The most frightened I have ever been was sailing off the coast of Tasmania delivering a 45 foot racing yacht back to Sydney Harbor. The sail was expected to take about four and half days and we were two days into it. We had had a pretty uneventful trip thus far, a bit of bouncy water and an uncooperative VHF radio, but nothing major. The wind began to pick up speed and was now blowing so hard that the tops of the waves were knocked off, the water pressed hard and white. Sixty knots or so we figured. The boat pitched and heaved, rushing headlong down the immense swells. Then we barely heard the crackling voice of a shocked sailor on the VHF radio announce over the din below that a man from the fleet ahead had just been washed overboard and was lost.
Peeing off he back we figured.
I began to feel apprehension as we sailed further northward. I knew that once the relatively safe lee side of Tasmania lay behind us there would be no harbor for two days sail, no matter what the southern ocean delivered. Sort of like jumping off a cliff. I was up on deck in the middle of my watch with Tubby at the helm, a respected friend with years of southern ocean sailing under his belt, while Malcolm was sleeping down below.
Just the three of us on 45 feet of fiberglass.
Clearing the Northern End of Flinders Island, an area with many shoals and rocks, we could see that the unsettled weather was going to make good its threat and get ugly. An angry line of back cloud rushed the white sails of the boat. In one great gust we had no visibility and no short wave radio, no way to hear the weather that lay in front of us, no way to call for help.
We were on our own.
I looked at Tubby for reassurance as I ducked under the flapping boom. I could see that he was ghostly white with fear, his knuckles gripping the wheel. The system rolled closer, the wind intensified. The mast slammed crazily, levering the great mainsail down catching and filling with swirling hissing seawater. Suddenly the boat was spinning and careening along on its side at a dizzying speed. All the contents of the ordered shelves below skidded crazily around the floor as if covered with graphite. Malcolm, awakened by all the commotion struggled sideways to get on deck and lash on. Gallons of water gushed into the cockpit and down into the belly of the boat with us hanging on.
Like insects to a leaf in a deluge.
I could feel my feet slipping across the wildly pitched deck towards the streaming sea just a heartbeat from my rubber boots while the boat pitched and filled. I hung onto the boom and struggled to try take down the desperately flailing mainsail while Tubby fought to regain control of the boat. The sail flapped and blew but would not budge as the waves coaxed it into the sea dragging the boat further downward. There was no purchase to be had for the rudder and it gasped in the air.
Like a fish out of water.
Within the wind and noise, the cell of air around me became silent. Detail slowed and came into razor clarity as I watched, it seemed, from 10 feet up while Malcolm and I continued to struggle. I felt like I was floating, my stomach felt small and wrinkled with adrenaline and my guts were so constricted they hurt. With a dry mouth and a pumping heart all the air was expelled from my bowels involuntarily in a great gush. Thank goodness I have not eaten for a few days I thought to myself wryly.
Fate balanced perfectly as the silent reel of movement continued to play on around us.
The boat continued to fill with water.
Malcolm lurched with the effort and pull of the filled sail and the dragging boom, lost his footing and in a split second began to fall into the hungry sea.
Immediately the reel sped up again.
The sound blasted at full volume intensified, the roar of wind, the froth of water, the clang of gear. With superhuman effort I grabbed Malcolm’s jacket, pulling him back to safety. Together with straining bodies and fingers we finally began to wrestle the sail from the water bit by bit and with a reluctant yaw the boat finally righted itself.
Malcolm looked at me, his pupils met mine in a direct line of gratitude.
Thanks Mate… he said.