73 OFF THE COAST OF MOROCCO
November 29, 2008, 8 AM
When I woke up at midnight, I immediately sensed that the ship’s movement was different. It was more sudden and dramatic than usual, pitching and rolling, more like that of a much smaller vessel in the seas. I knew immediately that the gale we had been told was coming was upon us. I dressed in a fleece vest, sea boots, hat, and foul weather jacket over my clothes and added my safety harness and knife belt.
On deck I found the ship hove to, as she had been when I went to bed, on the port tack under main lower topsail and maintopmast staysail. It was blowing hard, maybe around 40 MPH, with higher gusts. Particularly in the gusts the wind made a roaring sound, not quite as loud as a freight train but more like a nearby subway. The two sails set kept the ship’s bow into the wind a little, so the wind and seas were coming from just forward of the port beam. This would be a test for our sailmaker’s first new sail, the maintopmast staysail—new a month ago—in its first storm. A lifeline had been stretched across the starboard side of the main deck to give us something to hold onto as we crossed the deck, and netting had been rigged along the starboard (leeward) breezeway to catch anyone washed overboard.
Our watch was assembled on the quarterdeck and given instructions: we were to stay on the well deck forward or in the galley, we were not to go anywhere except for a purpose and then after informing the mate or AB, and we were to go in pairs. There would be no one at the helm, since it was lashed, and lookout was to be done from the bridge in half-hour increments.
I had the second lookout turn. By then we had been told to stay in the galley. Geoff walked with me to the bridge and then escorted Sarah—who I was relieving—back. It was a very dark night, fully overcast, obscuring any moonlight. I could see the whitecaps on the approaching waves. Sarah reported that she had seen the lights of a ship intermittently on the port quarter, but I had only a few quick glimpses of it. Otherwise, the black horizon—what I could see of it in the darkness through the rigging in the directions not obscured by the chart house and rescue boat—was empty. In the gusts the wind made my pant legs flap around my legs furiously, and it was strong enough that it was hard to look directly into it since it made my eyes blurry. Below me the rest of the watch strung a lifeline down the port side of the main deck. Paul said it was blowing up to Beaufort Scale Force 9.
The ship was riding well, rising and swooping over the waves like a duck, with no solid water coming on deck and only a little water dipped up by the lee scuppers as she rolled sloshing on deck. Paul, the mate, was moving about the deck—his usual restless energy intensified—checking on things. At the end of my reasonably brief half-hour the person who escorted my relief went with me as I toured the ship to do a ship check. I found some small items rolling around but nothing amiss.
Back in the galley I sat with my watchmates wedged in against the movement. My perch was sitting athwartships on the galley counter, my back to the wall and my feet in the sink, a relatively secure and comfortable position. Others sat on buckets or counters and braced themselves as well as they could. We told ghost stories, other tales, and read from a book of funny Canadian short pieces to keep ourselves amused. People came and went as needed to rotate the lookout or do other things, always in pairs.
The lower foretopsail had been hauled up in its gear but not stowed (furled and tied in a tight bundle) and there was speculation as to why it had not gotten furled before the weather got nasty. I assumed that it was so that sail would be available to be set from the deck, if necessary. At one point Paul came by in his periodic rounds and named Sam and Tjetl, the two strongest men in the watch, to go aloft and furl this sail, a somewhat perilous undertaking under the conditions, but necessary if the sail was not to flog itself to pieces (we had already tightened its clew and leach lines, but it was still flogging too much.)
Since Sam was aloft I took his turn at lookout. The seas had increased, and although we were not taking any water over the rails, more water was coming aboard through the scuppers and washing across the deck, and spray came over me and coated my glasses—15 feet above the water—with salt. Paul was a silent, restless presence and the Captain appeared at one point and conferred with Paul. It was a longer half-hour and I was ready to go at the end, my glasses fogged with salt and my pants wet with spray and rain. Deb accompanied me on my ship check—done since it was on the hour—and moving around the ship took work. Everything seemed in order in the engine room and scullery except for a muted clatter as things readjusted with the roll, but in the foc’sle where the professional crew sleep it looked like there had been a major explosion, with sea chests shifted around and loose gear all over the place. The forepeak below it was a more minor version of the same disaster.
I was happy to see Sam and Tjetl back on deck. At the end of our watch we gave up our places in the galley to the oncoming watch and stood outside with water swirling around our ankles until we were dismissed. Carefully hanging on, we made our way below and shucked our jackets and gear. I was grateful to make it into my bunk. I wasn’t sure I could sleep, but I lay on my stomach with one knee out to brace myself, and my back against the rail that keeps me from falling out, and was soon asleep.
I awoke this morning to feel that the ship’s motion was even more violent, rising to a wave and then rolling heavily to starboard. The 8 to12 watch was preparing to go on deck and people were saying that the scuttle—the usual hatch that we use to go on deck from the salon where I sleep—is off limits, which indicates that there is a lot of water sloshing across the deck. John said that we would be wearing ship—turning it so the wind would be coming from the other side—at 8 AM. As I write I can hear shouted orders on deck that indicate that maneuver is underway. I can hear the main engine running, ready to help if needed.
November 29, 2008, 9:30 AM
The 4 to 8 AM watch didn’t come below until 8:45. By then the two watches had turned the ship so that we are now on the starboard tack, underway carrying main and fore lower topsails and main and fore topmast staysails. This means that we are leaning to port rather than starboard. The helm is no longer lashed, but manned by someone steering the ship on her course. From the sound of water swishing back alongside the hull we are making fairly good speed under these sails, assisted by the main engine, which I can hear still rumbling.
The 4 to 8 watch came below pumped with adrenalin, excited from their experience and exertions. Two chests have come adrift in the salon—a third was returned and re-lashed as night after a journey across the cabin—and I helped re-lash one that had pulled the screw-eye it was lashed to from a circle to almost straight. The galley crew brought cold cereal and milk for those hungry, some of which made it inside the eaters and some of which was scattered around the cabin. I climbed the steps of the scuttle and looked out of the porthole in the closed door. On deck it was sunny, but the ship was heeled to the gale and rolling in big seas. Nets have been strung down both sides of the main deck and straps cinched down over the main hatch to reinforce the cover—all standard storm precautions. Since I have to go on watch in about two hours I will crawl back in my bunk for a little more rest.
November 29, 2008, 4:30 PM
My 12 to 4 watch was an interesting one. The wind and seas began to moderate a little but were still strong and high and the ship is still pitching and rolling as she makes her way through the seas. We were still instructed to stay off the main deck as much as possible, to stay on the quarterdeck, and to travel in pairs.
I had the second hour lookout, still done from the bridge. At times the seas reached the height of my eyes, 15 feet above the waterline, and spray spattered me every few minutes when I stood on the windward side. My eyes scanned the horizon for ships. I saw a lot of lumps on the horizon that caught my eye but they all quickly disappeared, being only waves. In the entire hour I saw no ships; we must be well out of the shipping lanes by now. I did manage to take a few quick pictures with the little waterproof camera I had stashed in my
Hove to under topsail and staysail. pocket. The ship check afterwards was a laborious process of moving across heaving decks, going through closed
watertight doors that must be wrestled open and closed and controlled against the roll of the ship, and trying not to slide or get thrown around. Afterwards my escort and I were remonstrated for not noticing that the galley stove had gone out because the engineer forgot to fill the tank.
Mostly we sat on the quarterdeck watching the big waves and trying not to slide off our perches. Working on deck.
Occasional tasks gave us things to do, and before the end of our watch I went around the ship again to wake the members of the oncoming watch. I was glad for the end of the watch, but uncertain what dinner will be like given the conditions and stove problems, and wonder what our night watch will be like. I’m told that we are now around 180 miles from Essaouira, Morocco, our next port. At this rate it will take two days to reach it.
November 30, 2008, 4:15 AM
Life on board during the tempest has been reduced to the basics. Meals are rudimentary and hard to eat without food, bowl, or self, sliding across the table or the cabin. Toileting is a challenge trying to brace yourself in a space the size of a phone booth held at an angle and constantly moving. An extended toe is necessary to hold the windward corner of the curtain if you don’t want to be on full public view and a bowel movement is a major athletic achievement. Sleep is difficult in an angled and moving bunk, and with my watch schedule must be gained in 3 or 4 chunks rather than a single night’s rest. But I sleep pretty well once I get braced in my bunk and have gotten enough sleep partly because there is little else I can do off watch.
I came on deck a little before midnight to find the ship motoring into the wind to the southwest with no sail set. To port I could see several glowing areas on the Moroccan coast over the horizon, one of which I was told was Casablanca. But I soon found myself caught up in a whirlwind of activity working in the dark with people I couldn’t really see or identify trying to follow orders I couldn’t really hear. With time and work the ship was turned to the northwest, the yards braced around and the main lower topsail and foretopmast staysail set. The new course gives better motion and lets us move faster, its just 90 degrees from where we want to go. My watch was gathered on the quarterdeck and told to stay there.
My third-hour trick at the helm was a challenge, taking great concentration and considerable physical effort to keep turning the wheel to keep us on course. Too far to the left and the sails began to luff and flog. Too far to the right and we are going away from our destination.
The gale blew with renewed fury with gusts up to Force 8, we had a rainsquall or two, and I could see the lights of other ships around us. I was glad when the watch was over and I could retreat to my bunk, despite its lively motion.
November 30, 2008, 9 AM
I awoke a little before eight to find the ship quiet, the engine shut down. At the change of watch at 8 AM I heard the shouted orders and sounds of a maneuver. When they came down I got up to have breakfast with the 4 to 8 watch, who said they wore ship and we are now motorsailing again under lower topsails and fore and main topmast staysails—hopefully in the direction of Essaouira.
November 30, 2008, 4 PM
The afternoon watch started with a sense of déjà vu. After sailing northwest for part of the night and heaving to for a while, we were again motorsailing in the same area, in the same strong westerly winds and high seas, carrying the same staysails and lower topsails, on the same course: southwest by west. I felt like Bill Murray’s character in the movie Ground Hog Day, doomed to repeat the day until he got it right. On lookout, even from my viewpoint 15 feet above the waterline on the bridge, the horizon was often obscured by waves higher than my eyes.
But the winds had started to moderate, the seas were further apart, and at the mid watch we set the main upper topsail and foresail, which lessened our rolling some and gave us a little more speed. We were making 5 or 6 knots in the right direction, the cat came out of hiding and came on deck—a sign of improved weather, and spirits rose.
December 1, 2008, 9AM
Last night’s watch was relatively benign. The seas were still high but the ship’s motion was slower both because the seas are further apart and because we are carrying more sail—the pressure of the wind against sails helps steady a sailing vessel. We were still motorsailing, a bit south of southwest, making a steady seven knots in the right direction. Paul said that at that pace we should reach port around noon today, but that the plan is to get close to port, shut down the engine to sail for a while, and anchor mid-afternoon. We could see the glow of the lights of Moroccan towns over the horizon and there were more ships.
This morning it is partly sunny, with a light wind and leftover sea. We haven’t been at sea that long, but it has seemed a long time and I am ready for this passage to be over. I am also keenly anticipating being in Morocco, where–word has it—we should be for three or four days.