Cloudburst

by Liz Clark
Summer 2009

The line of unbroken horizon dips again and again from view as I settle into a cradled corner of Swell’s rolling cockpit. Over 600 miles and five days into my solo, mid-Pacific passage, and momentarily there is a lull in the sea’s frequent calls. Time alone on this open sea is time acutely divided. On demand, I’m critically present, but for now I can almost disappear. Only my slow, warm breaths separate me from this bulk of water and unending sky. The beats of modern humanity drum on around the world, but I can’t hear them here. Somewhere between French Polynesia and the Line Islands I’ve found an interim space – stripped of artificial barriers, outside judgment and contemporary clutter. I ponder my place in this wholly elemental setting. A minute bows into an hour and with a reverent nod, my eyelids sink and I dissolve into a swaying patch of afternoon sun.

A sudden gust jolts me awake. Lifting my cheek from the pillow of piled rope, my eyes meet a dark, sinister line of wind and rain charging at us from the east. The unstoppable assault of a squall front is upon us. Knowing that my weak, old headsail won’t withstand another blast, I scramble to my feet, release the jib sheet, and crank the winch with all my force. The wind knocks us sideways. I don’t look up. I hold my breath and continue cranking. Rain pelts me in sheets; my muscles burn and blisters sting, but I hardly notice. The remaining triangle of sail is whipped into a deafening fit until the squall’s leading blow subsides. Then, the fury dissipates so quickly that what just happened seems surreal. I look up at the rig to assess the damage. The shredded luff of the jib flutters in the remaining breeze as an indisputable souvenir. I want to cry. I want to liquefy into these raindrops.

“How will I? … If I’d only!” I say out loud. I have a torn sail with 550 miles of open ocean ahead of me.

But no one can hear me so I go straight to work, righting the boat into the wind and talking myself through each small step to get the sail down. Minutes later I’ve stretched it out, released the halyard, and tackled it onto the foredeck. I then roll the sopping heap backwards, over the dinghy, and shove it through the opening in the dodger where it descends to the cabin floor.

The next morning I watch dawn fade the night’s blackness through Swell’s portholes as I sit atop the pile of damp sail, mending the long horizontal rips. The little cross-stitches have become rote now. Fatigue and nausea linger, but my mind takes me away from this lurching lump of fiberglass, these bent and broken needles. I slide forward, backward and sideways on the slippery mental slate of solitude and uncertainty on a seemingly endless sea. With each little leap of thread and shove of the needle, I venture into and out of myself, feeling the joy, the pain, the fear.

In the cool of the evening, I wrestle the sail back on deck. Hauling down on the halyard, it rises back up the rig. Turning Swell’s bow off the wind, the trades fill into its patchwork of canvas.

About the Author

Liz Clark is a surfer, sailor, fisherwoman, environmentalist, writer, photographer, adventurer, and shipwright who has captained her 40-foot sailboat, Swell, 15,000 miles on the Pacific Ocean.

To watch a video from Liz’s journey, visit the Tin Shed. To catch up on all of Liz's reports, check out Liz Clark and the Voyage of Swell on Wend.