36 - Hurricane

Colliding waves erupted into yacht-flipping, rogue pillars of white water. It felt like taking on the Bismarck in -- well -- a sailboat. We held on tight and fought through the insane chop for hours. Eventually, the sky lightened. Jagged, low cloud scudded over a foaming sea. Still, way too rough to go on deck or open the sails. Safely clear of the harbour, the best we could do was throttle back and hang on tight.

The status of our steering system was unknown. I had to crawl under the cockpit to see it for myself. "Bollocks, this is going to hurt! Kill the engine."

"You want to sail?" Elena held a hand out to the tempest, "In this!?"

"Yeah. No main. Just half the genoa." The joy of a big sail on a furling unit is that like a roller shade, you can pull out only as much as you want. In our case, that was very little.

Helicopter in flight photo elenameg.com

[Image 36-1] Helicopter! Not THE particular Bell-212, but certainly one of the aircraft Elena and Meg encountered.

It dragged Boadicea through the waves a lot faster than the propeller could push us. It also provided some stability. Flat on my back, sliding around in puddles of hydraulic oil, I pulled the cotter keys holding a hydraulic cylinder on the rudder quadrant. It fell right onto my chest. Oomph! Despite the bruising in a bloody inopportune place, it freed up the steering. Then, just in case some funny wiring in the pump motor started a fire, I cut its power leads. I kept it all nice and neat and secured it all in place with an inordinate number of zip-ties. But something was banging and thumping to beat the band. "What now!?" I hollered, pounding my fists on the cockpit floor above me.

I thrashed from the crawlspace. Of course, I left behind the customary pound of flesh on protruding screws. "Military. Looks like a Bell two-twelve with NATO livery. I don't know what they want. It couldn't be us. Nah, that'd be crazy."

"Why then, are they stopping over us!?"

It didn't stop but circled low and slow. Maybe fifty metres and closing -- a soldier was taking aim from an open side door. "Booooooollocks!!!"


Wait... a... minute... "Hey, we're not dead. They didn't shoot us?"

"Meg, serioznah! A camera. They are taking pictures."

"Is the radio on? Are we monitoring?" We had a hand-held on channel sixteen. Nada. They could have made contact if they wanted to. The chopper circled a few more times, the soldier withdrew, the door slid shut, the tail lifted and the aircraft sped off. "I figure it'll be a navy cutter next. We have got to get the hell out of here. Keep her steady and on course. I'm bringing the electrical system back online."

Southeast Gran Canaria with choppy sea, photo Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 36-2] Choppy waters off southeast Gran Canaria Island.

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The chart plotter showed us in international waters. The sea was still rough, despite the wind having decreased. Wind waves on top of sizeable swells: up -- down -- uuuuup. On the crests, you can see forever. In the troughs you see nothing. Cresting -- or summitting, your pick -- our new OtherMajorBrand radar started hooting a collision warning. A target appeared for several seconds and vanished until we re-crested. Each appearance brought it closer. Its heading: straight for us. Its speed: significant.

Elena Vaytsel checks the spinnaker photo elenameg.com

[Image 36-3] Elena checks the spinnaker

"Little boat. Looks like for fishing." Elena pointed off our port bow.

It didn't change direction. It just kept on coming -- straight for us. Binoculars revealed an outboard driven, open boat slamming over steep waves. It veered at the last second, missing us by a couple of metres. Huddled below the gunwales, hanging on to ropes, were maybe two dozen African men. At the bow, a nearly naked man cradled a shotgun. Two more stood at the stern, one with a machine gun and the other manning a huge outboard motor.

I grabbed the radio. A sharp report from the machine gun stopped me. I froze, hands in the air, holding up the radio -- just in case they felt like chatting. The boat circled behind, dozens of dark eyes staring. The guy with the machine gun grinned and wagged a finger back and forth.

With the open boat closing on our stern, time slowed to a crawl. Then, like a pterodactyl out of hell, a C-130 Hercules roared over the horizon. The heavy aircraft thundered overhead, cowing everyone -- including us -- into a crouch. I still don't know how it didn't hit our mast, it was that low. It banked into a tight circle around our boats. There was a lot of yelling on the open boat, then it peeled away, heading, I think, for Gran Canaria.

"Meg! Shto sloochielous!? What is happening!?" Elena shrieked. "Military aeroplane! Helicopter! Guns! Men in boat! We die here!"

"Not this time, my love." I held her. Damn, she was breakable. "Not this time."

The radio broke its silence. A heavily accented voice asked if we needed assistance.

I declined.

The Hercules circled above the open boat, disappearing behind us in a smog of exhaust and jet fuel.

Meg Aitken watches a glorious sunset at sea. Photo by Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 36-4] Sunset, somewhere mid-Atlantic

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The repairs on the steampunk windvane held, and the naff contraption seemed to work. The boat virtually sailed itself, with the occasional tweak or adjustment. Crawling deeper south, the days grew disturbingly warmer and wetter. Jon's curt, "It's peak hurricane season. You know what a tropical storm is and what to do in one. RIGHT???" was our only brush with humanity. The radio went silent, the radar dark. There were no boats, planes, or even jet contrails. We were the only two people on an ocean planet.

Watch keeping was pointless. Somewhere in the Tropic of Cancer, we left it up to the radar and an occasional glance at the infinite ocean. Exposure to the sun was dangerous -- painful. At night we slept naked in the cockpit. During the day, on wet sheets below deck. The heat was punishing, the routine stultifying. Days became weeks. Sunrise was a quantum ball of scorching fire, straight up from a blood-warm sea. How I loathed morning twilight.

Meg Aitken inside a windvane self steering contraption. Photo by Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 36-5] Meg tweaks the windvane contraption.

"Hey choomeechka, we've got a satellite message!" Elena called up from below. "It's Jon. He says something about Western Africa getting a depression and waves that are tropical. That's all. Says, 'Fair winds.' Sounds like nothing."

"Brilliant, Len! Let's fly the spinnaker. Get this raft moving." It was a surprisingly good idea. It added a couple of knots to our glacially slow crawl west, and it let me live out my sailing fantasy: a billowing spinnaker pulling us through tropical seas; Enya's dulcet tones serenading our blissful passage; and by crikey, we were going like stink! The glorious sloshing of water past our hull increased so slowly we didn't notice it. The same goes for creaking bulkheads and groaning rigging. Until lollygagging below deck, something went kaboom! and all hell broke loose. Stuff, including us, slid forward. Elena ran for the deck. Boadicea skidded broadside to the wind, with the mainsail flapping like a tent fly at three in the morning.

"We are caught in something! It has got us. It is huge. Meeeeg!"

I flew up the companionway. No ships. No flames. No aircraft. The yacht was level and stable.

"Look! It has got us."

"Holy kapoosta! We're going to die." I was laughing so hard I almost threw up. We were floating in the centre of a huge, colourful, boat-eating, ocean blossom: our own spinnaker.

Hauling it aboard, wringing out what felt like miles of fabric, we discovered the spinnaker indeed caught something -- the windvane's rudder. Snapped it right off where the original steel started. We weren't laughing any more. We were hand steering from there on in, and we weren't even halfway across the Atlantic.

Blown out spinnaker in the mid Atlantic. Photo by Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 36-6] A wee, bit too much wind for the spinnaker.

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You don't need to hear this next part. It's full of profanity and abominable behaviour; not my finest hour, so I'll spare you the quotes. What I can tell you, is that I shoved myself below the floor, hacked through a matrix of zip-ties and retrieved the autopilot's hydraulic pump and motor. I took that apart and diagnosed worn brushes. In case you're curious, brushes are electrical contacts between moving parts. They are meant to wear down instead of the expensive rotor they are providing current to. Brushes are cheap and easy to find. Except out in the middle of the bloody ocean!

I needed some seriously beefy brushes to carry a lot of power at low voltage. Hmm, let's see, the hoover: 220 volts, tiny motor, and Elena would kill me. Nope. The power drill? Still 220 volts and way too small. I needed something with serious torque that runs on 12 volts. Ahh, the engine starter. But we couldn't sacrifice it for a brush transplant. So, nope. We might need to start the motor again. But -- and this is where I got an evil grin, not unlike the Grinch when he thought of stealing Christmas -- we didn't need the anchor or the big, 12-volt winch for raising it. Ta-da! A file and some whittling got the brushes to fit. We had a donor. I hooked it up to power and, "Look, Igor! It lives!"

Elena and Meg's yacht caught in its own spinnaker photo elenameg.com

[Image 36-7] Some photos are best left uncaptioned

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The autopilot held our course. The radar watched for danger. The sails bent the wind and pulled the yacht steadily along. Again, we were passengers on a boat sailing itself. At night the stars provided a vastly bigger universe than the sweltering, blue ocean of day. We truly felt as though we had left the Earth. Even the crescent moon was alien. That close to the equator it lies on its back, like a perfectly symmetrical bowl, not an upright letter C. I lay on the deck, transfixed by the night sky, feeling as though I was looking down into a starry abyss I might fall infinitely into.

Zoological adaptation to landlessness amazed us. Tuna skimmed along, just below the surface, about a metre from our stern. For days they kept up in perfect formation, with barely a movement of their knife-like fins. When our passage startled a school of flying fish, the tuna shot forward, leaping out of the water in pursuit. They crashed into the waves, thrashing wildly, their bodies cartwheeling end over end. Birds came out of nowhere and dove into the flocks of flying fish erupting from the water. Clouds of activity coalesced out of nowhere. Flying fish buzzed chaotically. Birds dove through the swirling cloud. Tuna flung themselves into the air and crashed down. Life is awesome!

Torrential rain flattens the sea and gives it a shag carpet look. Photo Elena Vaytsel photo elenameg.com

[Image 36-8] Torrential rain is heavy enough to flatten the waves and give the sea surface a "shag carpet" look.

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Jon quietly tracked our progress, but something in the weather charts made him nervous. He sent a message telling us to batten down and get ready for some heavy weather. It seemed crazy. At the time there were some wispy clouds way up high, but soon, even I had to admit that the swells coming from behind had grown scary-big. Ach, nothing we couldn't handle. Maybe.

Spinnaker all tored up and lying on deck photo elenameg.com

[Image 36-9] The spinnaker, hauled from the sea and piled on deck.

Within a couple of hours, bands of cloud were tearing by overhead. Lightning flashed in the distance. Curtains of rain coming up from behind looked incredibly inviting. We were in for a stonking downpour, and I planned on taking full advantage of it. Shampoo, conditioner and a loofah in the cockpit and at the ready.

By mid-morning, still no destinkifying shower, but the wind was too strong to have any of the mainsail flying. With a lot of whingeing and cursing, we got it down and lashed to the boom with every bit of extra rope we had. The change in routine was nice, but the excitement was wearing off -- fast. The weather was decidedly not fun. In fact, it was on the verge of complete rubbish.

A sound -- more of a vibration -- from the autopilot's hydraulics sent chills down my spine. Only one sail flying, and we were tearing along at an impossible fifteen knots. Boadicea surfed down wavefronts, bow scraping at the water ahead. It wouldn't take much to bury the snout and flip us end-over-end.

"The genoa has to come in!" I hollered.

Elena stopped on her way down the companionway. "What!? How can we sail with no sails?"

"Bare poles."

"Bear poles! What bears?"

First band of cloud and showers from approaching tropical storm. Meg and Elena photo photo elenameg.com

[Image 36-10] Meg sees an opportunity for a shower.

It's a term bandied about in bugs-in-your-teeth, yacht racing accounts. I assumed it meant having no sails up, just a bare mast. I didn't have time to explain it. "Get out here. I need your help to crank it in." I was barely aware of a slightly familiar noise, just on the threshold of my hearing. Like little birds chirping. "Damn! The autopilot's disengaged." I scrambled for the wheel. It was still engaged but overwhelmed. A Meg-a-muscle assist regained control, but it wouldn't last. Certainly not with the headsail fully deployed at the bow.

"Nu ee shto!? Help me!" Elena had the winch loaded, the two-man handle locked in.

What I saw beyond our gunwales was mesmerising. The wind was tearing the crests off the waves. Streamers of foam and spray flew ahead of them, pinstriping the writhing surface. I got on the winch with Elena. "Crank, goddamn it! Grind, grind, grind." We pulled furiously. Crazily. We got the sail more than halfway retracted before the autopilot was overpowered -- again.

I threw myself toward the helm. Stress on the mast levered the bow down into the water. That was lifting the stern and rudder out. A seriously, really, not-good situation. Even with only twenty per cent of the sail area flying, the effect was horrifying. "We're going seventeen knots!" I screamed from the wheel.

Following seas in a near hurricane force wind. Elena and Meg photo photo elenameg.com

[Image 36-11] Waves from behind are getting scary. Wind getting awfully stiff too.

Elena was clambering onto the deck. Was she suicidal!? "It's jammed. It's stuck in the roller furling unit. I'm going forward." She screamed to be heard. The wind tore at her with such violence, her skin rippled.

"The hell you are!" I caught one of her ankles. Dragged her back. She crashed to the wet deck and into the cockpit. "You'll be swept overboard! Killed!" The yacht surfed down a wavefront, crashed into the sea and buried the bow in green water. The furling unit and deck as far back as the mast was completely submerged. I thought Boadicea was going to cartwheel. Time slowed to a crawl, everything became weirdly quiet. I was somehow seeing everything in superhuman detail. Inexorably, the boat lifted its snout from the sea, carving out a wall of water that rolled along the deck and slammed us both to the cockpit floor.

That time, the autopilot was well and truly overpowered. I grabbed the wheel, disengaged it and just about folded under the strain. It took both hands on a wheel spoke, pulling up on it like a weight lifter each time a wave overtook us. Then down on it with all my weight just to keep the wheel from spinning the other way. The waves wanted to push us broadside. Every time they didn't was another triumph.

Breaking wave preceding a tropical storm. Meg and Elena photo photo elenameg.com

[Image 36-12] Taken moments before shampoo, conditioner and everything not tied down was swept off the deck.

I was trapped at the helm until we got out of whatever we'd gotten into. It went on and on. No way of knowing how bad it would get or how long it would last. I analysed my fight with the wheel. Concentrated on the strain and muscles it took. Made note of when it nearly broke me; or when something I did before a wave hit us, made it not so hard to stay in control. I learned to anticipate the forces acting on the vessel. Tried to work with them instead of against them. Thinking about what was real: immediate, something that could kill us in a heartbeat, subdued my panic. Every muscle I had burned. I was wet with sweat and warm sea foam. My head was pounding, my ears ringing from the noise.

Then, cold daggers pierced my back in a million stinging pricks. Frozen shot from Poseidon's blunderbuss? Nah, it was rain, and it wasn't the refreshing shower I anticipated. It was huge gobs, driven with so much force they stung like hornets. The wind meter hovered around fifty knots when I was first trapped at the helm. Now, stark naked, it was pulsing over sixty -- just shy of hurricane force. The whipping I got from the rain hurt so much I had to crouch between tug-o-war matches with the wheel.

Elena crawled on her hands and knees for the companionway. A glance at the instruments ran my blood cold: wind speed maxed out at seventy. It didn't drop below sixty-five. "It's a hurricane! We're in a fucking hurricane!"

A colossal, waterfall-like downpour flattened the waves -- somewhat. Combined with the wind, the sea took on a monstrous, undulating, shag carpet look. Elena crawled back up, tethered herself to some part of the boat and crawled along the floor into the wind toward me. She was a wraith. Her face, bone white, a hundred years old. She crawled on her elbows, dragging my heavy, offshore jacket.

Swells and windwaves combine to make steep seas in a tropical storm. Photo Elena and Meg photo elenameg.com

[Image 36-13] By this time, the sea was looking distinctly dangerous. Photography from then on in was curtailed to save the cameras, the vessel and the humans clinging to it.

The zips cracked like whips, whacking both of us randomly. Luckily, neither of us lost an eye. Elena managed to get the heavy Gortex jacket over my naked back and shoulders. In the pockets, she'd stuffed a water bottle and a pile of now pulverised biscuits. "Thank you!" I shouted, inches from her ear.

"Just drink." Elena held the bottle for me, then shoved soggy, salty biscuit mulch into my mouth. Wearing a diving mask to look into the blast from behind, she wedged herself in beside the helm and told me about the incoming waves. "Fifty metres. Twenty. Hang on!" She clung to me and the boat for hours, developing a rhythm that got us through the storm -- alive.

By nightfall, the wind was down to mere gale force. The waves, however, were huge. I didn't think I could go on. Elena didn't look much better. With the last of whatever strength we had left, we rigged a giant underwater parachute called a sea anchor. The idea was to stop the boat in the water and point its nose into the blast. It didn't work. The sea anchor tore to shreds, then Boadicea swung side-on to the blow and pitched violently.

My metabolism must have maxed out. My knees shook. I felt like throwing up. I was freezing. It took all I had just to steer. Elena pulled in the remains of the sea anchor and wordlessly took the helm. I collapsed beside her and didn't wake until morning.

Rough seas following a hurricane photo elenameg.com

[Image 36-14] Following sustained the hurricane force winds, the sea took on this ragged, foaming look that lasted for days.

[[ updated -- photos Apr 24, 17:05 GMT ]]