Remind me to call those forecasters

February, 2000

By Carlene M. Grossi
For Points East

It had been a relatively uneventful August cruise for the two sailboats from Newport, R.I., a Catalina 30 and a Pearson 30. Oh sure, there had been fog, and the broken spreader, and the calls in “sick” to work, and the drowned spinnaker, and the overcrowded harbors. So maybe Louis, Carlene, Capt. Ron and Karen were a few days behind schedule – now their ultimate destination, Nantucket was in striking distance of their anchorage in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. We join the cruise on Day 8, as told by Carlene Grossi in her log of the trip.

Day 8: We can’t go to Nantucket today because the weather is gray and rainy. There are lots of clouds and no wind. We are running short on time. Just one more night…

Day 9: I don’t think we are going to make it to Nantucket.

Day 10: Today the weather is miserable, rain, clouds and fog and no wind. It’s time to head home. Karen is anxious to get to a phone to call into work. This time she decided to go with the truth and use up vacation days. First stop will be Woods Hole. We are motoring (at least I don’t have to worry about the spinnaker or spreaders today).

On the way over our engine springs a leak and instead of pumping water through and out, it is filling up the boat. Simultaneously, the Martha’s Vineyard ferry from the Cape with thousands of tourists is honking at us to move. Capt. Ron, who was ahead of us, turned when the ferry broke out of the fog. He was so close that you could hear warnings from the ferry passengers to “move out of the way.” I thought that I could hear Karen begging someone to please call into work for her.

My heart is pounding, and my hands are so slippery from sweat that they slip off the tiller. Of course I am alone; Louis is down below trying to repair the engine and has no idea what is going on. When the ferry realizes we can’t move they go around us, but not until my heart had stopped beating and my entire life flashed in front of me and I saw the newspaper headlines: “Couple drowns, hit by Cape Ferry.”

We are bobbing like a cork in the wake of the ferry. The current is so strong it is pushing us back, into the shoals. We realize we cannot beat the strong cross currents between Martha’s Vineyard and Woods Hole so we go back. Another night on the Vineyard. Just one more night…

Day 11: Still on Martha’s Vineyard and running out of money. Up at 6:30 a.m. It’s cloudy, cool and windy. We are dressed and on our way by 7 a.m. As soon as we head out from the Vineyard, a blanket of fog rolls in so we have about 50 yards of visibility. The currents are unbelievably strong. Then we hear that dreaded sound: the ferry coming straight for us. We make a quick tack and miss it by about 100 feet. The passengers are cheering. Two encounters with the ferry in two days – they will probably put us on their watch list.

Now feeling our way in the fog we creep, listening and looking for anything. We blast the airhorn to alert others of our presence. I feel like a clam in a bowl of clam chowder. After two of the longest hours of my life, the fog dissipates…When I see a bird, I know how Noah felt, except he didn’t have to worry about the ferry.

Finally, it clears. Capt. Ron is determined to get Karen to the mainland, even if it means sailing by himself.

The waves begin to get rough as the wind builds. Small-craft advisories are posted. It’s noon and we decide (desperate fools that we are to get off of Martha’s Vineyard) that we cannot stay just one more night on the Vineyard.

The seas get rougher, at first with white caps, then with 6-foot seas, then 7-foot swells, then 8-foot swells. We drop the storm jib and are under power. The marine weather reports on the radio do not match what is going on out here. The waves are so big that when we drop into a trough all we can see around us is water. When Capt. Ron and Karen drop into a swell, we can only see the top of their mast. Capt. Ron estimates 15-foot seas. I tend to believe him, since he has captained a commercial fishing boat for last 23 years. The winds exceed 30 miles per hour.

At this point, we realize that we cannot make Newport before dark and thunderstorms are reportedly coming up the coast from Connecticut. We decide we must go back to the nearest harbor – Cuttyhunk. It is so rough that I think I am actually going to die; I will go down with the ship. I wanted to be at home so bad. I thought of all the important things I must do.

We are making quick progress as we motorsail to Cuttyhunk. The storm is blowing us right into the harbor. As we head into the harbor, we drop the main and try to roll up the jib, but a line has snapped and it will not roll. Thankfully, Lou’s engine repair job is still holding and we come in under power with the jib thrashing like a wild mustang. Lou is able to tie it up and we pick up a mooring. As we begin to settle down we see the Coast Guard cutter and emergency helicopter and we hear several boats have gone down. As I am writing this, the winds exceed 40 miles per hour, severe thunderstorms are upon us, and Karen thinks she has been fired.

Day 12: Another day at sea. It was rainy and windy all night. I was glad that I have been punctual about taking seasickness pills – we really got tossed around last night. I immediately got sick. The inside of the boat looks like a tossed salad; there is stuff everywhere. Today the wind continues in excess of 40 miles per hour. The weather forecast predicts severe thunderstorms with hail. We must wait for the storm to pass. We move the boat to a more protected area of the harbor and throw out two anchors.

At about 7:30 p.m. the pounding starts to quiet and the thrashing winds ease. The storm is passing, and it’s time for dinner after nearly two weeks at sea. Tonight it’s emergency rations – tuna noodle casserole, a delight to a hungry palate in the middle of nowhere, low on provisions. We were supposed to be home yesterday. Thank God for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Day 13: Today we left through the Cuttyhunk channel, crossing between two islands that had crosscurrents in three directions. It spun us around like a top, 360 degrees. So much control and then boom, none, helpless, then we were back on course as if nothing had happened. Very strange, like going into another dimension of time and coming back out.

Capt. Ron takes off ahead of us to get rid of Karen, and we soon lose sight of each other. There is no radio contact between us because he is steering the boat alone and Karen is refusing to help him with anything until he gets her to land. Any land.

Listening to the weather, we hear that a hurricane is coming up the coast. That most likely accounts for the 12-foot seas and 40-mph winds. Meanwhile, WX channel 2 reports 2- to 4-foot seas and winds up to 20 miles per hour. It’s not like that out here – it’s a wild ride, up and down with the seas. We just put the storm jib out and hold on tight. My hands are like vices on the rail. They are past being sweaty; there is no more sweat left. I can hardly believe we survived.

Here’s the best way I can describe the feelings of battling a very large sea in a speck of a boat: Imagine yourself on a wild ride at a carnival, the scrambler or a roller coaster. Sometimes the ride goes too fast, on the verge of losing control. You feel sick, so you close your eyes tight and wait for the ride to end and it does in a matter of seconds. But today this ride lasted 13 hours and 40 minutes. I kept closing and opening my eyes, hoping that it would end, but it didn’t. Finally, overwrought with panic and exhausted, I collapsed to write this, my last ounce of strength ebbing. (Note: Call those people at the weather service) and tell them they were wrong.

Day 14: Seas are calm. Is that possible? So calm, in fact, that we actually run aground and are stuck in the mud in the channel leading to our marina. Lou throws out the anchor, what for I do not know since we already have 14,000 pounds of lead stuck in the mud – that should hold us pretty good. We sit and wait for the tide with the three other boaters who have also gotten stuck. We drink warm beer, exchange stories and hop from boat to boat.

We radio our friends at a nearby marina and they inform us that Capt. Ron has returned and Karen went to work. After a while, the others with wing keels are free, but we are still stuck. I go below now that the party is over and start packing. I am going to walk off this boat and trudge across the shallow water and mud and just keep going until I am home.

Then I suppose that after I take an hour-long shower we will plan our next trip.

Wanna come?

Carlene and Louis Grossi live in North Providence, R.I. They are in the process of cutting all ties to land and heading south aboard their Catalina 42 Carlena.