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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Telling my story: The beginning (Event 2)

Previously, I recounted how fleeting memories pushed me to want to create new, meaningful, and important events that deserved to be recalled.  Today, I offer you the second important event that shaped my thirst for adventure.  Here goes....
Event 2:  Hurricane David

One event that really shaped my thirst for adventure was a trip gone wrong that ended in us sailing through Hurricane David in 1979. 

Hurricane David's path in late August through early September 1979
 You need to see what we sailed in to really understand the gravity of that adventure.  

Our boat:  an early 1970's (don't know the exact year) Ericson 27 called Luffin' Lemon.  Yes, it was yellow.  It was our first family boat and one that lacked most amenities except for horizontal spaces to sleep and some sails to help us move through the wind.  The boat was more like a floating camper.  Here is a nicer version than our boat - perhaps a few years newer too:


Below deck was comfortable for small people and offered plenty of space of the inhabitants of Lilliput:

A "newer" Ericson 27 interior - Very Spartan

Our crew:  I grew up as a reluctant sailor - often forced to go on trips I didn't really appreciate at the time.  Sean and I frequently commented on the "cool" power boats; we sensed my dad found those comments irritating at best but we persisted.  To say we were a happy sailing family might be a stretch.  We shared each other's company on a small boat with very rough sailing skills.  Still, we made it work.  

The Trip:  Then came our family decision to sail to Newport, RI in the late summer of 1979.  Newport hosted the America's Cup every 3 years and 1980 was the next event.  Every year between those events, the boats and crew would train and match race in the waters outside Newport.  It was a really cool place to be during that era.  Sean and I enjoyed those trips while my mom would drive and my dad would yell at us.  You know, it was family sailing in the late 20th century - perhaps no different than sailing in the late 19th century among the famine ships. But I digress....

A Friendly Visit:  After departing at night from Newport and sailing through the wee hours, we noticed a huge flood light cast upon our little boat.  The flood light was the start of a bizarre event.  The US Coast Guard boarded our boat at about 2am.  Sean and I were half asleep and my dad held onto a bilge pump handle ready to defend us from attack.  The officers who boarded our boat appeared ready and better prepared than my dad for a fight.  They had their weapons drawn and were likely to fire at him had they detected his possession of the deadly bilge pump handle.  Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and they were off the boat after an hour of searching for contraband and illegal aliens - from Rhode Island no doubt.  I never knew why New Yorkers felt the need to keep Connecticut and Rhode Island residents from stealing their way into our fine state.  These folks could drive after all; there was no need to sail through the night.  Heck, walking might have been faster than sailing - especially on that night when there was no wind whatsoever.

Weather?  We heard the vague storm forecasts, but in those days, NOAA weather radio wasn't really the definitive source for bad weather.  We figured the best source would be the US Coast Guard.  As the officers left our boat, my dad inquired about the weather.  Their response?  "Nice weather ahead for you.  Have a safe sail."  That was it.  That forecast couldn't have been more inaccurate.  The real forecast was for torrential rains and strong gusts up to 90 mph with stead winds in excess of 70 mph.  Yes, the forecast called for hurricane David to blow through as we sailed down Long Island Sound from Newport, RI to Port Washington, NY (our home port).  The storm tracked well eastward of us leaving Long Island Sound on the deadly right side of the storm.

Water and more water:  Immediately after the Coast Guard left us, the light breezes we experienced over the past few hours gave way to strong, steady winds with noticeably warmer air.  In fact, it got really warm.  There were no comfortable spots down below even though that area was drier than the area on deck.  Sean and I sat with my dad in the cockpit as he steered our little boat's tiller with both hands.  The wind wasn't all we experienced; the waves started building too.  We found ourselves in a tempest as the winds picked up the choppy waves and turned them into walls of water.  I saw only water - water blown into my face, water in the cockpit, and water falling from the sky.  There was water everywhere.

Fear takes hold:  My dad ordered us to go down below.  We weren't really concerned so we asked to stay topside and watch what was going on.  It was clear from my dad's voice that he was growing tired and feared we might not be able to sail out of this storm.  I think Sean had that sense too.  We sailed close to the Connecticut shore where we knew huge bands of rocks made those ports almost un-navigable in even the best conditions.  We weren't in the best conditions.  In fact, we were in winds that were slowly ripping apart our little boat.  First, our mainsail ripped.  The boom sunk lower toward the deck as the mainsail tore horizontally.  If it weren't for the few threads that held some bits together, the main would have cut in two and dropped the boom onto the deck with some force.  I guess we ought to have been grateful for those threads.  Meanwhile, up on the bow, our jib was in tatters.  We had no way of dropping the sail because it was just too treacherous to leave the cockpit.  Heck, even the cockpit was treacherous.  

Holy s#*%!:  We limped along without much functional sail area at a fairly steady 8 knots.  For many of you, that may seem rather slow.  Our little boat was no speed demon but it wasn't a barge either.  In most reasonable breezes between 10 and 20 knots, Luffin' Lemon would cruise at about 5 knots.  Again, not bad for a small boat.  Now, we were going much faster; Sean and I took great pleasure in yelling out to my dad..."Dad, holy s#*%!, we are going 15 knots."  I think my dad almost had a heart attack.  He was exhausted and ready to call it quits.  At one point during a few exchanges, he was preparing us for our uncertain fates.  The boat was handling poorly, we had no communications, no clear navigable coordinates, and no clue how we were going to survive any longer in these conditions.  We decided to head for land.  It was really our only choice.  The boat was falling apart, the waves were huge now (20+ feet) and we could barely keep the water from crashing into the cabin.  We sailed into Guilford, CT at about 3pm that afternoon after nearly 12 hours of sailing in extremely high winds.  My dad could barely speak or move he was so tired.  By some luck, we managed to avoid all the rocks, sand bars, and break walls in our path and beached the boat in an estuary up some little isolated, overflowing river.  The town's people came out in force and helped us secure our boat and gave us shelter for the night.  We were safe.

The importance of this event:  At one moment during those last few hours, I did have the sense that something awful could happen to us.  We were all confident swimmers but the wind and water were intense.  I am not sure we would have survived had our boat sunk.  In fact, my chips were on us all dying.  I felt a certain peace with that outcome - not that I wished to die but rather I was not nervous, nor did I panic when I sensed that unfortunate end may be near.  Instead, I watched in awe as my dad, brother, and I kept our wits about us and we solved the problem.  

I was totally hooked afterwards and thought about that event for years - even to this day.  You never really know how people are going to respond to adversity until you experience an event with them.  In fact, you never know how you will respond until you experience it.  My dad and brother were calm - as was I - and I had an incredible sense of calm afterwards.  I knew no matter how bad things got in life, I could keep a clear head.  We told a few jokes during the event and that kept up our spirits - like the laughter we all shared when we noted the apple pie stuck to the ceiling of the cabin.  Yes, the pie was on the ceiling.

Bringing out the best:  Since that day, I sought to experience what life had to offer to see how I respond.  I doubt I need monthly, yearly, or even semi-regular checks on my response but I do appreciate how adversity brings out the best and worst in us.  My experiences including that sail along with countless others tell me that I am at my best and I love that feeling.  Adversity offers me the opportunity to perform at my best.   Adventures open the door to those adversity.  

I wrap up the "thirst" developing events tomorrow with my third and final event.  Stay tuned....