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Surviving the sea

Editor’s note: Pamela Sisman Bitterman was first mate of the 123-foot Sofia, which sank in heavy weather off Cape Reinga on New Zealand’s North Island in 1982. Bitterman has written of her adventures aboard Sofia in “Sailing to the Far Horizon”.

Editor’s note: Pamela Sisman Bitterman was first mate of the 123-foot Sofia, which sank in heavy weather off Cape Reinga on New Zealand’s North Island in 1982. Bitterman has written of her adventures aboard Sofia in “Sailing to the Far Horizon” (University of Wisconsin Press, November 2004), which culminates with the 60-year-old ship’s undoing. Seventeen paying crewmembers were aboard the Sofia as she set a course for Auckland, New Zealand, in February 1982. Only four of the sailors were veterans of the ship; the rest had come aboard recently. An additional crewmember adopted by the crew is a coati, a raccoon-like animal whose range extends from the southern United States through Mexico. They call it Varmit. Although conditions were rough — gale-force winds and steep head seas created by a strong current off Cape Reinga — they were considered within normal bounds for the area during that time of year.

Read the other story in this package: Surviving the sea - The sea spit us out

The first leg out of Nelson, New Zealand, to New Plymouth — en route to Auckland — is illuminating, to put it mildly. Beating for almost three days through near gale-force winds and heading seas smacks the rookies with the realities of open-ocean sailing.

Evan — the skipper — and I get barely any sleep. At least one of us is on deck the entire time. The ship holds up, the crew hangs in, and after a week in New Plymouth we’re preparing for the last leg, a hefty stretch that’ll loop us up around the North Cape on the North Island to New Zealand’s east coast, back down along the Bay of Islands, and on to the Hauraki Gulf and Auckland.

Departing Nelson from Tasman Bay on New Zealand’s South Island, we needed only to make a short hop across Cook Strait to reach the North Island and a proverbial fork in the road. There are two routes to Auckland. We can follow the example of generations of local fishermen by sailing up the west coast of North Island. This passage, colloquially known as “North About,” is the rougher of the options. It promises fluky winds, heading seas, and many miles before landfall.

The other route, up the east coast and around the Bay of Plenty, will put us on an almost constant reach, with the prevailing breeze shoving us into a lee shore. Few things at sea are more unsettling than sailing for an extended period while the immense effort of the malevolent Roaring 40s forces you into mile after protracted mile of reef-rimmed coastline. Weighing the pros and cons, we decide to head North About.

Varmit trouble

I set up a watch rotation of four teams, four to a watch, for the New Plymouth-to-Auckland leg. (The skipper wasn’t part of the watch rotation.) Each team has one experienced watch captain and three relatively green crewmembers. We are working the ship hard. The rookies are at times overwhelmed. It is admittedly an unpleasant passage. We are hauling up the coast, averaging a good 5 knots, expecting to round North Cape on the second night and make Auckland by the fourth day. Our schedule is ambitious, but the weather is foul. None of us wants to be out bashing around in it any longer than necessary.

We make Cape Maria van Diemen, the North Island’s northwesternmost point, in the late afternoon of the second day. As dusk approaches conditions appear to worsen. The crew is showing fatigue. The ship is taking on water, as old wooden ships will. Both are consequences that we anticipated and prepared for. We spell the watch, and the bilges pump steadily.

Evan flicks the switch on the single sideband and waits to pick up a weather report. Nothing happens. Reaching behind the instrument panel, he dredges up a fistful of torn wires. Earlier in the day someone had noticed the Varmit, our ship’s pet coati, tearing around the chart room in a frenzy. At one point he had wedged himself into the radio well, where he was heard to be thrashing wildly about. Varmit apparently ripped the wires from their sockets, stripped the connections, and left the works in a tangled nest. He had unplugged us.

Aware that it will take hours to repair the damage, Evan tries the VHF radio, hoping to hail a yacht that’s nearby. He gets some juice from the VHF, but the signal is weak and intermittent. We hail the yacht, and they respond jovially. No, they haven’t heard of a storm bearing down, no appreciable change since the last report we’ve received. “This is the weather off the North Cape, don’tcha know?” they report. They’ve just snugged up to rest for the night.

There remain a panicky few who lobby to head in. But none is seasoned. Those of us who have been there and done that on many a rocky ride defer to the clinical, unemotional laws of the sea in making our decision. The small harbor, if we chance it, will be a gamble. The winds, on the other hand, are fresh but nothing Sofia can’t handle. The pumps are keeping up. The dawn will see us into the golden, serene Bay of Islands.

The end of the world

The course alters slightly during my watch, putting us on more of a beat, sailing close-hauled and with sails sheeted in tightly. Consequently, we’ve begun to heel, which is natural in these conditions. Then the auxiliary bilge pump chokes and abruptly stops. It creates a kind of implosive sensation, as if all the oxygen has been drained from the atmosphere in an instant. It sounds like the end of the world.

I dive into the engine room, crawl under the generator, and stare into the swilling bilges. Sucking air, the pump has lost its prime and died. Clearly it will do the same each time we suffer a severe roll. Bloody hell! We’ll have to depend solely on the manual pumps. They move volumes, but we’ll have to pump non-stop. I set my team to the task. The watches will overlap shifts if necessary.

I share this information with Joe, the oncoming watch captain. I turn the helm over to his team but stay on deck well into his watch, pumping, verifying, overseeing, pacifying. Everything appears to be stable.

I go below at around 11 p.m. At one point during his watch Joe goes below to the galley to put on a pot of tea. A young woman from Nelson, Julie, who doesn’t have a bunk and is sleeping in the saloon, is wide awake when he gets there. She whispers that she is frightened. He urges her to try not to worry.

The next thing I’m aware of is an instinct. Everything is wrong, out of sync, shifted ever so slightly. Something has crossed mysteriously over the line by just that fraction of an inch. I struggle to get back on deck, feeling my way along, scrambling, falling, moving in slow motion.

As I reach the top of the aft companionway ladder, I spot Big Scott at the helm. He is gripping the wheel with white knuckles, forcing it this way, that way, hunching over, his eyes burned into the compass. He’s hopelessly lost his heading. Only terror is holding him erect. Two members of the watch team are clinging to the helm. “Why aren’t you pumping?” I demand.

“They aren’t working properly,” they assert.

My voice is shrieking inside my head, Oh God, no! No one is pumping! “All hands on deck,” I shout, “Report back aft and prepare to furl the mizzen.”

It is so dark — a heavy, suffocating blackness. The running lights are dim. It looks fuzzy below deck, like a dream. Crewmembers appear, pulling on a shirt, a boot, a pair of glasses. Their eyes are like saucers, mouths agape and not asking the question.

It takes the entire lot of us to drag down the mizzen in the heavy winds and steep seas — except for Big Scott, who is still wrestling with the wheel. “I can’t see the compass!” he cries.

Evan orders me to get a flashlight for the helm. I drop below, and my stomach shoots straight up into my throat. Seawater swirls around my ankles. The main batteries are half under water. The auxiliary diesel generator’s starting battery is completely immersed. I know we won’t be able to engage the engine or the pump. I reach for a flashlight and return to the helm, where everyone is packed in like cornered animals. I press the light into someone’s hand. “Train it on the compass!” I demand.

As Joe and I move forward to furl the main, I catch a glimpse of Julie, crouched on the main deck, clinging to the fore boom crutch next to the companionway. She asks me what she should do. She looks so scared. I think I tell her to hang on. I think I say that it will be all right.

I pass the companionway and glance down. The bilge boards are floating, the sturdy ladder gone. The cabin sole, newly varnished and shiny still, lies beneath a foot of water. We aren’t heeling; my God, we are listing. Sofia is filling up.

Joe and I inch our way to the main throat and peak halyards. Mine is on the port side, the leeward side. As I reach it, I notice that I can dip my hand into the sea from the deck. Oh Lord, are we riding that low? Just then the ocean bursts over the bow, and in an instant I am waist-deep in water, wedged against the bulwarks, straining to keep my footing. As the sea trails aft, I numbly return to my mission, my mind throbbing. Furl the main. Just furl the main. What else can you do? This might not be happening. Probably isn’t happening. Do something! Furl the main!

Now Evan confirms that it is happening. “Release the forward life raft,” his voice wails and then sails off. Go up there? Only the sea is there — that sea, Joe and me. I see Joe take a step, stop and lurch again one last time toward the void. Then it hits.


Evan gestures furiously toward the bow. I see panic on his face, but his words become absorbed by a groan so deep and all-encompassing that it presses me to my knees. Craning my neck, I pivot toward the sound and confront a monstrous wave hurdling the foredeck. In an instant it has nimbly snatched the heavily secured life raft from its pedestal and is thundering toward me, expanding as it advances. My throat clamps down on a small piece of cry before the charging ocean buries me with the force of a steamroller.

Consumed whole, I am tumbled over and over. Then, as abruptly as I was propelled, I am yanked around to a full stop with my arms stretched at the sockets. The line that I still clutch in my fists is snapped iron taut. I was attempting to reduce sail when the wall of water struck, and I mindlessly retained my grip on the main halyard. Struggling against strange, uncertain gravity, I thrust up my head, gasp for air, and find myself not in the sea but still on the ship. I realize then, with the absolute certainty of one who knows that we are sinking, that the sea is now also in the Sofia.

Sofia’s main deck rises in front of me. The vessel seems to be teetering oafishly, suspended on her port beam. Black foam gathers around my thighs as I become aware of forward motion. Still undefeated, Sofia makes stubborn headway, sailing on her buried rail, slicing through the hollow trough between the peaks of the waves enveloping her.

In the gloom, a whip of brilliant orange snakes across my fingers, now splayed and clawing for a grip on the slick deck. I grapple for the DayGlo line, recognizing it as the main topsail brail, the one that I had marked conspicuously when I was boatswain to avoid confusing it with a halyard.

Twisting the brail around my forearms, I begin to scale Sofia’s main deck. The now upward-reaching cap rail is as far as I can climb. Thick bulwarks extend out over my head, a 4-foot shelf of familiar, tired and worn timber. I hang there, dangling somewhere between a black sea and a black sky.

I notice Billy sitting on the outside of the hull. His legs are swaying, and he is absently twisting his mustache with the deliberate fingers of one hand. Somehow sensing that I need to be careful not to startle him, I murmur his name. He drops his free hand toward me, all the while continuing to stare serenely out to sea. I release the brail and clasp his arm in one single, desperate motion. Kicking hard and swinging out from the deck, I arch a leg up over the rail and am able to mount the hull. Suddenly, I find myself standing on Sofia’s starboard beam end, looking down as my ship slips sideways beneath my feet, deeper and deeper into the ocean.

“Billy, we have to go now,” I say gently, still holding his arm. He stands, we turn together, and without a word we step lightly off into the sea. Sofia’s running lights, weak and dim against the black sky, still illuminate the ocean’s depths with a cartoonlike surrealism. Today, if I close my eyes, I can see Sofia as I saw her in that paralyzed instant, underwater in suspended animation in front of me, close enough for me to reach out and touch.

As I break from the softly lit quiet of the sea into the violence of the storm, I collide head on with a life raft. It had gone down with the ship and then, just as it was designed to, self-inflated and exploded into the open air.

Sofians, scattered about in the water, begin clambering into it. A few yards away, the other life raft — the one that was wrenched from the bow — is inflated and already filled with crewmembers. Everyone aboard it is shouting in an effort to gather the struggling sailors from the sea, while Evan kneels and waves his flashlight in broad circles.

I start toward the nearest raft, then freeze. Somewhere behind me, I hear fragments of a muted call for help. Whirling about, I confront what seems like immeasurable emptiness. Then I hear it again. “Help me,” the feeble voice cries.

“I’m coming,” I scream. “Keep calling.” Taking a few quick strokes and then straining, waiting, I hear no human sound. “Where are you?” I beg. Nothing. Twisting back around to alert the crew, I am stunned to find the rafts nearly out of sight and drifting fast, their bulky windage tossed helplessly on the seas.

I turn back one last time. “Where are you?” I wail. But there is no further cry to lead me. Far off in the distance, a twinkling glimmer of light catches my eye just barely above the surface. Sofia has finally made her peace with the sea. She has raised herself upright. The very tips of her topmasts stretch proudly toward the stars as she sails downward and disappears forever. In front of me now lies only the omniscient ocean and its storm. I know that I am alone. Behind me, Evan’s light, bleak and only intermittently visible above the swells, offers my only direction.

I swim toward it. I am the last one to reach the rafts. “Someone is still in the water!” I shout. “They called for help. Over there.” I gesture wildly. Turning to point the way, I am lost. Over where? There is nothing. The storm spins in chaos.

“Take a head count!” someone orders. There’s a pause before we hear, “Sixteen!”

“Count again!” the voice screams. “Sixteen! Sixteen!” Someone is missing. Julie. It is Julie. Oh, God.

All night we battle the brutal elements. We in the broken raft are totally exposed to the storm — wet, cold, bailing non-stop, pushing water over the sides in armfuls. And we are ridiculously unstable. Each wave that doesn’t engulf us threatens to flip us. The sea picks up our raft, buckles it in half, and tries to fold it in on itself. We fly, bodies hurl, crashing from side to side, clinging to the slippery rubber, balancing, forcing ourselves against the onslaught. We assume that this is the best that we can hope for.

First dawn comes quietly in a damp gloom of gray sea and bloated sky. We see little evidence of so catastrophic a storm. We alone remain out here, the only evidence that the Sofia ever existed.

Pamela Sisman Bitterman, 55, most recently taught maritime history and seamanship at the San Diego Maritime Museum. While in their life raft for five days, she and other survivors determined that a garboard plank may have given way on Sofia, allowing seawater to flood the ship. Bitterman and fellow Sofian Joe, who proposed in the life raft, have been married for 23 years and raised their two children aboard a 50-foot brigantine in San Diego. For more about “Sailing to the Far Horizon,” visit the University of Wisconsin Press at .