Pirate Machinists, Part 2: Battling a 50-knot gale with a 60-year-old client in the West Indies

Solstice LOVES to close-reach! We're doing 7.2 knots against a forward-quartering storm swell of 10+ feet. The swells are so large that the only other boat we encounter is a Swiss cruising cat-amaran surfing down a face, whose super-structure disappears from our view in the trough.

As we go, a light squall eventually falls upon us. I see through its light-rain and spy another squall further up-wind.

Ominously lurking between the localized cumulonimbus I see a towering cloud... so high the top is flattened; convection curtailed by a cool air-mass above.
OK... long-period storm swells; stratus clouds forming overhead; and a series of building cumu-lonimbus squalls upon us … some miles to windward lies a Tropical Depression — common conditions for December.

The first squall passes and the wind gets lighter... YEP! I’ve seen this shit before ... barometer slowly falls ... fun times.

Engine ON, and it limps to life... I tell my client to sail 015 on the Ship's Compass for the protec-tion of Sint Maarten. We motor-sail through the somewhat choppy swells and light-air and we’re clippin' along. I'm afraid the wind will shift ahead of us and we won't be able to hold 015 on the compass, forcing us to beat many additional miles … I'm trying to close distance now; get there; get eff’ing THERE!

An hour goes by and the squalls magically go around us, but there's a DARK BAR upwind and lightning flashing in the semi-opaque humidity that wraps around us, visibly flashing mostly be-tween the sliver of space between the horizon and very low clouds.

I say to my client "We're gonna get nailed and it's gonna blow, maybe blow all night long."

"Maybe it'll pass us." I like my client's optimistic view, but I knowingly believe different. "May-be," I say.

It gets dark and it's a full moon but we don't get ANY BENEFIT FROM THE LUNAR LIGHT. My client's 68-year-old eyes, products of Lasik surgery, can no longer read the fine-print on the compass, he arcs his steering through 40 degrees of yaw. He almost jibes accidentally. I coach him. I make an effort to transition his sailing style to one that optimizes the groove pressure. No go. Big arcs! This won't do. I want the MONITOR windvane to helm us, but there's little time.

We're double-handed mind you …

Furl the Yankee and secure it tight with her sheets.

Double-reef the Mainsail.

Staysail still up but hanked-on. NOT GOOD, but no time to take it down.

I try to plug-in the MONITOR self-steering windvane as the Apparent Wind Speed amps up to 30+ KNOTS. Open water and here we are! It's blowing hard enough that the eff’ing vane is try-ing to blow out of my hands before I can get it secured in the harness. Almost give up as I don't want to see the vane fly-off into oblivion. Somehow, I grip that plastic-combed vane tight enough and man-handle 2.5 sq. ft. of vane against 30 knots apparent into the harness... hangin' over the stern pulpit... at least I'm clipped in... OR NOT, I look down and notice I inadvertently failed to clip.

Now it's blowin'... to what wind speed I do not know for certain... but it's windy. Staysail is still up and I have to twist it off to keep Solstice on her feet but the sail is beatin' herself to death.

I clip. I sit.

Aside my client I say to him what I'd like to hear from a captain if I were him: "Ya know, it's re-ally not that windy... it's probably blowin' 30 something." As waves crash over the bow!

Then the real stuff comes. It's raining sheets and the wind builds solid to 50 knots. It doesn't let up. THIS IS THE REAL CARIBBEAN! I'm so bored talkin' to people who believe the Caribbe-an is all white sand beaches, palm trees, and rum.

EFF’, I'd like to be at anchor right now.


The leach of the double-reefed mainsail is buzzin' like a mad bee. It's gotta hold. Please, whoever, don't let that leach blow out! I size-up my physical options and realize that standing on the leeward rail and hanging over boiling cauldron of frothing sea to tension the leach-line is beyond my ability and the risk not worth it... LET IT BLOW IF IT NEED BE... I'LL GET THE MONEY TO REPLACE IT BEFORE THE NEXT EXPEDITION... SOMEHOW, I'LL GET IT. $$

We're cold now. We're soaked... my client says he's gonna return the jacket he's wearing as it's not water-proof!

I keep us alert. We comb the cockpit for potential problems to solve, and point out what could go wrong next and the steps we'll take to rectify.

I wonder whether we should run with it. It's blowing SO HARD and the sea-state is now a steady 14 feet. I'd have to hand steer to keep us under control; but, that takes us away from home. NOPE... we're SAILING it, I've got us on our feet, and to a perfect magnetic heading of 015 to Sint Maarten, motor-sailing under double reefed mainsail, and flogging staysail.

A lull comes and I go forward to the bow to rid us of the staysail. Blasting submersion through the waves and recalcitrant water on deck goes air-born with me as Solstice pitches up, then down violently. I get the staysail secured.

We approach Simpson Bay and more lightening surrounds us. We're in it, but it's the weather to windward of us that worries me. The atmosphere to weather of us is dark... another DARK BAND. My client says there's another phase of this storm coming, and I agree.

During all this, I have a feeling... the feeling that I must still get us onto anchor... avoiding boats, keeping Solstice in control, getting all the anchoring stuff ready, avoiding reefs and collisions... navigating us into Simpson Bay with ships weathering the storm in the lee of Sint Maarten. Somehow I instill confidence in others we're going to make it, and perhaps my clients have the faith in me that I should heed myself, but it's me they've come to sail with, and my actions, reac-tions, preparation, and instincts that gets us there.

IT'S ALWAYS THE CAPTAIN'S FAULT. As Captain of Modern Geographic I seek to educate through experience, or experience through real doing. My client asked for this, now we deliver it together.

Luckily it's not too crowded in Simpson Bay, and in the lee of Sint Maarten we inch our way in to anchor, drop it, back down and throttle in reverse. The anchor holds. All night long the bands pass overhead, some definitely blowing harder than what we encountered outside in the open wa-ter. Glad to be at anchor.

In the morning, my client confides that he'd submitted himself to the worst outcome and was just enjoying it. He said I exhibited exceptional boat handling and I showed him the best storm at sea in all his 68 years.

He gave me a monetary tip and thanked me for keeping him safe.

Enjoyed a cheeseburger following my client's dis-embarkment ... a Saturday morning at the Sint Maarten Yacht Club. It's good to be ashore. Reflection.

By: Paul Exner
Written December 19, 2011 (Caribbean)
First published and adapted for 59º North, Aug/Sept, 2014 (Ireland)