“WAIT!” A man hurried down the dock towards me and my boat. I looked around, but there was no one else on the dock. “You’re leaving too soon!” he said.
I was 30 minutes from departing to row to the Farallon Islands.
The man, who introduced himself as David Holscher fished out his phone and showed me when the current would be flowing faster. “I navigate for the swimmers. I am involved with Night Train.”
David had my attention. Night Train is the organisation that organise swims to and from the Farallons.
My concern with delaying 2 hours was that I needed to be well clear of Point Bonita before the afternoon breeze kicked up. This concern would unfortunately, prove to be well founded.
But at 8AM on Wednesday morning, the advice to delay 2 hours was a relief. I could finish preparing my freeze-dried meals without rushing. I could set up my GoPro cameras. I could even take a nap. Maybe, just maybe, I wouldn’t leave at all.
Something happened in the run up to rowing to the Farallon Islands. From decision to departure (the space of 3 days) I slept badly. I was stressed, really stressed.
This happened once before, preceding the Route du Rhum race in 2006.
The RdR is a single-handed sailboat race, from St. Malo in Northern France to Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. The race is a downwind sleigh-ride in winter and has a formidable reputation for boat-breaking conditions, injuries and high-stakes rescues. And it got to me. Other people’s fear infiltrated my confidence. I caught the fear like a cold.
‘The Farallon Islands haven’t changed, the ocean hasn’t changed and you are experienced,’ I told myself. ‘The only thing that has shifted is your perspective.’
At 11AM I left the dock.
One of the Alcatraz-Bridge tour boats diverted to see me. The passengers snapped away and even the captain stepped out to take pictures.
‘In the bay of San Francisco I am the whale!’ I shouted to no one. ‘But out by the Farallons, the whales will be the whales!’
David was right. I caught a ladder to Point Bonita. It was a magic carpet ride of favourable current. ‘Free speed!’ I yelled throwing my arms in the air as I went under the Golden Gate Bridge at 5 knots! I was in fine spirits.
Half a mile from Point Bonita the water changed colour and texture. ‘Oh no.’ I said out loud. The thermal breeze had kicked in.
I continued on the travelator of outbound current, but now my boat speed was down to 1 knot / 4 knots over the ground and the ride was bumpy. ‘I’m screwed,’ I thought. ‘I’ll never make it to the Farallons.’
I had been eating all morning and just demolished two slices of my mother’s Christmas cake. Brought on a plane from the UK, I defended it’s right to exist on my connecting flight from LA to SFO, then managed to restrain myself from eating the cake between January and March. It was, in truth, my Farallon Cake. But no sooner had I washed down the cake, I began to feel nauseous. Not seasick nauseous, but maybe, I really wouldn’t know.
To make matters worse, I was bobbing along in shallow water, skirting the edge of the Four Fathom Shoals known as the Potato Patch. The current was continuing to pull me out to sea as the wind whipped up waves over the top.
If I deployed my sea anchor, I worried that I would hook into the current and travel faster. I opted for a short rest in the cabin. The nausea was worse inside. I considered the sea anchor again, but took the ‘Oh God foetal position’ on deck instead. Even the smell of my own hair, of my hat covering my face, made my stomach turn. This was bad.
What had I eaten? My block of parmesan cheese had flecks of white mould. The cake was 3 months old, but had been fortified by alcohol-soaked fruit. My gut started spasming. Empty me, empty me. I tried to be sick. I drifted.
By early evening, I was 3 miles off the reef at Bolinas and this was a concern. I seemed to have picked up a northbound snake moving at 0.5 knots. I deployed my sea anchor.
Maybe anxiety had got to me? Then I realised. I had refilled my water bottles with ballast water. I thought I had reached for a sealed bottle, but may have refilled from a hose-refilled bottle. Oh dear.
I lay in my cabin wondering what to do.
‘I have Dom Perignon!’ Domperidone is the name of an anti-nausea drug, but Dom Perignon is how I remember it. My packet of Dom P was unopened and out-of-date, a remnant from post-appendicitis days of 2013. I popped one pill and thank the God of Yachting, it worked.
Around midnight the wind switched off. The deck was wet with dew; the moon a bunny moon – you could see the rabbit inside. I set my alarm for 20 minutes. I couldn’t sleep. I was so close to the shipping lane. After 20 minutes I set my alarm for another 20 minutes, then again for 40 minutes and another 40 minutes. I was trying to nap next to the freeway!
‘Tonight,’ I thought,‘is about letting go. Letting go of anxiety, fear and of time. You will reach the islands when you reach the islands.’ With every reset of my alarm, I began to trust my senses. I could hear the rumble of ships engines and through experience could gauge their distance away. Same with the moaning channel markers. If the wind ran its fingers across my face, I knew the boat had spun and the wind had changed direction. Experience has honed these instincts. It was time to listen to them again.