A Whale of a Tale
There is no greater truth than an ocean. Not a single earthly peak or mountain range, no desert, swamp, canyon or forest. Each and all bear their own unique truths and are wonders of nature in their own right, presenting specific challenges to the human adventurer, requiring sharply honed skills and stirring powerful emotions from deep within our souls. For the land is precious, it is our home, not to be slighted or trifled with.
Yet they all would easily fit under the world’s oceans- and in fact they do. Beneath the surface lie mountain ranges greater than the Himalaya, canyons larger than the Grand, vast forests of Kelp and the immense and troubled Coral reefs, to name just a few of the geographic features and ecosystems hidden from our view beneath the waves. Some say we know more about our solar system than we do our oceans, such is their complex and nebulous nature. On the human scale the vastness of the worlds oceans are almost incomprehensible. Only by virtue of being alive in this technological golden era do we have the ability to see our planet as a two dimensional thumbnail, a picture taken from orbit or on a simple three dimensional spinning classroom globe. Today we can precisely compare how large are the oceans relative to the land and just how much seventy one percent of the planets surface overwhelms the remaining twenty nine percent. Our ability to see it all at once, to hold it in our hand, to comprehend the relationship of scale, makes us feel somehow comfortable, in control, empowered, capable and righteous to lord over the forces of nature. But that is not reality. Standing on a beach looking out, or on a boat crossing an oceans surface, on the human scale, is as near to physically engaging the concept of infinity as we will ever experience. Seemingly endless. As much of an abstraction to our minds as is the edge of the universe or the size of a sub-atomic particle.
You can only be humbled when faced with this truth.
At first glance the ocean seems inviting, luring, nourishing both to the body and soul. The giver of life, mother to all, the great moderator protecting us from extreme. All of which is true. But given time this honeymoon also succumbs to another reality. The ocean is as unforgiving as welcoming, as deadly as nurturing, as wild as governing. As elemental to life as it is quick to extinguish it. She only reacts to the colossal forces inputed into her, the consequences of which can take it all from you in an instant or by slow withering torture, without prejudice, malice nor memory. Despite the poets use of feminine adjectives and pronouns, she is not a lady, not your mother. The ocean has no soul either male or female. It just is. Another truth.
Truth is a funny thing. Like an ocean, it can set you free or it can kill you. Not the human kind of truth, played fast and loose, but the real truth- the physical truth. The falling off the rock-face truth, the Captain Ahab truth, the run out of time truth.
Ultimately it is the space between the freedom and the danger of the truth that makes the oceans call so alluring to so many.
It is there where this tale begins.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, like everybody, I know exactly where I was when the realization of what I had just witnessed occurred to me and when the countdown clock started for those thousands of souls soon to be lost. Where I was also happened to be too close. Fortunately close only counts in horseshoes, so in no way would I imply I was in any more jeopardy than the other 8 million or so persons in New York City that morning (save those at Ground Zero). That day became a very uninvited adventure none of us bargained for and one I concluded that evening, as I sat watching from across the water that now separated me from there, I was not going to participate in again. Thus setting my plan to depart in motion.
Unfortunately you don’t spend more than a decade earning a very small empire of your own at a major media company and then just flip them off because you’re a-scared of the boogeyman. We all have our reasons to stick with the enemy we know versus the one we do not, but for me that day, the mental break had been made and there was no going back. Finally, after four and half years of unwinding the past, the plan became reality.
There is an old joke; the best way to make a million bucks in the boat business is to start with two. You probably have a better chance of carrying the day on TV’s The Voice as a tone-deaf singer than actually surviving in the Sailing for Dollars lotto. I did not know that at the time I jumped ship from NBC, had I, things might have turned out a little different. Fortunately blind ambition has no sense nor bounds and besides, I already had a boat thanks to my successful career. Attaining customers was (and still is) a daily battle, but after sticking my toe in the waters and some continuing freelance work in show biz to further fund it all, my ship was afloat and I concluded the best way to make my million was to spend another half and get a bigger boat. Just over a year later she was launched and we traveled to Maine to get it and sail her off to Hope Town, Abacos, Bahamas. A more fitting place name could not have been possible.
Just in case you recently crawled out from under a well insulated rock, it is very cold up in Maine during the last days of November, so things like running water and warmth are hard to come by on a glorified Clorox bottle traversing the North Atlantic at that time of year. We managed and other than the -14º F temps and the smell of 5 to 6 unwashed male sailors, we arrived in Annapolis intact and without incident. I was getting off for awhile to go make more money to continue paying for the ongoing adventure. My replacement, Captain Ralph and his better half Arlene were taking command and being no greater fans of the cold than I, said to hell with this and left Annapolis with their crew in a snowstorm for parts south and a fairer climate.
From Annapolis The Kathleen D and her crew(s) made their way to Charleston and then down to the St. Johns River and Jacksonville where we were again swapping out crew members for some new customers who were taking the run down to south Florida.
After a fun reunion evening of over indulging along the downtown Jacksonville waterfront in a record setting rain storm, we lit out the next morning into the Atlantic for an overnight sail around Cape Canaveral to Ft. Pierce. We were taking advantage of the strong northerlies in the wake of the previous nights passing cold front and the long hoped for but elusive rendezvous with some warmer weather. From there our plan was to depart from Lake Worth, cross the Straits of Florida and the Gulf Stream, continuing over the Little Bahama Bank to Great Sale Cay and on into the Sea of Abaco and finally Hope Town, on or about Christmas Day. It was in the mid fifties, cloudy gray and almost blowing a gale was the forecast as we made our way out of St. Johns inlet. Immediately we started dancing with some big inbound ship traffic and the proof of the accuracy of the weather service forecast, large breaking seas. It was a handful getting around the deck, avoiding getting squashed by the freighters, setting sail and putting the large catamaran on her lay-line, bound for an obscure sea buoy 30 miles offshore of the cape. We settled in for an exhilarating sleigh ride on the large following seas, surfing the big cat down the wave faces, consistently hitting speeds in the mid to high teens. The winds were pretty steady in direction and holding in the high twenties, gusting to the mid thirties throughout the day. It was above average on the danger scale but certainly not unmanageable or life threatening so long as the boat did not come apart or we did not make a fateful human error. In short, it was a day for sailors and seabirds not land-lubbers, the crew were mighty pleased to be aboard such a seaworthy vessel capable of such high performance with a reasonable margin of safety. Life was good aboard the Kathleen D, despite the mild nagging hangovers from the previous evenings debauchery.
As usually happens, night follows day and that day was to be no different. Night at sea is a completely different animal. On a pleasant, relatively calm moon or starlit night, it can be one of the most pleasant experiences a seagoing adventurer can encounter. That evening was not to be such a night. It was chilly, windy, rain showers still passing through and the seas averaging 10 to 12 feet and breaking, with the very occasional large rollers approaching 18ft. It is something to see in the daylight- as you look aft and watch an almost two story tall wall rising up behind you as you sit in the trough between the waves. The boat then rises stern first on the front face of the approaching sea, the extra boost of gravity and the forward rotary circulation of the wave add to the winds pressure on the sails, breaking her almost ten tons of mass free of the waters stiction as she starts surfing downhill to the bottom and into the back of the preceeding wave, which then slows you down while the wave you just outpaced rolls on underneath you. You then find yourself on the back face of the monster looking up at only sky, eventually easing you back into the trough between the last and the next. This cycle occurs at different intervals depending on numerous conditions, but on this trip it was roughly between every fifth and eighth wave that we would catch a surf that might last between fifteen and thirty seconds, attaining our highest recorded speed of 20.4 knots (23.5 mph) on one particularly big boy.
In the blackness of night, the experience is something else altogether. If you have ever been on the Magic Mountain ride at Disney World- a roller coaster in the dark- then you might better understand the conditions we were experiencing.
Standing watch on the helm your primary navigation instrument is your magnetic compass directly in front of you, telling in real time if you are on the correct course heading (steering straight) or not. The lag in the sophisticated electronic GPS chart plotters (of the day) reacted too slowly to be of much use, it’s backlit screen only making matters worse as it robs you of your sensitive night vision capability, which was not of much use in the limited visibility that evening anyway, but better still to have than not. We put a towel over it to block the light, the helmsman checking it occasionally as it incorporates a radar used to see great distances when you otherwise can’t. A quick scan of the horizon is also incorporated into the routine to keep a lookout for another ship’s lights. Prudence aside, the only thing really visible is the white foaming seas lit by the bow and stern navigation lights as they break and bubble around you during each wave cycle. Your concentration has to be focused as you must keep the boat positioned properly, squared to the following sea while surfing and on the course heading when not. You cannot let the breeze get too far forward or the boat will round up (turn towards the wind), which can then overpower the rudders (steering), allowing the boat to face broadside to the wind and sea (it’s preferred and natural state), inviting a capsize as the wave breaks and pushes you over in concert with the pressure on the now nearly perpendicular sail. It is a domino effect, each event leading to the next.
Denied any visibility greater than your hand in front of your face, the compass, your hearing, your muscles and hands on the wheel, and your own built in gyrocompass tell whether you are accelerating, overpowered, rotating and yawing. These are your tools to adjust your thinking in anticipation of the next move you will need to make. It is extremely intense- particularly at first. Yet it is absolutely astounding how quickly we humans adapt and adjust to our environment and despite all of the chaos out on the big bad ocean that night, we each would stand our watch and settle into the routine and acclimate to the motion and noise, the potential dangers, and the intense concentration. For a true sailor, it is a joy and possibly even a privilege to have such an opportunity. You become one with the boat, riding with the sea, seeking out the rhythm. The pressure on the helm, the acceleration, the movement of the deck, the white noise of the breaking sea, the note of the wind, all speaking to you as your mind organizes and processes the raw data coming from your heightened senses. You become another variable in the equation, not resisting but coaxing, tweaking and easing the machine forward within a tight channel of control and safety, not fighting the forces at work, but aligning them, manipulating them to your benefit. For resisting an ocean is folly. Yet another truth.
Suddenly thrown violently against the hull my legs cut out from under me, I could feel the boat turning first to port and then starboard as I picked myself up. Every cabinet door was sprung open and most of the contents of the lockers strewn about. Initially I thought we hit something but as I stood I realized we had been hit as if by a bus, on the port side. The boat seemed stable and the rotation had stopped, the sail had not accidentally jibed (the boom crashing from one side to the other as the wind gets behind it). All of these thoughts took place in the three adrenalin charged seconds it took to get back on my feet and make my way to the companionway leading up onto the bridge deck. When I reached the opening and looked up, all I could see were two large white ovals across the deck in the port hull companionway staring back- Ralph’s eyes! Simultaneously we said to Dave who was on the helm, “What happened?”
We got up on the bridge deck and Dave explained he barely saw what he thought was a large dark wave coming directly at us on port and then the impact, spinning the boat counterclockwise almost 180 degrees back into the wind, at which point somehow he maintained control and his presence of mind, methodically bringing the boat back to starboard onto its intended course. He did this in the dark while becoming almost airborne himself, but for his hold on the wheel he too would have found himself down on the deck. His intuition and actions were remarkable! There is never any end to the benefit of a steady hand on the helm in this life. Ralph stated, “I have 100,000 miles at sea and no wave has ever hit me like that!”
We scrambled to evaluate the soundness of the hull. Pulling up the floors, eyeing every locker. The pumps were not running, no water was coming in. We were sound. We kept looking. The only damage to the boat appeared to be the 6 foot long outboard galley counter and cabinets under it- the one piece mold fitted and glued to the hull having been sprung loose. The impact strong enough to flex that 1” thick fiberglass and foam cored hull laminate enough to break the bond. It is worth noting that if you took a sledge hammer and swung with all of your might at that point on the hull, it would leave a mark, but bounce off. These machines are big, powerful and strong. And thank the good Lord for that. To have the boat go down in those conditions some 30 nautical miles from land- at that a remote rocket launch pad miles from anywhere, we all likely would have perished. We owe the boat builder major props for making us a tough boat designed to stand up to the forces of an ocean. Mind you, all of this is going on in the dark on a windy night, in a crazy sea, still fully powered up making high sailing speeds!
The crew did not fair as well as the boat, but no one was leaking blood nor were any bones shattered. Ralph and Arlene were coming on to their watch and were prepping to do so, just as I was also prepping to go off watch, having gone below to log vitals, water levels, etc., which we routinely did on each change of the watch. Ralph had two steaming cups of tea in his hands at the moment of impact which partially scolded his forearms, leaving him with some second degree burns. Arlene had been crawling into her bunk to retrieve something for her watch with Ralph and was slammed into a bulkhead. She had a deep black and blue bruise almost from her hip to her knee for the remainder of the trip. Neither Dave nor I sustained any damage and Mike, Big Mike, he stayed in his berth, awakening to find his mattress rotated about 45º from it’s normal position. When he came up an hour or two later he said, “Well I didn’t hear any yelling so I figured we were alright and went back to sleep.” Smart man.
Everything accounted for and injuries tended to, the great debate began. We had to know? Putting on a harness and tethering myself to the port side jack-lines (heavy safety lines that run the length of the boat from end to end that you clip onto with a strong tether off your safety harness. They are mandatory for stepping on deck at night to prevent becoming separated from the boat in the event you fall overboard.) I crawled along the heaving deck with a flashlight to examine the outer hull skin opposite where the galley cabinet had popped off. Nada. No mark, crack, scratch, smear, nothing. Out there on the wet heaving deck, on my belly, flashlight in hand as I stretched outboard and partly over the side at 10+ knots, the thought came to me- a whale!
I found myself alone for a time with my whale theory. As daylight arrived and we closed on the Ft. Pierce inlet we discussed different scenarios as to what hit us, not what we hit. A rogue wave? No. We would have seen a breaking sea, white water crashing on the hull and decks. A non breaking sea would have just rolled under us. A piece of flotsam, say a log? No marks, no way. We continued on in and when we dropped our anchor in Peck Lake along the intracoastal waterway later that afternoon, further inspection from the dinghy alongside confirmed no damage, no scrapes, no nothing. What else could have impacted us, spinning us (a ten ton, forty one foot long catamaran making between 10 and 15 knots) 180º in one second while not leaving a mark? I gained converts to the whale theory.
Before the modern era of electricity and fossil fuels, men hunted whales, primarily to catch them, carve them up and boil the blubber to extract the rich oil for lighting and the baleen (bone) for a myriad of functional and decorative uses. One of the largest and most oil and baleen rich are of the genus and species, Eubalaena glacialis (E. glacialis), more commonly referred to by whalers as the Right whale. They were the right whales to catch, slow movers, prolific with oil and baleen.
A day or two after our incident off of Cape Canaveral, following Mike’s suggestion I was searching along our trail on the chart plotter looking for clues. The words “Right whale sanctuary” scrolled by. Aha!
Right whales tend to follow the food and water temperatures the same as most ocean migrating species. In the winters they head south to Florida with their young to feed in the temperate waters on the rich supply of food to be found between the edges of the Gulf Stream and the coasts along the Straits of Florida. Impacts with ships are common enough that much of the area is designated a whale sanctuary on the nautical charts to bring awareness to mariners of their presence there and hopefully save some lives- whale lives.
The conclusion we came to was the whale may have been moving along “sleeping” as they do- resting half their brain while the other half is in a state of low activity, just keeping them swimming slowly, breathing and watching for danger. In all of the commotion- large breaking seas, rain, and howling winds, the animal may not have picked up our shallow draft vessel careening along at high speed in front of the noisy breaking waves. It likely just swam into us, T-boning us at one of the strongest points on the boat, spinning us around thereby missing our rudders and running gear, any of which had they been damaged or the hull breached would have likely resulted in our names being added to the long list of those whose luck had run out while sailing on the mighty oceans of the world.
Ocean sailors are a conflicted lot. Fatalistic and superstitious. Days and nights are spent in constant rumination of timing, weather, preparation, weighing the options for potential new realities. Conditions change, oceans and weather are dynamic. Never passing on any opportunity to hedge, be it reality based or superstition.
Accepting of that dissonance, over dinner that evening safely anchored in Peck Lake, we gave thanks to King Neptune for his mercy and for our good fortune as Ralph and Arlene offered up a mariner’s toast:
“Here’s to the Captain and crew
For the things that they do
And to the boat that keeps them afloat
On the wild and windy sea”
Aye. Miracles both big and small do occur, and that too is the truth.