A Night at Sea

by J. C. Sprott

It promised to be a replay of one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. My friend and mentor was retired and living in Florida. Seven years ago, Don had taken me sailing in the Bahamas in his 36-foot sloop. I'd waited a long time for the chance to go again.

I was so anxious that I flew to Florida a few days early to help get the boat ready. The boat was in excellent condition. On Saturday my enthusiasm mounted as we began motoring down the intracoastal waterway to Fort Lauderdale. We wanted to set sail well south of West End, our first stop in the Bahamas, so as not to buck the Gulf Stream during the 80-mile crossing. The plan was to leave in the evening on Monday, head due east across the Atlantic, and arrive at West End during daylight the next day.

Unfortunately, on Monday there was a strong wind from the east, thunderstorms, and four- to six-foot seas. Under other circumstances, a day on the beach at Fort Lauderdale would have been a treat, but I wanted to get to the Bahamas. Don insisted that we wait for better weather.

On Tuesday the weather had improved slightly, and he succumbed to my restlessness and agreed to try to cross. With the east wind, we would have to use the motor. If we could manage three knots, the trip would take about 16 hours. At five pm we departed.

On this first attempt, we found the drawbridge over the inlet from the ocean not operating. There was nothing to do but return to the marina and wait for it to be repaired. We finished dinner just as the sun was setting and called to learn that the bridge was operating.

Don had been concerned that the engine was making a strange noise that I could never quite hear. Now he decided that someone should come and listen to it. My impatience grew as he spent the next three hours on the phone unsuccessfully trying to reach a mechanic.

It was almost midnight when we set out again. A few hundred yards out into the ocean, we were bobbing up and down in high waves, fighting a headwind, and making painfully slow progress. Our 35 gallons of gas would not get us across to the Bahamas, even if we were willing to spend two days at sea. With disappointment we ended our second attempt.

The next day we were delighted to see improvement in the weather. The wind was still from the east at 10 to 15 knots with two- to four-foot seas. A mechanic came and gave the engine a clean bill of health. We devised a new plan. We would sail to the southeast, toward Bimini and then tack to the north. If we could maintain six knots, the trip would still take about 16 hours, but the boat would be steadier in the water with the sails up.

At three pm on Wednesday, we began our third attempt. It was a rough, wet ride. It took great effort just to hold on and not be washed overboard. We wore safety harnesses. But we were making good time, and it appeared that our plan was working. Don and I took turns at the helm.

The first indication of trouble came about four hours out at sea. The wind died down briefly. When we tried to use the engine, it was missing on several cylinders because of the salt water bath it was taking. Don managed to get the engine running, but it was to be a continual concern.

With the tall condominiums along the coast disappearing and darkness setting in, I went below to take the first radio fix of our position. Before I could finish, I heard a loud noise and went above deck to find one of the sails, the jib, down on the deck. The three-sixteenth-inch steel cable, the halyard, that attaches it to the mast had broken. It took nearly an hour to get it stowed. With only the mainsail, our progress was very slow. Darkness was upon us, and we were uncertain of our position.

I went below to take another radio fix. Without the horizon in sight and with the boat still rocking severely, seasickness began to set in. I confessed my predicament to Don and suggested that he take the fix while I steer. Unfortunately, focusing on the compass with the horizon obscured by darkness and the lights from below deck, my sickness quickly became acute. I lunged for the side of the boat. Having never been seasick, I was unaware that one should avoid the windward side of the boat. A gallon of fresh water was required to clean up the mess.

After a few minutes, I felt better and managed to hold the course while Don established our position. Although I desperately wanted to continue to the Bahamas, Don felt that repairs could better be made in West Palm Beach, and at ten pm we reversed our course.

In addition to nausea, I now felt disappointment, embarrassment, and helplessness. With clear skies and the wind at our backs, we were maintaining a good speed, and I asked Don if he could manage alone while I took a nap. He thought so. West Palm Beach was four hours away.

It must have been an hour later when I was awakened by a loud noise. The sail had jibed. I went above deck to help. We were in a severe thunderstorm with sheets of rain, lightning all around us, and the sail whipping uncontrollably. I must have been sleeping soundly because Don said this was the third such squall he had been through since I had gone below.

I still felt sick but knew I had to help. The mainsail was collecting bags of water which I was able to empty. The rain poured as from a shower at full blast. Fortunately, the rain was warm. The temperature was about 75 degrees, and I was comfortable in my swimsuit and waist-length, hooded raincoat. Lightning and thunder crashed all around us. We avoided touching metal parts of the boat and feared a direct lightning strike on the mast. The boat rocked and rolled to an extent I didn't think possible. Black clouds loomed in every direction. We kept changing our course, but there was no escape from the fury of the storm.

The sail swung wildly. On one occasion, the ropes attached to the boom hit me so hard on the right side of my head that I reached to feel whether my ear had been torn off. It was still intact, and the pain quickly subsided, but the flashlight I was holding no longer worked. It was then that we noticed a rip in the mainsail.

Don suggested it was time to call the Coast Guard. That was the first indication he had given that we may not make it on our own. I took the helm while he went below to the radio. It was two am. I could hear only bits of the conversation. A woman's voice kept requesting our position. It was comforting to know someone was aware of our plight. We had sailed for several hours in various directions without a radio fix. We could see lights on the coast and thought we were near West Palm Beach. The Coast Guard helped determine our position but did not volunteer to rescue us despite the desperation in Don's voice. They asked us to call every 15 minutes to advise them of our progress. Meanwhile, I struggled to keep the boat upright, on a westerly heading, and with enough wind to keep the sail from ripping further.

Finally we spotted the red and green flashing lights on the buoys that mark the entrance to the harbor. We felt great relief and turned into the wind to lower the sail. Then we saw lights from a nearby boat and maneuvered to get out of its way. By the time we had reestablished our heading, we had lost sight of the buoys. In the few minutes that had passed, the Gulf Stream had swept us far north of the inlet. Our feeling of desperation returned.

With the engine at full power on a southerly heading, we watched in astonishment as we slowly drifted backwards. I turned us to a southwesterly heading to get closer to shore where perhaps the current would be less. For a while, we drifted even faster backwards, but eventually we began to make some progress. We were about half a mile from the shore.

As we got closer to shore we worried about depth, lest we run aground and sink the boat. The depth sounder behaved erratically, and we assumed it had been damaged by lightning. We felt that nature was conspiring against us.

For at least another hour, the small 30 horsepower motor strained against the current. Progress was almost imperceptible. The Coast Guard kept calling to check our progress.

About four am we finally spotted the buoys again and felt that our ordeal was nearly over. This time our eyes were riveted to the flashing lights. As we got closer, the waves and current subsided, and we were soon motoring up the inlet. We reached a quiet spot and dropped the anchor in water that by contrast had not a ripple. With the light of dawn just beginning to appear, we were asleep within minutes.

The next thing I remember, Don was rustling around in the cabin. It was 8:30 am. My sickness was gone. We had spent 13 hours in the Atlantic and felt lucky to have avoided a serious disaster.

A boat came by and asked us to move so that a freighter could maneuver. We motored another hour up the waterway to a marina where, by coincidence, the boat had been built. We relived the experience as we inspected the damage. Don was only half joking when he quipped that perhaps the man who built the boat would offer him a good price for it. I made reservations on the first flight home and stayed another two hours to help tidy up the boat.

My taxi for the airport came at two pm. As I said goodbye to Don, I told him to let me know if he wanted me to return for another try in a few weeks. He nodded. But beneath the facade of interest, I secretly hoped that it was a decision that would not have to be made too soon.

J. C. Sprott
July 1984