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*Editor's note: We met Michael Demski about two years ago in Indonesia. He was then only 15 years old. He is from Nelson, British Columbia but has spent nearly half his life on board a sailboat with his two brothers, Taiwanese mother and German father as they've traveled to little known ports around the world to study martial arts. The Demski's are collectively brilliant; artistic and athletic, practical and nomadic; taking pictures of themselves break dancing in front of the pyramids, kite surfing in France; owning few possessions, trading for what they need, living largely off the sea. This piece is the result of a year or more of back and forth with Michael and is surely only the first of many things to come from the family Demski.

The Waves I've Seen
By Michael Demski

Being on the Kenitra River wasn't exactly the driest life. Just the condensation would soak our mattresses, and cover the ceiling in the morning as if the boat itself were in a cold sweat, ready to release 1000 water balloons at the slightest trip. The day only lasts 8 hours and sometimes we feel cheated, like the day was never there at all. Yes Kenitra, 200 miles south of Tangier, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco 8 miles up river, tied to a rusty barge our boat laid for two months, while we explored Morocco by land.

The usual rule is two weeks and you know your way around town, one month and a pattern is set, two months… time to cut a wake.

With good tide timing we shoot out of the river and hit calm, something we've been missing. The next couple days take us up the Atlantic coast. The third day and night we spend tacking through the Straight of Gibraltar with a 20-knot wind on the nose before finding a few surprises on the fishing line.

We drag two 200kg lines and a 500m rod. In the good ol' Pacific days we used to bring in as much fish as we could eat, but lately we haven't had much luck. Our big lines are connected to bungee cords, when a fish bites it pulls the bungee through our steel dinghy tower, makes a hell of a noise, and the first person to hear it makes an even louder noise, and we all teleport onto deck, usually furl the genoa (foresail) to slow to a couple knots, haul them in, haul them up, and eat' em.

But this time was a little different: We haul in a floundering sunfish by the fin. We have only ever encountered this rare fish once before. If you take a normal fish and cut it in half lengthwise so that it looks like a half coin with fins, then you'll get something pretty close to a sunfish. They're a mystery of the sea that we always wonder over. The first one we saw, we swam up to and hung onto its top fin for the ride. It weighed easily a ton, It barely noticed us, but sometimes looked at us lazily, it's eyes like an old man.

The one we caught on our 200kg line, must have been a baby, it was hooked good in the fin. Usually fish eat with their mouth, but the sunfish is a strange one and it could have just been swimming innocently along when a little fish with a big silver tooth came and grabbed it by the fin and gave it the ride of its life. Could only feel sorry for it as my brother Raymond wrestled with it to get the hook out.

After we got through the straight the wind died and we were left with the sun and a flat sea. We took our first swim in two months. The Kenitra River hadn't been our preferred place for swimming, although I had to get in the cold muck once and unhook the half decomposed dog or goat or god knows what when it got stuck under our stern. This clean spot on the Atlantic was more than welcome.

As is the way with the ever-changing ocean, however, it changed.

Within an hour we pounded into 20 knots, and by the next day chaos re-entered the boat, everybody back to sleeping on the floor. One day later and the wind died and shifted for the first time to the back of the boat, so instead of tacking from Spain to Algeria and then back to Spain, we were finally going somewhere!

The only footprint in the fresh deck paint for what was in store was one, the barometer fell 8 points in the next 8 hours; two, the waves and wind were steadily building; and three, the radio told us to prepare for a gale. Even though you can only trust a metal box so far, this time we had to swallow our swords and bite the microchip. There was definitely something in the wind.

Somehow we ended up in the shipping lane, millions of hulking tons of tvs, cars, and oil travelling at 20 knots is not something you want to test your hull strength on. After being nearly squeezed by a couple freighters, we tried to make more Northing. By that time the wind had built to a steady 30 knots, and sometimes rose to 40. It isn't my habit to stare at the wind meter when its bad for the morale, so as a true sailor I'll be content to say it must have gusted over 200 knots, judging by the size of the waves. They were mountains.

It is really hard to describe a gale. There is always something that escapes the alien cross of violence and simplicity. How can the waves and wind jump out of the page, they cant, so I'll settle to say that the waves got too big to safely run. We heaved to and prayed to the only god, the god who everybody prays to when the waves are high enough. When its dark and no moon or stars, the waves are still lit with phosphorescence, and I'm not sure if that's better then straight black or not. At some point you don't really want to see the waves.

Surprising as it may sound, I considered myself lucky to have been there. After climbing out of the cave of the boat, the waves hypnotize me, and I find myself half crazy. I make jokes that only the wind can get, then laugh at them, then laugh at my laugh, change laughs, then laugh again. By that time someone inside would cluck something like up, "Hey Mike, you better come back inside, there must be something in the air out there." In one magical moment at the crest of a wave, I had my own personal shooting star whip past my face. The truth is there is something in the air out there.

We survived the first two nights and experienced a slight calm, which allowed us to have a proper breakfast, with bowls and everything, instead of just spooning a scoop between waves. Only after the chaos of a big wind can you really appreciate being just normal.

Have you ever seen those mafia movies where the hitman runs over the hero, but notices he is still moving, and backs up to run him over again? Well this storm must have seen too many mafia movies.

By evening the wind grew, the barometer, which had gone back up, fell 6 millibars in 6 hours, and continued. By the next day, the wind had almost rebuilt to its previous fury, only this time we still had the old waves, which would gang up with the new waves and tossed us like shit into the fan.

If you can understand: Our mainsail car on the boom blew off its track. We have a roller furling main, which means we can't really reef anymore, for fear of it furling wrong and jamming, then we might not be able to heave to. A rogue wave covered the whole length of the boat and cracked one of our thick plexiglas windows. Two more rollers from the boom vang snapped their wheels, with ropes they help the boom to keep the shape of the main, we just lock it in place with another rope and it held fine enough. We stop heaving to and run with the motor to help steering, we head for the nearest Tunisian port, 150 miles away, and we hand steer", one at a time, alone". The one wave, I remember, it was a tumbler with a hellish accent, I was prepared for it, so before it hit I ripped the wheel hard over, none the less it sent us careening and washed our cockpit for us and soaked me. I named that wave Tiger Woods because it felt like it smacked us 350 yards.

In my mind I could distinctly picture the memory of my dad Helmut standing on the stern of the boat while the gale hit shouting, "COME ON, IS THAT ALL YOU GOT!" After that wave we heaved to once again. And by night the weather cooled down a touch. Enough for us to furl in the main sail a bit. During the storm the GPS recorded us at a new max speed of 17.8 knots, surfing down some wave. Like I said before, at some point you don't really want to see the waves.

Tabarka, the nearest Tunisian port, was pretty calm, with winds only around 25, we were the slightest bit worried though, it gets pretty shallow before safe water in Tabarka. Our worry was not unwarranted, we did have quite a frightful moment coming in with the waves breaking almost over us as we careened into the breakwater. But thank you, we made it.

Tabarka was cold with the weather, warm with the welcome. In the past few days while we were in the gale, they had the worst storm in many years here in the worst winter for 50 years. Some windows were blown in, and the water had surged over the docks, restaurants and a piece of the town, washing sand everywhere, this is the only time that people can remember that this has happened. On a trip inland we found half the roads detoured, and trees laying here and there, freshly blown over.

We are modest sailors and will always say it was just a small gale, but we wonder, we will always wonder...

Michael Demski can see for miles and miles.



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