Reflections from an Atlantic gale at 52 South: Desperate Swim Averts Tragedy on Sea Bear
Allen Szydlowski Rio De La Plata, Argentina –
The Sea Bear sailed east through the Straits of Magellan carried along by favorable winds and currents at 9 kts as if we were standing still. The barometer was still strong when we hit the Atlantic at 00:00 hrs so it was hard to imagine that by morning we would be rolling in a heavy and confused sea driven by 70 kt winds. Worst of all the wind was right on our nose driving us back at 2 kts even with the engine developing maximum thrust and the storm sails trimmed in tight.
The bow of our 53 foot Safe Haven remained for the most part obscured from our view from the bridge by the heavy spray. Although we sailed over 200 miles offshore trying to take advantage of the north setting Falkland current our depth sounder read only between 50 to 80 meters. I have been in storms with higher wind speeds in the Pacific off the coast of Chile in the infamous Gulf of Pena but the deeper water makes for a much more organized sea. Off the coast of Argentina the motion we experienced aboard the Sea Bear was so chaotic that at times through my watch looking out over the water I felt I was hallucinating.
By the time night fell the following evening it was clear that it was going to be impossible to negotiate the swells and maintain our heading and position in this sea state. We decided to heave too for the night to continue trying to make head way in the morning. The Sea Bear settled into the swell and since we were so far offshore we half slept through our watches, trying as best we could to recover from the exhaustion of the previous day.
At three in the morning I woke in panic with a sudden realization. When I had shut the engine off I had forgotten to close the seacock to the wet exhaust. Entering the engine room my fear was instantly confirmed. A steady trickle of seawater flowing from the breather of the oil pan. Even though the conditions remained unchanged I set about work immediately to rectify the situation. Needless to say the kind of concentration required to perform the task at hand in these topsy-turvy conditions are just right for seasickness to do its worst. And I certainly am not immune to it. Even through painful sessions of retching my guts out, I luckily can remain completely functional. I got the job done precisely and methodically. By 6:00 I had the engine running again ready for work, just in time for day break.
At first light we started to bring in our sea anchor to get under way again. We started to pull it in at about three points off our port bow. It is all going well until the over zealous (or just seasick) crew member at the helm brought the bow through the wind with the bow thruster and in seconds we had the sea anchor tailing off our stern with the line fouling our prop which was freewheeling in neutral as we drifted. Realizing the seriousness of this new situation for a second I had to laugh, thinking to myself that in another era somebody would be getting flogged very soon.
It is just at moments like this that you figure out what you are really made of. Do you have what it takes to pull yourself together, stay clam, and NOT, I repeat NOT go off the deep end. 200 miles offshore, in a raging storm, without an engine of any use is no laughing matter. Sure you can sail and try to make landfall or stay out at sea until the storm passes. But one look at the chart and the number of wrecks that announce its numerous obstructions makes it clear that mechanical power is literally a life saver in these waters, especially for someone like me who has no illusions of being a pro. I am definitely the student not the master.
Of course in situations like this the only option is to go in the water and cut the line away to free the prop. The question is how do you do this when the ship is heaving so heavily without getting yours brains literally bashed in by the steel hull. I happen to be an experienced free-diver so I figured at the very least it was worth a try. As soon as I entered the frigid water I guess you could say I entered the zone. Ducking and weaving below the heaving hull drifting along at 2 kts I one by one cut the lines away. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. In a way during these two hours in the water struggling for the survival of our tiny ship I became very aware of my innate warrior spirit. I think this is something that we all must have, this ability to deal with adverse situations. This is not the question. The question is whether we are free and confident enough, and completely one with the moment to not let our fear petrify us from action.
These days we like sure things. We like to think that we are safe and sound in the support structure that society provides for us – but whether we like to admit it or not this is a fiction. Unfortunately by taking this fact for granted we are also systematically stripped of our own sense of self-reliance. It only takes one natural disaster like Katrina to drive this point home with a vengeance. Once again there is no such thing as a sure thing, so if we accept this fact but are ready to act for ourselves and seize the day (without second guessing and trying to tip toe around the sidelines while assuming only the minimum amount of pain and sacrifice) YOU WILL EMERGE STRONGER THAN BEFORE.
This basic elemental truth is something I learned 200 miles offshore in a south Atlantic gale at about 52 degrees south. When I dragged my exhausted body back on deck, shivering wildly with the first signs of hypothermia, and literally collapsed – But the job was done – I felt stronger than I have ever felt before in my life. And YES my whole life stretched out before me with a vast new horizon because I had unraveled (like the line that bound our prop) a secret locked deep in the most ancient recesses of our DNA -“That anything is possible if we allow it to without getting in our own way. HOKA HEY”.
A poignant and meaningful perspective in an era with so many seemingly insurmountable crises looming.
Editor’s Note: The author, Alan Szydlowski, is a CYC member currently living in Chile. His article recounts part of a recent cruise off Chile and Argentina.