Cleo came at midnight, slowly at first.
We had gotten used to the off-key cello sounds in the rigging. On the night of the 17th, the rigging began to shriek and we feared we were in for a real blow. We decided to head So Long up into the waves, button down, and ride her out. This worked for only a few minutes. The waves just rolled over us. For some reason these seas were acting like waves coming ashore on a beach; they curled early and the tops broke off and seemed to fall straight down. We had a mile of water beneath our keel, so this wave pattern was a mystery, unless our leeway’s wake was disturbing the sea.
After we got knocked down and stayed there for several minutes, we began to doubt our strategy — even though we eventually discovered that the dingy had broken out of her chains and was resting, upside down, on the head of the mainmast. We decided to try running off before the wind. I stayed at the helm while Ruddy went below to make repairs. The air was full of water. The wind’s shriek was terrifying.
During any given minute we had dozens of lightening bolts stabbing down around us. They illuminated the chaos. I unlashed the wheel and headed So Long downwind to run off. She took off like a speed boat, throwing up a huge bow wave - perhaps ten feet high. At the helm, I could hear the sound of each following sea as it hit our wake. The roar of the wave began and increased to a sound like Niagara Falls and then as the blue water came down, it began to hiss as well; it slammed down from on high, driving me to my knees, and plastering my chest to the wheel. Sometimes, it knocked me unconscious. These incredible sleigh rides only lasted a few minutes before So Long either veered off course or buried her nose in the back wall of a receding wave. We rolled over numerous times, somersaulted [pitch-poled] and lay over with masts across the water. I spent a lot of time in the water, but the deep trough between waves gave me a quiet pause to clamber back on board. Our masts were too heavy on top and the bare poles were pushing like sails.
We pitch-poled again. A bigger-than-ever wave reached over us further than usual and dropped the sky on us. We went way down under water - still with speed on. When we popped up, our masts where dragging along with us -- becoming battering rams. We went at it with cable-cutters and hatchets cutting our masts free. Ruddy was bleeding from his forehead. He had been pitched headlong while below; I thought he’d been washed overboard.
I was convinced that we would not make it through the storm, so when the first light of day showed us the ragged seascape, I was thankful, but daunted by the prospects of drifting north-by-west towards Greenland in the current — on a floating island. The sea lanes were far to the south of us. We had doubts about our being able to pump forever. The deck was fitted with a lift pump. We pulled up and a column of water spilled off the deck; we pushed her down for a refill. So Long was more than half full of water and we could not make progress. We were both sick from swallowing salt water and now being flipped back and forth because the keel now missed her masts.
We dived into our flooded cabin for cans of food and amused ourselves guessing at its unlabeled contents. We both wore lanyards strung with tools --- including a can-opener. The first can was cream of mushroom and after we spooned it down, we felt better.
Copyright © 2008 by Hal R. Weidner
Tomorrow read part 3 of Hal's story, "Neither one of us dared talk about our probable fate..."
Slammed by Hurricane Cleo Part 1