Hit by a $3,000 Gust – Lesson Learned

$1,000 nights are notorious among sailors. This is what we call nights when a sail is ripped in a sudden gust, or the dinghy outboard motor falls over board, or the anchor needs to be given up.

Ask any blue-water sailor and you’ll find they all had at least one of those $1,000 nights in his/her career, even though they might not like being reminded of it. Because most of the time it is not the night that caused the loss, as the term may imply, but sheer skipper’s negligence, leaving an ugly stain on the captain’s record.

So now you know how hard it is for me to talk about it. But it’s been a while, so I am kind of over it and ready to make my confession:

My son Tom joined me in San Juan, Puerto Rico, USA for a week of sailing and some land exploration. He has often sailed with me and is quite experienced for his age of 17, but he has never sailed in tropical waters before.

From San Juan to Samana

The sun shines bright as we weigh anchor and head through the narrow channel of San Juan harbor out into the open sea, passing gigantic docks, huge cruise ships, the impressive coast guard base, the vast oil terminal and finally, the proud San Felippe del Morro Castle. Now nothing but the horizon separates us from our destination. A light breeze pushes us forward gently, riply wavelets are burbling along our bright orange hull, glittering in the Caribbean sun. 

Our destination is Marina Puerto Bahia on Samana peninsula in the Dominican Republic. A short 200 nm sail – just two days and two nights. As we leave the channel, we turn port to WNW on a half-wind course, heading straight for Samana. A perfect sailing day, relaxed and quiet.

It is so relaxed and quiet that Tom falls asleep on the foredeck, my boat dogs Cap’n Jack and Scout snooze in the cockpit, snuggled up tightly, and I am drifting away listening to my favorite audio book. Only the auto-pilot is doing its work untiringly, keeping us on course as if we are gliding on magic rails. 

When Tom wakes up later and I make some dinner, he is a little disappointed about the meager mileage covered and our current speed that barely exceeds three knots. But the sunset is beautiful and well rested as he is, he agrees to take the first night watch while I nestle down in my bunk without the slightest premonition of the price tag this negligence is going to have.

As usual, I fall asleep fast. We solo-sailors are able to sleep wherever and whenever we have the opportunity because they are rare. But as always a part of me stays awake, subconsciously listening to the sound of the wind and the waves and sensing the boat‘s movements. 

I feel a breeze on my face. I like it. It is hot in the cabin and the breeze feels good! 

But a breeze? A BREEZE? Argh, this means I forgot to close the hatches! I must have forgotten to close them before we weighed anchor. F..k! But I am way too lazy to get up, so I just enjoy the breeze and keep sleeping. I will close them when I get up for my watch.

“Five knots, five and a half!,” Tom‘s excited voice breaks my sweet dreams. We are heeling a little and the well audible whooshing confirms his announcements. “Six, six and a half!.“ For a moment I feel like I am on board the German WWII submarine U96 in the movie “The Boat“, when they keep falling after they got hit by a depth charge in the Straits of Gibraltar. Tom‘s speed reports sound just like the submarine‘s chief engineer‘s diving depth reports that end with “I report obediently: Boat is uncontrollable.“

“BOAT IS UNCONTROLLABLE!,“ it echoes in my head, exactly in the moment when Tom cheers “Seven knots, yieeeha!“ 7.5 knots is Seefalke‘s hull speed if I remember it correctly. She is not supposed to go faster than seven knots. She is not DESIGNED to go faster than seven knots through the water!

When the Squall Hits

The heeling has gotten to an unhealthy 30° tilt, maybe more. I have trouble jumping out of my bunk. Through the unbearable noise of the howling wind I scream “Tom, slack the sheets! 

S L A C K   T H E S H E E T S ! ! !“ 

When I finally stand on my feet with one on the wall and one on the bunk, tightly grasping the ceiling hand rail while desperately trying to gain enough stability to move out of the cabin and into the cockpit, it knocks me over and off my feet completely. 

The wall becomes the floor, the aisle becomes the new wall as water is hitting me in the face, shooting through the open hatches so brutally and vehemently I have the feeling it pushes my eyes deep into my skull. I lose sight, the noise is deafening and I can hardly breathe. I get a little glimpse of how it must be to drown. Not peaceful at all!! I spit salty water. Somehow, and I don’t remember how, I make it into the cockpit, desperately hoping Tom is still there.

And yes, he is, standing on the cockpit’s side walls grasping to the steering wheel in despair. Finally, after what seems like an eternity but can’t have been more than a few seconds, I reach the cleats and tear loose the sheets, main first then genoa. Immediately the boat comes upright and the sound of the shivering sails becomes unbearable. I need to take the genoa down or it will tear like toilet paper. The boiling sea is black with green and red froth reflecting the spooky shine of the nav lights. 

bad weather coming up at sea

With nothing on but my underpants, no time to put on a life vest or a PLB (Personal Life Beacon), I carefully crawl forward on all fours to the foredeck, sliding wildly with Seefalke performing her worst rodeo. I hear myself talking to her to calm her down. Uncounted bangs and bruises later I make it to the halyard. It takes some effort and some risky maneuvering to tame and take down this large fabric, but eventually I get it done. But not before the large shackle at the sail tack lands a good swing on my face leaving me with a split lip, a tooth less and a mouthful of blood. It hurts badly but there is no time for pity right now. It could have been worse and hit me in the eye, for example. So I spit out the tooth and swallow the blood. Or was it the other way around? I don’t know.

When I turn around to crawl back aft, I get hit by more spume smacking over the sea fence. Blood, sweat and tears are running down my face, and instinctively I think of Churchill and his historic speech. Still giggling of amusement and beginning madness, I slide back into the safe and dry cockpit and haul in the main sheet, finally regaining control over this vessel. 

Where Is the Dog?

“Holy Molly,” I think, “that was a close call!” And I sit down and try to relax holding my swollen and bloody mouth. Cap’n Jack peers up to me as if he wanted to ask if it is safe now. So I nod down the companionway, his signal that it is ok to come up. But where is the other one? Where is Scout? 

I can’t see her in the main cabin where she was snuggled up to me under my blanket sleeping before the hell broke lose. I feel panic coming up. If she had gone overboard during the knockdown she is history. No way to find her pitch black body in the pitch black night in the pitch black water. No chance! Not the slightest. Anything else is sheer delusion.

But hope dies last so I go down into the main cabin. I hadn’t seen her coming up earlier, but really I don’t know. Maybe she just hid somewhere, crawled deeper under the blanket or underneath the bunk or into the stern cabin. As I step down the rear companionway into the stern cabin I see the reflection of her eyes in the very stern, snuggled up to the spare sails and lines. Relief! 

As I come closer with my flashlight I see the cushion underneath her is wet. No blood, no sweat and also no tears, but it is ok. The accident is just fine! She is fine! Good girl! I take her in my arms and hold her tiny shivering body tight as we slowly move back into the cockpit where Cap’n Jack welcomes her back to life. 

24:00: Wind NE to ENE force 6 gusting 9, seas 2 m increasing 3 m, heavy rain, got knocked down in squall line, boat ok, crew ok, no visible damages, genoa reefed away, proceeding under main sail only, HDG 295, COG 285, SOG 4,2 kts. Maik on watch.

When I make the midnight entry into the logbook I see Tom is still sitting there, motionless, pale, with empty eyes. I understand how he feels. He thinks it was his fault that I lost a tooth, I almost went over board, we almost lost a dog and we almost capsized, because he hauled in the sheets rather than slack them during the fierce gusts. But it isn’t. Not at all. It was all my fault. 

Lesson Learned

I hug him and I apologize. I apologize for not briefing him properly about the perniciousness of tropical squalls. I apologize for not reefing at sunset as I usually do. I apologize that I didn’t shut the hatches when we weighed the anchor. Three absolutely inexcusable mistakes that almost cost a ship, two human and two canine lives. 

my son tom and the boat dogs
My crew for this passage: Tom, and the boat dogs Cap’n Jack and Scout

This is what I recall as I stand in the Apple service shop in Leipzig, Germany when the young computer specialist breaks the news to me that my MacBook Pro (newest generation) is a total write-off. 

In fact, it’s beyond that. Neither him nor anyone else in the shop had ever seen anything like it. The laptop was in its case during the incident but a few drops of salt water made it inside. It still looks new from the outside but inside there is not a single component left that is not completely corroded or salt frozen. He says the repair would be 4,000€ but a new one would only be 2,000€. 

I think of the five lives that we didn’t lose that night, and I think to myself, all in all, I got a good deal here. In fact, that $3,000 gust seems like quite a bargain…

So I take a photo of the wreck for my story and leave the store with a smile.

destroyed laptop

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