Our Perfect Storm

While gathering information for my second memoir, tentatively titled Cowboy from Prague, I came across a photo of me at the helm of a sailboat. I have a smile on my face, the sky is blue, and the Atlantic Ocean in the background is smooth. But, oh, what memories of terror this photo brought!

Our sailboat, “Pistol Pete”
In 1986, when the shot was taken, Sue and I had been racing sailboats for more than twenty years. That spring, we had purchased a new boat, and my crew and I had spent evenings practicing and weekends racing unsuccessfully, while becoming familiar with our new vessel. So, it came as quite a relief when a friend asked me if our crew and I would like to cruise his new boat to Annapolis, Maryland, from Bermuda after he and his crew would race it in the Bermuda race. We accepted eagerly and looked forward to flying to Bermuda and then enjoying a leisurely sail to Annapolis. This sounded terrific to a group which was tired of training and losing races.

In Bermuda, I checked with the Naval Air Station on weather and the position of the Gulf Stream. Other than a large depression off Charleston, SC, and a small one near Newport, RI, there was nothing unusual awaiting us. At least, so said the Navy meteorologist who assured me that we would not be affected by the two lows on his map.

Our crew — consisting of Sue, our son, David, and three male friends — cleared customs and weighed anchor from St. Georges at noon on a sunny Saturday. The sailing was smooth for the first three hours. In mid-afternoon, the seas began to build and continued to grow for the next four hours. By dusk, we were climbing mountains — waves which were as tall as our boat, a 41-footer. Allowing for the depths of the troughs and the heights of the swells, we were heading straight into 20-foot seas.

We had reduced sail to a minimum, ran the engine, and took the waves at 45-degree angles. Steering took an enormous amount of strength and, with everyone but the two of us seasick by now, only David and I could helm the boat, taking twenty-minute shifts at the oversize wheel. All of us were in foul-weather gear, wearing life jackets and harnesses which were clipped to wires running the length of the boat.

Actually, we had managed to get the boat under some control when the effects of the smaller depression — eight-foot waves hitting us broadside — began to roll in. Now, we were in our own “perfect storm.” The boat slammed and shuttered after every wave, and any movement by the crew became nearly impossible.

For one and a half days, we went virtually without sleep, David and I were dog tired, and the rest of the crew was too sick to be of any use. The night was particularly terrifying because it was obvious that, if anyone was swept overboard, there would be no hope of finding him or her. But, like all storms, this one, too, came to an end. At the end of the ordeal, we discovered that all our instruments had shorted out. As we began to recover, dry out, and make repairs, we realized that we would have to navigate by compass and sextant, just like the ancient mariners. A second, though lesser, horror show followed when we hit tropical heat and major thunderstorms in the Gulf Stream. A final scare came when our faulty navigation took us north of Cape Fear, NC, instead of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

The photo of the serene-looking captain (me) was taken after a kind tugboat captain put us on the correct course and slowed down his ship so that we could follow him to Norfolk and to the safety of the Chesapeake Bay. There are times when a picture is not worth a thousand words!

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