“It might get a bit bumpy…”
A Dreadful Crossing
Getting to the island of Saba was an ordeal none of us expected
One of my dreams is to sail around the world. Over the years I’ve managed to do a little coastal sailing, but until I joined my youngest brother on a sailing trip in the Caribbean a few years ago, I had never sailed out of sight of land.
That was all to change when we decided to make the passage from Virgin Gorda, an island in the British Virgin Islands, and head to the tiny island of Saba which lies east and south of our departure point. The distance wasn’t that far — about 97 land miles (or just over 84 nautical miles) — we should have been able to manage in one relatively straightforward overnight passage.
Our Captain (my brother) had by far the most experience with more sea miles than all the rest of us who were aboard combined. He had actually crossed the Atlantic, delivered boats all over the Caribbean, owned a boat in the PNW, and done some racing in England. We felt that we were in pretty good hands. To his credit, he is also a good teacher and we had been practicing our skills for several weeks in the sheltered waters of the British Virgin Islands.
We were all up for the big leap over to the Dutch West Indies.
It all sounded so exotic — I couldn’t wait to embark on this grand adventure.
We were traveling with Our Captain’s wife and three kids, my daughter, and my father, who was at the time, approaching his 80th birthday. Before leaving Virgin Gorda, we stocked up on provisions, topped up the diesel and water tanks, hauled the dinghy onto its davits, and lashed down anything that we didn’t want to lose overboard. We rigged safety lines from stem to stern of our 45' chartered catamaran, donned harnesses and life jackets, and listened carefully as Our Captain provided a safety briefing.
We were paired up in watch teams of two and we had a plan, as we sailed off, of rotating watches that would allow Our Captain to get several hours of sleep before he would take us into what was known to be a ‘lumpy’ anchorage at our destination.
Our Captain had warned us that the prevailing tradewinds come from exactly the wrong direction when one wishes to head east-ish. With winds forecast between 12–15 knots, he told us to expect 3–4' seas for most of the way.
“It might get a bit bumpy,” he said, and we all nodded as if we knew what that meant.
A couple of hours after leaving Virgin Gorda, the winds picked up slightly and the temperature dropped enough that we felt a little chilly, something we hadn’t been used to in the balmy temperatures of the previous several weeks of snorkeling, strolling, sunbathing, and exploring. We all made trips below for coats, which turned out to be a big mistake. Going below is never a good idea in rough water, especially early in a trip before your body has time to adjust to the perpetual motion of the boat.
The first one to succumb to seasickness was Dad, who blanched, pivoted, and leaned over the side of the cockpit to relieve himself of his late lunch. I hung on to his life jacket so he couldn’t hang too far out and when he was done, he slumped back into the cockpit, looked sheepish and said, “Oh dear.”
Our Captain checked in with his crew and though we were all feeling a little queasy, nobody felt bad enough that we thought it prudent to turn back. Besides, the boat was handling the waves well. Yes, things were a bit bumpy, as predicted, but we were making reasonably good speed and calculated we’d be arriving in the anchorage at dawn the next day, right on schedule.
We continued on until, and as darkness began to fall, the wind picked up again.
“Let’s reef the main,” Our Captain called out and my daughter and I clipped our tethers to the safety lines and made our way forward.
On a 45' catamaran, the mast is tall and the mainsail large. What had been a reasonably straightforward maneuver in the sheltered waters of our practice grounds became an exercise in ‘don’t shit your pantsing’.
The boat bucked and kicked beneath us as we tried to bring the main partway down, flake the excess, and secure the reef while hanging onto the mast for dear life. The biggest waves crashed into the boat, sending sheets of spray over us. My daughter and I grabbed whatever we could to stay upright — the rigging, the lines, each other, but managed to get the job done, hearts in our throats.
We scurried back to the cockpit and then Our Captain hove to (pointed the boat into the wind, which smoothed the motion a little) so we could all race below and make use of the short lull in the action in order to use the head (boat-talk for toilet).
Once all crew was back in the cockpit, I staggered toward the aft of the cockpit and lost my lunch onto what became known as the ‘puke deck’ (the swim platform) behind us.
It was at this point that Dad announced he was having trouble peeing. He assured us this happened on occasion and would likely pass.
We were by now well into our journey and it made sense to push on. We were all so distracted by the increasingly spicy sailing action that I think we figured he’d be fine by morning, which is what he seemed to believe.
The winds shifted and strengthened and it became more and more difficult to make any headway to the east. Instead, we were being pushed south, toward South America.
Though our cat was a reasonably fast boat on most points of sail, it wasn’t doing so well with the wind coming at us on the nose. We had tried to use the autopilot, but the weird combination of wind from the wrong direction and building seas coming at us from the side quickly overwhelmed the autohelm. Our Captain took over and manhandled the helm for hours, guiding the boat up and over and through the convulsing swells.
One after the other the crew took turns puking. All, that is, except Our Captain (who never gets seasick), my sister-in-law who suffers from emetophobia (a phobia of vomiting) and my daughter who suffers from a fear of the ocean. With his crew members either cowering or hurling, the poor captain had rather less to work with in terms of a functional crew than he had hoped.
Several times over the next few hours, in the hopes that Dad might be able to get his plumbing working, we hove to (stalling the forward progress of the boat temporarily so the motion wasn’t quite so severe). Dad made his way below deck to the head, to no avail. It was during the third or fourth of these heavings-to that we were overtaken by a particularly nasty squall.
In the pitch darkness, it came out of nowhere, enveloped the boat in a howling rage, and tossed us all around without mercy. Dad was below in the head, Our Captain hanging on to the wheel and trying to find the least horrendous path through the washing machine of building waves, his crew wide-eyed, white-knuckled and wondering if we’d ever see land again.
At about 4:30AM the captain handed me the helm so he could check on Dad down below. The noise was horrendous — big waves crashing into us from all directions, the boat lunging and lurching this way and that as we inched our way through the churning mess. I knew we were in trouble when Our Captain staggered up from below, looking green.
“Keep an eye on things — I need to sleep this off.” He promptly sprawled flat on the cockpit sole and passed out, utterly exhausted.
The waves were at their most massive, the winds their strongest yet and the darkness deepening as the moon (which had mostly been obscured by storm clouds) was setting. My daughter was tucked into a corner of the cockpit with her head covered by a big towel. She later told me she was fantasizing about being on a cruise ship — that she was convinced we were all going to perish.
My sister-in-law seemed to be in a trance behind me where she had propped herself up on a heap of cockpit cushions. Dad was below in the head (we later learned he had wedged himself into a small space on the floor and had managed to make himself more or less comfortable and had actually — perversely — sort of enjoyed the wild ride) and the kids had all fallen asleep in the main salon.
That left me at the helm. Anxiously, I watched the wind, the waves, our speed, the sails — we had re-engaged the autopilot and I kept an eye on that, too in case things got out of hand and I had to override and take over with hand-steering. What was running through my mind was this:
I don’t know what I’m doing.
I’ll make a wrong decision, one that will flip and sink the ‘unsinkable’ catamaran.
If a freakishly even-huger wave sweeps over the boat I could be washed overboard. Nobody will notice I’m gone never mind put into action our man overboard drill.
What could be more horrifying than watching the boat sail off without me? I’d be bobbing around with 3000' feet of water below me. And, some sharks.
I checked my tether and made sure all was secure. There was no way I was going to be separated from the boat.
The noise was horrific — as each massive wave hit the boat it sounded like the two hulls would split apart. We had reefed the main again and didn’t have much sail up, but it felt like every part of the boat was straining and at risk of shattering, leaving her crew and a few bits of debris scattered across the ocean.
In the dark, the mind plays weird tricks. My brain clearly thought it should be sleeping, but instead was forced to watch for other boats, another change in wind direction, puking shipmates. I kept seeing red lights on the horizon (there were no other idiots foolish enough to be out and about). Later, my sister-in-law confessed she had seen masts sailing around us, but no boats.
In reality, all that was out there were more, bigger, nastier waves.
Shortly before dawn, my sister-in-law joined me at the helm. When the boat rose out of the deeper wave troughs, we watched the sunrise and flying fish and, almost unbelievably, spotted a dark smudge on the distant horizon.
Land? Could it be an island? Could it be the island we were hoping to see? Saba?
At about this point, Our Captain roused himself, staggered to the puke deck and made good use of it to relieve his stomach of all its contents. This purging seemed to perk him up and he took over at the helm once again.
There followed hours of agonizing inching along. Saba refused to draw closer. Wind and waves conspired to push us away from our destination. The final approach seemed to take days. It was torture to see the island just over there but not getting any closer.
I forced myself to look away, to count waves, to scan the horizon for other boats, to count to 100 before daring to take another peek at our destination.
It was noon before we finally, finally made our way into the mooring field and picked up a mooring ball at the base of the sheer cliffs that rise up out of the water and form the island of Saba.
That was also the first time we saw Dad emerge after having spent so many hours hunkered down in the head.
By this point, he was a desperate man and we somehow managed to launch the dinghy and maneuver him into it despite the fact the anchorage was not well-protected and the wind and chop made this process more than a little tricky.
Eventually, though, we got him ashore and to the local hospital, where he was tended to by the kindest of staff. (The details of our on-shore experience will have to wait for another post).
Because we had all scrambled ashore to get him the medical attention he needed, there was no time for cleaning up and we all spent much of that day picking salt crystals out of our ears and eyebrows. Take enough waves over the deck and one becomes a walking salt deposit.
By the time we stepped ashore on Saba — a striking island which rises up out of the sea, its weathered cliff faces plunging straight down into deep waters which are, apparently, excellent for diving — we were a divided crew. There were those among us (my sister-in-law, my daughter) who vowed right then and there never to do another off-shore crossing again.
The kids (who had slept through most of the ordeal) seemed oblivious to what we had just endured.
My brother and I were happy to be ashore, yes, but were also already talking about future sailing possibilities — longer trips, passages to far-off destinations.
Dad was wistful, recognizing that his offshore sailing days were probably numbered, but having enjoyed the excitement nonetheless.
What that crossing did for me was whet my appetite for more. I realized I needed to learn more, put in more time on boats, get more sea miles under my belt so I could feel confident that I would know what to do should the wind pick up, the crew drop like flies and the waves come crashing over the deck.
Later that day Our Captain admitted he’d never had a worse sailing experience than what we’d come through the night before. The winds had wound up gusting to over 35 knots and the waves built to 10–12' and at one point were coming at us from three different directions. I wondered if I should perhaps have been more scared.
Like the agonies of childbirth, the horrors of the night before were fading fast. I had plans to hike to the top of the local volcano before we’d set off again to visit some of the other islands farther south. But beyond our immediate island-hopping plans, I was more determined than ever to find a way to get a boat of my own, hoist the sails, and see where the winds might take me.
That plan is in motion, though moving more slowly than I might like. (Life has a way of complicating things.)
That awful crossing was one of the highlights of the trip for me. We were all tested but we all survived. The boat was fine. We learned something about the power of the sea and the feistiness of humans when put to the test.
Despite all the nastiness, our family stuck together and helped each other out. Nobody yelled. When push came to shove we were able to count on each other.
We staggered off the boat at the other end of the journey still willing to hang out together and keep exploring. At the end of the day, what more could one ask for?
Weirdly, I shot almost no sailing footage on that trip… and definitely none on the dreadful crossing (in part because I was worried about losing my phone overboard). This short (not very good — sorry) snippet was shot a few days after the awful crossing to Saba.