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The Storm Of The Century


The wind filled in and we caught our first fish as Madeline hummed along. It was a nice-sized dolphin fish, also known as dorado or mahi mahi, that would feed us for three days. The next day was tough sailing due to choppy seas and high winds, but Jim loved it all. That night, we found ourselves among shipping traffic in the Windward Passage, between Haiti and Cuba.

I was just changing watch with Jim when we saw a ship in front of us dramatically change course to pass on the opposite side. These situations got my adrenaline flowing even if wasn't needed. We quickly woke Alec from his sleep. He got on the radio, but spent most of the time sorting out if he was talking to the right ship.

The ship was rapidly closing with us when it identified itself on the radio as a U.S. Navy warship. "Our course is ten degrees with a speed of 21 knots. The sailing vessel is traveling on a course of 223 degrees magnetic with a speed of five knots. I have changed course and will pass clear to starboard."

It was all happening quickly, and I dashed out to the cockpit as it passed. Bristling guns and turrets on the huge ship were silhouetted in the moonlight. Alec joked that they probably knew more than just our course and speed.

I imagined the first mate saying, "Aye, aye, Captain. There are two males, one female and they all had pan-fried dolphin fish for dinner!"

We watched it go off into the night; they turned off the running lights and the silhouette blended into the darkness. I knew this was an exception. The freighters we were most likely to encounter would have only one or two people watching, if any. We had to be careful and keep a good lookout.

The following morning a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter circled our mast five times. They waved and we waved. Around noon we got a radio call from a Coast Guard cutter requesting permission to board.

Since we were a Canadian vessel, and they had no jurisdiction over these waters, we were under no obligation to cooperate. We'd heard what a hassle a Coast Guard boarding could be, but it was a calm sunny day and we were motoring. Why not?

A 220-foot cutter quickly appeared over the horizon and followed behind us while it launched a boat. We maintained our speed and course and really weren't inconvenienced by the visit.

They sent a bunch of rookies, some visibly nervous. They wore hard hats, coveralls, bulletproof vests, guns, life jackets and well-polished boots. Four came aboard and six stayed in the large inflatable boat beside us. Alec was in command during the boarding and set the ground rules up front. He would lead the search and would terminate the boarding should he wish.

Apparently the Coast Guard was in the Windward Passage because a Haitian exodus was anticipated with U.S. president Bill Clinton's inauguration. They asked to look in our bilges to make sure no Haitians were stowed away. We laughingly opened the covers - our bilges were each the size of a lunch box!

We arrived at Port Antonio on the northeast side of Jamaica and were pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful sleepy town. For five hours Jim and I were prisoners on Madeline, while Alec cleared us through customs, immigration and quarantine. We were greeted by a succession of visitors dockside. These young black men all had a given name, but preferred to be addressed by their nicknames. First there was "Lion", then "Chow", "Jaggy", and "Buggy Up". Each of them welcomed us to Jamaica in turn, and then offered their services, such as taxi, tour guide, boat repairs, money exchange; you name it. Each guy was our "man". We finally bought a stalk of 100 green bananas for a dollar from a kid in a sinking canoe! I wanted to try a Jamaican recipe of curried chicken and green bananas. I was slowly adapting to our new life and even enjoyed planning some meals!

In Port Antonio we met David Clark, a 68-year-old American, who was trying to set a Guinness record by being the oldest person to solo circumnavigate. He had left Florida at the same time as we originally had, and now we'd caught up with him. He played the clarinet to help pay for his food, as he was on a very tight budget, hoping to come into big money through his planned up-and-coming fame.

Jim suggested that we go for dinner to the restaurant where David was playing. His music was quite good, but I couldn't imagine living hand-to-mouth. He was a crotchety old man with a lot of get-up-and-go, but not much finesse. His boat was a mess, his equipment seemed to be always breaking, and his wife had given up on his sailing thing long ago; she'd made it to New Zealand with him the first time around.

All in all, it still was a pleasure meeting him and he was the first person on the same seasonal schedule. Not exactly what I'd envisioned as a fellow cruiser, but we had to give him some credit.

***

"Dolphins!"

I scrambled out of the cabin and dashed forward. There was a school of about 30 dancing and playing in our bow wave! Alec got right out and lay across the starboard bow. Madeline was whistling along at six knots and he dangled his arms in the water, stroking the dolphins as they surfaced beneath him. The late afternoon sun bathed us in orange light as we laughed and talked to the dolphins in high squeaky voices. It was moments like this that made our life unique and I was glad I wasn't back home working.

After one night of sailing we would be in Montego Bay. Our sailing with Jim had gone well and he was flying home the following day. The three of us worked well as a team, enjoying each other as well as the thrill of this adventure. Everything was so new, and we'd met the challenge of the passage without difficulty.

But the number of obstacles to this point had been eye opening: the destruction of our outdrive, our clear lack of experience, plus a regular string of equipment failures. Although we had beaten them all and my relationship with Alec was still strong, it was evident that our roles had changed and we were each reacting differently to our new life. I was trying to keep a positive outlook, but the challenges were wearing me thin, something I was only willing to hint at in a letter home to my parents from Jamaica.

"Alec and I are doing really well - this life agrees with us. We're getting nice and brown, and we're both letting our hair grow as long as it will, however we've both managed to keep up with shaving! Each day we work more and more as a team, as we become more and more familiar with our boat and each other's strengths and weaknesses while aboard. We have discovered that my qualities of being hyper and emotional are nicely balanced with the captain's calm and logical approach to things. He continues to impress me with his control of the ship in all aspects, especially since neither of us had any real experience before we set out. I tend to get anxious in situations when I feel not in control or unsure of what is happening. Luckily for us, Alec shines in these circumstances, applying what he knows and using common sense. We have agreed that I am the pessimistic idealist and that he is the optimistic cynic. Our life together is quite different now, spending everyday together. I like it like this - the more time we spend together, the better it gets!... So far, the challenges of the trip are still outweighing the pleasures, but the pleasures are quickly catching up! Especially the last two weeks. We have renewed confidence in ourselves and our abilities, and look forward to the unknown ahead. This is quickly becoming the adventure of a lifetime."

***

When Alec had started investigating boats, he immediately realized the advantages of a catamaran. Most sailors think of quick passages in a light, speedy catamaran, but that's far from reality with most multihulls out cruising. Cruising catamarans tended to be heavily built and when all the equipment and provisions were added, most catamarans sailed at the same speed as traditional monohulls. Even though you could push the boat faster, most cruising couples preferred a comfortable passage to a fast one.

Madeline was comfortable, and in hindsight, this was probably the most important feature for me. Sailing against the wind, the boat hardly heeled, and there was no pendulum-like rolling when sailing downwind . We could put down our drinks, except in the worst weather at sea, without spilling. At anchor, where we spent 75 percent of our nights, Madeline didn't tack side to side and was comfortable even when a swell rolled in.

The second advantage for me was that Madeline was still relatively light, so she didn't need big sails to move through the water. The rig was small, and easy for me to handle alone, whether on my watch or in the horrible event of Alec falling overboard. The smaller sails generated smaller forces, which meant smaller equipment could be used, reducing repair costs while increasing safety should something break.

Madeline drew less than three feet of water, which expanded our cruising grounds, increased our anchoring options and increased my confidence when navigating by sight. A rock or reef less than three feet under the water usually changed the water color, wave pattern, or current flow. There were a lot of other advantages, like a stable uncluttered foredeck, increased interior space, upright when beached and unsinkable if holed or capsized, but many of these factors depended on the specific boat's design.

With our lack of boating knowledge, Alec looked for a proven ocean-going catamaran design, by a manufacturer still in business. Prout Catamarans in England was the only company that filled these requirements. They had been building bluewater cats for over 40 years and their boats had crossed all the oceans of the world with only two capsizes reported, both when racing - or at least that's what they said.

The only disadvantage of a catamaran was that our budget didn't allow for such a high-priced craft. We'd put aside enough for a used monohull, and a suitable Prout was almost twice the price. Alec's father was keen on us buying a catamaran, hoping that we'd finish our escapade quicker and get back to our respectable careers sooner. Even after Alec had explained the realistic advantages of a catamaran, Jim kindly offered to make up the difference with an interest-free loan.

"Now I can see you made a good decision buying Madeline," Jim said before flying home from Montego Bay. "That was a great passage with you - I look forward to another one, perhaps?"

***

Panama was the next destination and our first major offshore sail. We read up on the passage across the Caribbean Sea, and the word "northers" kept appearing in the text. Sure enough, after a couple of relatively calm days and good fishing, the wind swung to the north and accelerated. Little did we know that a major storm was spinning out of the Gulf of Mexico.

When we were in Florida and parts of the Bahamas, we received weather broadcasts on our VHF radio, but now we were out of range and Jamaica, like most places in our travels, didn't broadcast weather reports. A few of the low-budget cruisers had short-wave receivers. This was a cheap alternative because you could pick up good forecasts from great distances, if you knew the stations to listen to.

We had a saying that "the only weather you can choose is the weather you leave in"; the idea being not to set schedules. We had watched the weather reports on the Montego Bay Yacht Club's television, but everyday the forecast was "trade winds from the east", which matched the Madeline weather forecast. This was Alec's idea of forecasting and consisted of standing outside and looking at the sky and clouds and feeling the wind's direction, strength, temperature and humidity. It sounds a bit silly, but we were amazed by some sailors who insisted on the radio weather report, when the weather outside was quite different.

As the wind picked up from the north, we scoured our reference textbooks and quickly reread about these "northers". The adjective "boisterous" also appeared many times.

We rapidly shortened sail, until we had only our small mainsail up with one reef in it. To reef our mainsail, Alec would manually pull it down and tie it off, while I worked the lines in the cockpit. This enabled us to decrease its size once by a third, and if necessary, then by half of that, or as we would say, double reefed. To decrease the size of our foresail, or genoa, we simply pulled a line to turn our forestay. This rolled the sail up neatly, and we could change its size however much we wanted. I could do this job myself from the safety of the cockpit.

The wind and waves continued to strengthen. Gray clouds had filled in, but the sun shone through and I still felt comfortable despite the worsening conditions. The waves had built up quickly and they would loom behind us, threatening to break. At the last second Madeline's stern would rise up and the wave would pass beneath us. I was thankful the wind was from behind and Madeline raced downwind in the direction we wanted.

An enormous wave lifted Madeline and she started to surf, establishing a new speed record at 11.5 knots. The autopilot whizzed, struggling to keep Madeline from broaching as she raced down the wave front. We quickly reefed the main again. With the least possible amount of sail hoisted, we were still doing six knots, and a couple of waves broke on our transom, pooping the cockpit.

Two days previously when we were near the Pedro Banks we had seen fishing boats and freighters. Now, in the troughs of the waves I saw nothing. When we rose on a wave I could see mountains of water moving in the distance until the white and gray of the breaking waves melded into the turbulent gray of the sky. While on the peaks of the waves I would quickly scan the horizon: behind Madeline on the first wave, then to port, forward and starboard on the succeeding waves. Alec made a call on the VHF radio requesting a weather forecast. There was no answer.

Alec enjoyed the challenge, but I was wondering about the upcoming night. The high winds had increased all day; it was now blowing over 30 knots and the waves were often over 20 feet. I could see in Alec's eyes that he too was beginning to worry. He was at the chart table making various calculations and planning ahead.

"We're doing well," he said, trying to keep positive, "but, I'm not sure what effect this weather will have on our destination." We planned landfall at the San Blas Islands, a group of small reefs and islands sprinkled along the north shore of Panama, east of the Canal. "At this rate we'll be there tomorrow morning, and we'll have to make it into a channel between the islands. Our charts are not good copies and the area isn't accurately mapped in the first place. I'm not sure what effect the continental shelf and the reefs will have on these huge waves, but one thing I do know is that shoaling conditions and a lee shore is bad news."

I imagined huge curling waves and little Madeline surfing down them like at Seller's Cut, but ten times worse.

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1999 Alayne Main