Problematic trip teaches need for preparation

I’ve heard it said that a cat on board a ship is sure to bring bad luck. The one exception, according to superstition, is if the cat is black. Cedric was a gray cat.

It wouldn’t be fair, however, to lay all of the blame on Cedric. Most of the problems the other crew and I had on Wanderer, a 63-foot, wooden-hulled motorsailer, during a trip to Bermuda from Newport, R.I., can be attributed to our own actions, or lack thereof. That cat story must have some weight to it, though, for never before or since have I been on a delivery with so many consecutive mishaps.

I signed on board Wanderer in Newport in early October. Besides the Portuguese captain, Cedric the cat, and myself, the crew included the captain’s girlfriend, Sarah, who had minimal sailing experience, and Don, a twenty-something Newport resident. Our departure was planned for the middle of October, but due to maintenance and other delays we didn’t leave until just after Thanksgiving. By then, we were one of only a few boats in Newport Harbor. The reason for this is that, by late November in Rhode Island, it’s cold. So cold that the only fresh water available to us in the harbor was via a hose connected to the sink of a local yacht club. Nevertheless, on November 26, we were underway.

Wanderer’s ketch rig is complemented by twin diesel engines. Her living quarters are relatively luxurious and include a spacious salon adorned with a large oriental rugnot something one sees on every yacht.

> The first day out was pleasant. The northerly wind responsible for the cold temperatures was also pushing us nicely on our way. This was the first boat I had been on with a fully enclosed pilothouse, and, although it was disconcerting not to be able to see the mainsail while at the helm, I have to admit the warmth and shelter it provided was a comfort. We were lucky enough to land four Bonita tuna, which provided plenty of sushi for us and for Cedric.

In late November, weather systems move rapidly across the western Atlantic. The high pressure that had provided the first day’s fair weather was quickly being replaced by the leading edge of a strong cold front. The evidence of this was a clocking wind on the second day, which came around to the southeast and rapidly built to gale force by the morning of the third day, a Monday. We had access to regular weather reports via the single-sideband radio and so were prepared for the gale. First of all, we had to get through the Gulf Stream. The rapid east-flowing current of the Stream combined with a southeasterly gale would mean treacherous seas. Second, we had to securely lash down the sails. We succeeded in doing neither.

We received our last chart of the Gulf Stream showing the position of its axis the day we left Newport. Little did we know that two days later as we approached the axis, a meander had formed in front of us. This meant we would be fighting a three-knot current for about a hundred miles and could only guess at when we would get out of it. As the wind increased to between 45 and 50 knots, the seas started rolling and breaking from two different directions. There was no recognizable wave pattern, which made Wanderer difficult to handle even with the two diesels at high rpm. She became nearly impossible to handle when one engine quit and could not be restarted. It was all we could do to hold the bow into the seas as they were hurled upon us with tremendous force. Turning and running with them was out of the question. With Wanderer’s high center of gravity, broaching was a real possibility the instant we got broadsides to the seas.

We relied on the engines because the sails could not be reefed enough to use them in gale conditions. Although Don and I lashed down the main and jib, we did far from a thorough job at the latter. This became all too obvious when the 130% headsail blew loose at the height of the gale. Unfortunately, we had left it shackled to the swivel on the headstay, and as a result the entire jib quickly rose to the top of the mast. Besides the top of the mast, the jib was also connected to the first spreader by a wire strop that had become entangled with the shrouds. The wind lashed at the sail, which shook the entire vessel to its keel. The noise was horrific and sounded like one continuous explosion. One jib sheet dangled down to us on deck, and we used it to try to get partial control of the sail by pulling it alongside the mast. It was a futile effort, however, as the three of us were nearly lifted off the deck. We tried putting the sheet on a winch and grinding the sail down to a vertical position. We partially succeeded but gave up after the shrouds protested loudly with popping noises due to the incredible strain on the rig. Driven by an intense desire to rid ourselves of the sail, which had become a crackling demon overhead, I hoisted the captain, armed with a hacksaw, up the mainmast. The idea was for him to cut the wire strop at the first spreader, thereby relieving some of the pressure on the mast created by the ballooning of the sail. It was a pathetic scenethe captain tossing like a rag doll up the mast, me grinding him up, all the while vomiting from what seemed like gallons of seawater I had swallowed just being on deck in that maelstrom. He motioned that he had to come down.

I was eager to try the job myself, for although I was nauseous I was determined to regain control of our vessel. I was armed to the teeth with adrenaline. I clipped my harness onto an external halyard beside the mast so it would rise with me as the captain ground me up. The higher I got the worse thrashing I got. What had been a rock-solid grip on the mast became useless at about 15 feet up. As Wanderer slammed off a wave, I was flung from the mast and around the shrouds. I remember the moment I hovered there with nothing below my feet but raging seas. My harness tether came taut as I swung in toward the mast but aft of the spreaders. It was preventing me from reaching the mast. I was pinned in a spider’s web of rigging. Only after the captain eased the halyard my harness was clipped to could I unclip and be lowered to the deck.

> The last effort we made to get the jib down demonstrated our desperation to rid ourselves of this nemesis. The captain used a shotgun and tried to part the jib from the rig at the two points it was connected. He fired again and again, to no avail. Days later in Bermuda we would find birdshot embedded in the knotted sail. We had worked feverishly for hours. The captain had broken some ribs in a fall on deck. Now, all we could do was try to ignore the sound of the jib being shredded by the winds.

Our problems were just beginning. With one engine against the seas, we were only able to make three knots of headway. Given the three knots of current against us, we were virtually standing still. The seas were extremely violent and threatened to smash the pilothouse windows. We needed to install Wanderer’s half-inch Plexiglas storm shutters to the outside of the windows. Don and I donned our foul-weather gear again and climbed in front of the house with the shutters. They became like sails in the wind and were difficult to control. We were on a slick, gel-coat surface, and the only thing to grab was a mounted spotlight. Imagine our surprise when we realized that there was a short in the light and we were being electrocuted. It was a comical scene as we tried to convey to the captain through the windows that we would appreciate the light being extinguished. Despite the holes in the shutters not wanting to line up with the studs on the window frames, we accomplished our task.

> At this point, you might be wondering what Cedric the cat was going through. At the outset of the bad weather, Cedric made the wise decision of finding a nook deep in the cabin and staying there for the duration. He was not easily forgotten, though, for his litter box remained on the pilothouse floor. In all the commotion no one had thought to remove it, so it slid from one side of the house to the other and back again. Eventually, the inevitable happened; someone’s foot caught the edge of the box and up it went, sending litter all over the house and us. To this day, I can still smell the perfumy aroma of saturated cat litter.

It soon became apparent that the main boom, which rests on top of the pilothouse, was out of its crutch and sliding from side to side. On went the foul-weather gear, and the captain and I climbed onto the roof of the pilothouse to secure the boom, which had already wiped our GPS antenna clean off the roof. With the heavy timber boom sliding around at ankle height the captain explained to me how I had to go forward to the mast, hoist the topping lift, and lower the boom while he positioned it over the crutch. Although I knew it was the correct way to do the job, I had a better idea. I would put the boom in the crutch myself. “It’s too heavy!” he shouted over the wind. I straddled the boom anyway, and with a heave and a rush of adrenaline I picked up the boom and wet sail and dropped it into the crutch. We were both astonished.

We had now been in the Gulf Stream for two hellacious days. A “normal” crossing at this point in the stream would have taken about eight hours. Because of the incredible pounding the wooden hull and rig were taking, we had prepared the liferaft and abandon ship bag for immediate use. We all slept in the main salon, near the companionway, with life vests nearby. We had to be ready for a worst-case scenario.

Fortunately, we were still receiving regular NWS forecasts. They told us that the cold front was becoming stationary just to our west. We decided to motor on a port tack in hopes of crossing the front and getting into the forecast northwest winds of 15 to 20 knots. The front must have been very close, because not long afterwards, the howling wind and tumultuous seas simultaneously stopped. It was as if we had entered a safe harbor in the middle of the Atlantic. We had crossed the stationary front.

The sunrise that morning was particularly beautiful. A light northwest wind was blowing, and the gray clouds were giving way to peeks of blue sky. All that day we lingered behind the front, which we could see clearly in the form of a line of thunderheads to our southeast. According to the forecast, it was just a matter of hours before the front resumed its stately march to the southeast. When it did, we planned to follow it, like a running back follows his blockers.

> By the end of that day we had cleaned ship, rested up, and even called home via SSB. We also were able to pull most of the runaway jib into the cockpit and secure it. We were restless to get going, however. Even if we re-crossed the front, it would surely catch up to us in a matter of hours. How bad could it be? How soon we forget.

Proceeding southeastward, it was like exiting the same imaginary breakwater we had entered the night before. The wind swung around on our nose and gusted at more than 60 knots. The seas leapt into action and resumed the same haphazard pattern we had endured for two days. Once again, turning around was not an option since Wanderer’s stability would have been challenged by the first broadside wave. It was painfully obvious that our impatience to get moving had placed us back in harm’s way. The crew was silent as we braced ourselves against each crashing wave that rushed aft along the deck. It was a surreal moment when our captain, ever the romantic, calmly remarked how beautiful the sea is in all her fury. “It’s some sort of mad passion that brings us back out to sea,” he reasoned.

The gale continued for six hours. At one point the steering locked up, sending Sarah and me scurrying to the lazarette to troubleshoot the cause of the problem. Heavy anchors and scuba tanks were tossed out of the way so we could get to the quadrant. We knew it was only a matter of seconds before the bow would fall off the wind and we would be at the mercy of the seas. Not finding an obvious problem, we returned to the pilothouse where we were relieved to find the steering had returned. We never did find out the cause of the momentary failure.

On radar, I was able to see a series of broken line squalls overtaking us from behind. Behind them all was one definitive squall line, which stretched across the radar screen. I was hoping that this was the cold front. As I watched, it steadily made progress toward us until it was right overhead. The rain came down in torrents and the wind gusted to new highs. Suddenly the needle on our wind indicator swung around behind us and the melee stopped. The front had passed.

The crashing waves smoothed out quickly to become large swells and began to break on their backsides as the northwest wind freshened. The swells were soon beaten down and replaced by a following sea. As high pressure built in behind us the clouds broke up. The sunshine and fair winds beckoned us to hoist the mainsail for the first time in three days. But, alas, it was not meant to be. The mainmast top was too fouled with the remains of our jib, and the halyard jammed. Since the ship’s GPS antenna was wiped off the pilothouse roof by the boom, we were relying on a portable, battery-operated GPS. If the need arose, we had a sextant and almanac.

For the next three days we powered through calm seas. The captain was able to restart the starboard engine, but an oil leak forced us to shut it down again. Eventually Cedric emerged and became playful again.

Pulling into St. Georges, Bermuda, we were a sorry sight, with tattered ribbons of jib streaming from the main and mizzenmasts. Arriving in Bermuda is always a happy occasion, but this day was particularly sweet.

This would be nothing more than a dramatic sea story were it not for several lessons that I learned from my experiences on Wanderer. First of all, when “hitching a ride,” as I was doing, I am the person primarily responsible for my safety at sea. While the captain is accountable for providing a seaworthy vessel and possessing the experience to handle her, it is, in the end, up to me to keep the risks to myself to a minimum. In selecting which boat to accept passage on, I should have given more thought to the vessel’s stability. We were leaving at a time of year when storms begin to become more intense and more frequent. Wanderer is a top-heavy boat, not suited for severe offshore weather. We could not rely on her to stay upright if we turned broadside to the seas, even briefly. What’s more, her sails could not be reefed effectively in strong winds. A good offshore sailing yacht needs a variety of sail configurations to match the wide range of wind and sea conditions encountered at sea.

A forecast of strong winds requires the crew to have foresight in preparing the vessel. I now know that readying your boat for rough weather early and aggressively is imperative; early because it’s so much easier in calm weather and aggressively because your preparations will need to endure the weather ahead, even if it’s worse than forecast. When it came time to lash down the sails, we did an inadequate job on the jib. Imagine the heartache we could have saved had we just taken the extra time to secure the headsail well. Likewise, had the boom been secured in its crutch, we would still have our GPS antenna. The Plexiglas storm shutters should have been in place long before the wind picked up, if not for the entire trip. We should have packed a “go bag” with flares, water, and other essential items before we left Newport, instead of at the height of the storm.

By the way, Cedric jumped ship in Bermuda to join the ranks of the wharf cats in St. George’s. Can’t say I blame him much.

John McCabe lives in Newport, R.I.

By Ocean Navigator