WRESTLING THE HURRICANE By Jim Midwinter (Article)

Jim Midwinter


The voyage began auspiciously enough, even joyously: my birthday, my last day in the Public Service of Canada, and my last day as ambassador to Venezuela. We (my wife, Sally, and 1) had a glorious send-off from the elegant Caraballeda Yacht Club where we had been privileged to be honourary members during our tour of duty in that South American republic. A spirited gathering of staff and other friends; then, as prearranged, we cast off just as the sun dipped below the horizon.

The Venezuelan government's protocol office had been a little puzzled about how to handle such an unconventional departure of a foreign representative but in the end did everything
but give us a twenty-one gun salute.

We had sailed our vessel earlier that year (1985) to Venezuela from Bradenton, Florida where we had taken delivery of her from her builder in Ontario, Canada. Our craft, a Bayfield 40 ketch designed by Ted Gozzard, carries the name Vailima in honour of Robert Louis Stevenson's last home, in Samoa. Sally's grandfather, who passed most of his life in British Columbia as a marine engineer, had gone to the South Pacific as a young man to work as a deep sea diver on the salvage of German and American warships that had been wrecked off the Samoan port of Apia in the "Great Hurricane" of 1889. While there, a particular friend of Stevenson's stepson, Robert Osbourne, he was often at Vailima. He was also lucky enough to meet his own lifelong mate, daughter of a German settler (the Kaiser's empire was then pre-eminent in Samoa) – but that's another story.

Embarking from Caraballeda at sunset we sailed overnight to Los Roques, Venezuela's unique offshore archipelago, to catch our breath. The following day we continued west along the Venezuelan coast to the Dutch island, Curaçao. There was a full moon, and I don't care what the scientists say; after dark it was twice as big and twice as bright as our satellite appears to be in more northerly latitudes. What a marvelous sail this was: the trade wind carrying us along effortlessly, the mountains of South America to our port shining in the sun, then reflecting the silver moon, my dear wife by my side. What more could a man ask? Little did I suspect then the challenge that awaited me.

We duly arrived at Curaçao and docked at the yacht club in that island's perfect,
landlocked eastern harbour, Spanish Water. There, Sally left me to fly home to Ottawa while I waited out (supposedly) the hurricane season - a good Libra, my birthday had been September 27th. I spent some weeks there on Curaçao; and then on neighbouring Bonaire, now a diving paradise and Christian broadcast center, but with horrendous memories of its slavery salt-working past (the island is still a major producer of sea-salt but with modem technology not human misery).

Early in November I departed Bonaire's port and only town, Kralendijk, and sailed alone north to Hispaniola, a lovely three-day passage highlighted by awesome thunderclouds and, one night, a "moon bow” – that's what I call it but I guess it more properly should be titled a nocturnal rainbow. Whatever, it was an intimidating greyish arc illuminated by another so-bright tropical moon. The voyage was marred only by the arrival of two little blown-off landbirds who sought haven aboard Vailima but then, despite all my efforts to succour them with food and water, died in the cockpit. Before expiring, they chattered to each other, I swear saying goodbye. The female went first and her mate, after fruitlessly trying to revive her with his beak, came to me, seemingly for comfort. A little later, he too died. Be sure: I gave them a proper sea-burial.

I made landfall at Boca Chica, a safe little harbour on the Dominican Republic's south shore, and docked there at the principal yacht club of that country's capital, Santo Domingo, being given a privileged reception as I had been Canada's ambassador there as well as to Venezuela. By "safe" I don't just mean secure from storms; the club was surrounded by an unscaleable wall and patrolled all night by rifle-armed guards. Needless to say, I didn't casually
go ashore after sundown to visit the club head.

Boca Chica, by the way, was the landing place of Sir Francis Drake when he seized Santo Domingo back in the 16th century. Of English heritage, I had always thought of him as a hero fighting the Spanish Inquisition and was dismayed to find that on Hispaniola he was not viewed so highly. I'm told mothers there will still caution their children: "Go to sleep, or Francis Drake will get you!"

I then sailed round Hispaniola's eastern promontory and through the Mona Passage to Samaná, that utterly entrancing haven on the Dominican Republic's northeast coast and the closest we have in this hemisphere to Bora Bora and the South Seas. There I rested, reprovisioned Vailima and readied myself for the long onward passage to Florida. After a few days, with a favourable weather forecast from a Puerto Rican radio station, I weighed anchor to continue my northward voyage. Science said it was okay but an old fisherman I'd talked to on shore told me he didn't like the weather - I wish I had taken his advice.

Technically, at mid-November it was still the hurricane season but I was anxious to get on and ignored the old rule that the possibility of such tempests could not be disregarded until the end of that month. Given the potentially awesome power of wind and sea, holding to a schedule, having to meet a deadline or simple impatience are the toughest temptations for the
prudent sailor to resist. "I have to be back by sundown"; "I have to be at work Monday morning"; "I have to get across the Atlantic before winter"; or, as in my case, simply "I've been away too long, I want to be home."

In any event, I sailed off from idyllic Samaná – on November 13th at 1300 hours as my wife was told later when, my being unheard-from for some days, she telephoned the port commandant from Ottawa to ask what he knew about Vailima's whereabouts. Some hours later I rounded Cape Cabron in a rough sea, wind from the east, then continued on northwestward towards my planned next port of call, Grand Turk. For the first while, all went well; then the wind backed to the north and strengthened. It soon became evident, though the forecasts from Puerto Rico were still positive, that I was in for a strong "norther", or so I thought. I concluded Grand Turk was no longer reachable against the "norther" and changed course to a more westerly direction that would take me south of the Caicos Bank.

I pressed along on a close reach on staysail and double-reefed main, at first thrilled by my progress, a thrill that gradually changed to apprehension as the wind continued to strengthen. I still thought it was a norther of the sort that blows each winter through the Bahamas. I was nonplussed. By then, my position being a little south of West Caicos Island, I could no longer make headway against the rising seas and what was by now a gale-force wind. What to do?

About that time, a wall of solid water came aboard. I was standing in the cockpit; as I watched, water poured through the closed cabin skylight as if it weren't there. That settled it. I had already furled the staysail on its Harken gear. I now quickly doused the main and, abandoning any idea of continuing my homeward course, turned to sail downwind under bare poles, my thought being that I could ride out the storm southwards past Great Inagua Island and if necessary through the Windward Passage into the Caribbean. This tactic too I soon abandoned. The following seas were growing enormous and many were breaking, with a good deal of water and spray coming aboard. Moreover, rain was now pouring down and Great Inagua and its satellite, Little Inagua, had vanished. Passing them no longer seemed so simple. Continuing downwind also meant I had to stay on the helm, which was becoming very uncomfortable and very tiring.

The afternoon wearing on towards dusk I concluded I should give up trying to get anywhere and simply lie ahull. I felt that the full keel and solid low profile of my Bayfield would hold up well and so it proved. I lay ahull for the rest of that day and the everlong night that followed, safe but repeatedly alarmed by the roar of wind, the violent motion and the waves that broke over the vessel and drizzled into the cabin where I lay huddled against the leeward bulkhead. What a night! A year long if a day, or so it seemed. I even composed a little ditty, beginning "The north wind will get you..." but unfortunately by the following morning had already forgotten the rest of my brilliant composition.

Never having experienced one, I still didn't know for certain that I was in a full-blown hurricane but wind and wave certainly seemed to accord with the Beaufort description of a Force 12 tempest: foam everywhere, the sea all white with driving spray, waves seemingly as high as the mast head and the waxing and waning but ever-deafening roar of the elements.

Towards dawn of that never-ending night, there was a pause; the north wind ceased but then after a few moments blew again with equal force from the south. All this time, though visibility was nil, I had known exactly where I was, my Magnavox satnav continuing to function perfectly. I had been lying ahull a little south of the Caicos Bank and the island of West Caicos, which I felt must have been providing at least a little protection from the ocean's fury. But when the wind reversed, I suddenly found myself on a lee shore. What had been a reasonable tactic was now a dangerous one; I was nearly embayed between West Caicos and the Caicos Bank and being relentlessly driven towards the reef which I could not see but knew was there.

In desperation, I concluded I had to sail off as quickly as possible (I should note at this point that the vessel's engine had been flooded and was no longer operative). I pulled out a trifle of staysail and, taking the helm, soared off across those giant seas in the pearly early morning light. What a sail! I seemed to make 5-6 knots on a close reach through the driving spray. After the dark night's dread, it was totally exhilarating.

About the time I felt I was safe from being embayed against the reef, I went to furl the staysail to lie ahull again. Suddenly, everything went wrong. The staysail, from being severely reefed on its Harken gear, broke loose and blew straight out. The wind caught it and before I could react the vessel was on her side with the masthead in the water and I standing on the side of the cockpit in two feet of water clutching the mizzenmast to save myself from being hurled into the sea (though of course I was wearing a safety harness, which presumably lessened the risk). "Fortunately", the sail broke loose from its stay and at the same moment the clevis pin securing the stay to the stem snapped. Everything came apart in an instant, or so it seemed. The Harken unit, still attached at the masthead, was swinging out and back crashing into the hull with every wave; the staysail, still attached too, had gone under the hull, where it acted as an anchor with the result that the vessel, though she had righted after the sail had blown out, was being immersed by every breaking sea.

I got out some line and a pair of shears and crawled forward where with some effort I was able to secure the self-furling gear unit and then recover the staysail (which pleased me though of course it was ruined).

Then, as I was standing in the cockpit catching my breath, the man behind me snarled "I told you those shrouds would be loose." I turned to contradict him because he had said nothing of the kind and realized in the same instant that of course there was no one there, that I was hallucinating. I turned back and, looking upward, saw that with the staysail stay gone and everything loosened the masthead was flopping back and forth. The mast surely would have broken before very long if it hadn't been for that man standing in the cockpit behind me. Ever since, I have marveled at how my subconscious mind could hit on this device to warn me, exhausted as I was, that the mainmast was about to go. Of course I'm not the first to experience such a benign hallucination. Readers will recall, for example, that Joshua Slocum early during his pioneer solo circumnavigation had the assistance while ill of Christopher Columbus's pilot.

Anyway, so cautioned, I was able to fetch tools and, lying out on the deck submerged by every wave, proceed to tighten all the turnbuckles and secure the rigging. It was a difficult and uncomfortable task to say the least. Unfortunately, a little later I discovered that in the knockdown the steering cable had come off its sprocket in the binnacle. Despite everything I could think of, I was unable to put it back to rights, in large measure because of the continuing violent motion. Worse, I soon found that the emergency steering device was virtually useless.

By then the wind had dropped noticeably and I was relieved that I seemed to have survived the storm's fury. But all was still not well. I was afloat but downwind from Providenciales, the nearest haven, with no engine and no steering. The next couple of days might have been a little safer than the tempest but they were more trying in some ways than what I had so far endured. Using the sails to steer (I still had the jib as well as mainsail and mizzen), I managed with hard work and constant attention to beat up to windward (as the storm moved on, the prevailing easterly reasserted itself and around Providenciales's dangerous Northwest Reef to close that island's north coast. There, I was able to make contact with Turtle Cove Marina on Sellar's Pond by my radio, which, God bless, was like my satnav still working.

Turtle Cove owner Brad Clark kindly undertook to telephone my wife to tell her that I had survived the storm, which I now learned to have been a genuine hurricane. Unfortunately, for the moment he could do little more. The one passage through the reef that borders Providenciales Bight and protects the tourist-loving golden strand behind is essentially impassible under sail, especially so in this case because some of the few navigational aids had been washed away by the gale. So, there I was, in sight of land but utterly unable to reach it. Brad told me that they couldn't come to bring me in because it was already too late in the day and in any event their launch, flooded by the storm, was still inoperative; indeed, he said, they had only just been able to get their radio antenna back in place before I called. Even then, much essential communication could not have taken place without the relay assistance of Australian Alan Duff who with his wife, Patricia, lived in a house on the high ground behind Sellar's Pond and fortunately had his VHF on at the time.

A little later, Brad advised me that a motor yacht was expected to arrive the next day and that he had arranged for it to take me in tow through the reef to Sellar's Pond. And so it transpired but before this assistance could arrive I had to spend yet another night sailing offshore – I couldn't just heave to, because of the strong westward setting current. That night was, I think, the longest and hardest of my life to date. I had to tack, back and forth, jib and main, the emergency steering system virtually useless, hour after hour after hour.

Early the next afternoon, November 21, the motor yacht Lady Rea, captained by Jim Ouellette, duly turned up and took Vailima in tow, the marina by now able to send out a boat and pilot to guide us in. The price to me a case of duty-free rum and worth every drop.

In the Turks and Caicos Islands at that time people communicated largely by VHF radio. My desperate conversations with Turtle Cove Marina were therefore monitored by many on Providenciales beside Alan. Among these, a kind lady, Mary Thomas by name, listening to the interchange, concluded something like "he's tired, he's hungry; he'll need a hot pot." And so, when with the marina's assistance I finally arrived at their dock in Sellar's Pond, I was greeted by this lovely lady and her hot pot, which I gratefully dug into moments later.

And that for the first and hopefully last time is the close of my hurricane experience. Ironically, I must conclude by noting that the tempest carried the same name as my deceased mother-in-law: "Kate". And I had always thought she liked me.



Hurricane Kate came into being northeast of the Turks and Caicos and roared through those islands during the night of November 17-18, 1985, the eye passing over my position below the Caicos Bank. It then swept on over Cuba and Jamaica, gathering strength as it went, before swinging round past Key West to burst over the Florida Panhandle on the 21st with 100 knot winds. Weakening gradually to tropical storm status, Kate continued on through Georgia and South Carolina before dissipating over the Atlantic. This was the first November hurricane to strike the US mainland in 50 years. It did immense damage and killed at least 24 people, most of these in Cuba and Jamaica.

All considered, Vailima, thanks to her design and the sturdiness of her construction, got off lightly. True, the staysail had to be replaced and major repairs done to the Harken gear, engine, steering system and dodger but the vessel remained basically in good order and definitely seaworthy. As for myself, I suffered a badly strained back (from being hurled across the cockpit during the breaking of one particularly violent sea), several painful cuts and bruises and a nasty outbreak of salt-water boils in some of the more delicate parts of my body. Years later I was told by a professional racing car driver these were the consequence of excessive adrenalin over too long a period and are an occupational hazard of the Indy 500 and such events.

Vailima and I have gone on to share many adventures over the years, alone and with family and friends, but never again have we had to face a challenge like that ultimate (and near perfect storm.

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