The Perils of Loving a Free Spirit

A double rainbow at French Polynesia.
A double rainbow at French Polynesia.

Love with a Chance of Drowning by Torre DeRoche

By Helena Wahlstrom

“A nation whose laws are harsh yet simple, a nation that never cheats, which is immense and without borders, where life is lived in the present.”

Bernard Moitessier’s description of the ocean is a perfect depiction of the majestic and terrifying entity that Torre DeRoche faces in her splendid memoir, Swept.

When Torre, an Australian, met Ivan, an Argentinean, in San Francisco, love put her on a path that would force her to face one of her greatest fears in a most spectacular fashion: sailing across the Pacific Ocean. The book’s subtitle, Love with a Chance of Drowning sums up this delightful tale that is sure to sweep readers away.

Adventuress Torre, morbidly afraid of deep water and uneasy with the mere thought of slimy, slithering marine critters, was forced to choose between holding on to love and clinging to her fears, and she chose well. Swept is a captivating tale of bravery, danger, situations both spectacular and terrifying, and growing out of one’s fears and into something so much better.

Like so many other stories, love is at the heart of Swept. But in this love story, there are three parties: Torre, Ivan—and his simple, sturdy, honest boat, Amazing Grace, or Gracie. Ivan’s undying devotion to Gracie and the sea becomes a challenge to his relationship with Torre, who appreciates the feel of solid ground under her feet.

Love with a Chance of Drowning by Torre DeRoche
Love with a Chance of Drowning by Torre DeRoche.

Swept is for dreamers, free spirits, lovers, travelers and those with fears to conquer. It reminds us that sometimes we must dare to lose sight of the shore.

An excerpt from the book

This isn’t how things were supposed to be. Back out to sea, two days from the refuge of Turtle Bay and two days shy of Cabo, I’m still not the brave, ocean-conquering sailor that I was in my fantasy when I pictured this trip.

In fact, I’m as useless on the boat as a rusted-shut Swiss Army Knife. The ocean is not the flat, glassy lake of my vision either, but a mess of turbulent sop.

And so am I.

It’s disappointing, and if I had a dead fish, I would slap myself across the face with it.

Author Torre DeRoche and her love, Ivan Nepomnaschy.
Author Torre DeRoche and her love, Ivan Nepomnaschy.

I’m surprised that Ivan hasn’t lost patience with me. He not only manages the boat solo, but he also finds time to stroke my shaking body and soothe me with insistent claims that “No, really, I promise you, we’re not going to die.”

While Ivan mans the deck, I swaddle myself in sheets, fending off seasickness and fear with my best remedy: not moving. When I was a kid, afraid of the Boogieman, I would hide motionlessly under my bed covers for hours on end. Not much has changed since then. Out here, the ocean is my Boogieman and lying flat is my only defense. My inner four-year-old rationalizes that if Ocean doesn’t know I’m here, then Ocean can’t kill me.

Ivan, however, is more alive than I’ve ever seen him. The ocean is his soul mate and he adores her wild, untamed beauty, her dangerous edge, and the fact that he has her all to himself for miles. The ocean has transformed him: his skin is golden and the sun has put highlights in his blond hair.

Lean and sculpted, his muscles are defined and his shoulders have broadened from working the boat day and night. He’s grown a rugged beard that accentuates his jaw and highlights the green tint of his eyes.

A view over Hiva Oa in French Polynesia.
A view over Hiva Oa in French Polynesia.

Inside the cabin of Amazing Grace, lying flat as a corpse, my mind races with worry and reflection. Our ‘quick sail down the coast’ has been nothing short of a traumatizing odyssey. We were supposed to take seven days to sail from L.A. to Cabo and, so far, with our long break in Turtle Bay, eating fish tacos washed down with Pacifico beers, we’ve taken twenty days.

This warm-up cruise is a preview of what’s to come, only on a month-long passage across the Pacific, there are no safe retreats en route. Out there, we’re vulnerable to anything from becalming to hurricanes. There’s no turning back, no emergency pit stops.

I’ve given it a good shot: 800 miles down the coast of Mexico is enough to familiarize myself with sailing, to find out if we’re compatible. It’s very clear that we hate each other. Ivan has told me that it will get easier when we reach the subtropics. He promises that the fine weather and blue skies will change the mood of being at sea. I don’t think so.

Ivan's prized boat, the Amazing Grace, or Gracie.
Ivan’s prized boat, the Amazing Grace, or Gracie.

Out here, it’s as though time and space no longer exist. The world and its pleasures are extinct. We’re suspended in an alien realm of chaos and we’re dependent on our man-mad equipment for survival. Humans are not supposed to be here.

Why would I keep torturing myself with this? And where is the line between unreasonable fear and real, likely danger?

Suck it up and do this! I tell myself. You’re brave, you’re strong, you can do it!

But my attempts to cheer myself on are ridiculous. I need to face up to the truth: I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this. I need to go home.

“We made it, baby,” Ivan says, giving me a fist pump, then a big hug as we round the spectacular rock formations of Cabo San Lucas, three weeks after departing Marina del Rey.

A Marquesan girl demonstrates how to scale and gut a red snapper.
A Marquesan girl demonstrates how to scale and gut a red snapper.

I choke up when his words hit me. We made it! I didn’t think we would, but through hell and high water, we’re here. An unfamiliar feeling grows from the pit of my belly: a surge of extreme pride. I grin until my cheeks ache.

This is it—the mountaintop perspective; the big O of my first adrenalin climax, and it feels amazing.

I devour the beauty of this crowded getaway. We glide past anchored cruise ships, which humble our tiny boat. Jet skiers zip around in the bay. The beach is lined with luxury resorts and seaside bars bustling with drinkers. Vacationers dot the white sand, making the most of a cloudless sky.

Never in my life have I been so grateful to arrive in a place packed with tourists wearing white sneakers and fanny packs. What a contrast to where we’ve been for the last twenty-two days—I almost forgot that the world is neither an expanse of ocean or a barren desert landscape.

“Look at this place. We sailed here!” I say.

I have a strong urge to get on a megaphone and shout to the crowds: Hello, everybody, we’re here, we made it! You don’t need to worry about us any more! We defeated the ocean! I want to jab the beach with a flag and declare it conquered.

My erupting ego is expecting the sunbathers to throw down their John Grisham novels and break out into a round of applause. I’d like a small celebration, please, nothing too extravagant, maybe some balloons, banners, and a marching band. Instead, the crowds continue to relax, not noticing us, despite my beaming aura of pride.

We’ve reached latitude 23° — the subtropics — and the weather has warmed up as if we had just passed through a door at the bay’s entrance with a hanging sign reading ‘Subtropical Room: Kindly Close Door Behind You.’ The sun embraces my body and begins to melt my apprehension. Accumulated anxiety puddles at my feet, leaving behind a thawed version of myself: a happy, hopeful optimist.

Ivan carefully negotiates Amazing Grace through a peak-hour congestion of nautical traffic. Party boats overflow with bikinis and muscular bodies, and only now does it occur to me that I haven’t showered or brushed my hair in a long time. Do I even have pants on? I feel around to be sure that I do.

Fishing under a Nuku Hivan sunset.
Fishing under a Nuku Hivan sunset.

Ivan swings Amazing Grace into her snug slip and I leap over the lifelines to cleat the boat to shore. I marvel at the feeling of being stationary. Ivan joins me on the dock and pulls me into a giant hug. “Te quiero,” he says. “I’m so proud of you.”

I’m astonished. “You are?”

“Of course I am. You did it.”

Despite witnessing me tucked into a cowardly ball for three solid weeks; despite seeing me vomit everything but my intestines; despite enduring volumes of tears and snot showered over his neck and being asked more than fifty times “Are we going to die?”, this man still loves me. But not only that, he’s actually proud of me. He’s a keeper.

Helena Wahlstrom

Helena Wahlstrom is a former editorial assistant at GoNOMAD and a former exchange student at UMass from Helsinki, Finland. She lives in New Hampshire where she works as an editor.

Love with a Chance of DrowningThe Perils of Loving a Free Spirit

Like this article? Share it with your friends!