Under Sail

Published 2023-05-10

By Matt Irving, MYSTERY RANCH BRAND Ambassador

The guttural hum of reciprocating diesel pistons cut through silence as we navigated congested waterways out of the harbor. Rows of sailboats lined the shore. Just beyond, dilapidated houses stood entangled with the surrounding landscape, remnants of Hurricane Irma. We passed through a narrow channel between buoys and a half-submerged sailboat, barely avoiding both. Before us lay the open ocean.

Captain Rudy called out which ropes to heave and which winches to wrench. The sails crept up the mast, shuttering as they climbed higher. Catching the breeze, the sheets pulled taut. The boat creaked. Soon we were moving forward under sail. A few moments later the engine sputtered then went silent. The only sound was the expanse of the surrounding ocean. Waves lapped against the hull. Birds circled above, calling out to anyone who would listen.

We finished moving duffel bags down below deck and set about poring over maps, making plans for the following days. The weather forecast was perfect, outside a few afternoon thunderstorms that were typical for the area. After several minutes of heated debate, we settled on Anegada, a large island 30 miles north of Tortola. It was a short crossing, but the waters around the island are difficult to navigate. It’s surrounded by Horseshoe Reef, the 4th largest barrier reef in the world. It sounded risky, so we decided to anchor off the southwest coast and hire a local to show us around.

The next day, we met up with our guide and traveled east to Conch Island, an area several hundred meters offshore where conch fishermen have discarded their shells for several hundred years. Even before we arrived, we could smell the rotting sunbaked flesh. It was putrid. We moved out from the leeward side, into the fresh air. Fresh salty air filled our lungs. Finally able to breathe, we could appreciate Conch Island for what it was; a beautiful island created entirely out of shells, bleached white in the Caribbean sun.

Days passed under sail. Suns set and the earth rotated silently through space. At night, we laid on deck and watched the ecliptic arc across the heavens, unchanged throughout human history; During the day we tacked our way back and forth, maneuvering around islands and suspect clouds. Sheets of rain in the distance closed in and at times we’d be overtaken, sending everyone but the captain below deck to wait out the storm. A few days later we found our way to Virgin Gorda, a popular rock-climbing destination.

If the ocean was an empty paradise, Virgin Gorda was a veritable metropolis, bustling about with people of all shapes and sizes. Tanned hides littered the beach, walking about with drink in hand. It grated on us immediately and in our ivory tower we passed judgement. Because the National Park had closed the climbing area, we settled with scrambling about, walking north along the boulder-strewn beach; twisting and turning through a maze of granite, leaving behind the crowds of tourists. About 30 minutes later, we found a boulder with a beautiful hand crack etched into its side. It had to be climbed. I laced up my shoes, ran a few laps on it, and considered my time on Virgin Gorda a success.

I’ve never felt comfortable with the ocean. Growing up, I spent a majority of my time rambling around the high western desert; having never stepped foot in any large body of water until I was well into adulthood. It’s foreign to me. I am unsettled and yet I cannot resist the siren’s call. Even now I look forward to sailing across the infinite plane of rolling blue waves. The sunny days spent in silence under billowing sails and a sea of towering clouds.

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Pictured above: The HIGH WATER FLIP & HIP PACK