But We Had a Darned Good Sail

But We had a Darned Good Sail

The story I tell is true.  As improbable as it seems, it really happened, more or less the way I describe (allowing for imperfect human recollection of details over the intervening forty-six years).

Humans really can die of seasickness. Not over a number of hours, perhaps, but over days.  Dehydration might be a major part of the equation.  Loss of blood may have been a contributor in this case, or a kind of septic poisoning from an ulcer.  Frankly, I never found out what the underlying cause of our friend's decline was.  Undeniably, he was dying. An ulcer was the best guess anyone offered.

In any case, the condition was real and threateningly lethal.  Not something anyone, including the wonderful people in the Coast Guard, was willing to take a chance on.  No one suggested that he would "just snap out of it on his own".  I offer this story to remind us how generous and caring, how foolishly heroic, humans can be.


It was blowing like stink. The boats in the little Marina bobbed maniacally, their masts swaying in no particular rhythm — a St. Vitus Day dance of wooden, plastic, and aluminium objects straining at their mooring lines, threatening to break free and dash themselves against the insubstantial breakwater before hurling themselves into the gale.

A gale.  A full gale.  A gale warning flag on the yacht club flag post.  No day to start an offshore four-day race in the Pacific Ocean.

The race committee had huddled and agreed to postpone the start a few hours to let better conditions "establish themselves".  The conditions were not cooperating.  Weekend sailors with fancy paying jobs were no more cooperative than the conditions.  They wanted the starting gun.

This was the Cobb Seamount Race, the brain-child of the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club.  A 565-mile round trip to an underwater volcano south-west of Portland, Oregon, and back, starting at Port Angeles, Washington, and ending at Neah Bay.  It was the last week of July.  Weather was projected to be "salubrious".  It should have been a pleasant weekend sail into the Pacific for five racing yachts.

Putting it off as long as we could (who wants to get seasick while still tied to the dock) we clambered aboard the Lucy Alice and stowed personal kit securely in our bunks, fighting to stay upright as the deck and cockpit heaved in the mad St. Vitus Day dance.

"It'll be better once we're underway," I heard a dockside skipper say.

"Sure it will, " I muttered sarcastically.

"He's right," said Bill.  "At least we will."

The Lucy Alice was Bill's thirty-three-foot Rhodes-designed fiberglass yawl, a two-masted rig with a "mizzen" sail behind the helmsman.  He'd raced her to Maui the year before and was preparing for another cross-Pacific race next year.  Just an easy cruise for Bill's new crew.

Today's venture into this unexpected madness of screaming wind, this cauldron of thrashing water, started out to be a test of navigation, of nerves, of teamwork, of rigging, of sails.  It would end up being a test of determination, endurance, and seamanship.  Not like a fourteen-day voyage locating the trade winds and coasting "downhill" to the Hawaiian Islands like the Victoria-Maui Race, but a three to four-day excursion along the "graveyard of ships," the Washington/ Oregon coast, to a spot in the ocean 100 feet above a submerged mountain southwest of Portland, 270 miles off shore.  And back again.

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