Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Gulf stream

In four months of sailing last winter, our overnight crossing of the Gulf stream was the only time I threw up.  This, my second crossing, also proved to be one of the more interesting nights of my life.  "Miserable" is another good word for it.  Again, it was enough to induce vomiting.  As with most experiences of this kind, I have no photos from it.  Even my memories from the night are a bit hazy, shrouded in the distorting gauze of exhaustion and nausea.  I only remember snippets. 

The predicted wind shift had not yet occurred when we entered the stream.  It had, however, shifted enough to kick up a nasty cross swell.  The resulting pinnacles of water, steep and looming, roamed randomly through the dark, bowling over Strolla in ferocious blows, without rhythm or warning. 

The waves out in the Gulf stream were rough enough and steep enough that we found it impossible to motor into them without the stabilizing effect of a partially reefed jib.  So, we spent the night tacking our way back and forth across the Gulfstream taking the waves first on one side and then the other.  At each collision, solid sheets of spray cascaded back along the length of the boat.  It was easily the heaviest spray I've seen reach the cockpit.  Even in full rain gear, whoever was at the helm as quickly soaked through and freezing. 

The job of steering the boat was especially difficult without our compass working.  The GPS compass mounted inside the companionway was too far away to read from the tiller in this weather.  Also, and this was something we hadn't thought of earlier, it showed our GPS heading, not our actual heading.  Because of the northward sweep of the Gulfstream, the two were dramatically different.

The orienteering compass, our second backup, proved equally useless.  Unattached to the boat, it would immediately fall or be washed off the bench onto the floor with each violent roll of the boat.  In the wild weather, it had to be held inches from the face to read the dial and none of us had waterproof headlamps.  Holding the compass in hand was impossible because both hands were needed to hang on to the boat and hold the tiller. 

Ultimately, for lack of a better option, we were forced to steer by the stars.  It was a clear night and the farther we sailed from Miami the more prominently the stars shined.  We could only sneak quick peaks at them between blasts of spray, but the stars were the closest thing to a fixed point we could find.  With periodic reference to our GPS and handheld compass by a designated "assistant helmsman," we were able to steer a regular course. 

Nate, Becca, and I succumbed to seasickness early in the night and spent the rest of the passage resenting Mark and his "stomach of steel."  I was the first to throw up, peppering the port side with half digested flecks of cinnamon poptart.  I felt much better afterwards but continued to suffer from waves of nausea and couldn't eat or drink anything until we dropped anchor in Bimini, almost 24 hours after Thanksgiving dinner, our last meal. 

Nate was next, having held out until he'd finished his turn at the helm.  Becca never threw up, or at least only in her mouth.  By popular vote, it has been agreed that this doeesn't count.  She remains with Mark in the winner's bracket. 

The next morning broke calm and sunny.  A fair wind was blowing.  The Bimini islands could be seen clearly, shimmering on the horizon.  Like the morning after a party, we four happy survivors gathered in the cockpit, groggy and exhausted, to piece together the events of the preceding night from our collective memory. 

Nate was feeling the best of all of us, having gotten the most sleep the night before.  After his turn at the tiller, he'd turned in and gotten a solid three hours.  He explained the next morning that the boat was rolling too wildly to sleep in his bunk because he was constantly flung from one side of the v-berth to the other.  Instead, he found that by wedging himself into the recessed floor of the main cabin, he was immobilized enough to drift off.  He didn't wake up until someone stepped on his neck.  I apologized for that.  I hadn't known he was down there in the dark. 

I remembered seeing Nate's whole body shuddering under the impact of the water piling into him.  After he'd regained his feet he gave me a smile and a wave.  I waved back but he didn't see as another huge blow of spray twisted him sideways.  Nate remembered coming on deck after his nap to find me and Mark, helmsman and assistant, bobbing in and out of sleep, chins on chest, drooling.  With the light of morning, the stars had disappeared.  When Nate came out to take the helm, I told him to steer by the clouds.  He took the compass and sent me below. 

We dropped anchor in the Bimini Islands, Hemingway's "Islands in the stream", and fell immediately to sleep.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, sounds like a wild night Petey! Love the updates, just the study break I needed!