Bertie Journal: Underway!

February 19, 2018

We slipped the mooring in Acapulco and got underway at 07:00! It’s 08:41 now.


Leaving Acapulco, headed for the Galápagos Islands.

I’ve helped raise the mainsail, loosened the vangs, coiled and stowed lines, and taken a turn at steering. I really was awful at that. Peter steered first, and after a while handed it over to me and said, “See if you can get the hang of it. Course one-five-five.” Then he walked away. I got totally confused. There are two compasses, which are oriented in opposite directions (as if one is upside down). The GPS shows our course (which should be 155°) but it has a fifteen- or twenty-second delay. So, if you steer by the GPS (“Never steer by the GPS!” says Peter), you’ll be zigzagging all over the place, the effects of over-correcting amplified by that delayed reaction time. Bertie has a tiller, of course, and I had the usual slight tiller dyslexia until I reminded myself that it’s just like steering an outboard. This boat is simply five times bigger than any outboard-powered Zodiac or rowboat I’ve driven.


Bertie’s cockpit.

I must have made some noise of dismay, because soon Heidi was there to help. She’s a natural, and has had enough practice steering Bertie that she can do it very well without even thinking about it. Bertie’s tiller has a jam cleat on top, and with a line strung from there to a cleat on the rail you can set her on auto-pilot, so to speak. Heidi got the line set just right, then showed me how to steer from the hip. Looking at the horizon helps. Using reference points on the boat, like the mast or the headsails, and watching to see if they move through the landscape, it’s easy to see if you are drifting to the right or the left off course. Or checking the compass to see if the course is getting off by a few degrees. You lean into the tiller with your hip till the boat comes back to center, then release it and let the tiller settle back in to the position set on the jam cleat. There’s also a springy elastic line you can connect to the tiller from the opposite side, in case there’s a bouncy swell, to keep the tiller from slamming around. This works whether we are motoring or under sail – but only if it’s a steady wind.


Bertie’s tiller, with a cue ball and a jam cleat.

The GPS track for my part would look like the path of a drunken sailor, varying from 180° to 130°. I was finally getting the hang of it, when Peter relieved me. I’ll be on watch from 10:00 to 14:00, overlapping with the last half of Peter’s watch, and the first half of Heidi’s watch. This is my training period. We will keep overlapping that way until I am comfortable doing a watch on my own. Then we can stop doing the four hours on/four hours off watch schedule, and switch to four on/eight off. So, today my first watch is 10:00 to 14:00, then again from 18:00 to 22:00, and 02:00 to 06:00.


Overlapping 4-hour watches, for my training period.


It’s 14:17 now and I’ve finished my first official four-hour watch on Bertie, from 10:00 to 14:00. We motored for a little over half of that time. Once we shut off the motor and got under sail, Bertie could steer herself – and she did a much better job if it than I did! Peter called our track while I was steering a “snake wake.” Every little puff of wind affected the course slightly; once I corrected, it was hard not to over-correct.

There’s lots of time for conversation while we’re sailing, and doubling up on our watches assures that we have company. Our stories unfurl as we move with the wind, sometimes circling around and collecting themselves into themes or patterns. The thought process is unhemmed, opened up as big as the far horizon.

I ask Peter, “Tell me one short story about your grandmother, Bertie. Tell me the first thing that pops into your head.”

He doesn’t even pause. “Hitting a rattlesnake with a shovel. Just like that – WHACK! – she cut off its head.”

“Wow, that gives me a strong first impression of your grandma.” I feel like I want to get to know her a bit, since the boat is named after her. Maybe I’ll ask Peter for more stories about Grandma Bertie later, as our trip moves along.


Peter’s grandmother, Bertie.

Later, he said, “I’ve been sailing since I was fifteen, and every single day there is still something new I don’t know, something to learn or figure out.”

“That’s what I love about birding and natural history,” I say. “I could NEVER know it all, and even if I did, then there’d be dragonflies or ferns or something else to learn.”

Peter said, “I wanted to be either an ornithologist or a herpetologist.” In seventh grade, he and a friend killed a California red diamondback rattlesnake. The friend cooked down the head and rearticulated the skull bones. Peter salted the skin and pinned it out on a board. They won first prize at the science fair.

While Peter and I have been sailing, Heidi has been busy making soup: shrimp stock, carrots, cabbage, rice noodles. So tasty and good, we can dip it out of the pressure cooker as we go. It’s easy to eat while you’re steering. “Some boats exist on Cup-a-Soup and saltines. This is so much better,” I tell her. “My Grandma Mom always had a pot of soup on the stove when my dad was a kid. Dad loved it – there was always something to eat. My dad and my uncle are both in their seventies now, but I’d never heard about the soup before. This winter they were talking about it. My uncle said, ‘I hated that soup, always there on the stove. I never eat soup now.’ Funny how they had such different reactions to it.”

I tell Heidi a story about my other grandmother, Grandma LaDuke. “There was a big pear tree in the backyard – what they called a postage-stamp sized yard in Harper Woods, Michigan. When the pears were ready, all the aunts and uncles and cousins would come over. The men would pick the pears, and all the women were in the kitchen, peeling and cutting up the pears and canning them. We would eat those pears all winter long. I remember my very last jar, after both of my grandparents were gone and the house had been sold. I saved that jar for a long time, then finally opened it and shared it with a friend. We sat in the front seat of my pickup truck, and passed the jar back and forth until the pears were gone. Then we drank the juice. It was strange and a bit sad, knowing I would never taste them again. But, oh, those pears were so good. It was better share them.”

Grandmothers. Snakes. Snake heads. Soup.

Bertie, Peter’s grandmother, sure was different than my grandmothers. But look at us now: their grandkids ended up out here together, sailing. They must have had something in common.


Bertie under sail. (Photographer unknown)

(This is Part 5 of the BERTIE JOURNAL series. Click here for Part 6. Or click here to start at the beginning.)

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