Sunday, December 9, 2007

Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day

I sit in the comfort of the University of Charleston library, still finding it a bit difficult to relive the three day sail from Oriental to here. If I don’t write tonight though, it may be a while before my next opportunity.
I regret that our experiences after leaving Oriental were such that they overshadow all the good that came from our time at the town dock, so I will promise to give Oriental and the people we met the recognition they deserve in a future entry.
We left Oriental at 0900 one day last week. It was 4 hours of motoring down the ICW (with no more groundings!) before reaching Beaufort, where we could then leave the waterway and head back out into the Atlantic. Once offshore, a strong westerly breeze kept our speed up to 6 knots for hours… it seemed like we would be around Cape Fear in no time, and into Charleston late the next evening.
Then we learned a little something about the Gulf Stream.
The wind continued to pick up, and early on day 2, we had strong northwesterlies. We had both noticed the change in the water, primarily its warmth, but also the abundance of a certain kind of seaweed that is indicative of the stream. It’s around this time that things start to go a bit hazy… I don’t fully recall my decision making processes, or what I thought our situation was, or how I was reading the various signs. I think I doubted for a long time that we were in fact in the gulf stream, I never thought it would be so close to shore. I heard a lot of warnings about finding yourself in the gulf stream in a northerly wind, and the winds were already veering to the north, and the seas were building, and breaking frequently. Somewhere, sometime, one by one I guess, sails starting ripping. The line holding the clew (one of the corners) of the jib to the boom snapped, and that was it for the jib. I went up on the foredeck to try and tie it back on with another line, but it was flogging around madly, and when the bow went under and I went in to my waist, I thought, ‘this is ridiculous’. The downhaul for the jib is in the cockpit, so Justine pulled the sail down, and we left it at that… I decided to let the sail go, allowing it to flog around at will, and bit by bit over the following hours, or days I guess, we watched it go into pieces. I wasn’t risking going forward again unless it was absolutely necessary. In moments like these, you don’t really think about the monetary value of such items, despite their necessity for the trip south to continue. Well, you don’t think about it when one sail goes, but then when the mizzen busts to shreds and the reef point in the main tears a 2-foot hole in the sail, such things do begin to cross your mind. But safety of the crew and getting into the nearest safe port are first and foremost.

What was frustrating for the first 24 hours was trying to make our way west. We were 80 miles out, and southeast of Cape Fear’s ‘frying pan shoals’ and all we wanted to do was head back toward the continent. No matter how hard we tried, including motorsailing and steering a course of due west, we were going due south. In a current that runs 4knots in a northerly direction! South is good, but 80 miles out when all you want to see is land, west (or at LEAST southwest) is much better. I just didn’t get it… and I feel rather dense, slow, dimwitted, whatever you may want to call it, for not having gotten my head around it sooner. Perhaps lack of sleep, perhaps fear of the situation we were in, the incredible burden of responsibility I suddenly felt knowing I had another life in my hands, maybe all these things prevented me from accurately assessing the situation. Night was falling on Day 2, waves were frequently sweeping the entire boat and filling the cockpit with water, Effie was crying so loudly and mournfully, terrified and locked down below, and the wind was gale force… it bothers me to think of that sound. Justine later told me, that night as the sun disappeared below the horizon, all she could think about was, ‘There it goes… and it has to go all the way around the world again before it comes up. That’s so far to go!’. It was truly an awful feeling.
It was the longest night of my life, for certain. And I think Justine’s too. There was no moon, and the clouds began to hide the stars early in the evening. I could hardly bring myself to look at the waves, what little I could make of them from the whitecaps after they broke. But the seas were becoming confused, coming from the west as well as the north, and it seemed important to watch each and every one, and to steer into them rather than letting them hit the boat from the side. Of course neither of us slept, we each went down below for 2 hours each at some point in the night, the rest of the time we were on deck together, just for moral support. Although clipped in, Justine said that every time she heard a wave break over the boat, she would lay there, waiting for some sign that the boat was back on a good course, and that there was still a hand at the helm.

About an hour before sunrise, the boat lit up with an orangey glow. We looked off the stern, and there was a flare in the sky. Someone had fired a flare, perhaps from a vessel in distress, what else would it be? This remains one of the most disturbing parts of the passage. I tried calling the coast guard, but we were too far out for them to pick up our radio signal. We were concerned for our own safety at this point, still struggling to break out of the stream, shaking from cold, and seasickness and lack of rest and our inability to eat anything for the last 48hrs, so how could we possibly turn around to investigate? We couldn’t, yet it greatly distressed us, the thoughts that another small boat not unlike our own was in trouble, and people had fired the flare as a last attempt to call for help. We saw a container ship a few hours later, and tried to relay a message to them, but with no response. It haunts me.

In the morning, the waves had grown only slightly from what they were at the final light of the night before. The wind was now a northeasterly gale, and I finally realized that we were in some sort of counter-current, running off the edges of the stream itself, in the opposite direction. Now, with that mystery finally figured out, came the decision to run with it. Turn the boat southwest rather than northwest, and start surfing. This is where I approached the limits of my experience on small boats. It seemed a bit precarious to me, putting such massive waves behind the boat, it seemed like they could ‘catch-up’ with us, and as they were still breaking often, I just saw them rolling the boat over, as we surfed down the sides of them. Perhaps there was no danger of that at all, and that’s my inexperience talking; I worry about things I don’t know about, and always come up with the worst possible scenario. I call down to Justine that I was turning the boat around and the motion was going to feel a lot different in a minute. I waited for a lull in the waves, the most that could be expected in such conditions, and spun her around. For the next 18hrs, it took so much energy and concentration to keep her stern to the waves, and not allow us to become broad-side to the swells. Constantly looking at the compass, then looking behind, then compass, then behind. We often got warning waves… ones that would crash really close behind us, then would be followed by a train of the 3 largest waves of the last ten minutes. The sea was kind in this manner, because we were delirious and our minds would wander and eyes would close until we would hear these periodic wake-up calls.

Once the wind was behind us, I decided to set a sail. Why not, we still had one left to work with! I set the genoa, then realized the bottom shackle holding the tack of the sail had fallen off. That damn roller furl set-up has been nothing but trouble! Justine hauled it back in, and we set the main, double-reefed, since the single reef was torn, and this helped us remain more balanced and allowed us to throttle back the engine a bit and conserve some fuel.

Through it all we managed to keep our sense of humor and positive attitude. A visit from the gulf stream dolphins helped to lift spirits. Gulf stream dolphins are unlike the ones back home. For one thing, they’re huge! Another thing, they’re so rambunctious and energetic, they’re like the children you went to elementary school with that should have been on Ritalin. I saw a few Portuguese man-of-wars, the jelly fish with ‘sails’, and Justine yelled down to me asking if it was possible that there were hummingbirds way out here! She had seen her first flying fish.

I never felt like we weren’t going to make it… it was just knowing what we had to face between ‘now and land’ that was difficult. The boat took an awful beating, far worse than anything I’ve ever put her through, and likely worse than what her previous 2 owners had as well; she’d never before lost sight of Nova Scotia. So there was always that uncertainty… that she’s not been put to the test like this before, and despite my every effort in the last 18 months to make her sound and seaworthy, perhaps I missed something.

But here we are in Charleston, having arrived at sunrise on Day 4. Safe and sound, and three days later, beginning to get back to our old selves. We have done more work to the boat in the past 2 days than I think I have done since replacing the stem last spring. We get up early and go for a walk, then come back to the boat and buckle down to work. Replacing worn-out halyards and other lines, stitching sails, making chafe-gear, mousing shackles… doing absolutely everything that comes to mind, so there’s nothing left for Neptune to say ‘Ah-ha, but you forgot about THIS!’.
I renege all offers I made for selling the boat for cheap. Still, most of my thoughts during those days, when not begging the sea itself to let go of the boat and let us out of the stream, were of Nova Scotia… of the last place my feet had been on her shores, and how when I get back, I don’t think I’ll be going to sea again for a while.