A frantic end to a mid-voyage swim

Recently I met a dog-sledding enthusiast who told me about the time he stopped to take a break on the trail and regretted it. He threw out his “snow hook” as they call that peculiar form of anchor, and stepped briefly to the side of the trail. It was only a minute later that the dogs, perhaps having spotted a rabbit or fox, decided to take off on their own. They popped the snow hook loose and were instantly gone, leaving the erstwhile sled master far behind and running like mad to catch up.

I then related to him a similar story that happened to me – out on the ocean.

We were somewhere between Bermuda and Martinique in the French West Indies when we decided to stop for a swim. There were 12 sweating and somewhat smelly bodies aboard our 88-foot schooner, Ocean Star. We had benefited from several days of strong northwesterly winds after leaving Bermuda and heading southeast. But that was over. By this time it was just plain hot with no wind. We had been motorsailing for hours. We needed a break. The water was about 15,000 feet deep, so who could resist?

You know how it is when you’ve been motorsailing. It seems like there’s no wind, even if there might be a slight breeze. Or, perhaps more realistically, with the engine droning away we are sometimes not even aware of the slight breezes that arise on the calm sea around us. They certainly don’t do us any good, so there’s no use being aware of them.

We had several sails up – main, fore, and staysail. When motorsailing we would have typically dropped the jib so that it would not chafe against the headstays. Taking the engine out of gear we let the boat drift to a stop and soon enough had the diesel shut down and the main boom strapped in tightly amidships.

Thinking only of the lure of that immensity of cool, blue water, we all cast off clothing and headed over the side. In less than a minute we were all in the water, some with the predictable bottles of dishwashing detergent, others just floating there with heads back and arms spread, enjoying the sensations.

There’s nothing like swimming in 15,000 feet of ocean water to make a person appreciate his minute and meaningless role in the world of nature. I always like to try to visualize myself in true scale, as the tiniest of specs thrashing about on the surface with three miles of salt water between me and the bottom. It’s a sobering image.

It must have been while indulging in such thoughts, lying on my back and staring at the blue sky, that I noticed everyone was starting to swim in the same direction. It took only a second to take in the situation, and I was soon swimming right along with them. Our boat was sailing off without us!

The boarding ladder, which hung down five feet over the side, was starting to show signs of a wake. It did not seem like there was any wind, but the boat was definitely on the move. Now there was a far more sobering image – the thought of 12 of us left behind on the surface by a boat which took off with an unforeseen puff of wind.

I can’t speak for the others, nor for my 14-year-old son who was in the water with us, but I know that I swam like mad to catch up with that moving ladder.

It only lasted a minute. Shortly after we were all back on deck, panting from the brief exertion and the excitement of it all. We flipped back and forth between the image of 12 people left behind on the surface, and the image of the boat rounding up into the wind a hundred yards away. We knew that’s what would have happened. Or did we?

By Ocean Navigator