Sunday, December 2, 2007

“Perfect Storm” Experiences

I cannot imagine anyone who has gone to sea not having some storm experiences to talk about. These generally fall into the category of “Sea stories” which as a group may or may not be true. They also may or may not have anything to do with sea water.

In my time in the Navy I spent about 12 months at sea in an LSD (Landing Ship Dock). These 450’ ships act like mother ships to landing craft carried inside in their well decks. The stern can be flooded and with the tail gate down, allow landing craft to ferry men and equipment ashore during amphibious landings. During my days in the Navy these were the HQ ships for the SEALS attached to squadrons of five ships of an Amphibious Group on constant deployment throughout the world.

I made three North Atlantic crossings in one of these ships…. all in winter. Consequently, I saw some nasty storms during these crossings. One that is especially memorable kept us from having a sit down meal for three days. The waves were over 60’ high …. So high that the other ships in the squadron disappeared in the troughs of the adjacent waves. Needless-to-say, waves that big can be a bit unnerving although, I can honestly say, that I was never really concerned. Mostly, you just get tired. You’re hanging on constantly, even when you’re trying to sleep and you get beat up banging into things all the time.

The scariest experience I ever had was when I was working on the Brigantine Yankee in the Bahamas during my year leave of absence. ( I just consulted the journal I kept that year (1960-61) for verifying my memories.) We had ducked into Freeport harbor to escape a hurricane and waited it out for two days. Freeport was nothing at that time, except one of the only safe anchorages in the Bahamas with a very tiny entrance, and one bar, pool hall, dance hall, and general store… all in one. Despite the weather, we had to get the passengers back to Miami so we set out in the afternoon, pretty much running with the wind with only the staysails set.

We got to the Gulf Stream in the dark and it was impossible to see what we were facing when the following sea ran into the flow of the Gulf Stream, but we could tell by the violent reaction of the Yankee that it was awesome. There was a lot of green water coming over the bow and lee rail and spray everywhere as we crashed along. I always had the watch with the skipper, but this night we were together on deck all night. I was at the wheel two hours on and two off. When the big gusts came, because the sails were unbalanced fore and aft, the Yankee wanted to run up into the wind on the gusts. It took everything two guys could do to prevent us from broaching (running up into the winds and therefore getting crossways to the waves in the process) which would likely have rolled us over. During this struggle with the wheel, we were often standing in solid green water up to our knees as it surged across the deck. We were really too busy to be scared and besides it was dark so we couldn’t see the waves. As it got light… the sun never did quite come up that day… we could see the enormous waves marching up behind us. I was surprised that the Yankee would rise up each time and let them slide beneath her stern and then we would race down the slope with the wind stretching the sails and rigging to their limit. The canvas of the sails was all blown out of the bolt ropes so great was the stress.

We arrived in Miami wet, cold and with salt encrusted in our ears, hair and the corners of our eyes. The rigging, sails and crew were all a little beat up but happy when we sailed into the shelter of Government Cut and Miami harbor. So were the passengers, who had gotten a little more sea adventure than they bargained for, I bet.

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