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A sailing novice throws caution to the wind

The crew of two takes a sloop on an exhilarating journey from Singapore to Oman that tests their mettle.

February 05, 2006|Jennifer Hile | Special to The Times

THE Indian Ocean stretches before us, a world without corners, sparkling and vast. Six-foot swells lift our boat, giving us a clear perspective of what lies ahead.

Behind us, Thailand's Butang Islands slip from view.

Our 25-foot sloop, the Way, falls in the not-big category for a 3,000-mile, six-week open-ocean voyage from Singapore to the Middle East. Never mind that I have had only 12 days' sailing experience. The captain, Zoltan Istvan, is as experienced as I am green. He sailed the Pacific solo in 2000, shoving off from Los Angeles with four sails, a 10-horsepower engine and a bow full of books. He dropped anchor in Singapore three years later.

That's where I hopped on board. I had just quit my desk job as a researcher for National Geographic. I was eager to explore the world I had been reading about. I dreamed of experiencing a true wilderness.

When Zoltan invited me to sail with him, I jumped. This was exactly the life-stretching experience I wanted.

"Hey, Jen, pull the reefs out of the head sail," Zolt yells, sticking his head out of the main hatch. "The wind's about 15 knots right now. Couldn't be better."

I edge cautiously to the front of the boat. My toughest adjustment as a novice sailor is to the constant movement. It's like living on a roller coaster; 24/7 the small boat slams forward, bouncing hard, leaning on its keel. The wind pours over the starboard rail, tilting my world to port. I'm covered with bruises from slamming into stuff. I learn to cook, sleep and eat at varying angles. When it really howls, I walk on walls.

I knew we would be vulnerable to every gust and current. It's the singular advantage and disadvantage of a small boat. We are utterly connected to -- and at the mercy of -- the ocean.

"Let's go, Jen, wake up," Zoltan says, nudging me for my first night watch. "Sorry, but it's your turn. C'mon, there've been no freighters. Should be a mellow watch."

I reluctantly crawl out, glancing at my watch -- 2 a.m. The ocean and sky are ink black; the boat is pitching in heavy swells. A long night stretches before me.

I pop a caffeine pill, grab a book and prop myself under the main hatch. From here I can stick my head out for a 360-degree inventory of the ocean without leaving the cabin. I'm not allowed on deck alone at night; the risk of a novice falling overboard is too great.

Far from ambient light, the cavernous sky stuns me with its fierce, electric beauty. Stars are visible all the way down to the horizon, as bright as fire, surrounding the boat like a canopy. The only sounds are water crashing off the bow, the wind singing in the sails. I discover a part of the world that I had lost sleeping indoors all my life.

An hour before sunrise, the sky fades to the color of ash. Light wisps of pink unfurl across the horizon. The crescent moon, ready to set, turns dusky rose.

Then the sun erupts, only a corner at first, butter yellow, arcing smoothly into the sky. The sea turns opaque, glossy blue; light floods the cabin.

Such natural grandeur becomes the backdrop of our days. Hours no longer count; days are marked only by the rise of the sun.

Daily squalls, small hornets of gray, occasionally rinse us. With nothing to obscure the horizon, we see them coming from miles away. They are one of the few interruptions to our otherwise solid blue surroundings.


A startling crack

ON the 10th day, our routine is disrupted, and the risks inherent in our isolation are suddenly clear. A giant bang -- it sounds like the hull cracking -- shatters the quiet.

"What was that?" I yell.

"Heck if I know," Zoltan shouts back.

We spot what looks like the edge of a giant shipping container floating behind us in the strong current. What are the odds, I wonder, of colliding with anything out here? But the ocean is full of debris and buoyant containers that tumble off freighters in storms.

We quickly haul spare ropes out of a cabinet in the floor. If there's a crack, a cabinet below sea level would be the first to flood. We watch it saucer-eyed. It stays dry. After a few agonizing minutes, we assume no major puncture.

But even a small crack this far from land is a worry. We need to find it and patch it with emergency underwater fiberglass.

The wind's blowing hard as we yank down the sails. The ocean is cold, churning blue as Zoltan grabs his snorkeling mask and jumps overboard to check the hull. He looks back at me anxiously, then submerges.

I count the seconds that he's under, scanning the empty horizon. I watch the pitching bow, hoping he doesn't get slammed in the head, wondering why he hasn't come up for air.

"Hey, Zolt, you OK? I can't see you in all the swells," I yell nervously.

An unwelcome thought flashes: How long do I wait before attaching a safety line and jumping overboard to find him? If anything happens to him, can I sail this boat alone?

My worst fears are interrupted when Zoltan bursts up, gasps for air and resubmerges. Ten minutes later, he hauls himself back on board.

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