Saturday, June 19, 2010

Voyage to Liberty: The Storm

They set out again, looking in at Mastic Point next. Nothing but a broken down pier and a few scattered buildings. Stafford Creek had nothing to offer. Blanket sound looked as if war had broken out there. They finally hit pay dirt at Staniard Creek. There was a resort there, now abandoned.

After a hair raising, very slow trip up a very shallow channel, Hot Rods was finally tied up to the dock at the resort. The group went ashore, leaving the captain and Seth to stand guard over the boat.

"Hoo yeah!" Jack shouted when he found the fuel tanks for the resort's emergency generator. Both were full. A thousand gallon gasoline tank on the property was half full as well.

"We better get what we can now, then bring the fleet around" Willie said.

They filled all the containers they'd brought with them, and topped off Hot Rods' tanks as well, then ran near full bore back around to the anchorage at Red Bay. They arrived early in the afternoon, and found everything as they had left it, to Jack's relief.

Fuel containers were returned to their owners, and the crews poured the contents into their tanks. Then they weighed anchor and set out for Staniard Creek, Hot Rods leading the way.
It was a much longer trip this time, the fleet only progressing as fast as it's slowest vessel could go, about six knots. It would take them until early the next morning to arrive in Jack's estimate, and he hoped they would clear the reefs before sundown. They did, just barely...

He was relieved to be in open water again after a long, tense afternoon of tricky sailing through the maze of reefs and sandbars. The fifty foot cutter, having the deepest draft in the fleet, had dragged bottom a time or two. This caused a little excitement, and Jack was glad to be done with it.

They turned south toward Staniard Creek, and settled in for a long night, all running dark. Jack trimmed his boat out on the port tack, close hauled to the east by south east breeze. Five knots was all he could squeeze out of his boat, this not being First Watch's favorite point of sail. They crept along at this pace for several hours, heaving in the moderate swell. It felt really good to be at sea again, and Jack revelled in the experience. Night time at sea was one of his favorite times, and he had to resist the urge to hang his lantern on the leeward lifelines in order to see the great variety of sea creatures that come to the surface at night.

Suddenly, a light flashed a great distance away, to the east of the flotilla. Another light flashed some indeterminable distance from the first. The exchange continued, inaudible over the breeze and the hiss of the sea flowing by, until the northernmost of the two combatants erupted in a great ball of flame. Jack shuddered at the sight, and hoped the other vessel didn't have radar. The flaming vessel passed slowly astern, and Jack strained to see through the darkness, staring at what he thought was the last known position of the victor. It was no use of course, nothing but blackness filled Jack's eyes on this cloudy, near moonless night. He said a silent prayer for the safety of the group, then turned his attention back to the boat in front of him, barely perceptible but for the white of her wake.

Day break found them just off the coast from Staniard Creek. The deeper draft boats anchored out and launched their dinks, while the shallower craft crept in to the dock. Smaller boats ferried fuel to the larger boats, and this continued until every last drop had been extracted from the tanks. Having completed their refueling, the flotilla reassembled just offshore where the larger boats had anchored. The water was rougher, this being the windward side of the island, which made assembling the group for another strategy session as they'd done before impossible. Instead, captains were ferried ashore. They assembled in the dining room of the resort, and spread their charts out on several tables they had moved together.

After some discussion, they settled on their destination: Pirate's Well on the island of Mayaguana. This site was chosen for it's remoteness, availability of fresh water, and what must surely be a low population density. Also considered was the three hundred and fifty mile distance, which roughly equated to a two and a half day voyage, which put it safely within the range of all but the smaller gasoline powered boats, and right on the edge of the sportfisherman's.

Being that they were not in a good anchorage for spending the night, and the next was several hours away, they decided to set sail immediately. The captains were transported back to their vessels, and Seth rejoined Jack aboard First Watch. Within thirty minutes the flotilla was underway, powerboats in tow, Jack once again taking the lead. They tacked eastward, to carry themselves far from the sight of land, then turned south-southeast. It would be relatively easy going in the abyssal depths of the Tongue of the Ocean, followed by a treacherous crossing of the Great Bahama Bank. Something Jack was not looking forward to.

They cruised at a steady six knots, close to the top speed of the small trawler. With a fifteen knot breeze, First Watch kept this pace easily on her main sail alone. Jack had the helm, Seth below sleeping before his turn at the helm at midnight. The evening sky was building cloud, and Jack eyed it warily. He noted that the barometer had fallen a bit. As the evening wore on, lightning flashed in the distance, lighting up the horizon in brilliant blue.

The first gust hit First Watch a few minutes before midnight. Jack let the mainsail fly, and pulled it down to the second reefing point. After sheeting it back in, he went below to wake Seth. At that very moment, the sky opened up and the rain came down fast and furious. The seas built at an incredible pace, and when Jack returned to the cockpit, flying spray stung his face. The boat was pitching and rolling at such a rate that Jack could barely keep his footing. Visibility, what little there was, had dropped to zero. Not even the mast could be seen, just ten feet away.
Once again, Jack let fly the main sail. He screamed to Seth, barely audible over the tempest, to go forward and raise the storm jib. This he did after donning a safety harness and attaching a lanyard to the lifeline. Meanwhile, Jack doused the mainsail completely, struggling to secure it to the boom in the gale. As Seth struggled back to the cockpit, Jack broke Willie's orders to run dark, and lit his masthead light, hoping the the next boat in line might be able to see him.

Whether they did or not, Jack couldn't tell. The seas built to monstrous proportions, and First Watch's bow buried it's self into the oncoming waves, sending spray and sheets of seawater across the deck. Jack and Seth struggled to keep the boat on her course as the compass wobbled wildly. Their legs were submerged in water, the cockpit drains proving inadequate to keep up with the torrent of water washing over the cabin top and deck. The wind howled through the rigging, making a screaming sound like neither man had ever heard, and the boat heeled perilously with each gust.

Straining to see through the horizontal rain and spray, Jack caught a glimpse of a light just aft, bobbing wildly in the frenzied sea. It came and went with the wind whipped sheets of rain, but it was there, and Jack took what little comfort he could from it. He grabbed Seth's shoulder, and pointed toward the twinkling glow. Seth nodded in recognition, then turned back to face the maelstrom. It was all the two of them could do to keep the boat pointed in the general direction they needed to go, and they both gripped the helm, white knuckled.

For hours the storm raged on, lightning flashing in every direction, illuminating nothing but the curtains of rain that fell with relentless furor. The mountainous seas crashed over the boat, setting the deck awash with untold volumes of hissing brine, which soaked the men and stung their eyes. They shivered in their sodden state, yet resolutely maintained their heading as best they could. Jack knew he must, being in the lead of the small fleet. Those seventy five souls who rode in his wake were depending on his skill to guide them through dangerous waters, and he wasn't about to let them down. He wasn't about to let them die....

The seas grew angrier, closer, and steeper as they crossed from the deep waters of the Tongue of the Ocean into the shallows of the Great Bahama Bank. Whirlwinds flung blinding walls of foam in the faces of Jack and Seth. Waves were breaking now, crashing across the hull and straining every part of the boat to it's breaking point. It was all Jack could do to remain upright, straining against the helm more for support now than keeping course. He could barely see Seth, mere inches to his right, also struggling just to keep himself in place against the surging water that washed over the boat.

Periodically they would both look aft, straining to see the flickering light behind them. Many tense minutes went by with no sign at all, nothing but blackness and swirling water. But then, atop the crest of a wave, the light would appear, barely visible above the flying foam and spray.

Jack watched the depth sounder with horror, when he could see it, as it went from eight feet to twenty with the tumultuous waves. He hoped, with every fiber of his being, that those deep draft sailboats were not striking bottom in the troughs. He hoped that his depth finder was off by a foot or two...

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hay Mayberry,

You make is sound really good to be out there!

Thanks for sharing!

Take care,

s4r
III

Northwoods said...

Damn Buddy, that one was so well discribed I was gettin' sea sick.
(Now how do I get this salt water of my monitor?:)

Ken said...

...hell yeah...

Anonymous said...

Never have been seasick, despite being out in major storms, but this sounds like a storm in which even I would have become seasick.

Nice Addition to "Voyage to Liberty"!

-- G

III

Wannabemountainman said...

Brings back days as helmsman on a tin can. Even though it measured over 400 feet long, we were bounced around like a cork in heavy seas. Negotiated a whirlpool off Hatteras, but I found the worst seas off the coast to be near Nova Scotia....we believed you could count the good days there on one hand.
Good reading!

Ryan said...

Great chapter. Random question: Do you have a picture of roughly what Jack's boat looks like? Maybe not the exact one but the general design. I know it is a sort of custom idea but would love a mental picture of the boat.

Dustin Tarditi said...

Mayberry, excellent installment!

Mayberry said...

s4r, it is! Thanks.

North, take two dramamine and call me in the morning...

Ken, thanks.

G, thanks!

Wannabe, I was on a tin can in the North Atlantic. We scrubbed footprints off the bulkheads after that little jaunt....

Ryan, I'll put up a pic...

Dustin, thanks!