John Kretschmer's Darkest Hour at Sea

Over his three decades of ocean voyaging, author John Kretschmer has been in more than his fair share of heavy weather. In this excerpt from his new book, Sailing a Serious Ocean—Sailboats, Storms, Stories and Lessons Learned from 30 Years at Sea, he looks back at his darkest hour at sea
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Illustration by Michael Penick

Illustration by Michael Penick

Although I have been known to plead for Neptune’s mercy during the darkest moments of a ferocious storm, I am essentially a fundamentalist when it comes to science. I am a devotee of deductive reasoning and an unabashed supporter of the scientific method. Still, I confess that I am just a tiny bit skeptical of the current theory that fleets of rogue waves are marauding across oceans like Mongolian hordes, taking aim at helpless vessels and rearing up from otherwise unruffled seas to flatten them like flounder. It seems that every destructive wave is at once labeled “rogue,” just as every boating accident occurs in “shark-infested waters.”

I have spent a good portion of the last 30 years plying the oceans in various small sailboats. I have crisscrossed the Atlantic, made my way to Cape Horn and back, and have sailed thousands of miles in the Pacific. I’ve slogged through countless gales and some severe storms, and even survived two hurricanes. And maybe I have encountered rogue waves—maybe, probably, almost certainly, but I can’t be sure. While some nasty walls of water have definitely rocked my world, most of the monstrous combers I’ve seen were the offspring of deep ocean storms. I know this type of inductive reasoning is usually faulty, as if my experience alone proves that rogues are rare, but you’d have to think that I am a good candidate for getting clobbered by random over-sized waves.

Modern satellite sensors have revealed that rogue waves are more common than previously thought and, despite my misgivings, might explain many mysterious ship disappearances. In The Power of the Sea, my friend Bruce Parker writes, “Rogue waves are terrifying.” But he offers real proof that “we are close to being able to predict when they’ll occur.” I hope he’s right, but I am not sure a prediction model would have helped us avoid one particular wave on a storm-tossed North Atlantic two Novembers ago. I am sure, however, that one wave, a man among boys, most definitely a rogue-ish wave, came within a razor’s edge of destroying my ability to take people to sea and permanently altering my primal connection to the ocean that has defined my life.

We were bound from Nova Scotia for Fort Lauderdale by way of Bermuda. A series of southerly gales and a fast-moving hurricane had persuaded us to delay our departure. My training passages run on a tight schedule that doesn’t always wash with the vagaries of the North Atlantic. Frustrated and anxious to get underway, I was painfully aware that we would have to skip Bermuda. Quetzal was hunkered down, lashed to the commercial fishing dock in Shelburne near the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia, with enough lines out to rig a three-masted barque. A Force 11 nor’easter was forecast to rake the Canadian Maritimes, and Shelburne was in the storm’s crosshairs.

Slashing horizontal streaks of rain peppered the deck like warning shots preceding the strongest gusts. Quetzal, my Kaufman 47 sloop, heeled 30 degrees one way and then the other. The anemometer had blown off the masthead, so we couldn’t track the wind strength. There were seven of us aboard and we were snug in the main saloon. I made a hearty spaghetti dinner, and we calmed our nerves with a couple of bottles of red wine. The furious pitch of the wind was beautiful. I have an almost morbid fascination with nature at its angriest—it seems to shake the hubris out of me and leaves me feeling vulnerable and very much alive.

In three decades of voyaging, the author has sailed through countless gales, many storms and even the occasional hurricane

In three decades of voyaging, the author has sailed through countless gales, many storms and even the occasional hurricane

The wind dropped at some point in the night, and at first light we extricated ourselves from our web of cordage and got underway. Once again the forecast was not favorable for heading south, but everybody was in favor of sailing someplace, anyplace—and we were all weary of being shackled by prognostication. This was the “heavy-weather passage,” after all. So we headed west, toward Cape Cod, which lay 270 miles and two days of hard sailing away. Our new plan was to regroup there and snag the first decent weather window to sail directly to Fort Lauderdale.

When a southwest gale caught us just off Georges Bank, we decided to heave-to. Giorgio, Kevin and Ric tied the third reef in the main, and the rest of us hoisted and trimmed the staysail. Deep-keeled and low-slung, Quetzal heaves-to naturally, and eight hours later we were underway, racing another nor’easter to the coast. We won, but not by much, and as the storm raged we anchored off Provincetown, near the tip of Cape Cod, the very first spot where the Pilgrims landed. We stood watch all night, and miraculously the anchor held.

Two small Coast Guard cutters in nearby Chatham were not as lucky. They were stove in by breaking waves and had to be rescued by other Coast Guard vessels. The next morning we had a favorable wind at last, an Arctic blast dead out of the north. We set a course south for the first time in a week.

We shot past Martha’s Vineyard into the offshore waters south of New England. With just a poled-out headsail, we routinely punched out double digits on the GPS. The sailing was exhilarating, and I was in no mood to slow down. We had an appointment with the great Atlantic conveyor belt, the Gulf Stream. But the Stream is not just an ocean current; it is a barrier when approached from the north in heavy weather, and you breach it at your peril.

We aimed for the narrowest band of the current, a 45-mile swath of cobalt sea, approximately 300 miles off the coast of Maryland. I had chosen this conduit carefully, because the Gulf Stream not only shifts position as it rambles toward the Old World, but varies in width as well. At a bulge just east of our waypoint, the Stream was more than 100 miles wide. The wind was clocking to the northeast, which meant that wind and current would be on a direct collision course. The Atlantic was already roiled, having been stirred up by a week of gales and a meandering hurricane. It didn’t take a marine physicist to predict that conditions in the Gulf Stream would be brutal, and that the wind shift would only make things worse. Naturally, I wanted to cross the Stream as quickly as possible. Aiming for the narrowest bit seemed to make perfect sense.

Ric and Diane were on watch as we approached the Stream’s northern edge of the Gulf Stream. Daylight was just creeping above the horizon. Within minutes the conditions changed from moderately rough to extremely rough. Ric, although relatively inexperienced as a helmsman, especially in heavy weather, was doing a fine job of steering Quetzal down the face of steep and occasionally breaking seas. Diane was sitting in the cockpit, facing aft and watching Ric and the huge waves piling up astern. Both were harnessed to the boat. They were cold and tired, but seemed strangely satisfied and were looking forward to the end of their watch in less than an hour. Ric and Diane had been making plans to buy a cruising boat, ditch their land lives and take up full-time cruising. They had signed aboard for precisely this exact moment, to get a taste of heavy weather and learn how to cope with a cruel sea.

Here we go again. The author tucks in a reef aboard Quetzal in a rising gale

Here we go again. The author tucks in a reef aboard Quetzal in a rising gale

The ride had become noticeably different, and even from below I knew that Quetzal was now in a danger zone. I was anxious to get on deck. I slid the companionway back and felt the a rush of warm air, a signature of the Gulf Stream. I slammed the hatch behind me and stepped into the cockpit. I heard the wave before I saw it. It crested with a deep-throated roar.

Looking up, I saw the monster curling above the stern. It occupied most of my field of vision—it was the largest wave I had ever seen. It was a moment of complete clarity, and time slowed down as the wave began to break. I knew we were going to be crushed, and I wondered, coldly, objectively, if we would survive. I instinctively clutched the support rail on the side of the companionway and shouted, “Hold on.”

A torrent of salt water swallowed us in a frothy rush. The bimini and solar panel frame crashed down on Ric, flattening him behind the wheel. Quetzal skidded out of control. At the base of the wave she began to list hard to starboard. She was going over; her mast was in the water. “Hold on, hold on, hold on,” I screamed stupidly, as if they we could do anything else. Bracing for a broach and full roll, I pinned myself against the coachroof. But Quetzal didn’t go over, didn’t broach. Somehow she regained her footing, straightened up, then dug her deep keel into the hissing foam and refused to budge.

I was stunned and enormously relieved to see Diane. She was right where she’d been before the wave hit. What force, what power, what magic had held her in place? She looked at me with an expression I’ll never forget. She was bewildered, but not afraid, as if she knew she’d just experienced something that would frame the rest of her life. Ric was also okay, although he was unable to move, pinned down by debris. He even managed a smile. I briefly wondered how the crew below had fared. But time was not standing still; it just seemed that way. Quetzal was wallowing.

Another wave broke across her beam and flowed through the cockpit. It was not a massive wave, but it didn’t matter. It swept Diane away. I watched with horror and stunned disbelief as the wave carried her aft. I leaped after her. She was already most of the way off the boat when the backs of her legs snagged the upper lifeline. A split second later I had a death grip on her thighs. I tried to drag her back into the boat, but I couldn’t overcome the force of the water. Ric, who had to watch this appalling spectacle helplessly, reached out for her as he desperately tried to free himself.

I screamed at Diane. “Get back in this boat. You’re not going anywhere.” But I didn’t believe it. Pulling with all my strength, I tried to lift her back aboard. But I failed. My world was crashing. For nearly a decade Quetzal and I had carried new sailors across calm and calamitous seas. But now the future was suspended by a lifeline and a couple of shackles, a particle of time. I knew that if Diane was washed away, I was going with her, and it would all be over. Once again it seemed like time had stopped. Even today I can close my eyes and see Diane peering out from the hood pulled tight around her face. I can see the water rushing by the boat, trying to pull her away. I can hear myself screaming at her and at the ocean.

But Diane would turn out to be the lucky one that day. My voice was fading along with my strength. Her inflatable lifejacket was keeping her head just above water, and she had a death grip on the same lifeline that her legs were hooked around. We were fighting each other. Each breaking wave hissing by the boat completely submerged her and terrified me.

Help me, Quetzal, I thought to myself. Do something. As if the boat had to rescue me once again. It had only been a minute, maybe two, but it seemed like Diane had been suspended in this limbo, not quite on board and not quite overboard, forever. I was afraid to let go of her legs and reposition myself for better leverage. She was not letting go of the lifeline. Period.

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My hoarse cries finally reached the crew below, and Kevin emerged from the shambles of the interior as he struggled into his foul weather gear. The look on his face described better than words the wild conditions and battered cockpit. At the same time, Ric at last extricated himself from the wreckage of the bimini. With help from a wave that momentarily floated Diane most of the way out of the water, the three of us managed to lift her back on the boat.

Sailing a Serious Ocean—Sailboats, Storms, Stories and Lessons Learned from 30 Years at Sea is published by International Marine. $24, yayablues.com

Photos courtesy of John Kretschmer

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