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.
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.