Respect for the sea learned at her dad's knee helped a Connecticut woman anticipate the problems her 'teacher' on a bluewater passage had overlooked
My ability and experience are probably the same as that of most coastal sailors, enhanced by an acute awareness that the shore is almost always farther than I can swim and a heightened sense of responsibility learned at my father's knee.
I am a 71-year-old housewife. I own a 27-foot 1979 Cape Dory sloop, which I value for its simplicity and forgiving nature, as well as its sturdiness. I also have a pilot's license (having owned a 1942 Aeronca observer plane from World War II that I cherished for many of the same reasons), was an emergency medical technician and instructor for many years, drove vintage cars in Grand Prix racing and still ski. I am not afraid of risk, but I feel one must carefully prepare before undertaking it.
My earliest memories include the sound of waves, seagulls, the smell of salt water and seaweed, and the pleasant vibration of my stroller as the wheels rolled along the boardwalk. I loved the ocean before I could walk.
I also learned respect for its tremendous power early. I enjoyed playing hide-and-seek with my brother in, and partly under, the complex of gray wooden bathhouses where we changed into our scratchy wool bathing suits at the beach. I was a bit frightened of the dark, gritty halls of mysterious identical doors.
I remember my amazement when a hurricane in 1944 reduced the buildings to a pile of rubble and seaweed in a few hours, tipped houses into the water at the millrace, jumbled a stone jetty, dumped a large vessel onto nearby railroad tracks and made the second floor of a neighbor's house accessible by boat.
Lessons from Dad
I absorbed basic boating skills under the tutelage of my father, who taught me responsibility first and specifics later. In the 1940s, we spent hours, even in cold weather, rowing about the pond formed from the tidal marsh below our house in Westport, Conn., looking for driftwood to color the flames of fires on the large stone hearth at home.
We explored the meadows and hummocks in a heavy flat-bottomed workboat rented for 25 cents an hour from Capt. Walter Dewitt Allen, who owned the shellfishing rights and much of the surrounding land. I sat on the edges of his floating oyster and crab cars, listening to him discuss the fading health of the pond with my father and telling stories about sailing around Cape Horn on a square-rigger in the early 1900s. At low tide, one could still see the bones of the Henry Remson (Cap's last ship) decaying below the carriage bridge on the Saugatuck River.
Though Dad was a tall, strong, athletic man and I a wispy little girl, he usually allowed me to row at least a bit. I remember getting stuck on a mud flat and appealing to Dad. "What are you going to do about it?" was the answer. I had already found I could not pole us off with the oar, as it sank into the mud without finding any purchase. It was my responsibility to go over the side in hip-deep mud full of razor clams, thus lightening the boat enough to float, and push us into deeper water.
On another occasion, I failed to pull the boat high enough on a hummock we were exploring, refusing Dad's offer of further assistance. We returned to find it adrift, moving gently away from shore. "What are you going to do about it?" he asked.
I had to strip to my underpants, go in and tow the boat to shore, which I managed to do despite the fact that I noticed Dad had taken off his shoes while I was swimming after it. The day was cool - a good reason to remember whether the tide was rising or falling.
This lesson was applied when I decided I wanted to go through a long tidal channel, as Dad had done on other occasions, and come out at Burial Hill Beach about a mile away. Just before reaching the open flats on the far side of Sherwood Island, the stream flowed under the access road to the beautiful property that became Connecticut's first state park.
There was a very low bridge at that spot, and if the tide was high, there was considerable danger that at full flood the boat, not to mention its occupants, might not fit underneath. As I was excitedly announcing my plan for adventure and starting to be drawn inexorably into the mouth of the channel, Dad asked me whether I thought we would clear the bridge.
I looked at the surrounding banks, decided the tide was falling, as indeed it must have been for the current to carry us through to the other side, and said proudly that I was sure we would. "What if we don't?"
His request for a Plan B didn't intimidate me. I suggested that if the bow - the highest part of the boat - would not go through I would ask Dad to move forward, sit on the floor and lower it a few inches. This would prevent broaching to the current and subsequently tilting and swamping the boat.
The near and far sides of the bridge had the lowest beams, and the space was higher in the middle. Once we were under the bridge, I reasoned, we could repeat the maneuver on the far side.
"What if we get stuck because of a very high tide when we are half through?" he asked. "Then we will swamp the boat and drift under holding onto it," I replied, not much caring for the prospect but knowing that at least we would be neither trapped nor drowned. "Isn't it better not to have to do that?" he asked. I agreed.
Meanwhile, we had been swept into the channel. My attempts to seize vegetation on the banks and arrest our progress were fruitless, and I realized we were committed to my plan for better or worse. My father's fate was suddenly in my small hands, and I realized that my decision, however ill-taken, had the ability to alter his life. He had put me in the position of command, and although I had a Plan B, it was not fully tested - only theoretically possible - and now we were unable to avoid the potential consequences.
I knew Dad would allow me to go far enough to discover I had made a mistake, but he would surely help if I truly needed it. Yet looking at the strength of the current, I was not absolutely certain that this would not prove too much for both of us. I will never forget my sinking feeling as we approached the bridge and saw that half the passage beneath was occluded with accumulated debris, raising both the height and the velocity of the water on the side we must pass.
Fortunately, we fit without further adjustments, but I realized, as Dad looked at me meaningfully, that this was far more good luck than good management. He was pleased I had not panicked, but he clearly felt I had not known what I was attempting until it was too late to back out. I knew he had shown me respect by allowing me to try, and I made up my mind always to learn all I could about risks I intended to undertake before indulging my impulse.
These lessons stood me in good stead when Dad decided to buy a little Beetle Cat right after World War II. I called this 12-by-6-foot gaff-rigged vessel the Best Boat. My first chore would give pause to the Department of Social Services these days, but I had to help Dad scrape, sand and paint the bottom with fresh red lead each spring.
Once the boat was launched in the harbor at Compo Beach, I was responsible for emptying the bilges before each sail (and sometimes during) with the wide-throated and thirsty galvanized pump with a wooden plunger. I was soon promoted to struggling with the centerboard as well. Dad tried without success to teach me to raise the sails. I was willing enough, but my full weight on the halyard failed to bring the heavy gaff and damp canvas sail aloft.
I was allowed to take the tiller only after I had demonstrated rudder-hanging skills and could define the terms "gudgeon" and "pintle." Dad and I sailed on Long Island Sound in almost any weather. He did not use charts - if we saw bottom, it was time either to turn around or pull up the centerboard.
I was heartbroken when he was transferred to Columbus, Ohio, and we had to sell the boat. I hated living inland.
I sailed with friends whenever possible while visiting Grandmother in Connecticut in the summers. After finishing college, I married and had three children. We lived slightly less than an hour from the shore in eastern Connecticut.
Power of the sea
After our daughters learned to swim, my husband and I rented a 30-foot Pearson Coaster sloop from a neighbor for two weeks and began to introduce our offspring to the ocean. Every year we took them for two or more weeks, from various ports in Connecticut to Nantucket, Mass., and returned.
We were heartbroken when a beautiful 36-foot Cape Dory sloop, which we chartered for two weeks every year for 15 years, was lost by other charterers. She sank in Edgartown, Mass., when Hurricane Bob broke through South Beach into Katama Pond in 1991. The storm sent an 18-foot surge down the harbor that either lifted moorings or broke their pennants so that a huge tangle of yachts was swept toward the Chappaquiddick Ferry. Many of the vessels ended their journey on the concrete dock in front of the yacht club. Some were impaled on dock pilings or sunk, and the rest came to rest en masse in the entrance to the outer harbor.
We were not unaware of the power of the sea. We continued to charter, learning that not everyone has the same standards for a boat that must keep you and your family safe. The boats we chose were smaller (less than 40 feet), sturdy and usually well-maintained by knowledgeable owners.
Nonetheless, we had some interesting coping experiences. Once, we were caught between Nantucket and Woods Hole, Mass., by an unpredicted clear-air storm with winds of 52 knots before we were able to get out of it. We went sailing with a neighbor who had not read the Notices to Mariners before taking us out one fine spring day. We struck Watch Hill (R.I.) Reef after each of us had noticed a discrepancy in the visual picture because ice had moved the buoy a quarter-mile off station to the south during the winter. We managed to back out the way we came in by dropping the sails and starting the engine, but only after the swell had lifted and slammed our keel onto rock twice. Two other boats were sunk there that same weekend.
Thinking I might not be fully qualified to be captain if my husband weren't along at some point, I took a Chapman ASA course in Florida, during which we crossed the Gulf Stream to Grand Bahama and back. I identified the characteristics of a good crewmember on that short cruise. A small boat must operate from friendship and willingness, rather than business discipline. Everyone aboard must do their share and pick up each other's slack without anyone needing to expend the energy to require it. All sink or swim together, and every job has to be done.
Although individual ability, judgment and strength vary during a cruise, thoughtlessness and irresponsibility unnecessarily burden everyone. Adaptability, a sense of humor and self-confidence are absolute requirements.
I had never been on a bluewater cruise. My farthest offshore trip had consisted of helping a charter company, from which we had rented boats for years, move a small flotilla from Connecticut to Florida. At the company's request, I had gone on a moment's notice, filled with excitement at the chance to make the trip from Connecticut through the first lock in the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway below Norfolk at Great Bridge, Va.
When I realized that the captain of my assigned boat was planning to start with no charts on board "because we would be part of a flotilla," I could hardly believe it. He told me that the lead boat had Loran and would be giving us position reports every hour during the sail.
It did not seem to have occurred to him that without charts for recording these, we would have no way of knowing where we were should we become separated from the group. I learned on that stormy October trip that sailors are not necessarily wise.
The fateful cruise
It was with most of this background that I came to my Bermuda trip in May 1986.
Months before, I had begun receiving brochures advertising cruises to and from Bermuda, purporting to teach bluewater passagemaking. A middle-aged mother of three children approaching college age and with no money available to spend on self-indulgence, I pored over the contents, dreaming of a real adventure at sea and, better yet, in a learning situation.
When I could stand the temptation no longer, I phoned the business owner/captain and asked him whether an experienced coastal sailor who was also a certified EMT and instructor thereof would be valuable to him on a cruise. I offered to stock and clean his boat between passages if he would take me on one trip for free. He had just lost his medically qualified first mate, and he said he would think about it.
I was required to attend a preparatory seminar for paying guests, where I got a reading list and a lot of interesting things to think about. I read "Heavy Weather Sailing," studied the Beaufort scale and generally tried to prepare myself for an undertaking I knew would be intensely demanding. I made up a small ditch bag of survival gear, bought a personal strobe and tried to make myself more physically fit.
I was so anxious to go that I discounted my gut reaction to much of what I encountered. When I went to see the boat, which was wintering in the water, it was in a state of total disarray. I thought age was responsible for the corroded rigging, the mast boot leaking quarts into the cabin. There was debris everywhere, rusting tools were strewn haphazardly about, and the boat was dank and dirty. Work should be ongoing, I thought, although this activity appeared to be very disorganized.
On a three-day circumnavigation of Long Island in April, during which he tested my sailing skills, the captain casually modified the truth to a Coast Guard boarding party. He suggested that his passengers do so as well, in order to escape a commercial inspection that I suspect he would not have passed.
His given reason was that this would delay us longer than if we were classified as a "group of friends preparing for a passage to Bermuda." I found it disturbing that a man who had a license to carry six people commercially would jeopardize his business by failing to report his status properly.
The boarding was the first I had experienced. A cutter appeared as we approached Montauk, N.Y., from the Hudson Canyon and ordered us to heave-to. A RIB was lowered on davits with three men aboard. All had firearms and headsets. The helmsman had a rifle, and the two Coasties who boarded us had pistols in holsters that were unsnapped. As soon as they boarded, the third man backed off about 100 feet and circled the boat, his scope-sighted rifle clearly at the ready.
The two on board transmitted their conversation to him. The rest of us sat uneasily in the cockpit, hoping that the young men would ask us no questions. I made up my mind that if they did I would truthfully say that all of the other people aboard were paying passengers, rather than be complicit in the skipper's deception.
I did not actually hear him lie, but the inspection below was relatively brief. We could hear the cabin sole being set aside. I assume they were looking for drugs. My confidence in the captain was shaken. This was not a man I was anxious to trust with my life.
However, Bermuda was only three weeks away. I was given an airline ticket to fly to the island and meet the boat. I went five days in advance and arranged to stay in student quarters at the Bermuda Biological Station for Research (now the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences). I hired a motorbike and had a fascinating time exploring the eastern half of the island. I visited the botanical garden and swam/snorkeled in a mangrove swamp in the karstic landscape, whose immense central depth communicated freely with the ocean.
I dived on a tropical reef for the first time in my life, climbed cliffs and sat on pink sand beaches, musing on the fate of the Bermuda longtails whose eggs had been attacked by kiskadees - birds imported to control lizards, which had been imported to control insects inadvertently imported on food, which had brought a deadly scale to the cedars that kept the north side of the island intact. None of the imports behaved as expected, and all did harm to the local flora and fauna.
A careless captain
The day the boat was due I went to St. Georges to see it come into the harbor. At the dock the passengers were disembarking hastily, in no mood to discuss the voyage. When I got a shopping list from the captain, I learned that they had run out of water two days before reaching Bermuda. The captain also mentioned in passing that they had had intermittent alternator failure.
Because the boat was entirely electric, including a refrigerator, an electric macerating head, all-electric interior and running lights (without kerosene backups) and pressure water (with a foot pump for backup in the sink), I assumed the failures would be addressed before we left for at least eight days at sea with seven people aboard.
I was startled that the drinks list contained only soda - no fruit juice or iced tea and no jugs of water. I asked whether he had forgotten to put these things on the list, and he said they were too expensive. I bought two gallons of bottled water with my own money and hid them in my personal space.
The day before we were to depart, our new passengers appeared but were not allowed to board or to stow their gear. A meeting was called in the yacht club. I offered to speak to them about water conservation because the problem was fresh in my mind, but the captain said he did not wish to "inconvenience" his paying passengers. He did not appear to understand that no water was a far greater inconvenience than sensibly limited water.
When he left the room at one point during the meeting, I mentioned that the previous group had been so careless as to run out of water. That evening on the boat, I checked the bilges and the water tank, which the captain and I had used for two days. I discovered the bilges quite full and the automatic bilge pump burned out, as the float had stuck, lifted by debris. Attempting to pump the bilges by hand, I was unable to prime the Whale Gusher, so I offered to disassemble and clean it. The captain vetoed this, saying we would have more than a week to take it apart on the voyage home. We would leave with full bilges. He frequently chatted with the busy harbormaster on his hand-held VHF.
The next morning the passengers boarded and stowed their gear, which took quite awhile. The captain had neither refueled nor rewatered the boat the night before, so we needed to do this before departure. When we approached the docks, there was a long line of vessels awaiting a turn. After refueling, the captain decided to leave without topping off the water supply. I reminded him that there had not been sufficient water on the previous leg. And I had just learned that the alternator had not been repaired because it would be "too expensive" in Bermuda. (He said he had three batteries if it failed.) We got the water.
I began to feel a little foolish about my worries as we left the harbor and cleared the reefs around the island without incident. The weather was beautiful and clear, and the captain told us that the forecast for the week was outstanding. After all, our captain had been in the Merchant Marine for more than 20 years (I do not know in what capacity), had sailed across the Atlantic and had a Coast Guard six-pack license. He must be better able to judge the risks than I.
Little did I know that he had learned to sail only three years before, when this tired-looking vessel was brand-new, and he had had four experienced friends to cover for him during those trans-Atlantic voyages. He told me proudly that he had planned each crossing so carefully that they had no bad weather the entire month. My mind was drawn irresistibly to King Canute and my father telling me that there was "no margin for ego" on the water. The penalty for stupidity on the ocean, Dad reminded me, was not subject to appeal.
Alternator failure, then a storm
About seven hours after departure, our alternator failed irreversibly. I had made a mental list that, should this happen, the pressure water pump should be shut down, the foot pump used for the galley sink, the refrigeration turned off and the icebox kept closed except when it was essential to open it. The head must revert to holding a bowl to be emptied and rinsed by each user, and the only electricity used should be for navigation, running lights, communications and engine starting. Flashlights would be employed otherwise.
None of my conservation measures was taken, and when I asked the captain about them, he painstakingly (and condescendingly) detailed to me the load drawn by each item in question and calculated the amp hours available, as if they could be drawn out completely like a liquid fuel, telling me I was foolish to worry.
"Could I have some light up here?" asked Henry, who was repairing frayed tackle from a tangled pile of rope ends. As I watched aghast from the helm, the captain climbed down the companionway and turned on twin spreader lamps.
Henry's task was not critical, and it seemed to me that a fellow crewmember holding a flashlight would have been an adequate response under the circumstances. The lights remained on for more than 15 minutes, and I realized that the captain's wasting our precious remaining battery power trivialized the loss of our alternator. I wondered which of us was wrong.
Two days into the passage we had no power for anything except in the battery dedicated to starting the engine, a 50-hp diesel highly unamenable to hand-cranking. Nonetheless, using the engine - and consuming most of our fuel - even when there was plenty of wind for sailing, we made a fairly rapid passage to the eastern side of the Gulf Stream.
At the end of the sixth day, I was at the helm when I saw a front begin to appear over the northwestern horizon from approximately our intended direction of travel. It was towering, black, flickered with lightning and contained multiple cells beneath which one could see rainstorms. We were under full sail, and the captain did not appear to notice.
I waited until the wind freshened slightly and changed temperature, and I saw changes in the light and the water color ahead. I then foolishly said to him that I would be ready at any time to head up so that sail could be shortened. His answer was, "We will slip through that in 15 minutes between the cells. There is no need to shorten sail."
The first blast was about 42 knots and knocked us down quite far, even though I headed up into it immediately. The captain screamed at me, "What the - - - - are you doing - pay off! Pay off and run with it!"
I paid off and ran with it, which we did - in the direction opposite our desired course for 36 hours and 150 miles. Finally, after the storm had overrun us, we hove-to, soaked above and below, with most hanks ripped from the foresail, the mizzen severely torn, and the main stretched and ripped. The mast boot had leaked badly, the cabin was awash with seawater, and the head pail had spilled into the bilges. The crew was exhausted and sick, and the captain was smoking below.
The following morning we raised a drifter in place of the foresail and then pumped, repaired what we could and started for home. Dead reckoning, Loran and sun sights were our navigational capability. Unfortunately, our first sight of land (two days later) was New Jersey, and the captain had no charts for a New York Harbor entry to Long Island Sound.
A minor mutiny ensued as some outraged passengers, who did not fully understand the situation, demanded to be put ashore immediately. We had no running lights, no radio communications (the VHF antenna also had proved faulty on the way to Bermuda, and the batteries in the hand-held had been discharged by the captain's conversations with the harbormaster), low fuel, torn sails, a filthy boat, low water supply and one-and-a-half days left before we could hope to make port.
On we went, shining flashlights on the sails to be seen. The following afternoon, as we approached Montauk, the engine began to overheat. The captain pulled the cutoff to shut it down, which came away in his hand. The engine continued to run. We removed the engine cover, and he pulled the cutoff beneath it, which fell into the bilge below the hot manifold. The engine continued.
In desperation, he began shutting off the fuel. One of the passengers and I, realizing we would never be able to restart the diesel with the amount of cranking left in the battery, placed a percolator lid over the air intake, which shut down the engine within seconds. This was the only time I heard the captain thank anyone.
He then proceeded to remove the radiator cap on the engine, too quickly for us to stop him, and a searing gush of steam caused him to drop it into the bilge with the cutoffs. It proved equally irretrievable. He topped off the freshwater coolant from the galley sink (he had no antifreeze and had forgotten to get it before starting the season) and stuffed a rag into the neck of the radiator. As this was a pressurized system, he kept having to add water. Our tank supply was nearly gone, and I was glad I had brought drinking water.
We ended our voyage 100 miles short of our intended destination. No one was injured, and the boat survived more or less intact - yet my sailing friends asked me what possessed me to go. I had discounted my misgivings because of naive enthusiasm, partly because this cruise had been endorsed by a major sailing magazine, partly because it was free for me, because of the captain's authoritarian and confident manner, and partly because his credentials made him appear highly qualified.
Yet he did not think about the power of the sea or his responsibility to his passengers, as I had been taught to do. I later learned that his sailing school failed shortly afterward. Twenty-five years later, when I recall what passengers paid for this negative lesson in bluewater passagemaking, it makes me angry. The price could have been far beyond what was specified, and the lessons taught were not the lessons learned.
All sailors must have deep respect for the power of the sea, which demands that we be responsible for ourselves and those around us on a boat. There is no place for people who will not do their best to contribute. I always believed that ocean sailing underscored the strengths of one's fellow sailors and highlighted the weaknesses of those who perhaps do not belong at sea. I thought the elderly seaman characterized by Charles Dickens in "David Copperfield" was a reminder of this: "Barkis is willin'."
Adelaide Northrop lives in Chaplin, Conn.
This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.