Sailors are a superstitious lot. Even the ones who don’t believe in God will tell you not to bring bananas onboard. Do not cast off on a Friday. Always share a dram of your liquor with King Neptune. It is wise to neither curse nor tempt the wind and waves. These are precautionary tales, told by those who survived in spite of actions that foretold otherwise. Let me add mine: do not forget thine waterproof cell phone case.
Even though I’d known for weeks that we would head out for Malibu on Saturday, at 8 AM on Saturday morning I still was not packed. A bit hung over from a dinner party the night before, I sluggishly made a mental list while showering: sailing gloves, heavy weather gear, Chapstick. I packed long underwear, my rubber boots, the book I’ve been reading, a headlamp. I rummaged through the fridge and managed to compile several meals – eliminating the need to run to the store for other ingredients and thereby shortening my time-to-boat. My backpack over my back, I trudged to the local coffee shop, grabbed a coffee and ordered a car from Uber. Only as I hopped in the car did I realize I had forgotten the Chapstick. And my waterproof cell phone case.
In August I fell into the sea outside Puerto Ayora in the Galapagos. It was a calm day, sunny. But the port is exposed there to sea swells and they come rolling in reliably, like soldiers in single file. The trick, when stepping from boat to dinghy, is to time your step. The wave rolls down and you wait, wait, wait for it – until that moment when the roll of the wave under the boat and the roll of the wave under the dinghy are at the same height. Then you step. In my case I waited a split second too long. The waves crested and I stepped off into a widening gap.
The CO2 cartridge on my inflatable vest deployed, forcing me on my back. My back! On my back, beneath the life vest, was my backpack – my non-waterproof backpack – containing everything of value to me: my laptop computer, my cell phone, my backup cell phone and my DSLR camera. I fought to get into the boat. I fought to keep that backpack out of the water. In vain, all in vain. I swore like a sailor – well, more like a chef (every chef I know has a fouler mouth than all the sailors I’ve ever met combined).
The port police pulled up alongside and my captain, in the dinghy, pleaded with me to hold my tongue. “They think there’s been foul play,” he said, as he dragged me, finally, into the dinghy.
I looked at the bewildered faces of the port police. “De nada,” I told them. It was all I could think to say. De nada. I wanted to cry. In fact, the next words out of my mouth were instructions to myself: Do Not Cry. I had just lost weeks of work, my connection to the outside world – even the recipes I planned to use during the coming weeklong trip around the Galapagos.
“You were so worried about your laptop,” said the captain, “you had no idea that the hull of a multi-ton boat was this close to smacking down on you.” This was something to be grateful for in the aftermath, having a mate and a captain whose primary concern was my life. I focused on trying not to cry.
When I returned home – prematurely, as I was unable to continue writing from the islands as I had planned – the first thing I bought was a waterproof cell phone case.
When I used to take people out on my grandfather’s boat, I had a routine. As I hopped around taking off the sail and winch covers and threading the sheets through the leads, I would turn up the radio. The monotonous voice of “Noah” (or, properly, NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), like a modern-day sea god, would inform me about the sea state and have the final say on whether we would leave port that day or not. Wind below 5, probably not going far. Wind between 5-15, absolutely. Between 15-22ish, only with an experienced hand onboard and probably with reefed sails. Over 25? I would not go out knowingly into winds over 25 knots.
So at 8 AM on Saturday morning I texted my friend Greg, my sailing companion and the owner of a 27-foot Ericson named Patriot: “Have you checked the weather?”
“Yes,” he wrote back. “All good.”
There are infamous winds. Not prevailing winds, not typical winds, not trade winds, but winds that strike fear in the hearts of mariners.
In the first chapters of Moby Dick, Melville spends several paragraphs on Euroclydon, which according to Wikipedia is “a cyclonic tempestuous northeast wind which blows in the Mediterranean,” and is mentioned in the Bible as having been the reason Paul’s ship sunk.
The mistral is another famous wind, which blows down from the alps, keeping the air clear along the coast but causing winds of between 20-50 knots. There is the gusty, northern wind of the Adriatic called the Bora. In 2012, an 80-knot bora brought the air temperature down to -14 degrees Celsius and 7-meter waves heaped up and froze solid along the Croatian shoreline. On Wikipedia it says, “The bora ripped the trees from the soil and destroyed roofs of houses. On the island of Pag, the bora threw fish out of the sea.”
I’m sorry. Did you get that? It THREW FISH OUT OF THE SEA.
In The English Patient Hana picks up Count Almásy’s copy of Herodotus and reads the notes he’s written in the margins. Almásy was a pilot, if you recall. “There is a whirlwind in southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives,” writes Michael Ondaatji. He goes on to list a dozen other winds, including “the ——, the secret wind of the desert, whose name was erased by a king after his son died within it.”
Then Ondaatji alludes to “other, private winds.” In the movie it is the Count who narrates his scribbled notes to his lover while trapped in a desert sandstorm. “Let me tell you about winds,” he whispers to her.
In September of 1996, I was newly married and living in a house in North Carolina that bordered on miles of forest parkland owned by Duke University. Back then that was “out in the country” between Chapel Hill and Durham, but today it would probably be considered centrally located. The house had stumps for pillars. That should have been a sign. In September, when Hurricane Fran swept through, we had out-of-town visitors from Michigan. Winds of up to 100 miles per hour (or 80+ knots) were reported in our area. During the night the foundation of the house vibrated each time a tree fell to the forest floor. We couldn’t leave for two days because the road in either direction was blocked by logjams, like the splayed feet of a dozen toppled Goliaths.
Those were the strongest winds I’ve experienced. When, by day two, we still did not have running water or a working toilet, we climbed into the car with our friends and went camping near Ashville. As we drove away we played Patty Griffin’s song, “Forgiveness.” It felt like an eerie foreshadowing. To this day, whenever I hear it, I think of how we walked down to the creek the morning after the storm, surrounded by downed power lines and not a soul for miles.
I heard somebody say, “Today’s the day”
A big old hurricane, she’s blowing our way
Knocking over the buildings, killing all the lights
Open your eyes, boy, we made it through the night
Oh open your eyes, boy, we made it through the night
On the 35th anniversary of when Hurricane Frederic struck Mobile, Alabama, survivors published their stories online. “I was six months pregnant,” wrote Rose Shaw. “The winds were blowing so loud and strong that a piece of shingle from a neighbor’s roof flew through our bedroom window and the men had to put a mattress and dresser against the window to keep the wind out. I remember walking outside the next morning thinking it was the end of the world. A pine tree, which fell across our house, missed the roof, but flattened my father’s car….God was good to us.”
“My husband, son and I were in the living room trying to look out the window to see the storm, but it was too black,” said Rose Harrison. “I smelled gas so we went to our neighbor’s house. Five minutes later a pine tree fell in the living room and hit the floor and front porch. God was watching over us and told us to get out of that room.”
Mack Morris was hacking up debris the day after and nearly lost the side of his face to a chainsaw. “They got me in immediately and did surgery to close the mangled side of my face. I was blessed,” said Morris.
This is how survivor stories end: we survived, ergo, we must be blessed.
Open your eyes, boy, I think we are saved
Open your eyes, boy, I think we are saved
Let’s take a walk on the bridge
Right over this mess
Don’t need to tell me a thing, baby
We’ve already confessed
And I raised my voice to the air
And we were blessed
In California we have the Santa Anas, also called “the devil winds.” Most of the year we sail against prevailing winds from the northwest, making the haul to San Fran either a motoring trip or a very long one. To get to the Channel Islands, for instance, you must sail far out to sea and tack back. So if you want to go north, you hope for a Santa Ana – just don’t hope too hard. The Santa Anas also breathe life into the wildfires here and they routinely hit speeds of over 40 knots. In 2011, Mammoth Mountain’s patrol website reported constant gusts at 150 miles per hour.
At around 9:30 am on Saturday, November 22, 2014, Greg and I left Marina del Rey under clear skies. If there had been wind, it would likely have come from the northwest, preventing us from sailing to Malibu. But there was no wind at all, not a shred. So we changed into our bathing suits, lathered up with suntan lotion, grabbed a few beers and motored the 17+ miles.
This was the third time Greg had anchored in Paradise Cove and I knew that he’d been pretty worked up on previous occasions because of two things. First, the seabed in this area is covered in a field of brown kelp. Second, on both occasions the wind had clocked around in the night, twisting the boat on its anchor rode. He was nervous about not having enough rode and that his Danforth anchor was too small, should it become dislodged and drag us toward shore.
He was so worried about this that when another Ericson 27 sailboat pulled up and anchored up close to the pier, we kayaked alongside in order to warn them.
Then we paddled to the beach to watch the sunset. Even as the sun went down behind us, on the other side of Point Dume, we watched as its last rays illuminated the windows of homes on Palos Verdes before disappearing in a wispy trail of red, yellow and orange.
During the night we stood anchor watch, waking every other hour to check our position, but there was no need. We had 200 feet of rode off the bow anchor and another 160 feet of rode extending from a stern anchor off the back. Moreover, there was no wind. The waves were stilled all night long, the boat barely rocked. We slept like floating sea turtles.
In the morning we stayed tucked into our sleeping bags until the idea of coffee became strong enough to warrant action.
Greg was making coffee when the wind started to pick up. At first we both made remarks about it. Then suddenly the boat was doing 180s, twisting on the two anchor lines. Greg stepped out into the cockpit and hollered so loud I jumped. In a pirate’s brogue he egged on the wind. “Is that all yawr gonna blow?”
We laughed and I went to work making breakfast. Something told me we were going to need our energy. Out in the cockpit Greg was hauling in the stern anchor.
As I warmed tortillas, I turned on the VHF radio. The first words I heard were: “Malibu. Gusts from 50 to 60 miles per hour.”
I looked up at Greg. “Did you hear that?”
I’ve never been in over 40 knots of wind at sea. Not that I know of. I’ve sailed over 8000 nautical miles and the highest I clocked was 38 – and that was on an 80-foot yacht. She acted like she ate 38 knots for breakfast. For Patriot, 38 knots was a full meal.
The book I brought with me was Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. In it he writes about a series of Korean Air crashes between 1988-1998. Plane crashes, he says, are not usually a matter of a single mechanical malfunction, but “likely the result of an accumulation of minor difficulties.” He goes on to say that for starters, “In a typical crash, the weather is poor – not terrible, but bad enough that the pilot feels a little bit more stressed than usual.”
So. Check one. Bad weather. Not terrible, but bad enough that we felt a little bit more stressed than usual.
With the stern anchor neatly tucked away again inside the locker, we scarfed down our breakfast, after which Greg was immediately back on deck, surveying the situation. His coffee cup sat beside the sink untouched, his coffee cold.
We listened to NOAA. We waited for a sign.
The wind blew down hard from the mountain pass and blew the tips of the waves at us in a foamy spray. Force 7. Fortunately, we were too close to shore for the wind to build the waves. But suddenly we noticed we were getting blown down sideways. I was putting on my heavy weather pants when I was flung to the other side of the boat. We had no sail up, and yet our side was turned towards the wind. We were getting smacked down as if we were sailing and the boat was on a heel. I joined Greg on deck. I put on a life jacket.
“Something’s wrong,” he said. “We should be blown straight back. We must be caught on something.”
In addition to the kelp field, Paradise Cove is strewn with floating buoys indicating crab pots. We’d been careful to anchor away from them the night before, but now they surrounded us like a minefield.
“And we’re dragging,” Greg added. Sure enough, we were already a long way from where we had woken up that morning. The force of the winds hitting the side of the boat was putting far more pressure on us than if we had been blown straight back on the anchor. We were slowly being blown out to sea. We kept an eye on the depth. At some point we we would hit the shelf and the 200 feet of anchor rode would be useless.
“I think I need to go under the boat,” were Greg’s next words. “I need to cut loose whatever it is that’s caught on the rudder or the prop.”
I’d read about this many times in the tales of circumnavigators. Hell, I’d been onboard when someone did this before. I knew the drill. You put a rope around your waist, you tie another rope to a knife and tie that to your wrist. This way the swimmer loses neither boat nor knife. But even in calm seas the swimmer is at risk of being knocked unconscious by the boat as it hits the water. We were in building seas with gale-force winds.
Fortunately, we remained calm.
“I don’t like that idea,” I said. I did not want to be left alone in the boat. Plus, as I saw it, we were not in a good situation but we were not in immediate danger. Though the wind had blown us back, whatever was holding us had quite a grip. I suggested we stand watch, record our location and act when we needed to act.
I know now that what was going through Greg’s mind was very different from what was going through mine. I not afraid because I knew we would survive. Greg was concerned. That boat is his home and prized possession. Getting through the storm was not just about survival.
Not long after this the kelp, or whatever had a hold on us, broke free and the boat turned as she should, with her bow to the wind. Then the winds began to calm and we started talking about hauling up anchor and getting a move on.
In Outliers, Gladwell goes to talk about the role of communication – or the failure of communication – that occurs in airplane crashes. To illustrate his point he describes the crash of Avianca 052 in New York and how the first officer contributed to the flight’s demise because of his inability to question his superior officer.
Fortunately for Greg and I, Gladwell points out that this is cultural and that, “when push comes to shove, Americans assert their American-ness,” i.e., we question authority. But the ability to question authority is not the only thing at stake, and Gladwell goes on to describe the listening skills required on behalf of the person in charge.
Greg and I have been sailing together for two years now. Though admittedly one of the only people I know with a boat, he is my favorite person to sail with. He is always calm. He’s a good teacher. He never has to assert himself to establish that he is in charge. And when I questioned the wisdom of going overboard, he listened. I don’t mean he obeyed. I mean he listened to my argument and we discussed a plan.
I’ve been with people who, in a similar situation, would have railroaded me – either because it was their boat or because I am a woman, or perhaps out of their own insecurities. I’ve raced with a man on several occasions (and never again) who yanked the tiller from my hand during one race only to throw it in the air and admit an ability to manage it during another. People do strange things in stressful situations.
When I was in junior high and Top Gun came out, I decided I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I told my father, who at that time had recently quit the Air Force for a job with the airlines. I thought he’d be proud of me, wanting me to follow in his footsteps.
“Women can’t be fighter pilots,” he told me. “They don’t hold up under pressure.”
I looked this up recently – the first female fighter pilots showed up on the scene in 1993. Obviously, I wasn’t the only girl spurred on by Tom Cruise’s high-flying antics. But I wasn’t persistent enough to overcome my father’s flat denial. It was the first thing I ever remember being told was off-limits to me as woman.
“There are other, private winds,” writes Michael Ondaatji.
I must admit that I have wondered ever since: how would I hold up under pressure?
This is a long story already. I could save you the time of reading through to the end and tell you the answer. But then you would miss the good part. You’d miss the rescue. And I know you want to hear about the rescue, don’t you?
I’ll speed things up – exactly where the wind slowed down.
In the newfound calm (the winds died down to around 25 knots), Greg turned on the engine and climbed up on the bow. He made a mistake here, one that I did not catch. He failed to open the through-hull that lets the ocean water in to cool the engine. Usually, this would be open, as it had been all day the day before. But when we reached Paradise Cove I noticed the floor was damp around the engine and Greg, deciding it was a leaky through-hull, closed the valve.
“The typical accident involves seven consecutive human errors,” writes Gladwell. “Seven errors which are rarely problems of knowledge or flying skill… The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication. One pilot knows something important and somehow doesn’t tell the other pilot. One pilot does something wrong, and the other pilot doesn’t catch the error.”
This is a typical anchoring-up situation: one person goes forward to the bow and heaves up the anchor (or ideally uses a “windlass,” a powered winch for raising the anchor). The other person stays at the helm and, as the length of the chain and rode attached to the anchor shortens, the helmsperson waits until the anchor is free before driving the boat forward. You can also do this under sail. We probably should have done this under sail.
I put the boat in gear and within 60 seconds the engine started making a strange sound. Greg returned to the cockpit, his hands bloodied from hauling up chain. I put the engine in neutral.
We both assumed the worst – that whatever had been keeping us with our side to the wind was likely still tied around the prop. Then smoke started coming from the engine compartment and that’s when Greg realized he’d forgotten to open the through-hull. He cut the engine and before I knew it he’d raised the tiniest triangle of sail on the genoa. The boat sprang into motion.
With as little sail as we could possibly carry, Patriot was racing along at over six knots. Her maximum hull speed is about 6.5 (i.e., this is essentially the fastest she can go without the currents and/or a surf also acting in her favor).
We sailed for about an hour. Although distressed by the engine, we were relieved to be off the anchor and moving away from Point Dume.
Then the winds died. We sat, bobbing around in an eerily becalmed sea. Try as we might we could not get the boat going. If a slight breeze came from one direction, and we went with it, seconds later a wave would force her off course. We hauled up the mainsail, but left one reef in – just in case. We took out the entire genoa sail. Nothing helped. She wouldn’t budge.
After the smoking engine, and our assumption that the prop was wreathed in seaweed, Greg did not want to attempt to start her up. We debated our situation again – this time under completely different circumstances.
Out of nowhere a helicopter appeared and flew low to check on us. This, more than anything else, jarred me. Did they know something we did not? Greg signaled that we were okay and the chopper moved on.
After about an hour of going nowhere, Greg decided to call Vessel Assist, essentially the Triple A of the sea. “I pay for it,” he said, “so we might as well use it.”
Within seconds of having radioed for the tow, the wind picked up and we were sailing along as we do on the best of days. We called to cancel the tow. Then the wind stopped again, and we called again. We promised not to call it off a second time.
Then, like clockwork, the wind returned. At first it was doable, easy. But within minutes the sea had built up and the winds were back with a vengeance. They were almost as strong as they had been in the morning. But now there was one big difference: we were covered in sailcloth.
Sailing 101: the more sail you have up, the more wind you capture. The more wind in the air, the more this nice little ratio becomes adverse. Too much sail in too much wind makes a very unhappy boat.
Greg started to reduce sail by trying to roll up the genoa. This is usually easily done – the sail is attached to a furling mechanism and by simply tugging on a line you can roll up the sail around the head stay. The sail would not budge.
I tried to keep the helm pointed up-wind and Greg manned the sail if he thought I was getting overpowered. A few waves broke over the side of the boat. We were soaked. Vessel Assist radioed to say they were a half-hour away.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the sea and the sails for even a second. I’ve never felt so alert and so mesmerized at the same time. I wondered how on earth we were going to saddle up to another boat in these seas, with this much wind.
So let’s assess the damage. No engine. No ability to shorten sail. 30-40 knots of wind. Four to six foot waves coming at us in quick succession and sometimes from different directions. Oh – and we had hardly any water. For hours we’d been scooping up the dregs from the cooler because, on that tack, air had gotten trapped in the water pump and we couldn’t get any water out.
The sun was beating down on us. There’d been no time to apply Chapstick even had I brought some. During the calm we ate apples and cheese, almost the last of our stores. I usually over-packed when it came to food. I usually brought an extra meal, just in case. This time I’d been in too much of a rush…
Later, when we replayed the day’s events, this theme kept coming back. Why had we been in such a rush that we didn’t pack extra food and water? That we hadn’t listened to NOAA on Saturday before we left?
You gotta hand it to the guy at Vessel Assist. This kid made us look like sissies. Like lame ducks. Though he did knock into our hull. And he did lose the tow line under our boat so we had to saddle up alongside him a second time. And then he did drop it in the water – twice. Still, single-handedly, in a gale and choppy seas, he waited while we dropped sail, threw us the line and towed us home.
Those last minutes were some of the most dramatic. While I steered Greg went forward to manually take down the genoa, but he loosed the wrong halyard. Never having let the genoa halyard go before, and having an extra spinnaker halyard running along the mast, he loosened the spinnaker halyard, which just got caught in the rigging. Then, once he did find the genoa halyard, it wouldn’t go all the way down. So he took out his knife, shortened the sheets and used the lines to tie the sail to the forestay and the bow pulpit.
At this point I had turned downwind. With the mainsail down I couldn’t go upwind and if I steered with the wind on the beam the waves threatened to roll us. Going downwind, without sails, the Vessel Assist guy said we were making 3-4 knots.
“You have to turn up into the wind,” he instructed, “you’re going too fast for me to come up beside you.” I turned “upwind” which meant that we were getting broadsided as he made his second attempt to throw us the tow line. After the Vessel Assist guy’s second failed throw, Greg dropped down to the deck to try and fish the tow line out of the sea(!). He wasn’t wearing a harness. It’s a miracle he didn’t get tossed right off.
“This is when people start believing in God, right?” he asked me as we sat on the end of the tow line.
When we came around the breakwall, people were heading out for sunset sails. There was a nice 7-10 knot breeze blowing, like most days on the water here.
The Vessel Assist guy (how is it I don’t know his name?), as he pulled into the finger where Greg keeps his boat, did this amazing pirouette and dropped us off neatly in the slip. It was so calm in the back fingers of the marina that not a single halyard clanked.
My butt hurt from sitting all day, because we never took out the deck cushions. My right hand was blistered from holding the tiller so tightly and the skin on my face felt like someone had taken a scouring pad to it. We were caked in salt. I was still scraping it off an hour later.
We put the boat to bed as if on auto-pilot, devoured burgers at a place nearby, then snuck into the hot tub at the apartment complex where our friends live.
As we said goodnight we hugged each other. “I’m definitely sharing my beer with King Neptune from now on,” Greg said, “And I’ll never yell like a pirate at the wind again.”
The next night I met up with my friend James, the Uber Chef, and recounted the story.
I told him I’d spent the day investigating ways to do an oceanic trip, either from here to Hawaii or across the Atlantic.
“Sounds like you’ve got a death wish,” he said, heckling me. But I think it’s the opposite.
These things scare me: dying children, squashed dreams, never finding someone to share my life with, old people fading away without anyone to see them off. These are things I cannot control.
But a little wind? A few big waves? Bring it.
In the thick of things, when push came to shove, I did not panic. In fact, on some level I enjoyed the rush, the challenge. I don’t just believe that what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, I enjoy testing that belief, because facing these sorts of manageable fears is a way of proving to myself that I have what it takes – the will to survive.