TEMPTEST TOSSED AND THE RED CAP
The day was perfect for sailing. Sunny, warm but not hot, gentle breezes and fleeting clouds.
Just south of Astoria, well outside the shipping lanes, we were cruising at about three knots when I was violently thrown from my bunk and slammed to the deck in a heap. It was as if an explosion had gone off in the cabin. Everything that was not bolted down was scattered about – most of it on top of me. Either we had hit something or a rogue wave had caught us on the starboard side.
I had heard many harrowing stories about rogue waves knocking ships over, but I had never actually experienced one. Until now. Fortunately, or maybe miraculously, the Danielle Marie, was able to right herself after a fifty-degree roll to port.
Dazed and a little disoriented, it took me a few seconds to right myself and crawl to the passageway leading to the cockpit above. I desperately wanted to check on Danielle, my sailing partner and girlfriend. She had been at the wheel when we suffered the knock down. I needed to know that she was okay. That she hadn’t been hurt. I called out to her, but there was no answer.
Propelled by panic, I cleared the passageway in two quick leaps and slid the hatch door open. “Danielle, “ I screamed above the uproar of rushing water. “Are you okay, are you all right?”
There was no answer. And, as I looked at the steering pedestal where she had been standing, there was no sign of her.
Please, God. No! My mind scanned the cockpit. It was still awash with sea water that hadn’t fully drained through the scuppers.
“Where are you!” I screamed. “Danielle, please, where are you?”
I called her name over and over again, not wanting to believe that she couldn’t answer me. In a blind frenzy to find her, I lurched forward to the bow and continued shouting her name. My voice was hoarse. My eyes were filled with tears. My mind raced. I had to find her. She had to be there. Somewhere. I kept screaming and searching, not willing to let go of the thin sliver of hope that I would find her and that everything would be okay.
And then, slowly, one thought at a time, like drops of water seeping on a deck until a puddle is formed, the horror of it began to sink in. I wouldn’t find her because she wasn’t there. Danielle had been swept overboard.
As my horror deepened I ran below and grabbed the binoculars to begin searching the ocean surface for any sign of her. I scanned the ocean back and forth a hundred times, praying and begging God to please help me find her. After several minutes of searching, I spotted a small red object about 100 yards off the port side. I came about quickly and headed straight for it.
The closer I got, I could see that it was Danielle’s souvenir cap from the Newport Sailing Regatta that we had sailed in a few years earlier. She loved that cap and always wore it whenever we sailed. It became one of those protective sea superstitions. Danielle believed it would keep us safe. She was convinced that as long as she wore it, we had nothing to worry about at sea. It would somehow always lead us to a safe harbor.
My heart was racing and my spirit lifted. I knew that God had answered my prayer. Danielle would be okay. I would find her treading water near her cherished cap.
I reached over the side with a gaff and retrieved the red cap. Then I scanned all around the area, close in and as far out as the binoculars allowed. There was no sign of Danielle. My prayer had gone unanswered.
In my anguish I began calling her name in desperate gasps, then fell to my knees on the deck and wept uncontrollably. The love of my life had been taken from me. The red cap I held in my hand was the only remaining connection I had to her, but it was now completely drained of the protective energy she believed it held.
My chest felt empty – as though the very air had been sucked from my lungs and replaced with a grief so overwhelming that it paralyzed me.
I left the deck and went below to radio the Coast Guard for help. As I picked up the handset, I noticed the LED Channel display was not Illuminated. The radio was dead. And, after flipping a switch for lights, it looked like all the power was out. By clearing some of the debris spread about the cabin, I was able to access the hatch to the engine compartment where the battery hookup was. The wiring from the battery had been ripped from the terminals and was just dangling there from the bulkhead. The battery itself was lying upside down in the bilge, its case split open.
The compartment had about a foot of water in the bilge. The bilge water would not be a problem if it remained at that level. It was not unusual to have water in the aft bilge, but
a foot deep could be serious. A light green, blue and red sheen floated on top of the water. I realized it was a mixture of diesel fuel and oil. It indicated that the fuel tank might have suffered a rupture during the knock down. With the power knocked out, no electronics, and no way to start the engine, the best course of action would be to set sail to the nearest port to get help.
The last time I was able to check our position before the knock down, we were approximately 50 miles south of Astoria and 20 miles due west of Rockaway Beach. Having the main sail up and close-reefed, with any luck and favorable winds, I could make landfall in three to four hours. Over the last two days the barometer had fallen steadily, and the forecast from NOAA predicted a strong storm front coming through. If I wanted to outrun the storm, there was no time to lose. I set a course east for Rockaway Beach.
Night fall was fast approaching. The sky turned a forlorn shade of gray that matched the state of mind I had surrendered to. As the darkness fell, the strengthening winds out of the northwest whipped up the swells. Because of the increasing winds I would need to drop the main sail. Only the forward jib would move the boat and it would not be enough to propel the Danielle Marie ahead of the storm. I began preparing for the tempest about to befall us.
In less than an hour, the teeth of the storm hits. The Danielle Marie will need to fight to stay afloat. Towering seas of 25-foot waves and 50 plus knot winds attack her. She rides each wave, up and then crests down it. With virtually no steerage and even less visibility, she is at the sea’s mercy.
The sea spray mixed with the now heavy rain stings my skin and burns my eyes. From the bottom of these great swells, I can see and understand just how small and insignificant I am. This storm-raged sea is king.
The Danielle Marie continues to courageously sail up the face of these gray beards to the white spray-filled crest and then crash down the back side, enveloped once again by the fury of an unrelenting sea. Her hull is taking a pounding. Even with my foul weather gear and safety harness attached, I am terrified. I can’t leave the cockpit to check any damages below deck or to check on the rest of the boat. Fear holds me in its tight grip, a vice that won’t let me move.
The ocean mercilessly pounds away, testing the limits of both man and vessel for hours. My body is soaked to the bone – cold, well past shivering – and my muscles ache with pain and cramps. I am frozen at the wheel, still tense with fear and too scared to move. I begin to lose feeling in my fingers, and my hands are rubbed raw from the pressure of gripping the wheel so tightly. Breathing is labored when cresting these titans because there is so much sea spray and rain infused in the air.
I turn my head aft tucking it down toward my shoulder which helps protect my face and allows me to breathe. There is no telling how far off an Easterly course the storm has driven us. All I am able to do is to hold on and try to endure this howling sea knowing that at any moment one of these monsters can sink us.
Danielle’s red cap has lost its power. There is no safe harbor, no place to anchor, no protective cove offering shelter from nature’s unrelenting onslaught. Only the sea and the wind. Ever stronger and ferocious, like a maniac out to kill. Increasingly, I begin to think that my days and those of the Danielle Marie are numbered. But, at least we will go down together.
The storm has us firmly in its grip. Never have I gone through weather and
seas this rough. Most of my sailing up to this point had been closer to port and usually in
fair weather. The wind shrieks through the rigging and is building, whipping up white
foam all around. The jib is in shreds. Fastened by one remaining line it waves wildly, like a slashed battle flag. From below, as we pitch from side to side, I can hear pots and pans hurling about the galley first in one direction and then in the opposite one.
My thoughts turn to rescue, but with the radio out, no May Day can be sent and, in
these conditions, who would respond anyway? Tears flood down my cheeks and mix with torrents of sea spray. Danielle is out there somewhere. There is no chance, no hope. Hers will be a recovery mission rather than a rescue.
There is nothing I can do. And if there had been, I am too scared, panic stricken and paralyzed with grief to do it. My only option is to ride out the storm.
The night is as black as a cave. The only illumination comes from the beam of my
flashlight as it settles on the tempestuous breaking waves. Under these conditions, it looks as if I will be swallowed up as a sacrifice to the depths below. I feel totally hopeless and alone, sorrow floods my very soul, surrounds me like a heavy fog.
On this night, with the deck awash and the scuppers filled with torrents of sea water, life or death will be ordained by the God of the heavens, land and sea. His Will will be done!
Suddenly, with a loud snap, the backstay breaks loose. It flies over my head and ends up clanging against the rail amidships. Nature’s wrath is now unleashing its power as the Danielle Marie shudders under the force and weight of the sea. She is being tossed about like a piece of driftwood. Rigging and cables whip wildly as if electrified. With the backstay and headstay both gone, along with the lines in the sheet stoppers and fairleads totally slack, I think that demasting is imminent. I almost welcome it.
How much more punishment can we endure? I begin to accept the possibility that we are entering our death throws.
Was my life’s journey coming to an end? Lost at Sea stamped on the death certificate in watery ink? And would I join Danielle and all those many others who had gone before me?
The gale continues unabated and the ocean boils up to meet the sky. It is difficult to distinguish where one starts and the other ends. In a strange, unexplainable way, I
sense that the storm is finally exacting payment for the many times I have sailed on this ocean. I was paying my dues.
Exhausted, my body succumbs and is ready to abandon the struggle, but my mind, ever the master of my fate, commands my imagination to deliver me to a safe harbor. It transcends the impending destruction of my physical body and that of the Danielle Marie. I begin to think warm to combat the cold; food and rest to restore energy; and calmness to gain the resolve to make it through.
Trepidation creeps in and I fear this is only wishful thinking, an illusion my mind uses when faced with an impossible situation.
I want to cry out in anger. Question why this is happening? And why to me? My voice is subdued and conveys only praise to the Danielle Marie, Danielle’s namesake. What a great boat you are. Battered and damaged you steadfastly sail on, defying victory to the ravenous beast whose grip holds us so tightly and refuses to let us go. No matter what happens, I could not have asked more of you. I have loved sailing with you and offer my salute, my gratitude, and my thanks to you. My feelings could not be more honest than if extended toward a person.
I’m so depleted that what’s real or imaginary has become clouded and confusing in the squall that envelops us. Is this what happens near the end, the ramblings of thoughts and
hallucinations that wash across the mind as the spirit makes preparation to cross over?
Twenty grueling, fright-filled hours have passed since I last felt the warmth of the sun’s rays on my face. The urge to sleep is overwhelming. I find myself slipping in and out of
consciousness. Both my will and the adrenaline that have driven my body this far are now
spent. The last ounce of courage and fight have been taken from me and devoured by this
ferocious storm. Broken now, I am no longer afraid. Surprisingly, my emotional state
embraces the thought of leaving this hostile place to be reunited with Danielle and to see where our next journey may take us.
Over the course of the storm, without power to the bilge pumps, it’s apparent we have
taken on water. The Danielle Marie is riding lower, is less buoyant, and has a sluggish
response to the swell, evidence that it won’t be long now until we slip below the surface. Soon our names will be added to the list of those who went before us, lost at sea. It is a long and proud list.
I feel fortunate to know where and when my death will happen. Soon I will know the answer to the age-old question of what happens to you and where do you go after you die?
I want to return to the cabin for a last celebratory shot of Captain Morgan to prepare myself for the peaceful glide down to the ocean floor. I refuse to be tethered to the Danielle Marie with a safety cable only to be washed overboard on the way down like a fishing lure at the end of some fisherman’s line.
I’m removing the yellow rain slicker and leaving it on the cockpit seating cushions. Perhaps after this storm, if there is a search, it will be found floating on the surface. Evidence. A marker. A plastic grave stone?
Entering the cabin below, I see that we have taken on quite a bit of sea water. The cabin’s sole is flooded with several inches. Sloshing through the floating debris to the
galley cabinet, I retrieve the bottle of Captain Morgan and a glass. The cold sea water has
now risen to my knees. I fill my glass and lift it for a final time-honored, customary toast.
“HERE’S TO YA.” I nod to no one in particular. And to everyone.
Ironically, Danielle and I had always joked about the Danielle Marie being my
mistress. Who better to toast than my mistress? She will not only be joining me on this
journey to the depths below, but will be providing the transportation to get us there.
“Here’s to you, girl.”
I empty the rest of the bottle throughout the cabin. Give Danielle Marie a chance to join me. After gulping down the rum, I grab Danielle’s red cap off the passage stairs, place it on my head, and retreat to my bunk, the place where all this started a life time ago. As I lie there calmly the water begins to lap at the edge of the mattress. I am overcome with excitement and anticipation, not scared at all. It will be only a few more minutes now.
I imagine a rendezvous with Danielle and wonder if we can pick up where we left off in our life. Who else will I meet? Will we be able to recall all the great times we had together? Could we even make love again? My expectation is flowing off the charts. I am
ready to go!
Tonight, lying here at the very end, with the cold Pacific waters filling the cabin
and flooding the decks above, promises have been made that will be left unspoken and
sealed with a silent prayer for their fulfillment. With the ocean water beginning to fill my
lungs, my final words will be, I love you Danielle, I love you Danielle.
Awakening, I have no idea of how much time has elapsed between our sinking and this new dimension I find myself in. There is a radiant amber light that shines through the
starboard ports. It fills the cabin space. The surroundings feel warm, safe and inviting. There
is a heavy aroma of rum permeating the air. I pinch my cheeks and rub my eyes to reassure myself that I am physically here. My eyes are crusty with an abnormal quantity of salt that is typical of first wakening in the morning.
I look around. Everything is familiar. I am still on board the Danielle Marie. Mystifyingly, all is in perfect condition – just as it was before the knock down.
Sliding open the hatch leading to the cockpit, I timidly look out and wonder what or who I might see. Amazingly, there she is – at the wheel still wearing the same clothes she had on yesterday, minus the red cap. I run out on the deck. I can hardly contain myself.
“You’re here, you’re here!” I scream. We hug each other. Say not a word. Our embrace is like nothing I have ever experienced before. It is as if we are in a cocoon, a divine, warm glow that engulfs us and then invites us to break out and embark on a new journey together. If ever I were to experience a supernatural sensation, this would be it.
Pulling away first, Danielle is puzzled by my comments. “I’ve been here with you the entire time,” she says. “But why are you wearing my hat?”
In my excitement, I hadn’t realized it was still on my head. I hastily remove it and give it back to her. Placing it on her head she says how damp it feels. I am reluctant to tell her how it got wet so I offer no response. The silence that follows is deafening. For some reason our interaction seems awkward almost like meeting someone for the first time.
I so want to share yesterday’s events with her, but for reasons I don’t understand, I cannot. Danielle breaks the silence. “I’ve set an Easterly course for Rockaway beach,” she says. “If the wind holds, we should be there in three or four hours.” She asks me to go below to the galley and brew a fresh pot of coffee.
As I turn forward to go below, she points out that the back-stay adjuster is loose and is banging against the hull. She adds that I should also hang the rain slicker that is lying in the cockpit over a stantion to dry, but coffee must come first, please.
I struggle to make sense of what had just happened, but I can’t get my mind around it. It is like a part of me absolutely knows what happened while another part of me needs a more rational, concrete explanation – an explanation that escapes my mind’s ability to provide.
Does Danielle have any idea of what had happened yesterday? And if she does, why isn’t she talking about it?
I don’t have the answers. Only more questions. How does one navigate in these unchartered waters of past and present? Was this some kind of cruel dream that is being unleashed on me? I pray for guidance. I desperately need some kind of a sign, an affirmation of what has taken place. Something tangible.
When I open the cabinet in the galley, right next to the coffee is an empty fifth of
Captain Morgan. This blows my mind! I cannot resist the urge to talk about it with
Danielle. Heading to the cockpit, I stop myself on the top step of the passageway and look out through the partially opened hatch. Staring at her, I see that she is more beautiful now than I had ever seen her. There is an angelic splendor that totally surrounds her. Her long, chestnut hair flows freely beneath her cap. Her light tan skin exudes a warmth that is intoxicating.
At that moment the color of the sea and sky in the background are out of this world, like nothing I have ever seen before. The following seas are translucent at their peaks with awe-inspiring colors of turquoise, blue-green, and white. The sky is a clear, powdery pale blue filled with huge, cotton-candy clouds of breathtaking beauty – puffs of snow white tinted pink and tangerine from the sun’s rays.
I peer out from the open hatch and gaze upon Danielle. My heart aches, cries out for some kind of confirmation or verification, a sign that yesterday was real, not my imagination running wild.
Just as I am about to leave my perch in the passageway, Danielle looks down from the wheel. Our eyes meet and lock on each other, startling me at first. The dazzling blueness of her eyes entrances me. Her gaze beckons me to run to her. Still holding me with her eyes, Danielle leans forward over the rim of the wheel. There is a soft light surrounding her and, if possible, she is even more beautiful than before. With an alluring smile and a slow, knowing wink she mouths the words, “I Love You Too!”
I have my sign. It is all I need . . .
TEMPTEST TOSSED AND THE RED CAP