It was eerie. Seventy-two hours after being spit out of Trinidad's Dragon Mouth, the sailing was still near perfect. The southeast trades were steady at twenty knots, puffy clouds floated overhead by day, only to be replaced by a canopy of stars by night. Super Chief, a well-traveled Hylas 49 sloop was leaving a wake of phosphorescence as she averaged 8 knots over the bottom. Life was good. In fact, it was about as good as it gets aboard an offshore sailboat; the motion was tolerable, the food was plentiful, the beer was even cold and most importantly, everybody was getting along famously. I was beginning to worry that my training passage crew would think that this was what offshore sailing was really like. Heck, they might even want a refund unless we encountered something that would produce a few yarns when they returned home.
With no squalls or dire mechanical problems in the offing, I resorted to the next best thing, sea stories. That night, as we gathered in the cockpit for a drink before dinner, I cleverly steered the conversation toward some of my trials of the past. Naturally the winds and waves are always just a tad higher in the retelling, or as the late Tristan Jones once told me, "My stories are all true, I just remember them differently each time." This time, however, my vivid descriptions of encounters with hurricanes, coral reefs and mean spirited boats backfired. Soon the crew was insisting that I pin down my all time "worst" and "best" single days at sea.
This was a mean trick, one that I usually use when I ask annoying questions like, "okay you're stranded on a desert island for a year and you can only bring three books...?" Now it was my turn and I was flummoxed. Ironically, plenty of candidates for the worst day rushed to mind, but precious few best days volunteered. I suppose it makes sense. Bad days are remembered in gory detail, and in my case at least, usually end up being written about. Good days are described with sappy, Pat Conroy like phrases - they don't have the same bite; they blur together. In many ways, good days are good because nothing worth remembering happened. Clearly I was struggling. Luckily I had the first watch and I told the crew I would seriously ponder the question and announce the results in the morning.
We were just clearing the Mona Passage, between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, as I settled in for my watch. The sails were nicely trimmed and the autopilot was in command. I nursed my cup of coffee, propped my feet up, put a cushion behind my back and began to think. Never one for ground rules, I decided that a day would be defined by twenty-four hours, not a few hours of bliss or misery. Otherwise, all my sailing time was on the table. Yikes!
Bad days demanded to be first. The logical candidate for the worst of the worst was a long ago October when our little Contessa 32 was capsized by a roguish wave three hundred or so miles southeast of Bermuda. We were forereaching with just a triple-reefed main, slowly punching into tropical storm force winds, and we felt miserable. A couple of plastic jerry cans had chafed their lashings and spilled into the cockpit. Just imagine sitting in a diesel slick while slamming into twenty-foot waves, and then imagine doing it for thirty-six hours. The wave that finally capsized us was out of sequence and struck the boat on the quarter. Pop, over we went and I was flung into the soup. Luckily I was harnessed and tangled up in the mainsheet. The boat righted itself quickly and I came up right next to the boat and was able to drag myself back aboard. Yes, that was a bad day at sea and it got worse before it got better, but was it the worst?
|"When I called a nearby tanker on the VHF, the radio officer informed me it was blowing "force 13." "Force 13," I screamed back into the mike, "I thought the Beaufort scale only went to 12!" "|
The night we nearly sank in the Gulf Stream while delivering a brand new Hylas 49 was definitely a bad day, the water was waist high and we were just minutes from abandoning ship when we miraculously found the leak. The night we dragged anchor and piled onto the reef on an isolated atoll off the coast of Belize was a bad day. We nearly lost the boat and I vividly remembered thinking that a picture of good old Fortuna, stranded high and dry for posterity (or at least until she finally and fully oxidized), would be featured in Nigel Calder's next guidebook, a glaring example of shoddy seamanship.
Of course my four hurricane encounters had to be considered. A few years ago Hurricane Mitch strafed us and, although the seas were mountainous and it certainly qualified as a very bad day at sea, we were never really in danger. We sailed through the eye of both Hurricane Bob and Arlene, again these were terrifying experiences but these storms were fast moving and I knew that if we just hung on it would soon be over. Hurricane Grace provided more of a thrill than anything else.
I also remembered a monumental Southern Ocean gale after we rounded Cape Horn, and the terror of a plunging barometer as we approached the Horn. Pressure dropped to 971 millibars, something you'd expect in a category 4 or 5 hurricane, but the storm never developed. It was spooky. I also remembered days of profound sadness, including the empty hours at sea after learning that my dear friend Carl Wake had perished in Hurricane Lenny.
Still, the worst of the worst, was a cold February 1 in the North Atlantic. I was delivering an Ocean 71 across the pond to Sweden. Yes, that's right, I said February. A monumental westerly gale developed incrementally and all through the day we reduced sail. By nightfall we were surfing down waves at fifteen knots under staysail alone. I have never before or since felt wind with that much power. When I called a nearby tanker on the VHF, the radio officer informed me it was blowing "force 13." "Force 13," I screamed back into the mike, "I thought the Beaufort scale only went to 12!" In a remarkably calm voice, he replied, "Well skipper, then call it force unlucky."
Soon after that call, all hell broke loose. A nasty wave struck us amidships and we nearly broached as the storm jib backed. Boom, the tack pennant exploded, the bronze hanks parted like PlayDough and the staysail flew straight up into the air. It looked like a grotesque imitation of a Chinese kite, and after sweeping the mast clean of all instruments and antennas, and threatening to rip the spreaders out of their sockets, suddenly plummeted into the water and together with the sheet, wrapped itself around the prop shaft for all it was worth.
My crew consisted of the late Joe Murton, and my old girlfriend and great sailor, Molly Potter. Joe dashed below to check on the shaft while I frantically cut the halyard first and then reaching over the side attacked the sail and sheet. "How bad is it Joe," I asked when he returned to the deck. Joe, like most Englishmen, tended to understate most things, said, "John, we need to free that sail urgently or..." He left off there because we all knew what he meant. If the shaft was ripped out of the boat, we would sink into the stormy, frigid North Atlantic and survival was not part of the equation.
Reaching outboard as far as I could, I slashed at the sail with pure hatred in my heart. It took me a moment to realize that I cut my thumb knuckle clean off but there was no time to worry about it. I picked it up, stuck it back in place, held it with my forefinger and kept cutting. Joe wrestled the sail along the hull and I slashed. Finally, miraculously, it broke free. Throughout the ordeal Molly was steering and we were still topping 10 knots under bare poles. As Joe and I lay panting on the deck, the spreader lights mysteriously came on and cast an eerie glow over the blood soaked deck.
Then suddenly we heard a tremendous crash. We dashed below and ripped open the engine room door. The huge, 12 KW generator had sheered its mounts and collapsed onto the main diesel. It was in the process of destroying both machines. I hollered at Joe to get some line and then I threw myself at the generator. I propped my back against it, and summoning all my remaining strength, pried it upright while Joe lashed it in place.
Back on deck the storm had intensified. Joe was utterly spent and Molly needed to get below. I wrapped a towel around my hand and took the helm. I had lost a lot of blood and nodded in and out of consciousness. Fortunately, my head would droop into the spokes of the wheel when I dozed off, snapping me back to life. Oh yes, I concluded, we have a winner, this long day and night eleven years ago takes the prize.
Unfortunately my watch was almost over, I had to hurry to come up with the all-time best day. A host of lovely sailing days came to mind. I remembered a remarkable run in the Pacific while delivering a Gulfstar 50 to Japan. We reeled off consecutive 200-mile days and better yet, would be overrun by schools of hungry tuna each afternoon. Fishing consisted of picking out which tuna you wanted, dangling a hook and pulling dinner aboard. I recalled a glorious passage from Belize to Honduras. As we approached Cayos Cochinos, we surged before steep waves with an accompaniment of dolphins, who were at times looking down at us. I remembered peaceful days sailing inside the Belize reef with Lesa and Nari, who was just a baby and loved rolling around the padded cockpit well as the boat rolled.
I also remembered my extraordinary days when I used to cross the Atlantic to pay my bills. One particular passage from the Canary Island to Antigua was a near perfect ocean voyage. We ambled before the trades with only a poled out headsail, content with an easy six knots, in no rush to end our idyllic existence. We read books, baked bread, made love, oh yes, that was a nice passage. Still that's the problem, nice days blur, it is hard to pick just one. But there is one and it finally came to me.
It was another long ago January, however this time I was approaching the bottom of the world. Of all my days at sea, rounding Cape Horn was the best of the best. As if to reward us for having the audacity to attempt a windward doubling of the Horn without much experience and in a 9,000 lbs toy of a boat, the wind did the almost unthinkable and backed to the east the night we approached old Cape Stiff. The morning dawned gray but it was perfect shade of gray for a young man about to complete a rite of passage. At 1000 hours I spied the Barnevelt Islands. At 1200 Cape Horn loomed into view. The east winds were clocking to the south and we eased the sheets as we passed the storied headland. I wrote in my book, Cape Horn to Starboard, "The Horn is a sight I'll never forget. It is not beautiful, it's humbling." I was humbled but I was also proud and finally ready to call myself a sailor. That night Neptune's benevolence was over. The wind returned to the west and blew into a moderate gale, yet ironically, that was the perfect conclusion to my best day at sea.