The destination was south by way of Bermuda. Leaving through the southern entrance to buzzards bay. It was 600 miles to Bermuda and much farther to the more southern islands. Just He and I aboard s/v Charis. I had every faith in Charis and trusted him with my life. We sailed through the area where JFK juniors plane went down. The south side of Martha’s vineyard . Very sad and and very powerful. The beginning of our sail was a little rough as it always is when sailing close to the shore. The convergence of sea, land, currents and wind can act a bit like a washing machine. Then it smoothed in the night, but still held the October chill. We sailed well together, he and I, on his boat. Charis was always his boat, his home and that was never to be forgotten. He knew her inside and out. He knew what made her tick and how to fix any of her ailments. Too bad he never tuned into me that way.
The fridge was stocked with food and block ice. It was layered accordingly, with one pot wonders on top for offshore meals in the pressure cooker. At about 300 miles into blue water we hit a calm. There was no wind but there were these back eddy’s in the water. We were crossing over the massive current that flows from the south to the north, the Gulf stream. It holds enough power to push the biggest boats off course. I had the most unexpected feeling of “the other shoe dropping”. The silence was sickening, until the heart stopping sound came from down below. The bilge alarm was going off. This meant the boat was taking on water and fast. He yelled take the helm and with lightening speed flew down below. The fear enveloped my entire being. As he crashed and banged below decks I prayed above deck. The engine had a vibration that ended up pulling the hose off of the stuffing box.
This is not a small problem. This is a massive could sink your boat in a second problem. I don’t know how but by the grace of God, he did it. He fixed it in a Macgyver type way with some inner tube and putty of some sort. We weren’t sinking any more. He saved us from climbing up into the life raft that day. However this problem left us with out an engine. There was no choice but to keep it old school for the rest of the trip. It was another 300 miles give or take to Bermuda and there was no wind for our sails…until that night, the wind picked up. Happy to have the wind moving us forward, we had no idea what was coming next.
He did all of the right things before leaving Dartmouth. Weather reports, Bob Rices weather windows for offshore mariners. Bob Rice studied weather and when weather windows would come up he would notify those that paid him for his services. He helped the sailors who didn’t have all of the latest technology to locate their window of opportunity to get sailing offshore. This was October in the north east and it was either cold and nasty or colder and nastier, it depended on the day. We got our window of opportunity and left. However, whats the old saying “Man makes plans and God laughs”?
After surviving the almost sinking, we thought we could get through anything that we were well protected. We were right in saying well protected but that didn’t mean we weren’t going to be challenged. Having only a few years (mostly offshore) of sailing experience I could hold my own to a point. It took a lot to shake me from owning the task at hand. He had many years of sailing experience under his belt, mostly in New England. This is where the term Nor’ Easter would send shivers up any ones spine. What we were sailing into nobody could be warned of.
The weather picked up that night and even more so the next day. We were able to make headway but not with out reefing the Main sail to less than half and to only a small triangle of the storm sail. This means that there was so much wind that if the entire sail was up it would either rip into shreds or it would knock the boat on its ear. The closer we got to Bermuda the worse the storm was. Later that day he got on the single side band radio and touched base with a ham radio operator by the name of Herb Hilgenberg of the “Southbound II” fame.
Herb operated out of Canada helping Mariners with offshore weather info. Herb was serious in what he was doing. Once you checked in with him he had you in his sights and would follow you through as far as he could. We got on his list of check ins. Signal was sketchy at best. He told us there was a massive convergence that would be a danger to all mariners in that area. He didn’t say this, but it was a hurricane that wouldn’t be named because of how it came together. We weren’t alone in this massive shit storm, but that didn’t make us feel any better. We were advised to” heave to” until the system passed. That meant to basically remove all sails (which we had already done) and ride it out with the helm locked down.
To help put this into perspective, we were in a space of 35′ by 9.5′ and we were double harnessed in to the cockpit. The cockpit of this boat had no dodger for protection from weather, except for a turtle hatch above the companion way. Which is fine if you are in good weather. We were not. There was no protection from wind or rain or waves. There was nothing to break the view from behind us. These were by far the biggest waves I had ever seen in my life. They were at least 25′ and breaking. The waves were following at one point and then as weather moved, it put them on our beam (our side). We tried our best to quarter up the waves and hang on to our asses coming out the other side.
After 24 hours of this, it was beginning to wear on all three of us, him, me and the boat. The whole time during this storm we knew the repair could come undone and that would be that. There would be no recovery from this. Eyeballing the distance to the life raft and where the on deck knives were, I had a plan if I needed one, and I’m sure he did as well. Then out of nowhere in front of God and everyone a rogue wave hit us. The wave lifted us up and put us on our side while all of its mass poured over the top of us. He and I were literally standing up on side of the cockpit, feet on one side and head on the other hanging on to whatever we could find. There was nothing but green water everywhere.
This means we didn’t just get the top of the wave over us, we got the whole enchilada. Which is why it had the power to do what it did. Charis may be a smaller boat but she draws six feet and she is heavy and weighed down with all of our stores for the trip. There was power in that wave and this is where I learned the term “Green Water”. We only lost a few things over board. Thank God for our harnesses and our sheer strength and will to live. It was at that moment we looked at each other and started making plans for our land jobs if we made it out of this mess alive.
That night he made another effort to contact Herb on Southbound II. Herb said if we had a sea anchor ( a parachute that is attached to the boat but thrown over board to slow the boat from getting pushed off course) to put it out that things weren’t quite finished. It would be more than 48 hours that he and I and Charis were hove to before things started to settle down enough to put a little sail up. We could handle the 10-15 foot seas that remained. We finally made good progress towards Bermuda. However the channel into St Georges was narrow and unforgiving without an engine. This meant that we needed all of our wits about us, well about him anyway.
We had gone way to long with out sleep. So in order to make the approach he had to rest. He went below and I sailed in circles . Now I don’t know if he ever got any sleep because I had to sing to keep myself awake. I cant carry a tune to save my life but it helped me keep my eyes open. As the day grew brighter we headed for St Georges cut. He sailed us through and luckily the sides of the channel didn’t block all of our wind. We were exhausted and elated. We dropped the hook (set the anchor) and had to rest before putting together the inflatable dinghy and checking in to immigration.
We learned that the storm had dismasted sailboats and threw some crewman over board as well as a few may day calls to the coast guard. I cant explain the feeling of gratitude and awe that I felt having survived that massive force of nature. The winds as it turned out were clocked at close to 70 mph and that was just 6 feet of the deck. We were simply a tiny speck of nothing compared to what surrounded us.
Trying to walk on land after having been through that was hysterical. It didn’t feel like land at all. Every time I went to put my foot down it seemed like there was nothing there for it to touch. It felt like I was trying to walk on top of a tub full of bubbles. The sound of the wind from that storm will be forever embedded in my mind. After regrouping and touching base with other sailors and a repair shop we couldn’t fix the engine problem in Bermuda. This meant only one thing…raise our sails and get used to tacking our way south. Destination St Maarten, and so it went and so we went.