Dave had just completed his last year as Race Chairman for Foxy's Wooden Boat Regatta (2001) and really needed a break. As I am also on the Race Committee and covered the regatta for three International newspapers, I also needed a rest.
Dave had sold a Moorings sloop 350 (35') to a couple from Holland who were coming to Tortola to pick it up several weeks after Foxy's. Because it was located in Martinique he decided that it would be an adventure for us to fly to the French West Indies, spend a few days limin' (for me this means buying French cosmetics at 1/3 the US price) and dining on European cuisine. Ah, awakening each morning to strong coffee and freshly baked croissants. Such a treat - not found in British Islands.
The trip back was to be a four day "holiday" sail coming up the windward and leeward chain. We checked the weather fax at the Moorings base who reported a calm 15 - 20 knots for the entire trip. Knowing that hurricane season officially started the first of June we were prepared for squalls.
We left Marin, which is on the southwest corner of Martinique, around noon and had a leisure motor sail up the lee shore. Obviously no winds there. We hit the Dominica passage just as it became totally dark - the moonrise was not to be until 11:45 that evening.
Dave went below to sleep and I stood watch. Over my left shoulder I could see thunderheads forming and thought to myself, "Better get my foul weather gear out." We had our harnesses so I was attached to the center console. Before I could even return with my gear it was raining like stink and the seas were rapidly rising. I've sailed in many storms so I just took all of the necessary bearings while below and made out for a long ride as I could not see any possibility of a break in the easterly direction, which is where our wind comes from.
It was blowing like hell when I returned on the deck. I looked down at the knotmeter and it was reading 44 knots. As 70 knots is full hurricane force 1 winds I yelled for David to come up - immediately. I had really wanted for him to sleep as when there are only two on a short delivery someone has to be sleeping, and the other helming, most of the time (at least when you're older!)
Dave took one look out of the starboard port, saw heavy seas equal to the Titanic, donned his foul weather gear and climbed into the cockpit post haste placing the companionway boards in so that the seas, which were now washing over the entire beam of the boat, would not fill the cabins & salon below.
Dave lost his sloop Villa de Coop in a single handed Atlantic Race in 1990. I met him soon after that. He was at sea for three days after turtling (turning over) three times. He had lost his mast and there was a hole in the port bow that water was pouring through. As he had the first registered EPIRB (the newest detection system when registered with the Coast Guard) the USCG received his message and sent a helicopter out to rescue him. The winds were hurricane force at 80 knots and the seas were well over 25 feet. He was told via VHF (which was still working) to stay below boarded up, bail like hell and wait for help. He was rescued by a Norwegian tanker three days later. This rescue was written up in the CG paper as quite a coup on their part showing the total advantages of EPIRBs. It was their 1st rescue at sea using this safety method.
We were also in a terrible storm in the Mona Passage between Haiti and Cuba in '95 when we were sailing to Cuba and then again in Hurricane Gordon in '94. We were in the Intercoastal Canal in Florida returning a large yacht to safety after her owners had flown home due to the approaching hurricane. That was hairy to say the least as we had 22" of rain.
But nothing came close to being in this most recent storm in a 35' boat at sea. When the knotmeter clocked 64 knots just before going out totally, I made peace with my maker. Believe it or not it didn't really make much difference to me at that stage. I am no longer afraid of death, having outlived my entire family, and felt, at the time, the outcome would be the same dead or alive. (you have to really think about this one) Also strange, that as many times as I have made deliveries, gone to sea, cruising etc. I have never boxed all of my jewelry, wrapped and addressed it for mailing to the executor of my estate and given it to my best friend to Fed Ex should something happen to me. There must have been some sort of premonition here.
We fought the storm together for several hours and then I just had to rest. I went below and fell into a deep sleep. This is really odd also. I chronically have suffered from insomnia all of my life and awaken often, in the middle of the night, to write, read or work. However, put me on the sea and I can sleep through anything. It is the same way with hurricanes on shore. I sleep through the entire storm. Dave thinks it is due to the low barometric pressure.
When I awoke the skies were clear and Dave wanted to be relieved at the helm. We then had a true adventure sailing home to the BVI as for the next two and a half days the winds rarely went below 30 knots. I was really black and blue upon our return. My knees are still sore from the constant isometrics. The boat was at a 30 degree helm to the port side for the entire trip so we were never once able to stand up straight.
You can now see why living in the states and shopping at K-Mart is not my idea of adventure - although for 61 years I must admit, I'm pushing it. I told Dave upon return - no more deliveries. I think I'll just wait to make my future passages on Swan Song.
There were some definite highlights though. When I was at the helm and Dave below on the second day, we had a run with the dolphins that was incredible. There were two schools - one on the port beam and one on the starboard. They frolicked along side the boat (we were cruising at about 8 knots at that point - damn fast for a 35' boat) and they were jumping out and making their dives. Then, as if orchestrated by Martha Graham, they crossed in front of the boat with each school going to the other side and repeating the same movements. This went on for almost 40 minutes and was astonishing. They were also a type of dolphin that I was not familiar with being of a gray brown all over and only about 3 - 4 feet long. It was truly amazing. Now you can understand why I am an active International member of Stop LFAS!
We also shared a marvelous rainbow over Dominica as we passed her most beautiful shores. We saw first hand the total damage of the volcano on Monserrat and had ash in our eyes and all through the cockpit until the rain fell on the third day.
The most beautiful time was on the third night. Dave was asleep below and I was on watch. There was not a cloud in the sky, no moon - nothing but millions of stars in a totally black sky. Something that you can only see miles from shore in the open ocean. I have also observed this far from civilization in the desert. Of course, I prefer the water, which is why I sail. One night like that and you forget all of the storms. It is an incredible high - one that I am looking forward to often when we leave on Swan Song.
Well, that's about it for now. We're home and the routine has begun - stories to write, varnishing to do with some swimming and snorkeling on the side. We cheated death once again - as the Kiwis say!
written at the end of June 2001