Experience: Wild Ride

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Illustration by Jan Adkins

Illustration by Jan Adkins

My Hartley 38, Moet, is pounding into massive Pacific Ocean seas. One week of continuous storm conditions has taken me 700 miles south of Fiji, heading for New Zealand. Every few seconds the bow lifts out of the water and hangs in midair for a moment while I tense my muscles, holding on in my bunk. Then gravity wins and 12 tons of sailing yacht falls into the next oncoming wave. I hold my breath. Kla-bam! The boat shudders, and I breathe out. While the mast is still shaking, the boat picks up momentum, just to do it all over again, day and night, me terrified, not sleeping, listening, praying, looking at the rig, the mast, the sails. Listening to the sounds.

I know those sounds and the way the boat moves. They tell me all I need to know to sail the boat from down below, with my eyes closed, even. If I hear a slight slapping of a line on deck or the sound of a luffing jib, I get up, clamber out on deck and adjust that line, pull in the mainsheet a little or adjust the helm. Just before I jump back down below, I look around for lights of other ships, peering into the black night. All I see, though, are massive walls with big breaking crests, one after the other. Beautiful, awesome power. I look around for ships’ lights and at the clouds racing past the moon, menacing. A stage set for a horror movie. Only this is not make believe. There is no one here to witness. I am utterly alone, and if I die here nobody would know it.

My hand is on the mainhatch. I time the opening and quickly jump in, slamming it shut before the next wave hits. Inside it’s damp and cold, wet bedding waiting for me. I am in a floating coffin, pressed into the raging sea by a big hand that never lets go. A cheerless place. Nonetheless, somewhere beyond my fears, the fears I am trying to ignore, I am loving this!

Lying in my bunk, I resume my listening watch. I hear the endless creaking, the moan of the wind, the sounds of 12 tons of boat pounding through a stormy ocean. It’s all familiar. Then, just as I am drifting off to sleep, I hear it...like a bell, clanging. Clang, clang, clang! It’s a new sound, one I’ve never heard before! All my suppressed terror rises to the surface again, until I am gasping from it. I press my eyes closed, listening, gathering my strength, my self-control. I need to go out on deck again. I also know it’s going to be bad, really bad. For seven days now I have been thinking, “I’ll be alright, as long as nothing breaks!” And now, something is definitely broken...

I jump up, fight my way outside and shine my flashlight toward the sound—Clang clang, clang! Then I see it. The leeward cap shroud has detached itself from the spreader tip and is now whacking against the spreader. Up close, it continues to sound just like a bell, summoning me to the most dangerous and scary thing I have ever had to do in all my life.

My boat has single spreaders and a 44ft-high mast. The wind is blowing 45 knots, and I have up a deep-reefed main and a storm jib. The leeward shroud has apparently slackened so much from the pressure on the other side of the rig it has popped out of its receptacle. Now I will have to climb the mast, alone and at night, to save not only the rig but most likely, my life. If I don’t, the rig will surely go overboard. I need to save that rig. I need to do it now! “It’s only halfway,” I tell myself. “You don’t even have to go all the way. You can do this. You must do this! Ok, relax, relax, just breathe, think.”

Suddenly, almost impulsively, between two waves I jump up, clawing my way onto the boom, climbing the mast. Thank god I have mast steps! The higher I get, the more pendulum motion the mast has. At the spreaders, a good 25ft above the deck, I feel like an insect on the end of a stick with something alive and malevolent trying to flick me off. At each impact, when the bow hits the next wave, all I can do is hold on with all my might. I try to stretch out my foot toward the stay to push it back in place. Damn, it’s much farther than I thought! I stretch some more, but it’s no use. It’s way too far, I’ll never reach it this way. I need some kind of stick.

Back on deck, I stand shaking, soaking wet and freezing cold. I have a 4ft-long steel scaffolding pipe aboard that I use as a wrench extension to tension up my shrouds, and I now take this pipe and frantically cut a groove in the end. My plan is to hook the shroud into this slot and then push it back into place. It takes maybe 15 minutes to cut the slot. The entire time I expect the mast to break at any moment. I lash a length of line to the pipe, attach the other end to my sailing harness and, shaking with fear, make my way back out on deck. Clang, clang, clang! goes the stay. This looks impossible, like threading a needle on a roller coaster. I have to try, really try, but seriously, I don’t think it can actually be done. I am thinking this may be the end, but also can’t think of any other options. I am sitting by the mast now, both arms around it, holding on in a torrent of water every time the boat submerges into a wave, crying like a little boy. I’m so scared.

“You have to do this, you just have to do it. Do it now and finish it. Come on, come on, do it! GO!” I am now yelling this out loud as I get to my feet again, jump up on the boom and start climbing the mast, slowly, one step up after each pounding, until I have one arm over the spreader. The steel pole is only just long enough if I hold it by its end, and it’s super heavy! One moment I’m trying to engage the shroud in the groove. The next I’m holding on for dear life as the boat comes to a near stop in the next wave. I try and try, but don’t even come close to touching the shroud. Finally, suddenly, accidentally really, I get it. I need to keep pushing so it won’t fall off again, but it does. I need to rest for a few minutes, giving my cramping arm muscles some rest. I try again, and, yes, I, at last, I hook the shroud after the third wave. “Hold, hold now! Don’t let it slip off again!” I push hard and get the shroud up to where it’s only an inch from the end of the spreader. Every time the boat pounds into a wave the mast bends, and the shroud slackens just a little more. It’s this moment of slack that I need to bridge that extra inch. Suddenly I get it around the shroud! “It’s on the other side, it’s possible!” I push again, no longer able to hold on with both hands at the moment of impact because that’s when I need to push. Three times more it goes right past the receptacle at the end of the spreader. I am now losing all my strength, and my arm muscles are cramping up again.

“One more time! You must get it in now!” And as the boat pounds into the next wave I lean in to push, and this time, for a moment at least, I have complete control. Time seems to slow down, and just as the shroud flies past the end of the spreader I pull the pole back and the shroud clicks into place. A split second later, I realize the bell-ringing clanging has finally stopped.

Exhausted, I drop the scaffolding pole. As I do so my hastily tied clove hitch on the end of the lanyard lets go, and I watch it disappear into the foaming ocean with a tiny splash. “That could be me,” I think, “just a tiny splash, straight down”.

Back on deck I push my feet against the shroud to keep tension on it, preventing it from flipping out again. I am literally crying from relief, shaking from cold and the adrenalin racing through my veins. I grab a rope and winch handle and rig a Spanish tackle between the shroud and the coachroof handrail to keep it tight. Maybe when things calm down I will try to tension the shrouds. As I go to clip myself onto the jackline to make my way back to the cockpit I realize that all this time I have not been clipped in! Back in the saloon I collapse on the sole. Everything hurts. My hands are bleeding, and the insides of my legs are badly bruised. I have cuts all over my face from my head banging into the mast. Still, it’s the best feeling ever, it’s done! The boat keeps pounding on, every wave washing over the deck. I climb into my bunk and sleep overcomes me. 

Frans Huber, his wife, Sylvia, and their two sons live aboard their current boat, a 48ft Farr design called Sanguind, in Lyttleton on the south island of New Zealand.

October 2019

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