Did you ever get caught in a freak storm while you were sailing? What was your most dangerous experience while sailing in the ocean?
You want dangerous? Try this. Scene: the Southern Indian Ocean, 0245.The Middle Watch is the loneliest and toughest time at sea—midnight to four AM. My skipper is alone at the helm while I and the rest of the on-deck watch await his call to work the boat if required. His rig is set satisfactorily and I know that he wants to avoid calling on us to make more or less sail. I and the other crew members on watch with me are huddled sensibly behind the stout canvas windbreak just forward of the helm station, hoping that we will not be needed on this four-hour watch, a downwind dash; the other crewmembers are below—sleeping, with luck.I watch my skipper as he holds the wheel in gloved hands on this brutal night. He is sensing the wind and waves with every nerve, living intensely in the moment. The boat is riding a stupendous following sea in the Roaring Forties between forty and fifty degrees of southerly latitude, the southern Indian Ocean. Strong west-to-east winds here are caused by the combination of air being displaced from the Equator toward the South Pole and the Earth's rotation, plus the absence of landmasses to serve as windbreaks.The wave crests are a quarter mile or more apart. We are planing magnificently, surfing the waves, propelled at thirty-plus knots by a quartering southwesterly gale straight from the Antarctic. Similar but even stronger conditions occur in more southerly latitudes and are called by seamen the Furious Fifties and Shrieking or Screaming Sixties. We are on a broad reach on the starboard tack, almost a run, the boom fully extended. The noise of our passage is deafening—the thunder of wind and waves fills my ears, the shriek of gusts in the rigging as counterpoint, as white water sluices the decks of the hulls.Atop the crests the wind is cleaving to its reputation at these latitudes: roaring, at over forty knots, though in the troughs it dies to half that speed. We hurtle down the front of the waves and rush up the next crest, surfing gloriously, the hulls‡ forward halves well out of the water as they punch through the broken wavetops. An almost full moon illuminates the scene, shining intermittently through scudding cloud. This, I think, is Sailing, capital S. It consumes all of us, twenty-four hours a day and night.I know from studying the charts before coming on watch that we have plenty of sea room, with no risk of being impaled on a lee shore, so we can drive the boat as hard and fast as she will go. We are following the vaunted clipper-ship route of sailing lore, the Cape of Good Hope far behind us. We left the Kerguelen Islands far to port earlier, in daylight. My skipper glances down from time to time to check the dimly-lit binnacle, to make sure he is on course, heading for our next scheduled landfall—Cape Leeuwin in southwestern Australia, 3,000 miles to the east, then south of New Zealand. Beyond New Zealand: around Cape Horn, the tip of South America, then north into the Atlantic and home. How simple and direct that sounds. It involves days of relentless effort. Just as well that we are sailing in Southern Hemisphere summer.I glance to port and see that the wind is tearing the tops off the wave crests, sending striations of foam in streaks down and ahead—about Force 8 on the Beaufort Scale, I reckon. A fair blow. I recall that Atlantic crossing in Triumph, so long ago, in worse weather—Force 10. We are racking up miles against the inexorable clock. We are fifteen thousand miles and many days away at Ushant off the French coast but this should help bring us home, if the diabolical mid-Atlantic doldrums spare us—this attempt is timed to minimize that risk. Indeed, not a day, hour, minute or second passes when I do not wonder why I ever decided to go on this terrifying trip. Yet at this moment I am living ecstatically, though wet, cold and exhausted.I can see that the spray blinds my skipper briefly from time to time but with his night-adapted vision he can judge the course to follow through the staggering wind and waves, knowing that his slightest mistake on the helm could send us tumbling end over end, pitch-poling to an ignominious and likely fatal end without hope of rescue. Suddenly I recall Patrick O’Brian’s description, in one of his magnificent Aubrey-Maturin books, of a Dutch 84-gun ship of the line, pursuing a Royal Navy frigate, broaching in similar weather in these latitudes: “Six hundred men gone, in an instant.” I recall, also, how our escort destroyer had broached in mid Atlantic when we were returning from the Caribbean in Triumph, and survived. I banish the memories. An over-active imagination is not my friend, here and now.My skipper reaches into the pocket of his foul-weather gear and finds what he is looking for: an apple. He smiles as he bites into it, tasting the juice mix in his mouth with the salt spray. He is the happiest man alive.If you doubt the danger, watch the Robert Redford film “All is lost.”A Quoran contacted me to ask about that Atlantic experience, so here it is.It is early spring, when particularly violent storms often rack the world’s oceans. Even aboard our aircraft carrier, H.M.S. Triumph, cooks cannot prepare hot food for at least two days, so severe is the ship’s motion in the difficult, quartering seas that are brutalizing us from the northwest. We realize, yet again, that Nature really runs the show. This lesson will follow us for the rest of our Navy careers, indeed for the rest of our lives if we are paying attention.The Force 10 full gale—forty-foot waves, sixty-knot winds—tests our seamanship. The difficult quartering seas make our motion particularly uncomfortable. Our flight deck is out of bounds—white water, sixty feet up. The wind is tearing the tops off the waves, leaving white striations down their faces, an awesome sight. Our escort destroyer broaches, flung onto her beam ends by a particularly sset of waves, and even gets water down her funnel. We see her bottom, her screws, her rudders, a truly sobering sight.Watching her, staggered by those immense combers, we wonder if she can recover or might founder. At last an Aldis lamp winks from her bridge: “Still standing. Bloody but unbowed.” The British sense of humour is alive and well. Walking and standing are problematic, even for professional seamen. Both ships have many injuries—fortunately none are serious.We steam east towards Portugal and Gibraltar as the storm abates at last and shipboard life returns to normal routines for both warships. We have been anticipating liberty in Gib, after four months in the Caribbean. As night falls on the fourth day, our return to Europe almost complete, lovely aromas of food and wine reach us, thirty miles offshore from Portugal, long before any loom of light from the land is visible.