01:17 ship’s time
Thursday 21 November 2013
Twenty two days out
54o 09′ South, 116o 27′ West
“It’s like looking straight out into the face of God!”, yelled Rod above the howl of wind and waves as he looked at what was about to hit the starboard beam. “And he doesn’t appear to have noticed us AT ALL!”
After twenty two days sailing from Auckland, the weather considered normal for these latitudes and for which many had been wishing, was finally upon us.
On Wednesday afternoon as we approached the rising low-pressure system emanating from the Southern Ocean, the winds built up from the southwest, just as Captain Klaas had relayed to us from the radio-transmitted weather report. At around 23:00 hours the chain for the sheet to the main lower topsail snapped under the pressure – the winds were gusting up to 40 knots – and sent one half of the sail out loose, flailing and flapping like a mad thing, while the rest of the chain fell to the deck with a crash. Some of us heard the crash followed by the two bells calling the remaining permanent crew to the deck. Keen Rod was one of them. In short time, amidst the building storm, they made good the situation. And by the time the rest of our watch was on deck, the ship was a hive of activity in the gusting winds. Standing spread-legged on the mid-ship deck, I craned above to see the main upper topsail now safely furled, bathed in yellow halogen deck lights and framed by the inky heavens.
“It’s the only chain we hadn’t got around to replacing yet!”, exclaimed Dutch deckhand Niels, shaking his head of crazy hair, wind tossed and wild, as he stared up through the horizontal rain. Before I could pursue any more of my incessant questioning, Captain Klaas yelled an order from above me beside the wheelhouse; luckily I was familiar with the location of the line that he required hauling, and happy to be avoiding the dreaded ‘klaastrophobia’, I merrily heaved to.
With the damaged main lower topsail now gasketed to its yard we were still pushing up to nine knots. Speed demon Ruud (Europa’s First Mate) was pleased.
Later that morning during the long penumbra the able deckies repaired the broken sheet chain and reset the topsail; while the gale blew on around them. Impressive! And as the gale approached a storm, with gusts of more than 45 knots, we were pushing ten knots over ground. At one point we reach just over eleven! Speed Demon smiled; Captain Klaas decreed clip harnesses mandatory on deck.
That afternoon we had already prepared for storm-sailing with the sky, royal and top gallant sails furled, along with the main course. And a team had been formed to close, seal and place canvas covers over all the hatches and air vents on deck. The weather-proof bulkhead doors accessing the main deck were also shut and all access to the poop deck from crew quarters and the deckhouse was to be via the main galley corridor below deck through to the wheelhouse via the stairs near the library at aft.
As the long twilight continued, rogue waves continued to pummel the starboard beam. A few times the waves went straight into the deckhouse and over the sloop deck. The crew promptly placed the storm shutters over the starboard side deckhouse windows. We were feeling our expectations rise. Hold up in the deckhouse, someone reported what they could see through the misted window across the main deck awash to the helm. A couple of superpositioned waves peaked on the starboard quarter and came crashing over all the crew on the poop deck. Deckhand Dirk, about to take the wheel, was unclipped at the time as he manoeuvred himself into position at the helm. Before he could safely clip on somewhere, he was suddenly washed off his feet and carried by the departing waters toward the portside railings. A pointed example of why we wear the clip-on harnesses.
In the wee hours, as Wednesday slipped into Thursday, Rod and I found ourselves on lookout post together, standing clipped to safety ropes either side of the wheelhouse. Rod was on the windward side with the waves coming from the starboard quarter, pushing through like big black slow-moving freight trains. He was still yelping with disbelief as the crashing wave tops suddenly appeared in the corner of his eye; in the dark seascape the hulking wave forms melded into one huge ebony water colour and the foaming white tops would suddenly appear like flashing ghosts of the great white whale. Rod’s yelps alerted me. We glanced at each other, braced for the lurch to port and then again for the opposing lurch to starboard. We’d then glance at our colleagues at the helm, their faces tinted with the faint red glow of the compass light, rapidly spinning the wheel to compensate for the throw of the wave as the ship tore down its advancing slope. As the foaming water scurried from side to side on the mid-ship deck like oil on a hot skillet being tossed spitting and fuming from side to side, Rod and I turned back to each other, mouths agape waiting for our laughs to punch through the whine of lines, and when they never did we raised our thumbs up and turned back to our posts, eyes wide and glistening with excitement.
Later on a switch-around, I was on the poop deck with John from Canada. I turned and saw a huge wave crash over him. The wave continued on over onto the roof of the wheelhouse itself. Gasps were audible. As John recovered from his icy dousing, I watched as the water ran off the wheelhouse’s polished wooden roof through corner gutters and down over the foggy widows; inside Ruud was standing alert, hand on the joystick in case conditions got too rough forcing him to yell out “Hands off helm! I have the joystick” or something to that effect and infinitely more related to the seafaring lexicon.
No sooner had that passed than a larger wave hit the starboard beam at mid-ships and with the combination of its force and the gradient of the rising wave face, it sent the ship into a deep lurching heel that would have approached close to 30 degrees from the vertical. Standing transfixed on the poop deck, my gloved hands clasped the railings at the top of the stairs rising from the main deck as I was thrown to portside, and my face stared down to the boiling cauldron below me; and I heard Rod’s voice of raw passion shouting in my head: “It’s the face of God! It’s the face of God!”
The safety net that stands a good two metres above the main deck gunwales was awash with the ocean and I struggled to find a distinction between what was inside or outside of the ship. The coiled lines on the pin racks were awash like wholemeal spaghetti in a boiling saucepan of frothy salt-laden water; bunts, sheets and clew lines all became one. And the whole portside of the deck was quite simply a pool of swirling white water. Then slowly, with the gentle inertia of a lady of the sea, Bark Europa righted herself amidst the multitude of criss-crossing waves. Then, with her counter-heeling to the starboard, this pool-sized volume of water rushed like a guillotine across the dark deck boards to pour out the starboard scuppers, only to rush back in again.
It was at this time back in the deckhouse that the real fun and games were happening. My watch mates Rod and Sandy were feeling the comforting side of gravity, wedged as they happily were into the downside bench seats. Above them topside was Michelle from Paris, with the mere friction of the vinyl cushions keeping her in position, the energy potential just a broadside bash away from being realised. When Europa hit that 30-degree tilt, Michelle was forthrightly launched airborne across the deckhouse, pushing Sandy into Rod and Rod into the dark-stained wooden walls: a French-Canadian sandwich with Dutch trimmings and Southern Ocean lashings. Ouch!
The gale-storm passed during the following day (Friday) and progressively more sails were set. But as the winds dropped the seas maintained a strong southerly swell. And we continued to experience her icy dousing from time to time. I was on helm when deckhand Mark suddenly yelled, “Watch out!” I turned to glance at a rising pyramid of waves just off the starboard stern and I turned around in time for the wall of seawater to crash across my legs, back and head. Wow, what a rush. Captain Klaas emerged from the wheelhouse, long grey hairs flowing, to check on everybody: no man overboard we assured him.
Since then I’ve been reminding Rod that there are more manly ways to bruise his ribs on a sailing ship on the high Southern Seas. However, I don’t think he’s heard me yet. He’s still trying to remove the burnt image of the face of God from his salt-encrusted retinas. As for me, I’m wondering if it was indeed God or just Old Man Sea sending me more cold stories from lonely sea mounts below. We are, after all, sailing near the coldest ocean on Planet Earth.