Today was the type of day we want our mothers to believe we do not experience out here. The Pacific morphed from its usually inviting blue to a fierce shade of gray, and gale-force winds gnashed at the boat for 10 hours. Sheets of rain lashed our faces and wind whipped the crests off the waves adding brine to the torrent of rain. We expected the winds to increase and had preemptively double-reefed our main and genoa, but we had not anticipated a full-on gale to strike at 4 o’clock in the morning!
We were sailing at 100° degrees off the wind on a starboard tack in 30 to 40 knots, as a furious sea tore at The Red Thread, the tips of her greedy lace-gloved fingers attempting to tear our remaining kayak from the stanchions. Tethered in the cockpit, we looked upward as 10- to 12-foot waves careened toward us. King Neptune tossed our 30,000-pound boat about like a cork, and although heavily reefed, we found ourselves surfing down the waves at well over 7 knots. Waves sprayed the cockpit and rain poured from the sky. Brackish water sloshed around our feet, pruning our toes. The cockpit scupper couldn’t keep up with the pace of the deluge from the sky and sea.Twice, breaking waves careened over the beam and ripped our whisker pole free from its holster at the front of the mast, something that had never happened during our prior 7,000 miles of ocean sailing. It swung to-and-fro like a pocket watch until Neil scuttled to the foredeck to tie it down and prevent a third recurrence. Neither of us had slept much since the day prior and as the morning progressed, our exhaustion magnified. Passages inherently complicate sleep, as the need to maintain a 24-hour watch truncates sleep into three- to four-hour stints; five or six hours when conditions are benign. A particularly difficult night or day can disrupt an established rhythm, as both sets of hands are needed on deck more frequently and sleep degrades with the weather. Our priority, second only to managing the boat, became rotating in-and-out of the bunk for rest.
Stripped of most of my sodden clothing, I laid chilled and damp beneath a blanket on the settee trying in vain to fall asleep. I could feel tension pinching at the sides of my eyes, and I lay wishing that I could fall asleep and wake up elsewhere, a thought I had quite literally never experienced during our entire voyage. I imagined waking in Bruce and Alison’s spare room and walking barefoot across hardwood floors to their beautiful kitchen, where I could make a fancy cup of coffee that I would sip from an oversized ceramic mug. I would walk outside in the sunshine down their wooden dock, dangle my legs over serene lake water, and wait for their portly orange cat to take some interest in me. -Jessie
My eyes opened. I hadn’t fallen asleep. We were still in the midst of a gale, and Neil was hollering for me to get up top. Chaos had erupted. Shit. I grabbed my PFD and tether and dashed to the cockpit to find Neil clutching a tangled mess of sunbrella and metal—pieces of the bimini that provides shade and rain protection over our cockpit—and shouting at me to unzip the fabric from the bimini struts. Shouted communication above the howling winds and swift teamwork quickly downgraded the situation from an urgent disaster to just a frustrating pain in the ass.
An aggressive gust had snapped the two pieces of webbing that secure our bimini canvas to the stern railing and turned the large tent of canvas into a sail, wrenching apart the connection points between the stainless-steel rods that provide the skeleton for the structure. The final reading Neil saw on the anemometer before the bimini tried to abandon ship was 45-knots (i.e., 50+ mph), a force that will snap trees and lead to power outages on land! As hastily as I could, I scurried about the cockpit in my underwear (having shed my soaked foulies to “rest”), yanking at the 10 zippers that hold the canvas in place, while Neil kept the whole mess from flying off the boat entirely. That was the last time I attempted to sleep without being dressed properly to help manage whatever crisis might emerge next! The storm wore on, with the fullness of the sky painted in ominous shades of gray that made it feel as if it was endless. Until the first trace of blue appeared in the southwestern sky, perhaps the only promise that the storm would end eventually were the tiny petrel birds that danced between the waves. Surely those tenacious little birds know that gales come and go.
Ultimately, we three—Neil, The Red Thread, and me—handled the gale well, as nerve-wracking as it was. We were reminded that Mother Nature’s behavior is not bound by weather forecasts, and being prepared for more severe conditions than projected will never be regretted.
I recounted this experience at 5 am, some hours after the gale began to abate. The salty, soggy disarray of clothing and wet surfaces down below had been mostly addressed. Stars were twinkling, clouds were few, and the full moon was illuminating the surface of a very manageable sea. A lovely 15 knots of breeze was blowing from the west, unfortunately the precise the direction we needed to go. With sadness (and more than a little whining on my part), we concluded sailing for Pitcairn would not be safe. There was another front brewing—yes, a second gale on its way—and even if we could sail a tight enough course to reach Pitcairn, 4-meter swells would make anchoring and going ashore impossible. Nonetheless, disappointment was [at least for the moment] outshone by the gratitude we felt for being dry, comfortable, and a bit more rested in the aftermath of the storm.