker traveled 200 miles out of their way  to help us. We consider the bolts we just found and know it is risky to use that head sail.

 We decide to take the fuel. We use our diminishing  fuel to come alongside the giant cargo ship. They are windward of us which makes us nervous. The wind is blowing and waves threaten to push them into us. 

Craig has me steer WindCutter closer, so he can guide the fuel container over our aft deck. But before the container can be dropped, the top of the crane snags our mast light causing it and the reflector to come crashing down! Glass litters the deck. I immediately steer WindCutter away but a wave throws the tanker into our starboard quarter and smashes the Sea-Tel radome. Shaken, I quickly motor away. 

Not wanting to give up the fuel, Craig lowers the dinghy and attempts to row it to the ship (we emptied the dinghy fuel container to use it to transport the fuel). The dinghy plug is missing, so he stuffs a rag in the hole. As he rows towards the ship, the dingy is slowly filling with water. He forgets his life vest again. 

Craig gets dangerously close to the ship so they can lower the container into the dinghy. He stands and as he is guiding the container down, an ore slips into the water. A wave crashes into the dinghy knocking him down. As the container is dropped, it tips over, spilling fuel into the dinghy soaking Craig in fuel. Craig rows part way back and I throw him a line pulling him safely to the swim step. 

As I turn my back to secure the line he stands and falls into the water.Line not secured, the dinghy takes off with the current (and the fuel) headed back towards the tanker! I throw Craig a rope (using that bowline knot I just practiced ) and  pull him back on deck. He sees the dinghy being carried away and says he’s going after it! Desperate not to loose him, I threaten divorce if he does. He smiles at me and says, “You won’t do that” and dives in!

 The current is strong and the dinghy is drifting precariously close to the huge tanker’s stern rudder. Once again, I am horrified! This is so dangerous! I can’t help him if he gets hurt or swept away or swallowed up by that giant ship! Need I say, I lost it! And yes, I begged God to bring him back. Somehow, Craig reaches the dinghy and climbs aboard. He uses the single ore to paddle close enough to our boat for me to throw him another line and pull him in. 

Shaken, and covered in fuel, Craig stands up to step onto the swim step, looses his footing and falls again. Not wanting to land in the water, he grabs the dinghy davit line, cutting his hand (nearly to the bone) on the cleat. He hangs on, bleeding and swinging like a monkey back and forth before I manage to grab his legs, and pull him on top of me where we both collapsed in a heap on the transom.. We start laughing and crying at the absurdity of the moment. I am so happy. He made it!

 We began syphoning the fuel. The container they dropped is too heavy to lift out of the dinghy (52 gallon drum) so the process of transporting the fuel is long. Right away, Craig notices the color of the fuel looks wrong. He calls the ship and asks if they are sure the fuel  can be used in our engine.In broken english, they assure us it is good. The ship leaves. 

Skeptical, we put just enough fuel in the tank to make it to shore. We start the engine. It makes a sputtering sound which immediately tells Craig it is bad fuel so he shuts off the engine. Later, we find out the fuel they delivered was stern tube lubricant instead of diesel! (Oops)! Once again, we are stunned into silence. . 

The Northern Wind blows us a few miles and stops. We sit bobbing in the water. We can’t believe our situation just got worse.

Day 36 By now, we have locked the steering wheel and basically are floating in circles. There is no wind, and no apparent current so steering is pointless. 

We are hungry. We are thirsty. We are emotionally and physically exhausted. We are done…

Completely broken with no energy to keep going. Craig lays on the deck, and mutters, “I give up”!  I fall down next to him and say, “I am broken too.. but I don’t want to give up!” 

I go below and write in giant letters in our log 

 ‘HELP GOD’. Then I go back up on on deck, lay down next to Craig and cry. 

Finally, we pray. Just as I open my eyes, I spot a huge ship approaching us from the rear!. A big, bright tanker . I immediately jump up. Are they going to hit us? Suddenly, it stops and a huge dinghy appears alongside the ship. 

Craig stands up and yells “It’s the Mexican Navy!” We both start laughing and clapping! Soon they are within ear range, and Craig yells, “Buenos dias”! 

 A man from the dinghy smiles and replies, “You  can save that greeting for the Mexican Navy , we say ‘good morning’! 

We are Americans.. we are the U.S Coastguard! We just happened to be passing by and heard you might need assistance”. At that moment, I think our smiles cracked our sunburned faces!

 I could write an entire book about the awesome people aboard USCGC Statton and I get emotional just thinking about this part! Professional and kind, they go to work to make sure we are okay. Craig’s cut hand is tended and antibiotics given (it was infected). Water and food (ah the food!) is plentiful (best chicken sandwich and homemade cookies we’ve ever had!)

 Even though the crew is on their way home (after several months at sea), they take the time to stop! They stay with us until the Mexican Navy arrives using their interpretor to help arrange a  tow (they can’t tow us because we are in Mexican waters). 

They make sure we are stocked with enough food and water to last the trip (and then some). They sit with us, talk with us and give  us the emotional support we so desperately need. What a bunch of lean, mean, fighting machines! 

USCGC crew (especially Cap M ..aka (McGyver  in the flesh!)  Mr and Mrs Brown and Mr F) you rock! 

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! You are on the top of our list of American Heros (we would enlist if we were young enough)!

Day 37 Supervised by the Mexican Navy (also awesome people!), we are towed by a private company into Manzanilo bay.

Day 38-40 As soon as we hit land, Craig and I get a hotel room and sleep. We have been eating ever since and I have already gained back ten of the 15 pounds I lost. Craig lost over 60 pounds. He is working on gaining it back!

I will tell you one thing. I am not sure if sailing will be in Craig’s future. After his last “near death experience”, he said he was ‘hanging up his sailing shoes !’ 

A month ago, I would have said, “ I can’t imagine life without sailing”. But now, I say, “I can’t imagine life without Craig”. Land or sea. I’ll go where he goes. 

It was that close.

While Craig stayed in Mexico to repair the sails and flush the engine (he turned it off before the injectors were damaged so it works perfectly now), I caught a flight home. I was in the USA only a few days! Long enough to support a hurting friend, hug my children and check on mom before heading back to Mexico.

We are currently in LaCruz, Mexico making final repairs and waiting for a weather window to head North. 

We are coming home! 

Footnote: Once we get back to the USA and have better internet, I will post more pictures and videos of the South Pacific. 

It was an amazing experience and one I highly recommend (as long as you follow the rules, respect the sea and don’t go against the flow!) 

It also helps to have a worthy ocean sailing vessel. Without WindCutter (our Island Packet 485), we are pretty sure we would have sank. She’s an amazing blue water vessel, one we highly recommend! We love this boat, and I still love to sail.. but I have learned that people are more important than any sailing experience. So… 

I am not sure what our future holds. But I do know one thing, God does. And He’s with you even when you think He’s not! 

“For I know the plans I have for you ..plans for good and not for disaster…to give you a future and a HOPE”. 

(Jeremiah 29:11 )

I’ll rest in that…

Until next time,

Carol Fleetwood


10 thoughts on “Long Way Home…A Sailing Journal

  1. Dear Craig & Carol
    Hello. I met Daren Felix who had mentioned you two were out. Sailing. Wow! Joanne and I are enjoying your blog. She lived in American Samoa for a year and gave birth to her firstborn there and would love to visit with you.
    I’m still doing the work thing on F-35 and should be wrapping it up in a few more years. Stay safe.
    Rick Zapata & Joanne Randolph

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amazing story and so well recorded. You two did exceptionally well given the circumstances. We love how you call on God and just as everything seems to fail He provides the next miracle. Well done for ‘hanging in there’ – we hope to see you guys out on the water again wearing life jackets 🙂 – thanks for sharing this amazing experience with us. Cheers for now Brent and Ana (SV Impi)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I cried, I was exhausted after reading, & I Thanked Jesus for answering everyone’s prayers for you two to get home safe! Your Mom is so happy Carol that you & Craig are safe. you have to write a book when you are ready?! Love, Hannah

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Craig and Carol…whaaat a saga and we are sooo glad U R safe and sound..and we thought Hurricane Odile was bad..you should have gotten a 10 star suite at Punta Mita 4 Seasons after that magical mystery tour!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jackie and I want to welcome you home. We are so glad you made it home…safe. Your plans were sound and if not for the very unusual weather conditions you should have had a less stressful trip.What you guys went through is an experience and an accomplishment that no one but you can understand and appreciate. Trying to make others understand may be difficult. You guys are amazing and I really believe that it was your skill and resourcefulness that brought you home.
    I hope we can meet up someday again, share a bottle of wine and congratulate you in person on your accomplishment.
    Welcome Home
    Chris & Jackie Preter

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I can’t wait for the movie. The guy that played McIver will play Craig and the girl who played Ginger on Gilligans Island will play Carol. Glad to see you Pirates safe

    Liked by 1 person

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