For an hour I battle with the helm. Unwilling to admit that I’ve made a mistake in ignoring the morning’s forecast, I try to force the sailboat into breaking seas and keep her head to wind, but she won’t respond. She heels over, spilling the wind out of her sails and making more leeway than headway. The Stinking Banks remain an obstacle that she can’t surmount.
“I get the feeling that we might be spending the night out here!” hollers Amanda, her voice distorted by the wind as the boat hobbyhorses across crooked seas.
“Might be better than breaking the rig!” cries Nat.
“Or breaking ourselves,” I mutter, realizing that the only sensible alternative at this point is to place the boat in a defensive attitude and wait out the gale in the mouth of Bonavista Bay.
In a gale at sea, a sailor must learn how to move in concert with the forces arrayed against the boat. As the wind increases and the seas grow more chaotic, he or she must discover how to set aside personal desires and surrender to the agenda that nature has prepared, seeking a safe compromise with the conditions at hand.
Some sailboats manage best under such conditions when they’re brought head to wind with a drogue or sea anchor fastened to the bow. Others ride most comfortably when they’re left to lie ahull, drifting on their own in the trough of the swell with all the sails removed. And still others are best served when they’re allowed to run off, powered by a tiny patch of sail to maintain steerage and dragging warps from astern, if necessary, to keep from running too fast down breaking seas and tripping over the bow.
Once I decide to stop fighting the wind, I have little doubt about which of these tactics will serve best, for Brendan’s Isle can ride to a following sea better than any I’ve ever sailed. I ask Nat to steer downwind and put the seas on the quarter while Amanda and I rig the storm trysail. Right away, the boat stops laboring. The spray that had been driving across the bows abruptly ceases. The noise of the wind drops. The crash of waves sluicing down the decks is replaced by the hissing sound of water flowing past the taffrail. Even without warps, the boat settles into a comfortable rhythm. With almost no effort on the helm, she moves off on an easy reach, slipping down the backs of seas to make her way south and east.
The next 12 hours serve as a break in the progression of the journey — a hiatus in which there’s nothing else to do but hunker down and wait for the gale to moderate. Beginning with Nat, each member of the crew agrees to take an hour’s trick at the helm. Off watch, I remain below, on call in case of emergency but otherwise banished to the solitude of the cabins and the safety of my own bunk. For hour after hour I lie pinned against the leeboard, serenaded by the creak of the steering cable and the rush of water along the hull and confined to the company of my own thoughts.
For a time I entertain myself with a game I’d devised during other nights at sea when the swell was just as large and the noise of the wind just as shrill. The object is to make sense of the cacophony of thumps, creaks, and groans that the boat makes as she rolls across a deep seaway. First I create a mental inventory of all the sounds, ordering them from loudest to quietest. Ten I attach an appropriate description to each sound — a cockpit scupper clearing its drain, a squeaking bulkhead where an old glue joint has failed, a glass bottle shifting position in one of the galley cupboards, a halyard slapping against the mast, a bilge pump cycling on and off. Each time that I find a satisfactory description, I remove the sound in question from the general inventory and store it away in a kind of imaginary recycle bin. In this way, I’m able to eliminate sound after sound until — in my imagination, at any rate — both the boat and the sea beyond become dead quiet.
On this particular evening, with Brendan’s Isle reefed down and running off in the approach to Bonavista Bay, I’m able to find a name for every sound I hear. Now I can close my eyes, breathe deeply, and let myself drift in and out of a kind of semidream state, confident — at least until the advent of some jarring new sound — that my young shipmate at the helm has the sailboat under control.
The sound game, of course, hasn’t always proven so successful. Fifteen years ago, during the first transatlantic crossing that Brendan’s Isle made, the boat was new and unfamiliar to those of us who sailed her — which meant that many of the sounds she made were still difficult to decipher. A clanking noise I’d never heard before would nearly drive me crazy until I’d risen from my bunk to search it out. The sound would usually be benign, but sometimes, often right about the time I’d decided that I could ignore it, it would prove to be the signal of a crisis in the making: a broken linkage on the steering vane, perhaps, or a loose drive wheel on the refrigerator’s compressor pump.
Another source of worry on some of the early passages was that the new rig and gear were still untested under extreme conditions. Twice on that first Atlantic crossing I was awakened from a deep sleep to crashing noises on deck. The first time, when we were six days out of Chesapeake Bay and on the southern edge of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, I awoke to an explosion that sounded like a cannon’s report. This was followed immediately by a sudden deceleration in the boat’s forward momentum and a muffled cry from the cockpit. The first thing I noticed, as I scurried up the companionway steps, was the torn head of the spinnaker flying at the masthead like the tattered banner of some defeated regiment. The rest of the sail had been shredded into several long streamers now being dragged along the hull to leeward just beneath the surface of the water.