A Journey Back to Myself

A Journey Back to Myself

Singlehanded Transpac (SHTP)


Story by Margie Woods, Haunani # 596 • C34/355 • Photos by Chris Woods


Six months before departing on the Singlehanded Transpac (SHTP), I was on the docks in Marina Del Rey shooting photos of a fellow singlehanded racer’s very high tech carbon race boat. The dock was abuzz with the banter of interested racers. A friend introduced me to two of them and he spoke of my plans to race in the 2016 SHTP. They both seemed curious and maybe even secretly impressed (I could see visions of this lady sailor taking off alone on some fast slick boat dancing around in their minds). I bent down to rummage around in my camera bag for a lens when the inevitable question came: “So, what kind of boat do you have?” I answered casually, face still in the camera bag: “A Catalina 34.” You could have heard a pin drop on the previously bustling dock. I stood up and took in the barely veiled shock on their faces, and with a big smile on my face, responded, “Well, THAT was an awkward silence.” This brought some hearty laughter and also a quick change of subject.

In that moment, I felt a mixture of pride and protectiveness for my beloved Haunani, a 1988 Catalina 34. My Dad always said, when speaking about his sailboat, “She takes good care of me.” I can certainly say that about my Haunani! Here is our story:

 It’s a bit like this poem by William Stafford: 

“There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread”.

I have always thought of my own life’s journey as the following of a thread. I cannot tell you the number of times I have seen the look of bewilderment on the faces of my loved ones as I held onto the thread through things that didn’t make any sense to them (many times it didn’t even make sense to me). I still didn’t ever let go of the thread. That thread is what led me to sail off alone under the Golden Gate Bridge towards Kauai on July 2, 2016.

Let me explain about the thread…

I learned to sail from my Dad. He is truly my sailing hero. He is one of my biggest inspirations in life and for this trip. I think I was about eight when I first sailed off alone in a boat. She was a beaut! A little wooden sailing dinghy with a light blue sail. I will never forget the way I felt as I was spirited away into one of the greatest love affairs of my life: sailing. Sailing is my lifeline, and sailing alone even more so. I love sailing with others, and do so all the time, but sailing alone feeds me in a different way. t brings me the deepest sense of peace I have ever known. There is no feeling like it for me, and it doesn’t even matter what kind of sail it is. It is the same feeling whether I go out for a couple of hours or (as I now know) sail off to Hawaii alone! I have never fully understood why, but on this trip, I think I finally figured it out.  

When I am alone out there, I am truly myself! I fully and unapologetically embody my own strength and internal power. If you knew me well, you would know that I have an annoying habit of making myself small, especially when I’m around others whom I perceive to have more experience than I. When I am at sea alone, however, I feel no need to apologize for being exactly who and where I am. Out there, I have no shame in the full spectrum of my experience, which could range from heaving to in huge swells and wind to try and fix my autopilot, to having to reef in a squall at 3:00 in the morning when it’s so rough I can barely hang on, to crying because I miss my dad, or to laughing at myself when I spill an entire pot of chili on my lap. 

The most important part of that equation for me is the part where I don’t doubt or downplay my skills, where I don’t second guess myself, where I don’t stay quiet when I know the answer, where I take care of business without asking anyone what they think first. Where I don’t do any of that b.s., but instead fully trust myself. I was able to make this crossing alone because I trusted myself, and never once in 2500 miles did that trust waver. This revelation has inspired some deep introspection and a renewed commitment to integrating it into my daily land life, which to be honest, is harder for me than it seems. It is an old habit that singlehanded sailing is thankfully helping me to break. 

Most people who do this race are a little bit, or a lotta bit, crazy (sorry, guys, but it is true). Most of these crazy people take a very long time to prepare, but, since I am my own special kind of crazy, I committed to this race with less than a year to prepare. 

For better or worse, and no matter what the timeframe, I don’t usually mess around once I decide to do something, and this endeavor was certainly no exception. For the last year, I lived and breathed all things sailing and Haunani. It was no small feat to take Haunani from comfy coastal cruiser to offshore racer. Nearly everything was either upgraded or replaced to the point where, apart from her trusty bones, Haunani was a new boat. The most notable upgrades were: an NKE autopilot, new standing rigging, a new elliptical rudder, a folding prop, AIS, and in-cabin repeater displays of my chart plotter and sailing instruments. 
While we were preparing Haunani, I was able to participate in most of the Pacific Singlehanded Sailing Association races, as well as complete my first solo overnight sail around Santa Barbara Island (which was a huge milestone for me, because until then I had never even sailed through the night, let alone solo), and my 400-mile qualifying sail. With each of these steps that I took towards the race, I overcame fears, and learned and grew by leaps and bounds. Even my day sails each taught me something new, if it was only the simple reminder of the importance of slowing down. There were, of course, ups and downs, and I certainly had moments of doubt and fear, but I never wavered in my commitment to my goal to sail to Hawaii alone, and always held in my mind’s eye my arrival in Hanalei Bay and into my dad’s arms.

I am totally in love with my boat, now more than ever. She is a champion and was my valiant steed who performed better out there than I (or any naysayer) could ever have predicted. I have always felt that Haunani takes good care of me, but never more than as we barreled across the Pacific in huge, confused seas and wind that hardly ever dipped below 20 knots. She delivered me safely and swiftly to Hanalei Bay in conditions that would make even some blue water boats shudder. I am incredibly proud of her, and honored to be her steward. I cannot wait until she is back in fighting shape again (sadly, while being loaded onto a ship to come home, she had an accident at the hands of Matson Lines, and is pretty badly damaged).
 
I decided to go up to San Francisco a couple of weeks before the race to acclimate to the more challenging conditions. Since I had never sailed in the Bay before, my first solo sail was a real eye opener, to say the least. It was a quintessential San Francisco Bay day, and I quickly realized that we were not in Santa Monica Bay anymore! I adjusted to the conditions quickly, and by the time I left, I was in love with the changeable and challenging sailing offered by the Bay. The only thing I would have changed was the size of my headsail (I have a 145%). For those weeks leading up to my race, I was the most nervous I had ever been in my life. My nerves were severely exacerbated when about a week before my start, my autopilot failed on a practice sail. Nothing I could do would rectify the issue. I was completely stressed, to the point of tears and anxiety for days. I tried everything I could think of to troubleshoot and called in as many experts as I could. By the time I left, she was working again, but no one could ever really pinpoint what was wrong or what exactly fixed her. I just prayed that whatever it was would stick, because without her, there would be no journey. 

The day that I left San Francisco, I was surrounded by friends and family and, of course all of the other racers. It was quite a sight to see everyone milling around on the docks trying to act calm. I was doing a pretty good job of acting calm myself, but it was hard to do with a flip-flopping belly. When the time came for me to pull off of my side tie, I seriously thought I would faint. It was windy and we were in tight quarters. Plus, I was tied up to a beautiful boat with nary a smudge on her anywhere. I was terrified that I would have some serious docking snafu and be the laughing stock of the entire group. But I nailed it! I backed out without a hitch, and that is where my journey began.

From that moment on, I was in my element. The nerves that had been plaguing me for weeks fell away in an instant. I was simply sailing my boat, as I always do, one moment at a time. That’s really what it took to sail across the Pacific alone: sailing my boat the best I knew how, one moment at a time. As those early moments ticked away, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved it out there. Even on the hardest days, I felt safe and at peace and I could always find joy.
To say conditions were rough is an enormous understatement. I would hear my dad’s tales of his Pacific crossings - relaxing book reading sessions on the foredeck; peaceful sunset happy hours in the cockpit echoing in my brain as I, day after day, clung on to various handholds on my heaving vessel under stormy skies. No one said anything about being tossed about violently while flying along in 25-30 knot winds, where trying to imbibe a sip of water, let alone wine in the cockpit, would be a challenge. Still, I rolled with it, thinking that maybe I had heard wrong, or more accurately, maybe I was imagining the severity of it. Upon my arrival to Hanalei, however, the magnitude of the atypical conditions was promptly corroborated by two five-time veterans of this race. One said, “you sure picked the worst year ever to do this race.” They both stated it was the roughest trip they had ever had. This was confirmation that I was not losing my marbles or exaggerating in my mind the intensity of what I had just gone through! When I look back, I am not sure how I ever questioned myself, because as evidenced by my tired and bruised body upon landfall, there really had been little respite from the rough seas for most of my trip. 

I have never in my life felt a boat move and heave like that. It took every ounce of strength I had just to hang on and move small distances at a time. I used muscles I didn’t even know I owned just to stay upright. The sounds that my boat made down below still escape accurate description. I sort of got used to them, but there were times it sounded like Haunani would break in half. Thankfully a friend had given me the tip to go on deck when the sounds became too much. Up there it always felt right and made sense. Down below was a horror movie soundtrack! 
I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but, as with life, this journey had its ups and downs, so I will mention a few lowlights: losing my last seven-gallon jug of drinking water due to a wave slamming into us; losing a battery bank; losing my electric bilge pump (I would wait until the sloshing in my bilge created the perfect amount of anxiety to motivate me, then I would swear and head out into the rain to manually pump her out); ferocious new leaks that drenched every cushion in the cabin so that everything started smelling horrible, and a dry sleeping spot was nonexistent; and more than a day of debilitating sea sickness.

Also unnerving was that due to a communications issue, I never received position reports from the race committee, so I never knew where the other sailors were. This made me feel a bit alienated. The worst thing by far that happened, was losing my autopilot about two days before my finish. She failed me in dramatic fashion. She disengaged and spun us in a violent donut straight into huge swells and then back around again when I was on the foredeck. I was finally able to heave to, so I could troubleshoot, and at the very least switch to my back up, but I never found the issue and was forced to use my backup wheel pilot. The backup performed ok, but was temperamental and high-maintenance in those conditions. I had to lash the wheel lock down to keep it working, and even then, it would stray sometimes. Once, it turned me in precisely the wrong direction in the middle of the night while I was asleep. There were even more challenges, but I will spare those details and instead share some of the almost inexplicable beauty that I was blessed to witness.

Some of the highlights for me were: the seventeen sunrises over a moody sea; shooting stars across a velvet sky; the beautiful waxing moon lighting my way when she could find the strength to peek out from behind the cloud cover; the dramatic rainbows that would show up at just the right time and give me hope; the ever-changing textures and hues of the sea; the cobalt blue and backlit teal crests of the huge rollers that surrounded me most days; the first time I flew my spinnaker alone. The sensation of barreling along in the black of night at a pace that seemed impossible for my little boat; the 360 degree horizon that changed with every mood of the ocean but always surrounded me and beckoned me home; surfing down big rollers at up to 12 knots on the front end of a squall, laughing my head off at the sheer joy of it; hand steering my boat in the middle of a rainy tropical night as we plummeted along at ten knots; and, of course, the first sight of land. 

I cried when I saw Kauai island for the first time. I cried even harder when I got close enough to smell the earth. There is no smell like rich Hawaiian earth for me, it is the smell of my childhood home. That day will forever be etched in my mind, from the way the sun came out after a wretched night to usher me in, to the ensuing rainbow that appeared like a welcoming gate framing that majestic island, to rounding the point at Hanalei and crossing the finish and hearing the words: “Congratulations, Haunani, on finishing the 2016 Transpacific Yacht Race.” 

The rest was a blur until I set foot on land. My first steps were more solid than I imagined they would be, but shaky, nonetheless. As I steadied myself, my beautiful family ran to me with gorgeous leis and much-anticipated hugs and kisses. The last person in the line was my dad. My breath left my lungs as I saw his face and rushed over to hug him. This was the moment that had been in my mind’s eye for ten months, and it was finally here. I was, and remain, humbled and in awe of this, one of the greatest moments of my 48 years!

I knew from the beginning that this trip would be a vision quest, a way for me to connect more deeply to myself and to something larger than me. Everyone has been asking me if I have changed as a result of this journey. As much as I feel transformed by sailing alone for 2500 miles across a vast and stormy ocean, I really feel no different than before. I was simply reminded of the strength and power that has been inside me all along. In the end, this voyage was a journey back to myself.





Plus, discover more articles in the Winter 2016 issue!


COLUMNS:

CHANGE OF COURSE by Jessie Mackelprang-Carter & Neil Carter [CM440]

VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE by Nick Caballero [C36]

SAFE JOURNEY by Bill Martinelli [C350]

 

FEATURE:
A JOURNEY BACK TO MYSELF:
SINGLEHANDED TRANSPAC By by Margie Woods [C34/355]
Six months before departing on the Singlehanded Transpac (SHTP), I was on the docks in Marina Del Rey shooting photos of a fellow singlehanded racer’s very high tech carbon race boat. The dock was abuzz with the banter of interested racers. A friend introduced me to two of them and he spoke of my plans to race in the 2016 SHTP...

 

TECH NOTES:

A Mainsheet exclusive! Technical information for your boat that has been approved by Catalina Yachts for accuracy.

 

ASSOCIATION NEWS:

Stories and news that’s specific to your Catalina sailboat.


 



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