sohrob quits his job/sails to hawaii.Salt air, glowing dolphins.
Hawaii, Invitational, Olympics, West Coast.
Subject: Princess Taiping
Date: November 28, 2008 8:10 am
I have abruptly received the opportunity to crew aboard Princess Taiping, a historically accurate replica of a Chinese "junk", a classic Ming dynasty war ship. I will be leaving San Diego this Saturday, November 29th. It is expected that our voyage to Hawaii will take us approximately 25-30 days. We hope to be in favorable trades the entire time with agreeable seas and weather, though I have been told to be ready for a very wet trip. The boat, traditionally built with various woods with crushed seashells and tung oil for caulking, leaks greatly. My "bunk" is akin to a very small and wet cabinet, with a 6'2" man stuffed inside. Sort of like living underneath a leaky sink.
If all goes well we will make landfall sometime around Christmas. At this point, depending on how much I feel the emotional, existential, and financial need to get home, I will either fly back to San Diego or hang out with the rest of the crew for a few weeks in Hawaii as they prepare for their final few legs home, to mainland China.
I have always thought that the missing link in modern life is an active involvement in your own survival. Here is where i hope to connect with mine.
O n Wednesday, November 26th, my friend Eric Zatt called me and with a slightly joking lilt in his voice asked Do you want to sail to Hawaii on Friday? I responded in kind with a flippant chuckle under my breath. Yeah, that sounds good. Two days later I found myself gasping for air while trying to sleep in the moldy confines of my bunk aboard Princess Taiping, a replica 14th century Chinese war junk built in 2007.
Do you want to sail to Hawaii on Friday?
Why was Taiping built, and why were we going to Hawaii? To prove that a Pacific navigation from mainland China to the Americas and back could be done using a boat designed and built before Columbus' famous voyage. There is a great irony here which I revisit every time someone asks me, often incredulously, why I would ever subject myself to the discomfort of such a primitive boat. While the boat was trying to prove, simply, that the voyage itself was possible, I was trying to prove that it was possible for me.
Crewing aboard Taiping was quite a serendipitous event. Not only cause my time aboard was what I can only now call an acute moment that effected a massive sea change in my life...but also because Taiping is what led me to be invited to join Paul Plotts' 1930 schooner Dauntless.
When Eric called me and told me about the voyage it was one of those things that I couldn't say no to, but at the same time never believed would actually happen. I'd been looking for crew positions for over a year, and despite being part of several cruising forums and crew databases, had only received empty offers that never seemed to work out. This was different. This was a friend, a connection, who knew me well enough as a person and as a sailor to vouch for me. Eric had me call his friend Steve who had done some welding repair on Taiping's engine and had befriended the captain, Nelson. Steve explained a little more about the voyage and, maybe he sensed my trepidation, told me I should at the very least go meet Nelson and company. I'm not sure exactly why, since Taiping already had a full crew, but they invited me to join anyways (and subsequently asked one of their other crew members to leave - I'm guessing they didn't get along with the guy, but I didn't press the issue).
When I got back from Hawaii, Eric and I went over to Steve's house to show him some pictures of the trip. A few days later I met Steve and Paul Plotts aboard Dauntless. We all got along quite well and Paul invited me to come for a sail a few weekends later. I've been sailing with Dauntless and her amazing crew ever since and recently spent a week out in Catalina enjoying the sun, enjoying the rum, learning about how she sails and is maintained, and getting seriously beat at the miniature golf spot in Avalon.
W e truly had a great send-off leaving San Diego bay. We were escorted out by Dauntless, Cathy and Joe Cibit's 37 foot Islander Viajero, M/V Black Pearl, the Maritime Museum's restored 1914 Pilot, and by our weather guru Dan Brown.
Viajero was one of the first boats I crewed on. Along with Eric Zatt, Cathy and Joe have been great sailing mentors to me, and on our day of departure they brought my parents and sister aboard to escort us out of the bay.
The day before I boarded the boat I asked some of the crew if they had any tips for me. I literally only had about 30 hours to take a leave from my job, pay off two months of bills, put together all my gear and get aboard. Seeing as I hadn't had any ocean crossing experience before, I wanted to make sure I was as comfortable and prepared as possible. Hugh Morrow, a crewman from Iowa but a resident of Xiamen, China, told me to go synthetic. "Cotton just never dries aboard this boat." So I bought some REI gear and brought my synthetic sleeping bag and a polyester tarp to throw over me in case of a heavy rain. The thing about synthetics is that they have a relatively low coefficient of friction when rubbing together, like steel on ice. That's fine if you are sleeping in your tent on an immoveable mountain, but when you're in a transverse bunk and the boat is rocking from side to side like a beer bottle in a maelstrom, it's more like a game of slip and slide.
Our first night underway at sea I went to sleep with my head towards the starboard and my feet pointing port. We were on a starboard tack and to lay reverse would have resulted in the blood constantly rushing to my head. I had a hard time getting to sleep, worried that I would get sea sick, worried that I was out of my element, just worried... But eventually I fell hard, and it seems as soon as that moment came the sea was ready to have fun with me. I don't know if it was a swell or just wind or a slip of the tiller, but all of the sudden the boat seemed to be on it's side, and I slid right out of my bunk all the way to port. In the pitch black belowdecks, I had no idea where I was. It felt like I was on the other side of the boat but I couldn't figure out why or how I'd gotten there. I freaked out, started to hyperventilate, thought we were sinking. I could hear the hand-placed stone ballast sliding beneath me. Convinced we were going down I made a mad scramble to get topsides and forced myself out of a hatch that one of our crew happened to be lounging on. Lounging.
When I got myself on deck in a stressed frenzy, everyone on watch was calm. They were drinking tea, a couple of them sitting unharnessed on the gunwale, with seeming disregard for the monstrous seas that jolted me across the ship. But the seas were flat. Taiping was not rocking violently to and fro, it just seemed like it. In reality, it was a calm, dry night. Nevertheless, I slept on deck in a size-too-small foul weather jumpsuit, and told myself that if I had to sleep on deck for the rest of the trip to avoid the terror of the coffin below, well then that's just what I had to do. Little did I know that I would have some of the deepest sleep of my life down there after a few days of getting used to it. Despite my newfound comfort, I was still unwilling to rig some sort of lee cloth to keep me in the bunk. That damned loose ballast beneath our beds could come pouring on my head at any minute if we rolled over, and I needed to feel like I could get myself out of the bowels before that happened. Eventually I was able to sleep while holding on to the shelf above my head to stop me from sliding, which suited me just fine.
It blew 30 knots last night. The deck was awash with fear and regret. Our bodies are beat up. We're all tired. But my $2 plastic sandals are sitting in the same place I left them before the storm. They experienced none of the struggle I did. — December 4th, 0545
T he moldy dampness of the wood was as much as part of the ship as the square headed iron nails holding it together. Before I was officially selected as crew, the captain asked Ah-Wei to show me below. Despite his limited English, he managed to repeat one sentence at least 100 times. "Very wet!" He showed me his bunk. His sleeping bag was soaked. It smelled like soil in the bowels of the ship. Wet loam. This smell was incredibly suffocating at first, and I would find myself waking up from time to time gagging on the thickness of air down there. A mix of earthy, rotten wood married to the musk of five salty men.
A small moment of irony consumed me with nervous laughter my first night aboard when I attempted to mask the smells down below by spraying some of the air freshener I had received in a care package from my family. The air freshener turned out to be "Bamboo Scented". What are the odds of that? I'd never even heard of bamboo-scented air freshener before and here I am aboard a Chinese junk, surrounded by bamboo in the battens of our sails, and now in the palpably tastable air.
The small "walkway" between our bunks was more like a crawl space. Only about 18 inches wide and just tall enough for me to sit down and not hit my head, I was pretty much on my knees when trying to maneuver below. Luckily I didn't have much need to move around down there. My bunk became my cloister and I felt incredibly taken care of in that small space. I had several books, a sextant and celestial almanac, a visual knot guide, some water and a few snacks, and a flashlight. As beautiful as it was on deck, often when I wasn't on watch I would be below reading or writing, keeping a journal of all the going-ons aboard. I read more books in my 22 days at sea than I had in the last year combined, and I consider myself an avid reader. I also wrote a lot more than I had expected.
Before I started this voyage I sort of expected the sea to bring out a lot of my bad habits or to amplify my neuroses. Quite the opposite happened. I was calm, clear-headed, interested and curious about everything.
L ao Tang, the first mate, started to guide us out of the bay after a brief prayer ceremony and blessing of the boat and crew at the Maritime Museum docks. After a few minutes at the helm Lao Tang wanted to take some pictures and gave me the tiller. The frigate pictured here gave us the dreaded "five short blasts" on the horn, signaling DANGER, or in other words, "Hey weird looking wooden ship, get the hell out of our way!" This was to be the first lesson we received in how important communication is aboard. The navigation house and the spare battens stored over our heads but beneath the mainsail make it nearly impossible to see directly in front of you. All but totally lateral views are obstructed from the cockpit. I was relying on the eyes of our crew to guide me, but ended up foolishly and embarrassingly steering us into the path of this gnarly monster. When I say we narrowly avoided collision, I mean it. Sailing 90 degrees off the bow of a frigate moving five knots less than a few hundred yards away from us was not how I wanted to start off this trip. Especially with five support boats full of friends and family watching, mouths agape. That being said, the comedy of the situation isn't lost on me... Two warships separated by 700 years of technology facing off in San Diego bay. I think we would've won, if it came to it.
A few minutes after this unnecessary mishap, our prop got fouled by kelp. We pulled up the shaft and with the help of a fisherman in a small skiff got it cleared free. We showed our appreciation by handing him a few warm Budweiser's. In the meantime we had drifted dangerously close to a cement pier. About 25 yards off of the pylons jutting out like devil spikes, the captain yelled, "Prepare the bow line!" I had no idea what he meant. How would a bow line help us from drifting into the pier? Then, "Prepare the anchor!" Nervously looking for the right lines attached to the right anchor (there were three on deck, two metal ploughs and one traditional wooden anchor), I tripped over myself realizing how unprepared I was for an emergency situation, and decided to get out of the way to let the rest of the seasoned crew take us to safety. Luckily the tidal current pulled us out of the way of the pier and shortly thereafter we received a tow from Michael aboard M/V Black Pearl. I asked the captain why he wanted a bow line, and it turns out what he meant - and what I wasn't alone in misunderstanding - was that he wanted a bowline, as in the knot. This was to be readied to tie off a hawser as a tow line for Black Pearl to pull us out of the way. Another instance of how important it is to communicate effectively. We were lucky here, but we could have just as easily drifted right into that pier, or been plowed by the frigate, or mishandled the anchor rode and who knows what...
The current helped us drift in the right direction, away from the pier, but the prop still wasn't cutting it so the Black Pearl gave us a tow to the west side of the channel, just south of Shelter Island, where we threw up our sails and were off. About six hours later we passed the Coronado Islands. Beautiful, jagged, violent, out-of-nowhere rock formations with waves slamming up and out of the sea like talons grasping for...something.
Our course should have kept us well west of the Islands, but with no keel and on a beam reach the Princess skated sideways along the water almost as much as she danced forward. — December 1st, 0440
T he little engine that couldn't. This piece of junk was amazing in it's ineffectiveness. I wanted to throw it into the drink, but I realized that the mere presence of an engine aboard was important psychologically, even if it didn't work. Never mind that our boat weighed in at over 35 tons and this tiny thing was rated at about 9 horsepower, or the fact that the the top of the prop sat only a few inches below the waterline in a flat calm. I recall someone telling me it was intended for some sort of farming use. The opening in the top where you can see the steam exhaust is where we poured in sea water for cooling the engine. Yes, sea water. Poured in by hand, whenever we felt like it needed it.
When we got to Hawaii I was giving some folks a tour of the boat and someone asked me if the engine was the toilet. Visually, that's a stretch. But not much of a stretch.
Behind the cockpit there was a small raised platform over the rudder post, the head, and the galley. This was the best seat in the house. I would crawl up there on flat days for the incredible view. I was constantly overwhelmed with two particular thoughts from my lofty perch. First, I was incredulous at how anyone ever thought the earth was flat. You can see the curvature so clearly when you are looking at nothing but horizon all around you. 360 degrees of nobody. 360 degrees of freedom.
My second thought was Holy shit.
H ere's our captain, Nelson, discussing our weather fax system with John. Before this voyage I had no idea what weather fax was. Nor did I have a real understanding of navigation and how important it is to be aware of weather systems. Most of my nav experience had been coastal. Dead reckoning, visual fixes, a little bit of GPS. John became my de facto teacher, and essentially our navigator aboard Taiping. Every day he went over the information on the weather fax with me, explaining how low and high pressure systems work in the northern and southern hemispheres, how to use squalls to your advantage, how to stay safe in storms, how to read the information on a surface analysis and a 500 millibar report. This education was incredibly satisfying. It also served to preserve my sanity while at sea for the simple reason that for the first time in my life I was looking at everything around me to determine my place and course on the planet. This is an incredibly humbling yet empowering feeling.
Sometimes I would think of myself as a particle in the framework of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, trying to determine my position and momentum in the universe. Then it would dawn on me that I had virtually no grasp of these concepts in high school or college and that nothing had changed since then. I wish I had paid more attention to physics, at least from the theoretical perspective. There's a romance to the theory of existing and understanding what it means to exist, and whether we exist or not, that I've always felt physics explored. But I was always daunted by the math. Shame.
C hinese junks are basically cargo ships. There was tons of space below for storage between the 18 structural bulkheads that comprise the backbone of this ship. Here's our head cook Ah-Chai, who became a good friend and helped me learn some basic Mandarin, pulling out some food for our lunch one day. We had spaghetti with some sort of smoked pork. This was one of the few meals that resembled anything western. Most of our meals were rice or noodles with a stir fry of vegetables and sausage or canned meat, but some of the highlights were as follows: pumpkin curry stew, fresh dorado sauteed with garlic and black pepper, mushroom soup with dried oysters and squid, chopped tuna tossed with fresh ginger, green beans and bacon in vinegar sauce, egg fried rice, sauteed spinach and garlic... Clearly we ate more like gourmands than anyone could have expected. We didn't have refrigeration but we did have a few ice chests that kept fresh vegetables and fruit almost all the way to Hawaii.
Most days when the weather was calm we would all eat lunch and dinner together in our "living room" in front of the navigation house and the captain's and first mate's quarters. Ah-Chai would cook lunch, Ah-Wei would cook dinner, and we would all take turns cleaning the dishes.
My sense of well-being, my mood, they hang precariously in the wind. Vacillating between the beauty of a strong, full sail and the dread of luffing in irons. Pointlessly aimed in directions leading me nowhere. — December 7th, 1715
T his isn't exactly a block but more like a deadeye that was used to control the direction of the mainsheets. The main and foresails each had two sheets that controlled the shape of the sail; one sheet controlled the top half and the other the bottom half. Each sheet was attached to a "pignose", another type of deadeye which attached a different lanyard to each batten on the sail. This essentially meant that we had some degree of control over every batten depending on how we adjusted the sheets. Watching Lao Tang and Ah-Chai control these lines through a gybe was a sight to be seen. Their mastery of throwing the sheets with small flicks of their wrists was incredible. To reef, all we had to do is drop the sails to reduce sail area. The weight of the battens along with the trim of the sheets would hold the removed portion of sail safely in a sort of cradle.
When you're cruising eight knots and surfing ten in 25 to 30 knots of apparent wind it becomes incredibly important to sail to your trim, despite what the compass is telling you to do. Several times we'd be sailing a course that the wind just refused to allow us to maintain, and instead of falling off and adjusting our sails, we'd stay on our heading and be punished with an accidental gybe as we sailed through and past a safe wind angle. An accidental gybe in high winds on this boat was not a fun experience, and nowhere near safe. There's a violent crack that you can hear and feel throughout the wooden shell, often followed by the frenetic din of the crew yelling to make sure nobody went over or got tangled in one of the sheets that would snap across like a whip. The first time we went through an uncontrolled gybe I was asleep, and the ensuing slam and roll of the boat convinced me that we must have hit a weather buoy or a submerged cargo container. Luckily we sustained only the minor damage of a few broken battens. Repairing these at sea wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. We would measure the length of the broken batten and cut a new piece of bamboo from the many spares we had aboard, then lash the new piece to the old with rope and wire. A permanent fix would come later. Fortunately, the few broken battens we had were low enough to allow a repair from the deck without climbing or dropping the sails.
I never felt a sense of being lost inexorably to the infinity of the ocean
After 21 days on the Pacific, we passed the Big Island in the middle of the night. I'd asked several friends experienced at cruising what it would be like to be at sea that long, and what it would be like to make my first landfall. Someone told me that after not seeing land for so long you sort of stop believing it's there, but I was so involved with continuously tracking Taiping's course that I never felt a sense of being lost inexorably to the infinity of the ocean. I always knew exactly where we were. I believe it was John who told me that the first thing he notices once near land is the smell of soil. This is also something I didn't experience. As we passed Maui early in the morning of December 20th, I noticed only that I didn't notice anything different.
I sleep between the main and foremast curled up in a ball underneath the massive wooden windlass. Looking up at these elegant junk sails swaying underneath the deceptively stationary celestial background. There are three things in my world right now, starting with the farthest reaches of space: the tapestry of stars, the gentle sway of the boat, and the motion of the sails in this light breeze. — December 8th, 2300
S ometime midday we started to pass Moloka'i to port. We aimed the boat a few degrees higher so that we could eventually turn south and catch some wind astern to push us through the Kaiwi Channel. This was a magical night, and this was the thing I remember most about my first landfall after an extended period at sea: Lights. The lights of cruise ships, cargo ships, and other sailboats concentrated in imaginary lanes on the ocean. The lights of Oahu. Waikiki beach aflame in the burning stars of hotel rooms and traffic signals. Planes landing and taking off. Radio towers and channel markers and other flashing beacons in the wonder of this night. And the air. It was finally warm. Finally. I remember when I first stepped aboard I thought we'd have a few days of coastal conditions and then enter the fabled tropical air of the trade belt. In reality, we were aboard 22 days and 21 of those were cold. In reality, the trades aren't necessarily warm, but for some reason I romanticized them as such.
I think it was three or four a.m. when we finally dropped the hook off Waikiki beach. We were going to wait till morning for a tow into Ala Wai Harbor, where we would tie up at the Fuel Dock for our stay in Hawaii. Just as the faint glimmer of sun started to peak behind the island, I decided it was time to get off the boat. I jumped in the water and went for a swim.