Squall

Squall

The morning after our crossing I lay awake in the v berth and thought about how the worst always befalls the unprepared. It should be an aphorism, or a Murphy’s Law. It’s not that we weren’t prepared to cross the Gulf Stream, but after having cruised peacefully along in ten-knot winds, with the seas at our back gently pushing us along, we were not prepared for a squall.

Early that morning we awoke in darkness and got underway a bit later than we’d hoped because we’d forgotten to put the dinghy on the foredeck. For a second Greg debated aloud whether it was really necessary, and I reminded him of all the people who told us not to drag the dinghy behind us. Later, we would be grateful that we took the extra half hour to do this.

At around 4:30 am, we entered Angelfish Creek, a narrow passage through the mangroves that took us out to sea. I stood on the bow, pointing a large flashlight at the markers, illuminating several flying fish in the process. The light pollution from Miami in the distance gave some contrast to the creek, but where the creek entered the ocean ahead, you could not see the horizon line. It reminded me of how teleports in sci-fi movies are represented by a blurred vertical shaft – except the vertical shaft ahead of us was all inscrutable blackness.

Around daybreak we set the sails and about an hour later we felt our speed pick up: we had entered the Gulf Stream. It was smooth sailing. We ate yoghurt and granola on deck, and Greg tested out our spinnaker sail for the first time.

We saw only a few boats that morning. We were out of sight of land when the first passed within twenty feet of us. Greg was up on our bow playing with our spinnaker and Gabe was at the wheel. The helmsman of the other boat waved as they went by – as if it was totally normal that one sailboat under power should cross so closely in front of another under sail. I said thought he must be stoned. We watched them pass in front of us as if in slow motion. Then, off in the distance we saw them raise their sails and for a minute it looked like they were headed back toward us, then they dissolved into the sea.

After a few other powerboats went around us, Gabe asked how we could tell if we were on a collision course with another vessel. Greg showed him how to line up the oncoming vessel with something stationary on Lemonade, “If we maintain our course and the oncoming vessel stays lined up with, say, that stanchion, then we’re on a collision course.”

To practice, Gabe chose what looked like a container ship in the far distance. “I think we’re on a collision course with him,” Gabe said

“Keep an eye on him,” Greg said again, “and keep checking.

When I went down below to make lunch it was still smooth sailing. And I was not at all concerned when I came back up and found the vessel closing in on us. We’ve altered course for ships outside Los Angeles many times.

“It looks like the death star,” said Chris.

It was entirely slate gray, and shaped like forge. “It’s an oil tanker,” said Greg.

“I think we’re on a collision course,” Gabe stated for the second or third time.

The winds suddenly started to pipe up and we hurriedly ate our couscous salad, which seemed like a fine idea a minute before, but as soon as I lifted my spoon it blew across the cockpit. Greg decided it was time to change our course to avoid the tanker, and we quickly stowed our plates.

Behind us a dark bank of clouds had gathered, and ahead of us the tanker beared down. For a split second it crossed my mind that we should reef the sails.

I put on my heavy weather jacket because I had a bit of chill from the winds, and took over the wheel. We gybed, Greg moving the sail from one side of the boat to the other, then headed north and upwind to make a clear change of course from the tanker. Within seconds the wind torqued up another notch and heeled us over.

I looked down at the GPS. We were going 10.2 knots. I announced this aloud and the four of us cheered – Lemonade had hit record speeds. The next moment the boat pitched and then we heeled over even more. Greg and I exchanged the first of many looks. This one said: we have too much canvas out, we’re overpowered. Chris and Gabe didn’t know exactly what was happening, but they knew enough to feel unsafe.

The seas, now building to 3-4 feet, were hitting us on the beam.

“Tell me what to do, Cole,” said Chris, with panic in her voice.

“Come up on the high side,” I told her. She crawled up behind me on the stern in a ball and Gabe sat beside her, dead quiet. But the high side wasn’t staying high because the waves kept smacking us on the side, nearly tossing us all out of the cockpit.

Greg and I exchanged a look as I steered into the wind to try and flatten out the boat.

Greg tried to roll up our massive genoa sail, but because it was flogging, it caused an override on the winch. To clarify for non-sailors, the lines that control the forward sail were loose and because of the crazy winds, they became wrapped around the handle that controls them, essentially locking it and preventing us from rolling the sail all the way in. Some of the genoa was still out – and it was pulling with full force.

If we could head up and release the working sheet, we could pull in the sail, but then Greg realized that the lazy sheet was caught behind the fender. Gabe was trying to help but there was so much stress on all the lines, I was terrified that either the line would be set free or that Gabe would get his hand caught under it.

As Greg climbed out on deck to free the sheet, it began to rain, and the rain quickly increased to a downpour.

“Tell us what to do,” Chris said again, “What can we do?”

“You guys should go down below,” said Greg, and they did, Gabe demurely, and Chris with a panicked look on her face. At first they had a hard time finding the hatch boards because they were behind the bags and rain was streaming in.

“Rain always follows wind,” Greg said. “We’re going to be okay.”

Chris hadn’t sailed since she was a kid and this was Gabe’s first time out, and we suddenly found ourselves in the worst conditions Greg and I have ever been in.

It seemed like forever before the tanker passed, then Greg had me turn upwind to stall the sails so he could change the blocks – because he still had the spinnaker blocks on from earlier in the day and the genoa lines wouldn’t feed through them properly.

I held it for a minute before the seas whacked us down, and the wind back-winded our giant genoa so that our sails were in the configuration of being hove to, a way of setting your sails where the mainsail and the foresail actually work against each other. It’s a common technique for weathering a storm so for a minute I thought Greg had planned it. And we had indeed managed to slow down, as long as I could keep the boat heading upwind – but that was difficult.

“Hold this course,” he said. To Gabe and Chris down below, he said, “It’s going to be okay. We’re okay.”

Greg told me later that the reason we weren’t entirely stalled when we were hove to is because we were not exactly hove to. We have such a big-ass genoa sail that a large enough triangle of it was popping out on the starboard side. If it had been flat, we would have been stalled – but that little bit of sail was actually drawing us forward across the waves. I suppose that I should be embarrassed to write this, because it shows our inadequacy in the face of the weather and sea – but this is how we learn – how we all learn – right?

From the radio we heard a pan-pan and a young voice said, “I’ve lost an engine and we’re taking on water. I have a girl with me. I guess I’m going to have to beach the boat. I don’t want to bring her into the harbor.” Later, Chris told me how this unfolding drama, alongside ours, only heightened her distress. I, on the other hand, thought, “At least we’re not that guy!”

I gripped the wheel so tight my hands were killing me – and I was freezing cold. I had not had time to close my jacket, and was soaked all the way through to my undies. I recalled how the famous French sailor Bernard Moitessier and his wife got caught in the roaring forties and had to battle this kind of weather for DAYS. So I just kept repeating to myself, “It will be over soon. It will be over soon.”

As we sailed slowly northward, I asked Greg if we could return to our original easterly course. He said no, but to hold my course, afraid that we might broach if we headed downwind with so much sail up.

The seas began to flatten out, and the rain let up a bit. For the first time I felt safe enough to wish I had my camera, because it was unlike anything I’d ever seen – like a kind of eerie presence had spread out over the seas. The rain and wind were no longer frenzied, but neither were they calm. Yet it was quieter, and the gray seas were flecked with rain, like a chalkboard that’s been erased too many times.

On the radio the Coast Guard asked the young man in distress to check the intake valve on the engine that he’d shut down, and this seemed to do the trick. The radio went quiet.

We tacked, so Greg could finally release the back-winded jib, then he went forward and put a reef in the main to match the genoa. We had weathered the squall, and were roughly 14 miles from Bimini. Greg released a shell-shocked Gabe and Chris from their captivity below, and we sailed the rest of the way – in fact, because we were trying to make it to the customs office before it closed, about nine miles away from the island we shook out the reefs to speed up.

We sailed nicely along at six knots, almost dead downwind, surfing those 3-4 foot rolling seas. Afraid that we might accidentally gybe, Greg decided we should roll the genoa up. That’s when we discovered that in the squall the plate inside the furling drum had separated and basically unspooled the furling line. So we kept our sails up and until we saw the channel entrance buoy, then we turned on the engine, Greg went forward to the bow, and dropped the genoa sail into a heap on the deck. He took out the lazy jacks and we doused the mainsail and began to motor in.

I would like to tell you it was easy from there on out but the following seas created another hurdle. They were pushing us toward the island, whether we liked it or not, where we knew the water was shallow and the entrance narrow. Greg got on the radio and asked for local knowledge, and a vessel named Happy Hours advised us that we should be okay if we stayed toward the starboard buoy. Greg took the helm and steered us – very carefully – over the bank and into the slim channel, which led us into the sheltered lee of Bimini Island where we anchored, just as the customs office was closing, and Greg raised the quarantine flag.

We made it to the Bahamas in one piece, but I think we each wondered for a moment if we might not. Having recently read Ten Degrees of Reckoning, a book about a family that was run down by a ship off New Zealand, I am only too aware of how quickly a larger vessel could smash us to smithereens. Our friend Patrick urged us to get radar, but we spent the money on extra anchor chain instead, reasoning that we would not be in the Gulf Stream for long, and that we had four people to watch out for ships. But maybe we should have purchased both, because when the squall came, it was a giant wall of gray on four sides. If a ship had crossed our path in that moment, we would never have seen it coming – unless we had radar.

It’s taken me a few days to finish writing this post, and in the meantime the eventful crossing has taken on a dreamlike quality. Did we read about it? Was it some other sailor’s experience that we imagined so clearly that it was like we experienced it ourselves? Or was it real?

A French sailor in our anchorage came by to chat two days ago and asked about our crossing.

“It got hairy,” I said.

He inclined his head, “What is hairy?”

I feigned a look of terror and shook my hands in the air. Though I would not say that we were in life-threatening circumstances, things were out of hand there for a bit, and once that happens, there’s a slim margin for errors separating you from your worst nightmares. Chris’s worst nightmare, by the way, is being trapped inside a boat as it goes down.

While going over my notes to put this post together, I found one that I wrote after our failed trip to Vero Beach in early December. It is even more applicable now: “People have been far less prepared and fared far worse than we.”

Taken not long before the squall.