First of all- WE SWAM WITH WILD DOLPHINS!
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This week is part 2 of our epic weekend in Francis Bay with our friends, both new and old (well… slightly less new).
After a couple of heavy nights we all went on strike and insisted on a quiet evening sans alcohol. When we woke up the next day, clear-headed and well-rested, we were glad of our decision to be sensible for once. Allison took advantage of the temporary peak in energy levels to round Nick and I up and take us on a hike to find a smoothie bar. Ben and Quinn from SV Wanderlust stayed put on their boat, which turned out to be a wise decision. That hike was tough.
Eventually, wheezing and sweating, we made it to the smoothie hut which put free rum in your smoothie if you wanted; we all declined, just needing simple refreshment. After rehydrating, we headed back on shaky legs, looking forward to lunch followed by a kip to recuperate. However, as Bo and Allison dropped us off at our boat, Nick spotted two fins nearby- dolphins!
We had fortuitously left the GoPro in the cockpit with our snorkelling gear, which we’d been using for lobstering. I didn’t waste time changing into my bathers- I had my gym shorts on as well as my bikini top: good enough! Nick jumped in, I followed and before I knew it, we were swimming with dolphins.
What a magical experience.
I remember when I was a kid we were down the beach one summer’s evening. It was packed. I was swimming with my sister and I saw my mum gesticulating wildly from the beach. I was like, “Huh?” I didn’t understand what she was trying to say. When I came in, she told me she’d been trying to communicate that a dolphin had swum just behind me and I hadn’t realised. I remember being absolutely gutted that I didn’t get a chance to swim with them. Finally, 20 years later, I’ve made up for that missed opportunity.
There was what I’m guessing was a female dolphin with her little calf. The calf was so incredibly playful. The mother just chilled out at a distance while the baby swam around us in circles, reminding me of a mum at a playground, just glad to have someone else entertaining their kid for once. Quite often they would swim away- they moved so quickly!- but they’d always return for another round. Eventually hunger overtook the need to continue to swim with them, and we got out to have lunch. They hung around for hours; even that evening I spotted them serenely swimming through the anchorage.
Over the next few days we continued to hang out with Ben and Quinn, and Bo and Allison. We inched closer to Peurto Rico by spending a night in Christmas Cove, St Thomas together where we bumped into our friends Annie and Eric on El Gato. They’ve got a fantastic boat, a Catana 472, which Nick and I drool over every time we see it. They invited us over for dinner and we kind of invited the other two boats, and suddenly it was a party! We had a brilliant final night in the USVI, and between dark and stormy’s Eric told us one of the most incredible sailing stories I’ve ever heard. I hope he doesn’t mind if I share it with you guys. Here we go:
Strap yourselves in!
It was in the 80s and Eric was a young guy of 28, crewing on a 60 foot racing catamaran. They were racing somewhere mid-Atlantic; high latitude stuff, near where the Titanic sunk. There was a crew of maybe 6 or 8 men and they were chasing the record for the fastest 24 hours. It was blowing about 25 knots on the beam and they were outrunning a gale filling in just behind them. Things were looking good.
Then one of their daggerboards snapped. Don’t ask me how; Eric mixes his drinks strong and this tale took about an hour to tell; some of the details have since eluded me. Anyway. Daggerboard- gone. It was immediately obvious that this was bad news indeed. Everyone had just enough time to put their survival suits on before the catamaran capsized. Someone grabbed what was the 80s equivalent of an EPIRB and they gathered on one of the upturned hulls.
Let’s take a moment here to emphasis one point. This was the mid-80s. They had no communications at all, apart from this device which was actually the first of its kind, and that year was the very first time this particular race had supplied the participating boats with it. I don’t know what it was called, but Eric described it as a big black box with a single button on it. There were no lights. There was nothing else at all. Just a button which would transmit- hopefully- the current co-ordinates. It would not continue to update the boat’s position.
Once the button was pushed- which we can assume happened pretty much immediately- there was no way of telling if it had transmitted, if the transmission had been received- or indeed, if the damn thing was even on. They simply pushed the button and hoped for the best.
The boat capsized at 6am. It wasn’t long before the gale caught up with them. Eric said that the waves suddenly went from moderate to monstrous. As they crested each wave, he would look out and see hundreds more, marching towards them one after another, as big as apartment buildings. The wind had built to around 50 knots, perhaps more. It wasn’t even possible to talk: one had to shout to be heard and besides, the survival suits came up above their mouths. To pull the collar down would mean letting the spray in, and staying dry was imperative to survival. They simply sat and huddled together, tethered to the capsized catamaran, wondering if anyone was even looking for them.
At 12pm- 6 hours later- a plane went overhead. It zipped past, gone almost before anyone saw it. The men were elated: this meant the transmission had worked, people were out looking for them! This was quickly followed by the unhappy realisation that the plane had not dipped its wings. A pilot was part of the crew. He helpfully pointed out that protocol in this situation was for the plane to dip its wings to signal to the people who were awaiting rescue that they had been seen, and help was on its way. There was no such signal.
No other planes went overhead. No ships were sighted. Everyone, with the lone exception of Eric, had not properly fastened their survival suits and, slowly but surely, icy water was entering their suits, lowering their body temperature and inching them closer to an unhappy end. The afternoon went by; the sun went down. The gale continued to blow.
They spent the night taking turns holding up the lights that had come attached to the survival suits. No-one had any idea how long the batteries would last, so they only held one aloft at a time. As it turned out, several years later Eric tested his out and it still switched on, but of course they weren’t to know that at the time. Finally at 2am- 20 hours after capsizing- they saw lights. It was a cargo ship.
I can only imagine the emotions Eric and the rest of the crew felt at this moment. Because although they surely were about to be saved, it soon became clear that the rescue itself might be more perilous than being lost at sea.
The cargo ship was, in a word, ginormous. It transpired that it was actually the largest cargo ship in commission at that point in time. At night, in huge seas, it must have been terrifying to have that mass bearing down on you, even if you were in dire need of rescuing. The ship positioned itself so it was beam on to the seas- which had, thankfully, ameliorated a little by the point; the gale force winds remained- and protecting the upturned catamaran from the worst of the weather.
At this point, there was no way of the crew of the catamaran communicating with the crew of the cargo ship. They were positioned on the deck, and even in the calmest of conditions you would need to shout loudly to be heard. In this kind of weather, forget it. So, after a failed attempt, the cargo ship did a big loop to come back around to an ideal position. In the interim Eric and the crew had what I can imagine was quite a frenzied discussion about how the hell they were going to get the 8 of them from the upturned hull onto the deck on the cargo ship.
They came up with a plan, but they had no way of communicating it to the cargo ship crew. So, Eric came up with another plan. He would, if the opportunity presented itself, swim to the lone ladder that extended down the side of the ship into the water, climb up to the deck and instruct the ship’s crew on the plan they had devised.
It’s still blowing around 50 knots. For those of you having trouble with this, just picture the worst storm you’ve ever been in. That’s probably close. It’s not a hurricane. It’s not a tropical storm. But it would be pretty bloody awful to be out in, and that’s just on land. In the middle of the ocean? Rough. Couple that with giant seas and the dead of night and you’ve got to be incredibly brave or incredibly desperate to leave the relative safety of your capsized boat to swim for a ladder narrower than your shoulder width on the side of a heaving cargo ship. You miss it, you’re dead. It’s as simple as that.
They got within about 50 metres of the ladder and Eric went for it. He let go of the catamaran (now missing one of its hulls from being smashed up against the cargo ship) and swum like crazy for the ladder. Possibly the bravest thing I’ve ever heard of anyone doing. Can you imagine?
He didn’t miss the ladder of course, otherwise he wouldn’t be sitting on his beautiful yacht in the Caribbean drinking rum with us lot. He grabbed hold of it and I can only imagine the relief he must have felt at that moment. Minutes later he was up on deck instructing the crew- who were only too happy to be told how they could rescue the remaining crew members of the catamaran- on what to do. They threw down lines to the men on the one remaining hull and one by one hauled them up onto the deck.
The owner and captain was last. Eric reached down to him as he came within arms reach and, instinctively, the captain reached up. The loop of rope under his arms was pulled off, over his head. It was a long drop down and it’s hard to see how, even if he survived the fall, he would have been saved. Eric, like an action man in a Hollywood move, snatched at his hands, caught them, and somehow pulled him over the rail.
So that’s it. That’s the story. I was in awe the whole time Eric spoke, wondering how on earth he managed to continue sailing after such an ordeal. I’m not sure I could.