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October gale roughs up solo sailor

Vic Gillings was sailing from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts when he was caught in a powerful nor’easter

Vic Gillings was sailing from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts when he was caught in a powerful nor’easter

In the houses crammed shoulder to shoulder along the Massachusetts shore north of Gloucester, all eyes had been fixed on the ocean that Tuesday afternoon, like ticket-holders at a title fight. And in the dwindling daylight, these spectators had not been disappointed by the fury of the event.

A late-October nor’easter, combined with the remnants of Hurricane Wilma, was driving 25- to 30-foot seas in from the Atlantic, landing these curling, overhand punches on the long strip of white sand. Then, through the wind-blown rain, someone noticed in the froth beyond the breakers the masts of a sailboat that appeared to be lying on its side. A phone was dialed. The 911 operator answered. Then answered again, and again, as more calls streamed in.

Minutes later, Salisbury Police Sgt. Kevin Sullivan was staring at the ocean in disbelief. Through mist that fogged the lenses of his binoculars, he could see one mast and a dark sail rising from behind the breakers, no more than 250 feet from him and heading for shore. And then in an instant, the mast and sail — that was all Sullivan ever saw of this spectral vessel — turned sharply away from the beach. In steady 45-knot winds gusting to 64 knots, it was quickly gone from sight.

By now, Coast Guard Station Merrimac River — a surf station in nearby Newburyport, Mass. — had been notified, and a crew was heading out across the breakers aboard a 47-foot Motor Lifeboat. Bosun’s Mate Dan Mills, in his seven years as a surfman, had never encountered seas like those he was now climbing. When the boat crossed the sandbar, it was 5:20, dusk. The surf crew steered north, but off Salisbury, where the sailboat had been spotted, they found nothing. Now their concerns turned to their own survival. Returning across the bar at the mouth of the Merrimac in breaking surf would risk a capsize. The MLB crew went in search of a safe harbor where they could ride out the onslaught of the storm.

Man against the sea

Victor Gillings and his 33-foot gaff-rigged aluminum ketch, Sara Gamp — named for a character in Charles Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzlewit” — had been in a slugging match with the storm for about 24 hours by that afternoon. Gillings was headed for Gloucester, a few miles south of the surf station in Newburyport. He had left Nova Scotia the previous Friday and had hoped to make Gloucester by this hour.

Alone on his boat, the 74-year-old sailor already had been tested several times by the gale. Had he not been properly tethered to Sara Gamp, and had she not been a wholly satisfactory sea boat, he would have been lost overboard. Yet Gillings learned that he was no match on deck for this storm. Enough water had made it inside the ketch to soak all his clothing and sleeping gear, and seawater sloshed in the bilge. So with the helm lashed with bungee cords, he climbed down into the cabin, closing the companionway washboards behind him and covering up against the battering he knew wouldn’t soon stop. He made himself as comfortable as possible and, from time to time, plotted Sara Gamp’s position on a paper chart with GPS readings.

“I knew mentally how far I could get,” given the boat’s potential speed, he says. But, he adds, “It’s difficult to know [your precise location] in those conditions.” When he thought his course toward land had brought him close enough — he hadn’t looked at his chart for about three hours — he climbed back on deck.

“It was kind of like Mother Nature was saying, ‘I’m going to destroy every man-made object that is out here,’ ” he says. Visibility was 100 yards in the rain and wind. The sky was dark, and the clouds hung 50 feet above the tops of the waves.

And those waves. The wind pressed against them so heavily that, despite their mountainous size, their steep faces and longer backsides were flattened smooth like long, curving plates of steel, and the foam from their crests raced ahead to the southwest. As Gillings stood on deck marveling at the scene, there was a sudden tremendous crash, and he was buried in water. When the foam cleared, he saw directly before him houses and a beach. Between Sara Gamp and the sand there was nothing but dirty, yellow froth.

“This was when I realized I could easily lose myself and my boat,” he says.

Old-school sailor

Gillings’ voyage was born of a certain necessity. Sara Gamp, a Saugeen Witch designed by Tom Colvin, was a fine boat for the five years Gillings and his friend Martha “Marcy” Logan had owned her. But in 2004 Gillings bought a 38-foot Laurent Giles sloop named Aunt Clodagh (for the “very rich auntie” of the first owner). The boat was docked in Washington, D.C., where Gillings lives aboard. He had sailed Sara Gamp to Nova Scotia in 2004 and had stayed too long to make a safe return trip. So when he and Logan put the boat on the market, she was still in Nova Scotia.

While they had eight serious inquiries, Gillings and Logan found no buyers from the United States who were willing to travel to Canada to inspect the boat. They decided that she might sell better in Gloucester, so in mid-October, they drove his pickup to Mahone Bay, cleaned Sara Gamp and together began a voyage south.

Gillings is a sailor from the old school. “When I first heard of sailing, there wasn’t the [notion of a] ‘window of opportunity,’ ” he says. “You just set sail and dealt with what was there, and handled it to the best of your competence or your incompetence.”

Gillings first learned to sail in the 1950s in New Zealand, when he also was learning to scuba dive. But that wasn’t his first contact with the sea. Gillings was born in England’s Midlands, and he says any person born there is never more than 80 miles from the water.

Gillings dropped out of school at age 14 and went to work for a canal company as an apprentice stonemason, mending locks, bridges and the homes of the canal keepers. He had a youth’s fascination with the coal barges that moved along the canals, and daydreamed of the ships they loaded in ports. In 1975 Gillings sailed a 32-foot wooden John Alden ketch from England to Brazil, starting a cruising habit that has brought him to ports in much of the Western Hemisphere.

“I work [as a bricklayer] until I’ve got enough, and then I stay out there until I’m broke,” he explains. “I’m at the age when I don’t want a career, and I don’t want money.”

October gales

Gillings and Logan left Washington Oct. 12, the only time they were free to go. “Anyhow, October’s a good sailing month,” he says, with the most chance of getting easterly winds to push a boat on a course for the United States. They arrived in Mahone Bay Friday, Oct. 14; gale winds blew from the southwest. The winds continued through the weekend and into Monday. Giving the seas an extra day to settle down, the couple set sail Oct. 19, in 15- to 20-knot winds from the northwest, just enough of an angle to their course to let them reach down the coast toward Shelburne, Nova Scotia.

They had passed Liverpool when, two hours after nightfall, the winds increased to perhaps 25 knots, and seas began to build. The ride was uncomfortable, so Gillings decided to retreat. After 23 hours at sea, they docked in Liverpool — its harbor protected from the westerlies — at 8 a.m. Thursday. Exhausted, they slept through the day. Then they modified their plan.

Logan would return to Mahone Bay for the pickup and drive to Gloucester, where she was to meet Gillings. Gloucester — a town Gillings has grown fond of on many prior stops — was chosen as the easiest place to reach in the States. The harbor is protected, there are plenty of supplies and good facilities, and the YMCA has good showers.

Discussing the new plan, Logan and Gillings were aware that Hurricane Wilma, then in Florida, was heading north. But the forecast showed no problems before Tuesday, Oct. 25, and Gillings told Logan he would be ashore by then.

Leaving Liverpool at 9 a.m. Friday, Oct. 21, Gillings found the winds higher than the predicted 15 knots, so he sailed without his mainsail, relying on two headsails and the mizzen. Trouble waited for two days, patiently stalking Gillings until he was most vulnerable, and lulling him with some of the best sailing a solo navigator could want. He clipped along at 6 knots in front of northerly breezes, the bungee cords holding the wheel on course.

This hadn’t changed by 2:30 Sunday afternoon when a becket — a strap holding up a block — snapped. The block carried the halyard that hoisted the gaff, which supported the top of the mizzen sail, and with the becket gone, the sail fell. So in rising winds, Gillings lashed the gaff and sail securely, and continued sailing with just the two headsails. He was about halfway into his voyage.

Later that afternoon the wind fell. In six hours, however, it was back and blowing furiously from the southwest, directly at Gillings. In building seas Sara Gamp was knocked on her side, and the engine, which Gillings had been running to keep the batteries topped, quit. He made no effort to solve the problem, which he assumed was a clogged fuel filter.

Gillings sailed on against the wind through Sunday night and into Monday, when winds eased again. Late that afternoon the sailor looked up to a sky that had turned shades of copper and green. There was no doubt in his mind that he was approaching a difficult battle. His barometer was dropping slowly; he believed the storm would last a long time.

While the gale indeed never eased, the wind swung around completely during the night Monday, coming at him now from the northeast and piling the sea into 15- to 20-foot breaking waves that Gillings says were “wicked just to look at.” Early Tuesday morning, four days into the passage, Sara Gamp remained dry. “Colvin designed a very good sea boat in that Saugeen Witch,” Gillings says. “I had a great deal of faith in her. I’ve been out in gales with her before.”

But now he was quite certain this was more than a gale. The ocean had changed. The tops of the waves were getting blown off. The racing air — the temperature was around 50 degrees — was streaming stinging spindrift from one crest to the next. Yet Sara Gamp made headway, sailing along due east of Gloucester.

“Come on, Sara, you can do it!”

Gillings had come prepared for the conditions. With the help of Logan, he had outfitted himself with synthetic underwear, Canadian army surplus wool trousers, a heavy wool winter shirt, and his favorite sweater made of heavy New Zealand wool and weighing six pounds. Over all of this he wore foul-weather gear with a life vest and safety harness, tethered to the steel rail that surrounded the cockpit.

Concerned that if he kept on his southerly course he would blow past Gloucester, Gillings headed northwest as close to the wind as he could get without stalling his sails. By now he was hunkering in the cabin, going on deck about once an hour to see what was happening. The jib and staysail were doing their work, as were the bungee cords.

It was about noon on Tuesday when Gillings heard what sounded like a pistol shot outside. He climbed on deck and found that the center of the jib had blown out. A triangle of sailcloth at the head of the sail and another band of cloth along the foot were somehow still anchored in place by the hem along the leech, drawn taut by the jib sheet.

Gillings saw that he had to compensate for the loss of sail area by adjusting the steering, and he was rearranging his bungee cords when a huge wave broke over the deck. The wall of water slammed into Gillings’ backside, driving him headlong across and out of the cockpit. If he wasn’t knocked unconscious he certainly was stunned, and when he came to his senses he was in the air, suspended above the waves. His harness apparently had yanked him up short of the sea, letting him travel only as far as the mizzen boom, which he held in a death grip until Sara Gamp, rocking violently, tilted so that he and the boom were back over the deck.

Still the boat sailed on, and Gillings again retreated to his cabin. At 3 o’clock that afternoon he went topside to check his surroundings. A breaking wave knocked Sara Gamp on her starboard side, leaving Gillings standing on the 3-foot-high steel cockpit railing to which he was tethered and talking to his boat. “Come on, Sara, you can do it!”

For a few agonizing minutes, the wind pinned the sails nearly horizontal. Sara Gamp moved forward, driven by the wind on her staysail and shredded jib, but she seemed too overwhelmed to right herself. Gillings kept talking, though, and finally the masts found a way to rise, hauling the sails with them.

Returning below, Gillings found wreckage. The kerosene range had been ripped from the galley and was lying on the cabin sole. Every locker had burst open, and clothes and food were strewn about the cabin. Blankets and sleeping bags were heaped around the range, and water sloshed up from the bilge, soaking everything. Resigned, Gillings tried to get comfortable amid the chaos, and for two hours he stayed below.

At nearly 5 p.m. he went back on deck. Bracing himself on the wildly rocking boat, he saw the beach only seconds away. As the spectators on the sand stared at the sea, Gillings — having seen his destruction at hand — decided to jibe and turned Sara Gamp back to sea, sailing straight out into the breaking surf that the Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat crew later would brave.

“I started talking to the boat exactly like I was on a horse going through hurdles,” says Gillings. “I said, ‘C’mon, Sara. You’ve been through them once. Let’s see if you can go through them again!’ And she did. She either went through them or over them, and I gradually clawed away from land.”

As he headed back to sea, Gillings looked back and saw what appeared to be a powerful light shining at him. He grabbed his flashlight and shone it toward the beach. He was soaked under his foul weather jacket and pants, but he decided to stay on deck, hoping he could steer his boat around Cape Ann, the promontory about 20 miles to the southeast and on the far side of which is Gloucester. It was 11 p.m. Tuesday when Gillings passed Cape Ann, but seas were too rough for him to go ashore. He sailed toward Cape Cod, thinking he would wait offshore until the storm passed. And once more he went below, hoping for some sleep.

Surprise rescue

Sara Gamp’s main cabin had a dinette to port with seats forward and abaft the table. The galley was to starboard, opposite the dinette. The aft dinette seat was opposite the kerosene range, and now that the range was on the sole there was an empty space opposite the seat. Gillings lay on the seat, putting his legs across the cabin and wedging his feet into the space formerly occupied by the range. Exhausted, he drifted into dreams.

His sleep twice was shattered when he was thrown across the boat. One time he came to rest upside down with his legs above his head, a position he was certain he was too old to achieve. He noticed that the barometer hadn’t changed in two days, since Sunday, still showing very low pressure. And the sea hadn’t calmed in the slightest; the leeward portholes frequently were under water.

At one point early Wednesday morning, as he was preparing to go back on deck, Gillings believed Logan was on board, coaxing him to go below and get some sleep. So he did, assured in his dreamy state that the boat would be in safe hands. This happened twice.

“But then you wake up searching the boat, finding nobody aboard, and realize you’ve been hallucinating,” says Gillings. “The annoying thing is several times I thought I’d managed to get into Gloucester, and somebody was feeding me a steak.”

In his more lucid moments, Gillings realized he was getting cold, so he piled seat cushions over himself for insulation. He figured he would wait out the storm, then use his good sails to arrive in Gloucester, two days late but under his own steam.

Then at 8 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26, an awful clattering shook Gillings from his dreams. He went to the companionway and slid the hatch open. Hovering just above his mizzenmast was a white and orange Coast Guard helicopter.

The search for Victor Gillings had begun Sunday, Oct. 23 — two days after he departed Liverpool — when Logan called the Canadian Coast Guard, worried about her friend’s safety. Despite the fact that Gillings wasn’t yet overdue, U.S. and Canadian authorities began the hunt because of the severity of the storm. At one point, the aircraft were flying in winds between 50 and 70 knots and over 20- to 30-foot seas. The search was suspended for a time Tuesday when conditions worsened, but resumed again Wednesday morning. By then the storm had passed, although winds were still 25 to 30 knots and seas 10 to 15 feet.

Lt. Paul Brooks took off in these conditions at 7:30 a.m. from Air Station Cape Cod aboard a Dassault Falcon, a corporate jet that the Coast Guard uses for search and rescue operations. Cruising at 1,000 feet, Brooks and another pilot could see for 40 miles. They had been in the air about an hour when, 22 miles north of Provincetown at the northern tip of Cape Cod, they saw Sara Gamp.

“The boat was rocking pretty good,” Brooks recalls. “He had one brown sail up. The mainsail was tattered and hanging over the side. He was making a pretty straight course.”

The jet was equipped with infrared radar that created black-and-white images on screens in the cockpit and back in the cabin, where a technician operated the electronics. On the screen, Brooks and the other crewmembers could see the image of Sara Gamp, but there was no telltale white glow that heat from a human body generates. Circling at about 1,000 feet, the crew called Air Station Cape Cod for a helicopter, then diverted a 900-foot freighter that was nine miles to the north. They didn’t want to leave the scene because they might not be able to find the boat again. Its aluminum hull and low freeboard made it a poor target for radar, so they kept it in sight while climbing to 1,500 feet for better communications with the air base. Thirty-five minutes after they had spotted the sailboat, they finally saw a patch of glowing white on the radar screen and knew there was someone on board. Just 35 minutes later, the helicopter arrived.

Gillings couldn’t understand why the helicopter was there; he hadn’t communicated with anyone. But there it was, with a man being lowered on a cable. Despite the risk posed by the swinging masts, the rescue swimmer gave hand signals to the chopper to guide him closer to Sara Gamp’s stern. When the swimmer was just over the transom, it appeared to Gillings that he fell, landing on his back on a fisherman’s anchor lashed to the deck. Then the swimmer was on his feet, scrambling toward Gillings in the companionway. He pulled the washboards out of the opening, clipped a harness around Gillings and said, “You’re going off.”

“I got the impression he may have seen something in me that I didn’t know about myself,” Gillings says. Suddenly, in the embrace of the rescue swimmer, Gillings was being lifted from his boat. The two men bounced off the mizzen mast and swung wildly, spinning on the cable as they rose toward the chopper.

“Two things struck me,” Gillings recalls. “One, how beautiful the boat looked. She was still stoutly sailing. And two, how thin the rope was that we were being pulled up on.”

Scavengers, critics & conviction

Gillings was airlifted to Massachusetts General Hospital. In the emergency room, staff cut away his clothing with shears. Not only was he not suffering from hypothermia, as his rescuers had believed, but a doctor found him fit enough to discharge him immediately. Inspecting Gillings’ now-shredded wool garments, the doctor told the sailor he obviously had been prepared with the proper gear for his ordeal.

Six days later, Sara Gamp arrived back in Nova Scotia, unassisted, where she was deposited high on the rocks at Yarmouth. She was banged up but otherwise apparently seaworthy. A local fisherman found the boat and called Gillings. He reported that the rocks had damaged the starboard side but hadn’t holed the hull. He said he had removed the sextant and the log to save them for Gillings.

Given that he and Logan had been asking $21,000 when Sara Gamp was in good condition, Gillings questioned whether the cost of restoring the uninsured boat would allow them to sell it for a profit. He was stone broke and decided to stay at home to work.

When Logan arrived in Canada a few days later, she found the boat stripped by scavengers. The masts and booms, even the portholes, were gone. She looked for a buyer but in the end gave Sara Gamp away.

Gillings had gone to Gloucester from the hospital, where he heard critics challenge his right to be at sea and in need of the Coast Guard. He notes that he never called for help. And he says he has no question about his seamanship skills or judgment. He had known during the storm that he was facing danger, and, as he says he often does, there were times when he prayed to his maker. But he says there never was a time when he felt he might not make it to shore.

Gillings overheard one woman tell another — neither knew who he was — that he was a silly old fool for having been at sea. And a man confronted him, saying he was “stupid.” The man, Gillings learned, was unfamiliar with the Saugeen Witch, and so the sailor explained to his accuser, “There are things you will do with one boat that you won’t do with another boat.” If the man wasn’t convinced one way, neither was Gillings in the other.

“Where did I go wrong?” Gillings asks. “I’m here.”