Clark September 21st, 2009
A Behemoth in the Night: Run over by one of man’s largest moving objects
Listening to the slap-slap of wavelets against the hull, my eyes were just starting to close when I began to hear a disconcerting but vaguely familiar hum. I lay ensconced in my bunk in the forward cabin, wrapped in nothing but a sweaty sheet, smelling the mildew on my pillow that has marked the homey smell of boats since I was a boy. Ian had just started the first watch of the night and his 21-year-old girlfriend Hilary lay reading a book in her bunk in the aft cabin. The three of us were sailing down the Brazilian coast on my 40-foot ketch Condesa. The wind was light, the weather was calm and clear, and the coffee was on. Just another night at sea.
“Hey Clark, get up here, fast.”
I was a little irritated because Ian tends to be overcautious, but I slipped out of my bunk and wrapped a beach towel around my naked body. I sprung up the companionway and saw Ian’s worried face in the greenish LCD glow of the cockpit gadgets. But Ian wasn’t looking at the depthsounder, the GPS, or the VHF; he was looking up at the new lights that were entering our world. Against a backdrop of lights from dozens of fishing boats and faraway lights on shore, Ian pointed to the two mast head lights and the red running light of what I knew to be a gigantic freighter on our starboard side.
“Oh shit, he’s close.”
“He’s been weaving all over the place. First he was taking our stern, now he’s turned to starboard again.”
I then knew the source of my hum. The configuration of the lights made the ship seem sure to cross our bow a hundred yards or so ahead—still too close for comfort–but it took me a few seconds to get a feel for the ship’s motion. After these few seconds I could see that yes, it was at the right angle to cross our bow but was turning to port again, towards us.
“Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit!”
We turned on our spreader lights, which light Condesa up like a Christmas tree.
We had turned down the volume on the VHF because the hundreds of Brazilian fishermen in the area were driving us crazy. It was a few days before the start of the World Cup and channel 16 was a cacophony of chants, singing, music from a commercial radio station, and confused chatter in Portuguese.
We turned up the volume and made a desperate call: “Large ship, large ship, this is the sailing vessel Condesa, off your port bow. Do you see us? Do you see us?” We heard only the continued blabber of Brazilian fishermen.
Ian and I tried to start the engine but panic had set in and we kept stumbling over each other, stuttering, and never even got the key into the ignition. Everything was set up for passage making—preventers tight, propeller shaft and wheel locked, windvane engaged–and there was too much claptrap to untangle before we could tack the boat under sail.
I looked up at the ship again and had a moment of clarity and horror: We were about to be run down and there was nothing we could do about it. Even if we did get the engine started, there was no way to make it across the ship’s bow in time, and no way to turn around. It was just moving too fast. It was so close now that the ships bridge was blocked out. All we could see was the black bow, like a storm cloud rolling over the sea. The hum I had heard reverberating through Condesa’s hull belowdecks was now audible in the open air and growing louder.
This hum was soon drowned out by the rhythmic churning of the bow wave, whose sound surrounded us. The terror of this moment will be etched into my brain for the rest of my life, a panic so gripping that it stole the breath from my lungs.
Imminent death is no picnic, but add to it the prospect of a violent death, one of crunching boats, drowning in swirling water and blackness, being dragged under hundreds of feet of rusty hull, and then chopped up by a thirty-foot propeller. And add the element of mass: There is something scarier about being run over by a bus than a Volkswagen, even though both will have the same result. The ship was the size of a city and its bow wave towered over our decks. It felt like a looming natural disaster, like an earthquake or a tsunami; it didn’t seem like human beings could be behind it. My mind took on two distinct processes: There was the utter terror and panic, of course—let’s call this the reptilian brain response to impending death–yet at the same time I said to myself, “Hmm, so this is how it all ends”—let’s call this the neo-cortex, circumspect response to impending death—and for a moment both thoughts were passing at the same time.
Ian and I screamed for Hilary, but she had the bad manners to be tied into her bunk with the lee cloth and was blissfully unaware of what was happening. She struggled to untie the lee cloth, but couldn’t free herself in time. We kept screaming for her, but the ship’s bow wave was almost upon us. We had only seconds before impact.
Ian yelled, “Should we jump?”
“G-g-get off the b-b-boat! Abandon ship!” I yelled back.
We screamed one last time, “Hilary!”
I took a flying leap over the stern pulpit just as the ship’s pressure wave lifted Condesa. Just like that I left my home of eight years. I left behind all the work I put into restoring her–the endless hours of varnishing, fiberglassing, rigging, mechanical work–everything I stand for, all the memories, my computer, my guitar, my photos, all my clothes, and most of my net worth. My life’s dream and my life itself were coming to a crashing halt without even enough time to say goodbye.
For a split second the fate of the stupid beach towel actually crossed my mind, but I let it slip away when I broke the water’s surface. The sea felt reassuringly warm and silenced all the noise of impending doom. I felt a moment’s temptation to languish in the warm dark womb and let fate take its course. Panic rushed back and I surfaced too quickly instead of taking a long glide like a good swimmer should.
Let me state for the record that I am not proud of what I did. This was an act of pure panic. Somewhere in my hypothalamus I calculated that I could clear the ship, and that I would be more use alive than dead to pull Ian and Hilary out of the wreckage, if they survived. I did a freestyle sprint at a speed only possible with that kind of adrenaline pumping through one’s veins, tumbled in the crashing bow wave, then sprinted again. Ian would have been right behind me, following my stupid lead, but because of Hilary missed his chance at being the second human in history to bodysurf a freighter’s bow wave.
Six feet separated me from the ship as I watched hundreds of feet of hull glide by me. I always thought the water next to a ship underway would be churning and rough, but the side of the ship glided through the water in eerie silence after the commotion of the bow wave. There were some open lower decks at the aft of the ship with lots of lights on, just the place where some crewmember might be smoking a cigarette, so I just about ripped my larynx out screaming. It didn’t seem possible that they had not seen Condesa, or that they weren’t stopping to rescue us. After it passed I tread water in the fizzing wake of the ship, bathed in the ship’s stern light with the smell of burnt bunker oil drifting around me. I could still hear the hum, more of a throbbing vibration in the water than an actual sound.
After my last futile scream for help I had the most pleasant surprise: There was my little Condesa, still afloat in the wake of the ship about two hundred yards away. She was sinking and her sails and rigging were in tatters, but she still looked more or less like the boat I remembered. Sure of her immediate foundering, I sprinted back. I yelled as I drew near and heard two shaky voices calling back.
Once onboard I found total chaos. I was dripping and naked and hell if I could find anything to wear in that madness. I heard a chorus of electric bilge pumps and bilge alarms, and the engine was running. Ian had started it at some point, but it was half submerged. Knee-deep water sloshed around the cabin soles and it looked like she was going down any second. Hilary, in her bra and underwear, stumbled around with her satellite phone in a plastic bag, which was about the only intelligent thinking to happen for the next few moments. Trying to avert her eyes from my nakedness, she handed me a wet blanket, which I tied around my waist as a cumbersome sarong.
We mostly turned in circles, dripping wet, and said ba bee ba bum ba bee ba bum, ship, we should, uh, ba bee ba bum, bilge, uh, water, uh, liferaft, uh ba bee ba bah ba bum. We watched the ship, sure it was turning around to help, only to see it maintain the same arc to port it had been making when it hit us, then sail away into the night. Did it ever see us? Did it know it had hit us, yet still sailed away?
The VHF radio! Yes, that’s the thing to do in times like these. I broadcast everything three times over in a really clear voice and bandied loaded words like MAYDAY. As I learned with my one other time calling for help on the radio, nobody ever seems to answer when you really need them. We could hear the same Brazilian fishermen singing and chattering away, but not any apologetic freighter captains enquiring as to our wellbeing.
Then we had another pleasant surprise: The boat was not sinking. The bilge pumps spat out most of the water and the new water entered at a slow enough pace that the pumps could keep up. Condesa had only been holed in one place. I asked, rhetorically, where all the water had come from. Hilary answered, “Oh, that all poured in when we were under water on our side.” Apparently the ship’s bow wave had engulfed Condesa, the impact had knocked her down, and all that water poured down the companionways.
Thanks to 1967 British insecurity with that new fangled boatbuilding material, fiberglass, Condesa bounced rather than broke. A lighter boat would have gone to the bottom.
We were so panicked and jittery that we couldn’t focus. We ran to the foredeck to secure the broken roller furler, did nothing, ran back inside to check for leaks, then heard the furler banging on the deck and ran back outside again to secure it. We surmised that the ship’s port anchor, hanging in its hawser, had snagged Condesa’s rigging as it passed. It tore away the roller-furler, forestay, genoa, and mainsail, and twisted the main mast about thirty degrees in its partners. It was as if a giant hand had reached down from the sky, crumpled the sails and rigging like a Styrofoam coffee cup, and left them dangling from the top of the mast. There was lots of rust, like piles of it, all over the rigging, decks, and the tatters of the sail.
Condesa had been mashed. The resiliency of the fiberglass hull is amazing in that it took such an impact and sprang back to more or less the same shape on the outside. Aside from the hole, some gouges, and a lot of red paint, the outside didn’t look that bad, considering. The same cannot be said for the interior. Wading through the remains of the water, splinters, broken glass, and spilled spices, I saw that the impact had ejected everything along the starboard side of the hull. Some bottles and jars were thrown with such violence that they exploded when they hit the port side. The main structural bulkhead at the forward companionway was now a wooden accordion. Drawers were stuck shut, cabinets were in splinters, the entire bench top in the galley was lifted and twisted. The refrigerator was cracked open with slabs of yellowed foam insulation sticking out at odd angles. The cabinet where we keep all the dishes, cups, and mugs was now full of plastic and ceramic shards. The companionway doors overlapped by an inch when I tried to close them. A broken bottle of balsamic vinegar gave the main salon its dominant new odor, and all of our belongings had settled in drifts in the corners.
We controlled our panic and secured all we could on deck and inside. I checked the chart, and spotted a likely bight in the coast about twelve miles away. The engine had been running all this time, but I had my doubts about the functionality of the power train. I gingerly put her into gear and started to creep forward. She was still a boat!
Maintaining a tenuous speed, we motored for three hours to get to our anchorage. We were silent as the salt dried on our bodies and we tried to make ourselves comfortable with a raincoat and some sheets, the only dry things we owned. We never made eye contact, and our only comments were brief exclamations upon discovering new damage and basic commands to keep the boat going.
Ian broke the silence. He was overcome with guilt and regret and acted like he was going to commit hari-kari: “I’m sorry! I’m sorry I smashed your boat!” We had a long, tearful embrace in the cockpit, during which I told him it wasn’t his fault, meant it, and still do. During two extended trips Ian has spent over a year cruising on Condesa and we have logged many thousands of sea miles side by side. He is great crew, a good sailor in his own right, a hard worker, and takes his duties seriously. He was certainly keeping a good lookout. He will always have to live with the fact that this disaster took place on his watch, and I will always have to live with the fact that I took a flying leap into the drink when my ship and crew were about to get pulverized.
Hilary massaged the bruise on the side of her head, broke a smile, and said, “I think we could all use a stiff drink.” Our dazed shock gave way to a feeling of glad-to-be-alive-it’s-only-money exuberance, assisted by the bizarre near-death brain chemicals that were still coursing through our brains. Here we were, the same crew that left South Africa three months before, getting ready for another night at anchor on our tough old boat.
I wish I had more wisdom to impart about this experience, but no matter what evasive action you take, a vessel on an erratic course going four or five times your speed can always run you down. Radio communication would be the obvious preventative measure, but when you’ve got three hundred Brazilian fishermen arguing about soccer…
Jumping overboard is a very bad idea, and I would resist the obvious temptation of being somewhere other than a boat that is about to get crushed. Being outside is a good idea: If your boat goes down you don’t want to be inside, at least not tied into a lee cloth.
My most important piece of advice is this: Plan to be an idiot. I always considered myself a pretty cool customer under fire, but when life and vessel were on the line I found myself functioning at about 10% of mental and physical capacities. It has made me reevaluate some of my emergency procedures onboard because they are too complicated for a rattled mind. For example, after the accident I did not try the SSB radio, because the idea of turning it on, turning on the antenna, tuning it in, finding the emergency frequencies on a piece of paper, then dialing them in and trying to make contact was just too complicated and required too much dexterity. In these situations the basic human behaviors are fight, flight, and scream.
While the damage is extensive and disheartening, Condesa is still my home. Like most circumnavigators these days, I don’t have insurance, and I will probably be spending the better part of the rest of the year in a boatyard. Someday Condesa will round Cape Horn and return to California, a bit the worse for wear, to complete her circumnavigation.
Later identification of the ship showed it to be one of the world’s giants, a container ship measuring 798 feet, with a cruising speed of over twenty knots. Twenty years ago this would have been the largest container ship in the world, but now it is one of a growing family of megaships that carry the world’s goods to market. After some gentlemanly negotiation, the shipping company agreed to pay for Condesa’s repairs. Our VHF antenna was destroyed on impact, explaining why our distress calls went unanswered.