My Path To Voyaging
And Lessons Learned Along The Way-Sometimes The Hard Way
by Skip Freedom
Author- Todd Forney AKA Skip Freedom
S/V Salmonberry anchored in Powar Bay – Opaw Marquesas
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My path to voyaging took direction early in a zealous pursuit of activities laced with danger. A place for me where each move is focused, calculated, a meditation of sorts where I could seek refuge from all the clutter of day to day existence.
First I became a dive instructor and moved to the Caymans. A year later I mountain biked across Europe with a one way plane ticket and only a few dollars. When I came back to the states I became a skydiver and created the film Atmosphere Dolphin featuring the current world champions, including, Olav Zipser and the Free Fly Clowns. After this I found myself having my first flirtation with climbing. Not long after, climbing turned into a full blown love affair. I lived out of old clunker cars, out of tents, in the back woods, making my way up long moderates, big walls and waterfall ice. Then at the end of a climbing trip, drinking coffee in Bellingham at a marina café, my mind began to run wild as I gazed out over a fleet of no-nonsense fishing trawlers and the stout yachts that plied the bay. Although I did not know how to sail, I had always wanted to sail around the world…I was a traveler; the light switch flipped and there I saw the means to an end. How much could one of those little boats be? I thought. I found a boat for sale for three thousand. Knowing nothing about boats I called the number, a short negotiation took place and the owner agreed. The next day after my first five hundred dollar payment I moved onboard. Her name was Decision, she was a 24’ Pearson and her name says it all.
“I know nothing that can give a better notion of infinity and eternity than the being upon the sea in a little vessel without anything in sight but yourself within the whole hemisphere”
Eventually I became an engineless offshore sailor. This is rare and to many observers it is either irresponsible or sounds like casting dice at doom. In all honesty there have been times when the sour taste of panic rose up in my throat and I would have loved to “kick the donk” as they say and start the engine, but my die was cast and I had my lessons to learn, sometimes the hard way. The thought of sailing without an engine challenged me – it was something I knew very little about. If I could have looked forward on the string of events that would take place I might have changed my mind. But now, in retrospect, it’s more the lessons learned that make this journey such a great voyage. Eighteen years later I had sailed the whole of the Caribbean Archipelago, down the Americas twice and crossed the South Pacific to sail up and around Australia, over the Arafura Sea, the Banda Sea, back and forth across the Indonesian Archapeligo three times and out into the Indian Ocean. Then back to Thailand, down the Mallacca around Singapore, across Borneo and up the west coast of Palawan. In the span of that time I would land upon rocks and reefs, hit bridges, negotiate strong tidal streams, sit for weeks with no wind on a flat calm sea, weather squalls and survive knock downs, storms and find the love of my life…. and with time accustoming my eye to calmness, to patience, letting my experiences come up to me so I could learn what it takes to sail, engineless, landfall to landfall.
The day my 16’ oars arrived from Sawyer out of Oregon, my friend John O showed up to help me pull the engine. It’s a day I’ll never forget as John and I earnestly went over every detail on how to maneuver the ship into the dock while my Saab diesel lay defiantly on her side with broken motor mounts. We mounted one oar off the side and another off the stern. We prepared the sails. We had anchors ready to go from the bow and stern and a bucket with rope to use as a drogue. Then the wind picked up and I started to tremble. The time had come and realization was dawning on how tricky this first maneuver was going to be. We would have to sail in through the break into a maze of turns to the back of the marina where the crane was located. This would be the first time I would maneuver a boat without an engine. She was 8 tons of boat with a full keel that doesn’t sail well in tight quarters. Some have said in jest, she doesn’t sail well at all.
“If I could have looked forward on the string of events that would take place I might have changed my mind. But now, in retrospect, it’s more the lessons learned that make this journey such a great voyage.”
Once we weighed anchor we sailed on light winds towards the entrance, passing a smaller sail boat with a single-handed elderly man. “Do you need a hand?” he hollered. “No!” I replied, focusing on maneuvering by oar as the wind eased. At this moment he turned and came from astern, “Do you need a tow?’ “No!” I replied firmly, struggling to use the oars for the very first time. Not responding to my remarks he pulled alongside. I noticed he was much older than I thought. He had one hand on the tiller and the other was shaking, not from nerves, like mine. Maybe he was a little deaf too. “Stand off!” I shouted. By this time we were inside the breakwater. He steamed closer as I screamed for him to stand off. A few seconds later he rammed the starboard side, telling us to take the line that hung from his rail. I broke confidence, gave up command and took his line. His boat was too small and light to control the weight and keel of my vessel. He just slid off to one side pulling my boat in the wrong direction. The situation went out of control. My sails back winded. Seconds later we cut the line but it was too late, Salmonberry landed on the rocks at the entrance. John and I jumped off onto the rocks, holding her off doom with all our might. I began to hyperventilate. My body began to shake. The fear of losing it all pulsed through me. Current grabbed the bow. The rudder groaned and scraped along the rocks as she spun on her stern. We both jumped back on Salmonberry as she pulled away from the rocks. I sheeted in. We grabbed the wind and sailed out the other side of the T-entrance into clean water and dropped the hook. Hours later we had recovered enough to make a second attempt. Under the security of darkness, John heaved an oar from the stern as I rowed by dinghy pulling the boat from the bow, vowing to never again give up my ship.
Isle of Niue
Janet and I painting S/V Salmonberry in Langkawi Malaysia
Earlier in my voyage across the Pacific, tacking my way alone to the back of Anahoa bay in the Marquesas, I ran hard on the last tack towards the only boat in the anchorage.
Once I rounded its stern I turned, began to round up, let the sheet go and quickly ran forward to set the hook. A gust of wind bulleted down, erroneously the sheet caught, Salmonberry took off at full speed, hard over, with me on the bow, heading directly for the anchored boat. My eyes bulged. The other skipper’s mouth dropped open. We could have shaken hands as I barreled by. Moments later I let the hook slide free, set and stop the boat. Horrified and embarrassed, I wanted to lock myself below, worried the skipper was going to come over and abuse me. Instead the skipper next door called out “Bon Jour, Je m’appelle Herve,” with a large grin as he held up a platter topped with flowers and fruit. I was floored. Why on earth would this man adorn me with gifts after I almost sank both our boats? He explained it was the welcoming custom and that this was a very special place. One might think to aim for every boat in the anchorage after that day, but I took my circumstance and learned the value of another single-handing technique – anchoring from the stern. Alone, sailing into Fakarava in the Tuomotu Archipelago, I sailed right in through the reef entrance . Leaving was another story. When I tried to sail out the current was so strong that I could not make way. I sailed to one side and threw the hook from the stern. There, I waited; an hour later the current eased. Then I found the anchor was stuck. I was alone, pondering whether to dive and free it, or sacrifice my anchor. I donned my mask and fins, took a few deep breaths and dove in. Thirty feet down I straddled the flukes, digging my heels in, heaving the anchor up from behind a coral head. It was either make or break right then and there. The anchor took off flying and I was flying on it. Terrified, I stole glances as the coral peeled away and deepened. I was going for a ride and I wasn’t about to let go. If I did, I was going to lose my boat, and possibly my life, in the middle of nowhere. Dragging through the water, driven by the need to breathe, my hands gained momentum as I climbed up the anchor chain and onto the boat. Immediately I noticed the wind was driving me onto another reef. I pulled the anchor up from the cock pit, driving the helm, setting the sails toward deep water, where I then made tacks out and beyond the reef. It was intense yet I could manage the anchor while running all lines, holding the helm, driving the boat, all, from the cockpit. Anchoring from the stern also allows me to sail across my planned hook move, placing the anchor on top of its target, setting it firmly by sail.
Janet and Himalaya, Tioman Island Malaysia
Himalaya and friends, Snake Island Philippines
Sailing the world engineless makes landfalls a crux move for me. They alter the inner rhythm that one develops offshore after some time away from the dangers of land, when the vessel is protected by the security of the open sea.
Without local knowledge, juxtaposed with no motor, I should have just turned and made the run to Palmerston, but the excitement of sharing an anchorage with friends and the pressure of a very seasick crew member swayed my decision and for the second time in my history, I opted for a tow. A rare north westerly blew as I skirted the edge of the reef on the North side of Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. Big seas rolled up, crashed and thundered only a few yards off the port side. Ahead a small aluminum tow boat wavered from port to starboard. Suddenly he cut the lines. It was too close. I couldn’t tack away from the reef. I was faced by a pass that runs a channel North-East to an inner harbor inside the lagoon. The channel is narrow with a depth of about six feet and it’s riddled with bommies. Desperately, I raised the sails, turned, slid off a wave and committed down channel following a boat that motored ahead called Dragon Star. Moments later over the radio Dragon Star rang out, “I’ve grounded!” There would only be inches between us. Like a star in eclipse, close to chaos, my wind filled sails shadowed and passed by Dragon Star, as I reinstated for a second time the vow I made five years prior: to never give up control of my ship. When you do, you give up your strategy and that time learned knowledge based on how your vessel responds to each situation. Also, you are forced into a position of trust though not knowing the seamanship of others. Even throwing a line to someone on the dock can go terribly wrong in the unmanaged hands of others.
Amihan Belarmino Forney
Himalaya, Janet, Amihan and I
Later, in Fiji, a cruiser told me that I could sail right through the Nasoniesonie channel, ‘with no problem at all’. When I arrived a strong current hour-glassed into the channel.
If the wind had died or shifted a few degrees towards the bow I would have been on the reef as the entrance is only the width of several cars and runs a straight line for about a quarter mile. In the channel, the water was crystal clear and I could see every detail; coral heads, elkhorn coral and millions of fish as I flew by, sailing down a blue water river. With no room for error each decision was calculated. I made it, but that dance on the legs of chance, which felt like an eternity, left me staggering. Ever since I have questioned more deeply, understanding more about beta; how I decipher it and how it should be passed on. Beta, it’s that first hand local knowledge I gather from those who have been there. It’s that valuable information that gives your passage, look, taste, and feel. When I sail onto new landfalls I want to know where the current runs in reference to the reef. Does it run through, or across, or from side to side? I want to know if waves stand up more to one side of the entrance or are the winds constant and strong, or are they fluky and shadowed. Continually I look at charts and their depth contours to get a feel of the flow of water and appropriate tactic if the wind were to die. I find it important to always try and ask the right questions, and then analyze the information, mixing it with my experience, so I can decipher the fact from the fiction. More importantly so I don’t have nightmares and daydreams that palsy my courage and self-belief, or just as likely, so I don’t sail naively with false confidence into blind oblivion. Many times I’ll ask the questions a second time letting them know I don’t have an engine, so that I know from their responses, mixed with my experiences, where the boat has the most ability to sail and sail well. The more we sail, the more sensitive we become to every little nuance. Good sailors are always alert to possibilities and always ready to move at short notice or wait for however long it takes. Always prepared – that’s their game. Sometimes I wait for days, hove to offshore, for wind, tide and visibility to all come together so I can sail safely through a cut in a reef to make landfall. If there is any possibility of light or fluky winds an oar is locked in and ready to maneuver the ship. Without a doubt I have used what most might call ‘uncommon practice’ to achieve my goals. Sometimes my oars are used to negotiate current and tide or I use what I call “hook moves’: using anchors and drogues to maneuver the ship. These are useful methods for all sailors because we all know that engines have a funny way of failing just when we need them most. It’s been a great and magnificent journey of experience and lessons learned. I have crossed another ocean since but that’s another story. What lies ahead is a labyrinth of sea, sea and more sea where I know I’ll have days of agony and tension, but that cultivates growth, strength and creativity. Now I realize how much more I know than when I set off. There are no short cuts in the process – sometimes you have to go through disasters to learn how to handle them. Sailing is a journey of discovery for all of us and the lessons we experience affect us profoundly and for the better: the veil is lifted in many ways and we get to divine hidden and forgotten treasures and see so much more than we set off to expect.
Skip Freedom’s Episode 5 “Dark Passage”
This is one of my adventures sailing engineless from Tioman Island Malaysia around Singapore and up the Malacca Strait to Langkawi. The Malacca Straits. Pirates haunt it. Sailors fear it. Global trade depends on it. Please share this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LsT8_cpFSBQ Skip Freedom is a contributing editor at large of JanetBelarmino.com,BelarminoVentures.com, PalawanIsles.com, MardiHimal.com and AdventuresNewsOnline.com Please subscribe to my You Tube channel below
What is the point of making such journeys:
“Do we strive to experience the past as amateur historians or are we atoning for our frivolous modern lifestyle? Are we like the actor who takes up a political cause to prove he can do more than just play make-believe? Does the fact that we endured a risky trial and survived add importance to an otherwise silly existence?”
About the Author
The basic instinct of a human being is his search for freedom. I have always been on that search. Freedom; that comes from living in the moment and doing what makes us feel the most alive has always been the key for me. It is about the infinite possibilities available to anyone willing to climb on and push through. It’s about feeling that pull of nature and wanting to go deeper into that element, that ocean. Veteran surf publisher Steve Pezman says it well when he says: “The wave is forming in front of you, the wave is over your head, your wake is disappearing, and your footprints are washed from the beach. There’s no material production from having done it. There’s no depletion. There’s no creation. It’s just an aesthetic instant.”- That’s the goal- to live with my wife and family in search new experiences, with an endlessly changing horizon, each day to give to my children a new and different sun. – Skip Freedom
To all of our friends and family, Janet, Himalaya and I are currently occupied and focusing our energy to help others through training and sharing the adventure. Please check out our Motivational and Keynote Speaking, Island boat Adventures and Himalayan Treks and Climbs.
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In final, on behalf of the Myself, Janet and our teams, I would sincerely like to thank Habagat, Lagalag and Conquer for the support and partnership you provided for our expeditions to the Himalayas and through out the Philippines over the past few years. I deeply appreciate the willingness with which you have and continued to support our efforts to push beyond the challenges before us in our search for freedom, so we may discover and achieve more than we ever thought possible.
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About Janet Belarmino Forney and Belarmino Ventures
On May 16th 2007, Janet became one of the 3 women (with Noelle Wenceslao and Carina Dayondon) to be the First Women in the world to traverse Mt. Everest- climbing from Chinese ABC camp to the summit of Everest and back down to Nepal- a record still unbroken. She is the youngest mother to summit Everest, standing on top of the world 5 months after giving birth. She is also one of the first Filipinas to summit Mt. Everest and one of the first 3 Filipinas to become the first Southeast Asian women to summit Mt. Everest.
After climbing Mt. Everest, Janet took on the epic and historical sailing Voyage of the Balangay in 2010, where she and her teammates made a replica of the ancient boat Balangay carbon dated 320A.D and sailed it around South East Asia.
In 2012, Janet sailed with her husband Todd Forney and son Himalaya on their 32 ft Tahiti Ketch from Langkawi Malaysia, down the Malacca, around Singapore, across the North coast of Borneo and up the West Coast of Palawan. The same year, Janet and Todd started BELARMINO VENTURES which provide expeditions in Northern Palawan and high altitude mountaineering expeditions worldwide. She is also a motivational speaker from the world of adventure, exploration and endurance, Janet has pushed herself to the edge. August 2017. The unexpected tragedy and untimely death of Janet’s daughter recently led her and her family on the hardest expedition they have ever experienced. An expedition she never signed up for. A 30 day trek to the valley of memories where she and her husband built a memorial for their daughter, Amihan, at 5000mtrs asl – turning tragedy into transformation, loss into legacy. She is someone who has taken on some of the hardest and most treacherous journeys on the planet. In short, she is precisely the kind of person to inspire others to achieve great things.
Visit www.belarminoventures.com, for more information on El Nido & Coron Palawan Island Boat Expeditons, and her Himalayan Mountaineering Expeditions, Mountaineering Expeditions worldwide, and Trekking Expeditions worldwide. Motivational speaking www.janetbelarmino.com