Severe storm batters Tortola delivery crew

May/June 2007

To the editor: The sudden, deafening explosion of tons of water from a 40-foot breaking wave driven by 50-knot winds is enough to shake your soul. It makes you feel like you’re at war against an enemy of superior force – and one that means you great harm. Only guile and grit will get you through. And it’s only human to wonder what foolish reasoning landed you there in the first place.

It all started innocently enough when Charles Drakos, owner and skipper of Elena, his sleek Hylas 46, asked me and Rick Lueders to help him deliver the boat from Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y., to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. Each of us had logged many offshore miles and we three had done the Newport to Bermuda Race in my Valiant 42 earlier in the year. So we were already a strong sailing team.

Charles had set Nov. 3 as a target departure -€‚after the prime hurricane months. But our voyage was a long one, some 1,500 nm, and October had seen low after low sweeping off the Carolinas and maturing into full gales at sea. We knew we needed a good four-day window to get our sea legs and safely cross the Gulf Stream, where we wanted to avoid any significant weather at all costs. Charles and I were both doing Internet weather each day, and Charles also had a knowledgeable, weather-smart friend who would serve as our shoreside advisor, sending daily weather updates via SSB, which we could compare to our own grib files developed on board. And we would talk to the famed weather router, Herb Hilgenberg, to get his weather advice each day.

We departed Cold Spring Harbor on Nov. 3 in sunny, brisk conditions with the temperature struggling to get past the low 40s. We successfully negotiated the East River, Hell Gate and the canyons of Manhattan, arriving at the narrows and passing under the Verrazano Bridge on the last of the ebb. Very soon we were at sea with the sun setting over Sandy Hook and the temperature dropping like a rock.

We sailed, cold and beautiful, for three full days, making a perfectly planned Gulf Stream crossing. Elena was loping along at an effortless 7 knots in fair northwest breezes; we were eating well and getting warmer. When Charles appeared in the cockpit and announced several more days of good weather, we should have known something was really wrong.

In the late afternoon of Nov. 6 we heard the first premonition of change when Herb spotted a deep low forming southwest of Hatteras. Herb said some weather models showed the system sweeping up the east coast, but that he believed it would deepen and go east. This was sobering news for the crew of Elena, and after a quick crew conference we turned Elena southeast toward Bermuda’s St. George’s Harbor. We sailed hard into increasing headwinds then motor sailed even harder when we could no longer fill the jib. Herb’s forecast on the 7th was chilling. The Hatteras low was huge and already offshore moving east fast. His message to Elena – get to Bermuda or face storm-force winds and seas by the 8th. When our shoreside advisor said the same thing, we knew we were in for it.

The low moved faster than anyone predicted and was on us like a great, smothering cat long before we could fetch Bermuda. Elena was 60 nm northwest of St. George’s Harbor when we knew we’d better stop trying to get there and instead focus on storm survival tactics. We laid out the storm jib in the cockpit and checked its sheets, sheeting blocks, hoist and hanks. We laid out our drogue, rode and chain. Charles secured a thick piece of Plexiglas to the louvered companionway board. We removed and plated all dorades. We already had a second reef in the main, and when the wind piped to a steady 35 knots we doused and tied the main securely. While I held the boat close to the wind with the engine, Charles crept forward with the storm sail, hanked it on to Elena’s inner forestay and, with Rick’s help, raised and sheeted it in.

Suddenly, Elena’s speed surged to 8 knots. The feeling at the helm was that of immense but uncontrollable power. I put the wind on the beam, and with just the hanky of the storm jib the boat shot off at more than 8 knots. With the big winds expected from the southeast we would have to run off northerly, and at that speed we would eat up more than 100 nm of our progress by morning, not to mention the chance of broaching in the night. This, we agreed, was not a good option.

We had discussed heaving to as a key tactic if the storm materialized, but as Charles had never had the occasion to heave to on Elena, we were uncertain how it would balance.

It was late afternoon on Nov. 8, under a sinister yellow haze, gale force winds and quickly building seas when we hove to for the first time. With the storm jib backed and the helm lashed to windward, Elena did reasonably well, but kept falling too far off the wind. We played with the sail and helm till we achieved a nice balance. Then we tacked to try the same thing on starboard. Better! The storm jib would force the bow off to about 60° and then the helm would bring it back up to about 35°, then the whole process would start over. Our forward progress slowed to less than 2 knots.

And just in time. We spent an hour or so trying to keep our ground by sailing slowly east and west in building winds and seas and gathering darkness. At a howling 40 knots of wind and 20- to 30-foot seas we hove to for good and began two-hour watches. The siege of Elena had begun. It was a bleak and ominous time.

No one could eat or sleep, and as evening marched on to total darkness the monster wind did what we hoped it wouldn’t – it increased to true storm intensity, regularly touching 50 knots. The sound aboard Elena went from an ear-piercing howl to the roar of a freight train. The sound alone was physically intimidating, and both wind and waves were hammering the cockpit watchkeeper. Soon the cockpit watch became untenable and, at Charles’ suggestion, we pulled the watch below to read instruments, monitor the boat’s position and speed, and to be ready to spring into the cockpit to start the engine should any of our lines fail, or should Elena need additional thrust to stay hove to.

It slowly became clear to us that Elena could handle the storm-force wind, but the enormous waves were another matter. Elena would dip and slide down most of these huge rollers, but as the seas were now 25 to 40 feet, the largest of them were breaking. Every 10 waves or so we would get hit a thunderous, stunning shot, the sheer force of which would shake both boat and crew to the core. On these occasions we were tricked by a momentary diminished wind roar, which at first gave us heart. That is, until we realized the height of the approaching wave was actually shielding the boat before it hit. The wave force was so immense that it found leak points that surprised us and water trickled below from a number of deck and hatch locations.

Our lowest moment came around 0200 when, after a huge breaking wave scored a direct hit, Charles reported in his laconic, understated way, “Dodger’s gone.” And, without the dodger, each succeeding wave found a big leak where instruments in the companionway slider face had not been properly sealed. This lead to a torrent of water below each time a big one hit, and the leak exit was dangerously close to our nav station electronics. This brought a towel brigade to protect the instruments and added to the gloomy atmosphere below.

Just after this, it was my turn to inspect after a big hit. “Charles,” I said over my shoulder (and trying to match his stoicism), “Your bimini frame has been relocated.” In fact, it had been dislodged and had crashed to a totally new position. Oddly, it seemed secure, so we left it for later.

To our everlasting thanks, Elena kept its balance through the long, black night. The first light of an ugly dawn revealed the awesome sight of an ocean gone mad. As Elena rose to the top of passing waves we could see the massive seas marching down from a spume-filled horizon. It was an awesome and magnificent sight. For the first time, we allowed ourselves to discuss our next move. Obviously we needed to fetch Bermuda and the safe confines of St. George’s Harbor. We needed repairs – to Elena and to our own psyches. We needed fuel and water, and most of all, to regroup for our next 850 nm.

We noticed the first abatement of wind at 0500 and an hour later the wind had dropped to gale force – a mere 35 knots – and had veered easterly. We broke out of our hove to position at 0630 on Nov. 9 and pointed Elena at Bermuda. First under storm sail alone, and then by mid-morning on a deeply reefed jib and with the engine ticking over at 1,500 rpm, we crashed along in huge seas at 7 to 8 knots. As we had lost only 25 nm or so during the storm, we had some 95 miles to fetch St. George’s.

We had consumed no food other than Power Bars for more than 24 hours and, after wedging myself into the galley, I surprised Rick and Charles with grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. Rick, no stranger to good food, commented, “This is the best damn thing I’ve ever tasted!” Exhausted and wet, we skirted Bermuda’s treacherous reefs and made St. George’s cut in the dark, anchor down at 2200 hrs. After a Gossling’s rum toast to Elena and to us, it was the sleep of the dead. In the morning, we were to learn from Bermuda’s Royal Gazette of four other sailboats that were damaged and abandoned during the storm, their crews helicoptered to safety.

Two days later, on Nov. 11, we departed St. George’s refreshed, repaired and still excited about the storm and our collective sense of a big challenge well met. As Winston Churchill once famously said, “There is nothing so exhilarating than being shot at and missed.”

And as the irony of the sea would have it, our first forecast foretold our next fate: A huge high was centered south of Bermuda and extended all the way to the Caribbean. With no steep gradients for hundreds of miles, it would be light air sailing the rest of the way!

Rick Meisner is a former corporate executive who sails his Valiant 42 WildHorse out of Watch Hill, R.I., where he also runs his own art studio. He has captained WildHorse in several Newport-Bermuda and Halifax Ocean races.  

By Ocean Navigator