A sailing novice throws caution to the wind

Special to The Times

THE Indian Ocean stretches before us, a world without corners, sparkling and vast. Six-foot swells lift our boat, giving us a clear perspective of what lies ahead.

Behind us, Thailand's Butang Islands slip from view.

Our 25-foot sloop, the Way, falls in the not-big category for a 3,000-mile, six-week open-ocean voyage from Singapore to the Middle East. Never mind that I have had only 12 days' sailing experience. The captain, Zoltan Istvan, is as experienced as I am green. He sailed the Pacific solo in 2000, shoving off from Los Angeles with four sails, a 10-horsepower engine and a bow full of books. He dropped anchor in Singapore three years later.

That's where I hopped on board. I had just quit my desk job as a researcher for National Geographic. I was eager to explore the world I had been reading about. I dreamed of experiencing a true wilderness.

When Zoltan invited me to sail with him, I jumped. This was exactly the life-stretching experience I wanted.

"Hey, Jen, pull the reefs out of the head sail," Zolt yells, sticking his head out of the main hatch. "The wind's about 15 knots right now. Couldn't be better."

I edge cautiously to the front of the boat. My toughest adjustment as a novice sailor is to the constant movement. It's like living on a roller coaster; 24/7 the small boat slams forward, bouncing hard, leaning on its keel. The wind pours over the starboard rail, tilting my world to port. I'm covered with bruises from slamming into stuff. I learn to cook, sleep and eat at varying angles. When it really howls, I walk on walls.

I knew we would be vulnerable to every gust and current. It's the singular advantage and disadvantage of a small boat. We are utterly connected to -- and at the mercy of -- the ocean.

"Let's go, Jen, wake up," Zoltan says, nudging me for my first night watch. "Sorry, but it's your turn. C'mon, there've been no freighters. Should be a mellow watch."

I reluctantly crawl out, glancing at my watch -- 2 a.m. The ocean and sky are ink black; the boat is pitching in heavy swells. A long night stretches before me.

I pop a caffeine pill, grab a book and prop myself under the main hatch. From here I can stick my head out for a 360-degree inventory of the ocean without leaving the cabin. I'm not allowed on deck alone at night; the risk of a novice falling overboard is too great.

Far from ambient light, the cavernous sky stuns me with its fierce, electric beauty. Stars are visible all the way down to the horizon, as bright as fire, surrounding the boat like a canopy. The only sounds are water crashing off the bow, the wind singing in the sails. I discover a part of the world that I had lost sleeping indoors all my life.

An hour before sunrise, the sky fades to the color of ash. Light wisps of pink unfurl across the horizon. The crescent moon, ready to set, turns dusky rose.

Then the sun erupts, only a corner at first, butter yellow, arcing smoothly into the sky. The sea turns opaque, glossy blue; light floods the cabin.

Such natural grandeur becomes the backdrop of our days. Hours no longer count; days are marked only by the rise of the sun.

Daily squalls, small hornets of gray, occasionally rinse us. With nothing to obscure the horizon, we see them coming from miles away. They are one of the few interruptions to our otherwise solid blue surroundings.

*

A startling crack

ON the 10th day, our routine is disrupted, and the risks inherent in our isolation are suddenly clear. A giant bang -- it sounds like the hull cracking -- shatters the quiet.

"What was that?" I yell.

"Heck if I know," Zoltan shouts back.

We spot what looks like the edge of a giant shipping container floating behind us in the strong current. What are the odds, I wonder, of colliding with anything out here? But the ocean is full of debris and buoyant containers that tumble off freighters in storms.

We quickly haul spare ropes out of a cabinet in the floor. If there's a crack, a cabinet below sea level would be the first to flood. We watch it saucer-eyed. It stays dry. After a few agonizing minutes, we assume no major puncture.

But even a small crack this far from land is a worry. We need to find it and patch it with emergency underwater fiberglass.

The wind's blowing hard as we yank down the sails. The ocean is cold, churning blue as Zoltan grabs his snorkeling mask and jumps overboard to check the hull. He looks back at me anxiously, then submerges.

I count the seconds that he's under, scanning the empty horizon. I watch the pitching bow, hoping he doesn't get slammed in the head, wondering why he hasn't come up for air.

"Hey, Zolt, you OK? I can't see you in all the swells," I yell nervously.

An unwelcome thought flashes: How long do I wait before attaching a safety line and jumping overboard to find him? If anything happens to him, can I sail this boat alone?

My worst fears are interrupted when Zoltan bursts up, gasps for air and resubmerges. Ten minutes later, he hauls himself back on board.

"Everything looks fine," he says quietly, shaking water out of his hair. "But we should watch for water leaking into the cabin."

The scare leaves us edgy. All my life I've been a phone call away from help if something went wrong. Not out here.

Still, things seem fine, and the wind is blowing us hard toward Sri Lanka. We're headed for Galle harbor on the island's southern coast.

At first, the island is just a speck on the horizon, gradually growing larger. It is miraculous -- exhilarating -- that we have sailed to Sri Lanka.

I'm mesmerized by the lush green coast off our rail, dotted with Buddhist temples and dilapidated lighthouses. Fishermen in wooden dhows with colorful, handmade sails scoot around the reefs. Occasionally, they approach to get a look at us.

We arrive at Galle around sundown, aching to touch solid ground. But we instead collapse into exhausted slumber 20 feet from land: We can't go ashore until the customs office opens the next morning.

For the next two weeks, we balance our inland travels with errands to provision the boat. We don't linger because we need to be in the Middle East before hurricane season starts in April.

As it is, we arrived in Sri Lanka only days ahead of a cyclone that ripped across the route we sailed. That's a thought we don't dwell on. Well-rested, well-stocked, we lift anchor and sail west.

*

Winds of change

"DARN this radio," Zoltan shouts from inside the cabin. "I can't get the thing to work." The sea surrounding Sri Lanka is full of freighters; without our VHS radio, we can't confirm that these 500-foot ships can see our 25-foot craft in the heavy seas. We play dodge ball among behemoths.

I watch the Southern Cross resurrect in a flushed arc across the sky, aligning our bow to its tip. Zoltan scurries from the cabin to the deck, checking radar, testing the radio and yelling at it.

The next morning, we escape the main shipping lanes and are back in a world of blue. We're back to our routine, fishing, changing sails, plotting our course on soggy maps.

All too quickly, the wind falls off drastically, becoming feeble, inconstant. We poke along, covering only 40 miles a day. Then the wind dies completely.

As a new sailor, I dread a heavy storm, but now I face a danger I had never considered. The lack of wind is stranding us hundreds of miles from land, and we have a limited water supply.

For two weeks, our boat tips back and forth irregularly. The sun blares from a pale, empty sky. We impatiently count hours, scanning the horizon for signs of wind, feeling hot, sluggish.

Then a giant blast of air explodes 15 feet from our boat. I bolt from the cabin to the deck, and Zolt starts counting out loud -- 20 pilot whales. We race around the boat, laughing and waving, uselessly screaming, "Hello," thrilled at the beauty of these glittering giants.

Dolphins drop by more regularly. Almost every night they emerge from the deep, suddenly zooming off our bow. Their silver bodies are lighted by a full moon. Its light throws a shaking path of silver across the water. The moon is the only thing besides our small boat that is solid. It looks massive on the horizon.

The northeast wind finally kicks up, blowing us toward the Middle East. We cover 100 miles a day, skimming across an unkempt sea.

At this point, I'm really getting restless. The intense emotional pressure of being isolated on a small boat in the middle of the ocean is taking its toll. I long for a full night's sleep, a sense of security.

Zolt is plagued by nightmares of getting caught in the boat's rigging as it sinks, pulling him into cold, bottomless blue. One night he wakes frantic, bolting for the hatch. I tackle him.

"Zolt, wake up. Everything's OK," I yell, terrified he will tumble overboard, disoriented and half-asleep. "We're still afloat. It's just a dream!"

He stumbles back to bed.

Toward the end of our trip, with Oman just 48 hours away, the wind dies again. We resign ourselves to a slow night. The moon is a sliver now. The stars are thick and vivid white -- smeared everywhere on a mirror of black, still water.

The water splashing off our bow is littered with florescent green sparks -- microscopic bacteria that glow when the surface is riled up.

I kneel down and trail my hand over the starboard rail, stirring up the water with my fingers, creating green whirls of comets and stars and cyclones in a small black universe.

I try to absorb what I know is the most beautiful night of my life and wonder why I was ever eager for shore.

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