“Have you crossed the equator on a boat before?” Francois asked me.
It was just on 17:00, the wind keeping us at a steady pace since departing the port of Galle, Sri Lanka, three days before.
“I was on the ferry in Indonesia when I first crossed into the north,” I said.
I don’t really count it as a proper crossing as there are some traditions to uphold when sailing boats cross the invisible line that divides the planet from toilets that flush clockwise and anti-clockwise.
On some boats the captain will dress up as the sea God (Neptune if you’re of the Roman faith or Poseidon if you’re a Greekist), drinks will be served and if there’s a virgin equator-crosser (call it an ‘equator-gin’) then according to tradition – at least by Francois’ traditions – “The virgin is thrown or jumps overboard as an offering to the sea God.” He looked at me. “If he likes you, he’ll keep you and gives us good weather. If not, he’ll spit you right back out.”
“Sweet,” I grinned. “When are we scheduled to cross the line?”
Oh. “Oh.” I sat back.
I had overcome my fear of swimming in bottomless waters, even looking forward to jumping in the wet that reached 4,700 meters below me in the kind of blue shade that man could never replicate. But swimming out in the middle of the ocean at night was a whole different kettle of shrimp.
Things wake up in the night. Nocturnal things with teeth bigger than their bodies (I gotta stop watching those documentaries). Before I could pass on the offer someone said, “Well, lemme know when it’s time,” and I realised, a little too late, that it was me.
Francois served up a cocktail of vodka-orange for the entire crew consisting of himself, Emmanuel (AKA Manu, an experienced sailor, an amazing chef and all round good guy) and myself. Up on the deck, under the canopy of stars, as the early moon began its slow crawl over the horizon, glowing a Mars-red, Francois began his speech:
“Neptune!” he called on the sea God (I sure hope we weren’t rumbling him from a deep-sea slumber), “this is San Miguel – sailing boat. It is our third crossing of the equator and, as usual, we are asking you to protect us and provide for us fair winds, calm seas and distant storms.”
“I’m terrified!” I mouthed to Manu who was grinning.
Jumping into the middle of the ocean off a perfectly good sailing boat at night? The fuck am I thinking?
“We have with us a virgin crossing the line which we will sacrifice to you,” Francois continued as we held up our cups. I hoped he didn’t notice my shuddering disposition in the velvety darkness. “We request that you choose to do with him as you wish and give us a good passage to Chagos, Madagascar and South Africa.” He then poured a little of his drink into the sea. I did the same, not wanting to upset a Roman/Greek God that controlled the H2O we were in. We cheered in the French, ‘Sonté’ and took a sip.
Francois then grabbed a buoy and as he tied it to the safety line and threw it out the back to trail the boat he said, “Alright, make your way forward and jump off to the side.”
I slowly rose. Manu grinned as did I, just to mask the immense fear that had decided to use me as a parking space. I crossed the deck of the 47-foot sloop to its bow. Using the Genoa pole for support, I climbed over the barrier. I looked up at the Milky Way, the stars surrounded by the same blackness that the water had turned to since the sun had disappeared.
“OK, jump!” Francois’ voice pierced my thoughts of regret and with a hefty, “Au revoir!” I jumped into blackness from the starboard side.
I hit the warm waters of the Indian Ocean and quickly kicked my way to the surface. No need to linger. I tread water and watched San Miguel sail by. As her stern came up I swam behind her and grabbed the trailing rope.
I ducked under and opened my eyes.
Nothing but blackness (what was I expecting to see? Vegas lights?). My heart was pounding. Thinking that the sound might attract some unwanted curious visitors with teeth, I practically flew out of the water, sitting on the steps of the stern when something suddenly loomed up beside me. I yelped as Manu laughed, pulling himself up.
“I decided to have a shower,” he grinned.
Great, my heart thumped. I managed a smile and fell into the cockpit, grabbed my vodka-orange and sipped on it, calming my nerves.
“So,” Francois said, “we are now in the Southern Hemisphere.” I looked around. “Do you feel any different?” he asked.
“Nope,” I smiled, “but I hear the toilets flush the other way down here.”