Force 8 Cape Cod

By Carol Miller As told by crewman Doug Copeland
For Points East

We began the journey from Lake Erie on the 40-foot Tartan Sand Dollar. Our destination was some six weeks away across the Atlantic Ocean. En route, we planned a stopover in the Azores, the North Atlantic sailors’ crossroads, before continuing on to Gibraltar and the coast of Spain.

The first of our three-man crew was Louie Zeitler, captain and owner of Sand Dollar. At 66, Louie was still physically and mentally strong. I found him to be cool in the face of danger, and definitely an inspiration. The second was Louie’s brother-in-law, Andy Lapossy, who at age 69 had the most experience at sea by virtue of his World War II service in the Navy. But, with the endurance-issues we were sure to face on the crossing, Andy’s earlier heart attack was somewhat of a concern. Finally, there was me. At age 51, I was the youngster. Two and half years earlier, I’d had the idea to attempt the crossing. Possibly the salesman in me was what sold the sense of great adventure to Louie and Andy. Mentally, I felt I was prepared for the passage, but I’d never experienced the reality of a storm at sea. Of the three, I had the most to learn.

The storm we encountered was an unpredicted Atlantic gale, out of character for June. We were 200 miles southeast of Cape Cod when the weather turned. The first day, the wind picked up and gradually we reduced sail. By the second day, in the midst of a full-blown gale, we’d trimmed down to the minimal sail required for steerage.

Sand Dollar was having engine problems, and we couldn’t recharge her batteries. This meant we were dealing with the weather without our electronics, including the autopilot. Because we were unable to maneuver with the engine, the three of us were committed to sail out the tempest.

Things got fairly wild with 40-knot sustained winds, gusting higher. The waves were up to 20-feet high, with the wind blowing off the tops – making the ocean look white and mean. Estimating wave-height requires a combination of experience and guesswork. Waves are pretty proportional to wind speed, and our wind-speed instrument gave a reading of over 40 knots before it quit, well before the storm peaked. The Beaufort Scale said we were in a Force 8 gale: 34- to 40-knot winds, with 13- to 20-foot waves.

“The Beaufort Scale Cookbook: All-Weather Boat Cuisine” by June Raper (Fernhurst Books, Warwickshire, England, 2015) advised that we would not be able to cook in these conditions. Steering by hand took a lot of effort when the boat was buffeted by so much force. For the second day, and throughout the night, we were doing 90-minute watches. That’s all we could handle because it took all our strength just to steer.

When it was this crazy, we kept a second person in the cockpit. If something broke on deck, there was no way a solitary helmsman could deal with it and still wrestle the wheel. If the rigging failed, we’d have to respond quickly before we lost the mast. Therein lay our biggest threat; thus, a second person in the cockpit was mandatory.

It was an unforgettable, harrowing night. Other than a small light in the cockpit (we couldn’t display more or we’d have lost our night vision) we faced utter blackness. All we could hear was the fury of the waves. At times, I’d look over my shoulder at the next wave and think, “Whoa, I don’t know where I’m going with this one.” The boat would rear up and then start down the crest of the wave.

Steering was a huge challenge: It was vital to keep the boat from turning sideways – broaching – at the bottom of the waves so we wouldn’t be overwhelmed. We needed to steer every single wave. It demanded total concentration. It was the helmsman’s responsibility to feel the boat. Standing at the wheel, with feet braced, gave maximum force when needed on the wheel.

Sand Dollar carried 8,000 pounds of lead in her keel to help her stay upright. If the helmsman misjudged and broached in heavy seas, the next wave would hit the boat on her side, and Sand Dollar might suffer a serious knockdown, or worse, a capsize. Of course, we all wore safety harnesses clipped into strongpoints along the deck.

When a crest overtook the boat and passed beneath it, tons of water took control and pushed at the rudder. To avoid a broach, the helmsman had to feel that particular wave and read it correctly to resist it effectively.

Another consideration was the wind: It changed as you went up and down the wave. On the downhill run of the wave all that was exposed to the wind was the top of the mast with no sail. However, at the crest of the wave, the boat was fully exposed to the blast, so it was necessary to constantly adjust for this. At intervals, the waves were trying to make the boat go one direction, while the wind was tearing it in another. The safest angle to deal with waves and wind was to take the waves on the quarter. Doing so, we had more time to react as conditions changed, avoiding an abrupt transition from maximum wind to very little.

At the end of our 90-minute shifts, our shoulders were worn out, and we struggled to go below for our 90-minute breaks. The boat was pitching so wildly, it could take 10 minutes to remove foul-weather gear. It was best just to leave most of it on. If you weren’t successful at wedging your body into a bunk, you’d quickly find yourself thrown to the cabin sole. Down below, in the bunk, you listened to the sounds of the storm as the water rushed by inches from your ear, with only the hull separating you. The boat creaked and groaned, and made a horrendous racket. Sleep was hard to come by as you lay there, wondering if anything could be strong enough to withstand such an assault. But that’s why good boats cost a bundle of money.

Our 40-foot sloop was well-designed for this brutal environment. If we didn’t exceed certain limits, she would take care of us, but we knew that storms don’t follow any blueprints. Our sailboat was built by Tartan Marine, on Lake Erie, following a tradition of crafting strong Great Lakes boats, suitable for ocean cruising. We had seen Sand Dollar take a pounding before in heavy weather, but nothing like the bashing she was getting here in the open sea.

After 90 minutes of “rest,” you’d go topside to relieve the backup, and, in another 90 minutes, you’d play musical chairs with the helmsman. The sequence was repeated over and over, endlessly, throughout the night until we all were bone-weary. It was a real test of endurance, and a bonding experience. The boat can take the beating, but could her crew? When you see the folks around you explore the depth of their resources, and give it their all, a real connection is established.

As Sand Dollar’s cook, I was responsible for getting nourishment into us during the siege. At the very height of the action, nothing could be managed. For the rest of the time, we sort of had some hot soup. The gimbaled stove on board was free to swing level, assuming the boat was on an even, steady heel. In violent conditions, things certainly didn’t stay on the stove.

I would light one burner and use a closed kettle to heat the contents. I had to hold it on the stove with a potholder and some force. The soup was then served individually as quickly as possible without setting anything down. I would generally pour one cup over the sink and pass it off, or pour it in the cockpit. It hardly mattered if I spilled soup where water was steadily pouring in. I have since learned that experienced sailors, when they expect to be in a storm, prepare several thermoses of soup ahead of time. That would have been a real blessing.

The reason our cockpit was halfway bearable under these conditions was that it was almost completely enclosed by side curtains, and totally covered at the stern. That made the cockpit relatively weatherproof. The drawback to this protection was that, if something broke on deck, precious seconds could be lost scrambling over, through or around the curtain. We were lucky not to have had any breakage during the storm.

To minimize chances of this occurring, every day we visually or manually inspected every fitting in the rigging. We were constantly on the lookout for wear or loose fittings – any sign of stress or strain.

The second thing we did was pray. Also, during the fury, we formed an unbelievable emotional attachment to Sand Dollar. The boat itself couldn’t survive the storm without being properly sailed, and we couldn’t survive without the boat. We came to think of her as having a soul, and helping her endure and deal with the storm as best as possible seemed to be a force that flowed from us to her.

As the boat continued to strain under the ravages of the storm, our thoughts turned to the survival raft. Our 12-ton vessel was being tossed about like a cork. In the unlikely event that Sand Dollar foundered, our last hope lay with the raft. In the middle of such a storm, it wasn’t hard to imagine what life would be like aboard a life raft in the same conditions. Never was it more clear what the old saw “Step up into the life raft” actually meant. One must never abandon a vessel prematurely.

After our wild night in the storm, dawn broke on three exhausted sailors. We were so wiped out that we considered throwing out a sea anchor and hoping for the best. Within an hour of first light, however, the wind abated abruptly, like someone had thrown a switch. There were still leftover waves, but, for the most part, the challenge was over.

We’d survived, but were deeply humbled. The storm easily could have lasted a day or two longer, and we were already stretched to our limits. Had we been hit with more than a Force 8 gale, the outcome might well have been in doubt. In 30-plus-foot waves, the balance can shift toward the storm. We might have discovered what it meant to suffer a knockdown or be capsized.

Three to four hours later the sun broke through, and it never looked so good. We dragged half the contents from below on deck to dry out. It was like we all had new leases on life. On to the Azores!

Before the start, back in Cleveland, we had a stencil prepared in anticipation of our arrival in Faial, Azores, where visiting boats are welcome to add their names, logos or messages to the seawalls. Upon our arrival there, it appeared that some 10,000 boat names had been painted on the seawall. One piece of art was particularly poignant: It commemorated the 19 souls who perished when the 120-foot British sail-training barque, the Marques, was lost during a Tall Ships race in 1984. A large, seagoing vessel on the same wide ocean simply gone.

Our oval stencil read, “Senior Sailors of Sand Dollar,” and noted our names, departure from Cleveland, and our original Gibraltar destination. And these days, I thrill to the idea of a future visit to the Azores to see our seawall art again – and remember how we earned the right to place it there.

Author’s note: Doug and Andy have passed away, and all that remains of the Senior Sailors of Sand Dollar is her skipper, Louie. The trio never made it to Spain, but Louie, in particular, never lost his passion for offshore sailing.

Retired paralegal Carol Miller, a resident of Watertown, Conn., has spent the last 14 years with her companion, Dave Williams, photographing and chronicling nature while kayaking and cruising on Long Island Sound. Nowadays, she and Dave ply the Sound on a 2018 Jeanneau NC33 powerboat. The late Doug Copeland hailed from Watertown, Conn.