By Lois Hofmann
Cruisers experience a night of sheer terror while sailing off the Colombian coast.
Howling like a pack of ravenous wolves, the insatiable wind chases Pacific Bliss through the churning seas off the lawless Colombia coast. With a maddening roar, it claws through the rolled-up bimini shades surrounding the cockpit, tearing fasteners and ripping them loose. The straps flail wildly against the hardtop, adding to the pandemonium. The seat cushions come alive like demented sea monsters, flopping up and down and straining at their snaps. Stoic Richard, our crew, controls the helm, helping our autopilot maintain some semblance of control. Captain Gunter, my husband, struggles to stand upright, inching forward during the pauses (if you can call them that) between each violent gust. I imagine those loosened straps gouging his eyes, the beginning of a downhill slide from chaos to catastrophe, as one problem leads into another and eventually we are short crew and into a survival situation—our own Perfect Storm.
Inside the salon with my friend Phyllis, Richard’s wife, I stare at the display at the nav station. Gusts to Force 10! My stomach clenches like the jaws of a shark. My tongue turns into cotton. There are only 12 wind states, Force 12 being a hurricane. A 43-foot catamaran can’t survive a hurricane.
I pry open the sliding Plexiglas door to the cockpit to see what I can do to help.
Gunter takes charge, motioning me out of the way. Calm and determined, he yanks off each of the three bimini shades, then turns to me and mouths, “Come here.”
Together we release the cushions one by one and throw them into the salon. I feel better doing something. Finally, we can hear each other. I point to the dagger boards that stand like sentinels midway on each hull. “You raised them so thatPacific Bliss can surf?”
Gunter nods, grim-faced. The seas mount to frightening heights—three stories or more—with breaking crests. As we watch, a monstrous wave breaks over the top of a dagger board. “Probably forced water into the window. We’ll deal with that later,” Gunter says, his jaw set. “More important—we need to keep the boat surfing…so that we don’t flip.”
The dinghy mounted at the stern bounces wildly on its davits as each monster wave rises angrily above it, then slides underneath the dual hulls. Every so often, a wave sprays its frothy venom from crest to cockpit, drenching the three of us with buckets of water that slides off my foul weather gear. I feel the tepid water running down my cheeks. I can taste the salt. Yet my tongue is sandpaper dry.
What if a rogue wave breaks into the cockpit? What would that be like?
Richard, Gunter, and I slosh in and out in our rubber boots, pants tucked inside, while Phyllis manages the salon—handing out towels, wiping the floors, and keeping the inside free of salt water.
“Lois, you stay in here now,” Gunter directs. The salon, in the center of the boat, shrieks and grates, teak against Kevlar. I glance over at Phyllis, who winces, white-faced, at each chalk-against-blackboard screech. This salon is no place of refuge.
At the nav station, the multi-meter holds steady at F10 as the wind continues to howl. Pacific Bliss feels out of control. I feel out of control. I’ve never felt so out of control in my life! I switch the multi-meter to Boat Speed to find that we have accelerated to 25 knots. Fine for experienced catamaran racers. Not for us. We are just cruisers.
Up and down. Up and down. We ride high over colossal crests and then slide rapidly down the backsides, leaving our stomachs at the top, like a roller coaster ride that will never, ever end.
“What’s going to happen?” Phyllis asks.
“I haven’t a clue. If we hit the face of the next wave wrong…after coming out of the trough…I guess we could flip. I never expected that the winds here would be more dangerous than the drug-running pirates.”
From deep inside, I gather strength for the long ride ahead.
A wild wave breaks between the hulls, causing the entire structure to shudder as if a bomb has exploded underneath. It feels as if the yacht will fly apart at any minute. The noise is awful. How much more can Pacific Bliss can take? We must slow her down.
Gunter fashions a warp using our three black docking lines. Bracing himself against the wall of wind, he trails them from the stern cleats. Exhausted after what seems like forever, he slumps onto the cockpit bench to catch his breath. His immense effort decreases the boat speed by only 2-3 knots. We are still flying at over 20 knots, fine perhaps for catamaran racers. But we are only cruisers! We didn’t sign up for this!
Finally, our reliable, dependable autopilot, Ray, just can’t handle the strain any longer. He reacts too slowly to overcome a roller and can’t make it back. We broach, turning sideways into the wind. Pacific Bliss goes into a jibe that back winds the sail. The boat is drifting out of control.
Without the speed and the rushing wind, we are lulled into a strange and eerie silence. Time slows down. The four of us gather in the cockpit near Richard, still at the helm.
Gunter commands our attention. “The first thing we need to assess is whether or not we are in a survival situation. It mayappear calmer now because the noise is less. But is it safe to leave the boat in irons like this?”
“I think not…” he answers his own question.
“More water, Lois.” I hand him another bottle. “Sorry. My mouth feels dry as sandpaper. Adrenalin, I guess.” He pauses to take a long swig.
No one says a word.
“During the Pacific Bliss christening party in Canet, Jean-Pierre gave me some good advice.” Gunter turns toward Richard. “He’s the founder of Catana. We were discussing heavy weather techniques. He said, ‘Run with the wind and the waves as long as you can to lower your apparent wind… that‘s the wind that the boat feels.’”
Gunter’s attention turns to me: “Lois, how much sea room do we have?”
I pry open the salon doors, scan the paper chart secured on the salon table, and rush back to the cockpit. “Well over 200 miles.”
“That allows us to run, with the wind at our backs, for a long time, even at 20 knots. We are not in danger of capsizing if we run with the wind and waves…but we are in danger like this. You cannot heave-to in a cat. If we stay like this, one of these waves is bound to break over the dinghy and over the cockpit. And if we ram into one sideways, we could flip.”
Phyllis goes pale.
Richard’s face is serious and set. There is nothing else to say. A decision has been made. Now we need to just do it. It is going to be a very long night.
“Richard, you’ll have to help Ray,” Gunter says. “Steer manually every time the compass shows a 30-degree swing from our set course…Lois, help me pull in these warps to clear the propellers. They didn’t help much anyway.”
With the engines revving, Richard takes us out of irons. The freight train sound is deafening as the wind resumes its chase. Richard is stoic at the helm, working the boat to keep her running with the wind and waves, keeping both engines on idle just in case we broach again.
Three of us are calm after our talk, but Phyllis remains frightened. She retreats to the salon and curls up into a fetal position on the settee. Since I’m no longer needed in the cockpit, I return to the salon with her and shove the door shut, blocking out some of the fury. She begs me to radio the Coast Guard again.
“I can’t imagine what good it would do.”
What will I say to them? Come rescue us. We want to leave the ship? I feel safe now, staying with Pacific Bliss. We have no shore, no rocks or reefs to contend with. Even if she flips, we can live on her upside down. She was designed for that. I remember swimming underneath her, pointing up at the red circle between her hulls, a signal for a helicopter rescue. I feel comfortable just staying with the ship. No one but God can help us here.
“Just let them know what’s happening with us,” Phyllis pleads.
I pick up the VHF. Bad news. I cannot get it to work. Instead of lessening her fears, I have increased them. Not good. There is nothing more for us to do right now but to help the helmsman and captain when they ask for it. I sit at the nav station, watching the hands on the clock move ever so slowly.
How I want this long night to end!
Finally, my scheduled watch from 0300 to 0600 arrives. I suit up, donning my life preserver and harness over my foul weather gear. I pry open the salon doors, ready to take over the helm from Richard. He must be exhausted by now. Sitting at our exposed helm station, higher than the cockpit, he has been getting the brunt of the blow and the spray. “I’m ready to take over anytime,” I yell.
Richard cannot hear a word. The wind is driving straight toward me. I can barely stand—even under the protection of the hardtop bimini. Richard motions for me to come closer. I force my body forward against the onslaught. Shaking, willing my fingers to work, I clasp my harness onto the cleat near the helm and lean into his ear, “I’m ready.”
He shouts directly into my face so the wind cannot steal his words. “No, Lois. You won’t have the upper body strength to handle it. I’ve had to take over manually from Ray two more times. The wind feels like it’s easing—just a little. I can keep going.”
“What if you have to go? I mean…to the head?”
“I already have…What else could I do? I have to stay right here to manage Ray.”
I struggle to unclip my harness. The wind pushes me back toward the salon so fast that I start to trip on the steps. I manage to catch myself just before slamming into the Lexan door.
Looking up, I notice that Gunter has wisely changed the multimeter display above the salon cockpit door from Wind Speed to Wind Direction, to reduce the fear factor. I understand. I won’t tell him the news. The news I also kept from Phyllis. The last time I had checked the wind speed at the Nav station in the salon, it was 53 knots, and gusting even more. A steadyForce 10!
I decide to change our read-out inside the salon, at the nav station, to Boat Speed. Not good. We have already reached25.8 knots top speed! The fear grips me all over again. Please God! I force myself to take a few deep breaths. I check the chart. We are now somewhere between Barranquilla and Bahia Gato, about 60 miles offshore.
A long way to go.
Richard digs in for the long haul, patient and uncomplaining. Gunter stays out there by his side. Phyllis lies in a fetal position on the settee.
Shortly after 0300, the wind gradually eases off. Force 9. Then it’s down to Force 8.
What a relief!
The waves are still three or more stories high, rolling in from ever-changing directions of a confused sea, but my fears are calmed.
At 0500, we reach our waypoint for changing course to Cartagena Bay. It will be a controlled jibe in a Force 8, with the wind to our port side.
Gunter forces the sliding salon door open. “All hands on deck.” He thinks Pacific Bliss can handle it.
Phyllis and I suit up again, braving the wind to receive our instructions.
How can we possibly change course with these huge waves continuing to slam our hull? Should I, as the navigator, recommend that we continue our course to San Blas? Should we bypass Cartagena? But who on board would want to have another night at sea?
I keep my doubts to myself.
With all of us in the cockpit, working like a well-oiled team, we carry off the jibe smoothly. On her new course, Pacific Blissfloats like a cork.
We keep the dagger boards up. The noise is like chalk-against-chalkboard times 1000. Pacific Bliss squeaks, creaks, groans, and twists, protesting the onslaught of waves against her beam.
During this long night, I had yearned for the dawn. I mistakenly believed that light would lower our anxiety. But now, as wan, amber streaks gradually appear through the clouds, I am grateful that the worst of the storm has occurred in total darkness; we have been spared the trauma of watching wild waves bent on swallowing us alive.
I head for the salon, where I grab a pillow and collapse onto the settee in my foul weather gear.
A few hours later, Pacific Bliss enters the quieter waters of the Cartagena harbor. I try the VHF to find that it is magically working again. I attribute the malfunction to the high winds. But I’m frustrated that Club Nautico, with whom we have reserved a berth, doesn’t answer my call. Jim and Jo on Atlas pick up the call and advise: “Go in anyway, watch for the guys in the dinghy, then follow them.”
Thank God for helpful cruisers!
Jim had been a calming voice in the darkness, as I talked with him in the wee morning hours before we jibed to reach Cartagena. He told me that the worst would be over, once we had rounded the peninsula and turned toward the bay. He was right.
By the time we anchor and are routed to a permanent slip, it is past noon. We are one exhausted but thankful crew. And our lady, Pacific Bliss? She came through it all with flying colors. We have gained a new respect for her—and for Ray.
Later in the day, we meet Francoise and Bernard, owners of a red-and-white Catana 471, Adelaide II, anchored here. They invite us to come on board. Bernard tells us that he has experienced similar, though somewhat lighter, conditions near that same area of Barranquilla—fortunately, with all their sails down. Had we to do it over again, we would have furled the jib to a small triangle size—with the main doused completely. Once we had come upon the storm triple-reefed, however, our options had closed.
We celebrate our survival and arrival with our new French friends by opening our very last bottle of Catana Champagne. Following that, the six of us down two bottles of white Bordeaux. The wine has traveled with us all the way from Canet, France, where we set out on this Maiden Voyage—secure in our “wine cellar” underneath the cockpit table. Despite all the shaking that went on, they are still quite enjoyable.
Gunter asks Bernard, “What is the best way to transport wine and champagne over long distances in a rolling, sometimes shaking, boat?”
“Horizontally, of course. Lying down, comme une femme.”
Like a woman?
Ah, those frisky French!
We are elated to be back in port and enjoying wine with cruisers again. Who knows? After our harrowing Force 10 experience, we may never want to leave.
Lois Joy Hofmann is the author of, Maiden Voyage, the first in a trilogy called In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss. The book won first place in the travel category of the 2011 San Diego Book Awards. This story is excerpted from the forthcoming second book in the trilogy, to be called, Sailing the South Pacific. Lois’s stories have appeared in magazines such as Latitudes and Attitudes, Cruising World and Living Aboard. She has been a contributor to online magazines and blogs such as: Multihull Magazine, Yacht Blogs, Multihull newsletter, Top Dekk and The Log. Lois has been a keynote speaker for various organizations including: yacht clubs, optimist clubs, book stores and libraries. Lois is currently working on the second book in her trilogy, to be called, Sailing the South Pacific. When she’s not writing, Lois enjoys travel with her husband Gunter to those countries they did not visit during their 8-year, 62-country sailing circumnavigation. To learn more about Lois, visit her website at www.pacificbliss.com and subscribe to her Sailors Tales blog.