|nonoctave.com / Rebel Yell / Part I / Chapter 1|
|Rebel Yell||Jason Scott||Part I - First, Get Your Feet Wet... Real Wet!|
The men who try to do something and fail, and try again are infinitely better than those who try nothing and succeed.
... Lloyd Jones
There lives in San Diego, a good friend who, before being introduced to the “kicked back” skippers’ way of moving over the water under sail during usual weather conditions, was a confirmed stink potter. Under careful tutorage he soon discovered that pleasure sailing does not routinely involve working a crew to death, changing sails, coming about and adjusting sheets. The autopilot helped maintain this image. He soon neglected his beautiful 48 foot ChrisCraft Connie and spent most of his time sailing with us. It was necessary to gently inform him that all sailing was not so laid back and casual. There were times, I assured him, that it took all the expertise of the captain and crew to keep from auguring in. As the saying goes, “Sailing is 99% pleasure and 1% sheer terror!”
“Also,” I continued to inform him, “knowledge of what to do does not ever come easy. All of us had to start somewhere. Some of us were lucky enough to survive the inexperience mixed with a generous helping of stupidity.” I found out on my very first blue water experience, coming out of Seattle, just how conservative that 1% terror factor was!
As is always the case, not just one thing controls everything in a hairy situation. This time it was lack of specific experience in a certain area and a propensity for extending personal known physical limits. These human failings left no contingency for the other things which happened on this cruise over which there was no control. Getting one’s self into that kind of a dilemma at sea is a definite NO-NO!
It had been a short 8 months since undergoing a double coronary bypass complicated before and after by several aneuristic heart attacks, three cardiac arrests and two weeks in a coma after a surgery from which no one expected survival. No one except me, that is! Therein the spirit of Illegitimus Non Carborundum (never let the bastards wear you down) set in.
After hearing the ominous news, it seemed that something had to be done to keep busy. At the same time, whatever it was, it should be interesting enough to keep every day problems off the mind. The FAA was stuffy about people with serious heart conditions flying. Sailing was an avocation which seemed closest to that sport. Both involved just about the same techniques and produce somewhat the same amount of ego satisfaction with the results. So, a monolithic decision was made: Not to be just a day sailor but to take in the whole banana...open ocean cruising! No sitting around in a rocking chair for me. If they were right, at least I’d go out with gusto!
The wife, Chris, and my friends were aghast. The cardiologist conceded that it might be good for morale since he had openly espoused the opinion that, at the most, only two years were left. He did place a condition on his approval. Anywhere sailed had to be within reasonable range of the Coast Guard rescue units and a good knowledgeable crew aboard was mandatory.
Within those parameters, the yacht was purchased (a 35 ft. Cheoy Lee Lion) and, with a couple of good sailing friends, plans were laid to sail from Seattle to San Diego with a stop in San Francisco. Not much attention was paid to the fact that the first leg of that voyage is notorious as being the most hazardous stretch of water on the West Coast! Not only was the weather notoriously unpredictable but, if bad weather did hit, there was not a single safe place to enter port until San Francisco was reached.
Naturally, all of the activity preparing SIBLING (Chris stuck the boat with that name after noting, “You treat that thing as if she were one of your kids!”) for sea generated the interest and latent desires of many a weekend sailor in the marina at Shilshole. Their main purpose was interrogation and an opportunity to indulge their fantasies by osmosis. It was a mistake to take their interest as being lack of courage. In retrospect, their exercise of caution in challenging the Washington/Oregon coastline made more sense than I did.
There were planned prevoyage excursions to check out the crew and the boat systems for seaworthiness. Nothing deleterious about either surfaced during the trial runs and so the sailing date was set. April 28. Just after the passing of the spring equinox (a point on which the insurance company insisted).
It was interesting and flattering to note that all the planning and study going into the cruise made me somewhat of a marine mavin (expert) on coastal cruising amongst the local docksiders. The apparent awe caused some mental trepidation. Was it not unusual that three other men were about to put their lives into my hands and not a single one of them bothered to inquire about qualification as a blue water skipper? (Ring a familiar bell?) It was the old story of the expert being the man from out of town with a valise in his hands and confidence in his manner. No one challenges such a one for fear of having his own expertise invalidated unnecessarily. Much earlier in life I had noted that the world was full of followers! The day for proving worth was upon me and with its approach came a lot of mixed feelings. None of these were sufficient to call the whole thing off. Little things like “find and talk to another yachtsman who has made the trip.” If there were such, none talked!
The big day dawned beautifully. A splendiforous sun spilled buckets of red over the Cascades to the east and it was over all obstacles and on to the stars! None of the crew had slept too well the night before for the excitement was too great.
Mark (first mate, good neighbor and friend) arrived arrived early with his wife and little boy. His spirits were bubbling over and his wife Jody modified her usual unsmiling indifference in recognition of the momentous occasion. She did not approve of me for getting her husband into this. Chris wasn’t around. She had long since left for San Diego via the friendly skies to await our coming.
Morrie (Mark’s friend who also happened to own a sailboat) arrived at last with an entourage of lady wellwishers. He had been partying all night and his breath smelled not unlike the local bar rag. He looked as if his eyes could use a tourniquet to keep him from bleeding to death. But, with all that, he was happy...even buoyant. He brought with him his friend Pietro (a last minute substitution) who looked to be in much better shape...all 6 ft. 6″, 280 pounds of him! I learned later that he had recently retired as a defensive end for the Kansas City Chiefs. A half hour before sailing, all hands were administered the usual precautionary dose of Marazine.
The lines were cast off at 1000 hours, a mere half hour after the scheduled departure time, and we sailed past the quay twice to permit the landlocked onlookers to take movies and still pictures of the great moment. Turning the prow northwestward, we motored out of the marina to a cacophony of honking horns and whistles from the other craft. It was a great feeling!
To the other yacht owners, we were fulfilling their inert desires. A surrogate for their inner fantasies. Passing by the local fire boat, it too saluted us with a double stream from their hoses. Just like the big boys! Our spirits were riding high from the excitement while SIBLING rode low in the water stuffed full of 45 days worth of provisions.
The crew stayed on deck watching the Seattle skyline disappear. All except Morrie. He remained there just as long as he could be seen by his admiring feminine entourage and then went below to try and sleep off the events of the night before. It must have been something! Some mental notes were taken of this action and, unbeknownst to him, he automatically volunteered for the midnight watch! There were other things of far more concern at the moment. The weather, for instance.
Before we left, Coast Guard weather predicted a good chance of a light gale occurring during the first nights sail out the Strait of Juan de Fuca. What the hell, I thought. Anytime of year here you run risk of gale! And rips...and capricious currents...and steep waves...and traffic...ad nauseum.
There is nothing like breaking in a brand new crew right off the bat! True to the forecast, the sky deteriorated shortly before dusk. The wind continued to freshen and started to blow directly down the slot of the Strait. Unlike the old square-rigged traders which had plied their trade in these waters, we had the benefit of a two-bang Volvo diesel. I’ve never been such a purist to disdain use of the engine to make way into a head-on wind. Down came the sails and on came the Iron Spinnaker. (Without engines, the old sailing boats used to take some two weeks to make the some 60 mile transit to the sea...beating all the way.)
The swells came from the ocean squeezed by an entrance which was bordered by Cape Flattery to the south and Vancouver Island to the north. They originated in Asian waters and had nothing to stand in their way until they reached the North American continent. In the strait there was nothing to diminish their growth and they rose and fell with increasing fury throughout the night. SIBLlNG’s bow started dipping into the icy cold water with the consistency of a pendulum. CG weather was now predicting (as usual after the fact) a short lived FULL GALE! Due note was taken but we could do little else but continue to plow on through the night directly into the brunt of it. Knowing that the boat was built to take this kind of weather...and worse, Mark and I enjoyed a certain exultation with the action. Others in the crew did not share our feelings.
Morrie woke up long enough to come on deck, empty his stomach and return to his horizontal position in the quarter berth. Not knowing for sure whether it was the sea or a direct result of his high living the night before (or a combination of both) the usual extra dose of Marazine was administered.
Now, the problem with sea sickness is that when one person starts upchucking, the others see it and develop sympathy pains. Before long, Pietro became likewise incapacitated. That left Mark and one cardiac cripple to handle the boat in a gale. Not a pretty way to start an adventure!
The maximum brunt of the front hit us about three hours before midnight. By this time the tide had turned and the current was with us. This combination of tide going out and wind blowing in had the effect of making the sea uncommonly steep. SIBLING, like the true thoroughbred that she was, rose fully up to the crest of each breaking wave, shuddered a bit as if she had somehow lost her place, then crashed resoundingly down into the next trough. There wasn’t much roll...just pitch. Typical of a full keel boat.
The rain which had been falling spasmodically until then burst upon us in full fury. It became almost impossible to see the bow from the wheel And, it was cold! God awful cold! (Normal sea temperature in the strait is around 40°.) We stayed in mid-channel to avoid the many land juttings which, in the deluge, were difficult to see. Not to worry about freighters coming down the path. It was reasonable to assume that none of them were dumb enough to try it in this weather! To Mark and I the whole thing was a new kind of challenge. This was the kind of ride which makes sailing the fantastic sport that it is.
Mark was at the helm when an ominous clanking was heard through the combined sounds of shrieking wind, crashing sea and downpour. It was coming from the bow. Pietro had left the security of the forward bunk just because of the noise and was peering wide-eyed out of the hatch at the furiously heaving sea and a struggling helmsman. The clanging became more and more pronounced signaling that something was very wrong up front. An investigation was in order but who was going to do it?
“Pietro, get the skipper up here,” came a bellow from the helm over the wind.
There was no time to put on foul weather gear. Going out on deck and into this weather with nothing on but shorts and a harness over a wool shirt was damned uncomfortable. (Anyone who sails on my boat who is on deck at night or in weather or during a sail change is required to wear a harness. To make sure of this, all sleep with harnesses on. This is really not that uncomfortable and it saves time in an emergency.) On my way aft, I passed Morrie and shook him awake.
“Stand by on deck...we’ve got problems.” He just stared at me through bleary unseeing eyes.
“Mark, I’ll take the wheel. You go forward and see what in hell has broken loose. Pietro, you stay right there in case we need you. No, better still, turn on the spreaders, get into some rain gear and get back here pronto.” Somehow I knew that Morrie wasn’t going to help.
Pietro disappeared below. It came to mind that I was certainly in no shape to undertake a deck crawl in this sea state. Besides, in case of maneuvering in a storm or during an emergency, the best helmsman has to be at the wheel and all hands should be on deck.
Mark had unfastened himself from the safety cleat (which had been thoughtfully installed close to the pilot’s station) just as I readied to replace him at the helm. He then worked his way forward on hands and knees, snapping the safety line into place every few feet. Most of the time the boat was pitching like a rodeo bronco...but she didn’t sunfish! The decks were awash even on the high side and Mark knew the importance of that harness. Safety depends on staying with the boat. If someone were to go overboard, it would be next to impossible to find him alive. Survival time in the cold water of the strait is something like eight minutes.
He couldn’t be seen in the driving rain but the shout from the bow was soon heard. He needed help. Pietro’s look of abject terror and the absence of Morrie on deck made me the only candidate for the assist. Knowing very well that exerting the kind of physical strength it would take to go forward and help could very well do me in didn’t deter from the fact that there was no one else left to help. It was another case of reaching back for the reserves all of us have. Another anguished cry from the bow pushed me into action. I knew he had discovered the problem because the clanking stopped.
“Pietro, get your buns out here and take the wheel.” No immediate response. He seemed to be glued into space and time. “I mean NOW, dammit!” This time the urgency came through.
He reluctantly moved out of the hatchway and gingerly made his way back to the wheel. My hand remained on the helm in anticipation...still fighting to keep the way. Before it was possible to move out of his way, the boat heeled and his massive frame knocked me aside much as if I were one of the opposing teams quarterbacks.
Unconcerned about the indignity, to say nothing of a few black and blue marks (always seem to show up after a knock-down drag-out at sea in a storm), he lashed himself down and peered forward into the din. He was about to say something when a wave broke across our beam and inundated the entire cockpit with what must have seemed to him to be a ton of ice water. When the wave cleared, Pietro was still clinging to the wheel for dear life almost knee deep in water which had filled the well. (Later he confided that he was just too damned scared to even pray for help. He assured me that there had never been a case when he had felt it necessary to pray for help when playing for the but this was different!)
I inched my way forward on hands and knees. On reaching the bow, Mark could be seen sitting on the stub pulpit with his legs wrapped around a stancheon. He bear-hugged the Danforth anchor. The problem was immediately visible and there was an appreciation for the seriousness of the situation. The anchor had been secured to a commonly used fitting which used the rail for support. Under normal circumstances it would have held, but the designers of the fitting had not taken into full account the pounding caused by a furious sea. The Danforth had broken partially loose and when the boat dropped down into the slot after each crest, it tried to pound a hole into the fiberglass bow. This was a lesson not to be forgotten. (Never undertake a blue water crossing with an anchor riding on deck. Now, I always wait until we’re ready to make port before even bringing it out. Another alternative is to fasten it down securely to fittings on the deck itself...never, never on the rail!)
Taking a position akin to Mark’s, it was possible to pull the anchor completely out of the skewed holder and put it back on to the deck where it could be temporarily lashed down. During these maneuvers, the yacht continued to plow her nose completely under each oncoming wave. We would both take a deep breath just as she started down the other side because we knew we’d be under water each time. It seemed to be an eternity fighting to keep ourselves on board while, at the same time, cradling a 30 pound anchor in our arms as if it were a runaway child. A child gone wild! A child whose actions could sink us if we couldn’t quiet it! Half in the air and half under the water we managed to tie her down!
There was no time to rest on laurels. Indian file we inched our way back to the safety of the cockpit and, still on our hands and knees, crawled down into the cabin. Neither of us paid any mind to the panic struck look on Pietro’s face as we left him on deck all by himself. Our friend Morrie was still sleeping...oblivious to the problems.
Only after getting out of the wind and into the shelter of the cabin did we realize just how damned cold and wet we were. We were pretty pleased with ourselves, though, managing to prevail under trying circumstances with a good sailor and a cripple. It was good to know that it could be done. Remembering the poor guy at the wheel, I stuck my head out of the hatch.
“Pietro, you take the next two hours while we dry out. Keep the course as she goes and don’t leave the wheel under any circumstance. Give a yell if you’ve got problems...make sure they are big ones!”
The latter direction was really redundant. Hell, he was too scared to do anything but keep himself tied in and hang on to the wheel. No need to wait for his answer. The hatch was closed and what few clothes I had on were removed in order to retrogress into the womb of the sleeping bag. Like the Alaskan goldminer, Sam McGee, I didn’t see how I would ever be warm again! I played the flashlight on the anemometer and noted that the wind was blowing at a steady 40 knots. As sleep drifted in, there was a consciousness that the wind seemed to diminish. Sleepily came the recollection that, through all of this, Morrie still remained in his bunk... “Useless as teats on a boar,” my earthy Dad would have said.
The gale died much more quickly than she rose. We arrived just before dawn outside the mouth of the small Indian owned and maintained harbor of Neah Bay. The sea now gently rose and fell in concert with the heaving of its mother’s breast which lie so close by at the entrance at Cape Flattery. The surface of the water was devoid of ripple. Waiting until first light we motored into the confines of the harbor and anchored...dead tired!
The two crewmen who had spent most of the night in the sack (excluding Pietro’s impromptu truck at the wheel) were nice and dry but both possessed a distinct green pallor to their skins. Mark and I had not a stitch of dry clothing left and, as always is the case when going through a storm, the inside of the boat was a disaster.
Morrie and Pietro advised me that they had experienced quite enough and were going to leave the boat. Under the circumstances of Morrie’s worthlessness in time of need, I wasn’t too perturbed by this turn of events. Nevertheless, they were asked to stay on. In retrospect, it would have been better if they had followed through with their intentions.
|Chapter 1||Chapters 2-3|