By Jim Marquardt
I was delighted a few years ago when Ian Thomas and Cindy White of North Haven asked Bob Reiser and me to help crew their 46-ft. Hylas sloop from Sag Harbor to Bermuda and St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Bob already had some blue water experience and I was happy he was in the crew. I’d been sailing Long Island Sound and the Peconics for 40 years and had always dreamed of making an ocean voyage. With those years of experience and the knowledge absorbed from a collection of nautical books, I figured I could handle anything the ocean might throw at me. King Neptune must have heard my thoughts because he proceeded to scare the hell out of me, and I came away from the trip with huge respect for the mighty Atlantic.
To avoid hurricane season, Nirvana III embarked from the Sag Harbor Yacht Club on a Saturday morning late in October. The sky was gray and leaking showers, and a couple of weather systems were headed east, but business commitments persuaded us to stick to the schedule. I remember a long slog to Montauk and seeing the lighthouse slip by through a rain and spray-spattered porthole. As we sailed out into the Atlantic, the chilly northeast breeze picked up, but it was going in our general direction and we sailed south quickly, surfing on following seas.
A couple of hours later, out of sight of land, the auto helm stopped functioning and we had to hand steer, strenuous work in rough seas. But the thought of banging head-on into the building waves and northeast wind to return to Montauk convinced us to continue on to Bermuda. And we thought maybe the auto helm would recover. (It never did.)
The weather continued to deteriorate until it was a full-fledged northeast gale with over 30 knots of wind and waves cresting around us. Despite a brief bout of seasickness Cindy made sandwiches to keep up our morale and strength. Down below, I wedged myself into a bunk because I couldn’t stand or sit upright. On deck, I was cold despite wearing long underwear, undershirt and turtleneck, jeans, fisherman knit sweater, sea boots and full foul-weather gear. We had reefed the mainsail before rounding Montauk and near dark dropped it entirely. This meant starting the engine, furling the genoa and turning directly into the gale-force wind. Bob fought to hold the wheel steady while Ian hooked up his safety harness and hunkered to the mast to loose the halyard. On watch that night from 2200 to 2400 hours, I flinched as a huge hedge of white water rushed by in the dark. Crouched at the wheel, I realized my birthday was only a couple of days away. What the hell am I doing here?
On Sunday when the wind dropped to 20 knots, we ran out the genoa and raised the main. In the evening Cindy braced herself in the wildly moving galley and prepared our first full meal which we ate in the cockpit under the partial protection of the dodger. Another gale was forecast and we rigged a small storm jib before dark. When I went on deck at 2200, the wind had built to 40 knots. I stared at the compass and struggled to control the wheel as breaking seas tried to push the boat off course. I remembered Peter Nichols’ remark in Sea Change that “the ocean is absolutely impersonal. It makes no distinction between your little dreamboat and a Styrofoam coffee cup.” In the dark I felt very alone and utterly vulnerable. Many Hail Marys.
At dawn, the wind gusted to 48 knots (over 55 mph), a “strong gale” according to the Beaufort scale. Using the mast spreaders as a gage, we judged the seas at 25 feet. Some of them broke over the stern and one lifted me from the helmsman’s seat and bounced me onto the cockpit sole. I desperately held onto the wheel to avoid broaching. The noise in the ocean storm was frightening – high-pitched shrieking in the steel rigging, waves slapping past the hull, loud bangs as Nirvana came off a crest and slammed into the next swell. Above all this tumult was the deep roar of wind racing across the surface of the dark sea and turning it into a froth of white.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
Before leaving Sag Harbor, Ian had downloaded a chart of the Gulf Stream showing latitude and longitude of eddies which peel off the main current like shavings from a plank. We had a sextant on board but never saw sun, moon or stars for 96 hours. Only the GPS told us where we were. On Monday we altered course from southerly to easterly and crossed the stream that night, freezing cold showers becoming a Turkish bath.
I once went through a nasty Long Island Sound squall, but I’d never been below deck in an offshore storm. Imagine a confined space mounted on springs that a madman controls at will. Try to stand while the madman abruptly tips and turns and lifts and jiggles the space. Add a wet deck, 100 percent humidity and you can understand how sailors get injured just trying to move around.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
To relieve Cindy I went below to heat curried chicken, but Nirvana lurched when I opened the door of the microwave. A bowl of rice flew all over the galley and I picked up the grains on hands and knees.
King Neptune must have decided I was suitably humbled. When I came on watch Wednesday night, we were only 60 miles from Bermuda and before dawn the island’s 12-mile approach lights appeared. As we headed into the channel for St. George Harbor I saw a squall far off over the stern. At least this one wasn’t going to catch us. After a one-day layover, Nirvana sailed with balmy trade winds, sunny skies and smiling faces to the West Indies. Bob and I celebrated my birthday at the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Von Dyke.