By Fran Hallonquist
My husband, Hal and I retired early at 62 and 55 respectively so we could sail while we had our health. And we did, nearly 14,000 miles from Honolulu, Hawaii, our home, to Maine via the Panama Canal.
We raised our family in Honolulu, cruising parts of the Hawaiian Islands that you can only experience by sea. We explored sea cliffs and wondered at the Milky Way on channel crossings. We anchored in exquisite bays with surrounding mountain mists and bore the occasional storms and fronts that regularly steam through the Islands.
He says it was also my dream to sail across the Pacific and then leisurely cruise the Intracoastal Waterway along the East Coast. But it wasn’t really. It’s just that I never had a retirement dream of my own and since we had sailed in Hawaiian waters for 25 years, it seemed to be the logical goal for both of us. I never wanted us to look back in our later years and say “we wish we had…” It was also less fearful for me to imagine being with him than to stay ashore and wonder every minute how he was.
We spent a year full time outfitting our Ted Brewer 35 foot custom aluminum hull sloop with the latest in safety and communications technology. We did sea trials, tested and retested equipment, and even exercised specifically to build balance and upper body strength.
When you go to Panama from Honolulu, you can either go north and then turn right at around 30 degrees latitude searching for top of the Pacific high and then catch the westerlies east and then south down Central America. It is a beat up but a following sea down. Or, you could go south of the Hawaiian Island and turn left. Going south risks the doldrums. Going north risked winter storms.
It took 39 days to cross the Pacific from Honolulu to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. We set sail in mid-March so we could get through the Caribbean and to Florida prior to hurricane season, which was the right thing to do since the summer of 2004 was ripe with one hurricane after another. We chose the ‘go north’ scenario and we hit late winter storms crossing the Pacific…three weeks of them before we hit calmer seas. Of course, the wind was on the nose the whole way.
When you spend weeks living life heeled over 20-30 degrees crashing and bashing over, up and across 20 foot waves with 30-40 knot winds and higher gusts, you wonder why this would be anyone’s dream! Just going to the head is an ordeal. You have to brace yourself yet release your muscles. Then you have to pull the pump and press the foot valve while holding on at the same time. It is rather comical, actually.
no such thing as
There is also the fact that there is no such thing as being a ‘couple’ at sea. There is the Skipper and the crew. There is no ‘us’, no intimacy either physical or emotional. His job is to get the boat and crew from point A to point B alive. I did not have a husband, I had a Skipper.
Thank heavens we had a dear friend with us who was an expert seaman with an uncanny sense of wind and waves and weather. We couldn’t have done it without Dave since I pretty much folded after several days of storms and couldn’t handle the physical aspects of taking watch, particularly night watch alone. And my fear got the best of me. Staying below felt safe. I could handle that and even found comfort in the daily rhythm of cooking and cleaning. I made a hot lunch each day which took hours to do given the heel and lurch of the boat. I made hot cocoa and coffee for the men as they started their watches. I cleaned and plugged leaks.
No matter what, I also did the Pacific Seafarers net each evening on our ham radio...never missed a day. I was the ‘com’ officer. It was a lifeline and an obligation since many friends and family were tracking the Seafarers Net web site to follow us.
practicing opening my knife with one hand
I marvel at the image some people have of sailing…wearing crisp white clothes and lounging on deck. For me it was living and sleeping in my life vest and practicing opening my knife with one hand in case the boat broached and I had to cut myself loose from the rigging. With the motion and heel of the boat, using the head, cooking and cleaning are done in slow motion as you brace your body for each crash and bash. I also prayed a lot and read volumes.
It’s impossible to gain weight on a long blue water crossing on a sailboat. We all lost weight. Appetite is weak and your muscles are using energy by bracing constantly, even while sleeping. Each step is calculated so as not to endanger yourself if the boat takes a hit.
And taking hits it did. For days we would get big ones in confused seas that would crash over the cockpit say from the port side and another wave would bash seconds later on the starboard bow. And I jerked at each deafening sound as the boat lurched its way through heavy weather. I nearly lost it the day our life raft loosened from its cradle and almost went overboard.
And the cold. We had not anticipated how cold the Pacific could be since we were use to Hawaiian waters. The seas going north in March were freezing. Hal and Dave would be chilled to the bones on watch. Below was frigid also. Yes we had lots of layers on but the chill still went right through you. After the weeks of chill it changed to heat and more heat south to Central America and then across the canal and up the Caribbean. Then we got heat headaches and could not sleep well in the humid suffocating air. We had little wind on the Caribbean side of Central America and motored much of the eight days from Colon, Panama to Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
senses become very acute ....
Your senses become very acute on a long passage. You know immediately when the wind shifts and the sea changes. You know in a second if the auto-pilot is ‘off’ or if the water-maker is troubled. When you run the engine to charge the batteries, you can tell in an instant if something is wrong, if a belt is loose.
For me the sea first took its toll physically then sapped my spirit and then it broke my heart. I am recovering from the crashing and bashing of the seas, but I will never recover from what I did not experience at sea. I could not get beyond the fear and isolation to thrill in the beauty of blue water sunsets and billions of stars and the presence of an ultimate being that could create something so majestic and enable a small boat to survive.
I did discover a resourcefulness I did not know I had. I am just super below…can cook in bone chilling seas and suffocating heat. I had never done galley duty before since Hal had been our family’s cook. I learned that I love the smell of sautéing onions and potatoes and even baked my first cake at sea for Hal’s 63rd birthday. I grew sprouts and made biscuits. And other than my ‘tuna surprise’, the men ate it all. I learned I was a wiz on the ham radio and the Pacific Seafarers net and chatted with sailors all over the Pacific. I knew where everything was on the boat and kept us orderly. I arranged for a few movie nights on board during calm seas and made popcorn. I remember one special afternoon when all three of us were in the cockpit sipping scotch to ward away the chill and listening to country music. I just didn’t look aft.
I am not planning on doing another ocean crossing. Coastal cruising is much better suited for me. A hundred miles off shore is my limit. I love going from marina to marina and experiencing bays, harbors and coastal communities. I love hanging out at marinas and meeting new people. I love provisioning the boat with fresh groceries and sleeping with the gentle roll of the boat. I loved crossing the Panama Canaland visiting foreign ports.
I like having ‘bragging rights’ to our adventure. My real dream, however, is to be in my favorite place in the world, Hanalei Bay on the island of Kauai, anchored in 12 feet of pristine water waiting for Puff the Magic Dragon to appear.
Editor's Note: Even though Fran became an expert at opening her switchblade single handed,