SURVIVING A GULF STREAM STORM

 
Am I Really Spoiled Rotten?
 

It seems to me that a little compromise to each others' needs isn't so much to ask. Then, when in a Gulf Stream storm everyone can feel a bit more comfortable and secure.

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By Corinne Kanter

May 3, 1981 dawned bringing a brilliant sunrise and a promising weather forecast.  We said our farewells, released our previously semi-permanent dock lines and departed from our winter home, Faro Blanco Marina in Marathon, Fabulous Florida Keys, Florida, for Annapolis, Maryland.

Our planned route took us northeast, inside the Keys, to Angelfish Creek then, outside, into the center of the Gulf Stream, just below Miami.  Our plan was to ride the center of the Stream north and turn left (west) either at Charleston, South Carolina or Morehead City, North Carolina, depending on the weather.

We were sailing Legal Mistress, an Allied 39' Mistress ketch, the boat my husband Chuck and I had been living aboard since February as part of a charter management package deal with our long-time friend Joe.  Our own boat, the 32’ catamaran La Forza, was secured at a private dock, across town, in Marathon.

Installed aboard Legal Mistress are every gadget known to the sailing world.  She is lavish where our own boat is modest; she is complicated and sophisticated where ours is simple and basic.  A year aboard her has been a marvelous learning experience, but that's another story.

The first couple of days were truly tropical paradise.  We swept past the Miami and Fort Lauderdale area, sailing downwind in moderate southerlies, with the roller‑genny, main and mizzen set.

We took our clothes off in the cockpit and acted like a couple of kids.  Speed over the bottom was good.  The 5‑knot boat speed, coupled with 21/2 knots of Gulf Stream gave us close to some 170 mile days.  Chuck used his sextant to confirm positions and I played around with our RDF and LORAN.  Near the end of our second day at sea we were at Lat.31, Long.79, or roughly 135 miles south of Charleston, S.C., 135 east of Savannah, Georgia.  The weather forecast was still unchanged: "SW winds 15‑25; 20% chance of rain, waves 3 to 5 feet, higher in the Gulf Stream."

On the horizon, dead ahead of us, loomed a really nasty, ugly black squall line.  Chuck's policy concerning such storms was straightforward.  He said: "Hey, we are not racing; we don't have to prove anything to anybody; furl the sails with double lashings and start the engine 'til this is over."

Chuck had learned this the hard way during a trip to St. Croix, aboard a 49' ketch‑rigged trimaran on which he had left the mizzen raised to feather the boat into the wind, according to I classic book instructions.  Well, it seems that the first gust of wind blew the sail into dental floss; so much for heaving‑too with a mizzen.

There was no escaping this storm.  It spread from one side of the horizon to the other.  We put on our foul weather gear and sea boots, lowered and secured the Bimini top, set the autopilot, poured a cup of coffee (not knowing that it was to be our last for three days), then pressed on.

I guess I am basically apprehensive and worried at sea.  Oh, I enjoy it all right, but given my druthers I'd druther enjoy it within sight of land!  Over the years Chuck and I have done our share of blue‑water sailing, and I believe you would have to consider us reasonably experienced.  Chuck, of course, being a professional delivery and charter captain, gets more practice than I do.  Up until we took over the management of this boat, my personal knowledge of monohulls was fairly limited.  Our first sailboat was a Venture 24, swing‑keel, five‑berth cruiser.  Actually, the entire family learned to sail on that one.  Chuck, I and our three children cruised extensively throughout Florida, its Keys, and Chesapeake Bay, before trading up to our first catamaran: a 24' Hirondelle. 

Chuck always continued to sail monohulls, here and there, but I didn't have as much opportunity.  Therefore, by the time this offshore passage took place, I had pretty much forgotten the difference between the two types of sailing.

We passed through the ugly black line.  It was amazing; five minutes earlier we had been in bright sunshine, southwesterly winds and balmy temperatures hovering near 80 degrees.  Now, it was down into the 50's, northerly winds of about 30 knots, lightning flashing all around; enormous, seemingly erratic waves coming from many directions, including straight up and down.

Since none of this was forecast, we assumed it was a small, local storm that soon would pass. Sigh, we were wrong!  Things continued to deteriorate. I guess it was a severe frontal storm, although, not being an expert I really shouldn't say. I do know that 12 may-day calls resulted from this storm which was later upgraded to a tropical depression (one from a Hinkley 65).  This was the same storm in which Angus Primrose lost his life off the coast of Virginia when his Moody 45 (monohull) capsized and did not self-right. The lightning really terrified us; it was the most impressive I had ever seen. The inky black sky would just seem to disintegrate into disjointed, broken fragments, like an eggshell when it cracks.  The accompanying thunder was ear‑shattering.

The first couple of hours didn't seem so bad, except for the lightning. We had been through wind and waves of this intensity several times before. However, after a while it became apparent that the under engine alone we could not gain headway against the storm, and if we kept it running for any length of time, we might be out of fuel and then, really in be trouble. We started to perform the classic storm tactics that are outlined in several good books dealing with heavy‑weather sailing, including the one by Adlard Coles. Until this point, the weather was mostly annoying and disappointing.  Now a different set of problems beset us.

Chuck went below and closed all the seacocks, closed the engine exhaust valve to prevent water from going from the exhaust into the engine, double checked all the ports and made sure everything was secure as possible. When Chuck tried to raise the storm jib which flew on its own headstay in front of the roller-furler, it became clear that what we easily achieved aboard our catamaran was impossible on this monohull.  With safety harness on clipped to both side of the pulpit, and safety lines tied to the sail-bag, he simply could not stay on the bow (now heeled about 30 degrees with waves breaking over it) long enough to hank on the sail and bend on the sheets.  After an hour of strenuous effort he came back to the cockpit, trembling with fatigue and worry. The two of us were just physically unable to handle this vessel, not that either of us is exactly a weakling.  I would have to say that both of us, and especially Chuck, have above average body strength and stamina. Suddenly reeling through my mind were pictures of all those monohulls I had seen with a dozen crew members, something I had never really thought of before.  We would simply have to do the best we could.

By this time the roller‑furling Genoa had stretched its furling line to the limit.  There were about 30 square feet unrolled which we could not get in, and we pondered and rehearsed what we would do if this line failed and the entire Genoa unrolled.  The boat responded well to our actions.  With the wheel locked amidships and only that 30 square feet or so of jib out, she reached off at about 60 degrees at roughly two knots.  A traditional maneuver under the circumstances, and the boat did exactly as predicted. The problem with those basic books which give these marvelous encouraging methods and descriptions, is they only refer to the boats, there is no mention of the people aboard them.

We hadn't eaten for hours.  Finally, after plotting our course and creating a plan of action, we began to think of ourselves, and went below.  The cabin was absolute and utter chaos. Contents of every locker, pots and pans, clothing, were either in a completely jumbled mess or someplace in mid‑air, and everything was soaking wet.  Finally, after locating some instant coffee and my teakettle, I discovered that I could hardly keep the kettle on the stove long enough for the water to boil, and once boiled, could not pour it into cups without scalding myself. I thought of galley stoves with straps to hold the cook in place, and mused about the reality of it all. What would happen to you if you were strapped in place, near your stove, and a pot dumped toward you?  Perhaps they should issue insulated steel aprons with the straps (later I found out that they do!)

I had never experienced anything like this before.  No matter how bad conditions had been aboard our catamaran, nothing ever moved or flew around and I certainly never had any problems with cooking.  Nor had Chuck ever experienced any difficulty while lowering or hoisting any sail he chose. In fact, Chuck had singlehanded our 40‑foot catamaran, Duet, four times over a Marathon to Freeport New York Gulf Stream route and I had never heard even a single grumble about things like this.

As the hours ticked by and we slowly but steadily inched our way due west toward a certain landfall somewhere on the coast of the US, I grew weaker and more desperate. I could not rest nor eat, nor perform any of my expected tasks as crew. The violent motion kept me as suspended in mid‑air as it did everything else. It was one of the worst periods in my life and I resented feeling so helpless. I really felt bad for Chuck, he had to keep all the watches and, occasionally, I found him trying to catch some sleep in the companionway between the forward and rear cabins, the place of least motion on the boat, and the only location where he didn't get tossed through the air like a missile. I have told Chuck that I positively will not go to sea in that boat (or any similar one) ever again. I sailed with Chuck aboard a 40‑foot engineless trimaran across the Caribbean, from St. Croix to Aruba. The entire three day trip took place in almost identical weather and never did I feel like this, nor did I have any problems related to the boat's movements.

After about 24 hours of this abuse I heard an awful thumping noise coming from the engine room.  I made my way up on deck and alerted Chuck.  He dutifully crawled down the companionway into the engine room, and emerged ashen faced.  The 4.5 Onan generator had broken loose from its base and was bouncing about, ready at any moment to pierce the hull, break a thru‑hull fitting, or cause some other grave damage. Thinking quickly, we grabbed every cushion we could find and stuffed them firmly into the engine room, all around the wayward generator.

I lost track of afull day somewhere, I can't remember exactly. Towards the middle of our third day of combat, we spotted a shoreline and headed for a landfall on good old USA soil. We started the engine and turned north along the 20‑foot depth line to look for an entrance buoy. It wasn't long before we met some shrimp fishing boats and I couldn't understand why they seemed so totally unconcerned while we were so devastated. Finally, the sea buoy to St. Simons Sound was visible. Chuck quickly identified it and we streaked into Golden Isles Marina, St. Simons, GA, our first touch with land in six days.

At the dock we did the usual, hanging all our wet gear up to dry, and reacquainting ourselves with the pleasure and luxury of eating and sleeping. My decision was final: We would finish the trip inside, in the Intra-coastal waterway

In retrospect, I guess I am just spoiled rotten. The motion of this heavy displacement monohull is so different from any of the catamarans I am accustomed too, I just could not readjust to living at a 20‑degree, or greater, angle of heel. I am used to everything staying where I put it. If I put down my cup of coffee, it stays there, unaided. Nothing, in my opinion, is more disconcerting than the frustration of trying to pour something and have it miss its mark or have things take off in some other direction and spill.

There is another serious problem as well: that is cold and wetness. I remember sailing Duet during several ocean races such as The Round Long Island Race and the Sand‑fire Race in the Atlantic across New York Harbor in which we pressed the cat as hard as we could, sometimes sailing at more than twice the speed of the smaller boats, without a single drop of water ever coming on board.  On Legal Mistress it was quite routine to have green water sweeping the decks and occasionally filling the cockpit.  Spray from crashing waves was always in the air, therefore, it didn't take long before everything was wet, clammy and cold. That experience answered my questions about why people were always drying their gear in the rigging after a passage.

Sailing is a marvelous exhilarating experience.  Voyaging with your husband is worth the risks and inconvenience; however, I don't think one has to be so masochistic about it.  All women who are a little reluctant to sail with their men ought to make them look at other types of boats that are perhaps not so traditional or nostalgic, but a little more comfortable to sail and liveaboard. It seems to me that a little compromise to each others' needs isn't so much to ask.  Then, when in a Gulf Stream storm everyone can feel a bit more comfortable and secure.

Epilogue:
Legal Mistress was lost several years after we left her with new operators. She heeled over in a storm, did not self-right, finally after trying everything they could to right the boat, the crew called a MAY DAY. By the time the USCG got there, the boat was flat with the masts in the water and sinking. The boat was lost, just off Cape Henry Virginia, fortunately with no loss of life



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