August 22, 2011 in PART THREE The Almost Definitive Adventure Chapter 16 : Bringing Seanee Home
(extract from the manuscript “The Extraordinary Course of an Unaccomplished Dream”)
I am drowning in pain, my mind is a kaleidoscope of visions past and present. It is alternately the ambulance siren on its way to Roosevelt Hospital, then the roar of the wind and sea as the seventy foot waves engulf me. Peace is only to be found by letting go, to be free from the bondage of past and present pains inflicted. I am beyond fright; the burned nine year old body no longer has the choice of flight, my childhood nightmare, Father brandishing his cat of nine tails while chasing me through the dunes of bedclothes was over, his refusing last rites be administered by the Priest his final blow. As once again the overwhelming and impenetrable notion of death stares at me fight is no longer an option; the soothing power of the sea drains my will and draws me in its fold. My body is too maimed and weak to rise above the wave, I know death is to be my deliverance, and now my choice. It was to be; the broken bones of my chest would take no air, my outcry of love would go unheard. As my quest had always been, I would go in a lonely peace.
Chapter 16 : Bringing Seanee Home.
The decision to sell our treasured home in Oriental with its own berth off the Neuse River, the dream that fit us all like a glove, made Sean Seamour II not only homeless but abandoned. Palm Coast Marina was but a panacea in the wait of our elusive return.
After our first lonely winter holed up in Saignon I decided to have Captain Guy Mariande move her from Palm Coast far up on the Saint Johns River to Green Cove Springs. He had keep watch in our absence but the inland site was better protected from passing hurricanes and Holland Marine having moved its facilities there from Jacksonville could keep her under watch in their own facilities.
A new set of realities had slowly emerged upsetting the dream leading to a new home for us and a return to known waters for Seanee. It had all happened so quickly, just after selling Oriental the elusive buyer finally appeared. The sale of the Inn firmed up through all sorts of summersaults during which time we had gone from our world map dartboard in quest of a new shore, to frustrating island and coastal hoping all over southern France, finally ending with the extravagant find of our hidden mountain retreat in the Massif des Maures. Never forgetting that other part of our lives the miracle continued with yet another find, the almost impossible for these waters, a berth for Seanee in none other than the harbor where Lou Pantaï had first made landfall on this side of the Atlantic. It had thenbecome home to Seanee I and number II herself until the end of her commissioning then our move to Port Grimaud.
I begin to plot Sean Seamour’s course home as feverishly as I had begun the rehabilitation of our new home and built-out of Mayke’s studio in Camp de la Suyère. From afar and after close to three years I already know many critical needs must be addressed and a substantial part of my preparations involve getting her hull and structural systems ship shape before re-commissioning can be considered. From Cape Verde to Tampa, through the Gulf of Mexico, around the Keys finally up the Intercostal waterway I had logged the work to be done, starting with a new stuffing box, new rudder bearings and of course bottom paint before moving topsides and up through the rig.
I know I need to stem both the play in the rudder stock as well as the seepage through the top of the well. Holland Marine could begin those tasks in my absence as well as pull the life raft and the GPIRB from the air conditioned storage facilities for recertification; the latter a radio beacon that can send a distress signal and our coordinates via a constellation of satellites from just about anywhere in the world. Both have been sent to River Services in Georgia, an accredited service station and should be ready for an early May departure.
For the first time Mayke did not wish to undertake this crossing, she preferred to stay at our Suyère hamlet with the two dogs; part of her was not willing to lock them up in a kennel for such a long time, another happy to be settled after years of stressful uncertainty. She had moved away from my circumnavigation dream of years before while part of me still refused to admit the dream was just that. Perhaps the first breach occurred when we purchased, then had to sell the Oriental waterfront home, it had provided the foundation for a more land based approach to seaward ventures, but most definitely the lassitude of waiting for the Auberge to sell and the traumatic emotional events that accompanied the closing transaction has sealed her resolve. If this crossing was a last chimera of hope for me there was soething wrong for her. Although she could neither explain nor share the apprehension she felt about this crossing until much later, her third sense would follow, and even anticipate what was to happen.
Deprived of my sail mate my one track mind began to focus on how to. Then realities set in. I had recently undergone hand surgery, and while working every trade as I molded our mountain retreat I have come to accept that time takes its toll, I am no longer physically able and in no frame of mind to undertake another solo crossing. I need to assemble a crew.
My years of solo-sailing has earned its return, for after probing the few contacts that might lead to potential crewmates I am have difficulty finding sailors who can devote the time for such a long crossing; even Marvin, our befriended real estate agent from Oriental now starting up his own agency cannot break free. Avid sailor he once forcefully lobbied to crew Seanee up to Oriental from Palm Coast, but now he can only free himself for one leg, itself tied up in time constraints. I begin to search the Internet sailing forums and realize to my surprise there are many sailors with varying levels of experience interested in the journey. It is a whole new paradigm. If I feel capable of validating experience, I have painfully done it all my life, it is a cultural shift to evaluate character and make the right choices in constituting a team from afar, let alone through the internet. During our 2002 crossing I had learned with the inclusion of cousin Noel until Las Palmas that the limited real estate of a boat on the high seas leaves little room for error, the cohesion of a team is critical on such a long journey. Thinking back upon my first solo crossing on Lou Pantaï I realize the loneliness of decision-making at critical moments is overbearing with the added responsibility of a crew. I have to depend on my instincts, a process that had oh so often mislead me throughout my life.
Words, phrases, questions and syntax all have to provide meaning as I review résumés and various correspondences, decipher subterfuge and white lies, why does this candidate want a leg through Las Palmas, oh the girlfriend candidate just happens…. It’s a maze. At first I pre-select eleven candidates that are interested in the full journey. I am not used to crew, Mayke and I were one, logically I feel a complement of three should be adequate. I have focused some of my reading on managing watches by day and night and know four should be sufficient to handle the crossing, perhaps too many considering my own sleep habits at sea. Surprisingly almost every postulating candidate is Anglo-Saxon, which simplifies the linguistic and cultural differences that might otherwise be difficult to bridge. The selection quickly comes down to four then the threesome I had initially planned. As I begin to fine tune my perceptions of each and our communications become more detailed, all of a sudden one of the candidates begins to request all sorts of stipends and extras and I eliminate his candidacy. I am not looking for paid crew just experience and a passion. I am down to Rudy and Ben and comfortable with a total crew coplement of three. I lock in our trip which I want as early in May as possible.
May is considered the optimal time of the year for an eastbound Atlantic crossing. It had been my initial plan in 1996 and I am determined not to renew the Bertha experience with an early hurricane season crossing. On the other hand, building on the benefit of that experience I am mentally and materially prepared for the worst contingencies. I begin to plan and pack for my arrival on Sean Seamour II, adding and subtracting as I fight with my usual redundancy habit, all the while knowing half my life is already on board. Then there are all my little add-ons and projects, a sum total of overweight luggage the airlines will gleefully as well as heavily tax. I know the following ten days are going to be hectic, Holland Marine has executed the pre-commissioning work I have requested, from there on I want to prepare the boat with her full crew to enable each of them to have detailed knowledge of her equipment, stores and processes but also to see how they relate to tasking and explore their rapport, and the one I will need to establish with each as skipper.
As Mayke drops me at the airport I am too involved to perceive her anxiety, in effect it is our first separation of substance and a lead ball burns in my gut as she works her way through the rooftop parking of Nice Airport. Even as she fumbles and loses the “get out of prison” parking ticket through the land rover’ window, I attribute it to her hate of driving this car. My mind is duty driven with the wheels of the luggage cart plying under the consignment weight and the complicated logistics before me. Ben is flying out of the UK and I from Nice France via London, New York and Atlanta. The plan is to meet up at the airport in Jacksonville Florida on April 22nd, wondering how we are to link up is still unresolved and gnawing at my attention. I am not really worried having spent years meeting business relations in busy airports, losing one of my precious baggage is of far more concern. I have barely assembled all the bits from the rolling carpet when I began to receive text messages on my cell phone. It is Ben and a first for me, but the cell phone messaging works us through the maze of passengers and corridors as we finally link up. Ben is very much as I imagined him and I already feel comfortable I had made a right choice; the other shoe is to drop in three days as Rudy is scheduled to arrive on the 25th from Ottawa. In the meantime Ben and I have a ton and a half of things to do.
I had reserved a large van knowing the logistical nightmare ahead. Two years prior whenI had Holland Marine decommission Seanee they had literally emptied Sean Seamour into an air-conditioned storage facility some twenty miles away, the inventory list, a fresco of our life aboard was frightening enough. For now we head straight through the night in quest of Sean Seamour’s berth. It is well over an hour south of Jacksonville airport and considering neither of us has ever been to Green Cove Springs it is a good omen for navigation skills in the pitch of night. Finally on board I realize Seanee is barren of everything save her mattresses; it’s early spring but even in Florida I regret not having a blanket.
Luckily I brought a pair of towels and all my Musto polar under layers and cocoon in the main cabin, bliss comes with the fatigue and relief of arrival, the smells jolt memories sweetened by Seanee’ gentle rock I had not quite forgotten.
Well before sun-up the empty hollow of hunger begins to gnaw at me and the desire for the aroma of coffee has my nose twitching. Ben is still asleep in the forward cabin so I decide to go ashore and roam the vicinity. There is something mysterious about an early morning prowl in unknown territory. As the still of night is broken by the flight of a bird answered by the call of another, one can feel their vibrations reverberate through the cool damp air. The yard sprawls with a series of buildings before long jetees that sprawl throughthe shallow waters of the wide river. Here the Sant Johns appears wide as an estuary, the eastern side is still enshrouded with a mantle of wet air that enhances the appearance of distance. I hear a sharp metallic clang followed by the deep rumble of a diesel engine coughing its first cloud of exhaust; through the emerging glare of the morning sun I realize a tugboat at the yard next door is readying to release its lines. As if a signal, the gulls take to the air, they too are screaming their morning hunger. I continue my quest for that aroma to guide me to the pot, and perhaps more but the stench of dumpsters twirling around the next bend crushes my hope. Feeling my way through my pockets to ascertain if I brought the keys to the car I set off looking for the first coffee shop on the horizon.
By day the road appears different with the draping trees so typical of Florida, moss extends from the branches in some form of symbiotic relationship partially obscuring the perspective of what lies beyond, quiet unstirred homes. I push on until I find the first semblance of urban sprawl, a few attached houses and a general store. Coffee and breakfast at last. Absolved of the hollow that beckoned my quest I order another to go, Ben must be stirring by now, and set course back to yard and Seanee. He is up and about, undoubtedly woken by the activity of many days begunn. From the yard to the live-aboard boats that populate the marina the day has started while the sun already well above the horizon is beginning its daily bake. Leaving Ben to his feast I take off towards the main office of Holland Marine. It feels good to match the faces of Susan and Tom to words and voices exchanged over the years. Susan painfully explains where the wharehouse facility is, Seanee had been decommissioned while the yard was stilllocated in Jacksonville. It didn’t sound simple but the most difficult was providing all the bona fides to get past a front desk more interested in learning of our intentions than leading us to our unit. We paid our dues and finally released we start the first day with a huge triage project. It is like going through Ali Baba’ cavern such is the maze of mismatched objects, each bearing its own story or function. It is full to the brim starting with security equipment, tackle, electronics and more. I wonder how they had located the GPIRB, the raft was probably put in last due to weight and self-packed volume, unless this mess is due to the fact it had gone in first, after all, cradled on deck it might have. Then there are food supplies we had kept for that next winter migration to Oriental that was not to be, for the most part to be thrown away. Then the kitchen utensils from bread maker to coffee machine and our sterling silverware are all put on the right “keep pile”. The left pile alternately grows, then with remorse diminishes before it grows again as the pack rat within me loses out to reason. Seanee is our second home as the mountains of clothing and detail demonstrate; I am happy to find much of it, from my series of four 16th century bill of ladings from Naples and Genoa perfectly preserved in the air conditioned environment
to that old sweater worn to perfection to the thick hunting blanket that had kept we warm during night watches twice across the Atlantic. Finally there is Mayke’ art studio dismantled from the forward cabin, it needs to be stowed as Ben has taken residency in that end of the boat. I decide to put Rudy in the stern main cabin and reserve the port side cabin for myself as it offers the closest access to the cockpit and chart table; I am not one to sleep much at sea and anticipate the tuning of my ear to the sounds of Seanee’ hull slicing through the water and whine of Betsy’s churn as she slices through the air generating electricity and my constant read of wind speed.
As I begin to check systems I quickly realize that both climate and time have done more damage than expected. I have planned a full rig check with the yard for when I would be on site, I trust Tom’s team but I also know the hidden damage salt corrosion can subtly do in the most unexpected place. In 1996 after my bout of heavy weather my autopilot ceased to function. After extensive and frustrating verifications below and above deck I found a spot where the wire had chafed exposing it to the sea air, the copper wire had corroded green, oxidized in its sheath a good twenty centimeters or eight inches. Bad surprises like this are difficult to repair on the water as they are most often revealed when under strain. Beyond tuning and a few rivets we need a new wind sensor and some cable replacements in the mast.
Below deck system tests reveal a number of problems starting with the autopilot hydraulic pump which needs to be changed and the battery bank which will not hold sufficient charge. I had already raised the bank in 2001 when I installed six two-volt forklift batteries of 140 amps each; as these were not readily available I resort to my first choice with Lou Pantaï, building a bank of Trojan six-volt units on a new platform ten inches higher. I am not very happy with the Volvo fuel filters and take advantage of the Yanmar revision under way to replace it with a Racor dual filtration and water separation system. Holland Marine had the fuel shined and the tank cleaned but microbial growth and sludge always remains and heavy seas are good at churning it into suspension.
Preparing the Adventure – Night Fevers
I delve back into my world of predilection, fine tuning the systems to once again engage with the sensory relationship of sea, wind and hull melding
harmoniously. I had first discovered this harmony with the hum of a fine tuned centerboard on my Caneton Strale under strain, rappelled out fighting the mistral across the gulf of Saint Tropez I would strive to maintain the hum of the board tiller in one hand, trysail set and playing the main like the arch of the violinist. Years later during my first crossing with far the larger Lou Pantaï my ear had attuned to similar interactions allowing me to sleep below for short periods with a sensory watch heightened to the smallest variations. The quest had inspired the configuration of both Sean Seamour I and II. As their larger and heavier formats dulled the affectioned tactile relationship, I had sought a digital replication of that analog sensation by assembling processes to manage harmonies through modern technologies. For example, complementing that subtle sound in the main that tells me I need to adjust sail or course, with the advanced wind sensor providing precise trim data to the autopilot, adjusting the course to wind shifts; under heavier conditions adjusting the helm pressure gain and damping response parameters. Free to focus on other tasks, when those limits are reached or the helm parameters are out of balance the autopilot will question me for further instructions or adjustments.
High on my agenda and a challenge for this crossing is the integration of my updated navigation software with new and existing electronic systems. I am using the latest MaxSea weather routing software which enables me to define the optimal course by integrating highly detailed wind data forecasted several days in advance. It requires I upgrade my system for automated data capture off the internet and integration with a new Brookhouse Seatalk / NMEA multiplexer. The newly revealed challenge is to interface indifferently with both the Panasonic Toughbook, workhorse of our journey and the Toshiba Tecra backup computers to handle data input from several sources.
Ever since the hydraulic steering went on the previous Sean Seamour I have been disturbed with the terrible design of the Beneteau auxiliary tiller. Besides rusting away I know it will round off the squared fiberglass housing it inserts into after few hours of use. It is also too short and it would be impossible to use in heavy seas for extended periods. I had asked Tom to have a replacement unit made to my design that would enable steerage from the protection of the center cockpit, but, half way through the project he wanted to wait until I arrive to question one aspect of the design. He wasn’t sure if my plan for the aluminum alloy unit to insert and lock with the top pin of the rudder stock or to straddle it; the former would be more difficult, maybe treacherous to install in an emergency situation and the well of the stock is deep enough to avoid it working its way out. It’s a good ECP or engineering change proposal.
Three days disappear as Ben and I are off to Jacksonville airport to round off our crew. A grinning Rudy arrives as planned and after dropping his bags we go straight to dinner at the local texmex style restaurant. He too fits the profile and character I had constructed in my mind. I wonder if the beard is a prop to the old man of the sea image, then thought back, it had not had sufficient time to grow out. It is a good fit all around; perhaps owing to the crown culture they share, Ben and Rudy pretty well mesh immediately, I am happy to see we have the makings of a good team and both are increasingly impressed with the Sean Seamour II. As the days go by and we delve into systems and equipment, I delegate tasks that enable me to appreciate can and cannot do’ like forget Ben with a saw, prepare lists of what is missing and go out, often send them out as a team for sourcing, they are more and more at ease.
Security is always paramount in my mind. We update lines, re-assemble the drogues, train with pumps, collision mat and navigation software. We also review the extensive “in case of” equipment from power tools to sewing machine that enable repairs at sea with the 2.4kva inverter. When the life raft returns from recertification we install it together. I am surprised to see Ben almost jump at securing the tether line; I then remember his RYA training. We review its operation and do the same a few days later when the GPRIB arrives. We already re-installed the older Lou Pantaï EPIRB in its cradle, this one screwed to the inside of the hard dodger,
here it is secure from automatic initiation that can result from sea spray or wash downs. Its self-test validates its operation and the eleven year old battery but it had been replaced by the state of the art GPIRB cradled below decks in a recess alongside the companionway. The new unit adds the transmission of our exact location but I keep Lou Pantaï’ as part redundancy and part fetish, it still passes all the tests.
We are ready to take to sea excepting a last delivery from West Marine with the new lines on special order. It arrives as promised but loaded on a vintage Harley Davidson. The West Marine associate kept his word and we hear his coming from afar. He too resembles the part and I wonder how the corpulent rider, lines, new flat fenders and diverse parts we had on special order could fit on his mount, then as he rounds the corner of a harbor building I wonder how it all stands on two wheels. Finally unloaded he comes on board to either inspect or satisfy his curiosity, and spends an early evening before roaring away.
Ben is RYA First Aid trained and as such rebuilds the first aid kit into a pharmacy, evicting my already large snack cabinet behind the settee. He anticipates more ailments than I have ever thought of preparing for; these include a series of needles and surgery threads with the promise, need be, to do clean stitching. Somewhere worried, I wonder how many stuffed birds he had sewn if in his earlier life as a chef. Needle hater I am and remain from childhood, after emerging from my coma in Roosevelt hospital I dreaded two things that remain inseparable in my memory, every two hours the nurse would seek a new spot on my body to renew my series of bi-hourly injections, then in the sterile environment with double doors and masked nurses where I was sandwiched between two mattresses, they would lower the top one, the bed would rotate 180°, the new mattress on top slowly separated from my raw burns to expose them to the specially treated air.
I am working late into the night setting up and burn testing the electronics suite for internet data capture. The MaxSea weather routing model requires regular data downloads; these are automated after zone reprogramming every two or three days, and transferred to an Iridium access Skyfile from which I can download the weather data at will. In my insatiable need for redundancy I also have another provider, OCENS where I can similarly program needs and access the GRIB or weatherfax data either through Iridium or Single Side Band radio. I have a conflict problem between GRIB format and weatherfax as each computer will do one but not the other. Using both is not a solution, in case lightning were to strike or if we had a system failure, I need to stow one of the computers safely wrapped in several rolls of aluminum foil to protect it as a backup unit once under way. The bug is found in the end and I am happy to wrap the Tecra away for the just in case scenario.
Our sail plan is set and we are ready to cast the lines from Green Cove Springs at 06:00 the next morning, May 2nd, 2007. Gibraltar is to be our prime destination with a planned layover in Horta. Impatient to take to the water we go for our last TexMex meal and retire for the long trip down the river tomorrow.
It is a cool Florida morning the air thickly laden with humidity. The lines are cast twenty minutes late as I deep six the last pack of cigarettes I would ever buy. It had been a longstanding decision I would make good, also throwing the cartons of Mayke’s Gauloises out before they could come on board from the storage facility. Either Ben or Rudy queried me on whether they were even worth considering after three years, I told him yea and as proof why.
It went way back several lives. I had a dear since departed friend and colleague whose name was Beric. He was the inconvenient brother of a well to do English family from Leeds. One brother ran the family company, the second was an MP, Beric after two divorces and his rugby nose was the black sheep. The family used him as the troubleshooter anywhere abroad so when they purchased a Spanish company whose assets were later learned to have been stripped Beric was sent to resolve the problem. The Peseta was non-convertible at the time so he purchased a consignment of Cuban cigars sitting in an air conditioned warehouse near Seville. He knew and documented they had been imported into Spain before the US blockade and had an idea in the back of his head. The Board did not take well to his problem resolution, nor the family to the fact that he had come home with new wife. Beric would move to the south of France and keep the cigars later auctioned off at Christies, in New York of all places. The last one I saw with a big “Legal Cuban” sign was at JR Tobacco in New York, it was the mid 80’s and it carried too many zeros to buy.
The Call on Approach to Jacksonville
It is twenty minutes after six in the morning and we are finally off, a few of the live-aboard residents in the marina who had watched our preparations show up to wave goodbye as we head for the middle of the river for systems calibration, mostly for the new wind sensor needing a pair of 360 degree turns. The weather is fair with no winds as we make our journey sixteen miles downriver. The weather is so clear that Rudy at the helm tends to make a few shortcuts between markers to which I mark my discontent and tell him to keep a comfortable berth keep watch on the depth sounder and chart relayed n the high speed bus from the chart table to the helm repeater, now is not the moment to begin plowing the river silt.
For some reason my nerves are on edge, perhaps since the grounding with Mayke a few years back as we tried to negotiate the lower part of the Intercostal Waterway before Miami. Ever since I dislike these types of waters and it makes me remember I am late making my promised call home before 13:00 hours Suyere time. I know Mayke is waiting for the call before trekking up to her mountaintop with the dogs. It is a daily ritual after her siesta to climb from the house at an altitude of 300 meters or approximately a thousand feet to her rock at 600 meters where she resources herself with a book and the extraordinary view of the Gulf of Saint Tropez. I imagine the dogs twirling around her in anticipation adding to her frustration. Both the map and urban sprawl confirm we are on approach to Jacksonville where I know river traffic and bridge openings will keep me too busy, it’s now or in a few hours, better now.
I still have cell coverage rather than use the Iridium satellite telephone so I dial home wondering if I missed her but barely a ring and she answers, cross as can be – the promise I had not kept is suffocating and acrimonious, a dark cloud seems to want to burst. I know her bark is worse than her bite but the unsaid is worse, I know there is more but what, I want to share where I am in my head but run into a brick wall. As the line goes dead the cloud of the unsaid hurts, I am off balance and as in the airport parting fail to understand her apprehension once again.
The passage through Jacksonville in slowed by only one bridge opening wait, it is mid-day rush and we have to hold position for half an hour with light winds and current. I know there is a refueling station to starboard before the US Coast Guard station but somehow we miss it and have to turn back. Besides topping up the tanks I know Holland Marine had checked their stock for the ten fuel filters they could not commission. While I scour for last supplies and some extra lures Ben and Rudy catch a whiff of fish and chips out of the adjacent shop. Ditching the ton of styrofoam packaging in the dock bin is a good excuse to stuff our faces tied up. After refueling we proceed to the mouth of the Saint Johns River and exit at 14:00 hours.
Winds are irregular mostly off land from the south west which is fine, I want to catch the Gulf Stream and have us carried in its current as long as the winds remain favorable, my rule of thumb says it will replace the seventh day of journey. There is well over a knot flowing NNE which represents a good complement to the light winds. With day turned to night and dinner consumed, two retire leaving the third for an uneventful first watch. I am not down below for long, drawn by the lure of the night, it sooths the anticipation that turns to anxiety every time I lose or gain sight of land in quest of, or returning from blue water. It is something mystical akin to migrating from one imaginary world to another, but most of all the change of perspective. Vision shortens at sea as the obstacles move about, one need to anticipate where they are going, tracing your path is an ongoing process until land appears once again and your fear lies with what you cannot see, only rationalize what lies under. You measure the depth not to foresee the obstacle but evaluate where it may be.
The morning of day two or May third completes this transition of perspective; landmarks are replaced by blue water. The winds are light, slightly better out of the west enabling a soft reach leaving us with little sense of Seanee’ forward dynamic as the great river Gulf Stream carries us forward through the ocean. Our sail plan calls for this north north-easterly course, until we can plot our easterly course with good sea room over the north side of Bermuda. For the moment all is on track, weather reports steady and the days beautiful. Ben gratifies us with an afternoon tea that carries our hunger until dinner and our second night watch.
Day 3 is idyllic for the tourist in quest of sun and “farniente” but it becomes difficult for the sailor; keeping any wind in the sails is delicate, change is in the air but what and when remains elusive. Events provide content to the appearance of doldrums, discounting our advance carried by the stream it provides the impression of capture by the Sargasso Sea. First a warm bath in the stream with a line in tow, a few hours later we catch a twenty pound mahi mahi. It will take me over an hour to filet it with a big piece set aside for dinner as Ben packs the other portions into the freezer. As I get ready to pare the mahi mahi on the upper stern deck I tell Rudy to make sure all his portholes are well shut, he misses one and keeps an aromatic reminder of our catch in his pillows. Used to running a dry boat on course we had kept two bottles of wine for the trip; consensus was not difficult to reach as we all consider this meal deserving of such sacrifice.
As I feel the air weighing in and the barometer slowly slipping, my vigilance increases. By late afternoon I can see the weather on the western side of the stream is clouding up and it becomes obvious a cold front is approaching the stream. I download the weather reports for second time that day but neither updated GRIB files nor weatherfax show any inconsistencies with the previous reports showing the two high and two low pressure systems fairly balanced over the western Atlantic. We are still almost listless carried by the stream and any effort to counter its flow would require running engine which I am reluctant to do at this time. Later that evening the squall lines bordering the stream begin to shift eastward and the first squall engulf us, the latest weather report shows the low pressure system filling and at 01:00 on the 5th I decide to exit the stream on a more easterly course running engine for about three hours. The early morning weather reports shows the relative positions of the two low pressure systems closing, the May 5th GRIB confirms the system with the center of the low showing a flow increase expected for May 6th out of the North NO from 20 to 35 knots, focused essentially towards coastal waters of the continental shelf.
Out of the stream and close hauling we are making good headway on the morning of the 6th, the early morning weather report shows the low pressure system deepening on a north easterly path ahead of us, the other depression far to our south slowly moving in a northwesterly direction. I am on early morning watch at 06:00 taking over from Rudy when an aircraft carrier appears off my starboard bow, likely heading for Norfolk. It is steaming in slowly and Rudy lingers on in the cockpit as our courses close, the sighting of such a tower on the sea is too much to miss. As Rudy retires the wind freshens and I decide to hail the carrier on the VHF for an update, their weather report confirms winds increasing on our zone this afternoon to the 30 to 35 knot range, veering out of the north to northeast later in the day. I calculate our sail plan will hold, allowing us to change to an east north-easterly course with wide passage to the north of Bermuda. I am happy to have left the stream thirty hours earlier for the two forces in opposition can be dangerous, already the wave structure is convoluted reminding me of an early hour morning arrival in Miami with a nor’easter. As the wind and current confront one another I rectify my course another ten degrees to starboard while cutter rigging with the staysail allowing Seanee to plow through at close to seven knots. It’s a favorite tack for this Bruce Farr designed hull that reminded me of the fight up through the keys three years before.
By this time both Rudy and Ben are topsides, Rudy excited, Ben more subdued, proposing adjustments to the main that contribute to balancing Seanee on her rail and lessening pressure on the helm. It is a beautiful sail for the next few hours but as mid-day approaches nothing is occurring as predicted. By 12:00 the gusts are now reaching 45kts out of the NNW, we are heavily reefed and headway is severely limited by the mixed seas resulting from the wind formed waves fighting the Gulf Stream some seventy miles west of us. I know if this continues for the next thirty six hours I will not have enough sea room north of Bermuda to engage the easterly course planned. Updated weather reports indicate little change in the past twenty four hours, quite inconsistent with the system bearing down on us. New decisions have to be made soon but my mind is already reviewing various contingency plans and only one is viable. By 15:00hrs winds were gusting to 60knots.
I anticipated this might be the course of events and considered my options. Making a run for Norfolk meant crossing the stream, with each incremental increase in wind speed this option fades as its inherent danger increases exponentially. Attempting a broad reach towards Bermuda is becoming dangerous, I have the charts but managing shallow waters and surge under storm conditions is not enviable to blue water. I decide the safest course of action is laying the largest drogue and running bare poles with the system. I still have the sea room regardless of where the wind goes and I am on the safe side of the Gulf Stream. As I set the course I need to account for the windage of the center cockpit with its hard dodger, leaving some storm jib on the inner stay to keep her steady in the growing following seas.
Preparing for the Worst – The Knockdown
The storm is bearing down on us at increasing speed and at 16:00 I deploy our largest drogue, a Seabrake GP 24L. The drogue acts like a pulling a bucket behind the boat, attached to its stern it helps the boat maintain its course through the waves so that it neither goes broad to the wave with the risk of rolling over nor plunges down its slope burying its bow in the trough with the threat of pitch-poling or turning over stern over bow.
Considering wave and wind structure I decide to feed the line through the starboard stern cleat. With Ben and Rudy feeding the line through to main winch on the portside I feed the line through the cleat. We had just changed the two swivels and added forty feet of chain to ensure it would be weighted down in the under roll of the wave and set it just under 400 feet out. The stability is immediate and once the autopilot set to run with five degrees helm to port we are stable; I will now need to ensure the line doesn’t chafe but I know the waves that are already fetching twenty feet will grow substantially in height and length if the system continues. I need to estimate at what distance the back end of the second wave lies knowing that as the fetch increases it will bury deeper. We add another sixty meters or about 240 feet and lock the line in.
I then attach two tethers to my harness and work my way to the stern deck. Now held by the drogue it is burying just above the waterline with the oncoming waves. It’s a good sign and I begin to protect the line from chaffing or wearing down with continuous elongation and rubbing in the cleat. I start by rolling ten layers of duct tape around the drogue line two feet upstream of the cleat, tight at first then lose, then finally tight sections before and aft. I still have the heavy non soluble grease I had used on Lou Pantaï’ sea anchor, working a heavy dose all around it with a loose wrap of duct tape held on the tight wound ends to retain as much of the lubricant as possible. We are ready to set it in place, Rudy and Ben slowly slip through the winch the two feet of line necessary to center the chafing protection in the middle of the cleat to which I add a good dose of grease. The drogue is set. We batten down, I make a last adjustment to the storm jib now 25% deployed and we go below where I balance helm from the chart table and lock down for the storm.
The relative quiet down below is welcome, the noise topsides had been such we needed to yell to be heard just a few feet apart but this appearance of a lull is temporary. The wind continued to grow as the night falls upon us with an eerie shroud of darkness, popping one’s head through the companionway sliding hatch is receiving hundreds of flying needles, winds are in excess of seventy five knots and rising beyond our ability to measure as Rudy keeps his eye riveted to the anemometer, announcing eighty five point five when I believe the system is limited to eighty. With a sense of déjà vu while lighting the deck projector I glance at the mountainous waves coming up on our stern, they are already beyond the thirty feet I had measured in 1996, we can do nothing other stand vigil and wait, make a few helm adjustments and hope for the best. I cannot understand how this system has emerged out of nowhere, still not forecasted I have to believe it is limited and will soon blow over.
As the hours pass the intensity of noise fluctuates with the position of the boat, the seas are likely building well beyond fifty feet or fifteen meters as alternatively we have relative silence in the troughs while the entire boat’ sixty two feet above the waterline vibrates as we crest. Captive and powerless Rudy retires to the rear cabin after sharing a few boxes of granola bars; Ben for a few minutes takes refuge in the forward v-berth cabin before installing himself to sleep on the port settee. Lying behind the salon table I can barely see his crossed arms rising above his chest while I sit across from him keeping watch at the chart table.
Hours go by with the illusion of normality provided by the repetitiveness of crest and lull, all appears normal until the deafening bang. It all happens in less than four seconds but in two distinct sequences. I am gazing to port absorbed in my thoughts when all of a sudden I see Ben’s body flying towards me with all four arms and legs gesticulating, it was as if he were falling through the air attempting to catch something. Part reacting to the oncoming object then realizing what had to be done, I barely have time to lift both arms, hands stretched meet the back of his head and upper back allowing his body to pivot and crash into the starboard woodwork with another dramatic but still deafened by the first, almost soundless bang as the cherry woodwork explodes. From the left corner of my field of vision I see Rudy similarly thrown. As Ben then hits the floor the second sequence begins, I feel the boat begin to move violently, it is a knockdown; we are lying on our starboard side in the water.
It appears to have been pure kinetic energy that projected Ben and Rudy, only subsequently knocking Seanee down. She springs back so rapidly I do not have time to fully understand what has happened but fear for the worst. After checking on Ben and Rudy and a quick glance to the below deck section of the mast I slip open the companionway hatch to assess what damage we have topsides. The deck lights still function and illuminate the white storm sail so I know the mast is still in place. Then again, I realize I have a clear vision to the mast and sail! The hard dodger is nowhere to be seen, sheared off the boat and with it the EPIRB attached in it cradle gone! In a burst of panic I look back to where the life raft should be: it is still there in its cradle. To my surprise the arch is still in place and Betsy is churning away fighting its electric resistor brake. As I look at the life raft with a direct line of sight I realize the upper part of the helm pulpit is sheared off the boat as well. A miracle the life raft and arch are still in place but there is nothing more I can do as waves are breaking over the stern, we need to keep running with the system and hope for the best.
My next inspection is the bilge to see if there is any excess water entering, I feel certain after such a shock there has to be some form of structural damage, but before probing any further I know instinctively it is time to initiate the GPIRB. Even if we do not have a serious problem alerting authorities is paramount before anything else. I know they will call on the Iridium satellite telephone as soon as they have received the alert, by then I will know and be able to report on our situation and define my course of action.
The GPIRB starts immediately, I put it back in its cradle knowing it will take an average of twenty minutes for my signal to be transmitted with the hexadecimal code leading to my identity as well as our precise location; the Coast Guard can then pull up the Sean Seamour II registration in NOAA’s database and our satellite telephone number. I have time to focus on more pressing issues and await their call on the Iridium satellite telephone; it has full signal strength with its fixed antennae cabled to the stern stanchion. I then began to assess our situation.
There is a fair amount of water in the bilge but not more that I had found earlier which comforts my worries concerning hull integrity. I know some of this is coming through the top of the rudder post as I had seen a small amounts days earlier under heavy heeling; I had packed this with grease and tightened the rubber collar against the housing but it is seeping again as the stern partially buries in the troughs. I am certain most of the water is also coming through the engine room air cowls as wave after wave crash upon the transom. Checking the rudder well earlier in the night I had felt the gooseneck set flexible vent pipe and found it full of water. The tuner to the SSB radio is installed in that side of the rear hold as close as possible to the starboard backstay rigged as its antennae so I preferred to let it be. The bilge pump would soon evacuate and keep further entries under control. I know the most vulnerable and dangerous part of the boat is her rig and I am already surprised it appeared to have resisted the shock. Again to my surprise I feel no play in the keel stepped mast, it comes through the deck to rest on the keel support plate itself positioned on top of the structural grid of the hull. Finally and again to my surprise the integrity of all the portholes is good.
We have lost some helm control which I temporarily compensate by adjusting the autopilot response. With the crashing waves I have not ventured into the cockpit but from the galley porthole to the cockpit I can see the drogue line from the winch leading to the cleat, it is taught as it should be. The port beam continues to be battered by oncoming waves as if our positing relative to the following seas has changed, somewhat more that prior to the knockdown, then again I suspect we are experiencing a new wave pattern as the wind direction has shifted. I continue to adjust helm in compensation but with the drogue feed to the starboard side of the transom I prefer our portside remain slightly more exposed to the oncoming waves. The winds have veered a few degrees more out of the north east and I suspect the wave forms are adapting in consequence. I group everyone on the salon cabin sole to starboard just in case. We are still advancing over ground with the following seas at an average of six knots, although our heading has changed somewhat to the south southwest, my position shows we are still far from the stream which would make our ride far more dangerous.
As things begin to settle Ben moves to lie down between the two table legs and the settee, Rudy settles in the built-in armchair behind me at the chart table. I now focus on the GPIRB and begin to analyze what the ongoing course of events. My mind is racing between imagining what the Coast Guard response may be considering the sea state, while adapting my learned contingency responses to the scenarios I consider realistic. I quietly draw a parallel with my experience of 1996 when I was similarly prisoner of a weather system and my sea anchor, then remembered how different the situation was. We are not alone; we can call out if needed, besides the knockdown we are in control. I already conclude that they will likely reroute one or several vessels in the vicinity to provide support, when the system finally passes we will make way to Norfolk for repairs. I think back to the skipper of Hydra, the Swan that collided with the floating cylinder on the way back from the Menorca race; after seeing to the evacuation of his crew by the French Coast Guard he was ordered off the vessel he felt he could save. Then I realize the real difference with 1996 and my actions up to that point, I am responsible for the crew, they are central to any course of action I take, process already set in motion by initiating the GPRIB close to an hour ago. As my thoughts clear I know what I need to do next, we are approaching three in the morning and I am surprised no call has been forthcoming. My next step is to call the US Coast Guard on the Iridium, I am beginning to dial when Seanee starts rolling to starboard.
It is a slow, steady and determined movement. I am glued to my seat by gravity and utter awe as she passes the 90° mark and nears 180° , then the salon table, probably unseated during the knockdown, detaches from its legs and comes crashing down on me.
The World Upside Down – Can’t Listen to my Pains
For a few seconds my mind goes blank, my vision in the dark until my body reacts, cornered under the table I cannot breathe, the air is blown out of me and my right side hurts. I don’t know I have just broken seven ribs. In my bewilderment I know I have lost control and cannot move, I don’t know I am pinned down by the heavy table. My worst fears emerge as I begin to feel water filling around my head, then silence as my ears are submerge in the rising water; I can now see objects come crashing down around me as some of the floorboard locks release, then as suddenly as it happened the table is lifted away, Rudy has seen what happened and is freeing me. Getting up is not difficult, I am lying on the ceiling!
The world is literally upside down with the single wall lamp providing light. There is an eerie sort of silence we are no longer accustomed to as we stand on the cabin roof watching water gush up through the ceiling dorade vents, even that noise will dissipate as the gush slows and the water rises; it is soon up to our knees. I am silently counting seconds, waiting for the first movement that would announce the righting; she still has to roll 180° to either side. The silence is deafening as nobody says a word but mercifully the salon light stays on helping us keep our bearings. My mind is still ticking seconds away as I begin my fourth roll count of one hundred, two hundred, three hundred… I estimate four minutes now and began to wonder if she will be coming back. I see Rudy kneel down to open the companionway roof below us, I know it is a panic reaction but I have already formulated my action plan and I don’t want them swimming around in the dark untethered unless we have to abandon ship. Seacocks are closed and I do not know if we might have a breach but the water has stabilized which is a good sign; my main concern is the life raft for I need to make sure we can deploy it if we have to abandon ship. I decide the only solution is to exit through the sliding hatch and check.
The lock is already a foot and a half under water, Rudy is kneeling in the water and it appears he wants to open it. Pushing him aside I tell him I am going to check the status of the raft and to let me open it. I doubt if he can understand me; even in this silence my breath is still shallow from the chest pains so I go after the lock further asking him to close the hatch behind me. There is no taking much of a breath with the pain in my chest but my adrenaline is now on maximum output as I slide the door and dive out. I know I need to swim towards the arch holding on to the base of the open pulpit, then the helm which rises above it. From there with my foot in the pulpit I push myself to the arch grabbing the first pole my hand encounters in the darkness. It is the starboard leg of the arch, I try to locate the raft canister or its tether to no avail; it is supposed to be strapped between the starboard and port arch legs, it was still there after the knockdown. Confused between starboard an port I manage to reach the other side of the arch and do a similar sweep, nothing. By now I know I need air, I pull myself to the side and catch the toe rail with extremity of my fingers, it is the starboard toe rail in Seanee’ righted position and I pull hard hoping to be able to use it to lift my head out of the water for some air. I am at the point when body functions overtake willpower; I am ready to breathe in regardless of my resolve.
Brain Driven Automatic Drive – Save the Raft at Any Cost
It all happens very fast. As I am lifting myself in the desperate hope I will be able to emerge my head out of the water I feel a powerful pull that is not wave action, Seanee is rolling back, finishing her 360°. I hold firm while she literally pulls me on board, landing in the cockpit right behind the decapitated pulpit. I can see light emanating from down below as the top door to the companionway is missing, the second lower unit is pinned but obviously after my exit they did not close the transparent sliding cover that holds the top door in place. It had fallen out of its rail. I look in, from my position tell them to get the pumps running while I locate the raft. I don’t want to go down or even get closer as my eyes have acclimated to the little light available, I need to see and stay secure from the oncoming waves.
Working my way around the cockpit floor I am kneeling before the pulpit base against the companionway door to assess the situation. Sean Seamour is waterlogged and stable in the water; at least this will help me move around. There is a full moon behind the dense cloud cover providing a enough light to distinguish forms and contrasts, I can see the white halo of breaking waves coming as they seemed to glisten in the night. Some moonlight is filtering through the cloud breaks which help me discover the state of the boat. The rig is crushed lying almost longitudinal to the hull off the port side, by some miracle the spreaders and mast missed the arch by perhaps an inch or two and most unbelievable Betsy is still turning. I move aft holding onto the port legs of the arch looking for the life raft when all of a sudden I see it emerge before me, under the rig beside the arch.
All I see is black, then the fluorescent orange canopy swishing around between the hull and rig. The raft seems to be upside down as it appears and disappears into the waves with the rig holding it down; getting closer I become aware that the water ballast pocket underneath the raft that stabilizes it is pierced through and through by one of the spreaders. As I get closer hugging onto the mast I can now see the orange fluorescent canopy already torn away flushing in and about the rig with each wave movement. I have to act immediately or all will be lost and the only way to free the raft is to lift the rig. For a second I want to call the crew out to help until I realize I cannot risk their exposure without harness and tethers lost in the mess. As the mast lies over the upper deck leading to the cockpit I see there is some room between the rig and main deck, it’s enough to crawl under and I believe if I can lift the rig it might free the raft. It is a hard squeeze between the stanchions but once under the mast the wave forms seem to help me as they appear to relieve the weight of the rig with the buoyancy of the raft lifting the spreader. I need to get my left leg under me to be able to arch my back and lift, the right leg remaining free to push the raft away from under the spreader and stays. With certain wave movements I feel the raft free to move but I realize I can’t do it, the waves keep pushing the raft towards the boat held by the spreader in the ballast bag, my leg cannot push far enough to free it. I need to get out from under the rig and cut the bag away if not the floor of the raft will be next, it’s almost a wonder the first inflated tube hasn’t been destroyed. With no time to get a knife I tear at the bag with all my strength and it progressively it gives way until it is free I can now see the spreader in its entirety and hope I can push t amidships .
Back under the rig I get into the same position lifting the rig ever higher until the raft is free of its grip, it moves forward and is finally free. As I begin to lower and extend my left leg from underneath me a wave comes crashing on the stern and rig crushing me against the arch and raised aft deck. I feel broken, my back is blocked and my left ribs hurt. The ex-ray will show another three ribs broken on the left side this time. But I am far from finished as the raft is still being pushed against the hull or stanchions with the wave movement. I know I have to get the raft to safety, meaning leeward, to the starboard side. As I crawl along the deck holding the tether line to the raft my initial thought is to take it around the bow. A sudden flashback to Lou Pantaï when I am hanging off the bow grasping the forward pulpit with the hope my tether will hold. I realize it is impossible to take it that way, with no harness nor tether to attach to the jack lines I will be washed off board immediately, all the stays are gone and it is too exposed. I decide to try to hoist it over the stanchion but it’s too heavy, even upside down. I decide to lie on my back taking advantage of the waves to hoist it over the stanchion. I manage to get a leg under then in and lift it up to the top of the stanchion a little further with each wave movement, I want to pivot it over the stanchion when all of a sudden a gust of wind picks it up, flips it and blows it to starboard where it lands in the water again upside down. With an extraordinary sense of relief I know I still have the line now entangled in the broken mast where I further secure it and use it to slide over to the starboard side attaching the raft to the winch. It is still upside down but I consider it safer in this position. I have other urgent tasks to address.
The raft secure I go for another look at the mast; it is almost completely torn off, the tear leaving only the flat backside some four inches above deck and about as wide, an easy cut. All the starboard, inner and forward stays are torn away, that is good news, I am unsure of the portside outer stay. I do not want to venture to the stern at this point but know the two backstays are of a smaller section and will be an easy cut, with that done it will take minutes for the three of us to eject the entire rig. My next objective is buoyancy in the bow; without a harness and tether I dare not venture there but I believe the chain and tackle has run full out leaving but a link to cut to relieve well over half a ton of weight off the bow for added buoyancy.
My plan is set. I always have two harnesses ready to put on coming up the companionway and already tethered to the padeyes at the base of the helm for whoever enters the cockpit. Easy to snap onto the jackline and move forward I will start with the chain and tackle then work my way to the port stay likely needing to be cut before cutting what is left of the mast. I know there is the risk of the stern stays should the rig slip over the side but I think it is remote, besides, I need someone holding a line to me before venturing aft. Once cut then two of us can jettison the entire rig likely in one go. I now need to go below to get the bolt cutters in the engine room with its cutting head is in a grease bag since 1996. It is secured right inside the engine compartment where I hoped it would stay forever.
As I approach the companionway I am blinded by one of the wall lamps of the salon. I look down quickly where I can see Ben and Rudy, they are both bailing, but for good or for bad, I don’t see much change on the water level, I am working on that. The upside is the water level is stabilized considering the constant shower coming through the unbooted mast passage to say nothing of the companionway. Ben has the ingenious idea of cutting out the end of the 2.5 gallon water jug while keeping the formed handles: with each scoop he is ejecting at least a gallon if not close to two, Rudy has followed suit. I now know that once I reroute the pump feeds through the roof vents, close the companionway opening they were using to bail through and plug the mast passage we will limit most of the incoming water. Later under power with the sea water intake disconnected instead pumping from the bilge seepage through the engine room cowl vents should be offset.
I am confident we do not have a hull breach. The mast is severed at deck level but coming down over the upper deck it leveraged the foot about four inches above its keel base and is now tearing at the door of the forward starboard head – quite unable to reach the hull, besides, the plate is on top of the structural grid, itself a good foot above the hull. I descend to open the spring loaded companionway stairs that provide access to the engine room. As I turn to release the locks situated at floor level I look at the GPIRB in its cradle. It is off. My mind screams and I freeze then shudder. I cannot believe this is happening and believe all my efforts to regain control of the situation are in vain, suddenly shaken apart – the GPIRB is our last line of communication. I grab the unit to reinitialize it, over and over and over to no avail, it will not start.
GPIRB Ceases to Emit
My mind is now racing in other directions, the Iridium satphone is soaked and shorted, the SSB is useless, its tuner under water and its antennae part of the backstay, dead; the DSC VHF antennae was on the mast, I have a backup for insertion in a pre-cabled socket on the on the transom, but in this mess! It was under the settee in the tool compartment. I search desperately but it is impossible to find the backup antennae. We are left with the two hand held VHF units with which we take turns calling Mayday while resting from bailing. I know it is futile trying to call unless a vessel is nearby; we are over two hundred miles out and at most they will carry thirty, in this weather probably ten, then again miracles happen, but not with such a low ceiling.
Knowing the GPIRB is our last resort I continue to try to get the GPIRB to work to no avail. Finally I give up and focus on the water level again. It was stabilized but the mass of paper floating about is beginning to settle and plug the pump intakes, the main bilge unit is probably in the same state but inaccessible three feet under water. To compound this disastrous situation my body is slowly going into shock, dragging me down with it. My thoughts are beginning to cloud, my body is less and less responsive and I have run out of options. How can I save the crew becomes my only focal point but it is a mental dead end.
Cannot Show Despair – My Final Command: Abandon Ship
I can a bail no more, my body will not respond to the command to lift the scoop up and over the lower companionway door, I know it is now too late to implement my initial plan, just as I know we will need to abandon ship. The kaleidoscope of my usual mind process is sluggishly trying to find solutions to enable us to stay on board as long as possible, hopefully until daybreak. I decide if I am no longer physically capable of bailing I must try to keep the main electric Rule pump free of debris pumping its 2400 gallons. I wade over to where the salon table once stood and cradle the electric pump to keep its base clear of paper and as high as possible to maximize output. I have to keep the appearance of being in control of the situation and decide to focus my remaining resources on the now inevitable evacuation. As I post myself at the intake of the main pump I begin to organize the remaining difficulties to overcome before boarding the raft. My first task is to benchmark and monitor Seanee’ buoyancy situation, notably where her bow lies in the water. I am worried as I begin to loose sense of time passing between the bow checks while planning the evacuation process. I know staying alert to these two issues are my only tool to mentally contain progression of the hypothermia and shock irreversibly overcoming me, I know both Seanee and I are running out of time but the crew to safety trudges me on.
With the GPIRB failure and the lack of a call to or from the US Coast Guard before the 360° roll I have very little hope any rescue will be forthcoming, too many hours have passed. I am fairly confident of the integrity if the raft protected by the hull as the boat has remained with its portside to the oncoming waves, but I know our own protection from the elements will be bad as the canopy holding in place the inflatable arch is torn away. The ballast bags are far from my thoughts, more focused to an orderly evacuation when Seanee is ready to go. At about five thirty a large wave submerges Sean Seamour forcing flows of water through the companionway and mast passage. I quickly estimate we have taken on close to a foot of water, I know it’s the end of the line for her, secretly I believe we share the same predicament.
A visual check on the bow tells me it is time and from half way up the companionway I give the order to abandon carrying the ditch bag to the cockpit and asking someone carry it from there. I still need to turn the raft over. As I look forward from amidships the bow is now almost under water, its position confirms the end is a question of minutes. I start by freeing line attached to the winch and begin to pull up on the raft to turn it over; Ben is there watching and I believe he has the ditch bad, Rudy is still occupied below but I know I have no time to rally him up. The line leads to the leeward side of the raft but the wind is bearing down on it, I need more leverage to pull it over against Seanee’s hull. I wind the line in my in my right grip and start moving back towards the stern, first leveraging the line against the stanchion with the wave movement then grasping the arch with my left it finally comes over during a lull, right sided and flat against the hull. As Ben and Rudy begin to board I look back at the oncoming seas and the stern, at first in awe, then as I look down I am in shock to see the end of the drogue line severed about a foot below the cleat, the chaffing tape still holding it taught in the cleat had kept line taught. In retrospect it had probably severed under the added stress tension of the knockdown, it is a clean break much like a snapped rubber band, considering its position it must have rubbed against the engine room air intake cowl the pressure of the freak wave snapping the line as the boat laid on its starboard in the water.
The raft is much of a mess but it floats and all three tubes are fully inflated. Ben, then Rudy board and I let myself fall in exhausted. I don’t realize that one of the orange canopy lines that hold it down is caught somewhere on Sean Seamour, but Rudy sees the problem and Ben still has a knife; the last umbilical cord is severed. As I fish around in the raft I discover the supply bags are all gone with the flares, food and water. At that point I realize the bright yellow grab bag stayed on board. As I turn to look at Sean Seamour for the last time, she is slipping into the next wave never to be seen again. All sorts of thoughts but mainly emotions cross my mind, my Seanee is gone, with her a part of me but most of all our last link to the world. We are alone, our position and being unknown, mentally rummaging through the contents of the grab bag I realize that there are too many batteries and heavy items for it to float, to be found, I say to myself nobody will ever know.
I shake myself out of such thoughts, there is still hope, I need to keep the team together. I see Rudy took the faulty GPIRB, little do I know how faulty, what I don’t yet know is that he snatched a bag of flares on his way out. We try to settle in, Rudy tries to attach the canopy and I don’t have the strength to explain why the effort is useless.
Daylight is beginning to emerge when the roller coaster begins. The raft without the ballast bags is blown over throwing us in the water. We are all tethered together and try to turn it over to no avail, finally we climb on top. I will never know how many times but soon I want to stay in the water, the short time exposed to the wind seems to exacerbate the pain and the cold, besides I no longer have the strength to climb back in. The tethers are detached as they become an impediment to tackling the task of climbing back in, notably as Ben and Rudy need pull me alternately in or on the overturned raft and each time the cold wind seems to sap the remaining energy out of me. I think back at the survival suits, the only security equipment not in the locker at the base of the companionway for lack of space. They were in the stern portside locker under the mast; I had not had the strength to retrieve them with too many other things on my mind; now a combination of shock and hypothermia seems to push me in and out of consciousness. During one of the periods when the raft appears to stabilize Rudy will find the courage to swim out to retrieve me, unconscious and drifting away.
It’s the End of my Road – Time to Go
Slowly I realize I am close to the end. My body goes through periods of convulsions and excruciating pain then lulls in which I feel nothing. In between, there are brief moments of lucidity with some analytical thought process essentially limited to body count, everyone is there. I know that whatever the outcome my body must not be lost, my death must be recorded for Mayke’s sake. After the raft goes over perhaps for the last time, I tie my tether to the raft to make sure my body is not lost. I am ready, the water appears ot sooth me, I need the pain to go away, every convulsion seems to tear into my chest, I feel myself sinking under the raft and do nothing. My arms will not respond to the instinct of self-preservation that appears to have resigned itself to a fate my logical process has accepted. As I wait to take that final breath of water the last thoughts return to Mayke, to that terrible conversation we had passing under the last bridge in Jacksonville, I wanted to tell her I loved her, to tell her how deeply I felt the sorrow of this separation. As Rudy reaches down under the raft to catch the hood of my vest he pulls me up as if to hear my words, I ask him to tell her so and black out. How they pulled my dead weight into the raft I will never know, I am floating in and out of consciousness. At one point the convulsions begin again and I hear Rudy command Ben to lie on me, then nothing but a state of peace in which I no longer feel my body, I am resigned to the inevitable, I have been there before, back in Roosevelt Hospital. Ben believes I have passed on.
My mind is elsewhere in a form of limbo, at times I hear and see and then I know I am leaving them, I feel at peace for I know I can do nothing more for the crew. I no longer feel my body, with the exception of the lingering memory of generalized pain, a memory I remember from a half a century before, the knowledge and comfort of border I must not transgress for fear of re-entering that zone of pain. Somehow the mind isolates itself from the physical, I had often thought of death in this way
The sparse memories of what follows are intermingled and dissociable from the accounts provided for the essential by Rudy. Finally the waterlogged raft appears stabilized, with daylight the view is spectacular, steep mountains of water with immense canyons, Rudy describing the sheer beauty of the scenery remembers geysers as mountains of water seem to collide; we later learn the Doppler radar measured them at over seventy feet or thirty meters.
Perhaps an hour later the fugitive over-flight of a fixed wing aircraft and it is gone. A sudden exhilaration of knowing they are looking for us but how can we tell them we are here. The C-130 from the US Coast Guard passes again and again as Rudy attempts to ignite one of the three flares he pocketed as we abandoned ship, to no avail, too late or non-effective. It is already a miracle we have them considering the mess on board, as he was exiting Seanee he picked up and pocketed a floating pack of three. Now we are down to one. Will the plane come back or continue searching in another quadrant. Little do we know they were also searching for another vessel some eighty nautical miles southwest of us, the fifty four foot s/v Flying Colors had initiated its EPIRB about an hour after us. From the depth of the canyons our field of vision of the sky is constrained to about a third by the mountains of water that surround us, but we are glued to the hope of another passage. Rudy is ready to launch the last flare but will it return? Will it ignite? The C-130 returns emerges from behind the wave but within the field of vision I can already see the wave it will disappear behind, the flare goes off for a short time before falling into the water. Did they see our last hope
Miracles happen. By chance someone is looking back into our canyon and caught a glimpse of the needle in the haystack. It was to be their last overfly before resuming the vain search for Flying Colors that would totally disappear with a crew of four, to include two professional skippers, but they could not know that yet. Before long it backtracks upon its prior course, as it appears over us we see objects drop out of the back of the C-130, then a flare that begins to float in and out of view, it is surreal. I hear Ben ask Rudy if with his flying experience he though a helicopter could operate out here, Rudy answers what I have already said to myself, probably not. What nobody says is neither could a US Coast Guard vessel, the secret to survival here is staying power until the sea subsides then hope for a miracle spotting. Perhaps Ben, much younger that Rudy or I. Suddenly I hear Rudy and Ben sounding as a plane flies over us, then disappears.
The C130 had launched two life rafts in the hope we could transfer into one but the drop from the altitude they needed to maintain over the water combined with winds in excess of seventy knots set these well beyond our reach. From the airplane they report back our situation in a “makeshift life raft” soon relayed as such by the news reports. Newspapers will soon repeat the comments and reports provided by the USCG. As the C-130 disappears it is heartening to know we are located and I am relieved that for sure Ben and Rudy will be saved. I know I cannot wait another twenty four to forty eight hours for a ship born rescue. I am still in a limbo seeking relief from the pain when my mind registers the word helicopter; I wish them the best and sink back into my oblivion. My mother woken at home on Cape Cod in the early hours of the morning is receiving regular updates from the US Coast Guard, she is told we were located but there were only two in the life raft. Terrified by the thought one of us, perhaps me was missing she would keep that information to herself for hours, afraid to tell Mayke of her own fear. In reality Ben’s suit is red and hardly visible from the C130. It was already a miracle they had located us.
Someone is strangling me, I am back in the water, I do not understand what is happening until I see the basket, I remember sitting in it, grabbing the metal structure then having my hands torn away. It is the rescue swimmer trying to tell me something, conveying words without sound, I don’t understand.
Too much effort, again my mind floats away until a loud noise shakes me out of my torpor, I am in front of a door and a man is pulling the basket in. I am in a helicopter. He helps me out of the basket and to a bench covering me up in a blanket. Where are the others? I can’t speak, everyone is focused elsewhere, the noise is deafening and words go nowhere. With the oxygen I become aware, contemplative of what is happening around me?
To the right a man is operating a winch, to my left two helmets are facing the windshield focused on piloting the helicopter. Were it not for the noise I feel everything is in slow motion. I see the basket come up empty, put away and replaced with a harness that goes down instead. My mind has now reconstituted what s happening and the appearance of slow motion becomes excruciating. The harness comes up with the swimmer, he lies on the floor obviously in pain, vomiting, I don’t understand what is happening, time, time, why is everything slow.
He looks up at me then grabs another blanket and comes to wrap it around me. I want to tell him I am fine, to go get the others but the words will still not come out. I am worried by the turn of events, don’t understand what is happening.
Finally he goes back down, the harness comes up empty and the basket goes down. It’s an eternity before it comes back up but Rudy is in it. Only one left to go.
Finally Ben comes up and an extraordinary relief overcomes me as I once again begin to slip away; I will remember the swimmer coming in and throwing the GPIRB on the pile of equipment next to me.
I will wake with an oxygen mask as we head back, Sean Seamour II is gone but we are alive.
The flight back seems to last forever but we finally land at Cherry Hill Naval Hospital in North Carolina. As the helicopter doors open I can see three ambulances waiting with three teams of medics ready to take charge of us. Somehow they already know I have a back problem and I am put on a special stretcher. The oxygen had cleared my mind and I am quite conscious of what is going on as I am brought into an ambulance and the team gets to work on me. The lead medic is a young woman who begins with a blur of questions then proceeds to strip me for special heat blankets, responding to my natural reticence she tries to muse me saying she has seen it before, adding “besides after the cold water isn’t much of anything left to see”.
I had already given in, there is no fight left in me, Rudy and Ben are each in good care, there is nothing left for me to do but let go in their care.
The three ambulances lead to three emergency rooms and three medical teams. I avoid mentioning all my broken ribs, then again I don’t know there are ten but they realize there are some problems and to my usual heavy dose of cortisone they renew and add a heavier dose of percotin pain killer. A few hours later the crew is reassembled and provided a light meal which after the granola bars of the day before was more than welcome. We are still stunned and I am somewhat phased wondering if it is real, my reality check is Rudy, he is still attached to the body warmer, it then crystallizes in my mind, we are happy to be alive. Sometime in the afternoon there is a knock on the door and the rescue swimmer Drew Dazzo comes in to check on us. As we talk for a good hour we come to realize how traumatizing the rescue had been for the crew and Drew in particular who had been hurt. He was going to be released that afternoon and was awaiting a helicopter that would ferry him back to Elizabeth City Coast Guard base.
In the middle of the afternoon the American Red Cross Disaster Relief arrives, they had been called in by the Director for Administration. CDR Robert S. Fry sought not only to address our physical and medical trauma, but preempted the humanitarian crisis we were facing after all this loss and anguish by bringing in the disaster relief assistance of the American Red Cross to whom we owe the clothes, shelter and food that helped us survive this ordeal.
The doctors decide to release us from the hospital late that afternoon, first to the Post Exchange they keep open for us; we roam the isles in hospital gowns searching for clothes, shoes and underwear. All we have left is what we were wearing as we abandoned ship, now entrusted to an orderly who has them cleaned, dried folded and sent to the Days Inn where the Red Cross was lodging us.
The television reports preceded us; with the morning papers front paging our ordeal I am surprised to see all the reports mentioning the rescue of the crew of the sailing vessel Lou Pantaï, it is a puzzle lodged somewhere in my brain but with the bewilderment of being alive, here, now, I am not quite ready to address it. Adding to our confusion the hotel manager has comforting words about the shark infested waters from which we were rescued, knowledge backed by the work of his marine biologist fiancé studying their habitat. We then venture across the street to a restaurant where we are seated in front of a television reporting on the miraculous rescue of its crew. Lou what?
The percotin has substituted my body’s retrenchment with a fuzzy feeling of detachment; I am too tired and in pain to think any further but I know something is amiss. I wake a few hours later as the puzzle returned to the forefront of my mind. How could Lou Pantaï be involved? The morning papers would tease a fire that still burns today, not how or why Lou Pantaï, but what happened to the Sean Seamour GPIRB fresh out of recertification?