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Hard slog to weather was incomparable experience

Aug 16, 2007
To the editor: It was the morning of our fourth day at sea. I was up in the cockpit of my cousin Ken’s Whitby 42 about 350 miles off the coast of South Carolina as we pounded against a 30-knot wind.

Even though I had been up most of the night, I knew I wouldn’t be able to go below into the cabin without getting seasick. So I stayed above deck, falling in and out of a fitful sleep, the boat rolling and pitching beneath me. Whenever the autopilot cut out, which was happening regularly now, I jumped up as fast as I could to grab the wheel to keep us from getting turned around and swamped by a wave.

At some point, completely exhausted, I finally managed to get a couple hours of unbroken sleep. Then, bolstered by a handful of ginger snaps and a few sips of water, I roused myself for Herb Hilgenberg’s Southbound II afternoon transmission. It was all just a confusion of static. But then, very clearly, we heard, “a collision of two fronts,” and then more static. We stared at one another. Ken’s look said exactly what I was thinking, “Did you hear what I just heard? Are we headed for a perfect storm?”

I had signed on to help my cousin Ken and his girlfriend Joyce make their first ocean passage on Painkiller, the 1974 Brewer-designed ketch Ken had bought a few months before. The trip was to be a weeklong sail from the Carolinas to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.

Ken is a 58-year-old licensed captain who’s been on the water since he was a boy. His sailing experience makes it easy for someone like me, who has very little, to have the confidence to set out on a 1,000-mile open ocean crossing where you won’t see land for a week. He used to be the offshore sailing coach for the U.S. Coast Guard academy, he’s crossed the Pacific in a 40-ft catamaran, and the trip we had planned is one Ken has done as a delivery captain more than 50 times.

We shoved off on a cool fall morning, a 15-knot northwest wind at our back, heading out for the tropical North Atlantic. Our first shakedown issue arose on our second day out. When down in the aft berth, Ken said he could hear a metal grinding sound coming from the stern. We lowered the sails, and Ken and I dove overboard to check on the rudder. We searched for wear around the external area of the rudderpost, but everything appeared to be fine. Ken is also a marine surveyor, and since he seemed OK with what we saw, so were we.

We sailed southeast for the rest of the day, and by nightfall we were another 120 miles or so out to sea. The day was capped off nicely when just after sunset our trolling line sang out, and I pulled in a 40-pound yellowfin tuna.

After a fresh tuna dinner, we began our night watches. I took the midnight to 0400 watch and was rewarded with a crescent moonrise. It first appeared on the horizon like a lighted boat bobbing in the waves, then rose up through the clouds to illuminate the entire eastern sky. I sat alone in the cockpit exhilarated by the smell of the salt air and the sound of the wind in the sails and the waves slapping the hull. Bathed in moonlight, the wide, dark ocean seemed like a familiar and hospitable place. I thought, “This is why you do this.”

But my time of being at one with the sea wasn’t to last. The next afternoon Ken explained that we’d have to make an adjustment to our course because that night the winds were set to build to more than 30 knots and swing right around straight in our faces. “We’re going to be beating to weather,” he said. While we still had some daylight, Ken directed Joyce and me as we reset our course and reefed the mainsail. “We don’t want a knockdown,” Ken said.

After dark, I went down below to try to get some sleep. I didn’t have much luck. Along with the building winds, the seas rose to about 8 feet or more, and every so often we’d launch off a wave and then slam back down with a bang that shuddered through the whole boat.

That night, Ken figured out what that grinding noise was — a loose rudderpost packing nut adjacent to the autopilot system. He now had to go down into the aft berth repeatedly to squeeze himself under the bunk so he could tighten the nut to keep the autopilot working. It was a constant battle above and below decks that we sometimes felt we were losing.

Up in the cockpit, you’d hear the telltale series of beeps from the system control, signaling it had lost control of the helm. If we didn’t jump up right away and grab hold of the wheel, it would immediately start spinning and the boat would take a sharp turn off course, turning us sideways to the waves and putting us in danger of getting swamped.

It only got worse as the fourth day dawned and it became clear there’d be no letup in the wind. Even with the reefed mainsail, the boat heeled over so far the lee rail was under water.

Just after first light, Joyce struggled up the companionway from the cabin and, when she saw the size of the waves that had formed overnight, she froze. It took a great deal of courage for her to take the next steps up into the cockpit. I was really glad she did because Ken was below trying to get some sleep, and I was getting seasick again. Joyce and I took turns grabbing the wheel when the autopilot kicked out.

It was that afternoon when we tuned in our radio to hear the “perfect storm” weather report from Herb. We couldn’t believe our ears. Even Ken, who’s been at sea in hurricane-force winds, seemed concerned. After the report he made a call on our VHF radio to a Brazilian boat that had set out from Beaufort the same morning we had. Turns out, they were within 20 miles of us, and they’d heard the entire broadcast.

They explained that there was a low-pressure system forming to the south between the Virgin Islands and us. The system seemed on track to meet up with a tropical wave coming out of the Caribbean. The Brazilians said they weren’t going to risk it. They would simply keep heading due east and in a couple of days reach Bermuda to wait out the weather there.

Ken held off making a decision. He said we’d see what the next day’s weather report would bring and decide then. So we beat to weather for another day. The winds would seem as though they were going to back off a bit, then they’d come back stronger than before. No one ate much.

The winds kept up at about 25 to 30 knots for another whole day and, when that afternoon’s transmission from Herb was still warning about the converging systems to the south, we decided to head for Bermuda, too.

Whether mocking our decision or confirming it I don’t know, but our last day out couldn’t have been a more perfect one. Just before dawn, the winds eased to about 15 to 20 knots, and we spent the day sailing briskly along over big blue rollers. That afternoon, we spied a pod of humpback whales, and shortly after sunset we caught the first glimpse of the revolving light of Gibb’s Hill Lighthouse.

It was well after midnight by the time we dropped anchor at Powder Hole in Bermuda’s St. Georges Bay. After six days at sea, we’d traveled a little more than 600 miles, but made only about 300 miles toward our destination. For me, this was the end of the line. My vacation time was up, I’d have to jump ship and fly back home, while Ken and Joyce continued on without me.

Yet, even though I didn’t make it to my destination, I’d certainly had a trip I’ll never forget. Yes, I could do without the seasickness and the somersault I did across the cockpit one night when I lost my grip on the helm and got knocked off my feet. But any ocean passage is an incomparable experience.

Timothy Long is executive news editor for Computer Reseller News and lives in Hallandale Beach, Fla.

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