Return to Home Page

Advice to would–be sailors

a very condensed story of

©2005 by Susan Cramer Peter


I kept a journal while on my sailboat trip to record events and my personal reactions to them. This is my personal view of what happened; you should expect my journal to be quite different than someone else’s account of the same events.

This was an exciting, sometimes terrifying experience. Because it happened in a setting that most people will never experience, and partly because friends asked me in advance to “tell them all about what it is like on a sailboat at sea” I have transcribed this account for public viewing.

All crew names were changed to "protect the innocent." This account was not written to be an accusation, or to cast blame. I have no desire to hurt anybody. I am thankful to be alive and without the help of every person on board this little sailboat, I would not be alive today.

August 23, 2005
m/v Rhein Bridge,
Pacific Ocean

In the month of August of 2005 I had the rare occurrence of seeing two life–long dreams come true: a long sailboat trip and a voyage on a merchant ship. Some dreams become nightmares.

The “romance of the sea” got the better of me and I gleefully accepted the opportunity to sail from Kauai, Hawaii back home to Portland. Conversations with a crew member who was repeating the voyage evoked visions of quiet days and nights reading books, writing stories. All to the backdrop of sparkling deep blue, though still tropically warm, water and vibrant sunsets. Chances are you know this dream.

I would also be learning more about sailing, and enjoying the solitude of Pacific sunrises that belonged ‘just to me’ as I stood morning watches. Conveniently enough, even the characters for a future story would be right on the boat with me: a lecherous old man, the 21–year–old beauty he had been coveting since she was prepubescent, and her boyfriend, a “mature” man of 38 years. Could I ask for more?

Let me suggest, before you dash in like I did, that you do indeed ask for more. Much more.

Credentials vs. Credibility

Investigate the skipper thoroughly yourself. Do not take the advice of a loyal former crew member who may be too young and naïve to understand real life and death issues.

Just because the skipper teaches celestial navigation doesn’t mean he is actually capable of doing it outside of the classroom. This of course was not relevant because we had two GPS receivers to provide the necessary data, but the skipper’s misplaced confidence was relevant to me. A skipper may talk a good line about weather maps, but he may not actually have reliable equipment to download them, or not know how to read them properly when he does successfully print them out. He may have successfully done this trip once before, but this does not demonstrate skill or even extensive experience. Maybe he was just lucky.

He may tell you he has a proper life vest for you already on board, but if it doesn’t have a light on it, it’s not suitable for ocean navigation. Don’t even think about it until you see him successfully using the weather and navigation equipment. And if he seems a bit offended by your impertinence when you ask a question, run away. Run Away! Do not, I repeat, Do NOT get on the boat with him.

My skipper, of course, did not take umbrage at my questions until after we’d left port, so my experience in this regard was less definitive, though no less foolish. We could have checked his references through several mutual acquaintances, not just one or two, before I set sail. The truth here is not an awful secret, only that he is proud (with no shortage of accomplishments of which to be proud) but, in a general way, more confident than he is qualified. Know that the title “captain” can be self–conferred, or it can be evidence of licensing, based on demonstrated skills.

I am not a total novice at boating or blue water. I have previously been on sailing trips that spanned multiple days. One boat, the Adventuress, a beautiful old schooner based in the Puget Sound has provided me with several fond memories ( My experiences aboard her with various well–seasoned captains and first mates have all been very positive.

Once you are totally satisfied with your evaluation of the skills and character of the captain and crew, it is time to learn a few more things. I number them for your convenience:

Sound and Motion Stress

1) The Pacific Ocean is not just big. It is much larger than that. Much.

2) During a trip that is estimated to take 2–4 weeks expect to have weather you will learn to hate. For example Hawaii is at about 22 degrees north latitude. The Horse Latitudes between 30 – 35 degrees are where the early sailors threw their horses overboard to try to lighten the load and maybe then the teasing, faltering winds would move the boat a little bit. We experienced them as flat water where the stifling air in the cabin was 90° F and the air on the deck was 80° in the shade, but there was no shade. Westerly winds show up in the 35 – 60 degree latitudes. Here, in the short span of 2–3 hours you might find, as we did, that the tropical water is no longer tropical and the great gales of it thrown into the cabin and onto the deck (we had the windows open for a breath of air, remember) are decidedly cold. This is the land of Blue Mountains. Breathtakingly beautiful, they would make a fine painting for your living room wall. The reality is at first exhilarating, but after three days the motion becomes … tiresome.

3) There are more possible ways a boat can pitch, roll, rock, twist, rise and fall in a dynamic three–dimensional world than the human mind can comprehend. This is largely I suppose because the fourth dimension, time, becomes compressed in a way that allows all of these moves to occur in such rapid succession as to seem practically simultaneous. This motion teaches us to develop sea–legs sometimes, and other times simply slams us up against the stove and then returns us with equal force to the desk. Then, when it tosses us for the third time in two seconds it not only lays us against the sink but throws all the maps, pencils, rulers, erasers, and everything else after us as we fly.

Sitting or lying is preferred while the boat is in motion (which is all the time) but generally some standing is necessary to move around or prepare food. Open the refrigerator and it comes out to greet you. Cans roll at random across the floor, but the butter considerately skids to a stop as soon as it hits the gooey mass of macaroni and cheese left on the floor after last night’s dinner. Are we bruised black and blue yet?

4) And this is also noisy. Movements are noisy when they warp the shape of the craft, stressing structures unevenly. They are noisy when the bow rises up on the crest and then falls abruptly through the air to slap the trough below. Several feet below.

Think of lifting one end of your living room sofa and then dropping it onto the floor. Now repeat every second or two for a few days time. This exercise is best imagined if sometimes a large chair alternates irregularly with the sofa, and a medium hassock is thrown in occasionally. Don’t forget to lift high one end of your car and drop it from time to time also. It doesn’t have to be continuous; irregularity adds the element of surprise, especially effective when you are sleeping. Don’t worry though; this action rarely causes damage to a properly built fiberglass hull of good quality and without flaws.

and Her Li’l Sis

5) Not all sounds are loud. The whispers of dark blue water slipping past the hull, a short inch or two away from your head resting on your bed pillow, call quietly like a cunning little sister of the Banshee. Words are there, but the meaning is indistinct. “Say it again?” I ask. “Glad to” she whispers, over and over and over until it is a relief to be surprised when the sudden smacking falls of the bow return.

6) Winds over 30 miles per hour cause the rigging to howl. From inside the cabin the Banshee sounds more frightening than she is. Outside, standing watch alone in the dark I am too distracted by the randomness of the rising and falling black mountains to hear the whistling rigging and the Banshee’s cries. I find myself thinking, “oh, that’s the same topographical shape as that mountain meadow and glacial moraines we saw last summer.” But the mountains and valleys move too quickly and the thought is only half formed before the visual is replaced, and another thought tries to grasp this new image. Repeat every two seconds for 3 hours. It’s a lot of input.

Here and There

The beauty of the ocean at any moment in time is without question. And, whether becalmed or in the one small gale I experienced, I never felt frightened by the ocean I saw; it quickly became apparent that we rose up onto each towering wave. It was much like skiing, but without any effort on my part. This gale had waves that measured as much as ten or twelve feet, trough to crest. Rarely, if ever, did one actually break over the boat. I wondered what it would be like to experience a violent storm.

Another beautiful image was the threesome of mahi mahi swimming alongside the boat with their iridescent blue fins shining through glassy smooth water. The perfection of the image frays when a while later I realize it is now a twosome, since we are preparing to eat their companion.

In some ways the sailboat was the perfect environment and did live up to my expectations. I had plenty of time to read and write. And contrary to my usual life situation, there was little to draw me away from the task of writing. My intermittent trips to Rome via “Angels and Demons” by Dan Brown and to Arkansas, thanks to Maya Angelou, became an excellent means of dealing with minor stresses. (Going to the 16th Century and the Age of Exploitation via “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg” proved medieval and not a good choice.) I absorbed myself in my compositions, writing even during the stormy nights with my little efficient LED headlamp. I never lacked inspiration.

Dolphin Talk

Once, after we had enjoyed the company of a family of porpoises off and on during the day, they appeared again, after dark, as I was alone on watch. Without bidding, a question for them flashed through my mind: “What are you doing out here in this Big Dark Ocean at night? You should be at home, in bed. Safe!” And I suddenly realized it was quite likely the thought they were asking, and far more appropriately, of me. Maybe they were mentally transferring this thought to me. Porpoises are smart and may have skills we can’t imagine.

This of course raises the obvious question: Why did I choose to do this? I’d had a very busy year, hectic and full, and much the way I like my life actually. This seemed like a chance for quiet time, rest and reflection. And, as I said earlier, there was that dream.

So it came to be that after two weeks on an ocean voyage in a 36’ sailboat I succumbed to the stresses of incessant sound and motion, combined with uncertainty about the skipper’s skills. As an outsider to the love triangle I believe I also served as scapegoat. When stressed to the point I was unable to eat or drink for three days, I imagined my self and my kidneys failing fast.

An additional contributor to this stress could have been the fact that our marine toilet had failed and we now had brown water, the color of what was in it, sloshing freely out of the toilet and about the water closet so that the skipper had ordered all further deposits to be made directly over the side. Or in the bucket in the cockpit; whichever public place we felt more comfortable in.

How to Bail

This is when I bailed out, which is not an entirely easy thing to do from a sailboat. Before the trip, I had never even guessed it was possible. First I had to declare that I was not just sick, but in imminent danger of dying. The skipper was happy to hear it. I believe he was hoping for a burial at sea, and if he couldn’t send off the competition (the young man), he could at least toss the scapegoat. Even if news of her death was premature, the fact would follow in short order.

It was the lovely young woman who interceded on my behalf. A promise made “to do anything she ever requested” was now, with what seemed to me some reluctance, kept by the old skipper. “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” and my life was saved.

No, it is not that easy. Not at all. Many calls – radio and satellite phone – were needed between the US Coast Guard (God Bless them!), our little vessel, and the merchant ship. (Of a size so humongous it might be compared to the Pacific Ocean alongside our little sailboat, but can’t because the Pacific Ocean is still so big it just can’t be compared with anything on earth.) And after contacts and commitments were made via the Coast Guard it still took all night for this huge ship traveling 10 times faster than us to find and meet us.

Note. The Coast Guard is a wonderful branch of our military, but Coast is the relevant term here. After two weeks we were 1000 miles away from Hawaii; this is too far for a helicopter to fly and still have gas for the return trip. Had we, under other circumstances, lost our boat and been in the water we would have all died of hypothermia long, long before anyone could have possibly come to our rescue.

I’d spent the night without sleep, waiting for the ship I knew would not arrive before daylight, no matter how hard I wished. The storm had subsided some and I irrationally feared my illness might disappear before my rescue was complete. I shamelessly admit to coaxing it along by not drinking fluids. Where was I going to pee, anyway? By morning I had the good beginnings on an appendicitis that I figured could be developed more as needed.

It occurred to me that I might be jumping from the frying pan into the fire. But how bad could the fire possibly be? They could gurney me into a Third Reich infirmary, connect me to contaminated i.v. fluids that sedated me in anticipation of hideous medical tests, to be followed by immediate and botched abdominal surgery.

Didn’t sound that bad –– compared to my precarious present situation. I decided to take the chance and go for the big boat.

Thus ends the first half of the story with only a few minor details omitted because some things are just too hideous to relate.

Don't forget to look at my Journal, published in 2 parts under the titles Sailboat and Sailboat II

I will also have some stories about my time aboard the containership, m/v Rhein Bridge.
Sorry, there are very few bad guys
in this part of the trip —
though a couple more do show up at the very end of my adventure,
so do stay tuned.

Return to Home Page

Please send feedback to Susan Peter, at

©2004 by SueMap Designs      Updated September 6, 2005