Storm Birds: A Chef’s Adventures in the South Pacific -The Toast

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Dawn arrived at last, and only sort of. The sky gradually lightened into a flat grey, the color matched by the seas rising and falling around our little boat, the color matched by the backdrops in a thousand black and white movies. The light brought some relief after eight hours of hard sailing; for me, as it had for cave-dwellers thousands of years ago, morning meant life would continue, probably. Now, beneath the battleship-grey skies, I could see what I couldn’t during the last hours of the night: The wet-cement colored waves were 20-feet high, with angry white fists shaking from the crests. I had never seen anything so wild and vast. I had never felt so keenly my own tiny irrelevance. We were running in front of the wind in a broad reach, sailing from Fiji to Vanuatu, and had been offshore for almost 30 hours.

The day before we were drenched by early squalls — the storm’s harbingers — and as darkness fell and the wind shrieked through the rigging, the SV Victoria, our 42-foot Lord Nelson sailboat, was battered and bashed by winds that rose along with the seas. Dawn brought more than light. The storm petrels were out as well, black gull-like birds that fly into rough seas and dance along the walls of waves. They are amazing, in grace and effortless flight, and also, I thought as I tried to relax the hand I’d clenched to the side of the companionway, they seemed fearless in this charged and unpredictable environment. As a novice sailor – truly, a rank beginner – keeping watch while my uncle, aunt, and their twin eleven-year-old boys slept fitfully below, I was well aware of my shortcomings should we run into a half-submerged container, or lose a clew, or sail off-course. The birds were a beautiful distraction.

The sails boomed and pounded against the rigging as the wind shifted yet again. The boat’s autopilot adjusted our course and the canvas tightened. The closest land was two days away. Fiji seemed very far behind us. Seattle, my former home, may as well have been on a different planet. The black birds swooped and glided. The waves rose and the petrels turned sideways to shoot across the steep grey face of water. I’d seen them out there before, during a rough patch between Tonga and Fiji, a patch that in hindsight seemed as rocky as a paddle on the Thames – those waves were nothing like these – now I felt as though I were truly seeing the birds in their element, in their storm.

A month ago: A different dawn, a different lessening of the dark, a different kind of dread. I was standing next to the dumpsters behind the restaurant, smoking cigarettes, sipping tepid coffee, thinking about the menu, the staff, the wood order, food cost, scheduling, waste, refrigeration, flatwares, smallwares, the china and glass budget. I’d carried the weight of budgetary line items and the endless vagaries of restaurant management long enough to no longer notice, usually, that I was crumpling beneath it. Sometimes I worried that failure actually might be an option, and I’d simply roll over and go back to sleep, instead of mustering the necessary energy to Go To Work.

There I was, contemplating the upcoming shift in the grey light that stole westward over the Cascades, spreading to the Pacific, revealing the verdant Seattle neighborhoods: Capitol Hill, where I lived; Ballard, where I worked; points in between, where I saw friends, cavorted, ate out a lot, drank a little too much sometimes to shut the brain off. I was a Chef with a solid career trajectory. Sometimes that almost felt like enough.

At the same time, I noticed the creative well from which most of my menus sprung was not producing the way it once had. Rather than simply sitting down with a legal pad, a pen, and a box of crayons twelve hours before my first draft was due, I was relying more and more on my sous chefs’ culinary visions. Some of this was the predictable fatigue-driven result of having to come up with a new menu every three months. But there was another force at work, too, one that was more difficult for me to face: I was losing my equilibrium at the tasting table. Or, to put it another way, I was starting to fear the tasting table. Starting to look for a way out.

And so when my Uncle Pierre, a longtime professional sailor who was living on Victoria with his family, invited me to join them for the last leg of their three-year Pacific sojourn, I cashed in my clogs and fled.

Collective criticism, from the public, the staff, the owners, and, of course, the self, is leveled at any creative professional. That’s part of the deal – feeling thin-skinned when someone says a dish needs more salt is normal during the early stages of a career in food, but over the long haul a chef has to be able to listen, filter when necessary, and fix, too.

In these Bourdainian days of Food Networks and Top Chefs, everyone believes they’re experts when it comes to my work. The chef I’d become was saturated by opinions and almost incapable of viewing the work objectively anymore. The sublime, beautiful impermanence of food perfectly plated was once the centering theme of my chef philosophy. Now plating made my hands shake and spiked my blood with enough adrenaline to escape a troupe of roving, gun-wielding grizzlies. Service used to be a complicated, well-timed dance between cooks and servers. Now meetings about ticket-times filled me with cynicism and worry.

Cooking had become a heart racing tightrope walk rather than the playful romp through daisy fields it once was. But the only way to avoid the crosshairs of Opinions – good and bad – is to work in a vacuum, or to flee. And so I finished a hot summer in a kitchen, collected boxes, and packed up my life, until, jobless and homeless, I was ready to leave.

In a quiet act of patriotic appropriation, I flew out of SeaTac International Airport on September 11th. After a night in Fiji, my last night on land for months, I arrived in Tonga on September 14th, and, after a long jeep ride through a lush country-side populated equally by dogs and pigs, I arrived at the marina where my uncle’s boat was moored.

The first time the mainsail filled above me, I realized that there is flying away from things – fleeing – but there is also flying toward something. When we were sailing I felt borne up by wings capable of taking me much farther than I’d ever thought possible, to places where I could watch the storm petrels glide before the rising and falling walls of waves. Where a calm night’s watch was spent watching the swirling bioluminescence in our wake while trying to think of the ways and whys I could and should steer my professional life away from the noise and confusion of a busy kitchen, into quieter waters.

The boat heeled and I slammed against the edge of the galley at the bottom of the stairs. Something, a half-frozen chicken, or a head of cabbage, banged back and forth in the ice box.

The day before, the five of us were sitting in the cockpit enjoying bowls of reheated spaghetti when our speed increased from six to seven knots and we began surfing down the waves as they piled up behind the boat, lifting, lifting, lifting us up above the hunched up sea. A wave crashed over the stern and soaked me to the bone; that was my first, but not last, encounter with “the following sea.” The temperature hadn’t dropped much, so I was content to just change my shorts and top. I eschewed any foul-weather gear because I knew my polka-dotted pajama bottoms were waiting for me.

The importance of having a dry pair of cozy pants on a sailboat can’t be overstated. More than just being comfortable, pajamas represented a version of normalcy, a way of holding onto a routine, which I was coming to learn was half the battle in blue water sailing. The temptation to give in to claustrophobia and the constant awareness that only a few inches of wood separated my feet from the deep dark ocean was always there. Dry pants, a nice-smelling lotion, murder mysteries, and the quietly muttered lyrics from Evita and “American Pie” became my mental railings during the long crossings. Another thing I’d learned while traveling on a boat was that the similarities to road trips I’d taken as a child only went as far as the reliance on peanut butter as a primary protein – there was no stopping for pie at a truck stop; there was no stopping at a rest area for a leg stretch and a quick look at a nearby Historical Marker. There was no stopping at all.

At six o’clock, I went below to wake my uncle for his watch. At this point, drenched, punch-drunk with sleepiness and the physical challenges of moving around on a pitching boat, I was sorely anticipating slipping into my berth – a space I’d affectionately begun calling the Bread Oven, because I had to slide into a narrow space carved between duffel bags filled with three years’ worth of accumulated board games, warm weather clothes, and a small hammock filled with stuffed animals. Much had changed overnight, including the motion of the boat. What had been a predictable rise and fall through the water was now a spine-bruising carnival ride; crossing from stern to bow could only be managed with well-planned shifts in handholds – I felt like an orangutan swinging through a tilting box. The constant noise of sails and wind colliding was punctuated by the quieter violence of plates rattling in cupboards and books falling from shelves.

Uncle Pete awoke as soon as I touched his shoulder. I debriefed in a low voice while Aunt Kim tossed and turned on the settee and the twins, Patrick and Thomas, slept in the fore-cabin. Stormy, no visible container ships on any horizon. Well, no horizons visible at all while we climbed from the nadir of the waves, but that went without saying. My duty completed, I headed back to my bunk for dry clothes and a nap.

I reached my berth and was met by a terrible smell of damp. I gave the cushion a prod and felt my shoulders slump and a long sigh escaped me; the Bread Oven was soaked. My berth had a leak that had never been discovered because Victoria had never been in such high seas – the water was coming in from the cockpit. And so therefore…another prod…yes, my pajamas were soaked. But what was I supposed to do? Weep? Hardly. I found a pair of dry pants, changed into them, and swung out of my cabin again for a final trip to the head.

I learned another good sailing lesson when the boat heeled steeply and the contents of the head spilled over my dry pants legs. Now could I weep? Now could we stop? “I’ll laugh about this later,” I thought, making my way past my uncle, who was watching the navigational instruments with a mildly worrisome intensity, back to my bunk where I pulled off my wet pants, rinsed my legs with a handful of fresh water, and dried off as best I could. Shivering, discouraged, I then wrapped myself in all the dry clothes I could find and tried to fall asleep sitting sideways on the bench next to my bed.

The sounds of waves against wood, wind against rigging, and the looming, roaring silence of the deep water beneath us created an unfamiliar but ultimately effective lullaby. The storm petrels’ daredevil flying was just another day at the office for the birds. But after watching them that stormy morning, before I finally fell asleep in my cramped, damp space, landfall edging closer every hour, I was armed with a notion representing a new vanity, a beautiful conceit: I’d spent the previous decade flying into proverbial storms, away from the safety of land, away from the conventional world of comfortable and perennially dry pajamas.

In the chaos and confusion of a kitchen, during the mad dance, among the ever-changing tastes and smells, there was, for me, a kind of peace. A familiar storm. Maybe even my element.

During the day, when the seas weren’t too high, I cooked. At first, working on a gimbaled stove was terrifying. Pots filled with boiling water, swinging up and down with the waves’ rhythm. Opening the oven door at just the right moment to catch a hot pan as gravity tried to pull it out onto the galley floor. Everything I knew about professional cooking had to go over the side; I imagined the jetsam of food costs, produce orders, and scheduling egg cooks bobbing along in our wake.

Multitasking, a cook’s best friend, is impossible on a moving boat – if you turn your back on an opened can of pears to check the simmering rice, the pears slide across the counter and dive for the floor. The rice burns while you clean up the mess. I learned to do things one at a time, which was akin to a massive unlearning, a complete dismantling of constructive experience.

But in that process, I found myself engaging with the basics again. I started to find cooking fun again. And then I knew I was back in the game. Confidence ebbs and flows. The skin thickens and thins. The well empties and refills.

Robin Posey lives and works in Seattle, Washington. When not working or walking her dog, she can usually be found reading on her sofa or poring over maps.

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