I visited my friend of many decades, Ham, the other day. He had no idea who I was.
Not quite knowing how to handle this, I began telling him stories of our many good times together. Here’s the tale I related:
As we sailed past Cape Henry into the deep Atlantic, night began to fall and, as the temperature dropped, the wind rose. Sitting in the cockpit with the other crew, I imagined that they had the same thought as I: What the hell am I doing out here?
Only our captain, Ham, had ever been out of sight of land. We planned on five or six days crossing the gulf stream and on to Bermuda in Ham’s 40-foot Hinckley sailboat. I was appointed navigator, Andy was the chef and Macky was chief storyteller.
Trying to learn celestial navigation before we left, under the watchful eye of a Navy captain friend, I had tried out a sextant sighting and had located us somewhere south of Chicago. Problem was, we were on Skyhill Road in Alexandria. Captain Fuller rolled his eyes. At least I’m pretty sure he did.
Meanwhile, we were keeping an eye on Hurricane Henri, moving from the Caribbean toward Florida. The last forecast we received before shoving off was that it was expected to turn inland. Equipped with only a ship-to-shore radio with a radius of 20 miles, that would be the last forecast we would receive. Henri, as it turned out, veered north.
As night fell, Andy handed up our first meal at sea. It was a tasty saltimbocca, French bread and salad. Andy followed the meal topside, leaned over the rail and puked. Nobody commented. We didn’t know it would be the last food we’d consume for three days.
Macky was on watch as the next day dawned. Ham and I were below checking our position on the Loran – thank God it was working! Macky called down, “Ham, you should come up and check it out. It’s getting a little breezy up here.”
Sure enough, the winds had risen to 20 knots and the waves were 15 feet high, but they were swells, not breakers. More importantly, we had crossed the Rubicon. We were now in the gulf stream, which is basically a huge river rushing northward, creating confused seas. Yes, it’s part of the Bermuda Triangle.
By 3 p.m., the weather had turned nastier, and the swells turned to breakers. We donned foul weather gear and attached ourselves to lifelines. The seascape for as far as the eye could see was a fearsome sight. It appeared as a vast blue field dotted with huge white boulders. The sun was only a faint presence behind a leaden sky.
The noise from the wind was now a significant presence. Speaking in a normal voice did not work, and we had to notch it up several decibels. No one mentioned it, but we all wondered how this would play out once night fell.
As the sun went down, the winds rose even higher, and naturally, so did the waves. We now had 30-footers that were breaking. We had long since doused the mainsail and pulled in the genoa to a “handkerchief” for stability.
We turned on the engine for two purposes – the propulsion helped keep us pointed into the correct position to the seas, but by now the troughs were so deep that we feared we wouldn’t have the momentum to climb the face of the next monster. But with the help of the engine, climb we did, even as we surfed down the face of the other side of the beast.
The darkness only added to the feeling of peril. There was no moon, no stars visible, only the eerie glow of the instrument panel. The helmsman’s job was simple: don’t let a wave hit us broadside. A broadside could easily capsize us, which could easily kill us. To be continued next week.
The writer is CEO of Williams Whittle Advertising and is the author of two historical novels, “Pointer’s War” and “Pointer and the Russian.”