The Sunset Storm

A few years ago I worked on a concrete sailboat.  Yes, it was made from cement and had sailed around the world twice and over fifteen hundred miles down the Nile river I was told.  Back in the day, it was very cheap to create your own boat with cement as the shell, and then fill in the rest with wood, steel, and whatever other materials needed.  But fiberglass is expensive, cement was cheap, and easy to mold.  Back in the WWII days many boats were made from cement, and they continued this practice for decades.  The particular boat I worked on was built in the late 60s, and was still going strong after all these years.  It had a full kitchen (or galley in boatspeak), two bathrooms, two separate rooms, and a deck that could easily fit over thirty people. It had been converted into a charter boat and moved to the US Virgin Islands, and this is where I saw it for the first time.  

It had an "off-white" hull with green accents, kind of a dull and aged white color.  Most of the construction below in the rooms was full of  deep and dark mahogany.  The cabinets, tables, and benches were shiny and polished, the floors were hardwood, and most of the handholds on deck were as well.  It had one large mast and was a mono-haul, meaning a traditional sailboat and not a catamaran.  The Captain was at the helm which was towards the back of the boat (or stern) and was surrounded by a U-shape of seats where guests could sit and chat with him/her.  Through the eyes of the Captain you would see the entrance to the galley, the main mast, most of the deck, and the front sail (also known as the jib).  I was the first mate on this boat, and I played relief captain in certain situations, but for the most part I was walking around the deck obtaining drink orders and handing out hors d'oeuvres when I wasn't manning the lines and securing the ship.  Typical apps were caviar, bruschetta, and salmon on crackers to go along with free champagne!  The sunset sail was romantic, and we did it right, we actually had quite a few marriage proposals on board during sunset.  

I would typically get on board an hour or so before the sail with my other mate and captain to make sure we were prepped for the trip.  This meant making the pasta salad, baking brownies, and getting the main course ready before guests were on board.  We had two ovens on board, so the main course was prepped but not cooked until we were under way.  We did lemon tuna and sweet and sour chicken, along with a bunch of delicious sides all made right on board while we were sailing.  We stocked the bar, made sure the coolers were all iced down, and checked that there was enough champagne.  We garnished twenty or so glasses with a strawberry and kept them close to the wine cooler that was full of champagne bottles.  Once it was time, we would put our logo golf shirts on, hop up above and look all pretty for the oncoming guests.

The Captain and one of the mates would greet the guests as they came on board with a glass of champagne.  The other mate (usually one that doesn't want to deal with anyone) would be down below pouring more glasses, and getting the bar and food ready for distribution.  This is when the greatest act of our night began, giant smiles, happy greetings, welcome to our boat! The Captain would then have a nice segment on our itinerary for the night, we would make sure everyone had a drink, and it was go time.  Don't forget to kick off those shoes!  Yeah, no shoes on the boat.  This was especially awkward asking the ladies to kick their designer shoes off into a laundry basket with our flip flops, but rules are rules. Everyone is set, speeches are done, it's time to shove off.

Our boat was heavy, very heavy, as I stated before it was made our of cement!  It was so big and heavy that we were unable to steer it out of the slip all on it's own.  One of the mates had to hop in a little dinghy and push the bow (front) into the right direction before we get going. This dinghy wasn't new, and was not easy to operate even as a small boat, it just wasn't built properly.  It took some getting used to, but after a while you got the hang of it.  So you would hop in the little dinghy, and knock the bow of it up against the side of the sailboat, very close to the bow of the sailboat.  If you are looking at a picture of a sailboat haul from above, just the shape of it, you would place the nose of the dinghy on the upper right side, that way you can help the boat make a sharp left turn.  Once the boat is pushed in the right direction there is a scramble to get the dinghy back to the boat, tied up, and to make sure you have vacated the boat before the last big turn out of the marina.  Once this is all completed, you are back on board, and it's time for the trip!

Where we were located, we couldn't see half the storms come about, we were blocked by the mountain.  If the storms came from the neighboring islands which was typical, we could account for them and plan accordingly.  In the Caribbean many storms form out of nowhere and there isn't a way to plan.  It was the evening so not dark, but getting there.  We didn't have daylight savings time like the states, so the sun set at the same time all year long.  Once we were out of the channel, we were pointed to an uninhabited island that we went to each night. The island was historical, quaint, and serene, the perfect spot for a sunset dinner.  The cove was always turquoise and calm with a light breeze, with welcoming reflections.  That was our destination, as long as we can get there.

We curved around the opening of the channel and were out in the open water now, leaving our island and now in a dangerous channel.  The sound in between the islands was treacherous, full of seismic activity and choppy seas.  The gap in the islands is an extinct volcano that routinely had small earthquakes three times a week on average.  Not major ones, but a few measuring a three on the scale each week, which makes for some violent seas at times.  We were used to the average night out there as we were involved in it most nights, so a calm night out was a rougher night but usual till we got to our cove.  Unfortunately, this ended up being a rougher than normal night full of surprises.

I was serving drinks, giving out (mostly) accurate history and geography on the surrounding terrain, entertaining the guests as I usually do.  The captain was smiling and telling old salt tales to the guests around, and the sails were thrown out, ready for a smooth trip over for dinner.  The sea was dark and choppy, but not anything out of the ordinary at the time, and we could see cloud-free skies in the distance.  Our guests were laughing, having a grand time, and the boat was slowly churning through the waves, with a mild slam over and above each one. The guests and all of the crew were above deck, with a light breeze and a mellow demeanor. Darkness then proceeded to show itself over our boat, and the ocean.

Without notice the skies turned black, the seas roared like a frightened lion protecting it's pack.  We heard horrible sounds from the sea, and the waves grew, they grew so fast we were unable to react.  Our big heavy boat was thrown up a steep wave, up further than I'd ever seen it, almost vertical, and then slammed down just as quickly.  The bow crashed down onto the backside of the wave and was buried by the dark sea, guests were thrown off their seats and panic ensued.  The winds howled so fiercely it was like a wolf on the attack.  Deep swirling sounds, harrowing winds, and rain so strong it felt like shattered glass was being rained upon us.  I yelled for the guests to get down below, and had to help many of them with winds so vigorous they were hanging onto every clip and railing they could.  

The guests were eventually all lead down below and secured, shaken and frightened.  I told them all to stay here and we would all be okay, but I wasn't so sure.  Our boat was not equipped for this storm and I had to go back above.  My other mate stayed down below to comfort the guests and crowd manage.  I went up to speak to the captain who looked flustered, stressed, and honestly more scared than I was hoping for.  We were getting battered, but we couldn't do much, our boat was heavy and slow, not cut out for such a situation.  I went to him and asked him how we were doing, he didn't reply but merely pointed at the throttle. Obviously in this setting, your sails are useless, you have to turn on the engines and hope to motor through.  The throttle was at full, and we were barely getting over the giant crests that were fifteen feet at least.  Getting over the waves was only half the problem.  Once at the top of the crest, we had a long hard landing waiting for us as half the boat went under the water.  "We might sink" said my Captain.  He looked frightened, stressed, and terrified.  I have always been good at remaining calm, even in extreme situations, and that's what I did this time.

I started rescue procedures at this point preparing for the worst, although the worst in this situation is we go down quick and nobody survives.  How fast do you think a concrete boat sinks?  Yeah, like dropping a boulder in the water, faster than anything you can think of.  Did we have a life boat?  The dinghy we were pulling behind and an inflatable raft, which can't fit all of us.  The dinghy was still attached but had been horribly battered, and would not survive a full on trip in this storm.  I have thirty people on board, now the captain and I are trying to figure out if we need to call the Coast Guard, or how to get out of this situation. Guests down below are soaked and terrified, but they don't know the circumstances.  We are halfway to the other island in the worst part of the sound, getting battered left and right, and our main sail is hurting our progress.  The Captain looks at me and says "If we are going to have a chance, I need you to pull down the main."  

I didn't have to climb up the whole mast thankfully, but I still had to step up on a part of the deck that nobody was allowed to be on.  My Captain looked at me and nodded, I gave him a thumbs up and proceeded to slowly make my way to the mast in the shrieking winds.  It was like rock climbing, I had to keep a point of contact at all times, holding on to whatever was close.  One hand at a time I pulled my way over to the center of the boat, and climbed up and grabbed the mast like a friend I haven't seen in twenty years.  Hugging the mast I grabbed the rope on the other side with my chest pressed up against it.  I went hands free with my whole front attached to the mast with nothing but the force of the wind.  I yanked the sail down hand over hand until the mast was securely rolled up and secure.  Looking back to the Captain I received a thumbs up, followed by a point behind me.  With a smile on my face I jerked my head around and pointed my eyes at the bow and saw a wave, a big dark presence I had never seen so close to my face. I held on, turned my face and waited for the water to hit.

Huge forces of water ran into my face, and across my hands that were clutched on to the mast, holding on as hard a I have ever held on to anything.  I could see nothing, my eyes closed tight, and my head turned away from the oncoming rush of ocean water.  Our boat was halfway underwater, and I was a loon that had to dive down to avoid the full force of nature.  The wave passed, it rolled over us, and I was still holding on.  I looked back to my captain who was soaked, and concerned about me.  I gave him the thumbs up, I was okay, but shaky and not letting go of the pole that had saved me.  We locked eyes, nodded, and knew that it was over.

The worst was behind us now, it was time to clean up and get the trip back on track as the storm moved passed us.  There was still thunder, passing thunder though.  You know that sound when the storm has moved through and is now moving away?  We were battered, beat up, and surprised but we knew the storm was moving on.  I went back to the helm, soaked and shaken, hugged my captain who had thought I was a goner, and we focused on the next steps. It was time to go down below full of smiles and get the guests back on board for the rest of the trip, we have a job to do!

I have chills going down my chest, and I'm still shaken after almost getting torn from the mast like a bird in a tree, and now have to put on a happy face and welcome everyone back to the night.  We have towels, dinner to cook, and a romantic and wonderful night to finish.  We approach our destination and carry on as usual now that the storm is gone, and anchor up and serve dinner like a normal night.  The blast created a beautiful sunset, cloud formations, and an amazing night after everything.  The guests down below weren't alarmed, it was some rain and wind to them, they didn't know what had happened up above.  We ended up having better reviews from that night versus any other night on board.

This story is true, and it makes me think about obstacles in life.  You never know what's going to be thrown your way, it's all about how you react in certain situations.  Most of our guests didn't know how scared we were, and how dangerous our position actually was because we handled them accordingly.  I rarely get scared, it's something I'm good at (handling stressful and scary situations) but you also have to recognize the gravity of where you are.  I love this story so much because of how we handled it, despite all the odds against us.  That boat shouldn't have made it out of that swirling hell pool, but we did because of our communication, some luck, and a lot of skill.  Workers make the world go around, and safely!