The Helmsman

After days of almost becalmed seas, I took a turn to the south in search of better winds.

For the rest of the day and into the ‘fog of night’ we searched and, in fact, did find wind but, on our forward quarter or from the SW- we needed SE!. So at around 10:30pm, I gave up and went downstairs for a quick nap.

But, no sooner had I put my head down , I sensed the boat had stopped. I jumped from the berth. Shearwater had jibed(changed direction) and was now heading aimlessly in the opposite direction!

But. ...the wind HAD shifted!.....and it was now from the SOUTH....fabulous! After 10 hours, I had found my wind and off we went. Destination: Galapagos.

Back to sleep. At about 06:00, something awoke me. I exited my makeshift bed in the galley and saw through the dim light of morning, three rather strong lights arrayed in front of me but still in the distance. Why hadn't the radar alarm sounded? Having no clear idea as to their size, I hailed them on the radio:

"This is the sailing vessel "Shearwater" at 01 degrees 01 North, 083 degrees 11 West. Please identify"


Again I tried ...each effort met with the same static deadness.

By now, two of what I presumed were small boats, had passed the collision danger point and were left safely to stern . That still left one ahead on my starboard side. Shearwater racing, delighting in her 10-12 knot speed, …. Me, standing at the helm, steering.

Suddenly, the third ‘light’ emerged from the dimness was an indeed a small boat with a powerful was speeding toward my bow at a right angle. "Incredibly, I they not see me?"

I continued … They continued.

What was going on? Direct for my bow! And then, just before colliding and with no choice, I abruptly turned the wheel hard into the wind.

This brought Shearwater to almost a complete standstill. Could these actually be pirates?

The motorboat swung down my starboard side with shouting coming from all three persons on board. I now could see their faces quite clearly. But, there was something funny in the way they communicated with me. The seemed to have sort of……what would you call it….a smirk….and they seemed to avert their eyes such that they would never look me straight in the eye.

Not waiting to find out, I turned the wheel sharply, caught the wind and was off again at 10 knots, leaving behind the boat. But not for long…

To my astonishment, they put their skiff into full speed . turned around and chased Shearwater, all the while shouting and gesticulating wildly. Looking over my left shoulder, I shouted back,..."Non puedo! Non puedo!"....(I cant! I cant!). Closer they came, bracing themselves as the skiff, going like hell, flew off the waves. Now only 10-15 feet from my stern, I could once again see their faces and once again, that funny smirky averting of the eyes. They came closer…. within 5 feet of Shearwater!

Their motions took on an aspect of desperation, almost hysterical, but they still carried that ….well, they never looked me in the eye. The shouting continued:

“Porque!? Porque!?”(“Why!? Why!?) I responded over my left shoulder

I didn’t want to turn right – winds were now at 30 knots and that would put Shearwater downwind risking an accidental jibe.

I peered into the now slightly lit horizon, searching for an answer… something that might be ahead.....and my horror I saw. There, exactly in front was a small dark buoy. They were fishermen and I was about to go directly into their nets – an utter disaster for helmsman and fisherman alike. Now, only 200 feet ahead and closing rapidly. I had no choice.....I swerved down wind, the buoy flashed down my port side and was gone off my stern and there, just to my left, was the long expanse of net.

Phew! With great relief, I sat down heavily……ohhhh!…how strangely cold! was the wet seat…..I looked down and to my complete chagrin, I realized that I have been standing at the helm in glorious nudity throughout this whole ordeal.

And as the fisherman receded into the distance behind me, I chuckled at what they must have thought as Shearwater and me emerged, almost surreally, from the early morning haze: a lunatic, speeding through the waves, high wind, water spraying all and…. a nude helmsman, hanging onto the steering wheel....waving madly...shouting: "Get out of the way, Get out of the way!!”