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Rough, open sea tests every skill of a sailboat captain

FIRST-PERSON

Posted: January 26, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: January 26, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Paul Sibek aboard Harmony with his youngest son Taylor. Michael Calderone/courtesy photo

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It was Saturday afternoon and we were anchored about three hundred yards off Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands, 12 miles west of Ventura, California – also known as the American Galapagos.

Friends George and Michael were in the cockpit talking and I was reading in the forward cabin when I noticed the motion of the boat changing like a horse pulling on a lead; and the boat was bucking, tugging against the anchor line.

I began to sense the change in the wind and could hear the strain on the anchor line. I felt the boat lurch back twice, indicating the anchor was losing its grip.

Going on deck I saw that we were very close to a yacht that had been almost 100 yards to our stern the last time I looked. I immediately told Michael to go forward and haul up the anchor, while I started the outboard motor.

We got the anchor up and I motored around the anchorage considering our options, trying to decide on a plan of action. The wind was up to and exceeding 20 knots and the sea was getting rough.

Other boats, both sail and power, were putting down two anchors or leaving for home. In order to put down a second anchor I felt I needed a more experienced crew than I had. I needed someone to handle the motor and steer, and another person handling the second anchor.

Both Michael and George had been sailing with me previously on warm sunny leisurely day sails that ended watching the sunset from a local bar over martinis. But neither was experienced handling a sailboat.

Our options were to find a better place to anchor, maybe up against the cliffs in the lee of the wind. But, if the wind shifted while we were asleep it would be up on the rocks and injury or worse for us.

It seemed like all the good spots to anchor were already taken by other boats so I picked a spot behind a trawler and ahead of a sloop and had Michael drop the hook.

It did not hold and we began drifting rapidly towards the sloop so we pulled up the anchor and motored to a good position and tried again. This time it seemed to hold, but after 15 minutes the wind continued to pick up and I considered that if the anchor broke free we would be immediately on top of the sloop.

I realized that one option was to motor-sail for home, which would require leaving immediately as it was closing on 6 p.m. and trying to make it across very busy freighter lanes with only a couple hours of daylight remaining.

Using the iPhone to check the Santa Barbara Channel buoy, it seemed plausible with wave heights three to four feet, swells of six feet, wind 12 to 14 knots, sunset 8 p.m.

We could make it safely if we left immediately, and motor-sailed. But, the last hour would be in the dark putting us at, or past, “Gina,” the oil rig closest to our home port.

Two other considerations were how much towing the dingy would both slow us down and possibly dangerously effect our ability to maneuver. Also, taking into account the fact that we had no running lights - I hadn’t planned to sail at night. And we only had hand held lights that would have to work. Lesson learned.

I explained the options to Michael and George, and the potential risk.

We left Santa Cruz Island at 6:05 p.m. along with one of the trawlers and a big catamaran. I had the main sail up for the extra push and stability even though we could regret this later and not be able to get it down in the rough seas.

We took the most northerly course we could as the seas were coming from the north-west and I wanted to jibe and run with the wind and sea at our back in case it got rougher as we got further out into the channel.

For about an hour we headed northerly before turning the boat south so that I was able to run with the sea at our stern. This accomplished two things, we were on the safest tack with the seas at our stern, not perpendicular, and at a reduced risk of broaching and capsizing; and secondly, the surfing effect of the waves would increase our speed.

I continued to check the iPhone GPS and was confident that we were headed in the correct direction and could make it across nine miles of rough ocean channel with relative safety and not be positioned in the freighter lanes in the dark.

Within the first hour the wind and seas picked up rather dramatically and we were taking water over the bow. I also noticed the forward hatch was not completely closed and had Michael go close and dog it.

About then I got a face full of spray soaking me and covering my glasses with salt. The end of clear vision for me. Leaving to go below and clean my glasses would have left the boat in the hands of two inexperienced boaters in rough waters – a risk we couldn’t afford to take.

The wind and seas continued to grow and I could tell that Michael and George were nervous. To calm them I was complimenting them on their seamanship in getting us safely out of the anchorage, handling the anchor as we tried to anchor multiple times and getting the anchor off the foredeck and safely into the cockpit.

I also pointed out the closest oil rig and asked them to keep watch for ships, since George was on the port side of the cockpit and Michael starboard. I asked George to watch 9-to-12 and Michael 12-to-3 and kept up a running commentary to try and keep all of us calm.

“Wow look at the giant waves behind us,” Michael said.

“No thanks, I’d rather not,” I replied, which was meant to be - and did strike us all - as funny.

I was regularly checking the gas tank. It seemed like there was no way the three gallon tank was going to get us home and I wanted to be prepared to swap tanks (we had a full second tank). But, I had to think about the procedure of switching tanks in this rough weather.

I explained to the boys that most likely one of them would need to take the helm while I switched the fuel lines, and that; if possible, I wanted to do it after or east of Gina the oil rig when the seas were calmer. Ultimately, however, if the outboard ran out of gas I would have to do it regardless of where we were.

The thought of having to restart the outboard, standing or kneeling in the stern and pulling the starting cord in these seas spooked me no little bit, but I kept up a running conversation about the gas mileage we were getting and debating whether we could get home on one tank.

Well into the second hour the seas, winds were such that I was getting very concerned. What struck me was the level of noise, well above a roar and it was difficult to communicate with Michael and George across 8 feet of cockpit space.

I told the guys to get the life jackets on, and asked for the radio and strobe to be handed to me by the tiller. I was considering calling a Mayday. And I was wondering what the Coast Guard would do to get us off the boat as the seas were way too much for a tow.

Our situation was much like a Reality TV program, but I was hoping not too much like that show “I Shouldn’t Be Alive.” It was that bad.

I also felt that by running with the seas to our stern we could handle this if the motor kept running, the rigging held and nobody freaked out. I decided I would give it another half-hour to see if the seas calmed. I did that twice.

Kind of like a 12-step program, or maybe more like a 12-fathom program.

At that point I decided to cut the fully restored dingy loose as it was slowing us and effecting my ability to control the boat over the swells and as we surfed.

I asked Michael to untie the dingy from the cleat and throw the line as far as he could so it wouldn’t foul the prop, but he couldn’t as the line was so tight and needed George to pull on the line for slack. As George tugged and fought against the ocean we got the dingy safely and immediately the boat began to handle better. I watched as it was set adrift - she was a nice dingy, freshly painted, with new oars and bronze oar locks.

I have to admit that, in part, the surfing was thrilling as the boat would be picked up by a huge wave that may have been 12 to 15 feet and thrown forward almost like a roller coaster ride. The sailing required precision control, fast reflexes and serious concentration to counter the tendency to yaw into the trough of the wave.

I did point out to the boys how much faster we were going and made reference to the conversation we had about the physics of displacement hull speed and the ways a hull could surpass hull speed. They seemed pretty calm so I kept up the conversation, mentioning the oil rig getting closer, asking them to tell me when they saw light on land and to continue to keep watch for other ships.

We did get sideways once; lifted up by a huge wave, up over the top, but instead of surfing down the other side, Harmony turned to starboard and fell into the trough, maybe 10 feet.

I thought we were going to capsize for sure and called out to Michael and George to hang on as I tied to haul on the tiller to turn the boat in the direction of the wave to port. If we shipped water into the boat we were goners for sure. The boat heeled over and laid down hard on its port side, rolled back to the vertical with no ocean water coming in and started to answer the helm and come around to port. Harmony pulled through what I thought could be our final moments. What a ride.

The hardest part of this for me was the responsibility I had for three lives if I made the wrong decision. Could we have anchored and kept an anchor watch all night; could Michael and George have stayed awake on anchor watch; and could we have put down a second anchor safely?

So much was going on in my head. But at this point second guessing was only going to affect my judgment and ability to sail and make decisions that would have to be made decisively and quickly. At this point our lives were on the line and truly depended on a clear head.

Towards the tail end of our second hour the seas and wind began to calm a bit.

I was able to control the boat more easily, the tendency to yaw decreased. I knew that the channel calmed as we approached the shore and hoped that this would continue even though the calming point would be east of Gina.

After about 20 minutes more, the seas were noticeably calmer with maybe four foot waves and six to eight foot swells. The boat was not straining so much, the outboard was running and my only concerns were when to switch fuel tanks and finding the narrow harbor mouth in the dark.

A few minutes later George said, “I think I see Gina at 11:30 on the bow.”

Sure enough it was our oil rig and a sight for sore eyes. At this point Gina was a beacon of hope for us as we had sailed out to and around Gina. In the past on sunny days and knew it was about 4 miles from port.

I think it’s fair to say that all three of us were very tense and needed this sight of Gina to get us home. Now we were sailing into calmer waters and only had to look out for small boats, not freighters.

This was when we saw the huge cruise ship appear behind us in the freighter lanes headed north, lights ablaze. It looked like a floating city going by. They never would have seen us in the dark and with no radar signature of our own we would have ended up as a scratch on their hull - possibly never even noticed during a refit in the yard.

They could have made scrap out of us on one hand, on another it’s one of those ying/yang moments in life; As they passed, thousands were eating, drinking and dancing while two miles away we were "sailing for our lives.”

I went over the fact that we did not have real running lights; I wanted the guys to shine flashlights on the main sail to let other boats see us. I also checked the iPhone GPS again and saw that we were about a mile south of where we should be and made a course correction. Geez, this iPhone and iNavX charts were getting us home. The only problem was my glasses were so salted up that I could barely see.

As we approached I was trying my best to make out the harbor mouth. Not having night sailing experience at this harbor I was hoping the GPS was accurate. Even though it had been so far, the harbor mouth was surrounded by three large stone jetties, two parallel east-west and one perpendicular north-south to protect against the seas.

After all we had been through, there were still a number of ways left to wreck the boat and possibly become very hurt or worse.

I wanted to trust the iPhone GPS, but with accuracy at about 50 to 100 feet, but could I?

I told the boys about the navigation lights and how there should be a red on the right and a green one on the left, but I was having so much trouble seeing, looking out for the harbor, watching for other boats it seemed like our trip might end with me radioing the Coast Guard to come get us and lead us in. Yet, after all this I really wanted to make it in on our own.

But I was blind and disoriented. I was so unsure of where we were that I decided at the last minute to tack out west to get some distance from the jetties and recoup. This almost seemed the most harrowing part of this really amazing and dangerous trip, but I wanted some breathing room and time to think.

George and Michael nearly freaked when I turned away from the harbor.

While I was trying to decide whether to take another shot, to trust the GPS, or to call for assistance - a white stern, mast lights and the red running light of a sailboat appeared from seemingly nowhere.

Based on the position of his lights I realized that he was making for the harbor mouth. I told the boys: “Here is our ticket home; we’ll just hope he is going into the harbor, and that I can see well enough to follow him in without running up his behind.”

I adjusted our speed and stayed on his starboard side, instructing the boys to shine the flashlights on the mainsail and just went for it, trusting that the other sailor knew what he was doing and that it would work out.

We made it and I have to say that my little Tohatsu 9.9 outboard got us home on one tank, less than three gallons of gas.

This had been a scary trip, a real adventure, with 100 yards to go before we would be safe, warm and dry. The next thing I knew there we were inside the jetties facing the inner harbor all lit up and calm and beautiful. We were home safe!

I have sailed many places in the world and seen some bad weather in the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Tehuantepec, where I thought that lives were at risk. This counts as among those.

As I digest all that has happened I realize that some may call me crazy for attempting this, but with the information I had regarding weather, seas, sunset time, etc. it seemed like it was doable - and in the end it was.

This was an adventure that very few of us civilized urban types ever experience. This is a story you can tell and never embellish too much.

In the end Harmony withstood a serious test, cheers to Columbia Yachts and their ability to design and manufacture this great 22 foot sailboat; and cheers to my crew.

Michael and George performed like old salts, followed my commands, did their jobs and endured an experience that cannot be adequately described in words.

Editor’s Note: Paul Henry Sibek reports that he’s sailed the world and was rated as a United States Coast Guard Third Mate. He stated that he felt this experience was one of the greatest accomplishments of his life – the kind of story you can tell your grandchildren about.

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