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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Suddenly a Sailor


James and I putting out the spinnaker the first day (before the storm)
If you have been reading this blog for a while, you may remember that around the time the Printing House Squash Club was getting broken down last year, a squash friend of mine from the club sold his apartment, pulled his kids out of school, bought a 55 foot Catamaran and sailed off into the sunset, you know, in the hopes of spending the winter in the Caribbean and then the summer loping around the Mediterranean. You can read that article here: From Bermuda With Love.

In order to successfully achieve his lifelong dream, he would need to do one not so insignificant thing: he would need to sail across the North Atlantic as captain of his own vessel, with the most precious cargo of all onboard—his wife and two young children (ages seven and ten). And to get across the Atlantic safely, he would certainly need crew other than his wife, especially if there were storms en route. This would be James's first Atlantic crossing. To try it without crew would have been crazy.

When James sent out the invite, it went to a group of his squash friends in New York. An interesting proposal, I thought immediately, since he did not invite us to a squash tournament in Bermuda, or to just chill in St Martin or drink daiquiris on the beach in Dominica, or go island-hopping in Greece or Croatia (my mind wanders). He wanted us to sign up for the longest, hardest leg of the journey. A journey which would take a lot of time and would involve a fair amount of work, definitely a little risk, and, how shall I say this….a certain degree of hardship.

Well, the three of us (suckers) that signed up to go crew for James had no idea what we were in for. Nor did James, I suspect.

There is a weather window for sailing the almost 2,000 miles from Bermuda to the Portugese islands of the Azores. This window opens in May each year. This is the month during the year when one is least likely to encounter a storm. It is after the winter storms have ended and before the summer storms start. Of course, there are exceptions. Like this year, for instance, when a massive 1,000 mile wide low pressure system descended over Bermuda on May 7th (the day after we departed) and proceeded to wreak havoc on the east coast of the U.S. It also caused trouble for a few boats in the North Atlantic, too. Some of these boats were oil tankers, others were 100 foot sailing vessels that flew south and away from the storm at over 20 knots. And then there was us. A smallish, slow vessel caught slam dunk in the middle of a massive storm system that covered most of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Good thing the weather services we used did not pick it up in advance, I thought, else they would probably be the only two reliable weather services in the entire world....So now it was up to us to get through it. We were due east of Bermuda and the eye of the storm was directly behind us, so we needed to head on a 90 degree true course to make it out of the storm as fast as possible. Maintaining a constant heading is not an easy thing in rough seas and strong winds on a Catamaran with no keel to hold us on course, especially when the autopilot stops working. The quickest route out of a circle is taking a line parallel to the radius, the captain reminded us. And this was pretty much the course we wanted to take anyway. Fortunately it was made possible owing to the uncharacteristic south westerly and then southerly winds we found ourselves in, but which made sense given where we were in the storm. A low pressure moves counter clockwise in the northern hemisphere. Another saving grace is that the eye of the storm was heading slowly north, i.e. away from us.

The next day the strongest winds we experienced were forty five knots and the biggest seas around twenty feet. In a bigger boat this would not have been a real problem. But I am pretty sure that a small Catamaran is not designed for this type of weather. We were flying down these huge waves, basically windsurfing them. I would watch these walls of water rise up behind James as he stood at the helm in the stern of the boat. Some of the waves were so vertical behind him that he could have reached back and touched them. I am glad he did not have the time to look behind him. He was focused on keeping the boat from rolling in the huge swells, which meant riding them for a bit, until we were moving as fast as they were and then turning and dumping the wind out of the sails and letting the big swell pass harmlessly beneath us. Easier said than done.

At one point our starboard hull was lifting and the port hull was digging in. The waves were crashing over the deck of the boat. One went right through the cockpit and it reminded me of the waves I played in as a kid. The lip of the wave flies by just overhead and you needed to keep your head down or risk getting knocked out. That wave would have washed anyone on the wheel overboard for sure, I thought. Good thing the autopilot was on (and was working) and there was nobody standing close to the stern of the boat. I was near the door to the salon and was protected from the wave. Until this point, I was still having a lot of fun actually, but that wave that went right over us made me realize the gravity of the situation we were in.

That night we encountered a little lightning, because, you know, the wind and waves were really not enough of a challenge. A dark and stormy night indeed….the lightning was terrifying. We were zigzagging our way through it for what seemed like forever. By the time it was morning we were relieved that we were mostly through it as the lightning seemed to have petered out. But the cloud cover was low and it was still very dark. It was hard to tell that dawn had broken. As I scanned the ocean somewhere near the end of my third hour of watch I noticed a low white cloud that seemed out of place and hanging suspended under the dark carpet of cloud above it. I watched it grow a tail that wagged and spun and grew bigger. As it neared the surface of the ocean, I watched as the sea rose up to meet it. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. Next thing I know this water spout (tornado) expands and becomes wider and is spinning around violently. And it is coming straight at us. I was not happy.

With this large water spout bearing down on us and not sure which way to turn to avoid it, we called the captain to the rescue. Needless to say, with instructions in hand, we did a quick sharp turn and got the hell out of there as fast as possible. The water spout flew by on the port side and disappeared into the darkness as fast as it had arrived. I get chills when I envisage what would have happened to the boat if we were at the spot where the water spout formed. And who knows how many of those things went flying by us in the middle of the night. That would have been one heck of a rude wake up call.

After days of taking a beating, the boat was still afloat but many of the critical parts had suffered in the storm. The rudder, sails, lines, autopilot, cleats, toe-rails, hydrolic steering, water-maker, engines, bilges, black water system, gray water system, fresh water tanks, the whole damn boat seemingly had taken its turn in breaking down - or just breaking - in one way or another. Well, at least the propane tanks had not leaked and the hull was intact, I remember thinking. Just then a shout from below as someone discovered that the hull was, in fact, taking on water as every new wave hit us. I could not even bring myself to go below and look at the problem and was quite happy that the experts were on it. After an hour or so the leak was fixed and we could all breathe easy. That was a very long hour for me. I think I spent that time wondering why I had volunteered for this trip in the first place. The only redeeming thought was that I would not die in hospital, but on my 'own terms' in the middle of nowhere on the ocean....

What next? The only critical thing left to break was the mast... but that would have taken us literally rolling over, in which case we would have had bigger problems, like grabbing the life rafts and exiting the tiny escape hatches in an upside down hull (that I probably would not fit through anyway…). We rechecked the inventory just in case. We had three EPIRBS onboard, three medical kits, two life rafts and two sea anchors. Wow. It was almost like we were preparing for a massive disaster. I hoped that we had not sealed our collective fate.

Well, the mast did not break. And we made it through two of those big storm systems in the end and were pushed by the wind to a position two days west and directly downwind of Horta, our Azorean destination. So we dropped the sails and motored the rest of the way in using the engines - and the fuel in the tanks. Thank goodness we had procured extra 'emergency' fuel before leaving. It cost us half a day but was well worth it in the end. Good call by the first mate in retrospect. Our last drop of emergency fuel ran out as we arrived in the harbor. We were jumping to get off the boat but it took about an hour to shut off the diesel engine that was getting no fuel, go figure.

When we finally disembarked we kissed the ground and danced like mad men.

In retrospect, as a complete amateur, I was nowhere near prepared for the crossing. But none of us really were, even the old ‘sea dogs’. The boat certainly was not. But, as our fearless captain pointed out, one never really is ready for this sort of thing. And he went on to point out that the effort required to maintain a boat in working condition is not a destination either, it is a journey. He was so right. In the end you are at the mercy of Mother Nature anyway and no amount of preparedness will help you. You are so small and helpless in a yacht in the middle of the ocean that sometimes even your best attempts to control the situation are just totally futile.

Looking back, the trip was just as emotionally and mentally draining for all of us, as it was physically tiring. It continually required strength and patience and determination of all of the crew. It also often required making decisions under pressure and following through and being disciplined in your actions. From the captain it demanded leadership, intelligence and confidence. And we all had to trust him. And we had to trust the boat. And we all had our moments - at some point every one of us succumbed to the pressures we were under. But we got through the hardship as a team.

I was surprised that we achieved this in the end, given the disparate crew we had on board. None of us were or ever had been professional sailors. There was the CEO (James, the captain), the movie director, the real estate developer, the book editor, the property manager, two crazy kids and myself. We had never sailed together before as a group, but most of us knew each other pretty well from squash; you can tell a lot about a person after you’ve spent some time with them on a squash court. So we knew that there were many leaders on this trip, but not so many followers. In the most stressful situations though, we each rose to the challenge, worked hard and took orders as best we could, and made the crossing without serious incident.

Mission accomplished, one could say. And not bad for a motley crew of squash players.


Our 'life raft', named "Ondine"


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