“If we get through this, let’s get married”

February, 2000

By Peg Willauer-Tobey
For Points East

It was while sailing in tropical storm force conditions that Tom asked me to marry him. Actually, what he said to me was, “if we get through this, let’s get married.”

We were 124 miles off Bermuda in 70-knot winds and 30-foot seas. A pressure gradient created by Hurricane Gordon lingered indecisively off Cape Hatteras, and a characteristically decisive Bermuda high hovered over Bermuda. For 48 hours, we struggled to keep our boat in one place in order to avoid the hurricane to leeward.

On Nov. 11, 1994, Tom and I had set sail aboard a 38-foot Hallberg Rassey with a British captain. From Block Island, we looked for our window to head to Bermuda. A life-long sailor, I considered myself skilled but not experienced. I was 24 at the time and had made a few passages from Bermuda. I knew enough to know that when sailing to Bermuda in the fall one wants to go after the hurricane season and before the winter storms hit. You need a week’s window of good weather in order to make the passage.

Tracking Gordon on the weather radio, we decided on a more conservative route via New York. We wanted more time to observe which way the hurricane was going to commit. The first incorrect assumption I made is that hurricanes commit. All my life, I had observed Atlantic hurricanes either go into the Gulf of Mexico and wreak havoc there, eventually dissipating, or come up the East Coast of the United States. When listening to the weather radio en route to New York, I heard that Hurricane Gordon was crossing the Florida Straits toward the Gulf of Mexico. I thought our window to head to Bermuda appeared. So did our captain and the weather service. We were wrong.

After two days of good sailing weather, our wind died. The captain did not believe in using engines, and Tom and I were inclined to agree. So we sat going in circles for two days. On the second day, I was listening to the weather as I did every day and was distressed to hear that Hurricane Gordon was heading across Florida towards the Atlantic. I remember feeling disbelief, as if I were in one of the adventure books I had read. I reported this information to the captain and Tom. We started the engine.

Twelve to 24 hours later, we began to see the effects of the weather that surrounded us as Gordon traveled up the coast toward Cape Hatteras. The conditions intensified at night. I steered, and I remember the boat being pulled up unseen waves, pausing and going down unseen valleys. My heart crept towards my throat.

The fear began with foreboding. I was afraid of the unknown, of our abilities, of the water, and of the wind. It was the child-like fear that makes you want to crawl into your bunk, pull the covers over your head and make the scary monsters go away. I might have stayed in that state of mind had I had any remote chance of crawling back into the bunk, but I didn’t. Tom was seasick. Unknown to us at the time, he had damaged his ear the previous winter because of intense ear infections. With the dramatic change in sea state, he was feeling the effects and it scared me to see him weaken. But even with this handicap, he was far more agile on the foredeck adjusting sails than I, so I steered.

On the helm maneuvering the boat to try to keep Tom and the captain on the foredeck while adjusting sails and jury rigging sea anchors transformed my fear into full-blown anger. I became furious with the waves and weather for the danger we were being put into. That fury kept me on the helm for 22 hours. I’ve since doubted my memory of steering for that long, but it is documented in the logbook.

During those 22 hours, we were trying to get the boat to heave-to without lying beam to the seas. I remember recalling different disaster stories or articles I had read and the lessons learned and trying to apply them to our situation. We wanted the bow or the stern to sit at a 45-degree angle or less to the waves so she rode over them and wouldn’t get rolled by a rogue wave. We had no sea anchor because our captain didn’t believe in them – his absolute right. So we tried to jury-rig a sea anchor by tossing chain over the side, but it didn’t cause enough drag. We experimented with different sail configurations. We didn’t want to run before the wind because we knew worse weather was to leeward.

So we fought.

The first 24 hours were active; the second were a mental game. Hurricane Gordon was dancing circles around all the forecasters. We had originally thought we were really in for it when it came up the coast toward Cape Hatteras. It turned toward Bermuda, and I thought we were right in its track. The experts and our predictions were wrong again. Hurricane Gordon turned to the west, did a loop on itself and headed back down the east coast, eventually hitting Florida again and circling inland.

In addition to my fear of the weather, I didn’t trust the boat. A Hallberg Rassey is a good boat, and this one was in good condition, but it had opening ports on the side of the hull. They opened inward, a design detail no one has explained satisfactorily to me since. So between the inside of the boat and the ocean there were hinges and latches. Each time the boat slammed into a wave, I winced, afraid that we would blow the porthole open and effectively hole the boat.

The captain had no covers for these portholes because he didn’t feel there was a need for them. A month earlier, I had read Deborah Kiley’s book, “Albatross,” about her surviving the sinking of the sloop Trashcan and the fact that the portholes blowing out when the boat was traveling beam to the seas was one of the reasons for the sinking of the ship. (Our conditions were definitely different from Deborah’s, but I had no luck explaining that to myself out there).

During the second 24 hours, I was tired and could no longer muster up anger to take care of my fear. Mistrusting the boat slowly wore away my nerves. I was not comfortable with any part of our situation and felt powerless to do anything about it. Either we became complacent or we got the boat to lay somewhat satisfactorily. I was released to the safety of my bunk. I lay in bed watching the water against the portholes, looking harmless. I though about faking appendicitis and calling a Mayday so I could get off the boat. Tom and I spent what must have been hours huddled together. This was the worst time because there wasn’t much to do but ride out the storm. Only when a large wave broke over the boat during the night and poured down the dorade onto our bunk were we released from our paralysis into action.

After nine days at sea we got off the boat in Bermuda. There was no kissing the ground, just relief. When I called my dad he told me that he had never seen conditions like those Tom and I had experienced.

Without hesitation, I told him, “I envy you, dad, I envy you.”

I can’t tell you exactly when it was during those two days that Tom asked me to marry him. We were on deck, it was night, perhaps just as the storm was beginning to show its force. It was definitely a moment of clarity and faith in our relationship. The weather and our anxiety had stripped away all the worries of the material world and given us a clear vision of our commitment and friendship. It was clear that we were meant to be with one another, and we hold that moment close to our hearts still to this day.

When safe on dry land Tom and I revisited his proposal. In deference to family, we decided not to marry in Bermuda, so I asked Tom to ask me again, with a ring, on dry land, and out of danger. He did, and 18 months later we were married in Prouts Neck, Maine.

Peg Willauer-Tobey and her husband, Tom, live with their son on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor. Peg is a licensed captain and in her spare time uses her license on the Outward Bound pulling boats and the Thompson Island Ferry.