The October storm of 1982
That last night in Annapolis, it was as if everyone knew the voyage was doomed. It was thick in the air. We drank the way people drank in my childhood – for oblivion- and Mark the most of all. We found him in a restaurant with a petite and pretty girl named Tilly. Mark stole a quart of Dewar’s from behind the bar, and we went to continue the party on board Trashman. It was nearly dawn, and Mark was lurching around, drinking straight out of the bottle, when, on an impulse, he caught Tilly off guard, reached under her skirt, and pulled her panties down. Poor Tilly was so upset she immediately left, and the party broke up on a sour and shameful note.
We pushed off from Annapolis around noon in late October, battered, hung over, and exhausted before the journey even began. John had decided that we’d trade four-hour shifts at night. He and Mark would take the first shift, then Brad and I would relieve them, alternating until we reached Beaufort, North Carolina, where we planned to meet up with Tilly –if she was still speaking to any of us- for her birthday. From there, we’d press on to Florida to deliver Trashman to its owner.
During that first night’s watch, Brad and I began to form the bond that would ultimately help save our lives. Brad was easy to like, a big, gentle guy who knew and loved sailing.
On the morning of the second day, rising from my four hours of sleep at about eight a.m., I learned that John had either lost or forgotten some of his navigational charts, so we’d have to bypass Beaufort. The weather was good, and the reports that we received by fax promised more of the same. But by afternoon, the wind had picked up; and by the time I took the four p.m. shift, it was blowing twenty-five to thirty knots under a darkening sky. By the end of Brad’s and my shift, it had kicked up another five knots, and the waves were up to fifteen feet.
The rising winds and the demands of the boat did nothing to slow John’s and Mark’s drinking. If anything, they were drinking more. But John’s behavior had changed in a curious way. He spent almost all his time down below instead of up on deck, often hiding in the engine room, tinkering with the engine while drinking a beer. It occurred to me that he was actually afraid to be on the ocean. That was not a comforting trait to discover in a sea captain.
The second night, the weather continued to deteriorate. John woke me during the four hours of sleep I was supposed to get. He was very upset about the weather. But when I went up to look, I didn’t think it was that bad. I’d seen much worse and ridden it out.
But by the next time Brad and I woke to take the helm, the weather had taken a definite turn for the worse. The boat was becoming difficult to control. When I went to sleep after that shift, John soon woke me, again completely rattled. This time when Brad and I climbed up on deck, the wind was howling, and Mark was at the helm, howling drunk. When I saw him and realized our situation, I felt a sharp stab of adrenaline shoot through me. The seas, black and gleaming in the spooky sea-light of the storm, towered thirty-five feet into the air before detonating against the stern of the boat. The wind was up to fifty-five knots in gusts. Mark stood at an odd angle, small against this horrifying backdrop, and he was laughing, screaming, falling-down drunk. I heard Brad say, “Holy shit,” as I moved to take the helm, and when Mark let go if it, he fell down and had to crawl across the deck before he disappeared below.
For the first time, I came face to face with the decisions I had made: This was the worst possible scenario for a sailor. The weather was fast changing from being just another bad storm to the worst weather I’d ever seen, even after spending an entire year at sea and going all the way around the globe. In addition, three out of five crew members were incapacitated. John and Mark were continuously drunk, and Meg came up on deck in the middle of the storm and was injured when she was thrown across the deck as the boat went into free fall down the back side of an enormous wave.
At the same time, the waves were literally tearing the boat apart. One came from behind and ripped the dinghy off the stern, taking the steel davits with it. I had never seen waves powerful enough to rip through steel, and it filled me with a pervasive dread.
By the end of the night, Brad and I were exhausted and both frankly afraid. The anemometer was hitting consistently near seventy knots, occasionally higher, and we were having real trouble controlling the boat. By four the next morning, we were in serious danger of losing our mast, Mark was passed out from drinking, and John was hiding in the engine room and refusing to come up.
As the day dawned, it became apparent how badly damaged the Trashman was already. I almost wished for darkness again so that I couldn’t see the reality of what was happening to us. The wind seemed even fiercer in the daylight, as it blew the tops off forty-foot seas. The waves seemed to be coming at us from all directions. It was chaos, and it was getting more out of control. And here I was on a boat that didn’t work with a captain who didn’t know how to sail. I was more terrified than I had ever been, even in my childhood. At least then I could run and hide. Now there was no where to go.