Casey Braunger

The Spark

Casey Braunger
The Spark

Engines roared ahead of our sailboat and caught us off guard. We’d been gazing beyond our wake admiring the dramatic yellows and oranges that painted the evening sky.  The sunset’s spell vanished, quickly replaced with adrenaline.  A small, relentless vessel zoomed toward us. I stiffened my stand next to Tom and slipped two fingers into his belt loop. We squinted at the intrusion as it raced over small waves, bouncing every second. We were its target.

“Sailboat!” The male voice trumpeted across the water in our direction. “Where you headed?”  The steel gray boat closed in on us.

Had we done something wrong already?  Tom shifted to neutral, cleared his throat and slowed us down to a controlled drift.  Twenty-five feet to our port an officer of Vancouver, BC’s Harbor Patrol shut down his engines.

“We’re checking into Coal Harbor Marina,” Tom said with a calm, manly voice. His fingers whitened as they tightened around the cold metal wheel.

Tom in DS.jpg

“You two checked into customs?” The officer set down the megaphone. He donned a life vest over a pressed, black collared shirt with an official-looking badge. He was young, strong and had no problems balancing himself in the rocking small vessel.

“Yes, about three weeks ago,” Tom said, “in Bedwell Harbor. Would you like our papers?” By now, our chihuahua, Jack, had hopped on the bench seat and shuddered with a subdued whine.  Something was up.  I eyed our cabin below ready to fetch our customs papers. The officer observed Tom for what seemed like a long while, then me, as I petted Jack.  My chest pounded during the silence. 

“No,” his voice warmed, “that’s not necessary. Welcome to Vancouver. Be sure to stay starboard as you enter the bay, and…enjoy your stay.”  After his nod of approval he started the engines, turned the wheel and shifted into drive.  He rumbled away toward a small rowdy speed boat and pointed the megaphone in its direction, “Stop, you’re in a shipping lane!” The celebration was silenced.  “This area is not for playing games! Standby for boarding.”


We were the professionals.

That was three years ago. We’d just arrived from absolute calm after sailing nearly a month in rural, quiet Desolation Sound with waterfalls and fjords that jutted a thousand feet from the sea - God’s country.  We anchored. We swam the warm water and hiked the cool forests. At night, we opened the hatch in our v-berth and stared at the brightest stars we’d ever seen. We slept.

Tom had even fixed a few things on the boat that summer. He untangled the radar deflector, cleaned the corrosion off the shrouds and replaced our water pump.  Not typically a cook, I enjoyed preparing meals on our floating home - though I had let us run out of provisions a couple nights in the remote areas.  Everything was better on the water, even hunger.

That same month, it was a breezy afternoon in the Georgia Strait. We heard the distinctive sound of an orca’s breath echoing around us, louder than the wind. And eery, like a ghost’s breath inside a cavern. We turned in sync to see.  The black and white orca glistened in the sun as it rose about twenty feet away.  She was female, we knew, by her shorter dorsal fin. She breached and slapped the water.

A second dorsal fin appeared further away.  It raced while growing taller to about five feet above the water, to the area where the female disappeared.  Then like a submarine his black hump emerged. His head next, lifting upward, his mouth slightly agape. Water raced over his nubby teeth and like a rocket, he shot up! His tail skimmed the surface a split-second before he fell sideways and causing a wallop of a splash.  Pools of salt water followed. All other creatures were quiet, including us. I’d lost my breath.

More dorsals appeared and we dropped the sails.  It was time to take in the sights of an entire pod of orcas, thirty or forty at play. They jumped, crashed and squealed.  It was a party.  One female seemed to hover over a small calf as it tried to breach. It lasted hours! Overwhelmed, we were choked up. Why? Was it their free spirit? Their intelligence? Their loyalty to the pod? Or was it that we longed to connect with them? Be a part of what they felt, share their energy? Whatever it was, as their uninvited guests we were honored to witness that moment in their lives.  Later we learned it was an entire pod of orcas, a feeding frenzy in the Salish Sea. We’d been lucky.

So, we were in good spirits after our encounter with Vancouver’s Harbor Patrol. Nothing could bring us down or stress us out.  We motored along in twilight.  Three-hundred and sixty feet above us small white lights spanned the Lion’s Gate Bridge.  The dark waters reflected a wavering suspended structure and its tiny lights. Over the shadows of Stanley Park peeked Vancouver’s skyline. I loved this big international city. We putted along into Coal Harbor and searched for the lights of our marina.  Tall glass skyscrapers illuminated the dark rippling bay and helped us find our way to Coal Harbor Marina.  We pulled in and tied down, nestled next to the towering city. It was awe-inspiring, yet polar opposites from the remote location from where we’d sailed. This was God’s country too.

Photo by Hope Edleman

Photo by Hope Edleman

That’s when the spark ignited in Tom. We sat in our cockpit and I bit into an olive, engrossed by the twinkling skyline a few feet away. Tom turned to me, “We could do this, you know. We could go anywhere on a boat.  Large. Foreign. Cities.”  I was proud of us too.  “I’m serious Susan, let’s sail around the world. What do you think?” 

Overwhelmed by what had unfolded before me, all I could say at that time was “hmm…” and take a sip of my martini. I’d been to Vancouver many times for business, but in a car, in a suit. I’d never arrived for just fun, by boat, in my cut-offs.  This was far superior.

susan swimming in DS w:dingy.jpg

Over the next several months we talked about the idea of sailing around the world.  Tom was preparing to retire but he didn’t want to stop working. He was ready to try something new, something completely different from architecture or running a firm. He wanted to push himself intellectually, physically and emotionally.  He wanted a challenge that would demand he stay fit.  He’d already decided that sailing around the world was the answer for him.  He set out to convince me. It wasn’t too big a leap.

I loved sailing and the time we spent on our boat. But could I be satisfied with the simple life for four years after a heady, robust career in media?  Was I sane enough to cross an ocean without going crazy or being paralyzed with fear?

Would I become a complainer due to lack of creature comforts?

Was I too old?

Well, I’m about to find out. The spark to sail the world ignited in me too.