Amber sailed slowly in the light northeasterly winds, now finally aimed directly for Newport. We made a measly 58 nautical miles noon-to-noon on this 28th day at sea. With only 514 miles to go I felt like Amber had but a short daysail before making port.
The boat was a soggy mess from the bad weather. I spent most of this first stormless day drying out. Even my money was soaked; I spread dollars all over the galley to drive the moisture off.
During the day the glass started falling. The wind built and swung to the south. It seemed we were in for yet another blow, but at least the strong (force 6) southerly winds made for fast sailing in the right direction.
The water in the main tank was starting to taste funny, so I started using bottled water for cooking and coffee, reserving the tank water for washing.
In addition to a lot of boring pastas and other packaged meals, I had 2 cans of chili, a couple of 6 packs of beer, and one canned ham left with a single piece of fresh food: an onion. The good pancake mix was gone. In the morning I tried a strange English brand Scott had purchased, mixing it with the powdered eggs. The result looked more like tortillas than pancakes, but tasted OK.
To celebrate the favorable breeze I decided to make a dinner feast of the remaining food. While below minding the stove I whistled a happy tune, glad to be making decent progress again.
And then I heard the bang, that awful sound like a pistol shot that reports a rigging disaster. I dropped the spoon and raced into the cockpit only to find Amber's deck-stepped mast leaning 45 degrees forward. A glance aft confirmed my worst fears -- the backstay, the only part of the rig with no backup, was gone. Only the lower shrouds kept the mast aboard, straining against the enormous thrust of the sails.
I jumped to the winch, intending to free the sheet and reduce mast loading. In the middle of my leap another bang announced the failure of the port lower shroud, its 1/4 inch stainless construction no match for these new and unexpected forces. The mast, boom and sails all collapsed forward into the sea. For a moment I stared open mouthed, unable to believe my cursed lack of luck. Amber immediately stopped dead in the water.
This was the third mast I'd lost in a long, checkered sailing life. I switched to salvage mode almost without thinking.
My first concern was to get control of the spars. Amber wallowed in the 8 foot seas, rolling and crashing into the mast that was now along her starboard side. Its foot was encased in a massive bronze shoe that would certainly hole the boat if not quickly restrained.
It seems almost standard procedure nowadays to cut away a lost mast so it never gets a chance to inflict a sinking wound on the boat. My feeling is that sometimes you can avoid fatal damage by lashing the spar's heel and partially lifting it from the water. Masts are expensive; losing one is a financial nightmare. Amber's mast was not broken and I intended to save it.
And so I started trying to get a line around the mast. 500 miles from land the ocean is wondrously clean; the sails were clearly visible suspended underwater, waving in the swells like ghostly apparitions. The mast, boom and sails were tangled with over a thousand feet of halyards, sheets, lifts, and rigging wire.
Falling overboard is one of the worst scenarios for the singlehander. I always wore a safety harness. While on deck, even if just in the cockpit, I always clipped the harness onto one of the two jacklines running down Amber's side decks. Even while asleep at night I wore the harness, so in a quick rush on deck to solve a problem or to check the course I could instantly clip on. Now I found the jackline buried under a tangle of lines and debris from the mast's impact. Worse, as I leaned over the side to try and grapple with the rig, the boom and mast, rising and falling on each passing sea, tried to snare the harness's tether. I removed the harness and tossed it below.
Amber's 50 foot wooden mast weighed almost 500 pounds when dry. I'll never forget pulling the stick some years ago in a modern yard unfamiliar with older wooden vessels. The undersized crane wheezed and whined but slowly managed to get the spar on the dock. We recruited 10 employees and volunteers to carry it up a hill into the a corner of the yard where I later stripped and varnished it.
Now I hung precariously over the side trying to snare this swell-driven monster. With a lucky grab I managed to get a loop around it. Then it was fairly easy to wrap lines around the mast butt and the sheet winch. The mast still crashed into Amber's side, but as the heel was constrained it only threatened her paint.
The gooseneck's screws had pulled out of the mast, so the boom was connected only by the sail and lines. A giant rip in one panel of the main extended almost the full length of its foot. I sweated the mainsheet in to pull the boom closer to the boat, and leaned over the side with a sharp knife to finish the tear, cutting the sail in half.
Scott had spent days sewing the main's luff near the tack, painfully working a needle through the boltrope. Now I had to cut his careful repair that had held so well for 2700 miles. With a few more knife swipes the boom was free. I hauled it on deck.
With the mast down Amber's motion was unbelievable. She bobbed with all of the stability of a cork, making any sort of activity difficult. Moving the 100 pound 16 foot boom with five feet of main still threaded in its track to the port sidedeck (where it would be out of the way) was a nightmare.
I cut the main and genoa halyards free and slowly pulled each sail on deck. In the case of the main I had to thread it down the track, all the time working over the side. The genoa, at 410 square feet twice the size of the main, was harder: I had to unclip two dozen hanks and then pull its waterlogged mass aboard. Amber's deck was covered with dacron so I opened the forward hatch and mindlessly shoved both sails below. This proved to be a mistake. The sails filled the forward cabin, making it hard to get to spares and tools stored there. I should have bagged them properly, but was preoccupied with clearing the deck.
I turned to retrieving the mast itself. In the collapse it smashed most of the starboard stanchions, eliminating a 30 inch high hurdle. I winched the mast's heel partially out of the water. The lead to the winch was poor and I couldn't develop enough power to lift it more than a few inches above the water. Amber was rolling heavily, though, so I let her do most of the work. With each roll to starboard I took up the slack in the line, slowly moving the heel almost to deck level.
Amber carried a selection of spare timbers for emergencies. I broke out several 2x4s and tried to use one as a lever to pry the mast butt up to the deck. The wooden beams uselessly bent. However, the fourteen foot spinnaker pole was a hollow wooden spar of great strength. I dismounted it from its perch on deck and put an end under the mast heel. The pole brought the sodden mast end above deck level. Most of the mast remained in the water lying parallel to Amber. I lashed the spinnaker pole with its burden level, straddling both coamings, and used the port winch to pull the mast inward as far as possible.
On the foredeck brute force and a Spanish windlass brought the middle part of the spar near deck level. I wished Amber had an anchor windlass to help bring it aboard. Again, the 2x4s were not up to the task of levering the sodden beast out of the water. I tried to manhandle the boom forward to use as a lever, but it was just too unmanageable.
I had built Amber's staysail boom years before and knew it was indestructible. A twelve foot long hollow spar, tapered in two axes, it had been left in position on its gooseneck when the mast came down. I unbolted it, and slowly, painfully, used the boom to lever the top end of the mast out of the water.
It's easy to write that I pushed the boom down and the mast came up; the reality is not so simple to convey. Sitting on the boom was like playing on a seesaw with an unruly adult; every time I forced the lever down Amber's accelerations tipped me up and the mast down. How could I keep the boom parallel with the deck with so much weight suspended outboard? No rigging trick worked; I crudely tied it off and levered with the 2x4s (finally useful for something!) on the staysail boom. Then I wrestled the mast inboard.
The mast was out of the water but much too far forward. Fully 25 feet of it hung over the bow. I used a tackle and the sheet winch to haul it aft. A lower spreader fouled the deck, but the hacksaw quickly cut it away, and I was then able to winch the whole assembly back 10 feet. Now the mast was more or less aboard, lying on the starboard side deck but with 15 feet of it extending beyond the bow. I left the staysail boom in place to support the mast where it departed from the boat at deck level just outside the pulpit.
Amber was an incredible mess. Tools and knives slid all over the deck. Some flew overboard in the rolling, as starboard toerail was partially destroyed. Tangles of stainless rigging wire lay over the cabin, spars, and in the water. The lifelines and stanchions dangled overboard or in pieces on deck. Halyards and topping lifts lay in jumbles everywhere. My mast rescue efforts only contributed to the confusion, with dozens of hastily rigged blocks and tie downs deployed at seemingly random spots.
The prop was in danger of being fouled by the lines and rigging hanging overboard. I removed and coiled the halyards that weren't too tangled, figuring they could be important in setting up a jury rig. The rest I just pulled alongside the mast, tying them in place every few feet. Some were hard to get to; the backstay trailed from the mast's truck (15 feet over the bow), straight down for 50 feet. I managed to snare it by lashing three boathooks together.
While I was seated on the foredeck trying to get the mess under control Amber took a sudden leap. The starboard lifelines were destroyed and my harness was below; nothing stopped me as I plunged head over heels into the 15,000 foot depths.
In a lifetime of sailing never, not even in port, have I fallen overboard. Years ago I flipped over a boat's bow but managed to hang onto the pulpit without even getting my feet wet. On another occasion, while strolling down a dock after a party, somehow I lost my balance and plunged into the November-cold waters (a quickly sobering experience!). Now my first thoughts were of chagrin: "what a stupid thing to do!".
Amber was not making way so I quickly swam back to her and treaded water while gathering my wits. At first I wasn't worried at all. Swimming at anchor was a favorite activity, and I could easily pull myself aboard. But now, the icy North Atlantic waters started draining my strength in minutes -- really, before I even understood the threat from the cold.
Amber and I pitched and rolled out of sync in the 8 foot swells. They tossed me against her hull, quickly wearing me down. After a number of tries I finally managed to snatch the toe rail -- not as easy here, in the deep Atlantic, as on the protected Chesapeake Bay.
I was getting noticeably tired, but breathed a sigh of relief. Hanging on, not swimming, I intended to rest for a moment, but found the motion and cold sucking energy away at a frightening rate. I heaved as hard as I could to swing up onto deck, but barely moved. Another try, another, and yet one more were equally unsuccessful.
It must have been the cold that sapped my energy so quickly. In a few moments I couldn't even hang on to the rail. It slipped from my grasp and I drifted away from the boat. I was just so tired! I found myself under water, but managed to swim to the surface, treading water again, trying to decide what to do. It was hard to think rationally and was getting harder to keep swimming. Again I petered out and started to sink.
I'll never forget finding myself floating a couple of feet under that wonderfully clear water, looking up at the light at the surface, with an unnatural resignation. It seemed so easy to just slide away... Suddenly an image of Cathy and the kids came to mind. Like a fog lifting from Gulf Stream seas my mind cleared and I realized I had to get back. I'm the family provider; I couldn't leave them with the mountain of debt I'd left behind.
Somehow I paddled back to Amber and hung on to lines dangling from the wreckage. It finally dawned on me that my waterlogged clothes were acting as an anchor, so slipped out of my pants. Then, I tied a bowline in a dangling line, hanging on with one hand and making a knot with the other. Now I had a place to put one foot. Again, another bowline, and then another. I made a three rung ladder and finally managed to clamber back on deck, after a total of perhaps 20 minutes in the water.
For half an hour I lay on deck, simply too tired to move. I crawled below to get into warm clothes, but couldn't muster enough energy to remove the wet T-shirt. I cut it off with a rigging knife and changed. After a hot can of chili and a beer I felt better, so went on deck and finished cleaning up.
The radome for Amber's radar was mounted on the upper spreaders. It had been underwater for some time. I unbolted it and removed the wiring, hauling it below to the relative dryness of the cabin. By now it was 3 AM, but I knew that the sea water would destroy the radome's electronics if not dealt with immediately. I spent an hour dismantling it and coating the circuit boards with WD-40.
It was awfully hard to sleep that night. Worry and indecision about my next move kept me tossing and turning. A jury rig seemed the right choice, but how should I set it up? Which spar should be the mast? Did the sails have to be cut down to a smaller size? What about stays and shrouds - how could those be managed? I mulled alternatives and slowly developed a plan.
As Amber pitched and rolled the top of the mast dug into passing seas. The effect was like sticking a long pole in a terribly viscous substance. The mast seemed to get stuck in the water as Amber then rose on the next sea, bending the spar horribly until it finally jumped free of the wave. The entire mast then straightened, jumping with a tremendous bang that rattled the boat. An aluminum spar would surely have bent. All though that night the cycle repeated itself every fifteen or twenty seconds, keeping me awake and driving me crazy with fear of finally breaking the mast.
In the morning I used a series of levers to lift the end of the mast over the bow pulpit, which put it safely out of the way of the seas. I decided to make for any East Coast port under jury rig. Newport was only 500 miles off.
Most stories of dismastings include a casual comment or two about getting the boom up as a jury rig with little to say about just how the story's protagonist accomplished the feat. I figured it wouldn't be too hard to rig shrouds and stays and then walk the boom into position. In fact, the boom's mass and Amber's rolling defeated every effort to get it up. Since Amber's mast was stepped on deck there was no hole waiting to receive the bottom end of the rig. I tried unsuccessfully to lift the 16 foot boom, using lines as shrouds, onto her deck step. Each roll made my puny efforts to get the heavy wooden boom in place a joke. Being so much shorter than the boom I was simply not strong enough to overcome the forces developed as the boat rolled. Being alone, I couldn't take up on the shrouds as the boom worked its way up. I gave up after several frustrating hours.
Transferring the impromptu rigging from the boom to the spinnaker pole took almost an hour. The pole went up quickly -- at 14 feet and only 50 pounds it was much easier to handle. A pair of shrouds, a forestay and backstay, two halyards with blocks, and the spare radar reflector made it an ugly, complicated rig. I raised a portion of the main and the storm jib (upside down), and tried to sail west.
Maybe jury rigs work well sailing with a square sail in heavy weather. Perhaps downwind under twins in the trade winds you can expect decent progress. 16,000 pounds of long keel vessel in the force four southwesterly defeated the badly setting sails. Amber just sat there, making at most half a knot, most of that leeway.
Amber under jury rig
I was appalled. Shouldn't even a little sail get us moving? Clearly, in July it would be too much to expect more than a force four sailing breeze here. I could spend months drifting at a half knot, never making appreciable progress. I played with the sails and course, but never improved Amber's speed.
I decided to motor to the States. The race was over for me, but I thought there would be at least a little honor in completing the course. Amber's tanks were down to a dozen gallons of diesel, so I needed to flag down a ship and beg for fuel. At 1240 I turned on the 406 MHz EPIRB and pulled down the ineffective sails. The VHF antenna had come down with the mast, but race rules properly required an emergency spare as well as a handheld VHF. I connected the spare aerial and waited.
Only four hours later the radio suddenly squawked to life from weeks of silence. "Amber II, Amber II, this is Rescue 103" a voice called. Sure, I knew that the EPIRB was registered by serial number to me, and a worldwide computer net correlated my distress signal to Amber's ID, but I was thrilled and amazed to hear Amber's name called out of the ether. Not only was help on the way to me 500 miles offshore... they knew who I was!
Later I was to learn more about the SARSAT (Search and Rescue Satellite Assisted Tracking) system. In 10 years the system has saved over 3000 sailors and pilots. Three US and three Soviet spacecraft carry SARSAT transponders. Ironically, my dad worked on the original design of the US TIROS platforms.
At the pilot's request I gave several long counts for them to establish a bearing to my position. Soon the P3 Orion, a four engine Canadian Navy sub-hunter, appeared low on the horizon.
Rescue 103 had some trouble locating Amber in the now-rougher seas. They finally picked me out in the heavy swells and flew in circles overhead at an altitude of about 100 feet. We discussed my situation for a few minutes, and I asked them to look for a ship that could spare a little diesel.
I knew that as soon as the EPIRB was detected the Coast Guard would call Cathy and check to make sure Amber was really at sea. It doesn't make sense to deploy rescue assets for a false alarm. I later learned they did call and simply told her that Amber was going down. I asked the pilot to radio his base in Halifax to relay a message to her that, though the mast was gone, I was OK.
The P3 flew off looking for a ship. I rather lost track of time, and am unsure just how long they flew around. It must have been hours. Every 30 minutes or so the big plane reappeared for an update on their search progress. On one pass they radioed "Uh, we got through to your wife. She said: 'sink the goddamn boat and bring my husband home!'"
Finally they spotted a Polish (misidentified at the time as Russian) tanker bound for New York. The captain changed course to the bearing provided by the plane. In some mysterious grand failure of simple navigation, the P3 that miraculously responded to me so quickly couldn't come up with a correct bearing. For two hours I listened to them give the tanker's skipper new directions every 10 minutes or so.
The plane also alerted the only other vessel nearby, the QE2, to stand by in case she was needed. The British liner stopped for several hours somewhere over the horizon.
Meanwhile the wind veered west and increased. Seas built to 15 feet. After a while I picked out the Dzerzhinsk hull down. We couldn't communicate directly as Amber's antenna was obscured by the swells, so the plane acted as a relay. As they drew near we managed a direct link, and I held my hat out for fuel oil.
The P3 flew back and forth between us like a nervous mother hen. With their fuel running low the pilot shut down one inboard engine.
I asked the captain to turn north and reduce speed to form a lee. I'd approach on his starboard side for the transfer. The Dzerzhinsk turned and went to minimum maneuvering speed (4 knots) and I motored towards their leeward side at max RPMs, making 4 knots as well.
The ship's huge hull loomed ahead in the heaving seas as Amber rolled, pitched and yawed in wild gyrations. This was the first almost motionless object I'd been close to in a month; I'd gotten used to the sea's movement and had learned to ignore and adjust to it. Now the steel wall ahead showed just how violently, comically really, the ocean tossed my little boat around.
Four knots has never seemed so fast. It was if a fast river flowed between our hulls. As the gap ever-so-slowly narrowed waves ricocheting off the ship's side threw Amber's bow off. I planned to maneuver to within a few feet of the Dzerzhinsk, but now Amber was a beast to handle. Coming alongside was like landing on an aircraft carrier as Amber swooped and swerved despite my utmost steering concentration.
We slowly came together, somehow avoiding contact. The ship's crew tossed a line I made fast up forward. I didn't want that line, but the captain insisted. Amber and the Dzerzhinsk were never close for more than a few seconds; I'd turn in for a near pass and quickly swerve off, dodging the sea's wicked attempts to smash us together.
Two crewmen on a rope ladder waited for Amber to ride up on a swell, and then leapt down on to her deck. They spoke no English and I no Polish, but as sailors we understood our roles perfectly. I steered; they grabbed jugs of fuel lowered on lines by their shipmates.
In six passes we transferred six containers. Then, as I went to drop my erstwhile mates off on their ladder, a sailor on the ship inexplicably hauled on the bow line. I yelled, but Amber's bow swung to port. She fell off a wave, and the mast, hanging over the bow, came down on the ship's deck. With a horrible crack the mast broke in two. I felt sick. After all that work to save it; after falling overboard while securing it; to finally lose the mast now seemed like the last straw.
Somehow we transferred everyone back. I turned away and was amazed to see three video cameras filming my departure. The captain was thrilled with the successful transfer, and wanted me to come back for food, ice cream, movies... I waited for his offer of svelte Warsaw beauties. We had a nice though language-challenged chat as I thanked him and refused the goodies.
Amber alongside the Dzerzhinsk
The airplane had circled overhead during the entire operation. Now they wanted my address. No, not for legal repercussions, as I feared, but so they could mail the pictures they took! Some months later two black and white photos showed up; I was very, very happy to get them.
At 1940 the Dzerzhinsk sailed off towards New York as I set course for Newport. The fuel jugs were scattered about the foredeck, so I carried them aft.
I told the pilot that Amber needed 30 gallons. The P3 asked for 40. The ship transferred over 60 gallons of diesel in two plastic jugs and four aluminum 10 gallon pails with snap-down lids, identical to the milk jugs one sees on a dairy farm, and every bit as leaky. I secured the plastic ones on the port sidedeck and put the milk jugs in the cockpit.
I went forward to see about saving the top 20 feet of mast that was hanging over the bow, still connected by shreds of wood fiber. I simply couldn't get it aboard, and was too dispirited to put much energy into the effort. Using the three-foot-long bolt cutters I cut the stainless rigging that secured the mast's upper end to the boat, and then cast the broken segment adrift. The largest section of the spar, its lower 30 feet, still lay on the deck.
I motored through the night and the next day, using the English fuel still in Amber's tanks. The deck was a slimy, slippery mess from the leaking containers, but I could find no way to get them under control. I tracked fuel below despite being careful to remove my sea boots before heading down the companionway.
Now the autopilot stopped working. It took only a moment to install the spare Navico, and we motored on. After a few hours, the wooden Navico mounting bracket split in two. I made a new one from a hunk of 2x4.
The Navico broke a tiller pin (a 1/4 inch stainless steel bolt). I replaced it, but the unit started acting very strangely, beeping out cryptic undocumented machine codes that made no sense, and steering very erratically. In frustration I disassembled the Autohelm's actuator and found the gears slipping on the shaft. I crunched them back in place with the rigging cutters, and the unit came back to life. I swapped the two units, putting the trusty old Autohelm back on duty.
I motored all day. There was little to do other than clean up and check the gauges and navigation regularly. Depressed, I mostly hid in the warm cabin, unhappy about my plight and worried about paying for all of the damage, caused by the failure of a lousy $30 backstay mounting bracket.
At 2048 I put the first Polish diesel into Amber's tank. Less than two hours later the trusty Westerbeake, which had never even coughed in five years, sputtered and wheezed. The big Racor fuel filter was clogged with a nasty, thick sticky goo. Although the two engine-mounted filters were clean, I changed the trio and carried on.
I fought with the engine till 0130. It missed, it thumped, it complained. I changed filters again and again. Then it made an ominous clanking sound and died, with compression lost in all four cylinders. All of my ministrations were in vain. I suspect the rings were blown off the pistons by some contaminant in the fuel.
Can I blame the Dzerzhinsk? Not really. In the best tradition of the sea they came to my aid. Perhaps the fuel was intended for another application. They worked hard and no doubt incurred significant expense to help me out. Though it's truly unfortunate the Westerbeake couldn't handle the Polish diesel, this is probably a fault of trying to put big ship diesel in a yacht's tiny engine.
I gave up and went to bed, Amber again drifting not-under-command.
In the morning light, two days after our encounter with the Dzerzhinsk, I again activated the EPIRB. Five hours later I was rewarded with the sound of a German voice calling Amber's name. The OOCL Breeze, a 600 foot container ship out of Bremen, had been vectored to my position by the SARSAT people.
Once again I gave a long count for the ship's direction finder. I asked the radio officer if they had a crane, hoping that they could lift Amber aboard. The negative reply was discouraging; more discouraging was their report that no ships appeared on the vessel's 120 mile radar.
My jury rig was ineffective and the engine was out of order for good. Amber was stuck without propulsion. I decided it would be unseamanlike to refuse rescue, especially after having called for expensive assistance. In a decision I continue to wrestle with a year later I elected to abandon ship.
Conditions were now glassy calm. The captain adroitly brought his huge charge alongside. A heaving line was passed; I pulled Amber in and tied some possessions to the line. On my final trip below I opened the seacocks and cut several intake lines to scuttle her.
The crew hauled up my gear while I scrambled up a cargo net. A dozen passengers and 20 crew watched from the ship's starboard side. Hands reached over the side to pull me on over the rail. The second mate videoed the rescue.
The first officer escorted me to the bridge to meet the Captain, Hans Szymczak. We chatted briefly before establishing a voice satellite link to the Coast Guard ashore. I had a long chat with the Coasties who promised to relay the details of the rescue to my family and to the race committee.
My last sight of Amber was from the radio shack on the bridge as the OOCL Breeze resumed course at 20 knots for New Jersey.
The pecking order aboard ship is clear and important. The crew lives in cabins on deck level. The next deck up is for passengers. Above them the officers are quartered. Just below the bridge, at the tip of the mountain so to speak, the Captain and (on those rare occasions one is aboard) the Pilot live. Captain Szymczak gave me the empty pilot's cabin.
During the next two days the passengers complained constantly about the captain's lack of interest in them. None could engage him in conversation. He seemed aloof and distant. His preoccupation with the ship and distaste for passengers made several loudly promise a letter-writing campaign to the vessel's owners once ashore.
Captain Szymczak and I got on famously. He constantly invited me to his office to swap sea stories. He gave me the run of the bridge (off limits to passengers), and was delightful company, even conducting a personal tour of the engine room.
After the rescue I went to my cabin for a nap, as I'd had little sleep for some days. The previous few days had been pretty bad and now I was looking at around $50k of uninsured loss. Surely nothing more could go wrong.
An hour later the ship was dead in the water. "Oh, the hell with it," were my only thoughts as I rolled over and went back to the world of dreams. It seems one cylinder lost a fuel pump. There was no spare, so we limped to the US at reduced speed for two days.
Later Scott sent a telex via satellite welcoming me back. I managed to get an SSB link to Cathy as well, though radio conditions were marginal.
The ship entered New York Harbor, sailing under the Verrazano Bridge and into a New Jersey berth. We arrived late and immigration was even later. The bored customs man asked "and who are you?" When I started to explain being rescued in mid-ocean he rolled his eyes to the ceiling as if this were just the worst piece of news he could have heard. Possibly something to do with extra paperwork. Finally, with a dramatic sigh he stamped my passport and sulked off.
My brother Chris waited patiently on the dock. He didn't know that the OOCL Breeze had been delayed, and spent 8 hours hanging out with the longshoremen. It was 3 in the morning before we left the ship, headed to a hotel where the family slept.
I walked into the hotel room. Graham sort of woke up. After almost seven weeks of separation I waited for his first words of welcome. "Dad... we're going to have room service in the morning!" he sputtered, and then fell immediately back to sleep.
A week or two after arriving back in Maryland I developed a tremendous need to head north to visit my OSTAR friends, to see how they did and swap a few stories. It seemed a foolish mission and so I tried to ignore the impulse. After one restless night I impetuously jumped into the car at 0400 and blasted off to Newport.
The OSTAR story was old history to the racing fanatics in that fast paced town. Other, local, races were finishing and occupied the port's attention. Most of my friends were long gone. I ran into Karl Brinkmann, his wife and the ineffable Eric (sans Suzie) on the dock. They directed me to the Newport Yacht Club where Neal Peterson was tied up.
Neal had holed Stella-R above the waterline in a collision with an iceberg. He managed to limp back to Ireland for repairs before resuming sailing. Later a spreader came adrift but he managed makeshift repairs which carried him across to Newport.
That evening we gathered in the Yacht Club's bar. Mike Richey sailed in as I watched, in 45 days the last finisher (as usual). Petia Hristova's 35 day crossing was a new record for a 25 foot boat. Marie Sergent had lost her charging system half way across. Since she didn't know how to navigate she had to reserve all battery power for the GPS and thus gave up on the autopilot. Amazingly, she steered for 1500 miles. Marie and Viktor Yazykov, the Russian competitor whose wife was not permitted entry to the USA by customs authorities, clearly had a thing going.
Karl, Marie, and Petia all stood a little taller in the yacht club's bar that night, buoyed by their experience and now equipped with a new confidence: they had sailed alone across the Atlantic, none winning, yet all fulfilling important personal dreams.
I spent the night on Stella R and returned home in the morning, my curiosity satisfied and now feeling somehow more complete in seeing how the others fared.
Neil, Birget, and Karl on Stella R in Newport
The OSTAR was first and foremost a race. Who won? I simply can't remember the name without consulting the records, which says something about my motivations. The two favorites both failed to complete the course: Phillipe Poupon broke his centerboard two days after the start in the first gale and returned to England. Florence Arthoud flipped Pierre 1er east of Newfoundland and abandoned ship. Some 20 boats retired or sank.
Now Amber is under three miles of water and I'm still paying the bills. I canceled the insurance recently; the bank found out and sent a very nasty letter. Just to be ornery I scrawled "the boat sank" on the form and returned it. As yet there's been no reply, but I expect a hysterical note soon.
Despite tremendous angst over having lost Amber my real regret is not completing the race. Yes, I'm still upset about being shipwrecked: during an hour-long lecture to a local sailing group a few months later I found myself overcome with sudden breathlessness and tightened chest when describing Amber's loss. I covered my distress with a sip of water and plowed on.
Woodenboat magazine ran an article about Mike Richey about a year after the OSTAR concluded. He lost his boat in the 1988 race but was able to build a replacement for 1992. Mike commented that even years after the loss he felt that somehow he should have been able to save Jester, and that his failure to do so was something he just could not reconcile himself to.
I understand. For a year I've wrestled with the "should have dones", only to come up with no realistic alternative to the choices I made. Neal Peterson said he would have sailed out and towed me in, but with no communication to shore I cannot conceive how this would be coordinated.
I've spent decades rigging and rebuilding boats. Even in the 0300 sweats I'm still convinced the jury rig was as good as it could have been considering my own strength and the materials at hand. I wish now, though, that I had configured and tested a jury rig on the calm, forgiving waters of home.
Should I have abandoned ship? Even after a year of thought I've come up with no rational alternative. There was no other immediate prospect of rescue, and I refuse to be a parasite on society. It was bad enough activating the EPIRB twice. Three, four, or more calls for help just to save money is just not seamanlike.
What about scuttling? Amber might have drifted up somewhere, someday, if I let her float. But other racers, friends, and cruisers were behind me. I couldn't bear the thought of leaving an 8 ton obstacle in their way.
I feel abandoning ship was the right decision, but still, a year later, I lie awake nights kicking myself for not doing something else. There must be some magic formula I could have come up with and didn't. I don't know what the answer to this riddle is, but somehow feel a cleverer person could have saved the boat and peace of mind.
Amber was a classic vessel. Her loss diminishes the beauty of local marinas, now dominated by legions of practically identical soulless production boats. In every port we visited a crowd of admirers invariably gathered to first comment "must be a lot of work", followed by a "damn, she's sweet". Even after 8 years of owning her (or, perhaps she owned me), strolling the docks in any of the dozens of yards we visited, my eyes all but glazed over by repetitious lines of practically identical plastic daysailors, I was always arrested, riveted really, by coming upon Amber resting comfortably in her slip, teak deck and house glistening, ready and (it seemed) always yearning to be off on another adventure.
We shared tens of thousands of miles, some tough, all memorable, all adventures in small or large measure. Yet even on those cold winter maintenance days, locked by the weather in some miserable slip on a local river, Amber and I were ready for the next voyage. So many times I've walked down the dock to find her, perhaps with her guts removed and laid bare over the deck, junk piled high; hatches and fittings removed, only to feel a sort of telepathic communication from her: "Put this crap away; fix that winch; rebuild the cockpit; but let's get to sea!". We did - often.
Skin wrinkles, hair grays, but as long as I can follow a dream, the harder and crazier the better, I know I'll stave off old for another year. Again I leave wreckage in my wake, but am left with that strange smile... what a hell of a time it was!
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And the gray mist in the sea's face and a gray dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running
Is a wild call and a clear call that cannot be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow rover,
And a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.
Salt Water Ballads, John Masefield
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