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Sailing the Izu Islands and Beyond
Miss E talks about sailing
15 May 2012 | hachijo-jima
Written by Miss E.

I've travelled the world in lots of different ways. I've travelled by car, by foot, by bike, by bus, by light rail, by subway, by ferry, by passenger train, by plane, and now by sailboat. For those of you who have never travelled by sailboat, let me tell you about the basics of what it's like to sail. The first fable you must disbelieve is the fable of stability. Nothing is stable in sailing. From the moment you step on the boat, the only constant will be change. The wind will shift, the light will come and fade, the sea will smooth or roll, and the boat will swim, pitch, leap, and quiver. Sometimes the changes will be gradual and graceful, and the ship will cut through an ocean of silver-trimmed blue waves with the grace of a swan. Sometimes, like yesterday, the world seems to have more motion in it than one world should reasonably be allowed to hold. The sea turns a deep blue that's nearly black, with streaks of grey where the light reflects off the surface at the right angle. Great hills of water nearly fifteen feet high seem to rise up, pass by, and then transform into low valleys. This process is happening in front of the boat, behind the boat, to both sides of it, and beneath the boat itself. For as far as the eye can see, the ocean is a shifting, seething, landscape of rising hills and melting valleys, with the colors shifting just as quickly as the waves catch the gray, cloud-filtered light. The wind whips spray and rain into your eyes, and while the view is continually changing, your viewpoint is also unstable. The boat is going up and down, tilting front to back, and heeling side to side, all simultaneously. It's not a steady or predictable motion, either. It's a little bit like riding a giant mechanical bull at a fair. Sometimes it plunges forward, sometimes to one side, sometimes it feints backwards, then makes a diagonal leap to one side, before rearing up in the air, and smacking the nose of the boat against a wave hard enough it sounds like you just ran over a whale. If you seek to escape the confusing world outside, you can step below into the cabin, gleaming with honey-colored wood. When the boat is in harbor, it's a comfortable place to sit and read or eat or cook or sleep. It's not spacious, but it fits the four of us comfortably enough. Yesterday, however, the cabin was as unstable as the world outside. Though the walls don't melt like waves, and there's no wind whistling in your ears, and no rain stinging your eyes, the cabin follows the motion of the boat. Now you are inside the mechanical bull, and the cabin is its stomach. The dishes rattle and shift inside the latched cupboards, the the swinging stove--meant to swing free so that it can stay level when the boat is not--is rocking and swinging and banging and clanging. Books fly off of shelves, Cliff bars take flight, and sometimes a wave will wash over the boat with a terrific crash and shuddering impact, causing water to drip down from the hatches. This makes the floor slippery. This makes walking around even more fun. When the seas are rough, you quickly learn to walk in short dashes, slipping hurriedly from the places you can hold on to, to the places you can jam yourself between a wall and a cupboard and be reasonably certain to keep your feet. The builders of sailboats have thoughtfully placed railings and bars along some of the walls and on the backs of the chairs. Every shelf or counter has a ridge around it, made out of the same pleasant wood that fills the cabin. You might think this ridge is decorative, until the weather turns and you notice it's the only thinking keeping the strawberry jam from landing on your toe. I won't even describe trying to use the bathroom in rough weather. I'll only say it involves holding on to two different bars on two different walls (or the ceiling) so that you can attempt to keep yourself braced in the right place. The most comfortable you're going to get in the cabin in rough weather, is if you hunker down in the chair at the head of the table, and brace both feet out to either side. This should keep you from sliding off in any direction while you clutch a book and pretend to read.

Of course, days like yesterday are rare. Other days on this trip have been as cheerful and as merry days as a sailor could ask. The winds are favorable, the boat glides through the water at an even seven knots, and the sun rises and sets in spectacular glory, with the sea acting as a sparkling mirror to whatever the sun has painted on the sky. Of course, the boat is still not level. If the ship is going seven knots, it's probably heeled a good 20 degrees to one side or the other. Continually. For a whole day, the sink didn't drain completely because the boat was tilted such that all the water pooled opposite the drain. There are still waves, too, so you're still going to be moving carefully and holding on, but you probably won't need to brace yourself just to sit down. On other days, the wind dies almost completely, and you have to use the motor to get anywhere. Then the boat is finally level, but the noise of the motor drowns out most attempts at conversation. On sunny days, my favorite thing to do has been to sit on deck reading in the sun, listening to the waves, and every once in a while looking up to check the on color of the ocean. I've seen it turn silver, green, purple, grey, black, and a thousands shades of blue, and always in motion. I've seen islands in the distance, ringed in clouds. We saw a whale spout and dive in the distance two days ago, and one morning half a dozen dolphins played in the waves in front of the boat for half an hour. We've sailed under a full moon, and under stars. I'm loving it, despite the humidity and the instability and the fact that I'm sick to death of Cliff bars. For pictures of some of this, plus pictures of Chichi Jima, check the link below. In other news, the trip has must be drawing to a close, because I've started to dream of school again. I'm sifting through the hundreds of pictures we've taken, trying to decide which ones I'll show to my students, which tales to tell, and thinking about cutting the paper chain on the bulletin board down to size.