1984 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved
Autant was a new experience for me. My crew
had flown home unexpectedly from the Bahamian port
of Marsh Harbor and I was left alone with my
vintage, gaff-rigged ketch to sail back to Florida
by myself. It was a challenge to which I looked
forward. But little did I suspect just how
challenging it would turn out to be; that it would
bring me to the very brink of disaster.
was a classic sailboat. Designed by William Hand
and built in 1927 of double diagonal strip
planking, her hull was over 2" thick and very
strong. Her stout gaff main and mizzen and
self-tending jib allowed for fairly easy handling
by a lone sailor. This was just as well, because Autant
had no engine in her. She also had no electrical
system, no plumbing, no winches, nor other modern
conveniences. She was all kerosene lamps,
block-n-tackle, and muscle. A simple sailboat with
character, she measured 36' on deck; about 42'
introduction to single-handing went smoothly enough. I
sailed solo through the Abacos, the Bahamian "out
islands", and then across the Little Bahamas Bank to
West End, Grand Bahama. Next, I was to set out for the
Bimini Islands, 60-odd miles to the south. My course would
take me along the eastern edge of the notorious Gulf Stream,
which attains its greatest velocity between the Western
Bahamas and the coast of Southeast Florida. It's a bad place
to get into trouble.
had no VHF radio, so I couldn't receive the NOAA Weather
Radio broadcast that Sunday afternoon of my departure. The
transistor radio I did have wasn't much help. There were
Sunday sermons, football games, some rousing gospel music
and an opera. But no one was giving a comprehensive weather
forecast, which was what I really wanted to hear.
of the barometer, which had dipped slightly, I set sail
around sunset to make an overnight passage to Bimini. The
plan was to arrive with daylight in the morning if the
breeze held fair, or in the afternoon if it veered. For the
time being, it was blowing a gentle 8 to 10 knots from the
southeast. Autant, beating slowly south, steered
herself to windward with the sails trimmed and the helm left
nightfall the sky was clouding over. Then a few moderate
rain squalls blew by. Each lasted only 5 minutes or so. The
breeze would pick up to around 15 or 20 knots and Autant,
under her full working sail, would heel over, smile, and
gallop forward, happy for the wind and the rain and the open
sea. Then, as the blow passed, she'd settle back into her
steady gait in the light air.
night sky disappeared behind dense cloud cover. There was a
full moon up there somewhere, but no hint of it penetrated
the low overcast. It was very, very dark. Looking aft, I
couldn't quite see the dinghy towing astern on a long
were around 25 miles southwest of Grand Bahama, 35 miles
north of Bimini as midnight approached. Crossing the western
mouth of busy Northwest Providence Channel, I kept a sharp
lookout for shipping. So far I had seen none. I decided to
duck below to whip up a sandwich and a cup of coffee.
things were in order. Provisions, clothing, books, gear -
all were in their places and secured. If Autantís
interior was Spartan, at least it was ship-shape. Soon I had
water boiling on the sea-swing stove and a hearty sandwich
made on fresh bread baked the day before in harbor. Kerosene
lamps swung easily on their gimbals. It was a warm,
comfortable scene. It was home, and I was at peace in my
something was wrong. I felt it. Sailors learn to listen to
their instinct, their "sixth sense", and mine was
warning me now. Danger! Danger! I climbed to the cockpit and
stood there - listening in the silence, staring into the
inky darkness, sniffing the wind for the scent of
approaching rain. All my senses strained. I knew something
was wrong. (A line squall coming? A ship?) The wind was very
light from the southeast; the night was pitch black. Only
the sounds that a sailing boat makes underway: the faint
splashing of the bow wave; the creaking of the spars.
Nothing. (But something!) The wind died.
instantly, my world went berserk!
came over the starboard quarter from the northwest, a wind
shift so sudden, so violent that it exploded. One moment the
breeze was southeast 4 knots; the next instant it shifted
180-degrees to northwest 80 knots, or 90, or 100. There was
no way to judge that initial gust.
sails were up. They had been nearly limp, slatting
in the doldrums. Instantly they backed, stiffened,
and - WHAM! - slammed across the boat as they
jibed with the shocking blast. Then - BAM! - the
whole boat crashed sideways into the sea. Autant
was flat on her side, masts in the water.
wind shrieked in my ears. Cockpit cushions whirled
around me and flew away into the darkness. I found
myself standing upright on the cockpit side
combing, watching the sea boil up around my feet.
the corner of my eye there was the companionway
hatch, wide open. Next the ocean would pour in.
The cabin would fill. Autant would
sink...and I with her!
was one of the most intense moments of my life. I felt
certain that I was about to die. The boat was down, the
dinghy somewhere far astern. No life raft, no radio, no
time. The screaming wind became a drone, a mantra. Time
slowed. There I stood, stupidly, with a sandwich and a cup
of coffee in my hands, sideways in the cockpit. This was the
last moment of my life. The moment it all ends.
remember the voice. It was my own voice, but way down deep
inside me, talking to me quietly. My adrenaline was flowing,
my heart pumping hard and loud - THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! - But
the voice persisted - quiet, calm, distant yet very near:
"Ah, so this is how it happens. This is how I
die." You always wonder how you're actually going to
die. Here it was, my time; my turn.
moment stretched like elastic. I was entranced - fascinated.
Then another message shoved its way harshly into my dazed
consciousness: "Hey, do something! Get that mainsail
snapped my body into action. With the boat on her side, I
crawled forward along the coach house to the main mast and
released the throat and peak halyards. Then I straddled the
mast and began dragging the mainsail in. It was slow, hard
work pulling that canvas and gaff through the water.
I labored at my task, Autant was fighting her own
battle. Gradually, deliberately she worked her way around to
face the howling wind. Handing the main reduced the force
that pinned her and she slowly started to rise. With a
final, monumental effort she wrested herself free of the
ocean's death-grip, shrugged off a ton of seawater, and
vaulted to her feet. The self-tending jib and mizzen were
still set. Water spilled out of them and they caught the
wind. As I struggled to lash the thrashing mainsail, my boat
began to make way through the maelstrom, taking off like a
wild stallion on a reach across the furious Nor'wester.
struggle wasn't over, but I knew then that we had won. The
grim reaper would leave here empty handed tonight.
the logical part of my brain had already figured out exactly
what was happening. This was the leading edge of a Norther,
a cold front sweeping down from the Canadian Arctic. Without
a weather broadcast to warn me, it had caught me completely
by surprise. No mysterious force from the Bermuda Triangle,
it was a normal winter weather pattern, predictable and
avoidable - if you have a weather report before sailing.
However, this one was uncommonly violent and powerful,
especially for mid-autumn so far south.
reason the Gulf Stream has such a nasty reputation in this
area is because of the way it reacts to a northerly wind.
All that water is moving northward with the current at 3 or
4 knots. When it is opposed by a wind moving southward,
against it, the sea surface quickly develops an unusually
steep, short sea. Not short as opposed to tall, but shortly
spaced so that a boat hasn't time to ride through the trough
before the next crest is there swallowing the bow. In a very
strong Norther it can become incredibly rough with huge,
breaking seas. It's said it can break a freighter in half!
Just in the few minutes it took to get Autant sailing
after her knockdown, the sea was already becoming
was a very fast moving front. By the time I had gotten the
boat under control, running southward, the wind was already
veering slightly more to the north. It was a cold wind and I
began to shiver, though that may have been due as much to
the danger just past as to the chill. It occurred to me that
the only reason Autant had not filled with water and
sunk was because the open companionway happened to be offset
to starboard, and she had been knocked down onto her port
side. The sea only rose half way up the cabin trunk as the
boat lay with her masts in the water. Though some water
found its way below, the sea never quite reached the open
entrance to the cabin.
almost. If that hatch had been built to port, or even
wind abated as it veered - 60 knots, then 50 knots, 45, 35.
It swung east of north. Around 0200 hrs. the clouds parted
as the front passed. The full moon came out then, dispelling
the absolute darkness. For the first time I could see how
the waves had really gotten up. They were running only about
15 to 18 feet, but close and very steep. Nearly every wave
was breaking. How glad I was that we were only on the Gulf
Stream's edge! As Autant rose to the top of an
overtaking sea, I could see for miles across a wild scene of
silver-black ocean and foaming white crests surging
southward beneath a brilliant moon and stars. It seemed
charged with energy. The boat flew forward with a bone in
her teeth, surfing on the faces of the waves; broad reaching
faster than she ever had sailed before. It was so
exhilarating; I was so high just to be alive, that I yelled
out loud, "Man, this is sailing!"
sooner had the wind whipped away my words than I sensed and
then heard the rogue wave. Just as I turned to look over my
shoulder, it was there towering over the port quarter,
rumbling like thunder, poised to attack. The wave was maybe
8 or 10 feet higher than all the others and it seemed to be
travelling diagonally across them. It was breaking.
was nothing I could do. I grabbed hold of the wheel with
both hands and held on, mumbling an appropriate expletive
under my breath. The giant sea seemed to hang there for a
moment longer. Then it tumbled over the transom and smashed
into the cockpit. This time I was secured with a safety
harness, and the companionway was closed. But the sea took
its toll: the last cockpit cushion, my good 6-volt
spotlight, a coil of line and my fresh cup of coffee were
all instantly carried away, washed over the lee rail and
into the Gulf Stream.
took it almost in stride. The tons of water crashed down
onto her deck and coach house, filling the cockpit instantly
to the brim. The old boat just sort of leaned over, dipped
her rail, and groaned like a fighter who has had their wind
knocked out. Then she lunged back onto her feet and sailed
on, water streaming from her scuppers. Astern, the dinghy
was still with us, skipping over the crests and skidding
down the slopes.
wasn't long after dawn that we limped up to the Bimini
harbor entrance. I just wanted to get anchored and go to
sleep. But the wind and the tide were hard against us, and I
didn't have the energy to short tack up the long, narrow
we sailed around to the southern, lee side of South Bimini
Island, over the bank's white sand bottom that shone through
water as clear as the air. Protected from the Norther, it
looked like home to me. I pushed the anchor overboard,
dropped the sails, and went below. How it had changed!
Everything - food, books, broken jars, clothing, paper,
tools, cushions - everything was down on the cabin sole,
sloshing around in a sea water soup. Autant had been
knocked down to port, then when she was pooped, knocked
nearly down to starboard. All that stuff that I thought so
well secured, that had never come loose before, had come
the ketch Autant, that old wooden gaffer, with 50
years of ocean sailing under her keel, was unscathed. Not
one fitting broke, nor a single plank budged. No stress
crack, no leak. Nothing. As I collapsed onto a soggy bunk
and fell instantly asleep for 12 hours, I thought to myself
what a damned lucky sailor I was to have a boat like this.
month later in Miami, I chanced to meet Captain LeCain of
the 45' ketch, Mariah. With a crew of four, he had
sailed his sturdy, new, custom built, North Sea type double
ender on her maiden voyage from Maine to Florida. It turned
out that on the first of November they also had been sailing
south along the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream, just 100
miles north of me. Mariah was hit by the same cold
front. She, too, was carrying full sail. She, too, was
knocked down by the initial blast of wind. No one was
injured, but the boat suffered some damage: the main boom
snapped, the jib clew blew out, and several seams opened up
between planks. Fortunately for them, Mariah shared
one ostensibly minor feature with Autant. Both boats
have companionways offset to starboard.
story confirmed to me that I had not exaggerated the violent
impact of that Nor'wester in my own mind. We had both made
the mistake of not finding a weather broadcast which might
have forewarned us of the approaching front. We had both
sailed with our companionways open. Worst of all, we had
both carried full sail on a dark night in obviously
unsettled weather. Since then I've adopted a very
conservative attitude about how much canvas I have up,
especially at night. I sail by a simple rule that I share
with any who will heed it: "Reef early!"
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