The Almost Last Voyage of the Conquest
Crewmember Ray Annino recalls a harrowing passage delivering an S2 11.0 from Bermuda.
On account of the new moon, the night was pitch black. Torrential rains accompanied the squalls, and the water penetrated every crack in our foul-weather gear. Soon, we were soaked. The wind and rain churned the sea into a fluorescent halo of light around the boat. With the night so black, it was like playing a scene out in the middle of a spot lit stage.
The wind would slacken to 40 knots after each squall, and the storm would seem to have passed. In a few minutes, another squall would hit with renewed fury, as if the skies were angry to find this little boat still afloat. Throughout the storm, the helmsman would use compass heading, feel, and peripheral vision to keep the Conquest from broaching; the other crew on watch tried his best to act as lookout. We switched jobs frequently, as each contributed its own unique stress.
At last, the dawn came, and with it a view of mountainous seas that sent cold shivers down our spines. Although it was great to see the dawn, we were alarmed by the number of things that had become unstuck in the night. Several hanks had torn off the headsail; we'd have to take it down and hoist the storm jib, but we weren't sure how that boat would react with no driving sail during the sail change.
As we pondered the maneuver, the boat rolled violently over a cresting wave, and the life raft slid from its cradle. It would have gone overboard if it weren't for the swift action of Ken, who caught it and lashed it to the deck. After the life raft emergency, the sail change seemed anticlimactic, and we executed it with little difficulty.
With the boat riding a little more comfortably, we had time to appreciate our surroundings. A school of porpoises, not slowed in the least by the storm, was playfully diving from the wave crests and frolicking in our wake. We were still moving along at a good clip.
"Okay, so I asked for a little wind," I said to myself. "A little wind, right? Don't you think this is a bit much? What happens if we lose the stormsail? Did you think of that? It could be cookies! I guess we'll make up a sea anchor. Hopefully, some long lines with wraps thrown over the stern, together with the tire that the skipper brought along, should do it. This is definitely not funny."
I was still wearing my scapular.
Secured in their bunks by the lee cloths, Bob and Brian had slept through the night. When they came on deck, a wave immediately drenched them and everything down blow. Brian lost his beautiful tan and Bob, with his mouth handing open, looked over the stern at the 30-foot waves perched over the cockpit.
"Holy shit," he said.
While Brian spent the day vomiting, Bob spelled Ken and I at the helm. He found looking forward to be much more comfortable than staring at the monsters astern.
By nightfall, we were in a light breeze. Despite the calm, I didn't pray for more wind. And for the rest of the trip, the crew teased me about the "spatula" I wore around my neck.
The next day, we began to sail through the first wave of boats participating in the Newport-Bermuda Race. We endured a stressful night weaving our way through the second wave of raceboats, which were hard to spot. There were near misses with fishing buoys, but luckily we managed to avoid all solid objects.
Morning arrived with no wind, increasing fog, and the captain's report that we'd entered the Nantucket/New York shipping lane. By this time, everyones stress level had really peaked. Bob and Brian were posted on deck, eyes and ears piercing the fog. I had my fists clenched white on the wheel, nervously looking over my shoulder expecting to by churned into the sea by a mammoth oil tanker.
When were were halfway across the shipping lane, a fog horn sounded from somewhere off our bow. A quick call on the radio brought a response from the source‚ the American Eagle. He had us on radar, and we were well clear. Phew.
As in the storm, the limited visibility had shrunk our world to the boat and the 50-foot radius of water surrounding us. We had expended a lot of energy keeping lookout in the fog, and we were getting tired. Our spirits brightened, however, when the wind began to increase. Soon, we were cruising at 7.5 knots on a beam reach in a patchy fog, and everyone felt like singing.
The fog closed in again, but we sailed on confidently under the guidance of LORAN and satellite navigation, which had remained remarkably accurate throughout the trip, never disagreeing by more than a quarter mile. As we clicked off the remaining mile toward Brenton Tower, it abruptly emerged from the fog. Truly remarkable.
We continued on past Castle Hill in a thick fog, and Ken remarked that he'd feel a lot better with a bushel of potatoes aboard. As the story goes, in Maine, where fog is the norm, lobstermen keep a bushel of potatoes aboard. In a dense fog, they instruct a crewman to stand on the bow and hurl potatoes in the direction of travel. Landfall is made when the splash is no longer heard.
Fortunately, the light appeared, and we made our way along the cliffs, around Fort Adams, and into Newport Harbor. It was near midnight, but we made supper using the last of the methane. Sprinkled liberally with parmesan cheese, the spaghetti and tomato sauce we prepared was a gourmet's delight, our first hot meal in days. It tasted like the most delicious food in the world.
The next day, as we motored to the marina, we discussed the story we'd give to our wives. We agreed we'd tell them the truth, or at least part of it.