Schedule of Courses
Ocean Training Cruises
At precisely twelve midnight local time I shackled my safety harness onto the jackline and assumed the helm. I could barely make out Jim’s watch report as he hollered over the screeching gale which drove us so rudely on the port quarter. "Twenty-five knots, gusting to thirty-eight with ten to fifteen feet running on the port beam". The ship’s bow plunged and shouldered ahead making sloppy seas tower above us before slicing off rivers of green water and spray which crashed aft into the pitching cockpit. The black night shrieked over the black sea and all that I could make out was Tom’s penlight as he struggled over the Nav table recording our progress. We were running in the Gulf Stream across a steep-to, chaotic chop courtesy of three fast approaching tropical lows that were massing on our stern. Our Island Packet 40 lurched and rolled as it ricocheted off one green mogul to the next in constant danger of crash-gybing. The inky, foaming frenzy into which we drove gave no clue as to our next surprise; resulting in an uncertainty which was only briefly alarming and thoroughly challenging.
This moment was exhilaration in the extreme – here I was steering a bucking, twelve-ton vessel like a blinded madman on a mission from hell. And the dilemma that immediately became apparent was the classical paradox. With all one’s normal sensory input negated by the sheer wildness of the night, one was forced to step out of an immediate physical world and into a mental state of serenity; faith if you will. Steering was no longer just a matter of chasing some point on the horizon or feeling the pull of sail, it had become a concentrated effort to track this faint green light illuminated before me on the compass dial. I had to ignore the howling wind , the crashing sea and this total sensory overload to trust mightily in a tiny, man-made light at my feet. The trick was to keep the wind safely on the port quarter while surfing down a confused sea which was constantly threatening to throw us off to starboard. It was like playing the ultimate pinball table where tilt meant more than just losing your quarter. And each time the sea tossed us off onto a different heading you had to fight the wheel and allow the wind to pull you back even with that little green light.
I had drawn the twelve to four watch with Tom and our next four hours would prove to be a memorable experience as we fought the fury outside and our fears inside. One moment the ship would shudder and stall as we plowed into a wave while the next it would accelerate off as if launched like a rocket and all the while you had to keep your balance at the helm and wrestle a flailing wheel. What an introduction to the world of blue water sailing. Here we were almost four hundred nautical miles west of Bermuda, on a heading straight towards Cape Hatteras and her treacherous Diamond shoals with a southeast gale blowing us into the mountainous fury of the Gulf Steam and ever faster setting us toward shallow waters.
We had set out some four days earlier from St. Georges, Bermuda bound for Norfolk, Virginia with light winds and a clear weather report. Several days of intermittent motor-sailing found us well-rested and eager for some action. We had sighted whales, run a grid-pattern search for a supposed flare sighting, practiced emergency drills, and told the timeless tales of sailors. And now it was time to batten down. It seemed like forever since we had stood listening to the Bermuda Symphonic Orchestra playing exquisite classical pieces while all the town gathered for free ice cream and dreamed under the clear, tropical night sky. The two days spent in preparation for this journey had been busy and tedious, but the incredible was commonplace as one maritime gem after another formed a steady parade of fantastic interjection. Like the night that Lacota cruised in some forty hours after departing New York to set a new world record for elapsed time. Or the evening that four sailors from Belgium ghosted up in an original sistership of the vessel that Bernard Moitessier single-handed non-stop around the world in 1969. And I could never forget the sailor with one good arm that defied the impossible on a daily basis in navigating his solo vessel better than most crewed vessels, never once in search of a helping hand, but always gracious to the offer. All these instances and others flashed through my mind as I now stood, dancing at the wheel with the wind and the sea challenging my very essence. But like a powerful sedative all these wonders combined to lend a steady hand and gave me the courage to carry on – the night was indeed dark and stormy, but not unlike those that others before me had braved as well. And as I fought to hold our course following that tiny green light a curious thing occurred. The roar of the wind gradually became like a song and the fury of the sea became as if a cradle and the effect was quite astonishing as I look back from today, because the moment became timeless. Everything else that had ever mattered sat idle as we three – the wind, the sea, and myself – danced that ageless dance of sailors, without fear but with awe. It was one incredible Bermuda high.
Bill Batchelor, DDS