Picture this: You're bouncing along through the Gulf Stream—wet and miserable in the cockpit, but going below decks it's a lurching nightmare. I endured just such a scenario not too long ago. We—two couples on a pleasure cruise to the Bahamas—we're literally trapped in the cockpit. It was stuffy and dry down below with all the hatches
sealed, but, man, it was definitely sloppy and wet up on deck. Pleasure cruise? We were miserable! Six-foot waves—what NOAA had termed “moderate chop”—felt like eight when we were pitted against the Gulf Stream current. Baths of saltwater careened as far aft as the cockpit; and we were constantly hanging on, as if riding a bucking bronco. It felt as if we were in a maelstrom with squall after squall brewing winds up to 30 knots, and then dropping cloudbursts of rain that washed over us like a waterfall. For much of that passage is was dark, so dark we couldn't even see the weather coming. What we had originally thought would be a spirited 50-mile run from Palm Beach to the Bahamas turned out to be a seemingly endless snail's crawl with many anxious moments.
What went wrong, you might ask? At the time we thought we were fully prepared. Before departing we had supped on board, downed some Bonine, and then took to our berths for a solid few hours of rest, with the alarm set for 2:00 a.m. in order that we might arrive at the end of the passage in daylight and more easily manage the shallow areas that commonly surround Bahama entry points. We had tried to do everything right, so we would feel safe. The boat was fully equipped for offshore travel, with all systems updated, and everything needed for night navigation was handy (binoculars, flashlights, etc.). We had the added benefits of electronic charting, radar, and an autohelm. But once underway, after we had donned our foul-weather gear and snapped our safety harnesses to the cockpit jack lines, that's when we realized how confined we were.
The low-pressure system we encountered was to have passed through by the time we departed, but it was very much with us. And as we slogged through the heavy seas, every time we glanced at the knotmeter we'd groan because it rarely jumped above three-and-a-half knots. “We'll be lucky to hit the Bahamas before nightfall,” one of us groused. To make matters worse, our medication wasn't working or had worn off, because we were all sick. Larry sat stoically, like a Buddha, at the helm, holding off the queasies, while a pasty-faced Jim bent over the lee side discarding his stomach contents with Ellie, who was also ailing, hanging onto the back of his pants. I remember gripping the stanchion and cushioning my spinning head on my hand while willing the whole episode to be a bad dream.
If only we could've gone below to get the acupressure bands or the vial of Bonine—surely another dose would help. And wouldn't it have been smart to put some paper towels in the cockpit, along with some more water, plain crackers, and some kind of food. Visions of using the head danced through our heads, and once or twice those desperate enough among us slipped below for a little relief. But time seemed to stand still, with nothing to focus on but our discomfort. And all we had for amusing ourselves was the act of bracing for the next wave, the next downpour; and whining about wish-we-hads and shoulda-dones.
As the hostess on that trip, I felt a keen sense of failure. I had let down my crew, and I vowed that it would never happen again. So since that time I've made certain that before we depart on a long trip, or one that I suspect will be rocky, our cockpit is set up for “camping.” Now, when we go offshore, everything we need for creature comfort is within arm's reach. I fill and place three types of holders in the cockpit area: a cooler bag; a dry goods bag; and an entertainment bag. If we are on an overnight trip, I refresh the contents of each bag in the morning, and after dinner for the night watches.
I use a marine-grade soft cooler, one made by Horizons, and strap it to the pulpit so it won't slide about. I stuff it with water bottles, sodas, juice boxes, yogurt, cheese sticks, sandwich fixings—anything we might enjoy that should be kept cold, along with ice or frozen gel packs.
My dry goods bag is waterproof—transparent plastic makes it easy to quickly see and grab what we need. Once this bag is filled, I roll it and tuck it in a dry spot, such as under the dodger, or hang it just inside the companionway. Within this bag, I place separate zip lock bags—quart or gallon size—to keep similar items together and to further protect against moisture. I find it's best to avoid an overstuffed bag by including small portions of each item. In this dry goods bag, I toss foods that do not need to be kept cold, such bread, crackers, cookies, peanut butter, power bars, whole fruit, and trail mix. I enclose a few lengths of paper toweling or napkins, a travel pack of wet wipes, and some utensils, if needed.
Making up a proper seasickness kit is essential; I include acupressure bands, aromatic motion sickness oil, ginger tablets or crystallized ginger, and over-the-counter medications (which usually need to be taken in advance of the trip and retaken as they wear off).
Having an entertainment bag is optional, but it is a godsend when the crew needs to be awake and alert. For this I usually put together a large, waterproof plastic bag with our “toys” and fill it with reading materials, game books, a personal CD or cassette player, music cassettes or CD's and books on tape. I have found taped books and music invaluable on night watches. This bag usually resides in the cockpit or hung just inside the companionway.
During that dreadful trip across the Gulf Stream, we had no need for warm food as we traveled in tropical weather. However, in cold, raw weather, it's nice to warm up with a hot drink or soup. I normally don't keep a filled thermos in our cockpit. Instead, we use double-size insulated mugs with rubberized, broad bases and lids, which hold several hours' worth of morning coffee. I haven't yet tried them, but I know there are self-heating meals, which warm up when water is added. If they're deemed palatable, a few packets of these would make a hearty addition to the dry bag.
Now, about avoiding those trips down the companionway to use the head. “Going” overboard has historically been the source of many a drowning, so I certainly wouldn't recommend this, and using a bucket in the cockpit can be awkward and embarrassing to say the least. There are some compact, disposable travel toilet kits, which come in flat foil packets, and these might be worth trying. If you are worried about privacy, you should realize that no one would likely care to watch.
Weather wise, we should've waited an extra day, which we might've done had we relied on a weather routing service, and received more precise information concerning conditions. We also should have asked more questions locally—books don't tell you everything. Veteran sailors in Florida for whom crossing The Stream is no big deal know how to read the conditions. You'll hear them talk about “elephants on the horizon,” when the seas are up—up meaning in the 10 to12-foot range. We later learned that by and larger Floridians don't cross over to the Bahamas until April when most of the funky weather systems diminish. We made that trip in early March.
Being prepared for any eventuality when you set out to sea may not calm cantankerous seas or stave off bad weather, but I've found it plays its part in keeping a sailing crew as comfortable as possible on days when the need to go below decks is more a dare than an errand.