By Tina Dreffin
Cruise Story Gold winner of the Twelfth Annual Solas Awards
I awakened to someone caressing my foot. It was my husband Peter, announcing my 2 A.M. dogwatch—the time period for me to steer our sailboat at sea, offshore Namibia along the west coast of Africa.
When Peter turned around to head back on deck, I luxuriated beneath the covers. A low, eerie sound of ooooohm-hummmmm reverberated through the hull, like that of a pipe organ. The eerie call was the wind in the rigging as the air filled the hollow boom. Rushing waves echoed through the hulls, sounding like volumes of cascading water.
I stumbled into the main salon, peeled open one sliding glass door a short way, and stuck my head through the opening.
“What’s it like out there?” I asked Peter, who was struggling with the helm. “It sounds wild!”
“We’re in a Force 8, a fresh gale. Waves are three meters. Gear up tight.” Peter shouted back in a muffled tone.
We exchanged a single glance of knowing that left me tense and nervous.
I timed my entry into the cockpit by waiting for a lull in the wind so that I could pull apart the heavy set of doors. After shutting them behind me, I stood mute as I took in the scene before me.
Peter had attached himself to the helm-seat by a thick rope and was clad in neon-yellow gear. Around me, huge black seas thundered, hitting us broadside, battering our little ship. Each time a wave struck from astern, the hulls shuddered and lifted up, moving away from the swell.
Now and then, a gnarly wave broke over the rails, sending a river of seawater down the leeward side, ending in a swirling froth at the stern. I took a deep breath for inner calm and gagged as misty seawater assaulted my throat. I grabbed my neck.
Peter raised the binoculars and slowly swept the jagged horizon. Only a sliver of moon infrequently peeked through bruised skies, bathing crests of waves.
“Anything I need to know?” The cacophony of raging surf ate my words, but Peter got the gist. It was customary to give a brief report when handing over the watch to the fresh crew.
“Maintain tight control of the helm. Make certain the waves hit on the aft quarter. Don’t let her rear up and turn into the wind, or else you’ll be broadside of the waves,” he shouted. “Holler at any time if you need me. I’ll be right in the main salon on the settee.”
After Peter untied himself from the helm seat, I flung myself into it before the winds could rip me away. Peter quickly fastened the rope around me.
“Keep the main salon doors closed. They’re locked from inside to avoid flying open when the boat cants.” His lips moved, but I could only hear a few words and guessed at the rest. Doors. Locked.
We balanced against the violent pitch and roll of the cockpit as he gripped the helm chair. He smiled, edges of exhaustion smoothing away at his cheeks and corners of his mouth. Ever the vigilant Captain, sleep for him on passage was slow and hard in coming. Camped out in the main salon, he was always on call.
Before turning around, Peter kissed me, and then was gone.
Once setting the auto-pilot to self-steer, I took up the binoculars to scan the horizon. Where light blinked in the peaks of waves, my pulse leaped. With a lightening in my stomach, I realized it was the shimmery glow of bioluminescence. Reaching for the flashlight, I shone it forward. On the foredeck was a mere diaper of a jib sail set and the main was triple reefed. I scanned to the right: flying fish darted out of waves, gliding off into the raging void. One landed on deck and flopped. It joined the group of others that studded the trampolines. Breakfast—if the winds didn’t get them first.
I released the auto-pilot to enable self-steering and settled in for a long night. The wind tore at my rubber jacket and pushed waves even higher, but Scud’s wide-flared bows were cleverly designed to cleave them apart. She ran like a bull, sleek and fast, taking the swells on her starboard quarter most of the time. When the swells hit from astern, she flew down each crest in an explosion of white foam with rooster-tails shooting off twin sterns. Landing in the trough, blue-water pushed through the trampolines on the foredeck, but Scud twisted and broke free, jerking side-to-side to steady herself, rising, ready for the next hit. Each time it seemed that she may not rise to meet the cliff of water that bore down on her, but Scud proved her integrity by rising each time.
The water was an inky black under the thick cloud cover. Together as a family we had lived through Caribbean hurricanes, but I had never seen water like this: so menacing and cruel. It glittered in iridescent blackness, moaned and growled in an ugly display of anger.
In the deep valleys between the crests, the wind was blanketed, so we fell into an unnatural stillness. An eerie silence enhanced the menace of this towering slope of water that would soon tumble upon us. In the trough, Scud heeled and threw her head up, climbing the slope in a gut-swooping lift that buckled my knees. As she went up, the cockpit tilted back, and a sliver of the moon filled the view from the cockpit with a vista of the low scudding cloud.
The wind tore at the crest of a wave ahead of her, ripping it away like downy feathers from a burst pillow, splattering custard-thick spume against the armored glass of the windows. Scud drove her wide bows and nosed into it, carving fat wedges of racing blue over her head and twisting violently at jarring impact. At the crest, she dropped over, surfing down and breaking out to fall free to repeat the cycle again.
I remained wedged into the helm-seat, swaying like a camel-driver to the thrust of the sea, turning aft every few minutes to check the swell astern. Having come to grasp the movement of the boat, I reached for the coffee thermos, but it lay just out of grasp. I watched in dismay as the thermos whirled about the cockpit floor, bobbing in seawater.
Man, I needed a caffeine fix so bad: it would be a long and lonely two hours at the helm without its moral support. I judged the next towering swell, set the helm to auto-pilot, and with half a dozen quick moves untied the rope that imprisoned me. I crossed the span of the cockpit in those fleeting moments while Scud steadied in a trough.
A roar resounded so deafeningly loud that I stopped dead in my tracks and peered up. A colossal wave was climbing towards the heavens. It began to barrel down upon us as it clawed at the stern with frenetic energy. We were in its path while stuck in the bottom of an enormous abyss into which we had helplessly fallen. I felt like a doe, rigid in place from the oncoming headlights of a racing train.
The wave looked to be fifteen-feet high. If the hole closed too soon, the force of the breaking wave would bury us completely. My stomach turned to ice and struck me into silence. An uncomfortable premonition of terror invaded my senses.
A rogue wave was as lethal as a predator in ambush. Hidden by the dark and turbulent waters, it was a dead sailor’s anecdote of lore.
There was no time to get back into the helm-seat. I wedged myself in behind the cockpit table, splayed tightened limbs against surfaces, and steeled for impact.
In slow motion, the rogue wave curled over the boat. My mouth opened with an anguished scream that grew mute against the cacophonous roar and impending doom.
The giant wave crashed on top of me, crushing my ribcage and squeezing breath from my lungs. I lay buried in its death-like grip as seawater pounded my body. Seawater flooded around me, pooling and swirling in the cockpit.
The demon had knocked me off my feet, leaving me in a tangle of spiraling limbs in swirling waters. As the wave began its rapid descent, water eddied like mini tornadoes, creating a fierce momentum all of its own. The devil was receding fast, and taking me with it.
I clawed at space as motor neurons collided in my brain. I felt fear as never before. It segued into terror as I fought against the pull of the wave.
When at last I found my feet, I lurched for the doors in churning waters and hurled my body against them.
Locked from inside. No! A blood curdling scream flew from my throat. I pounded the doors with clinched fists like a battering ram, begging for life.
“Help! Let me in! Let me in!”
They all came to me like flying angels in the night: Peter first, then Adam and Warren, our teenaged sons. Sam and Gary, crewmembers, ran up from below as well, eyes wide with concern.
They hurled open the doors. Seawater pooled into the main salon. I tumbled into Peter’s arms. He slammed the doors behind me.
“Dear God! I was nearly swept overboard,” I wailed, shaking violently.
I was cold and had come undone; beaten, broken, and tired to the very depths of my soul. I wanted to go into my cabin, crawl under a blanket, and sleep—for a very long time. I choked up, feeling defeated. I wanted to give up.
“How did it happen?” they chorused in unison. Their words of alarm for my safety tumbled out.
“Rogue wave!” I muttered breathlessly.
“It’s okay,” Peter said. “I’ll take your dogwatch.”
Adam turned to face Peter. “No, Dad. You just got off watch. It’s my go. I’ll take Mom’s watch. It’s too rough out there for her.”
Peter looked haggard. Beneath his eyes were deep ridges, the color of slate and large enough to hold a small pearl. I felt my knees buckle under the weight of my despair and had the urge to vomit as nausea rose in my throat. I swayed, and Peter drew me in closer.
I wanted to cry but held back, not wanting to expose my frailty amongst these big men-boys. Too rough for me? Had I had lost my inner battle with the sea…with myself? I had never whined for sympathy in my life. Fighting back waves of queasiness, I rapidly summed up my options.
I had come on this outlandish adventure in search of a new experience. No, I had not been mentally prepared for the dangers, but I still felt a stir of pride and a sense of accomplishment in having gone this far.
In a slow heartbeat, the rumination diminished and slowly—in time—my despair lessened. Panic eased. Abruptly, an outrageous feeling overcame me. I felt the rush that extreme adventure brought, even in the midst of adversity. I began to laugh hysterically, releasing all the pent-up energy and fear stored over the last several weeks.
The laughter came in liquid fire bursts like that of an assault rifle. It sounded strange in my voice. Who was this woman of adventure, laughing uproariously after facing the threat of death?
Confused by my strange outburst, the guys stared at me with incredulity, their mouths like black holes against the green-glow of electronic screens nearby. The glow gave them a bilious cast, teeth blackened as if they were Halloween party-goers. They watched me in tense, electric silence.
“I’m going back out,” I said with a determined voice. Suddenly my mind felt clearer, and I was thinking sharply. “I won’t be beaten.”
Turning around, I collected the wayward thermos of coffee and climbed back on my camel, closing the double doors behind me. When I heard the click of the lock, it sounded like the marching bell to freedom.
I had risen to a new, higher place where I intended to stay. I may stumble along the way again in the future, but I was happy in knowing I would arise again and start over.
Tina Dreffin‘s stories and photographs have been published in many magazines, including Cruising World, SAIL, International Living, Multihulls Magazine, Multihull Sailor, and the Caribbean Compass. She has also had work included in the anthology The Best of the Caribbean Compass. Dreffin reared two sons aboard a boat, and in 2005, she took off with her beau and their two teenaged sons to circle the globe. Dreffin’s travels aren’t limited to the sea. She and her family have traveled the world by train, donkey, horseback, bicycle, and plane. Dreffin hosts presentations of her photography and works as a motivational speaker, encouraging families to travel with their children, put down their devices, and get out to explore.