Attempting to sail around the world was my father’s idea. Although we did not get quite that far, we did own a 42 foot sloop for 3 ˝ years and sailed up and down the East Coast three times. We sailed to the Virgin Islands once and attempted to sail there a second time but ran into trouble on the way. This is that story.
We set sail from Beaufort, North Carolina in early March 1990. Accompanying Pop (my father) and I was a friend from high school, Tim Cordier, who knew a bit about sailing and would put his life in my hands. Well, he did on this trip at least. The plan was to head east, cross over the Gulf Stream, and then head South/Southeast using only a sexton and dead reckoning to navigate. Dead reckoning means calculating your location using your course, speed, and time traveled to estimate your location, remember, inexpensive GPS was still years away. The first two days of sailing were uneventful, but by the third day we had reached the Bermuda Triangle and things got interesting. Being in the Bermuda Triangle had nothing to do with what happened next, it just makes the story more entertaining.
The wind started to kick it up, around noontime we really had to sit up and take notice. The wind gauge was at the farthest it would go—65 knots---so I don’t know really how fast the wind was. On the water, when there is a strong wind, there are big waves. We measured the wave height using our mast. The masthead was 69 feet above the water line and the waves were about half way up, that put the waves at about 35 feet high. All of this was not too much of a problem; we just had to make some adjustments to the boat. The first job was reefing in the mainsail, which meant that Tim and I needed to balance on deck while tying down the lower three quarters of sail to the boom to make it smaller. Then Pop had a few good scares when Tim and I needed to go out on the very bow of the boat to change the forward sail to the storm jib. We did it all one handed. There’s an old saily saying, "One hand for the boat, one hand for your life," and we needed that second hand to hang on for dear life. The bow of the boat would duck under the waves a good five feet and engulf us. We would get part of the sail unhooked and brace ourselves for the next wave until the first sail was off and then repeated the procedure to put the other sail on.
We were at this for at least a half hour. Our saving grace was that it was warm; we were just in our shorts and t-shirts. (Not that I would like to do it again but at the time it was rather exciting and needed to be done.) After the storm jib was set and the mainsail was reefed as small as it would go, the boat was sailing well. We hadn’t had a chance to eat all day and by now it was getting dark. I took the first shift, on deck, while Pop and Tim tried to get some sleep. For the next 2-3 hours it was amazing being alone at the helm in this weather. The boat was sailing great and when we’d come down off a really big wave the boat had deep vibrations pulsating throughout the whole vessel, "Wow."
Then the real trouble began. Tim came up from below saying it smelled of diesel fuel. I was hoping that just one of the five-gallon spare tanks was the culprit, but I found that not to be the case. To get at the main fuel tank I needed to dismantle the aft berth. I discovered in the process that the main tank had a crack in the seam and was slowly leaking into the bilge. The tank would need to be empted and the bilge cleaned out, to allow us to be below deck without breathing the fumes. Pop and Tim decided to breathe fresh air, staying busy on deck sailing the boat and pumping the bulge.
So there I was in the closed up cabin bouncing around breathing diesel fumes. If the hatch was open even one inch to let in fresh air, water would pour in from the waves crashing on to the deck. You get the picture. Although I don’t remember ever being sea sick before this, it was inevitable now. Tim came down to help but lasted only five minutes. While running up the companion way he puked on my head. I was already a drowned seasick rat all slimed up with diesel fuel bilge scum. Heck, a little puke did not matter! I must have been down there for four hours siphoning the 50-gallon tank out. I was pumping the fuel into one of the five-gallon tanks and carrying it up on deck to toss it overboard. I apologize to all the fish in the sea but I had no place to store it. Next I needed to clean up the mess in the bilge, diesel slime was everywhere!
I managed to get the cabin semi-clean and there was no more fuel in the main tank to make it a mess again. By now, it must have been three in the morning and the wind was still blowing hard. I was dead tired; Pop and Tim weren’t fairing much better. I told them about a sailing trick, called heaving to, I had read about in a magazine. I had only practiced this in light wind and this was going to be the real thing. The planned maneuver is back winding the jib, pulling in the mainsail as close as possible and setting the rudder so the boat heads almost straight into the wind and the waves. If the boat is designed well, it will hold its course just off the wind and the waves without any one needing to be on deck. We were hanging out with the sails set in this way watching the lightening approach from the distance.