Monday, February 19, 2007

November 8, 2006, Wednesday - 33.42N, 66.19W

We spent the night motoring into the increasing seas on a close reach under a triple reefed main. The pounding was taking a terrible toll on both the boat and the crew. Suzy, Sten’s mom, once told me that if she could ever rent a billboard, the message she would put on it would be “Manage Your Mind.” The idea is that you can control your reactions. I was thinking about that as I lay in my bunk, trying not to succumb to fear. So I started reminding myself that we had bought a proven blue water cruising vessel for this very reason and that our crew had the skills to weather a storm. It helped, and I managed to relax enough to get some rest.

At approximately 3am, Merrill was resting in the v-berth, when we took blue water across the deck, breaching the forward hatch, hosing him and his bunk down. He came out declaring that it was time to heave to. Mind you, Merrill was the only one of us who had ever pulled off this textbook maneuver, and that was on a light wind day sail out to Block Island, so that he and Mary could enjoy lunch together. So he and Sten pulled out the bibles: Coles’s Heavy Weather Sailing, Dashew’s Offshore Cruising Encyclopedia, and Roth’s How to Sail Around the World. By 3:30, we were hove to, and all of us were sleeping soundly.

By 8am we were 110 miles from Bermuda, drifting west from our course, hove to under staysail and a triple reefed main. The rudder was hard over, and no engine was necessary to hold us in position. Sten and I put another call in to Commanders’, gave them our coordinates and current conditions: 25-35 kts, rough seas. They were shocked to hear that we had hove to and proceeded to describe the bomb that was developing over our heads. Over the next 24 hours we were going to see the winds build to 50 knots. As if that wasn’t fun enough, we were advised to expect the squall lines to bring gusts over 60. The worst of it was meant to be between 4pm and midnight, afterwards the wind was meant to taper off to 20-30kts and swing to the SW and eventually WSW, which would let us start making some headway to Bermuda (SE of our position).

After the call to Commanders’, we had all hands on deck to take down the staysail and rig the storm jib, both of which hank onto the inner forestay. We have the boat set up so that we can do almost everything from the cockpit, except those two things, setting the storm trysail (a scrap of sail that substitutes for the main) and setting a spinnaker. So Bill manned the wheel, Merrill worked the sheets from the cockpit, Sten went to the mast to deal with the halyard, and I went to the foredeck to wrestle the staysail into its bag as it came down. We’d blown out the staysail during the night, but I barely looked at the damage that had occurred as I stuffed it into the bag. Sten eventually joined me on the foredeck to rig the storm jib on the inner forestay. Even though we wear harnesses with two tether lines, one of which was attached to the jacklines and one to another fixed point on the boat, every once in a while we would both have to stop what we were doing just to hold on as we came off the backside of a big wave.

Unlike with the staysail rigged, with the storm jib, we had to use the motor to keep ourselves hove to. Our initial attempts at heaving too under storm jib alone had us lying beam to the seas. After some experimentation, we elected to use the engine with the rudder hard over to keep the bow close to the wind and the seas.

As Merrill and Sten had stood the last watch, and we wanted them to be rested for the worst of the storm between 4pm and midnight, Bill and I took the first day watch. Bill stepped up the frequency of his prayers as he proceeded to stitch back together the strata glass window of the dodger, which we had blown out the day before when a staysail sheet beat against it for all of 4 seconds. It was amazing to watch him, tethered in, stitching this thing back together. Here is a picture (taken after arrival in Bermuda) of his handywork:

We call it “The Frankendodger.” All it needs is a few bolts sticking out of it to complete the picture.

Bill and I took some bets on whether the fishing net that was wedged between the caprail and the stations would be with us in the morning. The unspoken undercurrent of the conversation was whether we would all be aboard in the morning. And we joked about the size of the waves. I would estimate that they were about 5-8 feet, Bill would assure me that they were only 3-4. We wouldn’t know the true wave heights (as documented by coastguard helicopters that were rescuing crews off of other boats in the area) until we got into Bermuda.

By early afternoon, Bill went down to rest, and I stood watch by myself for a while. At this point, I wasn’t worried about the wind, despite seeing 42 knots, so much as the waves. The waves were a dark greyed marine blue, and fearsomely powerful. We were struggling to keep taking them on the forward quarter of the boat. Our goals were to avoid digging into them head on, getting knocked down by a wave across the beam, or swamping the cockpit with a wave over the transom. To keep the bow of the boat 30-60 degrees off of the wind, I played the throttle of the engine. When the wind died down, I’d ease off, but in a gust, I needed to give it more juice to hold our position.

Just before the waves would break, they would reveal a soul of deep aqua blue, just below the white crest. And then another would rise in front of us as the breaking wave slid down our hull. As Mata’irea and I rode the crests, and avoided the troughs, the rest of world fell away, including the crew resting down below. At that moment, I understood that, as long as we gave her a gentle hand, she would take care of us through the night ahead. It was no longer a matter of managing my mind, I simply developed a trust in the boat and our collective abilities to figure out how to manage her.

Sten came up on deck around 3pm, and Merrill joined him at 4, at which point I headed below, having been on watch for 8 hours. They stood watch together until 1:30am (9.5 hours), during which time Commanders’ predictions about the storm intensifying held true. We repeatedly took blue water across the deck, through the forward hatch, the aft hatch (into the bunk I was resting in), the vent over the stove (it is quite something to see it rain in your galley), the engine vent, the hawse pipe in the anchor locker (this is where most of our bilge water came from) and the companionway hatch. Our cap rail leak (my constant and elusive nemesis) continued to drip, and I emptied the bowl under it several times. After the bookshelves dumped their contents on the cabin sole for the third time, I didn’t bother to try to reshelve them.

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