Photo courtesy of Unsplash
Red Sky at Morning
An excerpt from my novel, Inherit the Earth. Photo courtesy Unsplash
A steady breeze from the stern aided the crew of Currahee to stay her course with minimum effort. At dawn, Richard exited the cabin, stretched, and gazed at the horizon. The eastern sky appeared the same dark-red hue it had at sunset.
“Red sky at morning, sailor take warning,” said the captain.
“That sounds ominous,” said Les, stepping up behind him. “What does it mean?”
“Old-time sailors used to forecast the weather by observing the sky,” Richard answered. “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight, predicts fair weather and calm seas. Red sky at morning, sailor take warning, is said to mean a storm’s a-brewin’.”
“Is there any truth to it?” Les asked.
“Well, it used to be gospel among seafarers before modern instruments, but so were superstitions. At the same time, there’s always a bit of truth to those old sayings,” Richard explained. “I think we should all talk about the probability of a storm and procedures for handling a boat during a gale. It’s only a matter of time before we have to deal with foul weather.”
“Don’t you mean the possibility of a storm?” Les asked.
“No,” said Richard. His expression turned serious as his nearly white, sun-bleached eyebrows furrowed, and he chewed the inside of his cheek. “We’re sailing half-way around the world, so we’ll most likely be hit by a storm or two, at least. Practically the only unknown is how severe they’ll be.”
By ten that morning, the sea had become choppy, the wind shifted continuously, and storm clouds gathered on the southwestern horizon. Erratic winds made holding the sloop’s course more challenging. Richard was at the helm while Augie, Sherry, and Les worked the sails. Richard set the big wheel, locking the rudder in the due forward position, and called for everyone to meet in the cabin.
Below deck, Sherry and Les sat on the lower starboard bunk, and Augie took the lower port.
“The most important thing is to make sure we maintain the air in the cabin,” said Richard. He stood in the galley, only five feet from the bunks, leaning against the kitchen’s counter. “The hatches are watertight, so during a storm, we don’t want to open them. If the boat capsizes, the sealed cabin is all we’ll have to keep our little craft afloat. Forty-foot sloops don’t keel over easily because they run deep and have narrow hulls, but a strong enough gale or a huge wave can cause any boat or ship to capsize. A big enough wave can even turn the largest ship completely upside down. You saw The Poseidon Adventure, right?”
“What?” exclaimed Sherry. “That was a two-hundred-foot tidal wave. Storms can’t generate something like that, can they? Only an earthquake can do that, right?”
“Several different situations can cause rogue waves, including an earthquake or a big enough storm,” said Richard. “But the point is, a storm with high waves and strong enough winds can capsize our boat if it’s not handled right.”
“What do we have to do to prepare for a storm?” asked Les.
“We’ll need to lower both sails, disconnect them, and stow them in their lockers,” Richard said. “The air currents have become erratic, the sea is choppy, and we will be heading into a storm, that’s for certain. I tried to contact somebody for information concerning its severity but couldn’t reach anyone. Most likely, no radio operator has tuned into the emergency frequency.”
“Do we need to lower the sails now?” Augie asked.
“No,” Richard replied. “We’ll keep sailing, for the time being, then stow the sails before it gets too rough. After that, we’ll use the motor and prop for propulsion and keep tending the helm until it gets too tough to navigate. If it does, we’ll shut down the engine, put out the sea anchor, go below, and batten down the hatches.”
“We’re going to drop anchor?” asked Les. “What good would that do? The bottom could be a mile deep.”
“It’s a sea anchor,” Richard said. “It helps holds the bow to windward. That way, our little sloop keeps heading into the wind making it less likely to capsize. Another term for it is ‘boat brake.’ That makes it practically self-explanatory. But don’t worry about what it is. I’ll show you. That’s always the best way to explain it.”
Richard opened a package of dried apricots and popped a wedge into his mouth.
“Our only option will be to wait out a violent storm, and we’ll be at the sea’s mercy,” he continued. “Let’s go on deck and try to sail for a while longer. This storm could be relatively mild and short. If it isn’t, we’ll handle it. Les, would you fix something for us to eat? We need to chow down now. It may be a long time before we can eat again. Everybody needs to drink a lot of water, too.”
“Chow coming up,” said Les. The others headed for the cabin door.
“Oh, and one more thing,” Richard said. “We’ll need four lengths of half-inch rope, each about fourteen feet long. We’ll need them if the storm is extra strong; we might have to tie ourselves down.”
“Tie down?” Les asked. “To what?”
“The bunks are bolted to the deck,” said Richard. “If the sea becomes too rough, for a long time, we’d eventually become fatigued to the point of being unable to hang on. It’s best to tie ourselves to the bunks. With high enough seas, anything that’s not lashed down, including the crew, can be tossed about the cabin. We could bang into each other, too. Not a good thing, as you can imagine.”
Richard took the helm, Augie handled the sails, and Sherry fetched the ropes. Les went below to prepare sack dinners of beef jerky, crackers, dried fruit, and left-over fish from the previous night. He served one to each crew member, along with bottles of water.
They continued to sail the boat, maintaining her course as best they could. Storm clouds moved in, and the wind picked up.
“It’s time,” Richard called. It had become windy enough for the rain to be blown sideways with gusts, and some of the waves periodically splashed onto the deck.
Les began to climb the mast.
“What are you doing?” Richard yelled.
“You said to take down the sails.”
“Yeah, but it can be tricky, and you’ve never done it before. Come on down. I’ll do it while you observe and learn.”
Richard handled the chore while the rest of the crew watched. After he dropped the mainsail, he disconnected the jib. They detached the mainsail from the boom and stored it along with the jib inside watertight compartments attached to the side of the cabin.
Richard went below and started the diesel engine. Returning topside, he took the helm and steered the boat for a while. When higher waves made maneuvering unmanageable, he locked the rudder again and directed the other three crewmembers to the bow where a locker with a door sank into the deck.
Richard opened the storage space and took out the sea anchor. The device looked like a little parachute attached to the end of a long rope. A small sandbag, hooked to the middle of the line, was designed to keep it underwater.
“This is it!” he hollered, holding it all in one hand. “All you do is throw the whole rig overboard. It’s already secured inside the locker.”
Richard crouched to the deck and tossed the rope, parachute, and sandbag into the ocean from below the safety rail. “Okay, see this hook on the tip of the bow? Clip it around the line, like this, and we’re good. Let’s go below now. It’s getting too rough.”
The waves had swollen to fifteen feet, and the wind gusts became so intense that Sherry found herself rolling across the deck before spreading her limbs to stop. Just as she came to her hands and knees, a wave knocked her down again. The non-skid coating prevented her from slipping into the roiling sea.
The crewmembers, fighting the fierce wind, stumbled and crawled their way into the cabin. Richard went below to kill the motor and set the centerboard. When he exited the engine room, he secured its hatch.
Sherry closed and battened the cabin’s hatch, and the crewmembers settled in on the lower bunks. No one knew how rough the storm would become, so they tied the fourteen-foot lengths of rope to the bunks, but not themselves, yet.
Each copied Richard’s knots, and he checked everyone else’s progress in readying the makeshift safety belts.
“No, Les! You’ve got that loop inside out,” exclaimed Richard. “Sherry. You’ve done yours right. Show him where he fucked his up.”
She helped Les correct his ties.
“I gotta use the head,” she said, once Les’s knots had been fixed. “I’ll be right back.”
“It’s getting rougher, Sis,” said Richard. “So, make it snappy. We’ll need to tie ourselves down soon.”
“I will,” she assured him.
Sherry used the bulkhead grips to inch herself toward the head. The boat’s movement increased dramatically with every passing moment.
Les realized the potential for a hideous nautical demise and wondered just how violent the storm would ultimately become. At the same time, he knew his ignorance of sailing prevented him from knowing how bad it might get. He did his best to disguise his fear, reasoning that any form of panic wouldn’t help the situation in the least. But his heart’s pounding and clenched teeth made appearing calm a problematic task.
We’ve all got to trust Richard’s knowledge and experience to keep our boat and ourselves safe.
Sherry was still in the head when the bow rose by some sixty degrees to point nearly straight up before it slammed back down. Currahee leaned to starboard and held there for a few moments before leveling out, then continued to pitch from side to side.
“I heard thumps coming from the head,” said Les. “Going to check on Sherry.”
“Use the rails,” Richard cautioned. “Another swell can come without warning.”
The head was only a few steps away, and he managed to reach it by hanging onto the “U” shaped steel grips attached to the bulkhead.
His heart jumped into his throat, and he felt the familiar flash of electricity up his spine that comes with an adrenaline rush when he found Sherry motionless on the deck. From his war experiences, he was able to overcome the momentary panic and check her pulse.
Assuming she’d been knocked unconscious, Les wrapped one arm around her waist and used the other to hang on to the bulkhead handles. As he carried her, Sherry’s feet dragged on the deck, and her head lolled like a rag doll. When they reached the bunk, he grasped its metal frame and set her back in her spot.
“What happened to Sherry?” Augie asked. “Is she alright?”
“I don’t know for sure,” Les replied. “I think she was tossed around in there by that wave. She’s got a bump coming up on the right side of her forehead, and her elbow looks weird. I think it’s dislocated.”
“Tie her down,” Richard ordered, “and yourself.”
Les had already begun strapping her in with the fixed ties while hanging onto the bed’s frame. When he finished securing Sherry, he anchored himself next to her.
Sherry regained consciousness a few seconds after Les tied his ropes, but remained confused and only semi-conscious for a few more moments.
She screamed something unintelligible before yelling, “Get off me, you big lug! Whattaya think I’m a fuckin’ sofa?”
Looking around, still glassy-eyed, she moaned and cradled her left elbow, stiff-armed, unable to bend it. The way the forearm was catty-cornered to the upper arm left no doubt she’d dislocated her elbow.
For the next few hours, it was a wild ride. Some of the waves swelled to thirty feet, according to Richard, who called out his estimates.
Enormous waves pounded Currahee, and the howling wind became so loud no one could hear another yell. Lip reading and hand signals became their method of communication. Mostly, they only held on and hoped for the best.
When the sloop shifted violently to port, the whole crew was suspended by their ropes, which dug into their sides and squeezed the breath from them.
All heard the screeches throughout the cabin, but none knew who had screamed, not even the ones issuing them.
“We’re capsizing!” Richard screamed. “Hang on, everybody!”
The sloop tilted by more than seventy degrees, perilously close to lying on her side, then hung there for an eternity. Everyone’s eyes went wide with panic, their faces ashen as more shrieks echoed from the bulkheads.
If the sloop were to turn onto her side, with the mast dipping into the water, there’d be no righting it. When the vessel calmed again, Les threw up, and the others heaved sighs of relief.
The whole boat then rocketed straight upward, and the crewmembers felt like they were on a skyscraper’s high-speed elevator. The bow then pitched straight down again, falling back into the sea before leveling once again.
“Forty-footer!” Richard yelled over the noise of the wind and crashing waves.
“What’s forty feet?” Les called back. He used his open hands like a megaphone, with one to either side of his mouth.
“That wave felt like it was forty feet high,” shouted Richard. “Biggest I’ve ever felt.”
For another five hours, the boat tossed and pitched. Twice more, it felt as though Currahee would capsize. The waves continued to bash against the hulls of the boat nonstop, and the wind raged incessantly.
Finally, the storm began to let up, but the crew remained in their harnesses.
“How’s your arm feeling?” asked Les.
“It aches and hurts if I try to bend it,” said Sherry. “But my hand works.”
“It’s a dislocated elbow, honey. I’ve seen them get fixed twice before. It’s excruciating to reset it, but it doesn’t take long. Just keep it straight if that’s the most comfortable position, and we’ll fix it after the storm.”
Sherry stared at the odd crook of her arm. “Okay,” she said.
“The bilge pumps have finished pumping,” Richard said, unfastening his harness. “I can’t hear them. They’ve turned off so the bilges will be dry.”
Currahee continued to toss, but nowhere near as violently as she had at the peak of the storm. The rest of the crew untied themselves, and Richard went topside to inspect for damage.
He ducked back into the cabin and said, “I think we should wait a while longer before hoisting the sails, but it’s calm enough to take the helm and stow the sea anchor. If we do raise the sails, and another blow comes, we’ll have to go through the whole damned routine again. With one less hand, I might add.” He looked at Sherry with an expression of empathy.
Richard restarted the engine before taking the helm. He turned the big wheel two revolutions to clockwise, bringing the sloop to port and a more southwesterly heading.
By sunset, the sea had calmed significantly. Before the crew hoisted the sails and killed the motor, Richard carefully inspected the mast and boom then notified the others that their boat had sustained no damage. He bellowed orders to hoist the sails.
Les attached both sails while Augie worked to secure the mainsail to the boom and hoist it with the halyards’ winch. Sherry looked on as Richard supervised. When they’d completed their tasks, he gave his crew both thumbs up and a big smile. “Great job!”
As the sun sank over the horizon, off the starboard side, the sky turned blood red again. A stiff breeze kicked up, the sails were winched tight, and Currahee propelled forward at a greater rate of speed.
“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” said Richard. The crew broke into a feeble cheer before falling silent.
All four had become physically wasted, their energy entirely spent from weathering the storm. With slumped shoulders and four chins resting on chests, The Currahee’s crew was a tired little pod of sailors, indeed.
Augie stood and trudged toward the cabin, his feet dragging with each step as he said, “You made lunch, Les, I’ll handle dinner.”
“I can do that,” said Sherry. “I’m not an invalid, just one-armed.”
Les smiled and shook his head.
What a woman.