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So with the following weather outlook, seaman lowest-class New headed out of Portland, Maine harbor Friday evening, Labor Day Weekend, single-handed, to move his sailboat as far south as possible before the weather got too heavy. The weekend goal of moving the boat (1968 Allied Luders 33) from Brunswick Maine around Cape Cod to its winter resting place in southern Massachusetts was clearly no longer achievable. The original forecast of beautiful weather for the whole long-weekend was history. But it looked like I had a good 19 hours to put some miles behind me, so off I went.

sailboatI decided to play it safe and hug the coast. The straight-line-shortest-route from Portland to Boston would take me almost 30 miles offshore. Not this time. Four years earlier I had taken that route on my way North, with a foolhardy shipmate along for the thrills, and a lightning storm at night scared the bejesus out of us. We high-tailed it to shore and kept our sailing to daylight hours. This time I plotted a route that kept me within sight of shore. From Cape Elizabeth (just south of Portland) I would motorsail straight to Kennebunkport, from Kennebunkport it was straight to Portsmouth, NH. I wasn't quite sure where I would try to go from there. Plenty of time alone in the cockpit to figure that one out.

The first two legs of the trip were beautiful. The seas were like glass. The reflection of the quarter-moon off the still water was a mirror image. The skies were filled with stars and I could see every light on shore. The drone of the engine as it powered the heavy 12,500 pound, 33 foot boat through the water was the only detraction from the serenity. I put on my full foul-weather gear to keep myself warm in the slight evening chill. Can't be too safe. Hypothermia is a leading cause of mental errors, I remembered.

I was making excellent time. The currents added 0.5 to 0.9 knots to my engine speed of around 5.4 knots, so I was going about 6 miles an hour. I reached the way-point I had programmed into my GPS system at Kennebunkport by 9:45 pm, and the way-point off of Portsmouth at 1:00 am. Thinking I had 11 hours (until noon on Saturday) to be safe and snug in a harbor, I made the (soon-to-be-tragic) decision to take a short-cut. Instead of hugging the coast, I would go straight to a way-point just north of Cape Ann, near Glouchester/Rockport Massachusetts. Three hours to the can, my GPS said. "I'll be eating breakfast near Boston" I thought.

As I rounded the Isle of Shoals off of Portsmouth and headed out into deeper water, I noticed the increasing swell and easterly breeze. I should have been more concerned, but I wasn't. "The winds are still light; I have plenty of time before it gets strong" I thought. I was motor-sailing due South at this point, and for the first time my full mainsail could use the East winds to add to my speed. Bonus.

I started to become more concerned as the wind, totally absent from my trip thus far, began to build steadily, and the gentle swell of the seas gave way to real waves and bigger swell. I kept waiting for it to level off, but it never did. By 2:30 am I realized I was in for a real ride. The winds were now up to 20 knots. I switched my engine off because my main was fully-powered. I was making almost hull-speed of 6 knots with just the main (no jib). The swell was easily 4 feet or better, and I was starting to get tossed around a bit. No problem, I thought, at least I'm sailing, saving precious diesel (we all know how expensive that is). Four feet is nothing for a seasoned sailor (which wasn't me, but I was going to fake it this night).

Am I going to die out here? I was starting to think that was a high probability. 

3:00 am is when the shit hit the fan. The winds were so strong and the waves were so huge I couldn't keep my southerly course anymore. Waves I couldn't see were building like mountains behind me and throwing my boat like a cork any which way they wanted. I was steering frantically with every wave. Where did this come from?! The wheel was in constant spinning motion, first, to point the boat down the waves so I didn't take them broadside, which rolled me terribly on my side, and then the counter-steer to keep the bow from getting buried in the troughs. The sky was now black; all I could see was the light on my compass, and the froth from the waves behind me that were breaking above my head. The waves looked so huge that when I was in the trough of two waves I had to look up behind me to see the crest of the next wave. I let the main out as far as she'd go to spill as much wind as possible, but I was still roaring ahead at 6 knots. There was no chance of reefing the main. I couldn't let go of the wheel for even a second for risk of getting swamped. Every few minutes a set of rogue waves rolled through, bigger than the rest, and I surfed down the faces on seemingly endless rides.

My mind was going a mile-a-minute. How to get out of this mess. How to survive this nightmare. How to hold-out until first light. What time is first light? Can I keep from getting swamped for that long? Can I keep from running aground for that long? Will I be able to jibe if I get too close to land? Will my loose standing-rigging hold-up to the extreme forces for that long? Am I going to die out here? I was starting to think that was a high probability. The boom was thrashing back and forth with every wave. I can't call for help; the radio and mike are mounted in the cabin. The way-point I had been sailing to was on the exposed side of a rocky cape...no point going there anymore. Can't reach the charts and can't see them in the dark anyway. I wasn't familiar with the coastline, had no clue if there were any safe harbors (there really aren't).

I wouldn't allow myself to panic but, clearly, if there ever was a situation worthy of the emotion, this was it. I was doomed. The only thing I could think of was that maybe, just maybe, I had the way-point of Newburyport from 4 years ago when I passed through here before, still programmed in my GPS. Newburyport isn't much of a port, it's the Merrimack River, but there is some protection there and it was all I had.

I waited for a chance to let go of the wheel with one hand, reached for the GPS, and pushed "Page". Then "Waypoints". Then "Scroll up/down". And there it was! "NBP", my 4-year-old abbreviation for Newburyport. I hit "Goto". Then "Enter". And then the miracle of all miracles happened. An arrow appeared on the screen pointing the way! 8.7 miles, 270 degrees. Due west. I had a chance!

With my new heading I tried furiously to bear further off the wind. Couldn't go due west, that was directly down-wind and I would bury the bow in every trough. I would have to get there in several tacks. For the next hour and a half, I surfed my boat down hundreds and hundreds of huge waves, any of which could have rolled me if the boat was positioned wrong. I was making thousands of steering decisions, just trying to stay alive.


A kind of survival-mode came over me, the likes of which I have never felt before. I was so focused on each moment, each second, each split-second, time seemed to almost stop. At one point I swear I started to hear voices. The howling of the wind and sea were gone. Men talking, all together, in an eerie chant. I couldn't make out the words. Was I hallucinating? Then children's' voices, also talking, also an eerie chant. What were they saying? It was like they were ghosts, all reading together some sacred chant, in an ancient tongue. I thought of all the ships before me, in storms like this, that had taken people to their graves in these waters. I remember thinking about my children, and of dying and not seeing them again. I remember screaming at the voices, at the top of my lungs, "YOU'RE NOT GOING TO GET ME, NOT THIS TIME!" And the voices went away, and the howling of the gale-force winds and the crashing of the waves came back, and my mind focused again on getting through this nightmare.

As I got closer to land, I kept hoping that the waves would get smaller, but they didn't. I kept glancing at my depth-sounder. 165 feet. 160 feet. Aren't waves bigger in deep water? My mind was praying that the waters off Newburyport are shallow. I watched and watched. 150 feet, 140 feet, 130 feet, 120 feet, 110 feet, 100 feet, 90 feet, 100 feet (damn!). No noticeable difference. I was getting creamed by every wave.

As the weather wouldn't permit me to sail directly to the way-point, but that was my only hope, I made a couple of bad mistakes. As I got closer and closer to the buoy, about 2 miles away, it was no longer due west. It was west-north-west, and I was sailing west-south-west. In trying to head to the way-point the wind caught the back of my sail and it did an accidental jibe. The jibe caught me by surprise, and the boom swung so violently it almost decapitated me. The force was so terrible I thought the rigging of the mainsheet would snap. For the first time I had the waves on my starboard side, and it took a while for me to figure out how to surf down the waves from the other direction. I had a couple more extremely violent accidental jibes, each one testing the shabby rigging on the boat.

Finally, I sailed past the Newburyport buoy I had been heading to. I could actually hear the sound of the gong as the buoy rocked back and forth in the swell, but I couldn't see it. The GPS sounded an alarming beep-beep-beep to tell me I had gone by. Now what?! Still pitch black out. I had no clue where the river was in relation to the buoy. I had a chart but it was 6 feet away and I couldn't reach it. I could see the lights on land, maybe a mile away, but what were navigation lights and what were houses? Were there even any lights at the river? My memory was bad, but I did recall that I came into Newburyport 4 years ago in the fog, and there were no lights. In fact, I ran aground that time, with no wind and no waves. What was going to happen to me this time? If land is 1 mile away, and I'm going 6 knots, I will be on the rocks in 10 minutes!

I had another problem that I just allowed myself to start thinking about. My mainsail was up. My engine was off. I am by myself, stuck in the cockpit. How do I get the mainsail down? To get the mainsail down, I have to leave the cockpit 2 times. Once, to run to the mast and grab the boom topping lift, a line that attaches to the top of the mast and connects to the end of the boom (without the topping lift, there is nothing to hold the boom up after the mainsail is down). The second time I would have to leave the wheel to uncleat the main halyard and lower the mainsail onto the boom. The thought of leaving the wheel just once seemed impossible.

The time was around 4:00. What time is first light? Can I survive by sailing up and down the coast, in the crashing surf, long enough for the sun to come up? I didn't know if I had the energy left, but I decided that was my only hope. I did another scary jibe, and headed north along the shore, somewhere between one-half and one mile out. I had no idea what the contour of the coast was like. About 10 minutes and 1 mile later, I saw a lighted buoy! Could this be the mouth of the river!? It had to be. It better be. If it wasn't marking a channel, it was marking some danger. I could see nothing that looked like channel markers, but I was exhausted and decided I couldn't keep surfing off-shore for another 2 hours. I was almost totally spent. I had to chance it. I steered due west, towards what I hoped was the mouth of a river. I couldn't see anything except a jumble of lights on shore in all directions. I was praying for a clear navigation aid, something to show me where I was. Please don't sail up on a beach. Even worse, please don't sail into rocks. I finally saw it, a red marker on a tower fixed at the end of a sea-wall. I remembered that this marked the mouth of the river. Red-Right-Returning; I kept that bastard on my right. I remembered running aground the last time. I watched my depth. 60 feet, 50 feet, 40 feet, 30 feet, 25 feet. The swell subsided, but not the wind. The wind was as strong as ever, probably over 40 knots. I was flying into this shallow river with full sail and no way to stop. I had to get the sail down fast. For the first time in 3 hours I knew I would live! That knowledge gave me a new energy I didn't know I had left. Now it was all about saving the boat.

I wouldn't allow myself to panic but, clearly, if there ever was a situation worthy of the emotion, this was it.

I went over the plan in my head a few times, then acted. I climbed around the wheel and crouched down and started the engine. It roared to life. I got back behind the wheel and turned the boat around directly into the wind, luffing the sail. I ran up to the mast and got the topping lift. The wind and waves blew the boat completely around, but I had the line in my hand. I ran back to the wheel and turned into the wind again. A few hairy moments later I had the topping lift attached. I was still flying up the river. A 2 knot current added to the winds and I was getting pushed shallower and shallower. 15 feet, 10 feet. I saw a stone wall nearby...not good. I ran up and got the main down, got behind the wheel, put the transmission in gear, and tried to find the deep water of the channel. Finally, I had some kind of control. I grabbed the flashlight that had been rolling around at my feet for 3 hours. Frustrated, I couldn't spot any kind of channel markers.

Next came the stomach-turning jolt and sounds of crashing into submerged rocks. The boat grinded and heaved over something that fiberglass boats just aren't made to hit. The boat got stuck sideways and the current and winds pushed her onto her side. I was thrown to the ground. I screamed curses into the wind as I envisioned the wreckage of my boat on the rocks. My first worry was that I would get pushed further and further onto shallow rocks. I ran to the bow and unhooked the anchor and let her drop, payed-out about 60 feet of chain and rope, and secured the rode to the maincleat.

The boat felt like it was splintering and grinding as it thrashed about in the wind and current over the rocks. This is the time to call for help, I thought. I got in the cabin and grabbed the radio and hailed the Coast Guard. I had completely forgotten what channel to call on, but there was a red button on the radio, 16, so I pushed it, called for help, and within seconds got a response. Coast Guard command in Boston. They kept asking for my position, I kept saying Newburyport harbor. They wanted a GPS position but my GPS was out in the cockpit and in running back-and-forth between the cockpit and the cabin I kept forgetting all the numbers (nothing handy to write with). I was really frazzled.

About 20 minutes later, maybe 5 am, the Coast Guard sent a boat out from the Newburyport station (turns out it was only 1 mile upriver from me). It was extremely comforting to see them. They were in an inflatable with 2 huge engines, and they just hovered next to me while I talked to them on the radio. After talking me through various safety inspections (how many aboard? Life vests? Taking on water? Engine work? Rudder work? etc.) they told me they were going to throw me some lines and tow me back to the town dock. I would tie onto their ropes, cut my anchor line, and they would tow me off the rocks.

I still can't figure out why I was so irrational, but I just couldn't bring myself to cut the anchor line. Losing an anchor, after all, would be a small price to pay to get rescued after all I'd been through. But as we sat there, the sun came up, and I could see I was in a nice river, and the waves weren't very big. The wind was still screaming, but all of a sudden I felt like it was silly to even need coast guard help anymore. I asked them if the tide was coming in or going out. Coming in (a good thing). When is high-tide? 6:50 am, in an hour and a half. Would it be ok if I waited until high-tide to see if I could just float off the rocks? No answer for a long time. Then they finally asked: how would I get my anchor up, once I was off the rocks? I told them I would wait for slack-tide, when there was no current, and motor up next to the anchor, run to the front, and pull the anchor up. They agreed with the plan, but said they would sit next to me the whole time (that's pretty nice of them, I was thinking).

In the meantime, they had me do some checks. Make sure I'm not taking on water. Start my engine to make sure it works. Put it in gear to make sure I have propulsion. Test the steering to make sure my rudder is operating. That last test almost did me in. After turning the wheel, the boat moved onto a huge rock and almost completely laid down on its side! More grinding, more splintering, more awful breaking sounds as the boat did pirouettes in the wind, full 360's with the boat almost horizontal! In frustration, I screamed more curses and pushed the throttle to full and tried powering the boat off the rocks. Somehow it worked, the boat righted itself, and I couldn't feel any rocks. Then one of the coast guard guys screamed out that I was moving, my anchor was dragging, and I should keep heading toward deeper water. I followed his directions and powered 1000 feet over to the channel, dragging my anchor the whole way, and then over to a more protected spot behind a point.

Once safe, the coast guard came alongside, and 2 of them boarded me. One helped pull my anchor up while the other began a safety inspection. With the 2 on-board, I followed the coast guard boat up the river to the Newburyport town pier, and they helped me dock the boat. I was so jubilant I wanted to dance.

I was issued 3 safety citations (later, they excused me of having to pay the fines). One for having expired safety flares, one for not having my coast guard documentation on board, and one for not having my throwable lifesaver mounted on the rail (it was in the seat compartment). On this third one, I told them honestly that I didn't mount it because I knew I couldn't throw it to myself.

The coast guard said that Newburyport is the worst port on the Atlantic coast to get in or out of in any kind of weather. The waves crash directly into the river, and the river adds to the waves. It's just simply not done. Other sailors on the town pier confirmed. Like riding the waves on the North Shore of Maui to get in or out. I did it in the dark, somehow, and lived.

Safely docked, I walked over to a Starbucks, peed for the first time in 7 hours, and got a Vente.


Original posting by dn01867 on Aug 24, 2009 at http://www.braincrave.com/viewblog.php?id=7

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