It’s hard to truly paint the picture of the experience that the four of us just lived, whether describing the cold sweat on the brow, the salt on the lips, the constant motion on the boat or the strange combination of anxiety and excitement that seemed to course through the veins when steering a course through the dead of night.
We arrived in Subic Bay, Philippines last night the 14th of December 2014 at 11pm on Vineta a 49' Marten racing/cruising yacht having motored the last 6 hours of the 64 hour journey to get into the marina. The time had passed as a dream, a fantasy, a terror, but the brilliant constellations that shown down from behind the scattered clouds welcomed us as we motored into the bay like a parade for conquering heroes. The confetti of the stars rained down upon us as we motored gallantly on the last stretch of the journey past the well-lit local squid boats that lined the route.
It had been my first time offshore and I won't soon forget it. A few nights earlier we had met on board to review the boat, the systems, and the gear and to set out the roles and responsibilities. We departed the following morning from the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club on the 550 nautical mile journey on the heels of typhoon Hagupit that was just passing the Philippines. We knew it was going to be "a bit bumpy" but what we encountered was far beyond my point of reference. I had never experienced that intense a roar of the ocean rushing beneath the hull, the pounding of the waves crashing over the deck nor witnessed the look of utter powerlessness as a helmsman hung on for life while being pummeled by surf in the midst of the deluge. It is now etched in my memory.
We had started out with a crew of four and had planned four hour day shifts with two persons reduced to two hour shifts during the night. When one of the crew went down so seasick that he couldn't make it out of bed, the plan changed and we ended up on two hour single shifts which meant we were on our own in the inky blackness of night to ensure our safe passage and thread our way around the container ships and fishing fleets that threatened to encroach on our route. It wasn't a perfect plan but it worked and next time we will make suitable changes.
The winds had built steadily once we left Hong Kong which gave us time to adjust to the circumstances. We had started the trip Thursday with one reef in the main and a full jib but within 12 hours we had put a second reef in the main and had reduced the jib by at least 60% but still found we were overpowered when the winds were gusting to 45kts. We continued to reduce sail on the foresail as necessary but there were always those occasions that the winds were just too strong though at least they were fleeting.
Each shift seemed to be more challenging than the preceding as winds and seas increased, but my level of comfort grew progressively. That was until my first night watch when that feeling of ease was erased. Patrick had said it was an amazing experience to helm the boat at night, but taking the wheel in total darkness was like stepping off of a cliff, an act of faith. There was no reference except for the illuminated mast LED readouts that updated the wind speed, boat speed, wind direction and heading. We lived our watch according to that heading. A three digit target in the midst of the blackness. After each shift Loi would identify the course and plot it before heading below and we would do our best to stay on track as accurately as possible. If followed correctly, it would see us reach our next waypoint, but keeping the boat on that heading was another story. We were on a beam to broad reach most of the trip so we were constantly being battered on our port side by waves the size of buildings, forcing the boat off course. Correcting the course was constant work. The wheel was never stationary in our hands nor was the deck under our feet. Often when the boat was forced up wind, you would automatically reach around to tuck the lifeline into the crook of your left arm while grabbing the wheel just to keep purchase of the boat as she would heel precariously to starboard. As the swell rolled under the boat the bow would rise and then fall as the swell marched on. As the heading corrected the deck stabilized, the boat would straighten and again start to race down the face of the wave but sometimes only to swing too far off the wind before balancing on the edge of a gybe then coming back on track. All the while our hands were furiously trying to keep up and anticipate the correct adjustment.
Patrick was right, it was an amazing experience, but each night shift was like starting over. I would stand in the companionway before stepping out into the maelstrom and take in the scene. Seemingly safe and much dryer in the cabin there was always a slight hesitation before stepping out and clipping into the lifelines to take the helm at night. Loi or Patrick would be fearlessly guiding the boat on the selected heading down the face of the swell and into the trough before the boat was forced back up into the wind and up the steep slope; the tip of the boom dragging at the foot of the trough and then the process would start over again.
Still wet and tired from the previous shift, my eyes would adjust to the darkness of the night to focus on the helmsman silhouetted in the reflection of the stern light on the white foam of our wake. There was some trepidation at the thought of stepping out into the midst of the beating to take my turn at the helm but with a man already down; there was no time to delay. We were reliant on each other and any further pause would be cheating the team out of necessary rest.
Through the day and night Vineta would on occasion, seem to lift and shed the drag of water to really charge down the waves in a perfect storm of wind, spray and swell, and to much hooting and hollering as the man on deck would recite the boat speed …19….20….21…and once up to ….22 Knots! Even in the midst of our rest down below with eyes closed in slumber, a smile would crease our lips as we knew the rush and excitement of feeling this purebred hit her stride.
We basically spent two days and nights fully kitted out in our wet weather gear, gloves, hats and hoods, inflatable PFD’s and harnesses. Though we were soaked through it was easier to keep it on to sleep rather than remove it and don it again before the next shift. There is nothing worse than trying to put on cold wet clothes and with the worsening weather there was always a concern that it may be necessary to deploy and no one wanted to be caught short or unprepared. Each of us had an agreed responsibility in the event of an emergency. Reviewed and agreed were the responsibilities for radio communication, panic button on the Spot locator, grabbing the go bag, charts, box of flares and pyrotechnics and of course the electronics (GPS, handheld radio, Sat phone), deployment of the liferaft/horseshoe/beacon etc. so we were confident in our fallback options.
Although we felt ready, it is a challenge to be faced with an unknown issue and resultant physical and mental stress that it places on your body. We had spent hours of day two doggedly bailing the bilges of water after Patrick noticed the floorboards awash. While we thought we had sourced and repaired the issue our eagerness to get out of the bilge and out into the fresh air meant that we failed to properly follow up and we again found ourselves with an unknown leak and a bilge full of water not long after. Though we finally sourced the cause of the leak and rectified it, we had missed the opportunity to take any appreciable respite which made the second night's shifts that much more difficult. On top of it all I had unfortunately faced my first experience of true seasickness. Though it had been a blow to my ego and the queasiness maintained its grip on my constitution for most of the trip, there was nothing to do but bear with it. More than once I had to lean over the rail before taking the helm, but at least on the job the symptoms were displaced by the thrill of the ride.
Sleeping was simple and basically we crawled into our selected bunk, wedged ourselves in and passed out with one eye open and an ear on alert. We refined our lives to meeting only our most basic needs; working, eating, sleeping and we were fortunate that it was warm and we didn't need winter gear. Though by the second night the chills started to set in and I was forced out of my gear just long enough to change base layers which kept the cold at bay for the remainder of the trip.
The second night the moon appeared intermittently and the silver refection off the sea was mesmerizing and surreal. Compared to the previous night’s “trial by fire” in darkness it was a walk in the park being able to actually see beyond the light on the bow even though the winds had fortified. From then on the weather improved and by the time I awoke on Saturday morning the sun was coming out and seas had started to calm. The chance to remove our saturated and soggy clothing was most welcome and we quickly spread out to take advantage of the warm and drying sunshine and changed into shorts and t-shirts.
I know that it isn't an uncommon experience. Men have been battling wind and storms on the oceans since the very beginning of time and most have survived to tell the tale having been exposed to great winds and waves in lesser boats and with lesser crew so our experience isn't unique. It was however still a triumph in my mind; a triumph of spirit, of teamwork, of trust and determination. I recall a photo I saw in a sailing book I had read as a youth. It was a picture looking aft at a helmsman standing at the wheel in foul weather gear with a stalwart gaze. The background showed only a sliver of sky above the blue wall of seawater that trailed them in the southern ocean. I had always wondered what that had felt like to be in that situation and now I had a taste and I understand precisely why men continue to return to the sea.