How Low Can You Go?

The sea was glassy and eerie still. The sun had risen barely half an hour ago and was now towering bright and mighty over a thick band of solid cumulus clouds to the East. It was June 15 and we had been out at sea for just over a week. After the last two stormy nights it all felt most deeply troubling, pretty much exactly like the proverbial calm before the storm. Adding to the suspense was a most peculiar rhythmic pulse in the wind. Roughly every ninety seconds a short puff of very gentle wind came out of the west. It lasted only for a couple seconds, had a deep, resonant hum to it and was just strong enough to keep the sails from flapping about for and instant. Then all was calm again, for about ninety seconds. Then another puff.

The chirping sound emanating form the laptop speakers drew a grim picture on the pixelated screen. Through the shortwave receiver an electromagnetic signal was sieved out of the ether at a specific time and fed into the sound port of the computer, who’s awe inspiring processing power decoded said signal and painted a black and white weather map on the monitor. New Zealand Metservice’s 0600 analysis of the South Pacific weather was now staring at me from the screen. The circular and tightly knit low pressure system that had been sitting stationary to our West for no less than four days, blocking not only our progress north with contrary winds, but also lashing out at us with no less than three distinct fronts spiraling out from its center, was now definitely on the move on a course of due East. It was heading straight towards us!

Our ability to move had now completely disappeared, literally into thin and still air. All that was left to do was wait, batten down the hatches and… prepare for the worst, because the worst we were about to see. All the books on heavy weather survival strategies out at sea agree that there is one quarter within the circular field of a revolving storm you don’t want to find yourself in: The leading quarter on its equatorial side. The storm’s wind speed and the velocity of its forward motion are added to each other and once those compounded winds grab a hold of you, they will start dragging you closer and closer to the whirling center of the storm. At this point it was impossible to tell which side the system would chose to pass us by, but chances were up that it would have a tendency to move slightly South, which would put us exactly in that dangerous quarter. A tire was already attached to the long nylon rode plus a piece of chain to weigh it all down. But if it really started blowing hard that was not going to be enough to keep Aluna steady. I was painfully aware of her tendency to put herself broadside to the wind and waves, which once those would start to break could compromise her safety and stability. My hand nibbled through some wet stuff under the cockpit seat, while the wind around us started to pick up. I had already extracted the harnesses from there earlier on and attached two lines on either side of the deck from bow to stern to clip their shackles on if we needed to do things on a stormy and rolly deck. Now I was trying to find the military-green bag with “the chute”. It should rest tightly packed in there, wrapped and ready for deployment. A four-foot wide parachute in flashy danger orange, purchased from a Californian army surplus outlet way back when, was going to be our ultimate weapon for surviving the fast approaching storm. I attached it securely to the end of our now tri-fold drogue: parachute, tire and chain, fastened to about 80m of nylon rode.

The first intent of deploying the chute was a miss. Apparently Aluna was moving backwards through the building seas and the chute just wanted to go under Aluna’s hulls. I threw it in again, this time a little further aft and it started to grab. Bit by bit it started to pull the line out of my hand. In went the tire and the chain and slowly most of the line. Towards the end of that I tied it up on the cleat on the outside of our aft-most main beam. Now a bridle line needed to go around everything back there, the sheets, steering lines, the tiller bar, the rudders, the aft shrouds of the mizzen mast, so a little dance was called for on the netting and swim ladder, which were by now heaving heavily. I stumbled from handhold to handhold like a trapeze artist under a circus tent and attached the end of the bridle line to the cleat on the other end of that same beam. Once the working end of the bridle line was fastened to the drogue’s main line and that one eased out, everything was in place. I could feel immediately that our improvised drogue put a serious strain on the two points where it was attached to the boat. Every time Aluna rode down a wave the line creaked in its slot as if in grueling pain. Lacking proper fairleads to run it through I had to lead it aft and around the rudders, which meant that the pull was now forcing the rudders over to one side. I therefore fastened the tillers with a piece of line to the toe rails at the sides of the hull so that the strain would not be on the steering lines.

All that possibly could be done was done by now. Exhaustion got a good grab of me and I collapsed on the port seat in the pod. And finally I was able to have a good look around us. Quite a sight it was! Towering dark grey clouds raced overhead, changing the scene from sun drenched to total overcast and driving, horizontal rain every ten to twenty minutes. The shrouds had started to emit a hum, which slowly kept increasing in pitch. Long, rolling wave trains lifted us up and provided us with a vast view into the distance as if perched on a mountaintop. White foam crested peaks ran diminishing in size out towards the horizon as far as the eye could see. After a couple moments high on our lofty vista point we slid down the windward face of the wave and dove into a deep and dark valley of froth, while the next wave towered above us like a two or three story building racing towards us. Once again we were lifted up into the furious skies, sometimes the breaking crest hitting us broadside and sending angry clouds of spray horizontally across Aluna’s decks.

The most positive accomplishment of the storm’s fury around us must have been that it had pulled my mate Nephi clean out of the grips of his prolonged bout of severe motion sickness. He was standing firm on center deck, with legs spread wide apart and holding on white-knuckled to the forward rim of the deckpod. “This is awesome, look at it!”, he exclaimed with real resonance in his voice and exerting a jubilant enthusiasm I hadn’t seen in him since back on the deck of his Wharram Pahi 26 ‘Te Honoanga’ at the Warkworh Wharf on a cold winter night under the orange gloom of the street lights about a month and a half ago, when he was performing a Haka for us, this tourist-bewildering and eye-popping war dance of the decisively fierce Maoris. His lower jaw had now regained its proud and prickly prominence, jutting forward into the weather, while his two beaming eyes steered with pure joy a jagged zigzag of exuberant excitement along the rough and tumble rise and fall of the horizon line. A deep and so far hidden layer of his well-groomed self was clearly at home in the growing chaos and drank it in as if it were the ultimate life-giving elixir. Wailing chants of Tangaroa, the mighty sea god of Polynesians from all breeds and creeds, floated effortlessly from his tight lips framed by the weathered and unshaven cheeks of a seaman almost against his will. In a quick flirt with Western assimilation he fumbled through his pockets and brought out his shiny metallic-green digital camera and started wildly snapping pictures in all and every directions. The serious bout of exaltation lasted for at least an hour and a half, after which he slowly settled down in the other corner of the watch bunk. We were now staring out into the mounting chaos in opposite directions.

The winds continued to strengthen and as the pitch of the hum in the rigging continued to rise, lower tones emerged from the bottom end of the acoustic hearing range, which then also climbed and escalated in intensity. Streaks of froth streamed down the leeward faces of the waves, driven by lashing gusts that ripped white foam clear off the wave crests like hyperactive little whirlwind dervishes. In turn the hissing and screeching air scraped like well-groomed cat claws across the little slabs of exposed skin on our faces, which were huddled in dripping and drenched wet weather suits. The pointed crowns of many piled up waves took on a glassy sheen of turquoise color during the periods of gleaming sunshine that followed spurts of impenetrable grey when dense rainsqualls raced over and almost through us, it seemed. I was being enthralled into the raging fury of Tangaroa as well by now, a fury so cosmically almighty, it felt like at any moment a movement of absolute carelessness could drown our belittled existence in a watery wasteland, tossing a useless toy that had been stripped of the very last trace of loving emotional attachment up in the air for the sheer enjoyment of another souls suffering, like a twisted and torn adolescent would break his little sister’s Barbie doll to relish scornfully in her free flowing tears. The brutal violence unleashed all around us appeared to have no limit, there was nothing stopping the fury to grow to the most unbearable proportions. The waves grew taller and taller, although it seemed that after a certain point the increasing wind started to flatten them again with its sheer pressure, but just then a watery mountain of gigantic proportion came falling towards us out of the hazy setting sun. It shook Aluna from side to side and sent all lose things flying.

Towards the end of the afternoon the cold begun to enter our bones, the dampness had found its way through the many layers of fabric down to our skin. The sun was sitting low behind a vicious veil of hazy halos, illuminating in vaporized gold and atomized silver the churned up valleys of doom that opened and closed around us. We snapped on the deckpod cover, securing it with short pieces of rope, then wearily stumbled across the deck and waited for a break in the fury to squeeze down the respective companionways without getting doused. The wet gear took some serious work to peel from the stiff limbs and once the weary body lay stretched out on the heaving bunk, the mind, with no more ways of holding on to visual in- and deformation, went into a feverish race, spiraling down slippery slopes of infinite variations of worst case scenarios so daunting that no sound reasoning could hold the shattering pearls of hope threaded on a string of reasonable expectations. After some hours of chaotic and ruthless darkness I must have slumbered off eventually because so vividly I still remember waking up suspended a foot or so above the bunk’s padded surface, my body one second later plunging down hard onto the mattress and then being showered with the dozen or so books that I had piled back onto the shelf beside me before crawling into bed. Strangely enough I also clearly remember the second or two before that when the hissing sound of an approaching breaker ramped up its acoustic volume steeply before it hit us with such violent force that shook Aluna violently back and forth three times. Now clearly all bets were off and the possibility of something going very badly wrong had become a pressing reality. My mind went into overdrive and I started communicating directly with the forces out there up in the atmosphere that had decided to churn up such a vile chaos all around us. “Stop! Enough!” I begged with superhuman mental concentration, and: “Calm down now, you’ve shown us all your might! Enough! Easy man, cool it!” like I was facing a mean and angry beast. I was fully convinced that if Tangaroa had the might to churn up the waters and plunge us into the abyss of despair, that same despair would give me the powers to turn things around. Or at very least I would die trying! There was no more slumbering for the rest of the night. I rode up every wave and slid down every trough with a crystal clear awareness of the boundless power of chaos and with the absolute presence of a soul suspended in a ruthless limbo between life and death. The hours slid through the darkness with unperceivable sluggishness. The howling hum in the rigging continued unabated. Two more breakers shook Aluna to the very core of her ancient Polynesian ruggedness. Finally, finally towards the early morning hours the fury started to ease. For just a bit. Then it came back with a vengeance once more. Then it eased up again. Every time it grew back a little less and when daylight had broken I dared to peek out of the companionway, expecting to see things torn to shreds on deck. Amazingly everything was in its place, dripping wet but safe and sound. The sea was still tumultuous, heaving at us from all directions, but the sky had cleared. A red and golden sun broke over the horizon and drew two distinct segments of a rainbow under the clouds to the West, like the good omen after the biblical floods, confirming that we were in the lee of all evil now. A last gust of driving rain blew across the boiling seascape and then things were calm enough to haul our drogue back on deck and continue our journey. Apparently the parachute had collapsed partway through the storm. It had the packing line wrapped around it when we pulled it in. Maybe better so. There were hairline cracks at the aft end of the tillers behind the rudders, where the strain of the drogue had pulled with enormous force. Any more force on it might have been too much and resulted in it breaking away. All in all Aluna did not suffer any significant damage. She had ridden out the storm in stride. Nephi emerged from his hull too, once again back in his distant drowsiness, but confessing that he had also felt quite close to the end at times during the long dark night, thinking deliberately about his family, his beloved sons and daughters, all while planning a quick escape route out of the hull in case Aluna were capsized by a large wave. Soon the sails were back up and we were again on course with deliberate movement, finally making fresh progress towards our destination. The Minerva Reefs were now only a couple of days away.

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3 Responses to “How Low Can You Go?”

  1. rudy Says:

    No worries mate. Just God clearing His wind pipe before saying “welcome to my crash course 101 in (I am that I am).”

    As the song goes:
    Neather the rath or the storm tossed sea nor demons or men or what ever it be, no waters can swallow the ship where lies the master of oceans and earth and skies. They all shell sweetly obey His will. Peace be still. Peace be still…

    Go with God and don’t leave your port of call nor even hell without Him… 101.001 no worries mate:-) God’s got His eyes on you. Of that you can be sure. Get a life. An eternal one… The sooner the better…
    Batten down all the hatches but keep your heart and spirtual mind open.

    Rudy

  2. Beatriz Restrepo Says:

    El video esta espectacular!!! No hubiese aguantado tanta adrenalina.

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