A test of strength

Bill Woods | VOLUME 21, ISSUE 5
“I’d peer to windward through the gloom, straining to see what horror approached; and each time, upon seeing the monster bearing down on us, I’d wish I hadn’t looked.”
Australia’s most famous jazz virtuoso, James Morrison has had a long and mixed association with the sea.

A time will come when you’ll be asked to step forward. Being found wanting is not a sin, but it’s a pity to waste such an opportunity.

My entry into the world of triathlon may have been one of my greatest physical challenges, but the most daunting test I have ever faced took place at sea. This was a true life and death experience and one that taught me a great deal about myself.

My brother-in-law, David is a natural sailor who has raced all his life. A former windsurfing professional, he, of course, has a competitive streak, but he’s very relaxed when in command of a boat. A few years ago, David had his eye on a new yacht – a fast boat that would be perfect for club racing on Pittwater. She had a good track record in New Zealand, where she was made, and after the usual negotiations, David was the proud owner of a Young 88. Before you get too excited imagining some 88-foot racing yacht, the ‘88’ actually refers to 8.8 metres, or just less than 29 feet; not a small boat, but certainly not a big one either.

There was much talk of shipping her to Sydney, as sensible people don’t go sailing harbour racing boats across the ocean, but that would have meant removing her keel. So it was decided that David would sail her from Auckland to Sydney – all he needed was a crew that fancied being at sea for ten days on a boat designed for Sydney Harbour. It must be said that many brave souls have crossed oceans in boats smaller and less sturdy, but they usually do this for some sort of record or quest. We would just be delivering a boat to its new home.

Apart from yours truly (who had no intention of missing an adventure like this), we needed at least one more crewmember. Three would be a minimum as someone would be needed on the helm at all times and sleep would be scarce anyway. A third adventurer was found in Bob Hamilton, a former school science teacher of mine, who also taught me to sail. Bob is one of those ‘old salt’ types, who looks like he should be sailing a square-rigger around the Horn and likes to do things the traditional way. He had experience on the Tasman Sea, tragically not all good as a crewmember was lost on a previous voyage when the boat Bob was on sank close to home.

The planning for this trip was different to the usual Morrison brothers’ method of ‘let’s go now’, and involved David poring over weather charts and tables of data in an effort to ascertain the best time of year to cross the Tasman in a small boat. He finally announced that October was the month to be at sea as there was “almost never” a bad storm in these waters at that time of year.

After some careful packing, Bob and I found ourselves on a plane bound for Auckland. David was already there and had sailed the boat, Capretta, from Tauranga to Opua in the Bay of Islands; this would be her last landfall before heading across ‘the ditch’, as the Tasman is known. Our ‘careful packing’ included a satellite phone, new wet weather gear, sea boots, self-inflating life vests, safety harnesses, personal emergency locator beacons, strobe lights, acoustic guitar and trumpet. Bob is also a fine jazz trumpeter and I had visions of a South Pacific cruise with jazz being played on deck, sunny days, clear nights, good food and good company. (One out of six was all we managed – the company was excellent).

Anyone who’s been to sea on small boats knows how much they move around. The boat is never still and this requires you to constantly imitate a tightrope walker’s balancing act as you move around the deck. Motion sickness is often another side effect. I seem to get this if I’ve not been out on the water for a while; it never lasts long, but it’s completely debilitating while I have it. About six hours out I suddenly felt awful, dived to the low side of the boat and promptly emptied my stomach onto the cockpit floor. As it was a self-draining and very wet cockpit, lunch was easily washed overboard, but not before swirling around everybody’s feet a couple of times. Etiquette in these situations varies from crew to crew, but it’s generally considered good form to keep downwind and downstream of your shipmates until you’ve finished with the technicolour yawns. I lay in the bottom of the cockpit (yes, in the swill) for about half an hour and repeated my performance a number of times until, as quickly as it had arrived, my seasickness left. The landlubber stuff out of the way, we made our way around the top end of New Zealand and struck out across the ocean. Our next landfall was scheduled to be in Sydney, nearly 2000 kilometres away; some eight to ten days hence.

The sunny South Pacific cruise didn’t materialize, as the weather was chilly and overcast and the sea was just big enough to throw the occasional wave over the cockpit and keep us wet and uncomfortable.

Each night at six we’d set up the satellite phone and call home to report our position and wellbeing. This contraption consisted of a small attaché case with a lid that opened out like a flower to make a dish that we had to point towards the satellite. It was important not to get the satellite phone wet, so we needed reasonably good weather to use it – an interesting scenario considering that it would be difficult to make a distress call from a sinking vessel without getting wet.

Three days into our journey, the wind was strengthening and the horizon was growing blacker by the hour. We were flying a double-reefed mainsail and a number three jib (for the nonsailors this means not much sail) and still the boat was flying along. A normal speed for this type of yacht is 8 to 9 knots and on a downwind run she might reach 12 to 14 knots if it’s really blowing. We hit 17 knots coming down the waves and David decided it was time to shorten sail even further. With only a storm jib (about the size of a small tablecloth) the boat was manageable, for now.

This was already the strongest wind I’d ever sailed in, but still it continued to build. We figured it couldn’t get much stronger though, as it was now already over 40 knots and the waves were the size of houses.

In the late afternoon, while David and I were on deck coming to terms with the fact that we were surfing as much as sailing, we saw an apparition appear in the companionway – Bob was clutching the handhold, blood pouring down his face and he was pleading for help. I looked at David and he looked at me; neither of us liked blood much. Then David simply said, “You go.”

I reluctantly made my way down the now empty hatch (Bob had fallen back inside) and into the cabin, which resembled a teenager’s bedroom after a slumber party. There was about 20 centimetres of water swirling around the floor and stuff was everywhere. All our neat packing and careful placement of food, bedding, personal belongings and clothes had been for naught, as the movement of the boat threw objects off shelves, bunks and tables, landing them in the water to begin swirling around the cabin floor like some mad washing machine. The water was a worry; I wondered if the boat was leaking from somewhere, hopefully not underneath. My question was answered as we took another wave over the deck and water streamed in around the closed hatch. This was not a relaxing place to be.

Bob was sitting on the starboard bunk and, while I searched for the first aid kit, he explained what had happened. It appeared he’d decided a visit to the head was called for. Aboard Capretta the ablutions were taken care of in the bow, which was the worst part of the boat to venture into as the climb up over each wave sent that end of the craft skywards like an elevator, only to drop violently as we came over the crest. It was on one particularly big drop that Bob had been thrown across the small cabin and struck his face on the bulkhead, splitting his cheek open and making him rather dizzy into the bargain.

I spotted the kit on the other side of the cabin and began the slow process of retrieving it. With the boat moving as it was, I couldn’t just stand up and walk the metre or so to my destination. I had to brace myself the whole time and move very slowly, always keeping a firm grip on something so as to prevent a repeat of Bob’s acrobatics. With the first aid kit firmly in my grasp, I attempted to open it with one hand; the other was busy holding me into the bunk. I don’t know why, but these kits are always designed to open with a ‘pop’; maybe they’re sealed for freshness or something. This is no big deal with two hands and on a dry table, but in a tossing yacht with water rushing around the floor it’s much more exciting. The lid flew off and the contents leaped with glee into the water, only to be swept away as we launched over the next wave. I waited like some Neanderthal fisherman, hand poised, as the bandages came surfing down the cabin, while the boat rolled the other way. A quick snatch and I finally had what I needed to begin work on Bob’s now blood-soaked face.

His wound needed stitches, but there was no way I’d try stitching somebody’s face in an operating theatre at a top hospital, let alone in a violently tossing yacht, so we settled for things called Steri-Strips. These are basically short bits of fancy sticky tape that are used to hold together torn flesh. Apparently they are best applied to a dry surface with two hands in a still environment. Lacking all three of those requirements, I think I did a sterling job to save Bob from being called Scar Face for the rest of his life.

After I’d finished my handiwork, Bob complained that his face hurt quite a bit so I decided to administer some painkillers. All I had to do was find them. The cardboard packets they came in had disintegrated in the swishing water so I eventually ended up with three foil strips of pills, which were either for sea sickness, dysentery or pain relief. I had no way of knowing which was which, so I gave him a pill from each packet. This way I knew he’d not only get some pain relief, but also a settled stomach and calm bowels (you’d be lucky to get such good service from your own doctor).

I helped Bob into a lee berth. This is a kind of hammock-type arrangement that you tie a person into so that, even if the boat rolls completely on its side, they can’t fall out. Just as well I did. I think one of the packets may have contained sleeping pills because Bob was already drifting off as I said, “Don’t open the cabin hatch until I come back to get you. We’ll let you know when it’s safe to come outside.” With that, I headed back topside.

If I’d thought things were chaotic in the cabin, I was numbed by shock when I stuck my head out into the cockpit. The sea had turned an angry green colour and the wind was making an evil howling sound in the rigging. David sat stoically at the helm with a grim expression and a look in his eyes I couldn’t quite place – it was the beginning of fear.

I shut the hatch quickly as another wave washed over us. How much water was inside? How much more water had to get in before it became a problem? We decided to lock the hatch as that held it more firmly shut; Bob was now imprisoned downstairs and I wasn’t sure if I envied him or not. Water ingress wasn’t the only worry; what about the pounding the rudder was taking? If it broke we’d be helpless to steer a course, and with our beam to the waves we’d surely be rolled over. What about the rigging? Any rollover would probably take the mast off and a 12-metre aluminium pole is not something you want bashing against the hull of a fibreglass boat. Then there was the hull itself: every time we fell off a wave, we could feel the pounding through the soles of our feet as she landed heavily. How long before she started to break up? And finally there was the question of the crew. We were sitting in a gale, drenched and hanging on with clenched fists; how long could we keep doing this? If exhaustion or cold took over, we would end up swept into the sea. The fact that we had safety harnesses fastened to the boat and life jackets on was little consolation in this weather. The harnesses would ensure that we remained tied to the boat while we drowned and the life jackets stood about as much chance of keeping our heads above water as I had of joining the Bolshoi Ballet.

As night approached, so did the worst of the storm. Darkness added a dimension to the experience that I’d prefer not to remember but can’t forget. Driving rain limited our vision to a few feet in front of our faces; by squinting I could just make out the dimly-lit compass in front of me and so steer a course. The waves were now like mountains and tossed Capretta around with sickening ease. Every few minutes we’d hear the sound of a freight train, deep, loud and terrifying, as a larger-than-normal wave broke and came tumbling down to push the boat under the water.

We’d hold our breath and wait for our little boat to pop back to the surface, like a kid’s foam surfboard after being dumped at the beach. Each time I heard that bass rumbling of a rogue wave, I’d peer to windward through the gloom, straining to see what horror approached; and each time, upon seeing the monster bearing down on us, I’d wish I hadn’t looked.

I’d been scared before, even scared for my life, but it had never lasted very long – I’d experienced the two-second scare when I thought I’d die in a car crash, and the ten- to fifteen-minute scare while passing through a storm in a plane – but I’d never actually been terrified before. What’s more, this wasn’t a monster-jumping-out-of-the-closet terrified (over in five seconds). This was a constant fear of dying that went on hour after hour. Little did we know that we’d sailed right into a fully developed storm. I don’t mean your afternoon summer thunderstorm; I mean a storm that stretched for a couple of hundred kilometres and swirled around an eye – just like the storms they give names to. We were 800 kilometres from the nearest land and very alone. The satellite phone was unreachable in the cabin and would be a futile exercise under these conditions. Who would you call and what could they do anyway? The life raft would be absolutely useless if Capretta foundered as, in this much wind, as soon as we inflated it she’d blow away and we’d need to file a flight plan.

It’s an interesting feeling, thinking that you’re going to die for so long. After a while, you actually get used to it. I couldn’t see how we could possibly survive this for much longer and there was no end in sight; the storm seemed to go on forever. Given that we’d eventually be swept off the boat or she’d just break up, I wondered why we persevered. Was it just a simple case of having nothing better to do? There was a moment before the storm was fully developed where we could have gone below if we’d wanted. At that point David and I had briefly discussed our options: should we go below and, with the boat hove to, leave her to her own devices? Or should we stay on deck and attempt to ‘fight’ the storm? We had both felt that somehow things would be better if we made an effort – not because anything we did would actually make a difference, but more because it seemed we’d deserve better fortune if we didn’t ‘run and hide’. Soon afterwards, the option to go below disappeared anyway. If we’d opened the hatch, the boat would have certainly filled with water.

By now I was wishing I could hide somewhere. The strain of holding on each time the boat was knocked down was almost unbearable. My whole body ached from being thrown against the railing and the feeling in my hands only returned as a deep throbbing pain from the bitter cold. I realised that I’d never actually been cold before. All those times I’d thought I was cold had just been ‘surface’ chills. Real cold is when the chill goes all the way through you; when your innards lose their warmth, when you can feel the temperature of your bones dropping, and with it, your strength. It was a bitter feeling that left me feeling uncharitable. I sat there, hating the wind, hating the sea, hating sailing and hating everything about boats. I wished I could be anywhere else. I promised to give up everything – all that I owned, all that I would ever own, all that I’d achieved, even my music; everything but the lives of my family – if I could just be delivered to shore, now. The sea just laughed and sent another avalanche of water over my wishes. It had no need of anything I owned; it didn’t care whether I played again or not. Nature would do away with me and my pitiful attempt to tame her in the same way a dog scratches a flea; a minor annoyance dealt with unthinkingly.

David and I hadn’t spoken for a few hours, as even yelling into each other’s ears was pointless against the unholy sound made by the wind. Thunder had now joined the cacophony of wind, rain and waves to make a symphony fit for hell, complete with a display of forked lightning that briefly lit the furious sea. Just when I thought that at least it couldn’t get worse, the rain turned to hail and we were pelted mercilessly by ice driven at 60 knots into our backs. This was too much and I wept with rage. When would it stop?

Suddenly there was a deafening silence; all rain had stopped, the wind was still, the boat stood upright and I could actually hear my heavy breathing as I looked up to see a starry sky. We were in the eye…

Behind us we could see an actual wall of water – the inner edge of the storm so clearly delineated that, even staring right at it, I couldn’t accept what my eyes were seeing. Above, there was a distinct circle of cloud around the stars and I could see the far edge of the eye about ten minutes ahead. The sea was far from flat, with waves going in all directions, but it had no fury; it was almost comical in its confusion.

The relief was so great that I lost all reason and said to David, “Let’s stay here; we can motor along in the eye, going with the storm until it blows out.”

Apart from being a stupid idea, it was also impossible, as the speed at which the eye travelled across the ocean was about five times what we could make. As we approached the other side and prepared to go back into the hell of rain, wind and terror, I remembered a line I’d read in a book on ocean sailing. It had contained all sorts of good advice on how to avoid bad weather, but in particular had stressed, “No matter what you do, never sail straight through the eye of a storm – the worst weather can be found right at the edge of the eye.” And then we were back in it.

We battled through the rest of the night and by morning I knew at last that we were going to make it. The wind had dropped slightly and we were obviously through the worst. The seas, although still mountainous, looked somehow less frightening in the daylight. The sun shone with increasing frequency through scattered clouds and I actually felt hopeful. We’d been motoring all night and, with fuel running low, we needed to get a little bit of sail up. The storm jib had long since been taken down as even the bare poles had caught enough wind to knock us over during the night. With a small amount of sail and the motor now resting, David went below to sleep; I’d get my turn in two hours and, after that, hopefully Bob would take over for a while.

Exhaustion was my enemy now. Every few minutes I’d start to doze off and the boat’s heading would wander just enough to let her get broadside to the waves. ‘BANG!’ We’d be slapped on the side and a metre of icy water would wash straight over the cockpit and throw me against the rail – rude awakening is an understatement. I just had to stay awake until David came back up, but somehow it seemed a near impossibility; I’d had enough. After my next dousing I began cursing out loud at the sea. I called her all sorts of names and when I ran out I wished I’d paid more attention in school when the guys were swearing in the playground. My rage kept me awake until finally David came on deck looking more tired than I’d ever seen a human being look before or since. He had a vacant aspect to his eyes and his automaton-like movements gave the impression that he’d long ago lost awareness of his surroundings. I stumbled down the hatch and fell, still wearing my soaking overalls, into the bunk. Sleep came instantly and I was awoken after what seemed only seconds to take another watch.

Gradually a semblance of normality returned to our battered crew and the next day saw Bob at the helm while David and I lay on the foredeck amongst the crumpled sails, chatting about our ordeal. We’d decided to make for Lord Howe Island to gather ourselves and get some proper medical treatment for Bob. I was curious as to whether the experience had affected David in any lasting way and, watching a pod of dolphins playing about our bow, came up with a question to satisfy my curiosity. “If I told you that it’s an old mariner’s superstition that, after a night storm at sea, if dolphins swim around your boat you have to throw salt over the stern, what would you say?”

David leaped to his feet: “Where’s the salt?” It’s funny how the experience of staring death in the face for a day or so can help to broaden your mind.

Bob and I both left Capretta at Lord Howe; I had a concert to get to and he also had commitments that couldn’t wait. We’d taken longer than expected and still weren’t home. David was joined by his good mate and fellow Young 88-owner, Greg Reid. They had a hard ride to Sydney and arrived happy to be home.

Would I undertake a voyage like that again? Absolutely, I would. I hope I never see weather like that as long as I live, but I feel compelled to go to sea again – it’s part of who I am. Even though I wanted to be anywhere else at the time, it was a challenge that couldn’t be ignored. Facing that sort of test is a perspective-changing event; it could take years to learn that much about yourself safe at home in bed and, although it’s usually drier, it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

From Blowing my own trumpet, published by Murdoch Books and available from all good bookshops, RRP $34.95.