Updated: Aug 29, 2022
Saturday afternoon the nation watched as the east coast prepared for hurricane Sandy's impending arrival by stocking up on bottled water, flashlight batteries, and gas for their generators. But off the coast of North Carolina, the captain of HMS Bounty and his crew were already battling 40 knot winds and 18 foot seas in an attempt to sail the "tall ship" offshore and out of harm's way.
William G. T. Shedd is often quoted as saying "A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for." While inspirational, it's not entirely true. In good weather, harbors are relative safe zones for ships. When facing a storm, the best bet is to either have her hauled out and put in dry dock inland of the storm until the threat of danger has passed (not very practical or cost effective), or take her out to sea.
August 7, 2002, my friend Kirk Scott and I were ferrying a Beneteau 38' sailboat across the Gulf of Mexico when the weather turned. Kirk is a professional sea captain; I'd signed on as crew. We'd postponed the trip for three days watching the weather before leaving Puerto Aventuras enroute to Galveston. A low-pressure system had developed just outside of Louisiana, but it looked as though the storm would die out as we crossed the waters north of Cuba. With any luck, it would be a quick trip.
We left port on Saturday, August 3rd, and sailed to Isla Mujeres for dinner. Early the next morning, we left with decent winds and blue skies. By Monday evening, we'd rounded the north coast of Cuba and it looked as though our planning was paying off. Then the winds died. For the next 24 hours, we did little more than bob like a cork and take care of general housekeeping on the boat. Late Tuesday evening, the winds picked up and we were back underway.
Offshore sailors set their course according to prevailing winds and sea currents. It wasn't possible to sail a direct line from Puerto Aventuras to Galveston; our path rounded the western coast of Cuba, then due north, a left turn about 40 nautical miles south of Louisiana, and then on to Galveston to take advantage of the prevailing currents. Since we were ferrying the boat from its current owner to a broker in Galveston, the boat was pretty stripped down: basic food stores, our personal emergency gear, emergency fuel, our nautical charts, and a hand-held VHF radio. No weather fax. No NEXRAD.
On August 7th, as the storm hit landfall in Boothville, Louisiana, rather than dissipate, as it turned southwest, it turned mean.
Sea captains set the schedule for crew duty. Kirk had set 4-hour duty schedules for this trip meaning that during my watch, I set the sails, charted progress at the top of each hour and ensured that we didn't bump into anything. When you're not at watch, typically you're sleeping or taking care of housekeeping on the boat.
Neither of us took more than a 2-hour catnap the next two days. Sustained winds from 35 to 50 knots with 18 to 25 foot seas pushed us closer to Galveston. My gravest concern wasn't the storm; it was that I couldn't see the oil rigs rising from the Gulf over the rough seas and driving rain. My gravest concern was that while on watch, I was responsible for the safety of another life. We sailed into Galveston Harbor around 7 pm on Friday, August 9th on Kirk's watch.
To put things in perspective, Bertha was merely a tropical depression and the entire trip took just under a week. Our ancestors crossed oceans on vessels much like the HMS Bounty in rough seas with no weather radar or emergency equipment. There wasn't anyone to call for help. And a trip from London to New York took anywhere between two weeks to six months.
I've heard cruisers claim that offshore sailing is a lifetime of sheer ecstasy marked by intervals of sheer terror. I marvel at the courage that it took my ancestors to undertake the great adventure to America. I marvel at those individuals who've chosen the sea as their passion and their calling; those who've not steered the easy course, but who've embraced life head on.
"Sometimes we are lucky enough to know our lives have been changed, to discard the old and embrace the new and run headlong down an immutable course. It happened to me...on that summer's day when my eyes were opened to the sea." (Jacques Yves-Cousteau)
My thoughts are with the captain and the crew of the Bounty, and with their families and friends.