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A true adventure story
By Richard LeVine, Esq.
The sea was black and the sky was black. No life or lights were visible in any direction. My wife, Barbara, and I were truly alone, despite the fact that we were only several miles west of the California coast.
We were traveling south from the harbor of Morro Bay, a lovely little town along the central coast of California.
When we sailed out to sea, the weather reports were acceptable. We decided to chance it. Our 37-foot Tayana sailboat would do a maximum of about six knots, almost 7 miles per hour. We were some sixty miles from our destination of Oxnard, or at least nine hours from safety.
Leaving had been a bad decision. As we followed the strong Japanese current south along the coastline, the waves continued to grow in size and force. Once south of Santa Barbara, there were no safe harbors or good places to anchor until Oxnard and the Channel Islands Marina.
My concern of the moment was the ever-growing waves. The sound they made was scary - an enormous roar that wouldn't stop. It got louder and louder, and normal conversation became impossible. Shouting was soon equally useless unless we were inches from one another.
"Magellan" was equipped as well as any sailboat could be. She was custom outfitted with all the latest and best nautical equipment obtainable. The radar, automatic pilot, and electric and hydraulic systems were more than adequate in normal conditions. But these were not normal conditions.
The sea wouldn't allow us to turn back against the strong current, winds, and waves. We had no choice but to go forward to Oxnard. There were no alternatives because the rocky shore meant certain death. In good weather, the Channel Islands anchorages are, at most, adequate. In these conditions, they'd afford no safety whatsoever. I was becoming worried.
Our boat had never before acted this way. The autopilot was clearly unable to handle the conditions. This meant I was going to put on my foul-weather gear, go out on deck, and steer by hand. It took several minutes to put on all of the clothing and gear: boots, slicker, pants, and mountain climbing equipment.
The mountain-climbing gear was a series of very strong straps, forming a complete harness around my body. At strategic locations on deck, there were large metal rings with swivels to attach the four, six-foot-long webbed straps I wore. Each strap ended with a sturdy spring-loaded hook, called a carabineer.
I took a last look around the cabin. The radar and satellite navigation were on, everything was battened down, the storm doors were in place. The wind gauges, however, added to my concern. The wind-direction gauge and wind-speed gauge were spinning because they were way beyond their capacity and virtually unusable. The radar screen was becoming a solid, useless, unreadable green, so I was no longer sure where the land was. This was not a good situation. A few moments later, the autopilot became completely inoperative. So none of the instruments were working, we were sailing blind, and I was scared.
Barbara was white with fear. I switched off the now useless radar as I yelled to her that NO, I did not want to go out into the cockpit to steer. No, I did not know what I was doing. No, I did not know exactly where the land was. No, I was not certain at all I could find Oxnard harbor.
This was certainly not what we had in mind when I decided to give up my career a trial lawyer to sail the exotic spots of the world. We had looked forward to moderate excitement, but here I was, forced to go out to steer in a life-and-death situation, afraid to face the powerful forces of nature that were ranged against us.
The force of the wind made opening the cabin door a major struggle. Once the door was opened, I was hit square in the face with the stiff wind and needles of spray. My glasses were instantly useless. I ripped them off, and threw them into the cabin as I started up the steps to climb into the cockpit. The first wave hit me before I was out of the door. I was already soaking wet, the foul weather gear not withstanding. I attached the first of the caribineeners to a large deck cleat, and pulled myself through the door. I landed hard on the wooden grate of the cockpit and quickly found another ring to attach a second large clip.
It was crucial to my life that I have at least two of the mountain-gear straps firmly hooked on to the large metal ring attachments before I moved at all. This required crawling and pulling myself along with whatever handholds I could find, attaching another clip and then reaching back and releasing the first one I had attached. It was going to take several minutes just to get into position behind the spoked wooden wheel, where I could steer the boat. This was not a good situation.
Without the mountaineering gear, I would have been thrown into the water with the first wave. This was more than crazy. As I surveyed the situation during my journey to the wheel, I saw that it was even more dangerous than I had imagined. Certainly worse than I had indicated to my wife.
I finally made it to the wheel. I used all four of my straps and clips to secure position. The cogged belt from the autopilot to the drive wheel was slipping more than it was holding. It was not steering the vessel at all, so I reached down and released it. The wheel spun in my heavily-gloved grip. We were in severe trouble.
Finally behind the wheel and hooked in, I could now take a look around. That is, as best as I could with the constant wind and spray. It was more of a squint around than a look around. Imagine trying to look into a garden hose being turned on full blast and aimed at your face in a hurricane-force wind. This, added to the blackness of the night, made visibility impossible. The large and properly gimbaled compass above the wheel was spinning and mostly useless. The small light it provided only hampered my night vision. I could tell from the direction of the waves that we were going sort of south, and at least that was good.
The noise was dramatically louder than it had been inside of the cabin. I cannot describe the volume and intensity. Close proximity to rock-concert speakers wouldn't come close. My ears hurt from the sound. My eyes hurt from the salt spray and wind. It was hard to breath in the water-laden air. I was gulping air and gasping to get enough oxygen into my system. I was so consumed with seeing and breathing at that moment that I became unconscious of the rest of my body. I was in a state of total fear and anxiety, but didn't have time to dwell on these emotions. Steer. Find Oxnard. Survive.
I finally got a grip on the wheel and managed to keep it from spinning through my hands. The compass was now gyrating less wildly, but was still useless. I wedged my feet in to give myself purchase and leverage on the wheel. I pushed with my legs as hard as I could to keep my back against the bulkhead for support. Just then a giant wave crashed over the entire boat. I didn't see it coming and it was a shock.
I was stunned by the volume, strength and temperature of the water. It was frigid. I was left sputtering. I knew that Barbara was in the cabin on our sofa, tied down and trying to hold on, as Magellan rocked and tossed in every direction at once.
I was beginning to acquire some night vision after the bright cabin lights. But now that I could see the sea and waves, I wasn't too sure that this was a good thing.
The swells were coming upon us from the rear (aft of the vessel). The waves were traveling much faster than the boat, so each wave overtook us. We were lifted along with the wave to its top. I had never seen waves this large before. They were awesome and very scary.
The top of the single mast of Magellan was 58 feet above the water line. The waves were now almost as high as the mast. 50-foot waves. The volume of water and the power contained in a 50-foot wave is almost beyond imagination. It contains hundreds of thousands of gallons of water, moving fast with inertia, and weighing seven pounds per gallon. This adds up to millions and millions of pounds of thrust. Any one of these giants could crush my boat.
There were walls of water in every direction I looked. There was no apparent escape route from the liquid battlements. Upon reaching the top of a wave we would slide or surf down the face of it.
This surfing action was the most dangerous; it was the same motion that a board surfer uses on a normal wave coming into shore. The trick is to take the wave at just the correct angle. Going down the wave too straight will cause the nose of the surfboard or sailboat to bury in the trough of the wave. When the nose of a surfboard buries, you just fall off and get a dunking. When this happens to a sailboat, the boat does a "pitch pole," a somersault into the wave. As the vessel goes upside down, the mast is torn off and the boat fills with water and sinks like a rock. The consequence of a pitch pole is almost always instant drowning and death.
If you take the wave at too great an angle, the boat rolls over sideways. Again it goes upside down. The ocean removes the mast, and again you die.
It was therefore necessary to surf down the face of each wave at just the exact correct angle. I must avoid the pitch pole and avoid the roll. There is no way to practice this maneuver. There is no simulator or machine on which to practice. This is the first time I had seen these kind of ocean conditions, and there was nothing to do except to get it right.
Just as I had gone through this evaluation of the situation, here came the next huge wave.
I waited until we were at the very top of the wave and then I picked the angle of descent which I thought was correct. It worked. The motion of the boat calmed down dramatically. The only side effect was that the speed of the vessel increased substantially as well. I estimate that we were going 15 knots, about 17 MPH. Now for a boat with a maximum hull speed of 6 knots, 7 MPH, that was quite a feat.
The trough at the bottom was scary. The water was white foam. No black water could be seen, just frothy foam. Before I had a chance to reflect on that most interesting and unusual sight, the next wave was upon us, lifting us up, and up again.
After a dozen or so of these waves I was beginning to get the feel of the waves and the steering. Incredibly, I was starting to have fun.
Here I was in a truly life threatening situation having a great time. The juices were starting to flow. The excitement was great. The adrenaline rush going down the face of each wave was as great as I had ever experienced. Skiing at Vail in the deep powder was fantastic, exhilarating, and a rush, but nothing compared to this exhilaration. The terror had vanished. That probably was not a good thing, given the extreme danger of each and every wave, but it was an unforgettable feeling.
Another couple of dozen waves went by, each one having a great, fast, surf down its face. Every seventh wave is a little larger than the others - that's just the way it is - and it was a little faster and scarier than the others. But soon I was also getting the feel of the big ones. The problem was the pull of the steering wheel itself. It took all of my strength to keep a grip on the wheel. Each turn of the wheel required that I push with my legs and brace myself in order to control the fine-tuned steering which was required for the precision of the surfing action.
My hands were now numb and frozen to the wheel. I couldn't release them had I wanted to, which I did not. I knew that if the wheel got away from me it could be a deadly error. Once spinning it would be difficult to stop and control.
At this point, I had no idea how long I had been behind the wheel. I was totally consumed by watching the waves relentlessly overtaking us, and then reacting to each in its turn. Since the next wave followed close on the heels of the last wave, there was virtually no time for contemplation or thought of anything but what I was doing at that very moment. I was totally focused, paying complete attention to sailing.
How often had I wished to be able to concentrate on one thing and one thing alone for an extended period of time. A very difficult thing to do. Well, now I found the answer: Put yourself in a life-threatening situation where 100% concentration is an absolute requirement, and the mind takes care of the rest by itself.
Suddenly the lights from the cabin jarred me. The cabin door opened and Barbara poked her head out to see how I was doing. She yelled that she needed me to help her as she was becoming quite sea-sick from the extreme motion of the boat, and from her very real fear. I yelled back that there was simply nothing I could do at the moment. I could not leave the steering wheel for even an instant.
Barbara then wanted to know if I wanted something to eat or to drink. No, I can't let go of the wheel at all. And there is no way you can come into the cockpit now, it's too dangerous. She poked her head outside of the hatchway far enough to see the 50-foot waves on all four sides and yelled, "We are going to die!" I told her to go down below, get as comfortable as possible, and pray. The great fear in her voice sharpened my resolve to stay alive.
I was the captain of my ship. This sounds a bit egocentric and perhaps chauvinistic to the land-bound person. Believe me, on a vessel at sea, even in very good conditions, there must be one person in charge. The captain can listen to suggestions or request help, but there must be a boss. Democracy is fine when sitting comfortably in a protected anchorage or tied to a dock in a harbor, but it has no place while under sail, and particularly in a situation of stress or danger.
Barbara is a truly liberated woman. She's a very successful businesswoman with her own views and positions, and she'd never let me impose my will on her. I love the fact she's fully independent and her own person. It had therefore taken some time living on Magellan and sailing the seas before the concept of a "captain" had become acceptable to us. I never attempted to impose my authority upon her as "the captain," which would have been silly. Nevertheless, we came to understand that there must be a captain who, at the appropriate times, is in charge, the full and complete boss.
So Barbara promptly complied with my orders, went below, and shut the cabin door. I was screaming to her not to try to open it again as it was destroying my night vision. We had a built-in sofa with oversized down pillows for protection, and it had lee curtains, which are like the sides of a crib, so you can get yourself in a secure place. It was designed to keep us as comfortable as possible in bad conditions, so we would not be moved about even during severe movements of the boat, in conditions such as these.
As soon as Barbara shut the door, the light was extinguished and I realized that my night vision had evaporated. This was frightening because I could no longer see the waves coming, nor the troughs between them. For the next couple of minutes I was steering by feel and the experience I had gained in the last several hours. Or however long it had been.
The break was good, however, as it intensified my will to survive. I was more alert than I had been. The sight of my beautiful wife and the panic in her voice heightened my awareness of the true danger we were in. I was fully responsible for our safety, which is one big drawback to being the captain. We were either going to make it through this mess or die, and it was up to me. The decisions about how to steer and what to do were all mine, I had to be focused, fully alert, and right.
I was being pushed to the edge of my abilities. This, coupled with the blackness, and a feeling of loneliness and isolation, was oppressive. It was also challenging, but to be honest, too challenging for my taste.
As my night vision improved again, I was further shocked and distressed. I was trying to gauge the size of the waves. They were now above the top of the mast. They had grown from the 50-foot monsters into 60-foot behemoths. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. How could these horrific conditions exist here, just off the coast of California?
The ocean never ceases to surprise and amaze me. Just as I think I have a handle on what to expect, it throws something new at me. I was still a novice sailor, and did not realize how very little I knew at this time. I was to be amazed, shocked, exhilarated, and terrified many more times while aboard the good ship Magellan.
So now the waves were bigger. OK, I will handle it. There was really nothing I could do about it, except continue to do what I had been doing: Surf the waves at the correct angle - not too steep an angle, and not too shallow an angle. Just right. The next wave I took was fine. Bigger sure, higher, sure. But that's OK. The only problem was that our speed down the face of the wave had also increased. We must be doing 20 knots. Wow!
The exhilaration of the surfing action was tempered by my fear of losing control. When we reached the trough of the wave I had to react quickly and at just the right instant, turning the wheel to straighten out the rudder so that we were lifted in a straight line up to the top of the next wave. If the hull was not straight, given the size and force of these enormous waves, I could lose control and we could easily roll over, with the dire consequences. Straightening out the line of direction was not easy. The wheel was not cooperating and we had no power steering. The power was from my arms and legs, which were starting to tire and ache. I was sore, and it was very hard work.
My hands were frozen to the wheel and I couldn't really feel them. That was good, I guess, under the circumstances. My feet were wedged in where I had placed them when I first took the wheel, and they also no longer seemed like part of my body.
My attention was glued to each wave and its shape, the angle of descent, and the correction at the bottom of the wave. At this point the waves, which up until now had been just giant swells, were starting to break at their tops. They had been black, streaked with white foam and spray. But now the top couple of feet were completely white, and starting to break, as a wave does when it approaches a beach. This wasn't good. I knew, or at least I believed, that we were still several miles offshore. I had no way to know for sure. The radar was still not functional due to the weather overload. I had been going "sort of southward," and therefore should have been going out to sea more, rather than closer to the shore. But all of this was pure guesswork (see Map C).
In any event, I couldn't change my course because my steering was controlled completely by the waves. I had to concentrate on the angle of descent, and I could not worry about our course.
The next wave was substantially above the top of the mast. My estimate is that it was a 70-foot wave. Things were not improving. Our speed again increased going down the face of this ridiculously large wave. I didn't think there were waves of this size except for a Tsunami. Well, wrong again, and humbled again.
The waves were now increasingly streaked white. The black was disappearing altogether. The ocean was now almost completely white. The whiteness of the ocean against the blackness of the night and the sky was dramatic.
The beauty of the scene alternately mesmerized me and scarred me to death. We had come face to face with insurmountable seas and winds, but there was no time for contemplation. Steer the boat. Pay attention.
I felt that I had been at this for many hours, although I had lost all concept of time. My attention was riveted. Over and over I replayed my actions. I was getting good at it. I was developing a feel for the motion of the sea and the action of the waves. I was taking better and better lines down the face of each wave, which helped the motion of the boat. We were going faster than I could estimate, but Magellan was handling it. I was handling it. We were still alive and going forward.
Again, I began to have a good time. I was enjoying the speed. I was enjoying the feeling of danger mixed with accomplishment. It was a very strange combination of feelings. However, as exhilarating as it was, I would not care to repeat it.
I was jarred back into total dread of the danger as Magellen did a little slide sideways. This periodic slides were caused either by the wind or a wave with a slightly different shape than most of the other waves. I came close to burying the nose a few times. Some of those close calls were my fault, and some were beyond my control.
I now became more scared and frightened than exhilarated. Nevertheless, there remained a component of joy and ecstasy in the mix of emotions. Weird. Strange. Exciting.
Time became irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was the next wave. And then the next. And then the next.
And then there was the first glimmer of daylight, which put a new spin on reality. I could now see the waves more clearly. I could now grasp better their size and power. This was not altogether a good revelation. It increased my apprehension and fear.
At the same time, I was now able to see the land. As I reached the top of a wave the coastline was now visible. First just a black outline backlit by the dawn, and then very quickly a beautiful sunrise over the mountains. The details of the coast were quite clear within a short time, and I knew exactly where we were. The wind was dying down a little, and the noise was less intense.
There was now no question in my mind that we were going to make it into a safe harbor. At this point I experienced a feeling of violent exhaustion and hunger.
Barbara peered out of the cabin door and screamed, as we happened to be in the trough of an exceptionally large wave. The result was that in whichever direction you looked you saw nothing but a wall of water. No land was visible from that viewpoint, just water. Scary, big water. This was not the same kind of scream you hear when your wife sees a large spider in the house. This was a blood-curdling scream of real terror. The waves were actually smaller than they had been only a short time before, so it was good that she saw them when she did and not a few moments earlier.
I calmed her down while fighting to control the boat. At least we could talk again, as the noise level was lower, signifying a decrease in the wind speed. I assured her that all was just fine and under control. At that moment I made a decision: We are going into Channel Islands Marina, a nice, big, proper breakwater, with calm, flat, quiet water inside.
I was again thinking logically and analytically. What compass heading to steer? What should I do with the sails? I was going into that harbor.
I shouted out a barrage of quick orders to Barbara. First turn on the engine. I am going to need all the power we have to get into the harbor. Second, check all the gauges and see what their status now is and report back to me.
Within moments the Perkins diesel was humming. Still in neutral but running fine. A moment or two later Barbara reported that the wind gauge was working again and we were only showing 20 knots of wind. A nice fresh breeze, quite safe.
We had just gone far enough south and east that the headland of Point Conception was now blocking the worst of the wind. The waves were no longer breaking on their tops, and they were smaller. The conditions were not good, but much better than they had been. They were now very large swells rather than waves, which improved the motion of the boat.
I yelled out, "See if the Sat Nav's working!" Within a couple of moments Barbara had our exact position from the Satellite Navigations system. This was 1986, well before the invention of the GPS (Global Positioning System), but far better than the days of no electronic position-finding and the use of a sextant. Columbus and the real Magellan would have killed for what we had. It did not pinpoint your position as the GPS does within yards, but it gave you a reasonable fix on latitude and longitude.
I always did the navigating, but I still could not leave the wheel. I shouted instructions to Barbara to plot our position and determine the compass heading, all the while cursing myself for not having taught her how to do this while sitting in some quiet anchorage. There had always something else - either I was too busy, or she was too busy, or one of us was too tired. That error was going to be quickly corrected at our next dock stay.
Her first several tries were not even close. I pointed out to her that the courses she was giving to me would put us in Hawaii. The next try was going to get us to Alaska. But finally, with much shouting from her, and from me, we agreed on the proper course.
I engaged the transmission into forward with a nudge from my knee and pushed the throttle with my forehead. At the same time I came to the course heading we had agreed on.
The sudden addition of the power from the engine and the change of course was jarring and made the ride quiet uncomfortable again. But we were heading for the safety of the breakwater. I now needed some sail to keep the nose up and our heading correct. Barbara was compelled to put on her foul weather gear and harness, and to come out into the cockpit to help.
Once safely in the cockpit and firmly hooked on with her mountaineering gear she went about following my instructions. It was necessary to deploy a forward sail, the staysail. Magellan was rigged with self-furling sails, which means that the sail winds up like a window shade on itself. The sail can be set either on the port (left side looking forward) or on the starboard (right side looking forward). In this particular sailing condition, with the wind almost due aft of the boat, it didn't matter on which side the sail was set. The crucial matter was getting it unfurled and set quickly, to stabilize the bow and help the steering.
I looked at the repeaters (gauges in the cockpit that copy and repeat the information shown down in the navigation station), the wind direction, wind speed, and boat speed, and decided how much sail to put out and on which side to deploy it. All of the gauges were operating again, as was the radar.
The setting of the sail is done with ropes, which lead back to the cockpit. You take a few wraps around a large and powerful winch with the selected rope, insert a large winch handle for a mechanical advantage, and crank away. Out comes the sail bit by bit. As the wind catches the sail, even just a couple of inches of it, you can feel the resultant change in the boat. It lifts out of the water and speeds up. You literally feel it in the seat of your pants. It is a feeling similar to the one you get while flying a small airplane. It is not measurable, but it's very apparent. It's also very reassuring and comforting, particularly when in distress, that the boat is behaving as it should.
The boat was performing slightly better again. Not comfortable, but less uncomfortable. We put out several feet of sail. The staysail is a versatile sail, which can be used for a number of purposes. Here we were using a very small piece of it mainly for stability and handling, and it was working great.
It was easier to maintain my course now. And there in the distance were the lights and skyline of Ventura California. We were less than an hour away from peace, quiet, and safety.
As we got closer and closer to shore we were going more east than south. The protection of the coastline (see map) was becoming more pronounced. The waves, although still very large, were no longer gigantic. They were again very large swells rather than waves. There were no boats coming out of the Channel Islands Harbor; it was simply too awful a day for anyone to go for a pleasure cruise. That was very good for us, as I could ignore the "rules of the road" and common courtesies. Boats operate under rules very similar to automobiles. Stay to the right; pass only on the left, etc. Traffic patterns are established for entry and exiting into all harbors.
I could hear the pounding of the surf on the beach. I could see the waves breaking on the sand. And there, just ahead, were the green and red lights of the entry into the breakwater. We flew into the entrance. We had come face to face with seemingly insurmountable obstacles of nature and had come through. Altogether this had been fantastically exciting, testing, and extremely dangerous.
Once behind the breakwater, even just a dozen yards, the water calmed down quickly. The sounds, which had been so terrible, softened. We almost ran into a US Coast Guard Cutter anchored just inside the rocks of the breakwater. He hailed us with his bullhorn and inquired where we had come from, and why we were so very stupid to be out in the ocean in the conditions that existed. He further pointed out to us that his duty was to prevent idiots from leaving the harbor and going out to sea in such foolhardy conditions.
The Coast Guard's admonition did not improve my mood. I replied rather caustically that it had been very good heavy-weather practice. Which it had been. Which I should have avoided at all cost, but once there we had responded, and we had survived. Good for us, I thought, as we headed Magellan for the guest docks.
Once along side the rather nice wooden docks, Barbara and I launched into our docking procedure. We had done this many times and had it down fairly well. It was at this point that I discovered a new problem. My hands were frozen to the steering wheel. I could not undo my fingers. I could not move my legs at all.
I had been gripping the wheel with such intensity and bracing myself with my legs for so many hours that they had lost all feeling. I could not jump up and set the docking lines as I usually did. So for the very first time Barbara did it, and she did it well. We were docked. There had been a substantial amount of anxiety between us during the docking process, and great satisfaction once we were tied up.
We started to laugh uncontrollably. Loud, raucous laughter. We laughed so hard we cried. The situation seemed very funny after reaching safety. We were thrilled to be alive and safe. When the laughter subsided, my first thought was of food. Denny's was just across the way: pancakes, eggs, and of course lots of hot coffee.
The only problem was that I couldn't move. Barbara went down below and returned with a large pot of hot water in one hand. She then poured the water over my gloved hands and my legs little by little. She then helped me to pry loose my fingers one at a time. We have tried to estimate how long this process took. I swear it was a hour; she says more like 25 minutes. Well, it felt like a hour. And it hurt. Every part of my body was extremely sore, and I was certain I would never fully recover.
I could not undress myself. I could not undo a zipper or a clasp. Barbara had to do everything for me, but eventually I was out of my foul weather gear. I was myself quite foul and in need of a shower and a bed, but first food. It was a real struggle to climb off of Magellan and onto the dock. The first several steps were truly painful. But little by little my body responded and I walked. Like an 90 year old man, but I walked. By the time we reached Denny's I was much better. My hands would be sore for many days, and I would wake up with cramps in my legs and in my arms, but after a couple of days I was functional again. Despite the stress and danger of the experience that we had just gone through, we nevertheless believed that we had made a good decision to sail the oceans of the world.
I wolfed down the largest breakfast special on the menu. I had pots of coffee. I took a long hot shower. I do not recall anything else about the next 24 hours, as I slept a deep sleep. After so many hours of the cruel battering by the seas, defying all odds, we were safe.