The sound of cracking thunder, howling wind, and breaking seas was deafening. For visual effect, nature’s light show acted like flickering ballpark floodlights on the 40-foot seas, giving intermittent glimpses of how bad the situation was. I was sitting alone in the dark cockpit of a disabled 40-foot sloop, 400 miles off Cape Hatteras, sipping the last of the rum and trying to spot the ship that had responded to our Mayday.
Finally at 0430 I saw the immense, dark hull of the 1,100-foot tanker, Venture Independence, as it rose on the swells and then disappeared into the troughs. Radio contact established that a rescue attempt would be made at daybreak; giving me an hour and a half with nothing more to do than figure out how in the world I got myself into this mess.
It happened 23 years ago when I eagerly agreed to crew aboard a client’s Intrepid 40 he was sailing from Annapolis to Bermuda with his childhood buddies. She was stoutly built by Cape Dory and superbly designed by Chuck Paine, and the owner seemingly had spared no expense in maintaining and outfitting her, although I later discovered a few items crucial to a safe passage had been overlooked or ignored.
Up to this point, my offshore sailing experience had been limited to overnight passages up and down the East Coast, usually within 20 miles of land. Based on my monthly digestion of nautical magazines, though, I knew enough to ask a few safety-related questions, such as whether the boat had storm sails and a sea anchor. “Don’t worry. Our sails are in good shape, and we can always trail our dock lines if necessary,” was the owner’s answer. Since GPS technology had not yet reached the recreational boating market (making this voyage seem ancient), and LORAN was not effective far offshore, I also asked who would be serving as navigator. “Don’t worry, one of the crew is an experienced navigator and electronics whiz.” And lastly, I wondered how much sailing experience the additional three crewmembers had. “Don’t worry. They’ve been sailing since they were kids.” Geez, I guess I should learn to stop worrying.
Little things can be a premonition of big things to follow, and I began worrying again when I got on board and saw the “electronics whiz” feverishly splicing a maze of wires behind the electronics panel at the nav station. He had begun to install a new Single Side Band (SSB) radio and weatherfax just hours before departure. Having built my own ham radio gear as a kid, I knew that installing a SSB was not exactly a “cut ’n splice” operation.
Soon, more signs followed. As we began our trip south on the Chesapeake Bay our “navigator-electronics whiz,” taking a break from his DIY electronics project, poked his head out of the companionway and asked what the big object was to starboard. It was the wellknown, often-photographed Thomas Point Lighthouse, 15 miles from where this fellow lived on his boat. Uh oh.