Sea Storm

Haila Eggleton-MacKay

© Copyright 2007 by Haila Eggleton-MacKay

Photo of Old Yeller at anchor.

What should have been a pleasant sail up the coast suddenly turns into a tempest.  Faced with this harrowing situation, we rely solely on our sturdy boat Old Yeller and ourselves to make it through this ordeal and to safety.

It was early March when we set sail from St. Augustine Florida. We’re nicely making way, navigating the inlet, out to the open sea beyond. I call out to the captain, “Look David, we’ve got a porpoise off the port bow.” An appearance of the sailors perennial good luck talisman had us smiling at our good fortune. “How’s that for a good sign?” I joked. The weather forecast had predicted ideal conditions for the next leg of our cruise northward. Fair winds on a broad reach sail, perfect for our casual three-day run up to Charleston, South Carolina.

Our day of sailing had been as perfect as the promise of the coming sunset. We drop the anchor some ten miles off shore. The seas are calm enough to grill a couple of steaks for supper and enjoy the approaching evening. “Time to kick back and relax love,” I encourage as we anticipate the spectacular sunset before us. “Maybe we’ll see it this time,” I whispered my wish.” “What?” David asks. “You know, the green flash,” I remind him. The elusive green flash, is often watched for, but seldom seen. It’s known in boating circles, and to actually witness the atmospheric phenomenon, is almost looked upon as a rite of passage, which elevates the beholder into a somewhat select group. We watched unblinking, hoping, but it wasn’t ours to witness. Then almost as if in consolation, I chimed, “Oh well, but what a sunset, Red sky at night, sailors delight.”  The faint outline of land to our port fades from sight as darkness descends upon us.

“So what do you think, ready to turn in?” I ask. “Yea I guess, early to bed, get a good nights sleep and all that good stuff.” David quips. We check to make sure our boat is set for the night, then head below decks to our bunks, calling it a night. “Settled into our bunk, like a protective mother, our little boat gently rocks on the ocean, cradling us to our slumbers. “Good night love,” “Good night Darlin’.”

The time was 04:30. It’s now indelibly etched, as one of my life’s archetypical moments begins to unfold. Even though I was fast asleep, my body apparently knew something was terribly wrong. I awake violently ill. As I crawl out from our v-berth bunk I grab at David’s still sleeping body. God, how can he be sleeping through this? “David, David, get up something’s wrong.” Our world is turning inside out, but why? Our 28 foot Pearson Triton, is violently pitching and rolling. A full fledged gale has blown up during the night. We awaken into a twilight zone of grey skies, pelting rain, 35 knot winds and wildly confused seas. Struggling to hold on with one hand, we dress into our foul weather gear with the other. Over the jackets, go our safety harnesses. We’re as ready as we’ll ever be. Opening the companionway, we climb out to face our situation.

Once we are out in the cockpit, we clip into our lifelines, which will prevent us from being washed overboard. David fires up the engine and tells me, “Darlin’ take the tiller and keep the boat pointed into the wind.” I can’t tell where the wind is coming from, it’s coming from everywhere.
He has to get to the bow to bring up the anchor. Hand over hand he hauls in the anchor line, some 300 feet of it, even as the ocean churns and the boat violently pitches. I am being forced to function during this time, survival depends on it. All other feelings have disappeared. My seasickness is gone, and for the moment even my fear has no place, only function.

With the anchor up, David returns to the relative safety of the cockpit. We can now actually get the boat underway. “How could the marine weather reports be so wrong”? I ask, turning our VHF radio to the weather channel, as though the electronic voiced man at the other end will give me a personal explanation. But David’s attention is on steering the boat as the waves break on our bow. We motor along slowly, fighting through the barrage of waves that are upon us. Up the crests we climb, then slide down the troughs, the depth recorder reels from 40 feet to 56 feet. Some moments it simply blanks out as if it can’t process the changing watery information fast enough.

 I’m a self admitted ‘fair weather sailor,’ I can’t handle rough water. In all of our times spent on the water and the many cruises that we have under our keel, we have never encountered such unexpected, ferocious weather. I have never been in seas like this before. I’m frightened, but I keep my fears to myself and try to put on a brave face. In an effort to help stabilize the boat and make better speed we decide to raise a storm sail. We go over our plan, “Darlin,’ you take the tiller; I’ll get the sail ready. When I pass the jib lines to you, just cleat them off ‘till I get back here.”

Once the sail is up, David returns to steer the boat. I know he is capable and indeed handling the situation. He will do everything in his power to keep us safe. I am relatively sure that we will not capsize, boats like ours have gone around the world, but I’m scared none the less. David once told me in his slow southern drawl, “Darlin’ don’t ever worry until I tell you to worry.” I repeat his words over and over to myself, they become my calming mantra.

The hours seem to be moving even slower than our boat, pitched against this constant onslaught of water, wind, rain and gloom. David remains steadfast to the tiller, fighting to keep us on a compass course. There isn’t much I can do to help him, except for short amounts of time. I’m just not strong enough to take his place at the tiller in this rough weather. I try to give him emotional support by staying by his side throughout the day. We’re cold, wet, tired, and hungry but there is no rest in sight for us. There isn’t much talking going on; we’re focused on the situation. Anything could happen out here at any moment, we need to keep a sharp look out. Although we are on the ocean there are places we cannot go, the water is too shallow.

There is no short cut to safety, no easy way out of this. We must follow the charts, staying on course until we reach the next inlet. If we don’t the results could be disastrous, or fatal.

David is exhausted after 12 non stop hours at the tiller. “I can’t keep this up any more Darlin,’ my arms feel like dead weight.” We have been motoring under sail through this gale all day and only made 8 miles. “Darlin’ we’re burning more fuel than making headway.” The decision is made to drop the anchor for the night, still in the midst of this sea storm. We batten our little vessel down; we’ll ride out the storm for the rest of the night, praying it doesn’t get any worse.

Retreating to the inside, the main cabin is total anarchy, “Good God Almighty,” says David incredulously, it’s the first time he has seen the interior all day.

Things have been thrown everywhere, despite the fact that all the shelves have netting across the fronts just to prevent this from happening. The chaos that we survey attests to the fact that the boat must have nearly rolled on its sides. “Just leave it, David” I tell him. I’m too sick to care about the mess and I know he’s exhausted. “We’ll get it later. Let’s just get out of these clothes for now.” We strip off our yellow jackets and pants, but are still soaked to the skin underneath. “Here, give me those wet clothes, here’s something dry,” I suggest, while holding out my hands ready to give and receive his clothing at the same time.

Once we’re both warm and dry, I make a poor attempt to lighten our heavy moods. We have a private joke, born of our many sailing adventures. Whenever things have gone less than pleasant, I look him right in the eye and ask, “Is this my pleasure cruise?” He will weakly smile back at me and say, “Yea, Darlin’ I’m afraid so.” But it’s our way of saying its okay, because as long as we’ve got each other, that’s all that matters.

Although it goes unspoken our nerves are on edge, frayed, for any moment we may have to deal with an emergency. David knows I’m nervous; he tries his best to distract me. “Darlin’ how about a little something to eat? We’ve got to keep our strength up.” Me, I am still way too sick to eat. Now David on the other hand, is literally, the son, of a son, of a sailor. Raised on the water, he has never been seasick a day in his life. He is caring and sympathetic, but can’t fathom what my misery feels like. “Well, what will it be?” he chides.  “The choices are; cold, canned soup, no? So, I guess that leaves the stew, Dinty Moore straight from the can.” “Can you get me some crackers?” I beg, raising my head from the pillow into which I have buried my face. The way the boat is being tossed about makes it almost impossible to walk or even to stand up without holding on. Trying to cook under these conditions would be ridiculous, just more trouble than its worth. As for our dinner choices, well, they serve their purpose, barely.

Sleep will be impossible this night, we can however, try to rest. We lay down on the settees in the main cabin. David listens to the weather report; I just curl up wishing that all of this would pass. It’s a long, raw-nerved night for us. The wind howls in the rigging and the wave’s crash and thud against our hull continuously. But we are safe, making it through the night without incident. Our sturdy vessel is indeed stronger than we are.

At last the clock tells us that its morning. On go the cheery yellow rain suits, as if their bright vinyl exteriors can defy this miserable circumstance and conceal our mental and physical fatigue. “Please, please” I offer up, hoping the storm is abating. “Are ya ready?” David asks before we climb out.  Opening the companionway, we can see that the skies actually do give some little indication of improvement. We begin our routine which gets us underway, but just as David reaches the cockpit; the boat gets violently rocked by a wave.

 It throws me against the heavy, steel gear shifter and across to the seat on the other side of the cockpit. “Darlin’ are you alright? Are you hurt?” David nervously questions me. The pain is excruciating, but I lie by nodding my head affirmatively. It hurts so badly, I want to cry, but all I can do is rub my thigh.
 It will be days later before I see just how badly I am bruised.

Then as if on cue, to heap additional insult upon us after my injury, just as David takes the tiller to get us on our way, the engine dies.

This is too much; the proverbial last straw. All we can do is look at each other. He turns the key, the engine starts right up, but as soon as the boats transmission is engaged the engine dies again. Again he tries, again it dies.  “What’s wrong,” I naively ask. “I don’t know Darlin,” David shakes his head, “but it’s not good, not here, not now.” We need to deploy the anchor again to keep us from drifting while we, or rather he, considers our predicament.  Its then, as he returns from the bow of the boat that he notices the lines from the headsail have been washed overboard.

Pulling them back aboard, one is fine but the second is much shorter, and the end isn’t knotted anymore it’s frayed, it’s been cut. The lines must have gotten washed overboard by one of the heavy waves washing over the boat. “It must have gotten wrapped around the propeller, that’s why the engine’s cutting out when we put it gear.” David reasons.

“Oh great, that’s all we need.” I’m over whelmed, “What are we going to do now?”

“We’ve got to get that line off the prop. Maybe I can reach it” says David. “Oh no you don’t, your not leaving this perfectly good boat David” I say, trying to sound as if I can stop him. “It’s too dangerous.” He looks at me and I know he’s right, “Darlin’ I’ve got to try.” He’s already wearing his safety harness, but we add a second backup line. We get the boarding ladder out and mount it over the side of the cockpit, then tie it down to help stabilize it. The waves are still heaving, slapping against the hull, although the rain has stopped.  David begins to back down the ladder. “Ughh, burr, its freezin’ cold,” he says, shivering already.

At this point, only his legs are in the water, but its bone chilling.  He tightly maintains his hold onto the ladder with one hand and the much sturdier hull with the other as he takes one more step down. “I really don’t want to have to go underwater, it’s so cold.” “Don’t do this David, get back up here, I know you’re freezing. We’ll think of something else.” I say trying to entice him back. The waves slosh up against his back but he’s determined. He doesn’t answer me but, I can tell by the look on his face he is thinking, pondering something. “I can feel the prop with my foot!” he announces. “Wait, maybe I can get it” I wait giving him the time he asks. “I can feel the rope, I think I can get it.” He is using his toes, feeling the rope, visualizing it, trying to figure out which way will unwind it from the shaft.  In a moment that seems ‘Houdini-esque’, he reaches down with one hand and comes up with a three foot piece of line in his hand. “Oh my God,’ I’m amazed. “Let’s get you up here now.” I help him back into the safety of the boat and within minutes we have stowed the ladder and are ready to start the engine. Silently, looking at each other, he bumps the gear shifter into forward, we hold our breaths.

“Hooray, Thank You God,” I rejoice as the engine continues to run. We put the engine back in neutral, letting it idle. “Let’s do it” he says, because we still have to raise the anchor. That being done, once again, we are finally getting underway through the choppy seas. David goes below to change out of his soaking wet clothes. I try to keep us on our heading as we plow on. I hate to make him take over steering after everything else that he’s already done. So I try to strong arm the tiller for a while longer to give him some rest. He doesn’t rest though; he uses the break to check our position.

We continue our slow progression onward, taking on one wave after another, but progress it is. Popping his head out of the companionway David beams at me, “Good news Darlin’ the sea buoy for the Savannah River inlet should be in sight soon, and we’ll be out of the worse of this.”
It’s at that moment when I realize, throughout this whole ordeal, he never once told me to worry.

Note:  We sighted the sea buoy and made for the inlet, within a few hours we had found our way to Walsh’s Docks at Tybee Island and safety. We ate our first real, hot meal in days, and got some much needed sleep. It took another two days to get our boat ship shape again. Far from our home in North Carolina, the following day we felt compelled to get underway. Still feeling a little beat up, after our sea storm, for this leg of our journey we opted to make our way up the Intra Coastal Waterway.

Haila Eggleton-MacKay is a fledgling freelance writer. She and her husband live aboard their sailboat and continue to sail from the Carolinas to points north and south.

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