Once again, I am inviting you to read another chapter from The Crossing. This one is not quite so long as some of the others, but very exciting as the yacht runs into some horrendous weather - not for the faint-hearted sailor! Enjoy it.
They had now been at sea for ten days and were well over half way to Antigua. Morning dawned on a dozing Connie in the cockpit around six a.m. The sun wasn’t the usual fireball rising in the east over the deep blue perfect skies that they were used to.
The complete horizon was hugged by a malevolent looking deep purple shadow. Above the horizon, the sky had amassed huge rolling clouds that were shot through with a strange pewter and copper hue. These clouds were speeding frantically across the sky in all directions. As the dawn continued to break, the air seemed to be full of charged static and a bolt of brilliant white lightning flashed ahead of the yacht and all around them. Off to the port side and far behind, there was a fierce growl of enormous thunder, cracking and rolling and gathering in volume as it travelled nearer. There was a strange up and down motion to the yacht on a sea that had now changed to an eerie colour of molten grey with steep irregular waves. The wind was rising and the sound through the rigging was alarming to listen to. Within a minute it had climbed to a nerve-jangling crescendo as the waves began bursting with a surf that crashed against the boat’s hull. Somewhere a newly loosened stay was twanging in the wind and below there were the beginnings of strange bangs and thuds. Without warning a sudden deluge of warm rain dumped on the deck making it difficult for Connie to see and breathe. She climbed below and hurried aft to wake Richard. On reaching their cabin she saw he was already up and dressed, struggling into a lifejacket and harness.
‘It looks bad,’ she said. She hated rough weather and a tremor of fear ran through her.
‘I can tell by the change in motion. It’s come up quick. Keep your lifejacket and harness on, we’re probably in for a blow.’ He pushed past her in the galley. Toby appeared from his cabin rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
‘The sound on the hull is bloody awful, it’s impossible to sleep,’ he said.
‘Get your safety gear on,’ was all Richard replied as he clipped on to the safety line in the cockpit.
Climbing up the companionway ladder, he was assaulted it seemed, from every direction by wild blasts of hot wind. The thunder and lightning continued, cracking overhead.
Richard looked at the sea in amazement; it seemed to have grown to unbelievable steepness; the waves striking the yacht with enormous force. The thunder rose in volume and filled the air with its bellowing. The roaring mass of rain hissed down on the sea’s surface. Connie appeared pale and trembling in the cockpit opening as the yacht was hit by a huge wave and she was violently thrown to one side, smashing herself against the bulkhead.
‘We’ve got to reduce sail,’ Richard yelled.
Connie was frozen to the cabin’s sole and rubbed her bruised shoulder. She didn’t attempt to stand up or move from her position on the floor.
‘You must help me,’ he continued.
She shook her head, her face devoid of colour. ‘I can’t,’ she croaked.
Toby staggered over to the companionway ladder. ‘I will!’
‘Don’t be daft, you’ve only got the use of one arm,’ argued Richard. ‘Connie! Get up here now!’
Slowly, Connie climbed the ladder and looked around her, biting her bottom lip to stop herself crying out in alarm. The scene was now terrifying. Richard put an arm around her as he explained what he wanted her to do.
‘Don’t look out there. Concentrate on what I tell you. You can do it, darling, you’ve never let me down before.’ He gave her a reassuring squeeze and made sure she was ready before releasing the sheet.
The strength of the wind was now such, that the rain and spray hit them forcibly in their faces, half choking them. Slowly, they managed to completely lower the mainsail and reduce the headsail to a mere scrap of canvas. The boat responded by calming down a little. She had less heel enabling her to remain more upright; now she gamely clawed her way on through the waves. The overhead thunder continued from one stunning thunderclap to another as the rain beat down mercilessly on the cabin roof.
‘Any washing you need doing?’ Richard said to Connie at an attempt to make her smile.
There was a sudden tremendous roar from the starboard side as a gigantic wave thundered into them. Richard and Connie were hit, and the force of the water sent them tumbling and crashing across the cockpit; their safety lines pulling them up sharply, preventing them being swept overboard.
‘You’d better get below,’ he shouted, helping Connie untangle her harness line and safely guiding her down through the hatch.
Richard remained in the cockpit, and looking at the side of the yacht he saw that part of the guard rail had disappeared. As they came up on the top of a wave he realised that it hadn’t been torn away as he’d first thought, but that the sheer weight of the water had flattened the stainless-steel stanchions. Looking further out across to the horizon he saw an enormous, heaving indigo sea laced with white streams of foam and broken water. They raced westwards. Somehow their yacht didn’t seem quite as substantial out here now as she was tossed around on the furious sea. A fleeting thought of his father passed though him as he crawled below, gasping and wet through. Barker senior had put up with some ferocious weather during his time in the Royal Navy.
Richard put the washboard in its allotted slot to prevent the water flooding down the companionway into the salon below. Connie was sitting huddled on the floor crying; huge tears mingling with the salt upon her face, wet puddles around her. A concerned Toby was attempting to console her with a one-armed hug. The noise below was no quieter than above as the bilge pumps were going like the clappers. Gallons of water were being pumped out, and gallons more were furiously being thrown right back at them.
It was obvious to Richard that they had caught the tail end of the storm and he had no idea how long it would last. The ocean heaved and the thrust of the wind drove the boat further and faster. The onslaught on the yacht continued. The wind howled in the rigging and monstrous waves crashed into the hull. White blinding spume flew horizontally all around them.
The ghastly conditions continued all that day and the following night, relentless never ending, leaving all three of them exhausted and anxious. Connie was nearly paralysed with fear and lay prostrate on the cabin sole; the narrow gap between the salon table and static seating confined her body and prevented her from hurting herself as the yacht was thrown around. Toby was sitting grim-faced, wedged behind the salon table clinging to the grab rail with his right arm. He found it especially difficult with his still painful broken arm. Richard was seated; legs sprawled at the chart table, doing his best to get an up-to-date weather report. The thunderstorm prevented good radio propagation and so far he was unable to make any contact.
Earlier, Connie had been totally freaked out, begging him to either turn back or radio for help, with Toby adding his own voice to back her up. Richard thought that both ideas were over the top; they were in no danger of sinking, and so long as conditions didn’t get any worse they would be okay. He was exhausted. The last few days had really taxed him. Dark shadows ringed his eyes and his hair was encrusted with thick salt.
He had been covering all the watches as both Toby and Connie were incapacitated with seasickness and he was desperate for a rest.
‘Toby, I have to lie down for a bit. I’ve checked the radar, there is nothing within a radius of thirty miles from us, so we shouldn’t get run down or hit anything. Give me half an hour or so and I should be OK.’ He didn’t wait for Toby to agree or disagree but stumbled back into his cabin. He dragged off his uncomfortably wet clothes and dropped them on the floor. He crawled into his bunk and lay snugly against the lee cloth, safely keeping him within his bed. Thankfully, he closed his eyes and sleep overcame him instantly.
He awoke some time later that day. It was quieter. It felt different. He felt a swell. Now it was a new regular up and down motion. Pulling himself together, he dressed in dry clothes and entered the main cabin. The whole boat was a disgusting mess. Books, charts, and games were strewn everywhere. In the galley, the cupboard that usually contained the pots and pans was wide open; its contents disgorged. Coffee dregs were spilt onto the galley work-surface, and the sugar-bowl had dumped itself into this mess covering the surrounding work-surfaces and walls with a horrible sticky goo. Richard hurriedly put as much away as he could. Anything heavy was especially dangerous if it was sent flying. Luckily, the heavy steel-cooker was still on its sturdy gimbals. If that broke loose they would soon know it. Connie and Toby were fast asleep, still in the same positions as when he had left them earlier. Richard had a quick scout around, checking there were no other vessels around bearing down on them.
He was concerned about the weather. This could be just a lull and anything might happen. However, it was good to make the most of the respite and clear up the boat as best they could. Toby and Connie managed to force some salt biscuits and cola down themselves under Richard’s insistence. He explained that the replacement salt and sugar was necessary treatment for seasickness. He made himself some thick corned beef and pickle sandwiches, which he devoured ravenously. He thought nothing had ever tasted so good. But, they really needed something nourishing and hot. He got out a large saucepan and into it opened some tins of vegetable and chicken soup. He placed steaming mugs in front of Connie and Toby and stood over them while they slowly sipped their way through the tasty broth. He polished off two mugful’s himself with great satisfaction.
Later, Richard went on deck to survey the scene outside. The sky retained its ugly, sullen colour but the sea now possessed a heavy molten slick overlying the whitecaps that sluggishly rolled down the waves. The decks were washed clean of dust and dirt and the drying teak gleamed golden. The genoa halyards were loose and needed bringing into the cockpit for easy access. The deflated dinghy was still amazingly secured on the stern push-pit, and the life raft remained in place on its mid-deck cradle. Apart from the crushed guard-rail stanchions, there appeared little damage to the yacht and all the systems were working properly below decks. The little niggles of doubt and fear that had been with him for the past few days disappeared. They would be all right! The yacht was well built and would keep them safe, so long as they were cautious and kept their heads. He wasn’t a religious man, but Richard thanked God for keeping them safe so far.
A few hours had now passed; they’d all managed to get some decent rest. As Richard finished making another entry in the ship’s log he realised that the regular sea swell had begun to change to a strange uneasy motion. There was neither a strong pitching nor a heavy roll. Instead, every now and then, there was a quick lurch that had no real direction. The yacht creaked in the rolls and lurches, when suddenly; the wind came at them with a piercing shriek. The little scrap of genoa they were flying was torn from its foil; the boat checked and then lay heavily over on her side in a near broach.
Connie screamed, her mouth an ugly wide gape in her ashen face, ‘I want to get off! I want this to stop now!’
The weather now had a direction and a meaning with the blasts passing to the north and west of them. These winds were succeeded by a pent-up southeast gale, which blew with enormous force causing a swell that could even have rivalled the roaring forties. They were now in a hard blow, a very, very hard blow with a dangerous following sea.
A sudden deafening crash on deck had all three of them look at each other. A panic-stricken and white-faced Connie turned to Richard.
‘What do you think that was?’ Her lower lip trembled and her eyes were red-rimmed from past crying.
‘I don’t know. I only hope it’s not the life raft come adrift. That would be disastrous if it broke free. It could crash through a hatch or go overboard. I’d better go and check.’
Grabbing his wet waterproofs, he dragged them on over his dry clothes. His lifejacket and harness were lying on the floor ready to don in a hurry. He finished dressing as fast as he could; the crashing on deck was becoming more urgent. Please, God, let it not be the life raft! It was heavy enough to handle in calm conditions and would be a complete bugger during heavy weather.
Climbing out of the cockpit was difficult and quite terrifying. He tried not to notice the mountainous seas all around and crouched low on deck as he clipped his harness onto the safety line. Grim-faced and teeth clenched, he edged forward; at times waist-deep in swirling green water as a wave hit the hull and cascaded down around him. The banging up front was now relentless. He reached the mast and immediately saw the offender. The spinnaker pole had broken loose from its attachment and was banging against the mast causing the racket below. The ropes were not taut enough, and he needed some extra line to properly restrain it. He would have to retrace his footsteps and fetch some from the cockpit locker. It all took so long and so much energy. The wind buffeted and shook him as he crawled along the deck on his hand and knees, half-choking in the salty spray.
Below decks, Connie was shaking uncontrollably. She wanted to get off this boat now. If not, then she wanted to die. She had had enough. She couldn’t think straight, she felt sick, weak and horribly ill. It was just all too much. Why, oh why had she ever agreed to this? Damn Richard and his sailing! It was all his fault. She should never have listened to his exciting, enticing tales about the Caribbean. Right now she felt that she hated him. Damn. Damn. Damn!
Toby was slumped in his usual corner behind the saloon table, nursing his arm. He too looked stricken, his eyes bruised and tired. The yacht lurched and corkscrewed off a monster wave and Connie fell hard against the chart table. She shrieked with renewed fear and then heaved herself onto the bench seat behind it, wedging herself in. The red glow from the lights on the bank of electrical switches on the control panel was beside her. She quietly sobbed to herself as she lay her head down on the damp surface. She couldn’t think about anything else except getting off the boat. As the noise calmed down above she stopped crying and sat up and glanced around her. She noticed the state of the cabin, with the wet-streaked floor and the renewed mess from their possessions being thrown around them. She glanced at the battery state on the control panel and then across at Toby.
‘How do you feel?’ she asked.
She again looked at the electrical panel overhead and her glance lingered on the high-frequency radio set. Turning her head her scared eyes met those of Toby’s. They looked at each other, the creaks and bangs going on all around them. Neither said a word. But, they knew what the other was thinking. That help could be just around the corner. Just with the flick of a switch.
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