Baptism of Salt

Clinging to the wheel as yet another freezing wave cascades over me, miserably sick, I bitterly ponder that fatefully light –hearted and ill-considered decision to hitch a lift from Mallorca to France, on a yacht…

It’s during the last drunken night of a three day farewell binge in a notorious hangout of lost boat niggers and sailors when, whilst contemplating my increasingly dire season’s end situation, no money, no work, I’m within the hour offered entirely opposing choices of direction in which to proceed.

On one hand Sofia, an undeniably attractive older Spanish woman of considerable sophistication, appears to be offering me some kind of “kept man” position, for reasons beyond my immediate comprehension, given my less than salubrious appearance.
On the other, even as I seriously contemplate the viability of Sofia’s offer, two rather inebriated fellows materialise alongside.
After mutual introductions they proceed to ply me with drink and tales of the sea.
Steve from Wales and Fab from France are delivering a First 375 yacht from Piraeus to Plymouth via the French canals, so as to avoid the treacherously difficult Bay of Biscay in December. Needing another crew member, they see no problem whatsoever with the idea of me hitching a lift to France, so long as I do my share of sailing.
Much to Sofia’s disgust, spotting the light of salvation in my eyes, and despite having never sailed on anything smaller than an ocean liner, I agree to very seriously consider this idea, how much time do I have?
“Tomorrow at dusk”, followed by a description of the ‘Rainbow Dreamer’ and where she’s berthed admittedly takes me by surprise. To cope, I continue until the wee hours to drink, like a man possessed.
The following afternoon I trudge along the entire waterfront between the Commercial boatyard and the Marina for literally hours. My depression deepens with each stumbling still half-drunk failure to locate the boat, enhanced significantly by my sad inability to recall the names of either boat or crew. As the shadows lengthen, hope fading with the light, virtually sobbing from frustration and self-pity, I dump my gear on the pavement, collapse on a bench, and prepare to tear out my hair in full tantrum style, complete with hoarsely screamed imprecations.
A shout snags my attention. I notice two vaguely familiar dudes loading supplies onto a yacht with a rainbow on her transom…of course, ‘Rainbow Dreamer’.
The awkward moment as we struggle to recall each other’s names passes quickly.
I stow my giant rucksack below; minutes later we cast off. After some hurried instruction in maintaining a compass course I’m left to steer, while Steve and Fab swarm about stowing gear, dragging sails from below, and generally readying the boat for sailing.

Motoring across the bay I gaze back toward Palma, glowing warmly beneath rose-tinged clouds in that beautiful golden light shed only during the final moments of a dying day.

On Steve’s command I steer into the wind. Steve and Fab heave furiously on ropes, wind winches, tie off sheets; within minutes both main and fore sails are flapping loudly in the breeze. Steve takes the wheel; the sails fill with a crack, the boat heeling alarmingly as we bear away.
Rainbow Dreamer comes alive.
Fab shuts down the engine, leaving only the wind’s whistle in the rigging above the hissing waves against the hull.
We’re sailing!

Gripping the rail, perched on the high side of the cockpit behind Steve as he steers, I become ever more acutely aware of the increasingly violent motion of the yacht.
Both wind and waves rise dramatically as we head into the gathering darkness of the open sea. Getting colder by the minute, wet from spray despite the borrowed grubby white waterproof, no sooner do I deny susceptibility to seasickness than a gruesome tide of nausea overwhelms me, compounded immeasurably by probable alcoholic poisoning from the manic drinking binge of the last three days.
Urged below, I tumble down through the hatch. Reeling uncontrollably in the horribly confined space, thrown around like a rag doll, it’s too much. Crazed with sickness I desperately clamber back on deck, barely avoiding being flung overboard as the boat bucks on a crashing wave, scrabbling to the railing to vomit wretchedly over the stern.
Praying for death, blind with nausea, I retch and choke up days of poisonous alcoholic bile, clinging to the last shreds of sanity in a world of howling wind, raging water, and ceaseless motion.

This graceful introduction to sailing lasts several subjective lifetimes before I’m able to drag myself into the cockpit, and on bracing my body, remain shakily upright.

Amused concern, tinged with doubt over my ability to contribute anything useful, wreaths the faces of my erstwhile sailing companions. Going below is completely out of the question; the mere thought of that cramped nightmarishly heaving cabin induces instant nausea.
All I’m capable of is steering the boat; a task I adopt with feverish intensity to distract me from the bottomless misery of seasickness.
Nothing will make me relinquish my newfound position of helmsman.

The wind is now a shrieking fury, whipping mountainous waves to a froth-streaked frenzy. Spray lacerates my eyes as I battle to keep the bow pointed into the wind, the shouts of Steve and Fab fragments of sound lost in the scream of the developing gale as they wrestle amidst massive breaking waves to reef in the sails, barely visible in the spume filled air.
Finally we bear away to the relative stability of a broad reach, the boat corkscrewing wildly like a maddened rodeo bull. Waves thunder over the starboard bow, inundating the cockpit, utterly drenching me before sluicing away.
Rounding the island we run straight into a howling Northeaster gale from France.
“Bang on ze nose” Fab bellows in my ear. Inexplicably he’s grinning.
It seems we’ll have to repeatedly tack for a horribly long time to maintain our course towards Marseille, and the night has just begun…

I’m no stranger to cold. I’ve dealt with, painfully, riding a pushbike at -18 C in snow with no gloves; froze to the bone clambering about the mountains of North Wales in winter; but the most gut-wrenching cold I’ve ever experienced was during those three gale-swept days in relentless pounding seas, utterly drenched beneath pathetically inadequate oilskins, trapped in my worst nightmare, sense of humour gone.

Periodically, Fab and Steve struggle topsides to change tack, check the compass course and my relative health, before disappearing below again.
God alone knows how they stand it down there.
Left thankfully alone in a black maelstrom of screaming wind, lashed with blinding sheets of caustic spray as we endlessly slam into the giant waves; snatching breaths between repeated immersions in tons of freezing water, mouth fouled with bitter salt; raw crusted eyes stinging, hands throbbing with cold induced agony, I fight to stay on course, moaning with pain into the pitiless storm.

Filthy grey dawn brings little respite beyond allowing some visual warning of the approaching pyramids of wind-frenzied waves. Committed to the task, I cling like a deranged limpet to the wheel, knowing this protracted agony is my only saviour from the ghastly queasy horror of seasickness.
Speechless in my private roller-coaster Hell, I grimly hang on this foul day and into the night, gratefully downing revivifying hot drinks provided by my uniquely understanding brothers in this adversity.
By barely perceived increments the wind slackens during the day from a probable Force 8 to Force 5, still directly opposing our course, forcing us to tack the entire journey in seas undiminished in size and brutality for the foreseeable future.

Eventually, wracked with exhaustion, I’m persuaded to rest. My hands, frozen into cramped claws, require assistance to release the wheel. Tumbling down below, over a confusion of wet sails to a diesel reeking aft cabin, I wedge myself into the bunk and, despite the pandemonium, sink into a fitful slumber.
A loud crash and the sound of my name jolts me awake. Disorientated, terrified, nausea barely under control, I drag myself up on deck into heaving wind ravaged darkness to grab the wheel, allowing Steve to assist Fab in a titanic struggle to change a torn jib. Instantly shocked awake by torrents of icy water pouring over me, face viciously wind-lashed, filled with utter loathing, I hang on, praying for this ordeal to end.

Dawn tinges the horizon on the third day. The weather has improved immensely.
With my excoriating sickness much diminished I begin to relax, to almost enjoy the sailing experience.
I even smile.
Sete, our destination, with blessed hot showers and rock stable ground, is just a few hours away.
After my excruciating baptism of salt, finally, salvation.

Baptism of Salt

nellie

Wentworth Falls, Australia

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Artist's Description

BAPTISM OF SALT

A humorously harrowing tale of a penniless travellers escape from Mallorca by boat, with two dangerously optimistic seadogs, despite never having sailed on a yacht before. Reality strikes as the intrepid trio encounter a savage storm lasting three days. As seasickness and constant drenching take their toll, the author descends into grim desperation to survive, praying for the ordeal to end…

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