By Nat Spencer
Two summers ago, after the finish of the 2008 Newport-Bermuda Race, three of my buddies and I were delivering a 45-foot Swan back to Newport, Rhode Island. It was a typical two or three-day turnaround involving a steady stream of Dark and Stormy’s served up by the bar staff at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club, provisioning at Miles Market, and preparations that involved turning this high-tech raceboat into a safe cruising boat capable of being sailed safely by myself and three of my friends.
After the hangover final wore off, the delivery began under perfect conditions… blue sky, moderate southerly breeze, and waves on our port aft quarter. As the sun’s rays gave way to an incredibly dark, star-filled, sky, the wind built steadily up to 20-25 knots. We were making some serious ground toward New England and we were having the time of our lives.
By the morning of the third day, the wind hadn’t let up at all, and was in fact getting stronger with gusts up to 30 knots. With spotty weather forecasts coming in from our weather routing service the two days prior, we attempted to call the weather routers via satphone. No luck getting through on two attempts and it was clear we were definitely on our own.
The wind had held at 30 knots all day and through the night and we were sailing with two reefs in the mainsail and our large delivery jib. The clouds had moved in and it was squally with occasional rain showers, but it was still manageable. The weather had covered up the stars, and the rising sun gradually intensified the once missing horizon. Deeply exhausted from the constant buffeting of 35 knot gusts in my face, and the suspect weather tossing the boat about, my watch finally ended and I passed out into my bunk.
I woke up to my buddy’s voice, he was on the satphone, giving the weatherguy a guilt trip about our lack of attention from the forecasters. I also heard the captain banging his foot on the cockpit floor. If I were awake I would have immediately realized he needed help, but in the exhausted, suspended-animation, incoherent state I was in at the time, I could hardly tell which way up, much less what was going on topside.
The second time the captain banged his foot on the cockpit floor, the guy on the sat phone (with his abnormally high pitched voice) turned around and told the captain, who was on deck steering the boat, to shut up. He said something along the lines of “you’ve been yelling at me for three days to contact the weather guy and now I have him on the phone!…Deal with it!”
Thankfully, I woke up. I was in boxers and that was it. I grabbed a harness and sprinted up the companionway steps and saw a green sky and wall of clouds that had to be twenty or thirty miles wide, and the captain was freaking out. With lightning cracking all around, the captain and I wondered how long it would take before the wind instruments on top of our carbon mast disappeared in a blinding flash and puff of brown smoke.
The wind had picked up to 50kts, more than I wanted while sailing. Thankfully, the captain and the other guy had taken the jib down that morning, and we didn’t have to deal with it. However, we were now faced with attempting to cut across the front edge of the squall line and it was too windy to jibe with out fear of breaking the boom. The storms path was directly towards us, moving in from the North East, so we decided to run as fast as possible on a West, Southwest line. The day before, our speed record was 13 knots with a main and jib on a beam reach. With only a double reefed main, and almost dead down wind we were blasting along at 18 kts.
Now the storm was almost on top of us, we had lightning all around us, and golf ball sized hail began to pound the deck. I swear the hair on my neck was standing on end. The water had gone completely white with foam, and the wind built to 65kts. As a side note, the night before I left for Bermuda, my girlfriend made me watch White Squall.
My buddy was driving and I was trying to control the main, just keeping the boom off the shrouds so there was still something to ease, in case we had even more wind. My buddy wanted to hand me the wheel, he had been driving for about 30 minutes just getting blasted, but we were too afraid to unclip our harnesses. The fourth guy who is not in the story, had never been on a delivery before, he was an inshore power boater and I am positive he was praying in the companionway.
The lightning was striking everywhere, it seemed like the wind had actually blown the ocean flat. There was foam flying, but really the only thing we noticed was the wind and the sound of the raging sails. Completely focused on keeping the boat upright, and not losing our mast, time seemed to stand still. If I could have focused on my college experience as I had in that storm, I could have owned the world. For the next 45 to 50 minutes, we experienced sheer terror and witnessed a fantastic display of the ocean’s fury.
As quickly as it came, it passed, and the sea state was the remnant of our epic battle.
We made it home to Newport a day or so later physically unscathed from the experience but with a deep, personal respect for the power of the ocean seared permanently into our memories.
Nat Spencer, a former sailing yacht captain, is a law school graduate currently seeking employment in the NY Metro area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org