Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Storm


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We reached uncomfortable with the first hint of dusk, worrisome by last light, and psyche-engulfing fear an hour after the horizon had melted away to pitch black. By midnight, the "future"- our grand plan to sail the oceans for five years, had contracted into roughly 10-15 second intervals of survival. Every move and every decision bought us another quarter of a minute of life.

Domesticated, modern life is mostly a struggle with decisions: this or that? Over here instead of over there? Now or later? Him or her? In or out? Vectors and directions, courses and tracks, trajectories and landings -- the Y in the road is destiny and beyond this Y is a billion billion more, and most importantly, will this decision take me where I am supposed to go? Will it bring safety? Will it bring success?

Nothing shakes you out of this future-obsessed silliness like having no options. This realization of having no options can't set in any more than a fall from a tall building can set in. There is an irreversibility to it like a shot to the gut when you realize there is only one course of action; no room for interpretation, no space to create meaning: there is only doing.

Wide eyed and sensing what lay ahead I said to my wife Megan, "you should get your harness on and clip in." She didn't question me for even a moment -- she knew this was serious.

After years of proposing, convincing, bugging, and begging, Megan succumbed to what I planned would be a half-decade cruise to the South Pacific and beyond. We had both sacrificed so much for this dream; my dream. Good careers, children, family, and security had been put on hold. Houses, furniture, and cars had been sold. Every discount had been taken, and every dollar saved for a solid two years. Hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent, and we even gave away our cats. A storm at sea in international waters just four days into "the dream," is not what I had shown her in the brochures.

Taking a rhumb-line south from San Diego down the coast of Baja, the shores of Mexico lope ten to fifty miles away in a series of long, barren beaches with occasional headlands. The wind had been nearly perfect for 96 hours. Light to moderate in the overnights and early mornings, building in the afternoons to 15-20 knots from the NW -- ideal for our S-SE course to Cabo San Lucas. The trip should take about five to six days without stops.

Our early December departure was more than a month behind the pack of cruisers who who go down the coast each year, and we had the sea to ourselves. I'd been finishing out my contract as a TV meteorologist in the SF Bay Area, and while the storms do start to pack a punch on the west coast this time of year, I saw a clear window with high pressure when I decided it was time to uncleat the docklines and point our bow into the unknown. We were excited to finally put this dream into gear, rev the engine, and let out the clutch.

Acclimating to the three hours on, three-off watch schedule wasn't too difficult, but the constant motion left the two of us chronically groggy and partially caffeinated in sleep and while awake. Megan read almost constantly while I mostly just stared out at the empty horizon and tended the sails every few hours. Aside from catching a couple of fish, altering course a couple times a day, not much of anything happened at all.

It was so easy and routine that I was hardly even plotting a course. On the fourth night of the trip, all of that changed.

The waves arrived a few hours before the wind as a short, steep chop from two distinctly different directions. Somewhere distant, a strong wind was blowing. The bow began to bounce laterally, pushed off balance every few seconds. Initially it was like taking a smooth interstate off-ramp onto a country road, but quickly escalated to a rutted logging road, jolting and rolling us at irregular intervals.

Within three or four hours of those initial wave trains, the steady 20 knot wind had built to 50 knots with gusts to hurricane strength, pushing steeper and steeper seas across our stern quarter. The clear skies turned mostly cloudy, and the stratus raced ahead of us and tumbled as if the air above was moving even more quickly. The ocean's surface was rushing to keep up. The wind whistled and hummed in the rigging.

Our sails, which had been comfortably billowing and rolling ahead of us became taught and wrinkle-free and the sheets (lines to the sails) went bar-tight. The boat was clearly overpowered, and this boat's speedy design, initially an asset, was becoming a liability. Even with only a scrap of sail out, we were lunging down wave faces at 14 knots, surging in and out of control.

Each wave launched the boat forward like a 35,000 pound surfboard. Turbulence over the rudder rattled the control lines leading to the helm and the wheel vibrated in my hands like an unbalanced tire at freeway speeds. With any momentary lull in the sounds of the wind and waves all around, I could hear the sick wine of the propeller shaft and transmission freewheeling at twice its maximum rate, moving too fast to slam into gear as the manufacturer requires.

The emergency procedures pounded into my head from my years of flight training popped into the forefront of my mind: aviate, navigate, communicate. First things first: control the boat!

Now where are we going? Megan called our course over the ground on the cockpit computer as the boat yawed through 120 degrees, plotting our position on the notoriously inaccurate Mexican chart. "I think there is something up here ," she said handing me the chart, "what is this?"

I couldn't believe what I saw. Surely there was a mistake on the plot. I checked and rechecked Megan's pencil marks against the GPS and electronic chartplotter as I continued to hand-steer (the autopilot had overheated from the extreme course corrections and quit), but her navigation was spot-on. Still, my mind ran through the alternatives. There had to be another option, another route, an alternate course of action, but there wasn't. We were in true, mortal danger -- not movie danger or creepy-guy on a dark street danger, but sick to your stomach, pee-your-pants, we-may-die-here danger.

The crest of every fourth or fifth wave lifted us high enough to get a quick peek of one of two off-shore buoys marking Thetis Bank, a seamount shoal that stood between us and the open ocean. There was no way around: we'd be forced across this bank, or would be forced downwind onto the rocks of Cape Lazaro itself. There was no third option.

A feeling of being absolutely alone fell over me. The US Coast Guard chatter had faded to nothing a few hours out of San Diego. We hadn't even heard the occasional panguero on the VHF radio for two days because we were so far offshore. There was no one to call, no one to notify, no one to ask for advice, no one to check in with, and no one to help should the boat somehow succumb to the sea. There was no one out there except us. We might as well have been in a spacecraft on the dark side of the moon.

"Faaaaaaaaaaaaack," I yelled with full volume and effort, but the screeching wind stripped my frustration of expression, carrying it to the empty darkness to leeward.

Relentlessly, wave after wave swept in from the northwest: hissing, crackling, and charging along way faster than I had ever imagined a storm-swell could. With each one, the boat lifted violently, accelerating forward and then slamming down into the next trough with a tremendous deceleration, water washing down the sidedecks with enough force to sweep a person off their feet.

I would have cried if it there were enough time to allow the emotion, but the next wave bearing down on us looked even more dangerous and as the moon peeked over the western horizon and the distant outline of the Baja Peninsula, the light spilled onto the wave following. It was even bigger, and there were endless crests behind that one.

We were sailing right into the worst of it and had absolutely no choice but to do so. As we moved toward the shallower water of Thetis Bank, the sea grew more confused and chaotic by the minute. "Rogue" waves (some breaking, and some 35 or more feet tall) leapt skyward with increasing frequency, often appearing only a boatlength or two away. Such waves form in the convergence of smaller waves with additive size and volume, appearing and disappearing in just a few seconds. The sheer randomness of these unpredictable monsters added to the terror as each was capable of capsizing the boat in seconds.

My mind repeatedly scanned the options: Liferaft? It would be gone before it was fully inflated. EPIRB (emergency satellite beacon)? It would be hours or a day or two should someone respond in international waters. VHF radio? No one is listening out here, and no Mexican boat would come out into these conditions. SSB radio? Should have learned how to use it before we left San Diego. The truth became sickeningly apparent: should the worst happen, we'd likely die within a few minutes to an hour at most. There was no choice but to take each wave as it came. No options and no choice.

The waves were spaced out at about 10 seconds or so; some larger than others -- and every tenth to twentieth was potentially catastrophically large -- higher than our second set of spreaders on the mast. I settled into an uneasy rhythm: laying at a more parallel angle in the trough to limit speed as the wave approached, then pivoting the boat down the face as it reared up vertically from the stern quarter so as to only expose the stern to the breaking water, and finally pivoting more parallel to the wave face as the boat surged forward. Still, the boat spun out of control and buried the bow time and again, and slid sideways dozens and dozens of times.

With this description, your mind's eye may be picturing a much more agile and maneuverable boat than Low Pressure (great name, right?) actually was. You may be picturing a Porsche or BMW taking curves at too high a speed, tires screeching as they reach the limits of traction and g-force. In reality, driving our 35,000 lb. cruising boat was much more akin to maneuvering a Greyhound bus through those same country roads at twice the recommended speed. We weren't on the edge of controllability; we were in and out of control almost continuously. For hours.

It would have been one thing if we could bear away from the wind and waves to the most comfortable and controllable point of sail, but we were far from open water -- our course mattered. If we went downwind and down-swell, we'd end up on the rocky shore of Cape Lazaro. We had to point higher into the wind to try and cut through a gap in the offshore reef system of Thetis Bank where we knew the shoaling bottom would bring even larger, steeper waves. There was hardly any margin -- we had to shoot the gap to get to open ocean, and offshore to safety and the worst of it would be in that gap.

While I was on the wheel, Megan was absolutely essential to steering, calling our bearing to the next waypoint. In between her updates, I would ask what course we had over ground to try and alter toward her bearing. This dance continued at 10 second intervals throughout the night. Not once did we doubt or second-guess the other. Not once were we critical of the other. Not once did we have anything but trust and faith in the other. It was the purest definition of cooperation.

As we reached the shoals, the waves became even steeper and louder. Several times a cross sea broke on the boat, filling the cockpit partially and sending heavy spray across the decks.

The ocean water was sickeningly warm at this southern latitude; so inviting, everything that we had spent so much time and energy chasing. To reach the goal of sailing away from the stresses and worries of everyday life ashore only to end up in the clutches of a violent, inhospitable storm was perhaps my life's biggest irony. Perhaps it's like meeting the most beautiful girl in the world and falling in love, only to realize she's an abusive, bulimic psychopath that tries to kill you every minute or so.

No wonder I have developed such a love-hate relationship with the sea.

Sometime in the very early morning with the half-full moon peaking through the clouds high overhead we crossed the Thetis Bank and headed out to open sea, the depth sounder rising as high as 26 feet before dropping off into the abyss once again. Seas remained large but settled down to the 12-15 foot range, which while very uncomfortable, were manageable and not life threatening.

As the sun rose, we were some 35 miles offshore, with the first real decision to be made in this whole ordeal: continue on to Cabo San Lucas a day or two south, or drive back inshore toward Bahia Santa Maria. We chose the latter. While winds were still very strong and seas occasionally breaking across the deck, we decided to seek shelter and lick our wounds.

Upon reaching the wide-mouthed bay, I readied the anchoring gear at the bow while Megan steered the boat. We couldn't wait to get down below for drink, some food, and sleep. The boat had other plans. The electric windlass, a winch of sorts used to raise and lower the heavy chain and anchor, refused to work. Not even a "click." Somehow, I had never considered this possibility -- how does one manually deploy an anchor when the chain is stuck in an inoperable windlass?

Thankfully, we had a smaller backup anchor and rode stowed for exactly this eventuality.

While the water inside the bay was mostly flat, the winds continued to howl at 40 knots. Our inadequately sized anchor failed to latch onto the bottom, and time and again I manually deployed and retrieved it. Already exhausted by the efforts of the previous 36 hours, to this day I have no idea how I was able to manage dragging 300+ pounds of ground tackle off the ocean floor over and over again.

Eventually the anchor caught well enough to get below and trouble-shoot the windlass problem. I quickly found a wire knocked loose when the huge batteries shifted during our wild ride. The big beast of our main anchor was down and it was time to exhale and pee.

We hardly spoke to each other. Megan got into bed and curled up into a ball. I went about assessing the damage. Mostly, the boat had come through unscathed. Some canvas covers were gone and our BBQ mounting brackets were bent.

I on the other hand, was more than bent. I was broken. As a meteorologist, I had failed. As a captain, I had failed. As a husband, I had failed.

As I opined my poor seamanship, an open boat approached with three shirtless Mexican men. "Langosta," they shouted. Sure, why not. I don't particularly care for lobster, but didn't even haggle over their price. Later they came by asking for gasoline. Sure brother, take all I've got.

I smiled up at the sun. I smiled into the warm wind still blowing. I smiled at life. I felt a closeness to a god, which is a strange feeling for an atheist. I question that feeling even now, writing these words, but I do know that it happened.


The Storm (as my wife and I refer to it) left me with a profound sense of peace and humility. This single event gave me an indisputable framework from which to see my life, and I knew from that night forward that it is a very small and insignificant life indeed. That realization takes the pressure off a little bit -- I know that nothing in my life is that big a deal.

At this very moment, storms rage, winds howl, bombs explode, love leaves, cancer wins, floods engulf, ladders fall, and a million million small tragedies befall a million million victims. Stars are right now dying in a violence I could never comprehend, and whole solar systems are being born of that same violence. All of these things are indisputably happening right now, yet our infinitesimally small set of concerns drowns out the million million tragedies, while we try to avoid the bad risks, take the right chances, and hope it all works out according to plan.

One solid life-threatening experience is enough to show how tentative and temporary life is. There is freedom in that -- I know now that I am not in any way in abeyance to the hierarchy of other humans. There is no law that binds me. Nature rules.

Nature rules all.
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