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KNOCKDOWN!

© 1984 Tor Pinney - All Rights Reserved

Single-handing Autant was a new experience for me. My crew had flown home unexpectedly from the Bahamian port of Marsh Harbor and I was left alone with my vintage, gaff-rigged ketch to sail back to Florida by myself. It was a challenge to which I looked forward. But little did I suspect just how challenging it would turn out to be; that it would bring me to the very brink of disaster.

Autant was a classic sailboat. Designed by William Hand and built in 1927 of double diagonal strip planking, her hull was over 2" thick and very strong. Her stout gaff main and mizzen and self-tending jib allowed for fairly easy handling by a lone sailor. This was just as well, because Autant had no engine in her. She also had no electrical system, no plumbing, no winches, nor other modern conveniences. She was all kerosene lamps, block-n-tackle, and muscle. A simple sailboat with character, she measured 36' on deck; about 42' overall.

My introduction to single-handing went smoothly enough. I sailed solo through the Abacos, the Bahamian "out islands", and then across the Little Bahamas Bank to West End, Grand Bahama. Next, I was to set out for the Bimini Islands, 60-odd miles to the south. My course would take me along the eastern edge of the notorious Gulf Stream, which attains its greatest velocity between the Western Bahamas and the coast of Southeast Florida. It's a bad place to get into trouble.

Autant 2

Autant had no VHF radio, so I couldn't receive the NOAA Weather Radio broadcast that Sunday afternoon of my departure. The transistor radio I did have wasn't much help. There were Sunday sermons, football games, some rousing gospel music and an opera. But no one was giving a comprehensive weather forecast, which was what I really wanted to hear.

Heedless of the barometer, which had dipped slightly, I set sail around sunset to make an overnight passage to Bimini. The plan was to arrive with daylight in the morning if the breeze held fair, or in the afternoon if it veered. For the time being, it was blowing a gentle 8 to 10 knots from the southeast. Autant, beating slowly south, steered herself to windward with the sails trimmed and the helm left free amidships.

By nightfall the sky was clouding over. Then a few moderate rain squalls blew by. Each lasted only 5 minutes or so. The breeze would pick up to around 15 or 20 knots and Autant, under her full working sail, would heel over, smile, and gallop forward, happy for the wind and the rain and the open sea. Then, as the blow passed, she'd settle back into her steady gait in the light air.

The night sky disappeared behind dense cloud cover. There was a full moon up there somewhere, but no hint of it penetrated the low overcast. It was very, very dark. Looking aft, I couldn't quite see the dinghy towing astern on a long painter.

We were around 25 miles southwest of Grand Bahama, 35 miles north of Bimini as midnight approached. Crossing the western mouth of busy Northwest Providence Channel, I kept a sharp lookout for shipping. So far I had seen none. I decided to duck below to whip up a sandwich and a cup of coffee.

Belowdecks, things were in order. Provisions, clothing, books, gear - all were in their places and secured. If Autantís interior was Spartan, at least it was ship-shape. Soon I had water boiling on the sea-swing stove and a hearty sandwich made on fresh bread baked the day before in harbor. Kerosene lamps swung easily on their gimbals. It was a warm, comfortable scene. It was home, and I was at peace in my little world.

But something was wrong. I felt it. Sailors learn to listen to their instinct, their "sixth sense", and mine was warning me now. Danger! Danger! I climbed to the cockpit and stood there - listening in the silence, staring into the inky darkness, sniffing the wind for the scent of approaching rain. All my senses strained. I knew something was wrong. (A line squall coming? A ship?) The wind was very light from the southeast; the night was pitch black. Only the sounds that a sailing boat makes underway: the faint splashing of the bow wave; the creaking of the spars. Nothing. (But something!) The wind died.

Then, instantly, my world went berserk!

It came over the starboard quarter from the northwest, a wind shift so sudden, so violent that it exploded. One moment the breeze was southeast 4 knots; the next instant it shifted 180-degrees to northwest 80 knots, or 90, or 100. There was no way to judge that initial gust.

All sails were up. They had been nearly limp, slatting in the doldrums. Instantly they backed, stiffened, and - WHAM! - slammed across the boat as they jibed with the shocking blast. Then - BAM! - the whole boat crashed sideways into the sea. Autant was flat on her side, masts in the water. KNOCKDOWN!

The wind shrieked in my ears. Cockpit cushions whirled around me and flew away into the darkness. I found myself standing upright on the cockpit side combing, watching the sea boil up around my feet.

In the corner of my eye there was the companionway hatch, wide open. Next the ocean would pour in. The cabin would fill. Autant would sink...and I with her! That was one of the most intense moments of my life. I felt certain that I was about to die. The boat was down, the dinghy somewhere far astern. No life raft, no radio, no time. The screaming wind became a drone, a mantra. Time slowed. There I stood, stupidly, with a sandwich and a cup of coffee in my hands, sideways in the cockpit. This was the last moment of my life. The moment it all ends.

I remember the voice. It was my own voice, but way down deep inside me, talking to me quietly. My adrenaline was flowing, my heart pumping hard and loud - THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! - But the voice persisted - quiet, calm, distant yet very near: "Ah, so this is how it happens. This is how I die." You always wonder how you're actually going to die. Here it was, my time; my turn.

The moment stretched like elastic. I was entranced - fascinated. Then another message shoved its way harshly into my dazed consciousness: "Hey, do something! Get that mainsail down! Now!!"

That snapped my body into action. With the boat on her side, I crawled forward along the coach house to the main mast and released the throat and peak halyards. Then I straddled the mast and began dragging the mainsail in. It was slow, hard work pulling that canvas and gaff through the water.

While I labored at my task, Autant was fighting her own battle. Gradually, deliberately she worked her way around to face the howling wind. Handing the main reduced the force that pinned her and she slowly started to rise. With a final, monumental effort she wrested herself free of the ocean's death-grip, shrugged off a ton of seawater, and vaulted to her feet. The self-tending jib and mizzen were still set. Water spilled out of them and they caught the wind. As I struggled to lash the thrashing mainsail, my boat began to make way through the maelstrom, taking off like a wild stallion on a reach across the furious Nor'wester.

The struggle wasn't over, but I knew then that we had won. The grim reaper would go home empty handed tonight.

Meanwhile, the logical part of my brain had already figured out exactly what was happening. This was the leading edge of a Norther, a cold front sweeping down from the Canadian Arctic. Without a weather broadcast to warn me, it had caught me completely by surprise. No mysterious force from the Bermuda Triangle, it was a normal winter weather pattern, predictable and avoidable - if you have a weather report before sailing. However, this one was uncommonly violent and powerful, especially for mid-autumn so far south.

The reason the Gulf Stream has such a nasty reputation in this area is because of the way it reacts to a northerly wind. All that water is moving northward with the current at 3 or 4 knots. When it is opposed by a wind moving southward, against it, the sea surface quickly develops an unusually steep, short sea. Not short as opposed to tall, but shortly spaced so that a boat hasn't time to ride through the trough before the next sea is there swallowing the bow. In a very strong Norther it can become incredibly rough with huge, breaking seas. It's said it can break a freighter in half! Just in the few minutes it took to get Autant sailing after her knockdown, the sea was already becoming impressive.

This was a very fast moving front. By the time I had gotten the boat under control, running southward, the wind was already veering slightly more to the north. It was a cold wind and I began to shiver, though that may have been due as much to the danger just past as to the chill. It occurred to me that the only reason Autant had not filled with water and sunk was because the open companionway happened to be offset to starboard, and she had been knocked down onto her port side. The sea only rose half way up the cabin trunk as the boat lay with her masts in the water. Though some water found its way below, the sea never quite reached the open entrance to the cabin.

But almost. If that hatch had been built to port, or even amidships...I shuddered.

The wind abated very gradually as it veered - 60 knots, then 50 knots, 45, 35. It swung east of north. Around 0200 hrs. the clouds parted as the front passed. The full moon came out then, dispelling the absolute darkness. For the first time I could see how the waves had really gotten up. They were running only about 15 to 18 feet, but close and very steep. Nearly every wave was breaking. How glad I was that we were only on the Gulf Stream's edge! As Autant rose to the top of an overtaking sea, I could see for miles across a wild scene of silver-black ocean and foaming white crests surging southward beneath a brilliant moon and stars. It seemed charged with energy. The boat flew forward with a bone in her teeth, surfing on the faces of the waves; broad reaching faster than she ever had sailed before. It was so exhilarating; I was so high just to be alive, that I yelled out loud, "Man, this is sailing!"

No sooner had the wind whipped away my words than I sensed and then heard the rogue wave. Just as I turned to look over my shoulder, it was there towering over the port quarter, rumbling like thunder, poised to attack. The wave was maybe 8 or 10 feet higher than all the others and it seemed to be travelling diagonally across them. It was breaking.

There was nothing I could do. I grabbed hold of the wheel with both hands and held on, mumbling an appropriate expletive under my breath. The giant sea seemed to hang there for a moment longer. Then it tumbled over the transom and smashed into the cockpit. This time I was secured with a safety harness, and the companionway was closed. But the sea took its toll: the last cockpit cushion, my good 6-volt spotlight, a coil of line and my fresh cup of coffee were all instantly carried away, washed over the lee rail and into the Gulf Stream.

Autant took it almost in stride. The tons of water crashed down onto her deck and coach house, filling the cockpit instantly to the brim. The old boat just sort of leaned over, dipped her rail, and groaned like a fighter who has had their wind knocked out. Then she lunged back onto her feet and sailed on, water streaming from her scuppers. Astern, the dinghy was still with us, skipping over the crests and skidding down the slopes. It wasn't long after dawn that we limped up to the Bimini harbor entrance. I just wanted to get anchored and go to sleep. But the wind and the tide were hard against us, and I didn't have the energy to short tack up the long, narrow channel.

So we sailed around to the southern, lee side of South Bimini Island, over the bank's white sand bottom that shone through water as clear as the air. Protected from the Norther, it looked like home to me. I pushed the anchor overboard, dropped the sails, and went below. How it had changed! Everything - food, books, broken jars, clothing, paper, tools, cushions - everything was down on the cabin sole, sloshing around in a sea water soup. Autant had been knocked down to port, then when she was pooped, knocked nearly down to starboard. All that stuff that I thought so well secured, that had never come loose before, had come adrift. But the ketch Autant, that old wooden gaffer, with 50 years of ocean sailing under her keel, was unscathed. Not one fitting broke, nor a single plank budged. No stress crack, no leak. Nothing. As I collapsed onto a soggy bunk and fell instantly asleep for 12 hours, I thought to myself what a damned lucky sailor I was to have a boat like this.

EPILOGUE: A month later in Miami, I chanced to meet Captain LeCain of the 45' ketch, Mariah. With a crew of four, he had sailed his sturdy, new, custom built, North Sea type double ender on her maiden voyage from Maine to Florida. It turned out that on the first of November they also had been sailing south along the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream, just 100 miles north of me. Mariah was hit by the same cold front. She, too, was carrying full sail. She, too, was knocked down by the initial blast of wind. No one was injured, but the boat suffered some damage: the main boom snapped, the jib clew blew out, and several seams opened up between planks. Fortunately for them, Mariah shared one ostensibly minor feature with Autant. Both boats have companionways offset to starboard.

LeCain's story confirmed to me that I had not exaggerated the violent impact of that Nor'wester in my own mind. We had both made the mistake of not finding a weather broadcast which might have forewarned us of the approaching front. We had both sailed with our companionways open. Worst of all, we had both carried full sail on a dark night in obviously unsettled weather. Since then I've adopted a very conservative attitude about how much canvas I have up, especially at night. I sail by a simple rule that I share with any who will heed it: "Reef Early!"

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Many thanks to Tor for allowing us to reproduce this story here. Tor Pinney's Home Page