I struggled to sit up, holding my head on with both hands. I couldn’t seem to stand, so I slid off the bunk, and inch by inch slowly creeped on my hands and knees over to the box….
It was a hot mid-August, 1984, just a few months before my 39th birthday. At the start of the month, as a representative for the Hawaii yachting association that held a trans-pacific race from California to Kaua’i every two years, I had welcomed ‘James’ and his son, a father/son team, who had come in second in their 31′ yawl* in the double-handed (only two people on the boat) race from California to Kaua’i.
*A yawl is a two-masted, single-hull boat. The first mast is the main one, holding the large mainsail. The second, shorter mast is located behind the steering wheel, almost at the end of the boat. This particular boat was a double-ender, meaning it had two pointy ends, not just one in the front, like most boats.
I met and greeted them when they came in, helped them tie up and secure their boat in their berth at the dock, and helped them unboard. We worked together to empty their supply containers, carry gear, trash, and dirty laundry up to the docking station, where everyone was busily dumping, meeting, greeting and celebrating.
After two weeks on the water, they still had wobbly sea legs, so we went slowly on up to the club house.
As soon as they were set, I went on down to greet the next boat that was just now pulling into the marina, and continued on helping others.
At the muggy tropical August awards night dinner two days later, I found myself placed next to James.
James and I hit it off, and by the end of the night, he had invited me to sail back to California with him. His son had had to fly out already to get back to his job. James had originally planned to ship his boat back and fly out, too, but suddenly wanted to sail back.
He told me he was looking for someone to crew on his sail to California. (I told you before — I had no street smarts, remember?) Before I could stop my mouth, I said, “I’ll go!”
Huh? I had a sales job in a gallery 6 days a week! And my two boys were about to come back from visiting their dad on the mainland to get ready for school — hello, Angela? My inner critic screamed, “how can you even think about going?”
“I’ll go!” I said again.
I over-rode my inner critic. That darn killjoy! She was always trying to put a damper on everything! I decided right then and there that this was a trip of a lifetime and I wasn’t about to pass it up.
So, since the sail across against the wind would take 25 to 30 days, I got a month lay-off from my kind, generous boss, handled the logistics for my kids and house, went shopping for boat supplies, and two days later, James and I set off.
I was excited and terrified. I was a good sailor — I’d been sailing since before I was born, and was at home on boats, on the water and in it. I’d done a lot of cruising on the east coast, both as skipper and as crew, but I’d never sailed across an ocean!
I’d also never experienced a minute of seasickness. Uh-huh.
We left at dawn on a beautiful, balmy morning, heading out of Nawiliwili Harbor. I was totally comfortable sailing inside and outside of harbors, lagoons, lakes, whatever. So I was horrified to be struck with the most intense nausea I’d ever felt the very second we left the outer rock jetty of the small harbor.
Dizzy, weak in the knees, blurry vision — I felt like I was going to pass out.
James suggested I go below decks and rest, but I wanted to see the way the sun climbed the dawn-pink sky over the glassy waters around my rapidly shrinking island home.
I was OK if I stood up, but if I sat down, I was a mess. On that first day, my body forcefully ejected every last fragment of anything I tried to send down to my belly in the most unpleasant ways.
Eventually I did go below and lie down.
Over the next couple days the nausea got worse and worse. I could stand up and I could lie down, but sitting made my world a miserable, dizzy, sickening hell. I got tired and dizzy really fast and couldn’t hold a single thing, whether food or liquid, down.
On the evening of the 3rd day, I was lying below on my bunk, alternating between dry-relfing into a bucket, shuddering with cold, and throwing off the sleeping bag in terrible fever heat.
A dark shadow appeared at the top of the ladder. James. He slowly descended, doing what I’m sure he thought was a seductive little hip-swiveling sexy-dance, opening his pants, starting to swing his man-unit around like a lasso.
In a high-ish sing-song voice like kids use on the playground, he chanted, “I’m gonna get you! I’m gonna get you!”
I just laid there in disbelief. I cracked up — was he joking? Well, no.
When he was a mere two feet away, I just said, very calmy, “If you think it’s a good idea to try to fuck someone who’s barfing, smells like vomit, quaking with cold one minute and being a human sunspot the next, have at it!”
And I started giggling, and then laughing, and I just kept on laughing and laughing as he stood there, paralyzed and confused.
Suddenly, it was as if he’d just woken up from a bad dream. His expression of shock and horror was priceless. He paled, pulled himself together and dashed back up the ladder to the deck.
Neither of us said a thing about it again.
Guess who, despite how small the boat was, I avoided for the rest of the trip. Guess how hard that was, as someone in charge of all the cooking and cleanup! I didn’t care. A-holes aren’t due any respect.
When I wasn’t up on deck on watch, or trying to concoct some kind of meal for James, I was lying in my bunk, fully dressed with every shirt, pair of pants and sweater I’d brought with me, with my down jacket on, inside my down sleeping bag. I felt one minute like I was submerged in Arctic ice, the next in the fires of Hades.
I kept wondering, how did an experienced sailor get seasick all of a sudden? My brothers would tease me mercilessly if they ever found out! Thoughts and feelings of anger, guilt, sadness, shame and grief swirled through my water-deprived and nutritionally unbalanced brain.
By the morning of the fifth day, I knew that I’d shrivel away of dehydration and hypothermia if something didn’t change radically.
I knew I could survive a month without food, but it had been 5 days since I’d had any real drink of water. I’d heard you could only go three days. “Well, see how it is, you tough gal,” my brain said, strutting around like some winning athlete.
But this wasn’t funny. I suddenly had a feeling that if I croaked out there in the middle of the ocean, James wouldn’t turn around and return my body to shore. He’d toss all my stuff and my pathetic carcass off the side of the boat and continue on. He’d act all innocent at lands-end, wondering who this Angela was they were looking for. With no evidence, he’d probably get away with it.
It was at that moment that I had the deep understanding that I absolutely had to make a sharply defined decision to do what it took to live.
Right now. Or die.
I laid there on my bunk, phasing in and out of lucidity and delusion. It came to me that it wasn’t important anymore how stupid I now felt for going off on a hare-brained cross-ocean sail on a tiny 31’ boat with a complete stranger — no matter what his credentials were, or how good a sailor either one of us was.
It wasn’t important what James might — or might not — do to me.
It wasn’t even important why I was so disastrously seasick.
It was all about: would I even make it through?
Would I make the decision, then and there, to do what it took, no matter what, to live — whether I was delirious or dizzy or sick or not?
And would I take action?
Well, it was a no-brainer. Who wanted to be fish-food? I sure didn’t.
So, decision made, I continued to lie there as I mentally went through our larder inventory — I’d stocked the whole batch for James from his list, so I knew down to the last drop of water what we had on hand.
I finally decided that a tomato would be my savior. If you removed every food from the planet and only allowed me one, I’d pick tomatoes. Of course they’d be homegrown, organic, heirloom beefsteak. Mana.
I struggled to sit up, holding my head on with both hands. I couldn’t seem to stand, so I slid off the bunk, and inch by inch slowly creeped on my hands and knees over to the box of fresh veggies in the cooler.
I pulled out the ripest tomato. It looked like life itself, embodied.
It was plump, a beautiful deep red, and smelled so rich … but even one thought of eating it, and my poor wretched stomach flipped over.
Closing my eyes, I said to my deepest self, “You’re going to do this, and you’re going to live, so shut up about nausea anymore. Thank you.”
I bit a wee tiny hole in the skin, and sucked out one drop of the juice.
And started to dry heave. Barely catching myself, stopping it in its tracks. Uh-uhhhh! No way, body-darling! No more relfing! You have to do this!
I fought to keep down each little drop. At the end of three hours I finally had eaten the whole thing, and I knew — I KNEW — I’d be OK.
Once I made my choice to live, to keep that tomato at my mouth, to refuse to let my body vomit each succeeding drop of juice, all other possibilities of reality collapsed into the one I had chosen to experience — be well, have a great rest of the trip, get to California, get home.
I fell back onto the bunk and crashed into the pillow. I woke up refreshed, just in time to relieve James for the midnight watch.
From then on, I didn’t have the slightest fraction of nausea or dizziness. I thanked my lucky stars that his boat had a self-piloting mechanism. I had taken watches on the first, second and third days, but days four and five were impossible. I was so grateful James didn’t get on my case for it.
Over the next 22 days, we merrily tacked back and forth across the wide Pacific, getting invisibly closer every day to the west coast. I read, sketched, and wrote songs; James hung out below with his radio, navigation charts and plotting tools.
There was not one other human being or boat to be seen anywhere, not even one single contrail above us.
It’s one of the most humbling things ever, to know you’re all alone in a 3000-mile stretch of water between two uncaring coasts, under an empty sky, hundreds of feet of blue mystery below you.
Feeling small doesn’t begin to describe it. My respect for sailors in days of old whose lives were spent more on the sea than on land swelled dramatically.
Almost every amazing morning, the sun appeared one dab at a time over water so still it perfectly mirrored the sky. Silky wet mirror glass.
Right before the orb came above the horizon, the sky was the exact color of the ocean. If we’d had been suspended in a giant bucket of paint I don’t think it would have looked much different.
As the sun rose higher and higher, the brilliance of its light would streak up into the heavens in longer and longer rays, and cascade in leaps across the sea to us, and beyond.
I honestly didn’t know if my heart could take it, really — day after day it was like that, and I got fuller and fuller, overflowing with simple joy and profound awe.
to be continued…
Thanks so much for reading my story. I hope it lit you up. Or maybe it inspired you, or gave you a new perspective with which to view and appreciate your own life. That’s my wish.
27 Days from KAUA’I to CALIFORNIA, Part I
text and image © Angela Treat Lyon 2021–2
This is an enhanced version of a story from my book, INSIDE SECRETS, Stories I’ve Never Told Anyone, Volume II. Illustrated with my artwork.
The images in Volume II are all from original pen and ink drawings done in Japanese Sumi ink on heavy watercolor paper. If you’d like a print of this image, please contact me.
You can get all the books in this series in print on amazon, or get the Ebooks for $5 each (or pay what you want) at atlyon.gumroad.com.
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