Published: April 1990 Mid-Gulf Sailing
© 2013 Troy Gilbert
By: Stephen Delacroix
Note: This is part in a series of re-publishing still relevant cruising stories from the magazine, Mid-Gulf Sailing, which ran from the early 1980′s to the 1990′s.
I am not intrepid. You have to remember that. Whenever I read in the boating press about people who have done amazing things on the water in small boats, that is the word which comes to mind: “intrepid.” I am an ordinary weekend sailor with a non-sailing wife and a ten year old boat with a mortgage. Or at least I had a boat. I lost it, not on some atoll with a lot of vowels or some icy fringe land off Terra del Fuego. What happened to me could happen to you in your own cruising grounds. And I’d lay odds that most of us weekend sailors are not particularly intrepid.
My boat, Spur, is a Catalina 30. I am of that breed rarely addressed in boating publications. I love to sail and my wife hates it. Absolutely abhors it. It has something to do with prior incarnations and drowning in thick woolens. She hates to heel. So I sail with friends if possible, but often alone. I like the challenge.
This trip would be my longest, from Pass Christian, Mississippi, to Mobile Bay and then back to Mandeville on Lake Pontchartrain north of New Orleans, a distance of around three hundred miles through the semi-protected waters of Mississippi Sound. I felt in no rush. As a school teacher I have all summer, and I had been planning this trip for a year. My wife would meet me in Mobile, and we’d see the sights before I solo’d home.
The first thing to know about Northern Gulf Coast sailing is that one has to choose the right time to avoid the numerous storms, squalls, and weather fronts that boil over the warm waters. The second thing is that there is no right time, at least not in summer, not in my experience. This was to be our third annual cruise. On our first in August, 1987, three days of squalls made a painful beat out of the trip. On our second, in July, 1988, we had been battered by squalls during which my wife noted “that weird little tail on that black cloud coming this way.” We’d missed the waterspout, but the lightning, winds, and near-introduction to a barge’s bow in zero visibility had persuaded my wife on the charms of the shore. This trip would, therefore, be solo, and in search of perfect weather, I’d try June, 1989.
I’d installed a Navico autopilot for the trip, and so enjoyed the two-day reach to Mobile Bay. I left the boat in Fairhope, an arts community on the eastern shore that advertises itself as the hilliest shoreline south of Maine. I caught a few squalls of the conventional variety: fifteen minutes of thirty knots and an hour of twenty. But Spur and Elissa, the autopilot, both functioned beautifully.
I’ve sailed since childhood, and one of my approaches to the sport is to deliberately submit myself to escalating challenges. This year’s was to be an overnight sail in the open Gulf, my first.
I left Fairhope on the evening of June 4. My plan was to make a night sail out to Mobile Point on the Gulf as a rehearsal for the jump offshore. There were, of course, the usual sunset squalls blocking visibility of the eastern shore, followed by gusty winds and luminous, starry skies. It was a long beat down the Bay, tacking out to the ship channel and back toward the lighted shore. It was exhilarating, sweeping by trawlers, watching the depth sounder as the shoreline grew closer in the Stygian night. By midnight, I picked up my target channel marker on the intracoastal and an hour later I dropped the hook in the lee of the still-unseen Mobile Point. My rehearsal had been an unqualified success. The real thing would be an unqualified disaster.
The next day was stormy. Tornadoes raked the condominiums on Gulf Shores a few miles to the east, so I took a lay day, cleaning up and resting for the jump offshore.
Tuesday morning dawned promisingly. The weather radio forecast nothing unusual: winds from the southwest at ten to fifteen. I beat into the channel between Mobile Point and Dauphin Island, having charged the batteries. The abandoned brick lighthouse offshore reared its bulk in the morning sun; leaving it astern I steered 180, straight into the open Gulf.
It was rough sailing. The autopilot performed well, and the water slowly grew a deeper emerald in the four-feet seas, punctuated with sea grapes and ethereal jellyfish. I caught and released a nice bluefish; it was too rough to fillet it. Schools of flying fish flew like mini-missiles from crest to crest. I saw nothing on the horizon save a distant freighter, a thin plume of smoke trailing from its stack. As the afternoon wore on, the seas built, and Spur reeled off the miles at five knots. DR put me thirty miles offshore as dusk approached, and I began planning my turn to the northwest I had no desire to go bump in the night, so I wanted a good offing. By dusk I was ready. It occurred to me to charge the batteries as I came about, but when I pressed the starter switch, there was only the sluggish grunt of drained batteries. I felt unperturbed; there was still enough juice to run the autopilot. I’d simply recharge tomorrow night by shore power and battery charger. It would mean a tricky landing under sail at one of the marinas that dot the coast, but not to worry.
My first overnight sail was anticlimactic. A fierce electrical storm on the eastern horizon shot its bolts far astern but grew no closer. The wind faded as I lay in the cockpit watching the stars overhead. I snatched an hour of sleep, had a close encounter with an incoming trawler, and waited for sunrise, hand steering to save what little juice the batteries contained for the radio and an emergency that lay just over the horizon.
I made considerable distance westing through the morning and by early afternoon sighted the low barrier islands of the Chandeleur chain. It should be a simple matter now of heading north past Horn and Ship Islands into Mississippi Sound and into Gulfport or Pass Christian. But things started going wrong. Squalls again blew in, of course, from the north.
During one, my only large-scale chart of the region blew out of the cockpit. I never saw it go. I could still see the Chandeleurs off to port; my DR had placed me farther north than my actual position. I suddenly realized it would be difficult to negotiate the shoal passes through the barrier islands without the proper chart. And the weather was worsening.
I should have anchored then. I should have used the chart table, not the cockpit, for my navigating. I should have recharged the batteries earlier. I had wanted a challenge. Now, with very ominous clouds encircling Spur, I realized I had more than I wanted. I was in a small boat with no functioning engine, autopilot, or VHF, without an adequate chart thirty miles from safe harbor with a difficult channel to negotiate; and the wind was, as you might guess, right on the nose. To make matters more interesting, the portable radio was fairly screaming severe thunderstorm warning, tornado warning. I had weathered squalls. Surely this couldn’t be much worse.
It grew prematurely, eerily dark. The sky was a sickly yellow. The air was a curtain of foreboding, the humidity palpable. Spur sat slatting in the oily swell. I reefed the main and dropped the jib. The only landmark was a low spit abeam, to port about two miles. It was one of the Chandeleurs, but which one? Like jagged teeth they barely rose above the surface and they looked alike. Soon it too was lost in the bowl of black clouds that fixed Spur in its center. I switched on the nav lights and waited. From which direction would it come?
There was the tiniest zephyr from the south, but its cold touch told me which storm would wallop me first. The portable radio was shrieking warnings of tornadoes and hurricane-force winds up and down the coast. I turned it off and tied down the washboards.
There was no transition. One moment there was no wind and lightning and the next there was nothing else. I literally cowered under the onslaught. Hail ripped at the bimini and my oilskins. The rain came seemingly from all directions. It was like breathing underwater. I don’t remember any sound; the wind, the boat, the rain, and my heart all pounded to the same beat. Spur was surfing. I couldn’t read the knot log; there was too much water. I couldn’t even see the compass in the binnacle just in front of the wheel. There was no sensation of speed at all, just an intermittent bow wave as the boat surfed down a wave face. I couldn’t look astern; the rain and hail were too punishing. I remember thinking, “This is my first storm in the open sea.” And, God help me, I loved it. It was sheer terror and absolute exhilaration, a five-ton boat hurtling through blackness at the mercy of wind and sea.
Steering was a great effort. The wheel took all my strength. I had read Cole’s Heavy Weather Sailing, but even if I hadn’t, common sense and simple survival dictated taking the wind on the stern quarter. But no one had mentioned the boat’s willful insistence to round up in the gusts and bear off in the lulls (Both terms had taken on new meanings here). The waves began to become a factor, though I don’t suppose they ever reached more than six or seven feet. All I could do was wrestle the boat, yawing and pitching, into a broad reach. My arms ached.
At some point night fell, though the storm had already brought darkness. Literally could not see the bow in the torrential, windwhipped rain. There were lulls when I could check my watch and compass course, but they were rare. Later, a Coast Guardsman told me the wind had been clocked at a sustained seventy knots. The bimini’s stanchions bent; the new fabric shredded. The storm was in its fourth hour. I had no idea of my position and only a vague sense of direction.
Perhaps I should have steered a reciprocal course. But, I had been without sleep for two days and hand steering for sixteen hours; the thought of beating into that wind truly frightened me. My mind was as confused as the seas. I considered anchoring or trying to. But I didn’t. We kept hurtling through the darkness and the galloping waves.
Around 11:00 p.m. the boat bumped. There had been a tremendous electrical display for hours; in each lightning flash I’d searched for some sign of land, but I’d seen nothing. Now we were bumping in the troughs and still no sight of land, no clue as to which way to turn for deeper water.
I hadn’t noticed it, but the wind had backed to the southeast and I had begun steering northwest. I tried bringing her into the wind, but the pounding grew worse; the spade rudder was hitting now. I felt my way forward and dropped the big Danforth to gain some thinking time. As the boat came into the wind, I felt the full fury of the storm.
The pounding was ferocious as Spur came down hard in every trough. It occurred to me that I might get another anchor into deeper water and using both anchors in turn, winch her off the bottom.
I didn’t take time to consider the implications, but jumped over the side with the lunch hook and two hundred feet of three-eighths inch nylon. It was a suicidal gesture, but I really believed in my naiveté that the boat might pound to pieces. I had no idea what she could take and survive. Yet.
The bottom was good hard sand. The weight of the anchor and chain had me underwater in the crests; I could only gasp for a few breaths in the troughs. Pulling myself along the first anchor line, I got out into deeper water and set the lunch hook.
Back aboard courtesy of the stern ladder, I ran the second line from the bow to the primary winch and began cranking. At first there seemed to be some effect: as she slammed down onto the bottom in the troughs, I could with great effort haul in a foot or so which might be held through the next crest. But soon wind and wave had their way; the anchor line grew taut as a bowstring and she would go no farther. The two hours I strained at the winch, braced and bouncing around the cockpit in turn, left me a pointillist patchwork of bruises. The next morning I would find the stainless winch handle had been bent into a U-shape by the night’s efforts. I resolved myself to a night of pounding. If she held together and if the rig stayed up, I’d try something else in the morning.
But it was not to be. Around one a.m. I felt a tremendous lurch. The bow anchor line, good five-eighths nylon, had snapped, and the boat slewed around to the lunch hook which I’d rigged from the stern. Green water poured into the cockpit with every wave, and even in this extremity I marveled at the waterfall of bioluminescence that poured into the scuppers with every wave. It was only moments before the stern line let go with a loud report and threw Spur to the mercy of the surf.
I don’t believe I’ve read anything about the behavior of a fin keeled boat in the surf. Over the next three hours I’d find out for myself as she began a teeth-jarring, bone-wrenching journey to the beach. First, a wave would strike broadside, heeling the boat to leeward and lifting the keel off the bottom. As the crest swept under, she would momentarily right herself, only to strike vertically and with tremendous force in the trough. Falling violently over to windward, the boat would begin the process again at the next wave. I braced myself below and waited. At some point in the night I cracked a rib, sprained a finger and wrenched my back. At the moment, of course, I didn’t notice. With each thunderous crash I listened for the roar of incoming water or the crack of the mast letting go. One of the shrouds did pull out of the couch roof, but the boat held together. The mast continued to arc through one hundred degrees.
After some hours of this cycle, I heard voices above the wind’s own cry. It sounded like my young daughters and a man shouting above the surf. I looked out through the washboards. There was the slightest grey tint of dawn, but there was no one to be seen, of course. Spur was beached, her stern still pounding in two feet and her bow ashore. Of her five-foot keel there was no sign; it was buried in the sand. Where was I?
I packed some water, food, and a hand-bearing compass in a kit and prepared to hike out to find help.
Stepping ashore in the grim dawn with the storm still raging after four days aboard was hardly a relief. Even worse was the discovery after only fifty paces of more water. It took a moment for the truth to penetrate my battered brain: I was on an island, a spit really, that curved away to the north. Thunderous surf stretch out a half-mile, a cauldron of white water and spindrift spume. Only now could I appreciate what Spur had safely brought me through. In the distance, perhaps three miles away, was a lighthouse, a bleak, red cone which was the only break in the dismal merging of land and water. I wondered why I had not seen it at all the night before.
As the tide rose, I realized why I hadn’t seen land; at high tide this gloomy spit was covered completely. That explained the lighthouse. But was it even on this island or on a nearby neighbor?
Even this far ashore, the boat continued to pound. The rudder protruded from the stern horizontally, a grotesque diving board into the shallows. This boat clearly wasn’t going anywhere on her own.
Should you ever find yourself in similar circumstances, I think you will discover, as I did, that you do not lose hope as long as there is something to do. Spur’s pressure water system was useless without battery power. Fearing that she might yet break up, I siphoned out a jug of water from her tanks, added flares and food, and made ready to abandon ship, all tasks made more difficult by the forty degree angle of heel and a coating of oily bilge water over the cabin sole. My white boat would never be seen from the water over the breakers, so I hoisted my blue storm jib as a flag from the jib halyard. Within minutes it was a tattered rag.
By noon there was not a boat, not a plane, nothing. I knew my wife would have reported me missing, but would the Coast Guard discover me before dark? What if the omnipresent storm clouds broke during the coming night? Could she stand another storm?
I distracted myself by trying to activate the VHF with six volt lantern batteries. All I could get was static, but I broadcast maydays without any optimism. By early afternoon I saw shrimp boats about four miles offshore. Thus began a maddening dance. They seemed to be heading right for me. I’d shoot off a flare, and the mist and rain would close in and they would disappear.
My only recourse was the lighthouse. Perhaps they would see me from its height. I hiked toward it; it was on this island. As I walked the beach, I saw only flotsam and the skeleton of a wooden fishing boat. Would Spur be a similar sight to some later forlorn castaway?
I had some luck. The lighthouse doors were chained, but some earlier visitor had wrenched one door off its hinges. The spiral staircase was an endless climb of dripping water and howling winds. Midway up was a window. The shrimp boats were much clearer from this height. Though I waved my yellow slicker from the window, I had no illusions of being seen in the constant squalls. I might as well climb to the light.
Perhaps you are unaware that in this kind of lighthouse at least, the Coast Guard powers its light by twelve volt battery, solar charged, a battery that could power a VHF and summons help. It was wired with hex nuts, but I had tools aboard Spur.
The walk back was spent scheming. If I could get the battery to the boat and if it would power the radio, could I get the lighthouse back in service by dusk or shortly after? It was a moral quandary, but in my desperation, I had no qualms.
Six miles later, I was standing over the battery with my box wrench. I had hoped to rig a sailbag as a knapsack to lug the battery back to the boat. I wasn’t sure I could get the radio to work without its masthead antenna, so I had dismissed the possibility of carrying the radio to the battery.
It was the heaviest battery I’d ever seen; it must have weighed eighty pounds. Just getting it down the stairs of the lighthouse exhausted me. How could I carry it three miles and, having summoned help, get it back in operation before dark? But it was too late for that. I was committed.
I tried hoisting it to my back in the sailbag. I tried dragging it over the sand. My back and ribs would have none of it. The only way I could make any progress was by hoisting the monster to my shoulder, count thirty paces, and shift it to the other shoulder. It was the longest walk of my life. Finally, there was forlorn Spur, grotesquely beached with her streaming blue distress flag flying in the rain. With battery aboard, I collapsed into the cockpit. There would be no question of the lighthouse coming to life tonight. Hooking the battery to the power cables wasn’t easy in the oily shambles that was Spur’s cabin.’ It was a moment filled with tension and anticipation when I turned on the radio. There was nothing. No sound, no static. Yet my face still burned from the battery acid on my cheek, and I’d gotten a fair jolt while hooking the battery to the terminals. My only hope was to hook it directly to the radio; perhaps the electrical system had been damaged in the grounding.
I cannot express my emotions as the radio crackled to life. In moments with the Coast Guard’s help I had fixed my position. The lighthouse marked the northernmost of the Chandeleur chain. I had missed deep water by three miles.
Our conversation had its moments. “Spur, are you taking on water?” “No, but I can’t speak for the next high tide.” “Spur, suggest you don life jacket immediately.”
A forty foot cutter was dispatched, but there was no way to effect a rescue through the still impressive surf. A helicopter was then sent, and the glow of its lights through the clearing evening skies was a splendid sight. I offered to lug the battery back to the lighthouse, but was told a notice to mariners had already been broadcast.
The airlift was accomplished flawlessly. I later found out my wife had made dozens of calls to the Coast Guard and, in all of their rescue efforts, they performed with professionalism, courtesy, and dispatch.
As I was being cranked up to the waiting chopper, now in full darkness its searchlights played over the island, the still-crashing surf, and Spur herself. It was the last time I would ever see her. Twenty minutes later we landed amid the lights of Gulfport.
Two months later, safely tucked in bed in a slablike condo in Florida, I was awakened by a midnight storm. It wasn’t a big one; the electricity never even went out. But, hearing the roar of the surf and of the banshee wind against the windows, seeing the lurid streaks of lightning, I clutched my pillow as I had Spur’s wheel, and prayed for it to end. As I said, I am not intrepid.