Experience: McCarthy and the Mouse

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Sitting at the helm in a light breeze, my arms crusted with a fine rime of salt, my skin so dry I’d lost my fingerprints, I heard a clatter and a curse from below. There were only three of us a thousand miles from shore and only one on watch at a time. Usually, the off watch lay asleep in their berth, exhausted, but McCarthy was awake and agitated.

“What the hell?” I yelled from the cockpit.

“That damned mouse.”

McCarthy had discovered the mouse several days after an unseasonable storm had driven us south from our northerly course into the stagnant air of the North Pacific High. Not the mouse, exactly, but evidence of the mouse. Small teeth had gnawed the corner of a box of macaroni and cheese. Then a bag of Chips Ahoy. Our stores were already thin. McCarthy wasn’t about to surrender anything more.

He appeared in the companionway holding a frying pan.

“You going to beat it to death?”

“I’d strangle it if I could get my fingers around its tiny little neck.” He had tried to bake it, propping the oven door open and leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, but the breadcrumbs disappeared before he could spring the trap. I think he lay in his bunk off-watch and imagined ways he might kill that mouse. People become obsessive after several weeks at sea.

We had sailed from Honokohau, a small harbor chipped from the lava shore on the big island of Hawaii, with a contract to deliver a Hunter 54 to San Francisco. She had been beached by a hurricane and spent a year in the yard being rebuilt. Stronger than ever, the yard boss assured us. But it wasn’t all that reassuring.

I don’t mean to disparage Hunters. Every boat has someone who loves it. Every boat has its proper place. But the proper place for a Hunter 54 isn’t confronting 20ft head seas in the vast, unforgiving reaches of the Pacific.

They were built during the craze for downwind sleds and not a lot of them. There was a brief production run between 1980 and 1983. On the docks, they were billed as “the poor man’s maxi.” Charles Beazell raced his in the TransPac three times. His best passage was an elapsed time of 11 days, 13 hours, 17 minutes.

I doubt Mr. Beazell sailed his own boat back from Hawaii. More likely he hired a delivery crew like us.

Into the Storm

The end of summer is the preferred time to return boats from Hawaii to the mainland. The Pacific, if not peaceful, is reasonably well behaved. Except when the gales of October come early.

We had sailed 500 miles north from Hawaii when a low-pressure system rolled down from the Bering Sea. The southerly wind gained strength. The waves heaved themselves out of the ocean like trolls rising from beneath a bridge.

There’s a very human tendency of sailors to overestimate the height of waves, especially when they’re in the trough looking at a menacing crest. These waves were big, big enough to have a defined topography. Ridges and ravines shaped their face and white water glissaded like an avalanche.

We sailed up the face and angled off the crests to avoid launching into empty air. Becalmed in the troughs, the boat staggered on the crests like a fighter on the ropes.

There is something about the inhuman violence of a storm at sea experienced from the deck of a small boat that defies rationalization. It becomes personalized. The wind felt like a malicious intelligence, clawing at us when we worked on deck, trying to pry us free of our handhold and our sanity. It became the enemy. An enemy we couldn’t hope to defeat, only survive.

A breaking wave can exert as much as one ton of pressure per square foot. A Hunter 54 isn’t built for that kind of abuse. We turned and ran before the storm carrying only the staysail, sheeted flat.

The boat’s design was fast off the wind. That wasn’t to our advantage. The risk was that we might surf down the face of one of those monstrous waves and bury our bow in the trough, pitchpoling end-over-end, or broach and present our beam to a breaking sea. Neither case was desirable, probably not even survivable.

We streamed bights of anchor rode to slow the boat. We steered to keep her square to the waves. At night, with the moon and stars swallowed by the storm, that became a problem.

The Hunter had known issues with its rudder. I had read about the cast-iron steering quadrant, lack of bearings and weakness in the bonding of the rudder post before taking the contract. Lying in the quarterberth while the watch on deck tried desperately to steer the boat, it sounded like a dozen alley cats tied by the tail and set on fire.

Exhausted, I still couldn’t sleep. If the rudder failed, we’d broach. I had no doubt we’d capsize in those seas and likely lose the rig. At best we’d be a dismasted hulk adrift without hope of contacting help. At best. There was no surviving the worst.

The weakness in the rudder felt like a weakness in myself, as if it were a bone in my own body, abraded, stressed, about to break. I ached all the time, bruised by the buffeting we took and drawn by lack of sleep. The deeper pain, though, was bone deep. I felt each wave strike the boat like a fist. I felt the hull flex around the aluminum compression frame intended to distribute the loads. I felt it each time the staysail luffed and then filled, shaking the entire boat like a rat in a terrier’s teeth.

Chronic anxiety grinds a person down until the hairline fractures become obvious cracks. For two days we ran before the storm. At some point, trying to keep the boat afloat, listening to the caterwauling rudder when I tried to sleep, I had an existential moment. I couldn’t maintain that level of anxiety and still function. Nonetheless, I needed to function, for the boat and the crew. I needed to appear confident, competent, in command so they wouldn’t lose faith. It was then that I also surrendered to the very real possibility that we might die on that boat.

We had done all we could. It still might not be enough. People die all the time in less dangerous places than the middle of the Pacific.

It was ironic. When I accepted my mortality, not as an abstract concept but something as near and as real as the next wave, the anxiety lifted. I wasn’t in control of my future. Not the next hour, not even the next minute. My job was to do the best I could at that moment. The consequences would echo into the future like waves outstripping the storm. But until the future arrived, there was nothing I could do about it.

We survived. The rudder held. The storm eventually passed over us. Then the lights went out.

Darkness Rising

After the storm’s interruption, we continued to run the engine an hour each day to recharge the batteries, but the charge continued to fail until eventually, we couldn’t start the engine. After that we sailed without running lights in that vast emptiness, saving the batteries for the binnacle light at night. Then that went dark, too.

Every sailor with experience learns to turn his face to the wind to gauge its direction, registering the subtle differences in pressure on either cheek even in a slight breeze. On a dark night, though, with the wind aft and no compass, it was nearly impossible to know when the wind had shifted, or the heading, before the boat gybed.

Traditionally, Pacific Islanders sailed vast distances without compass or instruments, steering by the stars, the flight of seabirds, the shivering air of thermals rising above islands, the green hue of a lagoon cast on the belly of a cloud or the feel of the swell generated by familiar winds.

Waves created by the persistent tradewinds were recognizable. Young navigators were taught to lay in the bilge with eyes closed and identify the swell patterns by the pitch, yaw and scend of the boat. They learned to map these patterns to the movement of their bodies, feeling for the order underlying chaos, navigating by kinetic knowledge. Experienced navigators would stand with legs braced, eyes closed and plumb the complex pattern of swells by the swing of their testicles. I couldn’t even keep the wind on the correct side of the stern.

Caress of the Albatross

The storm had driven us into the dead heart of the Pacific High. The breeze became slight to nonexistent. After the storm, we welcomed the calm, at first.

There is nothing so helpless as a sailboat becalmed. For days we rolled on an oily swell, the boom slating from side-to-side. The heat belowdecks was oppressive, the sun overhead a physical weight. The encircling horizon was uniform and featureless. Tufts of cloud sailed slowly across the sky, all at a uniform height above the sea.

I was alone on deck on the afternoon watch. Not even a catspaw ruffled the ocean’s surface. Sitting beside the helm, I dozed in the heat. In all that enormous solitude, something touched me.

Startled, I sat bolt upright. A shadow engulfed me and a presence, soft as a mother’s arms holding a child.

It felt like my ears were boxed by the wings of an angel. I’m not sure who was more startled, the albatross or me. My head must have been an inviting roost in all that empty ocean. Its wings enfolded me in an accidental caress. There was a steady whoosh of air with each wingbeat as the bird gained altitude, swept across the deck and over the railing. Then it was back at sea, depending upon its 12ft wingspan to keep it aloft, even while it slept.

The light air bedeviled us for days.

Peter, the other member of the crew, continued to tinker with the engine. He was more qualified than McCarthy or me. In the real world, he was a jet engine mechanic. He found a corroded portable generator onboard, a Honda. It looked misplaced, a stowaway like McCarthy’s mouse. There was also a can of Coleman lantern fuel.

I’d heard stories from my grandfather about starting a Model T with gasoline, then running it on cheaper kerosene during the Great Depression. I had never expected to try something similar. We hauled the Honda into the cockpit and stood ready to pitch the thing overboard if it caught fire. Peter primed it with lantern fuel. We exhausted ourselves pulling the starter cord until finally, it ignited. When it was hot enough, Peter poured in the diesel fuel. The Honda smoked and sputtered and shook like it was possessed, but it ran. After a few hours, there was enough charge in the batteries to start the main engine. We were about 250 miles offshore. A little over 150 miles later, we could smell freshwater on the wind. We didn’t turn the engine off until we berthed in Morro Bay, 250 miles south of San Francisco, our intended landfall.

When we docked, we were down to one package of spaghetti noodles and a can of stewed tomatoes. The only thing we wanted was ice cream. And McCarthy still hadn’t found his mouse. 

In addition to being a freelance writer and delivery captain, Charles Thrasher has also been a sailing instructor, private yacht captain and marine salvor

December 2018

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