Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Winds They Are A Changin'...

"Any fool can carry on, but a wise man knows how to shorten sail in time." - Joseph Conrad

Day Four - With the morning comes a change in the wind and a change in the pace of the race.

     Sleeping in a tiny bunk below deck on a moving ship seems like sleeping under water. With the sounds of waves lapping against the hull next to my head, the gurgling of bubbles rolling up as the keel cuts through the water, muffled voices from the crew above shouting out signals to one another, I feel a bit like a fish in an aquarium. Combined with the gentle rocking as the boat tilts and rolls with the waves, the effect brings on a tranquil twilight sleep, not deep but comforting and restful. More like a nap in the sun than a night of solid rest.

    When I finally surface to greet the day, I note a decided difference in the energy on deck. The sky is still cloudless, the wind blows steady from the North, and the sails are taught and straining. We are moving at a good clip, and white caps dot the bay. I can feel the chop and am reminded of Captain's instruction to keep one hand on the ship and one hand free to grip. Walking about takes a bit more balance and attention. Passengers are asked to keep the isles along the rails clear for the crew to move about freely. Their work is more demanding today, keeping sails adjusted and secure to take best advantage of the wind. This will a more exciting day of sailing without a doubt.

     We are more alone today. The other schooners have spread out in every direction. Just specks on the horizon. We're not the last boat in the race, but there are definitely more ahead of us than behind. The smaller vessels are completely out of sight. The new winds are giving them real advantage, and greater challenge. Our own movement is steady and mostly even, simply due to size and weight. It occurs to me that if I am to try the open Atlantic for my next sailing adventure, I may want to choose an even larger vessel, perhaps with three or four masts. While this ship feels very safe, we are only experiencing chop, and not serious ocean swells, yet our rolls and tilts are still significant. I believe the larger the body of water, the larger the ship would be a good rule of thumb. I remember crossing the Pacific as a child on our way to Japan, watching the port hole in our cabin as it framed sky and then sea for hours on end in rough seas. What would boat the size of the Liberty Clipper, or smaller be subject to in a storm?  Little did I know I was about to find out.

     As the day moves on, the wind increases as does the chop. When the crew must tack the sails, passengers are asked to go below or aft. The task takes all hands, and no interruption. The beam swings fast and hard with a pop, lines fly, snap and strain. Anyone standing too near or in just the wrong spot could easily receive a fatal blow. I'm impressed with the efficiency and focus of the crew. They work as one, quick and responsive. Hearing the zing and bang of the mast as it swings wide, and seeing the power of the wind strain against the sails, feeling the force of our new direction and speed, I am even more respectful of the captain and his young crew. They know what they are doing, and do their jobs well. It's easy to understand why when on board a ship, the captain is the commander, and the crew and passengers never question his commands. There is no time, and no room for argument, discussion or hesitation. The relationship between a captain and his crew must be one of trust, respect and dedication. Captain depends on his crew to take his orders and do their job without fail, and they in turn rely on his expertise, reflexs and steadfast resolve to make the right choices. There are no opportunities for second opinions, experimentation, or do-overs. Every action must be quickly calculated, systematic and precise. Anything less could easily mean disaster.

     By four o'clock in the afternoon, winds are blowing at gale force (34-47 knots, or 39 to 54 miles per hour). Behind us black clouds spread across the horizon as the sun begins its descent. The tone on deck is more intense, and voices are hushed. Saltwater sprays across the deck as the bow rises and plunges over rising swells. Some guests move in to the salon for warmth as the temperature is dropping fast, and for cocktails to calm fluttering nerves. Others go below to their cabins for dry clothing. My brother and I, along with a few others find perches aft, where we are out of the way of the crew and the sea spray but can still watch the activities and hear the captain, as well as radio communications with other ships.
"Only fools and passengers drink at sea."- Allan Villiers

     Close to five o'clock an urgent message comes over the radio that there is a boat in trouble ahead of us. There is a man overboard. The Coast Guard is on its way. The Cuchulain, a 44 foot schooner a little less than half the size of the Liberty Clipper, had a boom crack, then strike a crew member when it broke, knocking him into the water. He was not wearing a life vest. Fortunately his windbreaker filled with air and kept him afloat. Crew members went in after him, but had great difficulty in the rough sea getting him safely back on board. It wasn't until much later in the evening that we heard the sad conclusion to this crisis. When the Coast Guard arrive the crewman was unconscious, and despite the airborne rescue and resuscitation attempts they were unable to revive him. He was pronounced dead when they arrived at the hospital.

     Captain asked us all to go below. The dinner bell rang soon after, and while we all welcomed the comfort of a hearty meatloaf and mashed potato meal, we ate mostly in silence, contemplating this frightening event and confronting our own, until now, dormant fears. It wasn't long after eating that the mood in the salon began to shift as full bellies, wine and cocktails began to work their magic. Soon there were songs being sung and laughter filling the room. Spirits, like the wind, can change so quickly when there are few other alternatives, transforming fear into revelry and cheer in an instant. What a wonderful human survival instinct, that turns worry into smiles at least temporarily. 

     For me however, the rolling of the ship, along with the stuffy warm air of the salon were the wrong combination. My stomach began to reel with the waves, and my rapidly greening skin tone cleared a wide path through the raucous passengers. Cook handed me a bucket as I leaped up the ladder to the galley and fresh air. None too soon. So much for a hearty dinner. I remained gripping the galley doorway and my bucket for the next hour as we rolled and pitched in the darkness. My sweet brother came up to check on me several times, once bringing me lemon slices to suck on to settle my lurching stomach, and later some ginger ale. He was beginning to look a little green around the gills himself.

     Out on deck, I heard Captain giving orders to drop and secure sails. Crew scurried back and forth, shouting orders to each other, coiling ropes, and tying off lines. Waves splashed over the deck and the wind howled. Our ship jerked and listed first to one side, then the other. There was much pitching and rolling. My knuckles were white where my fingers held fast to the doorway. Soon the engines came on, and with them the boat leveled off and calmed. The First Mate came in and announce that with regret, the captain had lowered all sails and turned on the engines. This disqualified us from the race, but the safety of all on board was more important than the race. He also announced the details of the accident on the Cuchulain. 

     It seemed the winds began to calm then, as did the waves. It was safe to return on deck, although most passengers retreated to their cabins for an early night. I went down below only long enough to grab my Dramamine tablets, wash my face and brush my teeth. I knew fresh air would be better for my stomach that a stuffy cabin. Along with a few other, including my brother, we returned to our places near the stern to let the cool wind wash over us as the sky cleared and stars began to fill the sky. It is amazing how quickly weather on the water can change from one extreme to another. We remained on deck for several hours watching the light show above our heads, quiet with our individual thoughts. It was a moonless night, but a million stars were visible so far from the interfering lights of civilization. We saw satellites and constellation, even a giant meteor burning its way through the atmosphere. It was truly spectacular. Sometime after midnight, we began to see lights on the distant horizon, and knew we were not far from our final destination. It was time to sleep while we could. One by one we ambled below to leave the crew and captain to their thoughts and some much needed rest. We pulled into Portsmouth around four-thirty in the morning. Once moored, all was quiet until dawn.
     The morning dawned as a cloudless, crisp fall day, with almost no wind at all. It was hard to believe the events of the previous day were real, and not some nightmare imaginings. I will continue to be amazed by the quick transitions of the weather and the wind, and the tragedy left in their wake.

     It was a good feeling to leave the Liberty Clipper, now safely docked in a permanent slip for the day. We were a laughable sight trying to steady our sea legs and regain our equilibrium on dry land. The swaying in my head would last for several more day, and I now understand why sailor newly in port always stumble about looking just a bit tipsy.  The motion of the sea leaves lasting impressions in so many ways.
None the less, Jim and I ventured into Portsmouth to see what the historic colonial port had to offer. If we had a dollar for every cobblestone and crack we tripped over along the way, we would have had a pocket full of bills!

    Portsmouth is a quaint seaport town that was first settled as a plantation community in 1620, and was developed into a bustling port and shipbuilding town by Colonel William Crawford around 1760. Now the city has a population of around ninety-five thousand, and is home to the Norfolk Naval Station.  The historical downtown district showcases beautifully restored colonial homes of various styles. Many grand churches of all denominations, and numerous civic buildings and a nautical museum. The waterfront area has some charming shops and restaurants. You can also enjoy a local Farmer's Market open on Saturdays, with baked goods, crafts and local produce. Colonel Crawford himself strolls around the old courthouse, ready to share the towns colorful history and stories of its eccentric characters. Its a delightful place to spend a weekend soaking in the sea air and colonial port city culture.

     Finally the time has come to share one
more meal with our captain and crew, as well
as all the other Chesapeake Bay Schooner
Race race friends and crews. Roasted bay
oysters, barbeque, beer and music create a
festive atmosphere. This is followed by the
official award ceremony and a moment of
silence and prayer for the tragic loss of fellow
sailor and longtime friend of many in this
close knit community. I was proud to be a
part of it for a few days, and will cherish the
experience and memories for years to come.
    The Liberty Clipper will head out on
Monday with a few additions to the crew and
new passengers sailing on to Charleston, then

 off to the Bahamas for the summer. 
Ahoy and safe sailing,
 and many thanks to all.