The Imperfect Storm




                                      THE IMPERFECT STORM

 

                       (Imperfect only in that it  failed to kill us all)

 

 

                           “The Western Wave Was All A-flame,

                             The Day Was Well Nigh Done!”

                             Almost Upon The Western Wave

                             Rested The Broad Bright Sun.”

 

From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner…Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 

Sunrise, Sunset, both happen imperceptibly at sea, and cause wonderment…or worse

 

 

It is a perfect Fall day in Jeddah Saudi Arabia , in 1979

 

I am 42 years old.

 

The sun is shining, a very gentle breeze is off and on my face as I row supplies out to my boat.

 

Better weather than this never happens in Jeddah.

 

Further,

 

I have actually made it out of town without being waylaid by anyone bloody or acutely ill,  and many days of dreamy planning, and detailed discussion  are about to come to fruition..

 

In this pre cellphone, pre pager era, arriving at the boat, means I am free for the predictable future, and my time is my own until I return.

 

Whatever horror shows, accidents, strokes of misfortune, illnesses, may have occurred in this dangerous place will have to await my return.

 

A group of longtime dive buddies and friends, three couples and a teenage son, the Lundys, the Janouseks, the Brownes, and I have been planning an overnite expedition for weeks, anxiously listening to radio weather predictions, talking to the airline weather guys, waiting to see if the fates will smile.

 

We want to sail far South to revisit a reef we have only been to once, full of life, and with a small shipwreck on it.

 

We are dead eager, and have talked of nothing else, since hatching this plan.

Today is the day, and has dawned propitiously, cloudless, nearly windless, promising smooth sailing , clear water.. ideal conditions for what we plan to do.

 

Lady Luck is smiling …on us.

 

We chug  out of Jeddah Port in mid afternoon, supplies and gear stowed, looking forward to good diving, and no foreseeable  problems, on a sea so smooth that it appears  oily, glassy, slick.

 

We are bound for the distant reef, planning to sleep overnite on the boat and spend the next whole morning and early afternoon diving and picnicking, returning  late the  following afternoon.

 

An adventure has begun, but far far far greater than we have planned.

 

We will be the last to know of it, and will need every bit of luck and skill we can muster to survive this journey, but I get ahead of myself.

 

We have no idea what is happening hundreds of miles North and West of us, where a major weather system is beginning to build up high winds.

 

There are no computer assisted weather guides available to the small boat owner in Saudi Arabia, at the time.

 

We are innocently optimistic, sailing out onto a sea as smooth as a bathtub, and as threatening.

 

When first I  came to Saudi Arabia, I discovered the freedom and the ecstasy of Red Sea diving, immortalized for every one of my generation by Jacques Cousteau, whose early and most dramatic films were all made in the Red Sea.

 

The Red Sea is also justly famous throughout history for tempest and shipwreck.

Every reef we have ever dived has at least one wreck on it.

 

It is not a gentle or forgiving ocean, and this is a particularly deadly portion, historically.

 

Jeddah is an historic destination port for trade or Holy Pilgimage.

 

The reefs leading to and from Jeddah are covered in recent and historic wrecks, lost at sea in uncharted storms dating as far back as history is written There are new wrecks atop old, if one looks carefully enough. These reefs are the real time version of the fictional reef in the book/movie, “The Deep” where a recent wreck lay atop a treasure wreck.

 

The month before some diver friends found a Ming Dynasty wreck full of period china lying in 50 feet of water, so overgrown with coral that they nearly missed it. They can retire on the sale of the artifacts, if they can smuggle them home.

 

We motor out of Jeddah Port, past the series of barrier reefs that guard the inner harbor from the open sea, and veer southward, past the

Famous Mismara reef, which has a huge  shipwrecked freighter that ran up on it during some unremembered storm, long ago.

 

This looming wreck is a primary landmark, visible for miles in any direction.

 

I have used it as a waypoint since the boat arrived and these voyages began

 

We sail on, optimistic, idyllic weather, sturdy boat, good friends, nothing to mar the day, not a speck of apprehension.

 

There are Old Sea Captains, and Bold Sea Captains, but no Old, Bold, Sea Captains, according to the seaman’s code.

 

So, long ago, when I first contemplated boat ownership, I have planned for a worst case scenario, and bought the best I could find, a purpose built dive boat, balsa core fiberglass, unsinkable., built by a New Hampshire Boatbuilder, Bruno And Stillman.

 

With the same uncompromising point of view, I have ordered the boat powered by a 3208 Caterpillar Marine V-8 Diesel 225 horsepower drivetrain, expensive and bulletproof.

 

It is my conviction that the sine qua non in boats are sturdy and reliable.

 

I have paid for these ratings without ever expecting to require them

 

Without any clear indication that I will ever need this kind of unsinkability, or ever need to run through anything requiring this kind of uncompromising , motor through hell and high water capacity, I have ordered the very best.

 

Steaming out of Jeddah Port, I  am on the 22 foot tall “tuna” tower conning the boat out of the Port of Jeddah on  this gentle and sunny  afternoon.

The tower is there to provide visibility, in waters where reefs and shallows appear unannounced, and quite lethally.

 

The tower has already saved me from going aground on several previous dive trips.

 

At the Mismara Reef, we turn South and head off into the less known, first, then the unknown, as the minutes tick on by.

 

The Red Sea may or may not  have separated, for Moses.

It is theorized that a Cyclone may have pushed a storm surge away from the Northern end of the Red Sea, allowing Moses and his group to walk across the seabed in the interim before the waters came crashing back, drowning the Pharaoh’s Armies

 

Moses aside, The Red Sea has swallowed everybody else who planned poorly or simply had bad luck.

 

It is my permanent intention to survive these Red Sea adventures, hence the best boat that money could buy.

 

Reliability and seaworthiness are everything.

 

Compromise can kill you.

 

Meantime, this carefully selected and purpose built  boat is my escape vehicle.

 

We have sailed on it often and uneventfully, never requiring extreme or extraordinary performance from it.

 

The reef we seek is unnamed, untouched, unvisited by the other local divers, just far enough South so as to preclude an easy Daytrip.

This reef  is teeming with fish for the fish hunters, a shipwreck on it for the explorers.

 

We found this reef on an exploratory cruise a month before.

 

We are dead eager to return to it, and have planned an overnite trip to this end.

 

At first, I rejoice in the complete calm through which we motor.

 

There are no swells at all, and we are able to cruise at nearly top speed.

 

There is a catch, though, navigation for us is line of sight, literally reef group to reef group, navigating by looking for breaking waves, indicating an underlying reef.

 

I have done this trip South a dozen times, never as far as we plan to sail in one direct voyage, but am familiar with the reefs and their surf patterns.

 

On each of those trips there was a swell running and the reefs were easily identified.

 

No swells means no surf on shallow reefs,

which has led a large number of sailors to unexpected disaster,

in a Sea renowned for reefs which thrust up from the abyss,

surrounded by hundreds of fathoms of bottomless ocean.

 

For us, it means near complete disorientation, progressing as the day diminishes.

 

I am the Captain, and I have no landmarks, no waypoints to check off as we motor, leaving me ever more paranoid, as I try to navigate South,

with no familiar checkpoints to tick off, no sense of where we are.

 

I am on dead reckoning, using the compass and the clock as the only tools I can trust.

 

The day ticks on, beautiful,

perfect,

scary as hell

 

It is not just storm which has produced so many shipwrecks, there is also total or near total absence of wind and wave, leading to collision with an unannounced but fatal obstacle, a submerged sharp reef.

 

If we don’t find our target  reef soon,

we are doomed to cruise at night in a sea full of invisible reefs.

 

And full of huge sharks, conditioned by centuries of thrown overboard sick livestock to come and feed at the sound of struggle in the water

 

Finally,

as the great orange ball,

that is the soon to set sun,

nears the ocean’s edge,

“Almost upon the western wave”,

“Rested the broad bright sun”,

exactly in the poem,

no different, our sun, on the horizon,

Preparing to vanish, seconds only of daylight,  left to us,

 

I decide I have erred in my reckoning,

And turn East and North, heading back towards land.

 

This is a very risky choice,

for if I am wrong I am steering into the shallows.

 

As the world goes dark.

 

You will have some inkling 20 odd years later, that the guess was accurate, or you would not be reading this.

 

Sunset on the Red Sea is confusing, almost hallucinatory…

 

One minute the sun is a great orange ball, hanging above the edge of the horizon, on fire, at the edge of the earth

 

You feel that you have plenty of time,  … before nightfall…

 

Time in which to maneuver, time in which to prevail, time in which to find success.

 

In fact, it is all illusion, and time, your time, necessary to your very survival, has been consumed, is gone.

 

Blink, and the sun has gone, and the daylight with it.

 

It is a very dangerous time, giving the unwary a sense of time left,

when time has, in fact, run out.

 

So it is with us, …..but fortune smiles one more time…..

 

Just as the Sun dropped, like a burning stone, into the sea, and the light began to fail rapidly, we came up on the lee side of the reef I sought,

tossed an anchor onto the reef, moored the boat.

 

We tossed another anchor off the stern of the boat,

to keep the boat from drifting onto the reef, should the wind shift,

and breathed huge and heartfelt sighs of relief.

 

And darkness fell upon us..

 

The drinkers on board celebrated with Gin and Tonic.

 

I celebrated by touching myself to be certain I am still alive, that the day is well done, and all aboard are safe.

 

I am quite overwhelmed.

 

This was, until moments ago, very risky business.

 

The others do not know how risky, how close to disaster, how scary,

for I have been navigating the boat from a 20 foot tower,

keeping my own counsel,

far above them all, and out of earshot,

progressively more terrified.

 

I have grown ever less confident with every movement of the hands on my watch, responsible for them all, thinking us all lost.

 

Aside from myself, there are the three couples aboard, all old friends, experienced divers, but not experienced seamen, the women competent  licensed divers, but not seamen.

 

No navigators, nor boat owner/operators,

no experienced sailors are amongst them,

only friends, who have trusted me...

 

A different decision taken,

A different course steered,

And we were lost at sea, in dark of night

pawns in the hands of luck,

worse  still, motoring blind, in the dark,

in a sea full of coral heads, reefs and sharks.

 

I am quite blessed,

looking down on these innocent friends,

celebrating below.

 

Finally two of the wives climb the tower and bring me a drink,

inviting me down to the feast below.

We talk about the morning’s plans.

 

Two or three of the men do a night dive, capturing some Rock Lobsters.

 

The rest of us go to bed early.

 

Morning will come along, soon, and we are awaiting the adventure we have anticipated for so long,

 

During the night I am awakened by  shifting breezes and the beginnings of a ground swell, which rocks the boat at its mooring.

 

We are up at the first light.

 

It is early morning, but there is a steady wind blowing and 2 foot chop is breaking on the seaward side of the reef we are moored to.

 

Still invisible to us,

somewhere to the North,

a large front has formed,

is growing geometrically,

is spawning winds and swells,

is ever enlarging,

is now beginning to arrive at our reef,

sending messengers,

speaking softly, still, in unknown tongues,

giving unanticipated warnings,

 

Harbingers,  danger signals, had we a different mindset,

But still unalarming to us at this stage.

 

Unknown to us,

the Front licking its chops in the North is huge,

and will develop into a storm of epic proportions.

 

We are spared that knowledge, until later.

 

We continue with our dive plans,

and everyone goes off the stern of the boat,

the spearfishermen in one group,

the explorers in another.

 

We plan to return to the boat by 10 AM to reassess the day,

 

It is a simple plan, once the early dives are done,  the decision, stay or go,  to be made immediately thereafter,

depending on the progress of the weather,

which is darkening, the wind picking up, even as we speak..

 

We depart for the underwater world,

the one we have come so far to enjoy.

 

By the time I have been underwater for 45 minutes there is a strong and noticeable current running along the reef,

sweeping me with it.

 

This current was not running at dive onset,

and gives me pause, serious pause.

 

It is not yet 8 AM

 

I surface, look around me.

 

There are large rollers breaking on the outside of the reef,

in 6 to 8 foot waves where there had been only chop an hour before .

 

Whatever and wherever the Frontal system is to our North,

it is building, building, licking at the South as it grows in the North 

 

Waves are building, huge waves.

 

Winds of cyclonic speeds must be blowing, out of our range, but blowing all the same.

 

Meteorologists will tell you that wave height is directly proportional to the wind speed that produced the original swell.

 

 According to modern wind/wave theory, a    wind of 100 miles per hour will produce a wave of fifty feet in height, given enough fetch to do its work.

One hundred twenty mile an hour wind velocity equals 60 foot wave and so on…

 

The Red Sea is long and relatively narrow, producing a wind tunnel effect, with enough fetch to create huge waves, given the wind speeds necessary.

 

We are far from home and a safe Port.

 

By the time I arrive back at the boat it is sawing at the mooring ropes rising and falling in a swell that threatens to pull the anchors loose.

 

The more timid have already had troubles in the currents and swell

 

They have already returned to the boat.

 

I dump my gear aboard the boat,

keeping only fins and mask and snorkel,

and swim over the reef in breaking waves to gather up the two stragglers, signaling them to come to the boat,

 

NOW !

 

We are not a moment too soon.

 

By the time we have pulled the anchors, stowed the gear,

And motored around the leeward corner of the reef,

huge ground swells are running,

much higher than the 22 foot tower on the boat.

The boat begins to rock and sway, even at low throttle settings, and is totally impossible to con from atop the tower which is moving in vertiginous arcs.

 

I climb down to the downstairs control center.

There is a second set of controls, inside the cabin, behind the windshield,

 

I take these controls, and a long day begins for real and true.

 

Only yesterday,

we  steamed South at cruising speed,

on a mirrored sea,

worried that we could see no landmarks as a result of the calm.

 

Now we are pitched and thrown about before we have even cleared the shelter of the reef.

 

Huge waves are breaking on this reef we are leaving, and steaming across the top in overhead breaking surf.

 

Identifying  landmark/waymark reefs on the way home, should we ever get close to home, will be the least of our problems .

 

Once clear of the waterbreak effect of the sheltering reef,

we begin to pitch and yaw as large swells loom in front of us.

 

There is only one technique in a small boat motoring into large waves;

 

like mating with a porcupine, you must be very very carefull .

 

Too rapidly motored up, you crash through the crest and either broach sideways, and tumble, or,

You  drive directly into the base of the following wave, and are swamped if not sunk forthwith..

 

Too slowly motored up and the top of the wave may break on you, pitching you backwards and rolling you.

 

Neither option is consistent with a long and happy life.

 

 No two waves are the same.

 

Rogue waves, half again the size of the usual, occur in a randomly random pattern.

 

The regular waves are higher than the boat is long.

The biggest waves appear to be twice the boat’s length when looking at the crest from the trough.

 

The top 10 feet or so of the biggest waves are unstable and may break on you as you approach from under the lip.

 

I have never captained in anything like this and the others aboard are less experienced than I.

 

Early in the first half hour of this trip I underestimated a breaking wave and we have lost the sliding portion of the windshield and have wind and spray shrieking into the cockpit with us.

 

Spume is blowing through the jury rigged repair done with the pieces of the windshield.

 

Everyone but I and two of the guys are huddled belowdecks, shaking and pitching with the boat gyrations, a couple badly seasick, everyone subdued and silent.

 

Unknown to me, because I am operating a boat in a howling tempest, the boat has slowly become a boat full of close friends, who feel doomed, who are no longer counting themselves alive by day’s end.

 

They have been talking about the odds on survival in this storm and in these waves in a small boat.

 

 They have concluded that if the boat sinks or swamps, as they believe to be most likely, they will all drown, except for me.

 

They figure that I am so stubborn that I will swim ashore, even if it takes days.

 

They are the dead, still walking, but dead, as they see it.

 

Nothing that any of us can see is optimistic.

 

The waves grow bigger.

 

The winds grow stronger, and I am running at nearly full throttle most of the time, up wave, throttle off, down wave, throttle on, in an endless succession.

 

Throttle on,   throttle off, wait for the wave to show its plans, resist the crash and the attempt to swamp/spin/sink us , motor on, and on, and on……

We are not making discernible progress it seems, for a very long time, because I am so focused on what is near and likely to kill us that I can’t look further out for the return waypoints that we must reach if we are not to eventually run out of fuel and perish.

 

Hours come and go.

We pulled anchor at about 8 AM this morning, it is now 2 PM and we are at least half way through our fuel supply.

 

We could run out of fuel, and in a few seconds more be swimming in these mountainous waves.

 

If we are really just treading water, not progressing, we will certainly run out of fuel.

 

There is no question about it

 

There is ebb and flow to even the worst storms, and this one is no exception..

 

Sometime about 2 PM I motor up the front of a wave to find a much smaller wave following and an opportunity to look ahead  for any landmark or indicator of where we are

 

From the top of our  tall wave, just before beginning the roller coaster to the trough, and because the following wave is smaller, less fearsome, I  have time to look further ahead, and I see breaking waves far ahead and to Starboard, about where the southernmost of the waystation reefs would be, had we made any progress.

 

I am afraid to say anything for fear I am wrong.

 

It will be no service to create hope amongst the crouching friends below, only to quench it later.

 

We have been underway nearly 6 hours, to regain about the distance we traveled in the last hour and a half of yesterday’s calm sea voyage.

 

If correct, in my dead reckoning, we are just about half way home, and now the question is can we get back to Port at all, and if yes, can we get back before sunset, arriving with enough daylight to negotiate the Guardian reefs that litter the Harbor mouth and which have eaten hundreds of Pilgrim ships over the centuries .

 

I keep on motoring, upping the speed as much as I can without driving under breaking waves.

Sure enough in another lull, about one half hour later, the waystation reefs with their distinctive surf pattern are directly to Starboard, and I can see huge waves breaking over the shipwreck far ahead on the Mismara reef.

 

We might make it home……..

 

I call down to the  belowdeck group and say that I can see the Mismara reef.

 

A thin cheer issues, one or two stagger up, take a look and return to the relative dryness of the cabin.

 

About 45 more minutes of up and down, and we are even with the Mismara reef, which lies almost directly due West of and about a 20 minute boattrip from the entrance to the Port of Jeddah, on a normal nontempest day.

 

I have navigated outside of it so as to miss the numerous small reefs that lie in its vicinity, and continue to steam north.

 

 

There is a problem that I have been trying to ignore until it became critical.

 

The storm we are enduring is blowing essentially North to South, and we are motoring due North, into the teeth of it.

 

To get safely into Port, I am going to have to turn 90 degrees and motor East, first across open ocean, then through the barrier reefs, all of the foregoing at 90 degrees to huge breaking waves.

 

That will likely be a fatal maneuver, since I will be lying beamwise in the paths of huge breaking waves, as I try to sneak  into the harbor without getting rolled over and all aboard, drown

 

So close.

So far away.

 

Nothing like a fatal dilemma to sharpen the mind..

 

“Will a boat behave as a surfboard might?”

 

I reason that if I motor further North, wait for one of the occasional lulls, spin the boat around  a full 180 degrees, on its axis, or very close to, and if I waste no time in coming about, put the throttle to full, essentially making a huge surfboard of the boat, I will be able to slide, to surf, to  traverse the wave front, and exit laterally as I arrive at the mouth of the Port of Jeddah.

 

I have never contemplated nor attempted such a maneuver in a 35 foot,  6 ton boat.

I have never read of anyone trying or even thinking about same, and I don’t dare discuss this new plan with the others, for fear of instilling panic.

 

If I am wrong, and the boat won’t/can’t do this, the result is simple..

 

We are dead, ……  within sight of salvation

 

The following wave, assuming I succeed in coming about 180 degrees in the first place, will be huge, taller than we are and, will try to devour us as it overtakes us.

 

I don’t  know if this  boat will, in fact, come up on plane, and surf.

 

The Bruno and Stillman is a displacement hull, not designed to plane.

 

I am totally on my own as I try to figure out the odds and the physics, which will either save us all, or snatch defeat and probable drowning for us all, in sight of home, but not there

 

If I can do all this in a few seconds, survive all the physics involved, and have guessed well,  

 

I will be able to surf this 35 foot boat right to the point between the two outer barrier reefs.

 

 The boat isn’t going to like this.

 

But, if I can accomplish the 180 successfully, the critical  first maneuver, and still be alive,…

 

And If the boat will plane, can be made to surf,  and, if  I can get off the following wave as I arrive at the mouth of the barrier reefs… then,

 

I will be into relative shelter, amongst half size waves, compared to the giants I am now battling…

Get through those, and past the second set of barrier reefs, and I will be into Jeddah Port, and 8 or 10 foot ground swell, a picnic compared to what I am negotiating now.

 

I don’t dare tell anyone aboard my plan.

 

I have no plan “B”.

 

It is, after all, only life and death, all in the day’s work

 

This is a do it or else, Gonads in the breeze attempt, and it will succeed or fail , whichever, as much on a luck factor as a skill factor,

 

I have never attempted any such a maneuver, or anything remotely similar, in this or any other boat, and I am the most experienced skipper on this boat.

 

I have never spoken with anyone, before or after, who attempted to surf a lobster boat in a following sea  several times the boat size.

 

There is really no other person to consult, no other less risky or more usual choice that I can see, and no time to dither.

The clock of the day is running out…

 

Sunset is less than 2 hours away.

 

“Suck It Up” I think silently, unable to share any of this decisionmaking with anyone else aboard.

 

No other option presents, no matter how much I wish it..

 

I steam about another 20 minutes North, pick a relatively small following wave, motor partway up the face, spin the wheel, push the throttle forward, and spin the boat on its axis.

 

Immediately the boat tries to roll on its long axis, as it passes broadside to the oncoming wave.

 

Hanging on to the wheel,  I complete the maneuver, successfully, but I hear the belowdecks crowd inhale, hold their communal  breath.

 

We pull a 180,coming fully about, almost within the length of the boat, and instantly pick up speed, as if on a rocket sled.

 

This boat, as I noted earlier, is a displacement hull, not a planing hull, but we are on plane, doing about 30 knots, staying just in front of the white water, and approaching a narrow opening in some terrible reefs, which we must navigate, or lose it all.

 

The time is nigh, to do or die.

There is no dither time or space, no turning around, no second try, no bronze medal.

 

This is Time Zero, succeed,  or face the consequence of failure…dead

 

The boat is possessed,

the rigging screaming ,

the hull wallowing as the rudder breaks loose in the turbulence,

but it is ,as I had so fervently hoped, on plane,surfing,

and within some latitude, going where I steer it!

 

The high risk moment is not yet passed, I have to figure out how to slow down enough so that the peak of this waves slides under us, at about 30 knots, and allows me a moment off the backside of the crest, to smear on off a wave leaving me behind, in front of a large following wave, into the opening between the reefs

 

I am able to make the entrance, lose the wave, letting it pass me by, and steer/surf the boat further to Port, where I planned to and did execute the surfing man’s exit strategy, the pullout maneuver, leaving the remnants of the wave we rode to smear on by without us, as we slide through the outer barrier, and into relative calm.

 

Even so the boat is pitching heavily, shaking and bouncing up and down, as millions of gallons of water, carried over the reefs by these huge waves, batter us as the pent in seas attempt to return to the outside waters via this narrow opening.

 

It is touch and go, but we stay lucky and motor further into the Harbor, past the second set of barriers, and then motor “sedately” on back to our mooring, through 6 to 10 foot waves in the harbor.

 

We catch the mooring, tie off the boat, and I shut off the engine.

 

I expect silence, but the wind is whistling in the rigging…

 

A shattered and bedraggled, but now full of cheer group come up from below.

 

We all look at one another, shake our heads.

 

We shake each others’ hands.

 

We hug..

 

We have survived a near death.

 

 We all know this.

 

There is not much to say.

 

We unload and row ashore.

 

This sturdy boat has paid for itself in this day’s work.

 

I am in the debt of Messers Bruno and Stillman who build to excess capacity, excess demand.

 

I am in debt to Mister Caterpillar whose engine never missed a beat.

 

Shoddy work by either, and you would not be reading this.

 

 

 

 

                         

                                      THE IMPERFECT STORM

 

                       (Imperfect only in that it  failed to kill us all)

 

 

                           “The Western Wave Was All A-flame,

                             The Day Was Well Nigh Done!”

                             Almost Upon The Western Wave

                             Rested The Broad Bright Sun.”

 

From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner…Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 

Sunrise, Sunset, both happen imperceptibly at sea, and cause wonderment…or worse

 

 

It is a perfect Fall day in Jeddah Saudi Arabia , in 1979

 

I am 42 years old.

 

The sun is shining, a very gentle breeze is off and on my face as I row supplies out to my boat.

 

Better weather than this never happens in Jeddah.

 

Further,

 

I have actually made it out of town without being waylaid by anyone bloody or acutely ill,  and many days of dreamy planning, and detailed discussion  are about to come to fruition..

 

In this pre cellphone, pre pager era, arriving at the boat, means I am free for the predictable future, and my time is my own until I return.

 

Whatever horror shows, accidents, strokes of misfortune, illnesses, may have occurred in this dangerous place will have to await my return.

 

A group of longtime dive buddies and friends, three couples and a teenage son, the Lundys, the Janouseks, the Brownes, and I have been planning an overnite expedition for weeks, anxiously listening to radio weather predictions, talking to the airline weather guys, waiting to see if the fates will smile.

 

We want to sail far South to revisit a reef we have only been to once, full of life, and with a small shipwreck on it.

 

We are dead eager, and have talked of nothing else, since hatching this plan.

Today is the day, and has dawned propitiously, cloudless, nearly windless, promising smooth sailing , clear water.. ideal conditions for what we plan to do.

 

Lady Luck is smiling …on us.

 

We chug  out of Jeddah Port in mid afternoon, supplies and gear stowed, looking forward to good diving, and no foreseeable  problems, on a sea so smooth that it appears  oily, glassy, slick.

 

We are bound for the distant reef, planning to sleep overnite on the boat and spend the next whole morning and early afternoon diving and picnicking, returning  late the  following afternoon.

 

An adventure has begun, but far far far greater than we have planned.

 

We will be the last to know of it, and will need every bit of luck and skill we can muster to survive this journey, but I get ahead of myself.

 

We have no idea what is happening hundreds of miles North and West of us, where a major weather system is beginning to build up high winds.

 

There are no computer assisted weather guides available to the small boat owner in Saudi Arabia, at the time.

 

We are innocently optimistic, sailing out onto a sea as smooth as a bathtub, and as threatening.

 

When first I  came to Saudi Arabia, I discovered the freedom and the ecstasy of Red Sea diving, immortalized for every one of my generation by Jacques Cousteau, whose early and most dramatic films were all made in the Red Sea.

 

The Red Sea is also justly famous throughout history for tempest and shipwreck.

Every reef we have ever dived has at least one wreck on it.

 

It is not a gentle or forgiving ocean, and this is a particularly deadly portion, historically.

 

Jeddah is an historic destination port for trade or Holy Pilgimage.

 

The reefs leading to and from Jeddah are covered in recent and historic wrecks, lost at sea in uncharted storms dating as far back as history is written There are new wrecks atop old, if one looks carefully enough. These reefs are the real time version of the fictional reef in the book/movie, “The Deep” where a recent wreck lay atop a treasure wreck.

 

The month before some diver friends found a Ming Dynasty wreck full of period china lying in 50 feet of water, so overgrown with coral that they nearly missed it. They can retire on the sale of the artifacts, if they can smuggle them home.

 

We motor out of Jeddah Port, past the series of barrier reefs that guard the inner harbor from the open sea, and veer southward, past the

Famous Mismara reef, which has a huge  shipwrecked freighter that ran up on it during some unremembered storm, long ago.

 

This looming wreck is a primary landmark, visible for miles in any direction.

 

I have used it as a waypoint since the boat arrived and these voyages began

 

We sail on, optimistic, idyllic weather, sturdy boat, good friends, nothing to mar the day, not a speck of apprehension.

 

There are Old Sea Captains, and Bold Sea Captains, but no Old, Bold, Sea Captains, according to the seaman’s code.

 

So, long ago, when I first contemplated boat ownership, I have planned for a worst case scenario, and bought the best I could find, a purpose built dive boat, balsa core fiberglass, unsinkable., built by a New Hampshire Boatbuilder, Bruno And Stillman.

 

With the same uncompromising point of view, I have ordered the boat powered by a 3208 Caterpillar Marine V-8 Diesel 225 horsepower drivetrain, expensive and bulletproof.

 

It is my conviction that the sine qua non in boats are sturdy and reliable.

 

I have paid for these ratings without ever expecting to require them

 

Without any clear indication that I will ever need this kind of unsinkability, or ever need to run through anything requiring this kind of uncompromising , motor through hell and high water capacity, I have ordered the very best.

 

Steaming out of Jeddah Port, I  am on the 22 foot tall “tuna” tower conning the boat out of the Port of Jeddah on  this gentle and sunny  afternoon.

The tower is there to provide visibility, in waters where reefs and shallows appear unannounced, and quite lethally.

 

The tower has already saved me from going aground on several previous dive trips.

 

At the Mismara Reef, we turn South and head off into the less known, first, then the unknown, as the minutes tick on by.

 

The Red Sea may or may not  have separated, for Moses.

It is theorized that a Cyclone may have pushed a storm surge away from the Northern end of the Red Sea, allowing Moses and his group to walk across the seabed in the interim before the waters came crashing back, drowning the Pharaoh’s Armies

 

Moses aside, The Red Sea has swallowed everybody else who planned poorly or simply had bad luck.

 

It is my permanent intention to survive these Red Sea adventures, hence the best boat that money could buy.

 

Reliability and seaworthiness are everything.

 

Compromise can kill you.

 

Meantime, this carefully selected and purpose built  boat is my escape vehicle.

 

We have sailed on it often and uneventfully, never requiring extreme or extraordinary performance from it.

 

The reef we seek is unnamed, untouched, unvisited by the other local divers, just far enough South so as to preclude an easy Daytrip.

This reef  is teeming with fish for the fish hunters, a shipwreck on it for the explorers.

 

We found this reef on an exploratory cruise a month before.

 

We are dead eager to return to it, and have planned an overnite trip to this end.

 

At first, I rejoice in the complete calm through which we motor.

 

There are no swells at all, and we are able to cruise at nearly top speed.

 

There is a catch, though, navigation for us is line of sight, literally reef group to reef group, navigating by looking for breaking waves, indicating an underlying reef.

 

I have done this trip South a dozen times, never as far as we plan to sail in one direct voyage, but am familiar with the reefs and their surf patterns.

 

On each of those trips there was a swell running and the reefs were easily identified.

 

No swells means no surf on shallow reefs,

which has led a large number of sailors to unexpected disaster,

in a Sea renowned for reefs which thrust up from the abyss,

surrounded by hundreds of fathoms of bottomless ocean.

 

For us, it means near complete disorientation, progressing as the day diminishes.

 

I am the Captain, and I have no landmarks, no waypoints to check off as we motor, leaving me ever more paranoid, as I try to navigate South,

with no familiar checkpoints to tick off, no sense of where we are.

 

I am on dead reckoning, using the compass and the clock as the only tools I can trust.

 

The day ticks on, beautiful,

perfect,

scary as hell

 

It is not just storm which has produced so many shipwrecks, there is also total or near total absence of wind and wave, leading to collision with an unannounced but fatal obstacle, a submerged sharp reef.

 

If we don’t find our target  reef soon,

we are doomed to cruise at night in a sea full of invisible reefs.

 

And full of huge sharks, conditioned by centuries of thrown overboard sick livestock to come and feed at the sound of struggle in the water

 

Finally,

as the great orange ball,

that is the soon to set sun,

nears the ocean’s edge,

“Almost upon the western wave”,

“Rested the broad bright sun”,

exactly in the poem,

no different, our sun, on the horizon,

Preparing to vanish, seconds only of daylight,  left to us,

 

I decide I have erred in my reckoning,

And turn East and North, heading back towards land.

 

This is a very risky choice,

for if I am wrong I am steering into the shallows.

 

As the world goes dark.

 

You will have some inkling 20 odd years later, that the guess was accurate, or you would not be reading this.

 

Sunset on the Red Sea is confusing, almost hallucinatory…

 

One minute the sun is a great orange ball, hanging above the edge of the horizon, on fire, at the edge of the earth

 

You feel that you have plenty of time,  … before nightfall…

 

Time in which to maneuver, time in which to prevail, time in which to find success.

 

In fact, it is all illusion, and time, your time, necessary to your very survival, has been consumed, is gone.

 

Blink, and the sun has gone, and the daylight with it.

 

It is a very dangerous time, giving the unwary a sense of time left,

when time has, in fact, run out.

 

So it is with us, …..but fortune smiles one more time…..

 

Just as the Sun dropped, like a burning stone, into the sea, and the light began to fail rapidly, we came up on the lee side of the reef I sought,

tossed an anchor onto the reef, moored the boat.

 

We tossed another anchor off the stern of the boat,

to keep the boat from drifting onto the reef, should the wind shift,

and breathed huge and heartfelt sighs of relief.

 

And darkness fell upon us..

 

The drinkers on board celebrated with Gin and Tonic.

 

I celebrated by touching myself to be certain I am still alive, that the day is well done, and all aboard are safe.

 

I am quite overwhelmed.

 

This was, until moments ago, very risky business.

 

The others do not know how risky, how close to disaster, how scary,

for I have been navigating the boat from a 20 foot tower,

keeping my own counsel,

far above them all, and out of earshot,

progressively more terrified.

 

I have grown ever less confident with every movement of the hands on my watch, responsible for them all, thinking us all lost.

 

Aside from myself, there are the three couples aboard, all old friends, experienced divers, but not experienced seamen, the women competent  licensed divers, but not seamen.

 

No navigators, nor boat owner/operators,

no experienced sailors are amongst them,

only friends, who have trusted me...

 

A different decision taken,

A different course steered,

And we were lost at sea, in dark of night

pawns in the hands of luck,

worse  still, motoring blind, in the dark,

in a sea full of coral heads, reefs and sharks.

 

I am quite blessed,

looking down on these innocent friends,

celebrating below.

 

Finally two of the wives climb the tower and bring me a drink,

inviting me down to the feast below.

We talk about the morning’s plans.

 

Two or three of the men do a night dive, capturing some Rock Lobsters.

 

The rest of us go to bed early.

 

Morning will come along, soon, and we are awaiting the adventure we have anticipated for so long,

 

During the night I am awakened by  shifting breezes and the beginnings of a ground swell, which rocks the boat at its mooring.

 

We are up at the first light.

 

It is early morning, but there is a steady wind blowing and 2 foot chop is breaking on the seaward side of the reef we are moored to.

 

Still invisible to us,

somewhere to the North,

a large front has formed,

is growing geometrically,

is spawning winds and swells,

is ever enlarging,

is now beginning to arrive at our reef,

sending messengers,

speaking softly, still, in unknown tongues,

giving unanticipated warnings,

 

Harbingers,  danger signals, had we a different mindset,

But still unalarming to us at this stage.

 

Unknown to us,

the Front licking its chops in the North is huge,

and will develop into a storm of epic proportions.

 

We are spared that knowledge, until later.

 

We continue with our dive plans,

and everyone goes off the stern of the boat,

the spearfishermen in one group,

the explorers in another.

 

We plan to return to the boat by 10 AM to reassess the day,

 

It is a simple plan, once the early dives are done,  the decision, stay or go,  to be made immediately thereafter,

depending on the progress of the weather,

which is darkening, the wind picking up, even as we speak..

 

We depart for the underwater world,

the one we have come so far to enjoy.

 

By the time I have been underwater for 45 minutes there is a strong and noticeable current running along the reef,

sweeping me with it.

 

This current was not running at dive onset,

and gives me pause, serious pause.

 

It is not yet 8 AM

 

I surface, look around me.

 

There are large rollers breaking on the outside of the reef,

in 6 to 8 foot waves where there had been only chop an hour before .

 

Whatever and wherever the Frontal system is to our North,

it is building, building, licking at the South as it grows in the North 

 

Waves are building, huge waves.

 

Winds of cyclonic speeds must be blowing, out of our range, but blowing all the same.

 

Meteorologists will tell you that wave height is directly proportional to the wind speed that produced the original swell.

 

 According to modern wind/wave theory, a    wind of 100 miles per hour will produce a wave of fifty feet in height, given enough fetch to do its work.

One hundred twenty mile an hour wind velocity equals 60 foot wave and so on…

 

The Red Sea is long and relatively narrow, producing a wind tunnel effect, with enough fetch to create huge waves, given the wind speeds necessary.

 

We are far from home and a safe Port.

 

By the time I arrive back at the boat it is sawing at the mooring ropes rising and falling in a swell that threatens to pull the anchors loose.

 

The more timid have already had troubles in the currents and swell

 

They have already returned to the boat.

 

I dump my gear aboard the boat,

keeping only fins and mask and snorkel,

and swim over the reef in breaking waves to gather up the two stragglers, signaling them to come to the boat,

 

NOW !

 

We are not a moment too soon.

 

By the time we have pulled the anchors, stowed the gear,

And motored around the leeward corner of the reef,

huge ground swells are running,

much higher than the 22 foot tower on the boat.

The boat begins to rock and sway, even at low throttle settings, and is totally impossible to con from atop the tower which is moving in vertiginous arcs.

 

I climb down to the downstairs control center.

There is a second set of controls, inside the cabin, behind the windshield,

 

I take these controls, and a long day begins for real and true.

 

Only yesterday,

we  steamed South at cruising speed,

on a mirrored sea,

worried that we could see no landmarks as a result of the calm.

 

Now we are pitched and thrown about before we have even cleared the shelter of the reef.

 

Huge waves are breaking on this reef we are leaving, and steaming across the top in overhead breaking surf.

 

Identifying  landmark/waymark reefs on the way home, should we ever get close to home, will be the least of our problems .

 

Once clear of the waterbreak effect of the sheltering reef,

we begin to pitch and yaw as large swells loom in front of us.

 

There is only one technique in a small boat motoring into large waves;

 

like mating with a porcupine, you must be very very carefull .

 

Too rapidly motored up, you crash through the crest and either broach sideways, and tumble, or,

You  drive directly into the base of the following wave, and are swamped if not sunk forthwith..

 

Too slowly motored up and the top of the wave may break on you, pitching you backwards and rolling you.

 

Neither option is consistent with a long and happy life.

 

 No two waves are the same.

 

Rogue waves, half again the size of the usual, occur in a randomly random pattern.

 

The regular waves are higher than the boat is long.

The biggest waves appear to be twice the boat’s length when looking at the crest from the trough.

 

The top 10 feet or so of the biggest waves are unstable and may break on you as you approach from under the lip.

 

I have never captained in anything like this and the others aboard are less experienced than I.

 

Early in the first half hour of this trip I underestimated a breaking wave and we have lost the sliding portion of the windshield and have wind and spray shrieking into the cockpit with us.

 

Spume is blowing through the jury rigged repair done with the pieces of the windshield.

 

Everyone but I and two of the guys are huddled belowdecks, shaking and pitching with the boat gyrations, a couple badly seasick, everyone subdued and silent.

 

Unknown to me, because I am operating a boat in a howling tempest, the boat has slowly become a boat full of close friends, who feel doomed, who are no longer counting themselves alive by day’s end.

 

They have been talking about the odds on survival in this storm and in these waves in a small boat.

 

 They have concluded that if the boat sinks or swamps, as they believe to be most likely, they will all drown, except for me.

 

They figure that I am so stubborn that I will swim ashore, even if it takes days.

 

They are the dead, still walking, but dead, as they see it.

 

Nothing that any of us can see is optimistic.

 

The waves grow bigger.

 

The winds grow stronger, and I am running at nearly full throttle most of the time, up wave, throttle off, down wave, throttle on, in an endless succession.

 

Throttle on,   throttle off, wait for the wave to show its plans, resist the crash and the attempt to swamp/spin/sink us , motor on, and on, and on……

We are not making discernible progress it seems, for a very long time, because I am so focused on what is near and likely to kill us that I can’t look further out for the return waypoints that we must reach if we are not to eventually run out of fuel and perish.

 

Hours come and go.

We pulled anchor at about 8 AM this morning, it is now 2 PM and we are at least half way through our fuel supply.

 

We could run out of fuel, and in a few seconds more be swimming in these mountainous waves.

 

If we are really just treading water, not progressing, we will certainly run out of fuel.

 

There is no question about it

 

There is ebb and flow to even the worst storms, and this one is no exception..

 

Sometime about 2 PM I motor up the front of a wave to find a much smaller wave following and an opportunity to look ahead  for any landmark or indicator of where we are

 

From the top of our  tall wave, just before beginning the roller coaster to the trough, and because the following wave is smaller, less fearsome, I  have time to look further ahead, and I see breaking waves far ahead and to Starboard, about where the southernmost of the waystation reefs would be, had we made any progress.

 

I am afraid to say anything for fear I am wrong.

 

It will be no service to create hope amongst the crouching friends below, only to quench it later.

 

We have been underway nearly 6 hours, to regain about the distance we traveled in the last hour and a half of yesterday’s calm sea voyage.

 

If correct, in my dead reckoning, we are just about half way home, and now the question is can we get back to Port at all, and if yes, can we get back before sunset, arriving with enough daylight to negotiate the Guardian reefs that litter the Harbor mouth and which have eaten hundreds of Pilgrim ships over the centuries .

 

I keep on motoring, upping the speed as much as I can without driving under breaking waves.

Sure enough in another lull, about one half hour later, the waystation reefs with their distinctive surf pattern are directly to Starboard, and I can see huge waves breaking over the shipwreck far ahead on the Mismara reef.

 

We might make it home……..

 

I call down to the  belowdeck group and say that I can see the Mismara reef.

 

A thin cheer issues, one or two stagger up, take a look and return to the relative dryness of the cabin.

 

About 45 more minutes of up and down, and we are even with the Mismara reef, which lies almost directly due West of and about a 20 minute boattrip from the entrance to the Port of Jeddah, on a normal nontempest day.

 

I have navigated outside of it so as to miss the numerous small reefs that lie in its vicinity, and continue to steam north.

 

 

There is a problem that I have been trying to ignore until it became critical.

 

The storm we are enduring is blowing essentially North to South, and we are motoring due North, into the teeth of it.

 

To get safely into Port, I am going to have to turn 90 degrees and motor East, first across open ocean, then through the barrier reefs, all of the foregoing at 90 degrees to huge breaking waves.

 

That will likely be a fatal maneuver, since I will be lying beamwise in the paths of huge breaking waves, as I try to sneak  into the harbor without getting rolled over and all aboard, drown

 

So close.

So far away.

 

Nothing like a fatal dilemma to sharpen the mind..

 

“Will a boat behave as a surfboard might?”

 

I reason that if I motor further North, wait for one of the occasional lulls, spin the boat around  a full 180 degrees, on its axis, or very close to, and if I waste no time in coming about, put the throttle to full, essentially making a huge surfboard of the boat, I will be able to slide, to surf, to  traverse the wave front, and exit laterally as I arrive at the mouth of the Port of Jeddah.

 

I have never contemplated nor attempted such a maneuver in a 35 foot,  6 ton boat.

I have never read of anyone trying or even thinking about same, and I don’t dare discuss this new plan with the others, for fear of instilling panic.

 

If I am wrong, and the boat won’t/can’t do this, the result is simple..

 

We are dead, ……  within sight of salvation

 

The following wave, assuming I succeed in coming about 180 degrees in the first place, will be huge, taller than we are and, will try to devour us as it overtakes us.

 

I don’t  know if this  boat will, in fact, come up on plane, and surf.

 

The Bruno and Stillman is a displacement hull, not designed to plane.

 

I am totally on my own as I try to figure out the odds and the physics, which will either save us all, or snatch defeat and probable drowning for us all, in sight of home, but not there

 

If I can do all this in a few seconds, survive all the physics involved, and have guessed well,  

 

I will be able to surf this 35 foot boat right to the point between the two outer barrier reefs.

 

 The boat isn’t going to like this.

 

But, if I can accomplish the 180 successfully, the critical  first maneuver, and still be alive,…

 

And If the boat will plane, can be made to surf,  and, if  I can get off the following wave as I arrive at the mouth of the barrier reefs… then,

 

I will be into relative shelter, amongst half size waves, compared to the giants I am now battling…

Get through those, and past the second set of barrier reefs, and I will be into Jeddah Port, and 8 or 10 foot ground swell, a picnic compared to what I am negotiating now.

 

I don’t dare tell anyone aboard my plan.

 

I have no plan “B”.

 

It is, after all, only life and death, all in the day’s work

 

This is a do it or else, Gonads in the breeze attempt, and it will succeed or fail , whichever, as much on a luck factor as a skill factor,

 

I have never attempted any such a maneuver, or anything remotely similar, in this or any other boat, and I am the most experienced skipper on this boat.

 

I have never spoken with anyone, before or after, who attempted to surf a lobster boat in a following sea  several times the boat size.

 

There is really no other person to consult, no other less risky or more usual choice that I can see, and no time to dither.

The clock of the day is running out…

 

Sunset is less than 2 hours away.

 

“Suck It Up” I think silently, unable to share any of this decisionmaking with anyone else aboard.

 

No other option presents, no matter how much I wish it..

 

I steam about another 20 minutes North, pick a relatively small following wave, motor partway up the face, spin the wheel, push the throttle forward, and spin the boat on its axis.

 

Immediately the boat tries to roll on its long axis, as it passes broadside to the oncoming wave.

 

Hanging on to the wheel,  I complete the maneuver, successfully, but I hear the belowdecks crowd inhale, hold their communal  breath.

 

We pull a 180,coming fully about, almost within the length of the boat, and instantly pick up speed, as if on a rocket sled.

 

This boat, as I noted earlier, is a displacement hull, not a planing hull, but we are on plane, doing about 30 knots, staying just in front of the white water, and approaching a narrow opening in some terrible reefs, which we must navigate, or lose it all.

 

The time is nigh, to do or die.

There is no dither time or space, no turning around, no second try, no bronze medal.

 

This is Time Zero, succeed,  or face the consequence of failure…dead

 

The boat is possessed,

the rigging screaming ,

the hull wallowing as the rudder breaks loose in the turbulence,

but it is ,as I had so fervently hoped, on plane,surfing,

and within some latitude, going where I steer it!

 

The high risk moment is not yet passed, I have to figure out how to slow down enough so that the peak of this waves slides under us, at about 30 knots, and allows me a moment off the backside of the crest, to smear on off a wave leaving me behind, in front of a large following wave, into the opening between the reefs

 

I am able to make the entrance, lose the wave, letting it pass me by, and steer/surf the boat further to Port, where I planned to and did execute the surfing man’s exit strategy, the pullout maneuver, leaving the remnants of the wave we rode to smear on by without us, as we slide through the outer barrier, and into relative calm.

 

Even so the boat is pitching heavily, shaking and bouncing up and down, as millions of gallons of water, carried over the reefs by these huge waves, batter us as the pent in seas attempt to return to the outside waters via this narrow opening.

 

It is touch and go, but we stay lucky and motor further into the Harbor, past the second set of barriers, and then motor “sedately” on back to our mooring, through 6 to 10 foot waves in the harbor.

 

We catch the mooring, tie off the boat, and I shut off the engine.

 

I expect silence, but the wind is whistling in the rigging…

 

A shattered and bedraggled, but now full of cheer group come up from below.

 

We all look at one another, shake our heads.

 

We shake each others’ hands.

 

We hug..

 

We have survived a near death.

 

 We all know this.

 

There is not much to say.

 

We unload and row ashore.

 

This sturdy boat has paid for itself in this day’s work.

 

I am in the debt of Messers Bruno and Stillman who build to excess capacity, excess demand.

 

I am in debt to Mister Caterpillar whose engine never missed a beat.

 

Shoddy work by either, and you would not be reading this.