A rough passage, a deepened respect

July 2003

By Dodge Morgan

The deep sea is the most pervasive wilderness of all existence on earth, wilder than a mountaintop or a backwoods river or a desert barren or an untouched timberland. The deep sea is intensely and uniquely wild by virtue of its expanse and by the range of its moods and by its unpredictability. The deep sea coddles in its gentle moods and awes in its turbulent moods.

By its very nature, the sea delivers a lesson in humility so invasive and so intense that it burns into the human soul just how vulnerable and how insignificant we all are. We are imbued with an awareness of how meek is our place under nature’s realm. The lesson makes a mockery of human arrogance and transposes any conclusion that we are individually in full control of anything into a weird concept.

Four of us sailed Wings of Time from Tortola to Maine, May 24 to June 4. We normally hold solo watches, three of four hours during daylight and four of three hours during darkness. The passage from Tortola to Bermuda was classically easy, two days of reaching on the easterly trades, a few hours of coping with variable winds and a finish on brisk breezes from the southwest. Four days and 13 hours to cover the 845 nautical miles.

Long-range weather forecaster Susan Gennett predicted a heavy-weather westerly component in our passage from Bermuda to Maine, a prognosis for westerly winds of 40 knots with gusts to 50. We set a course well west of our rhumb line to avoid a cold eddy, to cross the Gulf Stream at a narrow point and to put the higher winds on or behind our beam. Wings was the only boat to depart Bermuda on Thursday May 30, as sensible others hunkered down in wait for the frontal passage.

An easy 20-knot southwest wind fed our progress for a day. Then the wind accelerated to 35 or 40 knots. Our mainsail furling system operated hesitantly, so we carried 40 percent of that sail with a deeply reefed jib and watched the boat speed hold steady at 7.5 knots. By late Saturday the wind came right out of the west, 40 to 45 knots of it, still an easy job for Wings and her crew. Dinner was enhanced by wine and bad jokes.

As Sunday dawned we saw the wind harden and settle into 10-minute cycles of 50 to 55 knots then 60 to 65 knots just as we were entering the Gulf Stream. Seas in the “Blue God” lifted and crowded together as usual, but there was no denying that the force 11 wind would be showing us more of that. The mainsail blew out, too much of it out and too many miles on it. We furled the tatters in manually.

Within hours the seas built to 25 feet at about 90 feet apart. The tops crested with 3-foot breakers. Solid water boiled over the decks, occasionally filling the cockpit, floating the teak floor grates and spilling below through the canvas hatch cover. The boat leaned over 60 degrees on the front side of the abnormally steep waves. Not much remained dry.

They were the most severe weather conditions I had experienced in my eight years with Wings, and even began to bear comparison to sailing conditions in the Southern Ocean during my solo non-stop circumnavigation in ’86. Wings did not express any serious tendency to break out of control and her helm remained actively engaged even in the near knockdowns.

When we noted that the boat was not over-challenged, we were able to enjoy the awesome power and brute beauty of the storm as direct witnesses.

We sailed up to Handy Boat Company’s float 110 hours after departure. This was not a cruise one would sell to the tourist trade, but it was for us a thrilling time of wonder. And another lesson in humility delivered by the deep-sea wilderness.

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86. He lives on Snow Island in Harpswell, Maine.