The evening of Saturday the 3rd of September broke bright and brilliant. The sea was as smooth as marble slab, shimmering gently in a sunset that looked like it had been painted by a joyful young God eager to show off the magic his palate could produce. It seemed like nothing ever was or ever could be wrong with the world.
I had just finished a particularly delicious slice of scrambled egg on toast when we were called for a briefing. Our captain, a capable no nonsense kind of chap, informed us smartly that there was to be strong winds of up to 35 knots and to expect a few big waves and a splash of rain – an uncomfortable couple of days but ones which would blow us speedily to our next destination. He said it would be unpleasant, but he thought the boat could handle it, or that she could handle it as long as we could handle her. A vague alarm was ringing somewhere at his use of the words ‘I think’ as opposed to ‘I know’, but I was alright, a little anxious, but alright,
The storm, predicted to be gale force 8, was due to hit around 9pm – right when I was on watch with the captain. As we were bombing along listening to Smack My Bitch Up and sipping tea I noticed how much bigger the waves were getting and how noticeably more ominous the conditions were. Soon tea became impossible and when the captain said ‘Well I feel another reef (where you make the sails smaller to be able to sail safely through high winds) coming on as the show is about to start’ it all became rather real, like when you’re on a ride at a theme park and its too late to get off. It was around then I was watching a bird battle furiously through the wind, not moving at all but rather getting lower and lower until the peak of a massive wave suddenly took it out. I didn’t see it again.
It got a lot more alarming fairly quickly. The captain had just finished getting Nate to check the squelch on the radio, when he said succinctly, “life jackets on then please”. As I was struggling into mine I didn’t feel very excited anymore, I felt a little overwhelmed, and more went into a quiet state of talking myself into tranquility and getting on with what I needed to do – which shortly after that was an engine room check. Going down into the stifling bottom of the boat to write down a few tiny numbers and crawl around checking bilges started the worst bout of sea sickness I’ve ever had, and one that would stay with me for the duration of the 36 hours.
Then the fun really began. Like a toy in a bath with an over excited child Ree (a 200 tonne, 34m steel sailing yacht) clung to the waves and was thrown backwards, forwards and side to side like she was made of paper. Being in conditions like that is very different depending on it being day or night, both with their own advantages and disadvantages, It now being pitch dark meant that that you couldn’t see when the waves were coming to brace yourself against, so all of your other senses become heightened, especially sound. When one of the big waves hits the side it sounds like a giant has tipped a bucket of rocks all over the boat.
As soon as my watch was finished I stumbled limply to my cabin, hot, cold and sweaty from the sea sickness I was trying to hide and doing some deep breathing so as not to show the anxiety I was also trying to hide. The night was Hell, with the lurches so violent I actually rolled clean off the bed on to the shelf next to it at one point. And it was constant. Sleep virtually impossible as you use all your muscles to try and stay on the bed, and the sound of everything smashing and crashing about the boat and the booms of the waves a never ending soundtrack. At one point Nate came crashing into the room with the information that before they blew the anemometer off the winds had reached 50 knots, the most our captain had ever been in, and making like what I’d been in before seem like a soft summer breeze come to playfully say hello.
When I came out for my next watch the sun was up and as I came up the stairs I tried not to look too shocked at the state of the sea. Gone was the sparkly marble that looked like you could almost walk on it, instead I felt like I’d walked into another planet. It looked like we were in some kind of spaceship flying at a 50 degree angle through the tops of a million mountains, the peaks of which were constantly moving and more often then not hitting us. And 6 to 7 meter waves can look pretty big when they are coming one after another straight at the starboard side of the boat. As soon as I was there the Captain told me that I must keep an eye out the window so as to be able to brace myself against the blows and also see if one is going to eventually break the glass which would of course send water cascading into the wheelhouse inevitably destroying the navigation system leaving us ‘essentially really f**ked’. I nodded with a totally insincere confidence, before a huge wave crashed right over the side of the boat sending water flying through the plastic windows we had tried to tie in place with lengths of rope and sew up as and when they ripped. I emerged timidly from a full on brace position trying to look as casual as possible.
Although it was a storm, normal boat life had to try and continue with people sticking to their normal routines as much as possible. I certainly wasn’t eating anything but our valiant Chief Stew Gaelle who’d taken on the role of chef had heroically managed to rustle up some pasta for lunch, I remember vaguely seeing her sat flat on the floor, legs out, zooming from one side of the galley to the other yelling ‘arrrrgh’ as I shot past for the toilet, and on my way back her growling furiously at a bowl of it that had splattered all over the wall. Weakly I tried to get to the kitchen roll to help before having to lurch back up to the deck.
Eventually after a fairly miserable 36 hours it’s fury had calmed and we sailed victoriously out of its grip. Afterwards it turned out that it reached Gale Force 9, and had the forecast have been accurate we probably wouldn’t of attempted it. We were all chatting about different things that we’d experienced, and one crew member who didn’t want to be named I think described what most of us was feeling as ‘well I had my poker face on the whole time, but I was shitting myself really’ (complete with a shaky knocking knees demonstration), another crew member who also doesn’t want to be named most unchivalrously used my puke bucket, cleaned it out and said sheepishly ‘well as you’d been sick in it already I just said it was you again’, and even our Captain, who I think deserves a special kudos for having about two hours total dozing time throughout the whole thing, conceded that although at no point were we in a survival situation he had certainly been ‘alert’.
Looking back here now as we are puttering through a gorgeous turquoise rink of serenity, munching Haribo peacefully, I can say with certainty that I would not like to go through it again. But I can also say with certainty that I’m glad I did. The ocean really is an awesome thing, and although I felt like I wanted to die most of the time, I feel lucky to have been perched right in the middle of it all and seen it first hand in all its ferocious beauty.
Although the pictures never do it justice you can kind of see how high up we are here, if you imagine we are perched at an angle at the top of a wave looking down at the ocean below us.