A high seas adventure.
January 1, 1974
It was 44 years ago to the day that my dear friend Roger Watanabe and I found ourselves aboard the 35 foot racing sloop owned by Captain Herbert Snoweiss, beaten, shaken, and happy to be alive after surviving the most dangerous storm anyone aboard this battered sailboat had ever been in.
We had left the Port of Gibraltar four or five days earlier, signing on as crew to help Herbert sail his boat on the typical two day sail from Gibraltar to the Canary Islands, without a clue that we were sailing into a storm that would sink a number of Moroccan fishing vessels, and dismast and beat-up the crew of an older, 120 foot America’s Cup J Boat that had left Gibraltar about the same time we shipped out for what was to be the first leg of our dream to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a small sailboat.
We had been living aboard my Brother Russell’s and his partner Tom Beatty’s sailboat, the Lady Cathleen , berthed in Gibraltar Harbor, since late September after having spent the spring backpacking across Europe, the summer on the Greek Island of Patmos, and now hoping to get on as crew members on a sailboat crossing the Atlantic, leaving Gibraltar or the Canary Islands, two places we had heard were our best bet to find passage on a transatlantic crossing from Europe to America.
We had also heard from sailors around the harbor that if we were going to make the transatlantic crossing we had to leave by the middle of December and no later than the end of January to catch the trade winds across the Atlantic.
Just about every day we made the rounds to just about every sailboat in the harbor hoping one of them would need two hardly able-bodied sailors looking to hitch a ride. We knew the giant J Boat was getting ready to make the crossing but they snubbed Roger and I as the young crew painted and polished every square inch of teak and brass, hardly acknowledging our inquiries as to crewing on the J Boat.
Finally one day a new, 35 foot fiberglass sailboat, obviously designed for inshore racing, pulled into the harbor, captained by a very jovial and friendly Austrian man by the name of Herbert Snoweiss, who spoke enough English to tell us his name meant Snow White and he was sailing his boat to the Canary Islands where he was going to set up a charter business and could use of couple extra crew members to get the boat to the Islands.
Our prayers, or so we thought, had finally been answered and we would set sail in a couple of days, just enough time to pack our gear, get some stores for the two day sail, and be off on our adventure.
The Straits of Gibraltar, that connect the Mediterranean Sea with the Alantic ocean have never been known as the friendliest of waters. As we bid farewell to my brother Russell and our friend Tom I think we all had a look of apprehension and genuine concern for what we were about to partake and all silently hoped for forgiveness and smooth sailing on these unknown waters with this untested boat and crew.
We motored out of the harbor, took the commands from the captain to hoist the main sail and jib and pretty soon were careening along on what was just the beginning of the roughest and toughest sail of our young and naive sailing careers. By the time evening had started closing in us we had all taken a turn at the helm, the sky had gone from dark grey to dark black, the waves had gone from a three to four foot chop to a ten to fifteen foot, and increasing, ocean swell that the racing sloop seemed to want to get up and gallop with. We we’re already reaching hull speed and naively thought we would make it to the Canary Islands that much faster.
As day turned into pitch black, all you could see was a faint glo from the tiny mast light and the glo of the chart light down below deck as Captain Herbert tried to navigate on the chart table that he had to hang on with one hand and do his figuring with the other in the ever increasing wind and waves.
As our tiny little cork of a boat started to shake and shimmy, rock and roll in the powerful night storm the Captain ordered Roger and I to take down the forward Jib sail and shorten the main sail to what we thought would be enough to maintain steerage until the storm let up or blew by us. Little did we know at that moment that this was just the beginning of a three day storm that would turn into one of the most dangerous and destructive ocean storms in that area of the Atlantic in the year 1973, with a number of fishermen lost or missing at sea.
We were scared and inexperienced as we scrambled on deck with little light to see and little knowledge or experience to help guide us with the task at hand . I will always wonder how we managed to get the Jib Sail down and secured, then lowered the mainsail and secured enough to maintain steerage and scramble into the safety of the helm area and the main area below deck. This was Roger’s first ever Sail on a real sailboat on a real Ocean, and my own experience was limited to summer sailing and some novice racing on Long Island Sound and up and back to Martha’s Vineyard quite a few summers before this sailing adventure that was to become one of the “life changing” experiences of our young existence.
Within a matter of hours we had gone from the relative peace and quiet and safety of the harbor, to an open ocean storm that would soon test the metal of the most experienced sailors and put to test the will to live of those less experienced. It was somewhere in that time that I recalled the words of an old salt I had met in Gibraltar who told me that the best thing about surviving a big storm at sea is anything less than that storm is a piece of cake. At that point I had nothing to compare it to, but by the end of this trip we would have our “big storm” under our safety belts and get to prove the old salts sage advice over and over again.
By now Roger was beginning to show the signs of sea-sickness and if wouldn’t be long before he would become disoriented and unable to take his turn at the wheel, leaving Herbert and myself to take 12 hour shifts learning as we went, how to steer an inshore racing sailboat on an open ocean in seas that would eventually grow to 30 feet in height with winds in excess of 50 mph. We were all literally scared witless and shitless, which was fortunate because there was no way we could even attempt to get our rain gear off and cram our bodies into the tiny head in these huge seas that had by now knocked every loose item in the boat onto the floor, adding to the sheer difficulty of getting around our safe haven below deck and out of the roaring wind and seas.
As the wind and wave height increased we had to, on the spot learn how to surf a sailboat up one side of the ever increasing waves and down the other side, all the while trying to keep the bow of the boat from wanting to nose into the wave and cause the boat to pitch pole, end over end into the never forgiving black Atlantic Ocean. You could not let your white knuckle grip of the wheel relax for one second as the rudder was being battered under the boat by conflicting wave forces, throwing the helmsman into a wrestling match with the wheel that never, ever let up for six, sometimes twelve hours at a turn until you couldn’t let go of the wheel if you wanted to. I’ll never forget at one point almost being able to reach out and touch a shear wall of water that we were surfing down much like surfers do when they ride the curl. The exhilaration was terrifying and exhausting at the same time, and after a few hours the taste of adrenaline was long gone and I believe at that point we were running on pure energy and the will to survive.
It took over a full 24 hour day for the storm to build up to its maximum velocity and wave height of over 30 feet, probably one of the fastest crash courses in big ocean storm sailing any sailor had ever experienced, but we were still alive and afloat, Roger was deathly ill from the sea-sickness, Captian and navigator Herbert had no idea where we were on this big black storm blasted ocean, and I was hanging onto the wheel hour after hour for dear life, occasionally raging at the raging storm to please let up and let us live to Sail another day.
As we started into what I later found out to be the beginning of the third day at sea, the wind slightly changed direction and started to let up but not before another 24 hours of Ocean windsurfing, survival steering, and six to twelve hour turns at the wheel while Herbert tried to figure out just how far off course the storm had blown us, and where the hell were we?
As the storm started to pass and the winds let up and the wave height started to go down we steered the boat more from experience than fear and shear terror and actually, for a brief time began to relax a little by the end of the third traumatic day at sea and were finally able to have some food and drink, get out of our soaking wet clothes and rain gear, and appear to be and act like normal naive sailors at sea before darkness and the feeling of being lost at sea sank in.
Roger had survived but we were concerned about dehydration as he had not been able to keep anything down for three days, but he was able to sleep this night as was Herbert, who had given up for the time being trying to figure out where we were until we could make a sun sighting with the sextant the next day. It was my turn, and it was the easiest turn at the wheel since we left Gibraltar going on four days ago. We were cruising along at 3 or 4 knots with a full main Sail on a finally calm sea when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, first one, then two, then three, four, five, maybe ten or more speeding torpedo shaped creatures bathed in the most beautiful, glowing
light that left long trails of glowing luminescence, like in a Psychedelic dream of the best kind, made their presence known as I stared, truly star-struck at this phenomena.
You could hear the porpoises blowing air as they lunged through the phosphorescence of the trailing sea behind the boat, and I almost hysterically, yelled for Roger and Herbert to get out on deck and witness this most amazing experience of nature. As we all whopped and hollered and slapped each other on the back from the witnessing of this event, an even greater event literally exploded in front of our already wide-eyed selves as the sky erupted off our starboard side with a fireworks display like no other we had ever seen and like no other we would ever witness. Underneath the fireworks we could see the silhouette of an island, in what had been the middle of nowhere as far as we were concerned, and had gone to bed truly concerned where we were!
Someone looked at their watch and realized that we were seeing the fireworks display ushering in the New Year on what we would soon find out was Gran Canaria Island, New Year’s Day, January 1, 1974.
Happy New Year, January 1, 2018.