Rodents of Unusual Size

by Leslie Godfrey in

I love the night watches, especially thousands of miles offshore in the middle of the Pacific. The air is so pure, the stars so impossibly close. Everything seems in perfect harmonic balance: the chuckling bow wave, the creaking mainsheet, the dove-wing flutter of the genoa leech. I achieve an almost mystical state of grace during such salt-stained moments of intense introspection. Sometimes I have to be careful to take small breaths so I don’t hyperventilate: I am one with Mother Ocean, I am sailing through God’s own cathedral. I am so incredibly lucky, so amazingly blessed.
— Fatty Goodlander

I roll over in bed and scowl.  The smell of brown summer grass and US soil fades as I rub the blurry light from my eyes with both fists. I am not at a horse ranch in Southern Utah.  This is probably good because I am allergic to horses.  So then, where am I?  I walk our footsteps backward to jog my half-asleep memory; soon I know exactly why I can’t remember.  I have brain damage; shaken baby syndrome.

Andrew played telephone tag with Tom and Richard (our friends from Uleveo) three days prior to departure.  Remember, they wanted us to return to Uleveo to pick them up and take a cooler full of fish to the Port Vila Independence Day festivals. Andrew is considering, but looking at the weather, we aren't getting a light East wind that would make the sail easy and pleasant.  This sail will be straight up wind, against a South swell and wind waves. How would they react at night? What if we decide to break the trip up into three legs?  What if anything happened?  

Andrew decides.  He gives Tom a call and explains the wind isn't going to be good to return to Uleveo.  Andrew is met with silent disappointment on the other end of the line.  Then, " you want to donate to our canoe races instead?"

Sure, Tom!  Andrew spent the remainder of that day trying to find a bank and transfer 7500 Vatu (or $75.00US) from Ambrym to Tom's cousin's bank account on Uleveo.  $75.00 to relieve guilt? That's cheap.  

In the end, we made the right call.  The cooler full of fish never would have made it.  Hiding behind Ambrym, we were protected from the brunt of the wind, but even there we hemmed and hawed about whether it was a good enough weather window to try to claw our way South again. We were running out of time if we had any hope of making it back for the Independence Day celebrations.  During a lull, we decided it was time to go.  A Sucker’s Wind. 

What is a Sucker’s Wind?  It is a wind condition that inspires action you immediately regret.  When racing, it is a wind that inspires you to put up the light wind sail only to have to take it down in a panic because dust tornadoes are blowing at you from shore.  Today, it was a wind that seemed pleasant enough to try to sail upwind.  As we pulled up anchor, I could hear Neptune laughing and pointing at us.  “Heh heh!  I got you!  SUCKERS!”  

By the time we rounded Ambrym’s West point, 20 knots of wind and sharp annoying waves were on Sonrisa's nose.  Resigned to a 36 hour sail Southward, tacking, we set our sails and Sonrisa dug in for the long haul.  I went below at 2:00 p.m. to take my watch nap, but I was awakened by a jostling in every direction.  Wind blowing over current whipped the ocean into a frenzy.  Maybe this is why I dreamed about horses?  With Sonrisa a bucking bronco, we hung on as she bounced right, then left, fell off the back side of a sharp wave here, slammed into the front side of the oncoming wave, there.  The wind howls through the rigging, the wind generator growls and then cuts out, Sonrisa’s fog bell hanging from her stern arch dings with every erratic movement.  For the most part, Sonrisa keeps us dry by taking the waves with her shoulder then shrugging them off right and left.  In this mess, she hits a wave head on, the water jumps high into the sky and, like buckets of rain, pours down into the cockpit.  Waves roll along her side decks like white water rapids.  

After an hour or two, Captain Andrew admits he knew this was coming. When you look at the charts, they depict little waves around the area we are sailing now.   “Whenever I see those little waves on the chart, I always think of ‘rodents of unusual size’, you know, from the Princess Bride?” Andrew says. 

Unpleasant.  We decided to divert course for the night to Lamen Bay, Emae, an anchorage we were familiar with from our trip North.  Even with the anchor down, we rolled back and forth, side to side as the waves lolled to shore.  The next morning, we poke our head out of Sonrisa’s companion way and find white caps raging in the small anchorage.  Clearly, this is not the weather window we were hoping for.  

We hide out another day in Emae hoping things would get better.  Andrew resigned himself to missing Port Vila’s Independence Day festivals. After a while, though, we realize it isn’t going to get better for quite some time.  We considered turning back, sailing down wind and checking out of Luganville.  Why continue on to Port Vila if we aren’t even going to be able to get there in time for the festivals anyway?   


When we were in Port Vila the first time, we made a great shopping run where we found all sorts of things in the Au Bon Marche to make our tummies happy.  Baguettes, delicious brie and camembert, parmesan, blue cheese, steaks, a nice wine selection, and some chorizo.  I haven’t had chorizo for a long time, and when we added it to our potatoes, onions and eggs for breakfast my joy cannot be overstated.  Or maybe it can, because the question now is: will my joy of chorizo win out over my misery sailing upwind, up wave, up current in the dark?

We set out again for another upwind leg the next morning.  The wind is still 25 knots.  The waves are still annoying.  Having put my misery into chorizo-perspective, I recommitted to sustaining a reasonably good attitude for at least a few hours.  For twelve daylight hours, we bounce along on the Southward tack.   Once we are parallel from the island of our destination, it feels like we are almost there, but I assure you, we were not almost there.  We tack to the East, but this tack causes us to go almost backwards.  

It is dark now and the waves are just as annoying in this direction.  Sonrisa’s bell is still clanging, water is coming up and over the decks, even though we are in the tropics, the wind, water and darkness combine to make us cold enough to put on our foul weather gear.  At 7 p.m., Andrew went below to “sleep” muttering something about his wish for a cooler of rotting fish bouncing around on deck.

At this rate, we will reach Port Vila in two more days.  I make an executive decision.  I roll in the headsail and turn on the engine.  There are no purists aboard Sonrisa.  Hoping to hide behind the island’s wind and wave shadow, Sonrisa and I slowly work our way closer.  Hand steering, I sail just off the wind using the main sail to build up speed, then I turn directly back toward the island maintaining the speed I just gained through the smaller wave sets.  When the big waves hit us again, it slows our speed from the 4.5 knots to 1.2 knots.  (One knot is approximately equivalent to one mile per hour.)  I fall off again, gain speed, and point the bow up.

Five hours later, we have covered the 17 mile distance from our position offshore into the protected Harbor of Havanna Bay.  Having visited Havanna Bay on our way Northward, we know it to be big, deep and open, without mooring balls or hazards to navigation to hit in the dark.  Enticed by the opportunity for a rest, we couldn’t resist. We felt comfortable retracing Sonrisa’s GPS track into the same anchorage we used last time.  At one a.m., when we finally tuck into bed, my jiggled brain dreams of galloping horses.  

Are we done now?  No.  We are not done, we still have a twenty-five mile slog around another one of those spots in the chart with the “Rodents of Unusual Size.”  We have come this far, can’t turn back now.

Using my wave climbing strategy, we make our way the next morning.  Somehow our expectation of fun was even lower than the actual quotient of fun, and so the last leg of the trip was less annoying than planned.   We motored straight to the mooring field in Port Vila, tied up, and went to land.  

“Sailing sucks”  I say as Grin motors us away.

“Yeah,”  Andrew says.  

“I heard that,” Sonrisa cries out, "Blasphemy!"

The day I quit my job, I remember talking to my boss about the time schedule for this trip.  “How long will you be away?”  He asked.  The plan is five years.  “What if you don’t like it?” 

What if?   

At what point can one conclusively say one doesn’t like something?  At work, we have good days and bad. Sometimes, I would go to court, make an irresistible argument, and return to the office victorious.  Sometimes, I would take a deposition, picking my way through questions, leading my quarry to bury themselves in their own ugly truths. Some days were strategic. I spent time trying to understand the story from all sides of the rubix-cube. These were my favorite days.  

Then, there were days in which opposing counsel were being “obstreperous” - lawyer speak for “an asshole”.  Sometimes, my pointer finger became sore scrolling my computer mouse through thousands of pages of documents that did not answer any important questions.  I didn't love those days.

All tolled: do I like being a lawyer?  Yes.  Do I like being a lawyer every day?  No.

Everything in life is this way.

It’s all about proportions and intensity. When the answer is “no” for too many days in proportion to the days when the answer is “yes,” that is when you have to consider your options.  If the answer is “HELL NO” fairly frequently and at best you can say “Meh, sure.”  You probably have to consider your options.   Where does the value in “toughing it out” end and the value of “cutting your losses” begin?

When I look out over the year and a half of this trip, our days are usually a resounding HOLY MOLY THAT WAS AMAZING and sometimes filled with Rodents of Unusual Size at sea.  I haven’t done the specific math on this, but my sense is that we have two “holy-molies” to each day filled with “rodents of unusual size”.  

Furthermore, I realize now that I have an expectation problem with regard to sailing days.  I blame three pre-departure facts for my unrealistic expectation:  (1) San Diego, (2) blogs written for mothers, and (3) Fatty Goodlander. 

First, San Diego. We were warned against this, but when we bought Sonrisa we decided San Diego would be the best place to keep her during our preparation phase.  Protected and calm, the harbor is an amazing place to take guests out for a lovely day sail.  The wind started every day at 11:00 a.m. and shut down at 5:00 p.m.  Outside the harbor is the vast Pacific, perfect for Andrew and I to cut our teeth in the open ocean.  Each weekend, we would head out, twirl around in the open ocean for a few hours, and head back in for our sundowners.  We set out on two long passage attempts before our official departure date, but those are stories for another day.  Suffice it to say, 95% of our sailing in open ocean was pleasant, easy, and ended each day with a lovely sundowner safe in our berth.  At the time, it was awesome.  Now, I see it as a flawed strategy. We should have chosen somewhere in the roaring 40s to do our pre-sail conditioning; then everything else is cake!

Second, Blogs for Moms.  Mind you, I'm pretty honest with my blog.  You hear the good, bad and the ugly over here.  (Remember the post about my lady mustache?)  But, I have a theory that the blogs I used to read were written to assure mothers or  adult children (depending on the blogger's age) that the sailors are still alive.  Much time was spent assuring people back home that the ocean is not as terrifying as they think.  It’s not as terrifying as you think, but can be irritating.  

Finally, I blame Fatty.  If you are sailor, I sure hope you know Fatty.  He is a legend, sailing captain and bard.   Somehow, he can write an instructional manual about the driest topic in the world, anchoring, and gracefully weave in poetry of sea, friendship, love and life. He was raised as a child on a boat, he has never had a real “land job,” and he is married to the love of his life - Carolyn Goodlander.  He and Carolyn have circumnavigated three times and they are setting their sights on circle number four.  They raised their daughter on sailboats, rode out rogue waves and hurricanes, and are as salty as any two sea-dogs you will meet.   In Fatty’s writings, Carolyn plays a character of extreme seagoing equanimity.  She would never word-vomit profanities over something as common place as sailing upwind.  Before we left, I pictured myself having the same strength of character as Carolyn.  I assure you now, I do not.

Thus, I formed the unrealistic expectation that most days at sea would be pleasant and that I would be an even tempered, tough-gal sailor.  No.  No!  Not true. In reality, most days at sea are annoying.  There are almost always rodents (i.e. waves) of one size or another, and I am almost always mildly seasick.  Sometimes, I get rained on and then my shorts are soggy.  

All tolled, I am trying to process my current state of misery with regard to passages.  Our next step is a 10-12 day sail for a quick stop in Paupa New Guinea, then another 8-10 days to Indonesia.  I need to rejigger my attitude before we leave.

So, my new strategy.

  1. Pre-cook some freezer meals;
  2. Manage my expectations; I will accept ahead of time that this passage will suck.  If it is any notch better than that, I will be pleasantly surprised.
  3. Whenever I feel the strong urge to vomit profanity, I shall take three deep breaths and ask myself WWCGD?  (W.hat W.ould C.arolyn G.oodlander D.o?)

If you want to read a touching snapshot of Carolyn, check out check out this link.  You will see what I mean.