The Way It Was
Charlie Whipple - Tokyo, Japan
As I stood in the companionway and did a 360 scan of the horizon, a white light flashed in the periphery of my vision. I snapped around and peered west in the direction the light had come from. Warning flasher? Land lay to my west. The rocky coastlines and rugged islands that gave the Bay of Islands its name.
No regular flash. A moment later lightning flickered, followed by a distant crackle of thunder. My chart of the South Pacific showed me with sea room to starboard, enough to pass safely east of the rocks as Resolution and I returned to Tauranga Harbor at about four and a half knots. The squall with its flickering lighting and booming thunder hit us with a blast of wind and the rushing sound of rain on waves. Waves had been roaring at us all night, pushed by twenty-five and thirty knot winds out of the northeast. But Resolution had proved her worthiness in windy situations and the squall only served to quicken her speed and add a bit more bow to her storm orange trisail and staysail. Minutes later, Resolution settled back to her course of plus-minus one-eighty.
Worthy sea boat that she was, Resolution could not continue the Honolulu leg of our solo circumnavigation. Something was wrong with her fuel tank. In heavy weather, diesel leaked somewhere and found its way somehow to the main cabin sole, which made standing in the cabin life-threatening. I felt like ordering a pair of ice skates.
Reluctantly, after a night hove-to in storm conditions, Captain Me made the decision to return to Tauranga to find and fix whatever was wrong. At that point, I thought it might mean replacing the fuel tank. We wore ship and headed south. I wanted to head south anyway, but Resolution liked a heading of two-ten, and kept slipping to that point, thirty degrees west of south. Working with the set of the sails and the rudder balance, I got her to vacillate between one seventy and two hundred.
Resolution had a great characteristic. Once the sails were balanced on a course, you could lash the tiller at the point where the weather helm started to pull, put a shock-cord spring from the tiller to a cleat on the opposite coaming, and Resolution would steer herself as long as the wind stayed constant. In fact, on the way out, course set at twenty degrees, Resolution sailed for more than thirty-six hours without me ever touching the helm.
We wanted to go to Honolulu, but the oil-slick cabin floor was just too dangerous for a man far past his prime in terms of strength to body weight.
So we sailed through the squall, confident of sea room on our way outside the Bay of Islands and down the coast of Coromandel to the quiet harbor behind Mt. Maunganui at Tauranga.
I'd called my wife Yukiko on the Iridium satphone at midnight. All is well, I said. The squall passed, in all its sound and fury, and all was well.
Swift calculations from the Garmin 72 GPS seemed to put us a good way east of Great Barrier Island. I checked the tiller setting, the compass course, and the balance of the sails - staysail and trisail. All was well.
Resolution would sail forever, constant to the wind. I couldn't keep the smile from my face. No skipper could have greater confidence in the ability of his ship than I. Below, I ate three muesli bars and had a bracing drink of water from a three-liter milk bottle I'd recycled as a water container. I sat back against the pillows that lined the curve of the hull on the lee side. Resolution heeled obligingly at about fifteen degrees to make the seat angle comfortable as any recliner chair in any landlubber's front room.
The Sandman came stealing. I shook myself and took one more three-sixty from the companionway stairs. All is well.
My feet were dry. My clothes were dry, as I'd changed into my second set of foul weather gear to allow my Gills to dry. I slipped off my Sperrys and burrowed under the unzipped sleeping bag to snatch some winks.
Strange wave patterns, I thought through the sleep haze. But waves often thunked against Resolution's hull when squalls came through or when an odd wave hit.
Bam. Bam. Bam.
I threw the sleeping bag off and slipped on my Sperrys. Hauling the hatch back and stepping up onto the first companionway step, I expected to see towering black clouds and sharp wave crests. Instead, I stared at a black wall of solid rock. The bams and clunks were Resoilution's hull hitting stone.
But she wasn't aground. I pushed in the ignition key and turned it to start.
I lock the transmission in gear when the engine is stopped to keep the propeller from turning, so when I started the motor up, suddenly it was full speed ahead. Resolution surged away from the cliff, barging across the little inlet towards stone teeth that turned the waves to froth a hundred yards or so to starboard. If I didn't turn Resolution, she'd go aground.
Without even getting completely into the cockpit, I grabbed at the tiller to steer her clear of the rocks. I grabbed . . . and the tiller was there, suspended by the line and shock cord that had kept Resolution on course, suspended by a broken end riding on the lower edge of the transom tiller opening, but not attached to the rudder. One or more of the bams that woke me had snapped the tiller at the rudder head. I could only watch in horror as the little Bukh engine drove Resolution hard onto the low-lying rocks I'd hoped to get away from.
Habit forced me to put the engine in neutral. Resolution listed to starboard and a wave lifted her farther onto the rocks. I saw one just under the forward shroud that I could nearly step off onto. I thought, I can do nothing without a tiller and my neck is more important than the boat. I grabbed the EPIRB, a PLB version, and unclipped the portable VHF from the cockpit coaming. With this equipment in my oillies' pockets, I abandoned ship, stepping out onto the rock and then swimming a couple of strokes to a boulder closer to shore. I climbed up on it and pulled out the radio.
MAYDAY. MAYDAY. This is the yacht Resolution. On the rocks. MAYDAY. MAYDAY.
I sat a few minutes, then broadcast another MAYDAY call. Still no answer.
Resolution rested on the rocks, listing to starboard. And I realized I had left my grabbag and my passport case on her. Should I go back aboard? Would it be foolhardy? Damn the wind. Damn the waves. Full speed ahead. I went back into the ocean and made my way to the boat. Grabbing the top lifeline, I tried to lift my leg up so that my knee rested on the bulwark. The cold made my muscles refuse to stretch and I couldn't do it. But I could reach the jib furler line, which had a tail because the jib was furled. I made a loop in the tail and used it as a stirrup to clamber aboard over the lifelines. The Bukh was still running, though the control panel was screaming an overheat warning.
In the cabin, the grabbag and the passport bag hung exactly where I had put them, and it took only a moment to collect them. Resolution rolled on an incoming wave. I took another moment to look for the satphone, but it had jumped from its box and disappeared amongst the clutter on the cabin sole.
The motor chugged. The overheat warning screamed. Incongruent, I know, but I thought, why ruin a good engine? I couldn't help taking off the companionway stair, pulling the cover off the engine, and stopping it. (Bukh left one vital part off the engine, which it now supplies automatically, that allows connection of a stop cable.) In the quiet, the grinding of Resolution's hull on the rocks was like a hero grinding his teeth to keep from screaming as the villain tortured him. Perhaps I, who slept when I should have been in control, was that villain. I turned on the ship's radio for a last MAYDAY call and said I was abandoning ship.
Engine cover replaced and companionway stair affixed, I clambered into the cockpit with grabbag and passport case looped to my left wrist. The water was higher. Resolution rocked with the waves. If I were to get off, it had to be now. Over the lifelines and onto the rock. A few strokes to another boulder. Scramble out of the water. Clamber up to perch on top. I turned on the EPIRB.
The waves were definitely higher. Resolution rolled to starboard with incoming coamers, to port as they receded. She moved shoreward with each series of waves. If those incoming waves were to tip her completely onto her starboard side, I'd be tangled in the rigging at the least and bludgeoned by the mast at most. Ten yards or so away, another rock sat at the edge of the cliff. Steep. Twenty-five or thirty feet above water. But the only place where I'd be safe.
Back into the water. This time only to my waist as a footbath of under-surface rocks led from my perch to the larger one. Fingers and toes.
Knees. Scramble. Inch upward one toehold, one handhold at a time, until I could sit on top of the rock. The EPIRB beeped and flashed, assuring me it was communicating with satellites that were communicating with the Coast Guard that was communicating with rescue helicopters that would be overhead before long. Until then, I could only shiver and wait.
From my perch, I watched as rising water and incoming waves lifted Resolution and carried her shoreward, then dropped her on unyielding rocks.
At first she hit them with the same bam-bam sound that woke me. Then came the snapping and crunching of wood as stone teeth chewed at the Fijian kauri of Resolution's hull.
A hole opened in the stern hold. I could see it when Resolution rolled to port. My wetsuit floated near the shoreline, along with cockpit seat cushions. No doubt my fins and mask were lying amid the rocks of the bottom.
A sound like the ringing of a bell. I scanned the cliff line, thinking perhaps someone ashore had noticed the wreck.
Dong. Dong. Do-o-ong.
Clear as any temple bell cast of finest bronze. Then I saw a gray cylinder in a pool at the base of my rock. The empty tank for my kerosene heater had dropped through the hole in the hull and now, each time it struck a rock, it pealed out the death knell of my beautiful boat.
Dong. Dong. Dong. Dong.
In the dawn, the word daybreak took on new meaning. Broken boat.
Broken dream. Broken heart.
The tide rose. The waves rolled Resolution, but her port side must have been largely holed for she seemed loathe to rise on the waves and settled back when the waves receded with groans and mumblings of tortured wood.
The clatter of a helicopter sounded in the west. Moments later, it flew by, took a large circle around, and flew by again with searchlights at full candlepower. Then it disappeared. I thought it was a spotter, but it had landed on top of the ridge above me to reconfigure the interior for the rescue of an able-bodied survivor. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, the chopper came again, and the rescue crew winched me aboard.
"Do a flyby," crewman Leon said, "I want to get some footage." He poked his little video camera out the open door.
Resolution lay low in the water, listed to port, decks white in the early morning light and sails aglow in Storm Orange. At the peak of her mast, the navigation tricolor light still burned. I am a ship, it said. Green to starboard, red to port. I live. I live. I am not dead. I am not . . . .
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Charles T. Whipple