Tales From a Mad Man
One in an Irregular Series
Many years ago, after I had assumed the presidency of Williams Whittle at the tender age of 27, the fellow who had sold his shares to me bought a sailboat. It was a beautiful Hinckley Bermuda 40, christened Prime Time. The fellow in question was Ham Morrison, who was Don Draper before there was a Don Draper. Good looking, charming, great with women—and never loath to have a good time, Ham was then figuring out what he wanted to do with his life—and he decided to take his friends along for the ride.
No, I mean literally along for the ride.
Ham decided he was ready to go out to sea and he invited me, my partner Andy Williams, and his great friend Macky Redwine along as crew. Andy would be the cook (chef, really), I would be the navigator and Macky, well, Macky would tell good stories. Destination: Bermuda.
A word about my navigation skills. They were nonexistent. I’d been to sea exactly once, and that was a charter to the Bahamas during Spring Break years before. Prime Time was equipped with Loran, but it was not bullet proof, so it was decided that I would learn celestial navigation.
I went to the library and checked out learned volumes on the art and science of celestial navigation, all of which thoroughly baffled me. The idea is to take a sextant shot of the sun at high noon or at night from the stars and, from there, through a series of brutal mathematical equations, you can triangulate your position. I was getting nowhere until I stumbled across William F. Buckley’s Airborne, which was an account of one of his trans-Atlantic voyages.
The introduction to his chapter on celestial navigation goes something like this: “In the next pages, I am going to teach you how to perform celestial navigation. Not why it works, not its history—just how it works. If you follow my instructions, step by step, you will be able to find your position anywhere in the world. Now pay attention!” Thank you, WFB.
I also enlisted a family friend in Alexandria who was a retired Navy Captain. I studied up on Buckley and went over to his house one evening. After talking it through, we went out on the street with the sextant so I could try my hand at navigation. I took the sighting, marked the time, struggled through the calculations and damned if we hadn’t somehow relocated somewhere south of Chicago. The Captain gave a little groan, and I thought I saw him roll his eyes.
That Loran better work.
The day of departure came one Thursday afternoon. We had our food, beer, booze, and music. Oh, and charts of the Atlantic and the Gulfstream through which we would be passing. The Gulfstream aka The Bermuda Triangle aka The Graveyard of the Atlantic is essentially a huge river rushing northward through the middle of the ocean. Imagine the Mississippi 10 times wider than its widest point and just as fast moving. As it is several degrees warmer than the waters it abuts, storms and big-boy waves are commonplace.
Our departure point was a river off the Chesapeake some 40 miles up the Bay from Cape Henry which is the last outpost of land before the great Atlantic. The day was slightly overcast, the intermittent sun throwing a gray cast over the waters of the Bay. As the sun went down, we said goodbye to the friendly shores of the continental US. With sundown, the winds began to rise, the temperature dropped a few degrees and I said to myself, “What the EFF am I doing out here??” I felt very—what—lonely. It being the ocean, the waves got bigger by the second. Nonetheless, it was eerily beautiful out there. The only sound was the wind and the water rushing by. Each of the crew was uncharacteristically quiet, probably with the thought, “What the EFF am I doing out here?”
Andy disappeared below and began whipping up a dinner of saltimbocca with Italian bread, salad and a nice wine. Well, at least we’d eat well. He began handing plates up and eventually ventured into the cockpit himself whereupon he discreetly turned his head over the side and puked. No one said a word about that; we just complimented him on his seemingly miraculous culinary achievement, toasted the voyage and had a fine time on Prime Time.
We did not know then that it would be the last morsel of food we would consume for nearly three days.
There had been a series of tropical storms and hurricanes that summer. The latest was Henri which was wreaking havoc in the Caribbean. Henri was forecast to hit Florida that week and then turn inland. As it developed, he did not turn inland; he turned north. We began to feel the effects the next morning as Prime Time breached the Gulfstream.
Cap’n Ham had decided that we would each take 2-hour solo watches. Friends would later ask me what we did at night? Where did you stop, where did you sleep? Uh, there are no Howard Johnsons at sea.
Macky was at the helm at 9 am that next day. Ham and I were below checking our course (thank the good Lord the Loran was working). Mac called down and said, “Ham, it’s getting a bit breezy up here. You might want to come up and check.” Sure enough, the wind had risen to about 20 knots, and, more importantly, we had crossed the Rubicon—we were in the Gulfstream. The waves were about 15 feet, but they were swells, not breakers. But the seas were beginning to get confused with waves crashing into each other. Yep. The Gulfstream. We surveyed the seascape and as far as we could see—360 degrees—there was nothing but vast water. Water, water everywhere. And waves. The clouds had begun to roll in, but it didn’t feel like rain. It was warm and clammy. It felt like something was brewing in the atmosphere.
And that something was Henri, but we didn’t know it. This was before sophisticated satellite systems like GPS. Our only form of communication was a short wave radio with a radius of about 20 miles.
As the day wore on, the winds rose and the waves began to turn from swells to breakers. We donned foul weather gear—not from any rain; rather, from spray from the waves. We also put on safety harnesses when we were topside and attached ourselves to the lifelines ringing the boat. I began to feel a little queasy. I thought of the old saying about mal de mer: “At first you’re afraid you’ll die; then you’re afraid you won’t.”
By 3pm the weather had turned nastier. The seascape for miles was a fearful sight. It appeared as a vast blue field dotted everywhere by huge white boulders. The sun was only a faint presence behind a leaden sky. The noise from the wind was now significant. Speaking in a normal voice did not work. We had to notch it up several decibels. No one mentioned it, but we all wondered how this was going to play out once night fell.
Macky had quoted Herman Melville at the beginning of the voyage regarding why people go to sea: “Whenever I find myself grim in the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet…whenever it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping in the street and knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it is high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” Well, we were definitely becoming grim in the mouth.
As the sun went down the winds rose even higher and, naturally, so did the waves. We now had 30 footers that were breaking. At this point our compass headings were more about quartering into the waves than keeping an exact course to Bermuda. We had long since doused the mainsail and the roller furled genoa to a “handkerchief”. We also turned on the engine for two purposes—the propulsion helped keep us pointed the correct way into the seas, but by now the troughs of the waves were so deep that we feared that we wouldn’t have the momentum to climb the face of the next monster. But, with the help of the engine, climb we did. We also surfed down the faces of these beasts.
Prime Time was not built for speed. Rather, she was built like a beautiful tank. And for that I was supremely grateful. I never worried about her breaking down (or apart) in these conditions. I did, however, worry about us. Hey, we were ad guys, not Horatio Nelson! But Prime Time may well have broken Hinckley speed records as every couple of minutes we would crest a wave and literally surf down a 30 foot face. We were seeing speeds of 20 knots, which is basically impossible on a Bermuda 40. We calculated that we averaged 14 knots over a 2-hour period, which is unheard of.
The darkness only added to the feeling of peril. There was no moon, no stars visible. Strapped into the cockpit, the only visible light was the glow of the instrument panel. The helmsman’s job was simple—don’t let a wave hit us broadside. Quarter into them, which was much easier said than done. A broadside could easily turn us over, which could easily kill us. The seas were ink black, except for the breakers, so that we had to steer by the feel of the wind on our faces and brace ourselves for breaking seas. And they did break. Many times, at the last second, the helmsman would spy a breaker in the dark. If he had time he could pull the helm over so that the boat would quarter into it. If not, then a wave would break over the cockpit, often knocking the helmsman down and filling the cockpit with water. Fortunately, the water would drain and never reached the hatchway to the cabin, which, in the event, was sealed up.
The watch schedule that night was a bitch. If you had, say, the 8-10 pm watch, you would give the next guy 10 minutes to get ready to relieve you. You might try to stay with him for his watch for some time, but we were all so exhausted that it was all we could do to stay topside for 15 minutes after a watch was over. At that point, we would flop into any available berth, still in sopping foul weather gear and try to get some sleep. You could take off your jacket, but you’d keep on your overalls because you might kill yourself below trying to get undressed. To say there was pitching and yawing of the boat is a bit of an understatement.
Six hours later, at 4 am, it would be your turn in the maelstrom again.
I will say this about our crew: none of us, even Ham, had ever been in a situation like this. Yet no one complained, no one voiced their fears. We all just did our jobs, which was reduced to steering every 6 hours and occasionally checking our position, when we could summon the energy.
Finally, it was dawn. And the storm raged on. It raged all that day and, if anything, got worse. We were exhausted, hungry—and hoarse. The noise of this kind of storm cannot be overstated. It’s like standing next to four 18-wheelers as they try to go up a hill. Communication meant screaming at the top of our lungs to a buddy who was just a few feet away.
Looking back, the peak of the storm happened at about 6 pm that evening. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it got a lot worse. The wind grew even stronger, the waves bigger and, for the first time, it began to rain—sideways. It wasn’t yet dark, but visibility ranged from can’t-see-your-nose to a couple of miles, depending on the bands of rain.
Ham was at the helm and the other three of us were huddled in the cabin. Two things happened at once. A fearsome series of gusts hit us and, through the gloom, we saw the lights of a ship. If you imagine a see saw with port hole lights along its side, that is how it appeared. She was a cruise ship at sea anchor riding it out. We later saw her in port. She was the Doric, with virtually every passenger on board sea sick. The danger to us, of course, was collision because as soon as we spotted her she disappeared from view. Ham instructed me to get on the radio and try to raise her. They either didn’t get the transmission or they ignored us.
“Get your life jackets on!” our Captain screamed as a vicious gust of wind literally lifted him off the bosun’s chair at the helm so that, suspended, he held on to the wheel to keep from blowing off his perch.
Then, a seemingly miraculous event occurred. The rain began to have its effect on the seas. They began to flatten. They calmed enough so that the breakers subsided. Then the rain stopped. And the wind dropped 20 knots. Was it over? Had we sailed out of the trouble? Turns out we had. Slowly, over the course of the evening and that night, conditions improved to the point where we were able to raise the main and let out the jenny and—relief!—turn off the blasted engine.
I remember taking the watch sometime in the middle of that night with the heavens full of bright stars, the wind blowing 20 knots and us sailing on a beam reach. My deep fatigue had disappeared. None of us had eaten anything for a couple of days, but I didn’t notice.
The next day dawned as a blue bird day—just beautiful. We spotted a freighter on the horizon and made radio contact. “Sparks”, in an Australian accent, assured us of beautiful weather all the way to Bermuda. The ever ebullient Andy concocted croque monsieurs for brunch—no peanut butter for him!
Life, after what felt like near-death, was good.
Note: Henri never reached as far north as our route. What we experienced was his edge, combined with a big local system. We estimated sustained winds of 50-60 knots with higher gusts. Waves were north of 30 feet. The storm lasted from 9 am to 8pm over two days, a total of 35 hours.