Aboard a boat named salvation
Crew salvages stormy crossing
Have you ever felt momentary weightlessness as you went over the top of a roller coaster while the safety bar held you snug in place? Or the free fall as you enter right and left turns at breakneck speed while climbing and descending at gut-wrenching angles? That’s what we experienced in the Gulf of Mexico aboard Salvation, my 42-foot blue-hulled sailboat.
We had no safety bars—only an incredible, constant, unpredictable motion that forced us down on all fours. We would pray for a lull, then creep, crawl or leap to find a safe spot. When a wave hit, an object—maybe a crewmate—would fly into us, sending us both airborne. The bruises mounted quickly.
My eighth trip across the Gulf started out uneventful. My crew of experienced sailors and military officers also happened to be some of my best friends: David, Susan and my brother-in-law Gerald, who was making his fourth trip between Florida’s Emerald Coast and Key West aboard Salvation.
Everyone had arrived in Destin, Fla., the Sunday before our Tuesday morning departure. We spent Sunday and Monday familiarizing the crew with the boat’s equipment and procedures. To make the three-night, four-day trip across the Gulf from Panama City to Key West, the crew had to be proficient in every aspect of the boat’s operation and emergency procedures.
On Tuesday morning, we powered down to West Bay and Panama City in a dead calm. By evening twilight, we had entered the Gulf through Panama City Pass.
At dawn on the second day, the boat powered through flat, mirror-like horizonless seas. That afternoon a pod of dolphins appeared from the east and headed straight for the bowsprit. I wedged myself between the jib and the rail and leaned as far forward as possible to watch the dolphins effortlessly ride the bow wave. Occasionally, one would turn on its side, and I realized they were looking up at me as I looked at them. They seemed to take turns, from largest to smallest, moving clockwise around the boat as if moving around the points of a compass.
Early Thursday morning, I contacted our weather router for the daily forecast: A cold front with winds gusting to at least 35 knots was headed our way. We would also encounter a 12- to 15-foot following sea, so we readied ourselves for the difficult night to come.
At 2015, Gerald and I were on deck while Dave and Susan were fast asleep below. We heard an ominous sound as the winds increased and the boat suddenly heeled to port. There was no rain or lightning—just loud, frightening, strong wind as the boat began to heel and yaw uncomfortably. With even heavier winds coming, I didn’t want to lose control of the boat, so I decided to heave to.
The violence temporarily eased, but within minutes, drenching waves crashed on deck. In no time, I was shivering. I sent everyone below while I secured the boat. Afterward, I joined the crew below. The wind and waves tossed us around, but at least we were warm. Being dry, warm and seasick was better than being wet, cold and seasick.
After a few hours, I climbed up the companionway. The wind was blowing just as hard as before, if not harder, but the sky was clear and the stars were out. Meanwhile, everyone below was trying to sleep in a very uncomfortable sea.
Hoping that the boat’s motion under way would be less taxing on the crew, Gerald and I climbed into the cockpit, and at 0330 Salvation was headed southbound under partial jib. We wore harnesses and were wedged into the boat so tightly that we felt like seat-belted drivers. The boat twisted, heeled and yawed through seas we could not see, but we retained control throughout the exhilarating ride.
The cold was unrelenting, and by 0455 I was shivering uncontrollably. Fortunately, Dave was ready to come on deck and share the conn with Gerald. By 0520, I was tied into the bunk, warm and secure in dry clothes.
I awoke at 0800 to bright sunlight through the ports and the occasional sound of laughter. The boat’s motion was more pronounced than before, and it took me 30 minutes to get dressed, as I had to wedge myself in one place to keep from falling. Crawling from the cabin, to the head, to the navigation station to check our position and then to the companionway was a real chore. After what seemed like an eternity, I opened the companionway doors to get on deck.
I looked up to find Gerald and Dave behind the wheel, huge smiles on their faces. Behind them, a mountain of blue-green water blotted out the sky. As the water rose higher, so did the boat’s aft. Holding on to keep from falling back into the companionway, I realized that Salvation was surfing down a wave toward a deep trough in 12- to 15-foot seas. After some maneuvering, I was harnessed in the cockpit, enjoying the ride.
To starboard we saw a dolphin leap from the top of a wave about 30 feet over the trough and into the crest of another. The next wave found the boat in the valley between two ridges of water, and we looked up to see dolphins leaping over the boat from the crest behind us to the one we were climbing. Later, as we approached Smith Shoal and the Northwest Channel entrance, the waves began to subside and we felt the warmth of the sun once again. Within hours, we made landfall at Key West Bight and were greeted by friends and family who had heard that we were coming home in the midst of small-craft warnings.
This thrilling experience filled us with a sense of accomplishment and thankfulness befitting the crew of a boat named Salvation.