The Almost Last Voyage of the Conquest
Crewmember Ray Annino recalls a harrowing passage delivering an S2 11.0 from Bermuda.
The wind was gusting to 60 knots. With my feet braced against the port and starboard lockers and my harness secured on both sides, I gave it my all to keep the S2 11.0 Conquest from broaching. It was a tension-filled and tiring job, and Captain Kenneth Fletcher and I spelled each other frequently. In some respects, we were lucky to be sailing in the storm at night; as the seas continued to mount, we couldn't see how bad it really was. Even so, more than once, we wondered if we were going to make it. Deep down, however, we knew it was an adventure we'd long cherish.
Despite its heavy displacement and sturdy rig, the S2 11.0 is not an offshore boat. The large cockpit would be unlikely to drain fast enough to prevent foundering if the boat were pooped by successive waves. Further, the fin keel and large ports eliminate heaving-to as a safe option in heavy seas. Still, we'd sailed the boat in some rough weather, knew how to handle her, and had come to appreciate her ability to handle a storm. It was just the idea of being 300 miles from the nearest land that gave us second thoughts. But the wind was abaft of beam, and we were surfing along at hull speed. What the hell, we thought, at least we're making up time.
A number of omens went unheeded during the days preceding our departure from Bermuda, bound for Newport, R.I. Not long after I flew in to serve as Ken's first mate, a Shannon 38 had limped back to the berth next to us at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, having encountered a nasty storm about 150 miles out.
Upon arrival of the remaining crew‚ Brian King and Bob Buckborough‚ our first order of business was to weigh anchor and proceed to the fuel dock. Problem was, the anchor had become tangled with those of all the other boats moored stern-to. Ken sent Brian and I overboard to check out the situation. After several dives, we made some progress uncrossing the lines. Brian dove down down to double check and returned with a surprised look on his face.
"It looked like there was a giant carpet lying over the anchor," he said. "When I started down to pull it free, it started to come for me. It was a stingray!"
"Go on, it was a manta!" I scoffed.
"I'm not kidding! Go see for yourse1f."
"I'm not going down there."
In the process of untangling the anchors, we managed to wrap one of them around the rudder. We were putting on quite a show for the brunch crowd at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, which was buzzing with activity related to the Newport-Bermuda Race, which was set to depart from Rhode Island later that week. Brian ultimately freed the Conquest from the tentacles of the yacht club, and we proceeded to the fuel dock. After topping off the tanks and stocking up on a few odds and ends, we were dead broke, exactly the way Bermudians like to see visitors leave their island.
Of course, the island had a parting shot in store. There was a fresh breeze blowing as we attempted to leave the fuel dock, and our bow swung into the bow of another boat, dislodging its anchor. There wasn't any obvious damage, so we left a note. As we proceeded to Customs, a call came over the radio. The owner of the boat we had brushed was concerned that we'd scratched his gel goat. He told us he'd send us the bill when he returned to Sweden. What a great send-off. I don't know why we didn't call off the trip then and there, but we had to get home one way or another.
At the customs office, the official joked that we each owed him a $100 departure fee. He was not prepared for the effect of this announcement, which, to the parties concerned, who had no cash left whatsoever, sounded like positively the last straw. Watching our tanned faces go from beautiful brown to deathly white, he realized he had made a dreadful mistake and that this group of sailors had no sense of humor at all. He apologized, told us it was a joke, and swiftly cleared us.
Leaving St. Georges in a nice, steady wind, we had the feeling that the bad luck was behind us. The favorable conditions lasted for about six hours, when the wind began to die. We motored for the next day and a half, and our mood began to sour. It didn't help to discover that we were short on methane. Only two days out, and we'd eaten our last hot meal.
Ken was amused when he noticed that I had put on my scapular. A coworker, a devout Catholic girl, had given it to me on my first offshore trip. Since then, my wife wouldn't let me leave the house without it. Previously, I'd only put it on when storms were approaching, but this time I was praying for wind. The breeze finally did pick up, and we began sailing wing on wing‚ not the most relaxing way to sail, but by that time we'd have done anything rather than listen to the drone of the diesel.
On the third day, the wind began to freshen. By nightfall, it was blowing 30 knots; we dropped the main and proceeded under jib alone. As conditions deteriorated, we installed the storm shutters and battened everything down. It was blowing 40 knots by the time we reached the Gulf Stream.
"What kind of weather is this?" we wondered. The barometer refused to drop, even as a procession of heavy rain squalls shook the boat.
Given the inexperience of our fellow crewmembers, we decided to abandon the watch schedule. Ken and I would take turns at the helm throughout the night. We were in one of those nasty Gulf Stream storms we had heard so much about. The wind gusted to 52 knots. This wasn't sailing; it was insanity!
Suddenly, we saw another boat, and it was awfully close. The captain answered Ken's radio call. He was singlehanding the French-flagged Mignonne. Since he was hove-to, it was our obligation to stand clear, no easy feat, since we could only catch occasional glimpses of the boat. We were sailing at a good clip, however, and we were able to put sufficient distance between ourselves and the other vessel.