The Imperfect Storm

Can’t say I’d want to redo any of my lives. You probably figured that out already. The very fact I’m not living them any more is the first clue.

The sailboat life, albeit short – about a year – is the one I wouldn’t like to revisit the most. You’d think people who took to the high seas as a way of life would be inherently interesting as the teller of fascinating tales. If you think that, you would be wrong. In ports from Canada to Florida, I’ve listened to the hotly debated issue of whether Softscrub with or without bleach is the better product for scrubbing the decks. I bought both to indicate I was on the fence about that one and didn’t have an opinion either way.

Sometimes the conversational gambit switched to the only other issue our dockside companions were interested in. It was called “Storms I have known,” and a few of those were fairly provocative, but most were confined to, “All of a sudden this storm blew up, and we had to skedaddle out of there.” Not much better than the Softscrub debate. Having now dissed all my former dock mates for telling storm stories that were boring at best and stultifyingly boring at worst, I will proceed to tell you about a storm I knew.

But first, I’ll tell you about one aspect of our homeport, Sackett’s Harbor, NY, that I found very interesting. A big battle of the War of 1812 happened there. Right across the dock where our sailboat was tied up was a sunken 1812 warship. When the sun was at just the right angle, we could see the barnacle–covered bones of the wreck below the surface. Photographers from “National Geographic,” were on the dock, under the water, and all over the place in the summer we were there. They did a huge spread on the town and the sunken ship the next year.

There were 50 or so unsunk sailboats at our marina, but we were the only people who were there every day. The rest of the sailors showed up mostly on weekends. John had a great bit of sailing experience, and I had none at all.

We sold our house and moved onboard in May, planning to spend the summer practicing in preparation for sailing to Florida in August via the Intercoastal Waterway. Our practice field was Lake Ontario, the contrariest body of water outside the Bermuda Triangle on the planet. Many mornings we set out under sunny skies and calm winds only to run into an unpredicted and vicious gale five miles out. I guess it was good practice, but believe me, sometimes it was scary as “all git-out.” (That’s a down home Southernism.)

Down the dock from us was a 36-foot sloop owned by a retired engineer. He raced his boat in many weekend regattas and often came down during the week to take her out for a spin. Last Husband crewed for him for several races. Sometimes he invited us to come along to crew for a mid-week outing. We went gladly as the excursions offered valuable sailing experience. He always wanted me to take the helm while he and John hoisted the sail. I hated that part because the boat had a tiller rather than the more civilized wheel, with which our boat was equipped. Because of my right/left disability, I was always pushing or pulling the tiller the wrong way.

The retired engineer’s nickname was “Skip,” of course. He was in his late 70s, and fit as a man half his age. He was proud of this fitness and strutted about like a banty rooster when it was remarked upon by his fellow sailors.

One morning Skip showed up as we were eating breakfast in our boat’s cockpit. He bounced down the rattling planks of the deck to our boat. Following nowhere nearly close to him was an old guy who looked as though he may be on his last legs.

“How’d you like to go sailing this fine morning?” shouted Skip.

“Well,” I said, hesitating, “I don’t like the looks of those puffy clouds on the horizon.” I pointed toward Canada. Lake Ontario was bad enough under blue skies, but no one went out if there were even the tiniest clouds in sight.

“We’ll be just fine,” said Skip.

By this time the old guy had caught up with him and was humped over standing beside him on the narrower strip of planks separating the boats. He peered into the water behind him and inched his toes closer to the front edge.

“This is my old school buddy, Raymond Shelby,” said Skip, slapping the frail old guy on the back, causing him to lurch dangerously forward. “Actually, I should have said the Reverend Shelby,” he went on. “He’s a retired minister.” It was then I noticed the clerical collar underneath Rev. Shelby’s jacket. I couldn’t believe the two were contemporaries. There was Skip, as robust and “hail fellow well met,” as you’d ever want to see, and there was the reverend, bent and sallow, looking as though he’d rather be anywhere else as long as it was indoors.

“He’s never sailed before, and I’d like to take him out. I thought we’d have a picnic lunch on the island,” said Skip, holding up a picnic basket. “Come along and crew for me .”The island to which he referred was a good three hours out in medium winds. It was also situated directly under those puffy clouds on the distant horizon. Not wishing to be taken for wooses, we said we would come along.

“Great,” shouted Skip, as he dragged Rev. Shelby down the dock to “Black Pearl,” his sleek racing sloop. Before we followed them, we went below and gathered up our yellow storm gear, just in case.

“If it were anybody but Skip, I wouldn’t leave the dock today,” I said to John. He agreed. We wouldn’t have tried it on our own, but we felt confident a sailor with Skip’s experience could get us out of any trouble in which we might find ourselves.

We locked the cabin door on our boat and scooted down to Skip’s boat. The engine was already idling and Rev. Shelby sat in the cockpit, his hands clasped on his knees. He looked as though he were about to be fed to the lions.

We stowed our storm gear below deck and Skip backed Black Pearl out of her slip. The waters were calm under blue skies as we moved into the bay, the engine purring contentedly.The Rev. Raymond Shelby sat on the cockpit bench still looking uncomfortable.
The bay gave way to the open waters of Lake Ontario. I steered into the wind as Last Husband and Skip pulled the lines that raised first the mainsail and then the jib (the smaller sail).

“Cut the engine, Millie, and fall off to starboard,” shouted Skip. I turned the boat to starboard as the sails filled and the boat immediately heeled over, its portside raised slightly out of the water.
In case you aren’t familiar with sailing jargon, when a sailboat “heels,” it turns on its side. That’s what makes it go.
Passengers usually sit on the high side of the boat to help balance things out.
Skip had neglected to inform Rev. Shelby of this phenomenon. Seated on the port side, he was immediately dumped forward to the other side. I grabbed for him and apologized for not warning him as Skip laughed and told him he’d get used to it.
“Better hold on to the rail,” I said. We’ll tell you when we change tacks.”

“What?” asked Rev. Shelby, weakly.

Very soon after our first near-calamity, the water took on a definite chop. There were tiny whitecaps all around us. I didn’t like the look of it. We tacked several times. Skip yelled, “ready about,” before we did so, but poor old Raymond hadn’t got his sea legs yet, and he flopped about the cockpit piteously.

“This is the life, eh, Ray?” yelled Skip as robustly as he could. Rev. Shelby didn’t answer. Before long, the waves got bigger, the winds grew stronger and I had to keep heading into the wind to keep from heeling over too far. Next to splitting in two or being dismasted, the worst thing that can happen to a sailboat is to suffer a knockdown. The dreaded knockdown occurs when one has too much sail up for the prevailing wind conditions. The boat flops over on its side and the sail goes flat against the water. It’s not something you want to experience, believe me. Conditions were becoming way too severe for my comfort level, but Skip was loving it.

“If you don’t mind, Chester — er Skip — I think I’ll go downstairs for a bit. I have a nervous stomach, you know.” began Rev. Shelby.

“Sure,” said Skip, “go below and have one of those sandwiches in the picnic basket. It’ll make you feel better.”
It was a suggestion we were all to regret. Poor Raymond lurched from side to side as he made his way to the cabin ladder.
He was no sooner “downstairs,” than the skies opened up and dumped on us. Jagged lightning shot from the once puffy white clouds. They were now black and ominous; the thunder was deafening.

“I’m going below to get our storm gear,” I yelled as I began the trek toward the ladder. I reached the hatch and looked down. What I saw caused me to change my mind about going below. The Rev. Mr. Shelby was lying on his back on the cabin floor. Under him, around him, and over him was the undeniable evidence of mal de mer in the extreme. The man had managed to barf on every square inch of the cabin, including our storm gear.

“Never mind,” I said, “I’m already wet.”

“What’s going on?” asked Skip. “I think you’d better see to your friend,” I answered. “He’s pretty sick.”

Skip went below and I grabbed John by his shirt collar. “We’ve got to get out of here,” I said. “We’re way over our skill limit and poor Raymond is so seasick he’s going to die!”

Skip returned on deck. “He’s okay,” he reported jovially. “He’ll feel better now that he’s thrown up.”
Indeed, before long Raymond returned to the cockpit. But he definitely didn’t feel better. At least he didn’t look better. You know the thing about someone being so sick he or she is green? Well, I’m here to tell you it really happens. The Rev. Mr. Shelby was the color of split pea soup.
He joined me on the high side of the boat. I had a port rail in the crook of each elbow and I was hanging on for dear life. The starboard rails were not visible, being by now way under water.
“Maybe we’ll trim the sail a bit,” said Skip.
Last Husband wedged himself between the cockpit sides to help with the sail trimming. His ear was near enough to my mouth for me to speak into it without the others hearing.
“Tell that maniac to take those sails totally down, turn on the engine and get us the hell out of here,” I stage whispered.
“I can’t,” he answered back. “It’s his boat. He. . .”
I have no idea what else he was going to say. At that instant, a mighty gust of wind hit us and we went over. I watched in horror as the sail skimmed through the vicious waves. Even the mast rode on and under the water for what seemed like an eternity.
I got some kind of toe-hold around Rev. Shelby. My arms were clasped together around the rail. I knew if I let go, both of us would go into the water. Skip later told our dockmates the whole knockdown lasted for only a matter of seconds, but even today I would swear it was more like a couple of minutes.

At last the boat righted itself and by some miracle all of us were still aboard. While I was waiting to breathe again and while still hanging onto the rail, I realized that if we were to survive this disaster, it was I who was going to have to speak up.
Poor Ray was about as rational as a half-drowned rat, and the other two men sailors were as full of ego as they were full of water.

“Now, hear this,” I said, sailor-like. “Skip, take that sail down right now, turn on the engine, and get us out of here.”

“It’s just a little storm. We’ll be okay. Just. . .”

“No, we’re not okay,” I shouted. “You’re going to kill us just so you can show your old school chum what a big man you are. ”I let myself fall in the direction of the stern, and I switched on the engine. “Get that sail down. Now!”

“Really, Millie, I don’t think. . .” began Last Husband.

“Shut up!” I screamed. “Help Skip get that sail down. We’re going back.”

Raymond whimpered softly and gazed up at me gratefully. If Jesus had saved his soul, I had saved his body. “We motored back to Sackett’s Harbor in silence. I turned the tiller over to Skip, who never spoke to me again after that but once.
After we docked and we were leaving the boat, he said, “Don’t forget your storm gear.”
“No thanks,” I said, smiling. “Keep it as a souvenir, so you’ll have something to remember this wonderful day of sailing and picnicking.”

“Millie!” whispered John.

“Shut up!” I snarled back.

I climbed onto the dock and headed for the safety of our own boat. It sat bobbing gently in the water. “I could have told you so. But did you ask me? No-o-o-o.”

Who said that? Was that a grin on Bosky Dell’s stern? Was she giving me attitude? Maybe so. Worse things than that had already happened that day.

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Hurricanes I Have Known

The autumn of 1988 brought with it hurricanes that literally tore up Florida, where we were headed in our maiden voyage aboard our 32-foot Freedom Sailboat, Bosky Dell. I have great personal knowledge of hurricanes, but they are nonetheless frightening. Charley 2004 is tied for scariest with Donna 1960. Hurricane Keith 1988, although potentially the most dangerous, turned out to be a pussycat as we rode it out in the boat.

I can’t help but think of all the Sunday sailors heading south whose boats are being blown into plate glass windows on the main streets of coastal towns.
When we spent our time on the bounding main, we learned a great deal about anchoring and tying up. We had to take tides into consideration, figure out the prevailing winds, and calculate which anchor (we had a choice of four) to use given the conditions.

Many an hour was spent leaning against a docked boat discussing ground tackle (that’s “anchors” to you landlubbers).

Last Husband spent weeks learning how to sail safely in treacherous waters, and the proper procedure to follow during a hurricane. Though he had his faults as a husband, John was a wonderful sailor who believed in safety first no matter what.

Much to our surprise most of our fellow sailors didn’t worry themselves with such boring book-learning. Many didn’t even own a tides directory. How they dared tie up or anchor without one was a mystery to us.

The tides near New Jersey can reach 12 feet every 12 hours. That means if you throw a short line over a dock post at high tide and go to your bunk, by morning your boat will be on its side and so will you.

Even more alarming, many first-time live-aboards didn’t even own a set of charts. They had no idea how much water was under them until it was too late.

“We’re hard aground,” we would hear them frantically shout to the Coast Guard over the radio. Really? Imagine that. That’s what usually happens if you run your boat with a five-foot rudder through water that is only three feet deep. Of course, not having a chart, you don’t know that.

As for hurricanes, the method was pretty straightforward. If you had time, you were supposed to find a protected creek narrow enough to securely tie the boat to large trees on either side. You were then to drop an appropriate anchor taking the bottom of the creek into consideration. Here again, without a chart you had no idea what was on the bottom. The anchor should be heavy enough to hold the boat in strong winds.

Our biggest anchor was called a “Luke.” We would only use that if the hurricane expected was a level three. This was a big trade-off. There was no problem getting the Luke over the side. Getting it back on board was something else again. It had to be hauled out hand-over-hand; it was much too big to be stored in the bow anchor compartment with the other three.

Fortunately, by the time Hurricane Keith reached us it was a tropical storm, so we didn’t think it was necessary to throw over the Luke.

We did use the third heaviest, the name of which I have long since forgotten. To be on the safe side, we lugged the Luke to the cockpit and had it ready just in case Keith grew stronger.

We were anchored between a row of condominiums and a mangrove mound at New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Having prepared for the hurricane most of the day we were dead tired when darkness fell. Feeling fairly safe, we decided to turn in.

There were three or four sailboats in our anchorage and just as we were about to go below we discovered that one of them was floating aimlessly in the freshening wind. Its owner had abandoned it earlier in the day without leaving it properly anchored.

One of us had to stay up and fend it off when it came too close to our boat. Mother Nature didn’t pose much of a problem with her hurricane that night, but a careless sailor certainly did.

I couldn’t wait to give him an earful the next morning, but we pulled out before he arrived. Too bad. I had developed and practiced a really expressive salty vocabulary. I never got to use it.

I do have a funny story about anchoring. It wasn’t funny to me when it happened, but in the fullness of time it gave me a bit of a chuckle.

The first night we anchored was our fourth night away from our homeport in Sackett’s Harbor, New York. John studied the books for hours before we approached a rather large stream feeding into the Erie Canal. It was to be our anchorage.

Carefully maneuvering the boat into position, we dropped the correct anchor and fell exhausted into our bunks. Somewhere in the books I read that when anchoring, one should pick an easily visible spot on the shore and line it up with a spot on the boat. Reason being if one happened to look out one’s porthole during the night, one could easily ascertain whether or not the anchor was holding. If the two spots lined up, all was well. My shore spot was a V-shaped tree. It being my first night at anchor, I put enough pillows around me to be in a position to just open my eyes and peer out the porthole. I hardly slept at all.

Just before dawn after 7,000 position checks I fell sound asleep. As the sun rose directly into my eyes, I suddenly woke up. Horrified, I immediately looked out the porthole to line up my two points. The V-shaped tree was gone. In fact, the shore was changed completely. The horizon was different, the water’s edge was in a different place; everything was out of place.

I screamed into John’s ear, “Wake up, we drifted, we’re probably back out in the canal, we’re going to be run over by a barge, get up!” He jumped up and dashed into the cockpit where he immediately sat down and buried his head in his hands.

“What? What?” I shouted.

“I forgot to tell you the boat turns completely around when the tide runs the other way. I thought you knew that. We’re just fine.”

And we were. The V-shaped tree, formerly on the port side of the boat was now on the starboard side. I figure that experience took a few months off my normal lifespan, but that’s nothing compared to the years the entire boating life took away from me.

So, with Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jean, et al, beating up on all the boats headed south right then, I’m happy to be here on dry land. Our ornery midwestern weather is a light breeze compared to winds with names.

Thank Goodness for that.