Sunday, June 15, 2008

Shiriri Saga # 22 Mendocino.

In Difficulties.
We are back in enormous waves and rising winds. It is evening, and we are thirty miles south-west of Cape Mendocino. Should we continue and try to sail out of it, or heave-to as we usually do? On such seemingly minor points, can big outcomes hang. The crew opts to do the usual thing and suggests it is also time to try out the storm parachute sea anchor. It takes some trouble to deploy off the weather bow, but finally it pulls our bow to face the waves: just as advertized!

Cape Mendocino. Northern California. X marks the spot.
Suddenly the motion is horrendous, like being anchored in an enormous surf line of breaking waves. In thirty foot waves with a six second interval, we are being lifted above the height of a three story house and back to the basement every six seconds as the sea anchor holds us firmly in this wild spot on the seas surface. The latest train of large ocean swells has touched ground far below amid the rocky canyons of the San Andreas Fault and begun to boil at the surface. Our stern tosses high in the air as our bow disappears into the face of a wave. We have gone from situation normal to overload in minutes.

We have been towing our Inflatable, Rosie, all the way down the coast with no problems, but now it is tucking itself under the stern and taking a thumping from the transom. I pull it alongside out of trouble. Shiriri turns slightly so the bar tight line to the sea anchor is now lead under the bowsprit and starts to thump and wear on the bob stay. I start the engine to motor ahead and bring the line back on the port side and feel the propellor wrap a stray line from the inflatable around itself. I shut down the engine immediately but too late: our engine cannot be used now until calm conditions will allow me to swim below the stern and unwrap it! We put in a terrible night in the cockpit hanging on and hoping the weather will improve. Amid such powerful forces, things can rapidly spiral out of control.

By morning, the steering quadrant has broken, so now we have no steering. The weather is worse: the wind is gusting to over sixty knots and building the swells quickly into breaking waves. Just when we need all our wits and strength, we are totally exhausted and sea sick. Shiriri is handling the conditions well enough, pitching up and down in the wicked seas but the crew is not! We decide to send a pan pan distress message to the US coast guard so they will know we are out here and struggling but not yet in a may day situation. Half an hour later, a helicopter hovers overhead appraising the situation and an oh- so-welcome friendly voice offers us a tow to harbour. We accept.

The Rescue.

In accepting the proffered tow by the Coast Guard we have placed ourselves in other`s hands and can not now decide on a course of action of our own - like cutting ourselves loose from the sea anchor and drifting past the cape. We have elected to wait for rescue: we are sick, sleep deprived and far too passive for our own good. We do not eat or drink or try to keep up our spirits: just loll in the cockpit for the whole day as the wind now blows at hurricane strength and the brilliant blue sea heaves and writhes; all fringed in white foam. Even in the circumstances, we love it`s impersonal beauty under a cloudless sky. This is no winter storm, just the high pressure cell in the Pacific strengthening and spinning out winds that are increasing near the coast as they meet the low pressure air that rises over the warm land. These winds are then doubled in force again as they are squeezed into a narrow path as they curve by Cape Mendocino.

The Coast Guard sends out an aircraft to keep an eye on us and it checks in on a regular schedule over the VHF radio. We must be quite a site bouncing around in the foam. They tell us that the cutter is coming from way up the coast, that it has just finished towing another yacht in from one hundred miles out and it will not arrive until evening. What a long sleepless day we have ahead!

Shiriri suddenly turns sideways to the waves and heels far over so that one side is high in the air and the other buried in the waves. Our sea anchor line has finally chaffed through and we are drifting sideways with wind and sea. At first we think this means the boat will tip over but after awhile we find that things are quieter. We no longer pitch violently, but are lifted bodily sideways on the crest of a wave, the slack bilges of our traditional schooner form a gentle curve on which to slide. Water is forced under the keel and forms a large patch of turbulent eddies that catch and neutralize the jets of breaking water and foam that rush down the wave faces toward us. After half a hour we know that we are safe, if still in a precarious position.

The four engine C-140 Hercules starts to circle with a wing tip pointed toward us and over the waves bounces a toy sized cutter; sometimes perched on a wave crest and at others hidden in the troughs. Only as it comes near can we see it is eighty feet long and it is only the size of the waves that dwarf it. At first they tell us to prepare to jump into the water and be rescued by the rescue helicopter that now hovers nearby. What? We were waiting for a tow! We point out that we are not sinking and that the heel is from wind pressure on masts and hull and is not due to being half full of water. To abandon a floating boat for these rough seas seems crazy to us! We loose our apathy, and begin to draw on the next level of adrenaline.

"Ok," they say, " One try to take you in tow."They throw a heaving line which falls neatly across our bow and I lunge for it and start hauling it in to retrieve the heavy tow line attached to the other end. It is so close to the boat and then becomes too heavy! Heather beside me, who has been sliding back and forth on the high side deck relaying messages to me from Gwyn on the VHF radio shouts "Give me the end of that!"and together we haul it aboard and I slip the end over the bitts at the bow. We are connected to our rescue vessel and after some more attempts to retrieve a drogue during which I nearly go overboard we are under tow back through the waves, north bound around Mendocino again, and en route through the night to the northern California port of Eureka.

I have just had a peak life experience out there on the bow, half smothered in cold sea water and retching my guts out, as we dealt with the details of our rescue. Even as I was aware of the helicopter hovering beside me, the cutter sometimes below and seconds later looking down on me, of the sting of spray in my face, part of me was a calm observer who said, " At last you are in the company of the people you have read about all your life. Here is Joshua Slocum. Here are Miles and Beryl Smeeton". I was at last facing terrific adversity and able to draw on a fund of resolve that only this kind of experience could bring forth.

The Long tow.
Shiriri is moving to windward at what seems a terrific pace.( Six knots) Ahead, pulling on the tow line, the Coast Guard cutter cuts through the top of a big wave and seconds later our boat tosses her bow high on the same crest, tries to lunge across to the next crest, fails, and plunges her bow deep in the face of the next wave. We smash it aside in a spray that reaches to the tops of our masts and back to where Heather and I lie miserably in the cockpit. And then again, and again! Gwyn is just below us in the after cabin in her berth, close to the VHF radio where she can communicate with the cutter each hour. Our trip to Eureka, in Humboldt Bay, has begun, and it seems that our greatest challenge of the night will simply be to hang on, stay awake for another twelve hours, and keep from dying from exposure.

After a few interminable hours of wildly pitching progress, our main mast pulls the running back stay fittings out of the deck and, in jerking back and forth, chews up the wedges that keep the mast firmly held in the deck. We are about to loose our mast, and it will fall on us! I talk to the cutter who does not want to stop or slow down ( they wish to reach the harbour entrance at slack water when the seas will be calmest) and beg them to stop for ten minutes. When they do, I balance in the dark catching lethal swinging blocks attached to the end of wire rope stays and tie them down as best I can. I wedge more wood around the mast and then off we go again. In the interval though, we notice that the seas have gone down considerably: we are out of the maelstrom.

I am so cold! We cling to each other for warmth, but my survival suit was soaked back there on the bow several hours ago and the adrenaline has settled back to simply keeping me awake. The sleeping bags we drape over us are soaked almost immediately by the cold spray. When Heather asks me what that metallic thumping sound is, I can barely think and imagine it may be coming from the propellor shaft below the cockpit; Clang, clang, thump, thump! We only discover the true cause after our arrival, and of all that has happened, this one could have killed us very quickly as we were towed along in the dark.

We finally cross the calm bar into Humboldt Bay and are handed over to a smaller cutter that lashes itself alongside and takes us to a marina. While Gwyn takes the crew on a tour of inspection of Shiriri to be sure we have all our required safety gear, Heather and I are taken below in the cutter and, after having our survival suits stripped off, we are toasted under heat lamps. Soon we are able to thank our most recent batch of rescuers and stagger up the dock to long hot showers and a good breakfast of bacon, eggs and pancakes.

We are so pleased to be alive and on land again. We return to our tattered boat in the dawn past a group of onlookers ("What has the cutter caught this time?") and step down into our messy cabin, onto our berths and fall fast asleep! We have been awake for forty -eight hours.

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