by Sam Ivey
Table of Contents|
appeared in issue 220.
Glossary of nautical terms
Chapter V: Capsized|
part 1 of 4
“Alone on the raging ocean, alone in my craft I ride,
Alone on the foaming billows, in all their crested pride,
No man before hath ventured, alone, so far to sail;
Nor mind hath ever yet conceived a ship so small, so frail.”
Sydney Punch - February 17, 1883, Sydney, Australia
He was deep among the islands now. Some 200 miles astern of him, at 19ºS; 169º, 55’W, lay the tiny island of Niue. He noted that it was marked on the chart as being inhabited by savages. If there were others nearby that were similarly inhabited, he was not aware of them. It seemed highly unlikely, however. Because around him now lay the Tonga Group, that compact archipelago of over 150 volcanic and limestone islands. Above the water’s surface they reared, while deep below, plunging downward thousands upon thousands of feet — and into the purest of pure blacks — yawned the Tonga Trench. Captain James Cook had visited here, too. His ship, the Resolution, had sailed these waters in 1772, and he had, at that time, named the group, “The Friendly Islands.” The name in itself seemed to dispel any fears of cannibalism.
Yesterday had been December 1st. It was difficult for him to believe. The year was almost gone, and he had spent a goodly part of it here on the ocean. He lacked only two weeks of having been four months at sea, and during that time he had turned thirty. Life seemed to be going by terribly fast — unfairly so, he felt. And he thought again today of his family, of Catherine, his wife. She was now... he could not remember her age — could not remember her birthday; he could not remember the date of their wedding anniversary. And little Mary, his daughter, would be about... about two. That seemed to be clearer in his memory. And in a very real way he longed to see them again. In retrospect, the time that had passed, just since August, seemed to have gone by so very swiftly. Yet on the other hand, his leaving seemed to have been so long ago; that time in its passing had moved with a snail-like sluggishness.
The breezes, however, during the past week, had been anything but sluggish. Indeed, there had been a few hours during that time when he had been pressed to take a reef in the mainsail, as the wind stiffened and blew very hard, swinging from east-northeast to southeast. The result of that robust wind, combined with the very favorable current, demonstrated itself in his observations at noon on that date. They showed him to have traveled over 600 miles since last Saturday, and of those miles, 180 was southing.
In the following week the winds softened somewhat, and on Tuesday there came heavy rain, with the sky mightily clouded to the northwest. Brilliant explosions of lightening went crackling through the air, tearing at the cloudmass, appearing to rip into it like great electric talons.
On Thursday of the same week, at 5:40 a.m., he sighted another ship. This one was a four-masted steamer, heading east at about 10 miles distance. As he reflected on his location, the ship appeared as a token of civilization. The thought occurred to him: was it perhaps an early harbinger of his voyage’s successful accomplishment? A very pleasant thought indeed.
Then on Friday he saw what he had not seen since August 19th, and what made his heart soar — land. Early it was — 5:30 in the morning — and the tiny island of Eoa was bearing northwest by north, about 20 miles away; its low gray mass, a darker shade against the still dark horizon. And there, too, was Cattow Island. He altered course, as he wanted to pass them close by.
Shortly after 11:00 that morning, he found himself between the two of them. Land! Beautiful, beautiful land! Both of these islands were lush with vegetation. Richly clad they were, in regal emerald greenery. And against their craggy cliffs of white limestone, the Pacific’s deep, royal blue waters broke in majestic bursts of white-laced turquoise or exhausted their Herculean power in gentle waves on pristine beaches of white sand. He was enthralled with their beauty.
He loved very much being at sea; he loved the solitude and the quietness of the great watery expanses. But he was, in the final measure, a human; he was a land creature. And deep in his heart he would always love — as did all seafarers — the color of green, and of brown; the colors of the earth.
It occurred to him that if what was viewed by most persons as the wild, maniacal imaginings of Jules Verne, as expressed in his book From the Earth to the Moon, which he had read in his childhood, were to ever become reality — an event he more than seriously doubted — such travelers in space would also long for the greens and browns of the earth.
With the easing of the tradewinds, there had come a marked decrease in the distance sailed over the past week. His observation at noon on Saturday, December 9th, showed him at 21º, 32’ South; 176º, 19’ West. Only some 230 miles had been covered, but they had been pleasant miles through generally clear weather. Today, however, the wind was again beginning to build. Varying from southeast to north-northeast, it was growing decidedly more brisk. And having watched it with a cautious weather eye, he decided that a storm trysail should replace the foresail.
Another swordfish was with him as well. This one chose to knock repeatedly against the side of the boat, an action that was not only annoying, but that brought back all of the anxiety he had felt in early November when he had first encountered its breed. He thought of spearing the fish before it speared him. But with the wind increasing in strength, and with a sea becoming measurably more boisterous, he deemed it too dangerous to stand on the unpredictably gyrating deck, holding on with only one hand. Besides, the boat needed his attention more than did the fish, and he was relieved when it finally left.
By that afternoon the sea was running very high, an intimidating, following sea. Waves of a quite remarkable size came rolling at him, lifting Pacific’s stern and sending her sliding down their sequential faces, where she threatened repeatedly to bury her bow at the bottom of each trough. The squalls had returned as well. Not the great drenching downpours he had experienced north of the Equator, but sufficient to cause him to don his oilskin coat again for the first time in several weeks.
Throughout the night the weather continued to escalate, and by Sunday morning the waves had grown to a prodigious size; steep sided, and sharp edged at their crests. Under an overcast sky, the sea had turned a leaden-olive color, and the trades were now bowling him along at over 6 knots. From Pacific’s plunging, rearing bow came frothy streamers of white foam; creaming along the sides of the hull to meld with a wake that came boiling from under the transom.
Around 2:00 p.m. and in what had become a decidedly spirited wind, he took in the trysail, determining to run under jib and main alone. With that having been done, he could feel the strain on Pacific ease somewhat — she was not struggling as much. And it was a satisfactory arrangement until about 6:00 p.m., when it became prudent to reduce sail even further. Now he was beginning to experience serious concern for the integrity of the little vessel, with the wind virtually threatening to tear the sticks out of her. Progress was all, however, so taking a reef in the main he drove on through the dark hours.
But now his muscles cried for relief. He had labored hard for the last two days, the weather requiring, and his eyes were red-rimmed and stinging from strain and salt spray. So on Monday, at two o’clock in the morning, he finally hove-to. He had not done so since October 22nd, with the singular exception of his meeting with Tropic Bird on November 17th. But now he must. So shoving the drogue over the side, he sheeted the main in hard and backwinded the jib. Then, with the tiller lashed to leeward he allowed himself four hours, sleeping until 6:00 a.m.
With the coming of morning light, and with the wind having abated to a degree, he hoisted the foresail again and got underway. Though the squalls came and went, the cloud cover remained broken. Consequently he was able to get an observation of the sun at noon, and to log his latitude as being 22º, 2’ south. His longitude he calculated as 179º, 53’ west.
Only seven miles now separated east from west, as the 180th meridian lay just that far ahead. And at approximately two o’clock that afternoon he would pass from Monday to Tuesday, without experiencing a Monday night, losing a day as he crossed that International Date Line. But leaving that unavoidable anomaly out of the equation, it was a day pretty much like any of the others of recent date.
Late in the afternoon he enjoyed his lunch of roast chicken, bread and coffee — this being a day that allowed for bread — and he complemented it with both a banana and an orange, thanks to Captain Burns. The balance of the afternoon passed, and in its waning hours he watched the western horizon gradually dim as the light faded. There was no spectacular sunset this evening, merely the subtle transition from daylight to twilight, and then came darkness.
In the dark hours around midnight: a sharp report — almost like a pistol shot. It came as the trysail, flying from the foremast, suddenly blew wildly out of control, banging and whipping madly about, threatening to flog itself to shredded ribbons. What had happened? Down went the helm as he quickly brought Pacific head to wind, then through the wind to backwind the jib as he hauled the mainsheet in hard. Lashing the tiller to leeward, he crawled forward on the pitching deck. In the rain-filled blackness it took a few minutes to discover that the strap holding the foresail halyard block together had chaffed through and parted. The halyard had then whipped free, letting go the head of the sail and leaving it attached to the boat only by the tack and its starboard sheet.
Clinging now to the slippery foremast with one hand, and with the little boat being buffeted about in the strong seas, he wrestled the soggy canvas back aboard. It was cold, wet work — dangerous work at any time for a solo sailor — and made more dangerous still by the Stygian darkness. But within only a few minutes he had the errant sail bundled securely and tied to the mast. Now he crawled back to the cockpit where he eased himself down through the hatch. There would be no repair made tonight. That could be done tomorrow. More than anything else right now, he needed the rest.
Wednesday, 6:00 a.m. on December 13th. Of Tuesday, the 12th of December, there had been only 10 hours; this was due to his having crossed the 180th meridian. It was as if he had walked in on the day with over half of it already gone, and he made no entry in the log. Had he been going in the opposite direction, he would have lived some of Monday’s hours twice. This morning, while still hove-to, he sat on the deck repairing the halyard block, lashing it with small line.
Then, with the repair completed, he hoisted the regular foresail, released the tiller and loosed the mainsheet. The boat payed off as the sails filled, and by 7:30 he was away, heading west-southwest. It was a good morning, despite the overcast sky that had been with him now for the last four days. But the wind had softened some, and the sea, while still high, was considerably quieter. The six hours of rest, although imposed by misfortune, had done him a world of good. And at noon he calculated his location to be 178º, 43’ east; it was his first entry of an eastern longitude.
By seven o’clock that evening the sea had quieted some, and the wind, though remaining firm, had become pleasingly more manageable. Dinner had been roast salmon, fruit and coffee. As he had eaten, he had again felt his gratitude toward the people of Tropic Bird for having insisted that he take some of their cargo.
The ample food had left him in a relaxed mood, the environment was tranquil, and the boat was now riding smoothly across the dark waters. It was, then, a most startling surprise, when around 9:00 p.m., a singular heavy sea broke immediately under the rudder with shocking force.
From an historical perspective, what exactly occurred at that moment cannot be categorically stated. Though it is not uncommon for mid-ocean storm waves to reach heights of 23 feet — and in extreme conditions such waves can reach the height of 50 feet — Bernard Gilboy was not facing storm conditions. Nevertheless, maritime lore has for centuries told of the existence of vastly more massive waves, veritable monsters up to 100 feet in height — the height of a 12-story building — that against the prevailing current and wave direction, and often in perfectly clear weather, would appear without warning in mid-ocean.
Such waves were said to consist of an almost vertical wall of water, preceded by a trough so deep that it was referred to as a “hole in the sea.” Even a great ship, having encountered a wave of such magnitude, would be unlikely to survive the tremendous pressure exerted by the weight of the breaking water, and would almost certainly be sunk in a matter of seconds. Perhaps it was a wave of a similar sort that now overwhelmed Bernard Gilboy.
Having overtaken him with sinister silence, it suddenly caused little Pacific to be heaved up violently. As he felt her list heavily to starboard, he quickly he shifted the helm in a frantic effort to hold the boat against the unexpected pressure — to control a situation that would not be controlled. But it was useless. The rudder was shattered; the boat was being heaved over, and he was suddenly thrown backward into the obsidian deep.
Drowning was the immediate probability. He was more than acutely aware of it. Indeed, it was the first thought that came to his mind. He was fully dressed, and he was wearing the long, heavy oilskin coat as protection against the passing squalls. Now the weight of it all was dragging him down. In near panic he struggled, finally gaining the surface where he gasped for breath and found the boat fully inverted. He had to get out of the cumbersome clothing or he would surely die.
And he thought of his watch — that precious timepiece, which he needed to keep track of his position. Grasping the remains of the splintered rudder, he pulled himself up onto the boat’s bottom, up to where he quickly shed the coat and then struggled out of a heavy flannel shirt that wanted to adhere as if it were glued on. Wiping the excess water from his watch, he wrung out the shirt and then wrapped everything inside the oilskin coat.
Where was the drogue? He needed the drogue; pieces of line that he could use were attached to it. Was it still tied to the deck that was now below him? Could he dive below the upturned vessel and release it? Would he have enough air, working there in the watery blackness? Then he saw it, a darker bulk on the dark water. It had apparently come loose in the capsize, and was now floating at the end of its tether.
Lying on his belly, across the boat’s keel, he reached down, locked his chilled fingers around the line, and pulled the sodden mass of canvas and wood up onto the bottom of the boat. Taking one of the smaller lines from it, he tied the bundle of clothing tightly and then secured it to the drogue. Those items, particularly the watch, must be retained.
Copyright © 2006 by Sam Ivey