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When we tested our limits in angry seas

Editor’s Note: Mike O’Shea wrote this retelling of a rough night sailing from Lake Montauk to Bayport, N.Y., with the intention of submitting it for publication in Soundings.

He died suddenly last October before he was able to submit the story, but his son, Chris, found the handwritten notes and sent it to us. Here is Mike’s story.

Nyala and Mike O'Shea take on the Great South Bay in 1996.

By Mike O’Shea

About 10 years ago, I was on a summer cruise aboard my 1966 32-foot Bristol sloop. A prettier boat you couldn’t ask for: generous overhangs fore and aft with a slight tumblehome — a classic. Little did I know her beautiful lines would later prove so beneficial in a time of need.

I had finished a short cruise to Block Island and gunkholed in Peconic Bay for about a week. Returning to Lake Montauk, I called my friend and sailing mentor, Frank, for a hand returning down the south shore of Long Island to Bayport, my home port. There isn’t much Frank doesn’t know about sailing, having taught it and lived it for many years.

Frank said sure, but he was only available that night. We agreed. He took the train out and arrived around 9 p.m. at Montauk (N.Y.) Yacht Club. We left at 10.

Quieter times aboard Nyala with his wife, Deirde, in 1995.

The wind that night was strong and building out of the east. This would mean a sleigh ride down the south shore once we rounded Montauk. Rounding Montauk was a scene straight out of “Victory at Sea.” With every rotation, the Montauk Point Light would illuminate the 12-foot seas we were pounding through. With every crash of the bow, 25 feet of spray screamed off the boat, both port and starboard.

After an hour of pounding through the surf, we rounded the Point and began a night to truly remember. The wind was now at about 40 knots, the seas were covered with white foam and the waves seemed like mountains.

Our dink, which was in tow, was pounding from one side of the boat to the other. We placed a sharp knife on the lazarette, prepared to cut her free if we had to. You could see the dink as it surged into view from behind the boat.

We spent the night with our heels dug into the sides of the cockpit, hands firmly on the wheel, intensely steering to keep the bow straight down and then up the waves. The overhangs on this boat proved how effective this design is: the sheer to the bow would pull you up the front side of the waves and slide you down the back side. The aft overhang cushioned the following sea and gently accepted a wave push from Mother Nature. At times, this boat with a hull speed of about 6.4 knots would hit 10.

Frank went below at Shinnecock Inlet to try and sleep. We had the main up and had doused the jib. The engine was running with the wonderful sound of an old Gray Marine Flathead to keep me company.

After about 2-1/2 hours, I yelled down to Frank that we were at Moriches Inlet, our planned entry into the Great South Bay. He said we couldn’t be. It was too short a time.

I was staring at the sea buoy but no inlet was visible, I told him.

When Frank came up on deck, we headed toward where the inlet should be. Frank took the wheel as we approached the inlet, and I readied the boat, put in the washboards just in case, and dug out the new life vests. I was in the port locker dragging out the vests when I asked Frank, “Two each or what?” I fully meant it.

Luckily for us, we didn’t end up needing the life vests.

We successfully made it through the inlet, over the sandbar in a furious white sea to enter the peaceful waters of the Great South Bay. We made coffee, cooked breakfast and enjoyed the most wonderful meal.

That experience was extremely scary to say the least, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It taught me we all have to test ourselves.

That night I learned my limits, my boat’s limits and total trust in a good friend.

See related article:

"Love of boating binds family together"

This article originally appeared in the Connecticut and New York Home Waters Section of the June 2009 issue.