Our Life on the Water

Without warning, our boat made a sharp turn. Instead of riding down the eight-foot swells with the wind propelling us from behind, we were now pointing into the waves with the wind coming from ahead. It was as if we’d been skiing down a bunny hill and a rookie mistake caused us to face uphill and slide backward. I jumped into action.

Our ham radio, which allowed us contact with the world beyond our 40-foot catamaran Ceilydh, also created electronic interference disrupting our autopilot, causing wild 90-degree turns. Over the radio, my husband Evan continued reading out the weather report and recording the locations and conditions aboard the dozen other boats also sailing the 2,800 miles from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to the Marquesas, French Polynesia, while I began steering us back on course.

We’d been at sea for 16 days straight, and much of the morning’s radio call was spent talking about where we’d make landfall in 48 hours. Evan and our buddy boats, a small group of boat crews, with and without kids, that we’d befriended in Mexico and planned to sail the South Pacific in loose company with, traded tasteless cannibal jokes and debated the pros and cons of one island port over another (frangipani-scented jungle and towering fairytale mountain peaks versus tropical beaches and exotic villages), while I spun the wheel and adjusted the sails. With growing confusion I realized no matter what I did, the boat stayed facing into the liquid hills, shuddering with each wave impact, while the sails flapped uselessly.

“Something’s wrong with our steering,” I called to Evan. He came to the cockpit and repeated my efforts and then joined me at the back of our boat. Our rudders, which control the steering, are found on each hull’s stern. “I can see this rudder,” Evan said as he peered with me into the hypnotic blue depths, seeking out the rectangular shape, “but on the other side there must be an optical illusion, because I can’t see that one.”

“We can’t see it because it isn’t there,” I said.

“Of course it’s there,” said Evan, who had now leaned so far over the stern that the frothy sea licked at his hair. Worried he’d be swallowed by one of the bigger waves, I called our 9-year-old daughter, Maia, out for the tie-breaking decision.

“Definitely gone,” she said after taking a long look over the side.

Shock was quickly replaced by action. By adjusting the sails and turning on the motor you can steer a catamaran with one rudder. But it’s a bit like a car with one-wheel drive; if the course is straight and flat, it’s easy. While I reported our predicament to the other boats over the radio, Evan began balancing our boat so one rudder could do the job of two. Cautiously we got back underway. I reassured Maia that losing a rudder was a manageable problem, and then to prove it I gave her some schoolwork; French lessons and the geography of volcanoes to prepare her for landfall.

Outwardly calm, Evan and I looked over the charts to pick the best harbor for our crippled boat (a town with skilled welders beat out tropical beaches and exotic villages) and sent out emails to alert the French Polynesian Coast Guard and ask advice. The sea wasn’t flat and our course wasn’t straight; waves knocked our boat sideways and my heart lurched in fear. There was a high risk that our remaining rudder could be overpowered by a large wave and break off. Having one wheel was stressful; but no wheels, hundreds of miles from shore, could lead to abandoning our boat.

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