They say it’s bad luck to change a boat’s name. Maybe that’s why it all went horribly wrong. The following story is so crazy that looking back on it, I can still hardly believe that it happened to me.
After months of hanging around Rhode Island, trying to get a job on a sailboat, my dreams of adventure on the high seas were about to come true. I was given a job on a sailboat heading to Bermuda, over 600 miles away through the open ocean.
We left at sunrise that autumn morning, the captain, his wife and us three crew members all bundled up against the intense chill. The waves were big and I realized later that most people thought we were crazy for leaving right then. After all, a hurricane had just passed the stretch of Atlantic where we were headed! Not to mention that our destination was Bermuda (as in the Bermuda Triangle Bermuda!) and our boat had just changed its name without even using the proper ceremony to appease the gods.
Bad luck as the old salts say.
Trying to sleep that night, the waves literally rolled me back and forth across the bed. I got up at 4 am for my turn at the watch and could barely walk across the boat.
And it was about to get a lot worse. Unbeknownst to us, (as our weather forecast system was down) we were on the edge of a huge storm with 150 mph winds!
Afternoon of the second day only got rougher. Imagine trying to sit on the toilet and with each wave, making air that a pro skateboarder would be jealous of! The Captain and First Mate began to talk about turning the boat around and going back to Newport. I was horrified! My first trip out couldn’t end like that. We had to press on!
We turned around.
The sea calmed and that night was one of the most spectacular of my existence. I was outside on watch and the sky was filled with stars so bright and numerous that I couldn’t even pick out the constellations. On every side of us, lightning flashed. We were surrounded in storms.
By the next morning, the waves were no longer waves. They were mountains. We didn’t have enough gas to make it back to safety so were forced to sail, despite the violent wind. I sat in the cabin and watched through the window as towers of water crashed right over top of us. Every few minutes I got up and carefully made my way to the hatch to make sure that the First Mate hadn’t been washed away into the sea.
Then things started to get bad.
Something slammed against the window next to my head so hard I can’t believe the glass didn’t break. I scrambled away. It slammed again. And again. Ropes and metal bits were flying everywhere outside. The furling line had snapped.
This means that the headsail, which had been reefed in as tight as possible (made small because there was too much wind), had broken and was now full out in the middle of the storm. And there was nothing we could do. We couldn’t even reach it due to the rope whipping across the deck with enough force to take a man’s head off.
The boat was nearly impossible to control. We got in contact with the Coast Guard and made a plan to reach Block Island. With any luck, we would be able to find shelter along the West side.
But as we’ve already established, luck was not with us.
The next thing to break was the engine. It died completely and nothing the captain did made any difference. It was dead.
A few minutes later we lost steerage. Our rudder (the contraption used to steer the boat) snapped completely off from the force of the storm. It was gone. Our engine was gone. Our headsail was full out with lines and metal whipping across the deck, destroying the rigging. And we were smack dab in the middle of the kind of storm that I’d only seen in the movies.
The navigation system died next. The sky had grown dark. The first mate actually went out on the deck among the whipping lines and cut the now-ripped-up headsail loose. The coast guard was still hours away.
Inside, water leaked through every hatch. Every thing and every person was completely soaked and freezing. The brand new $500,000 dollar boat was a wreck.
When the coast guard finally arrived, we thought we were saved. I helped my friend, Marc, tie into his safety harness and watched helplessly as he went out on to the raging foredeck to try and catch the lines thrown by the Coast Guard ship.
But then the unthinkable happened. One of the lines got tangled in the Coast Guard ship’s propeller. They were just as dead in the water as we were! Half an hour later, I noticed that the Coast Guard ship was approaching us again. I thought that they had fixed their propeller and were going to give another attempt to save us. Not so.
The other ship was still dead but the waves were pushing us close. And then together. The Coast Guard ship slammed into ours with a startling force. Then again and again. A row of Coast Guard guys lined the other ship’s deck trying to push us apart. One of them screamed as an impact broke his leg. A big chunk of fibreglass was torn off of our boat before the waves finally pulled us apart again.
A few miles away, another boat was caught in the storm and sinking. It was a towboat and the crew was saved by somehow getting on to the barge they were pulling. The Coast Guard ship that was on the way to save them was rerouted to save us instead.
The new Coast Guard ship arrived and after hours of failed attempts we finally got linked to them with a tow line. For the next thirteen hours we were towed back to Newport. There is more to tell but I think I will cut the story here as it is already long enough.
Back in Newport, I felt a weird mixture of sadness at the destruction of that beautiful boat, relief that everyone was okay, and gratitude toward the universe for giving me such an incredible adventure. The kind that I had always dreamed of. The next day, Marc and I booked flights to Fort Lauderdale, where we would continue our search for work on the sea.
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Or To See Just How I Ended Up Here, Check Out My Previous Post!