Finally, it had come to this. After 30 hours of battling 100-mile-per-hour winds and 30-foot waves, these were the simple facts: We were 426 miles away from Mill Basin, Brooklyn, which we had left four days ago; we were 372 miles from Bermuda, which we would never reach; we were 240 miles away from the Chesapeake Bay, where we’d hoped to find sanctuary. And we would go no farther.
Above us, a Coast Guard rescue helicopter buzzed and darted like a dragonfly as it tried to stay with us in the storm. The twin masts of our schooner reeled and rocked in the maelstrom, and only the helicopter pilot’s deft touch kept everything from ending with a sudden crack of wood against metal.
Joey called down to tell us that it was time to go. I climbed the steps up to the deck, into the darkness. Drenched and exhausted, I struggled to keep my feet. Staring up at the helicopter’s spotlight, I felt laid bare, as if every decision, accident and coincidence in my life had — like some huge, unfortunate funnel of circumstances — brought me to this, my final, sad moment on earth. Outwardly, I tried to stay calm, doing my best to hear Joey as he shouted instructions over the din of the storm. But inside, my mind was screaming, Why, why, why! I was not a sailor. I was not meant to be here. This had to be some kind of mistake.
It had started with an invitation. Five days earlier, I had gone with friends to the American Museum of Natural History to hear a lecture by Norman Baker, one of the great adventurers of his generation. Norman was talking about his voyages with Thor Heyerdahl during their famous reed boat expeditions — attempts to show that the early Egyptians and others had sailed the seas in boats made of papyrus.
My friends knew the Bakers, and as we entered the museum, Norman’s wife, Mary Ann, came running up to us. “Boys!” she said to the four of us. “What are you doing for the next week?”
“No,” she said. “We’re sailing Anne Kristine down to Bermuda, and we need hands. Come sail with us!”
Anne Kristine — the oldest continuously sailing ship in the world. A piece of history. An adventure. Pete and Mike said yes, without hesitation. Jonny said no. I thought, You must be joking, then found myself agreeing to go anyway.
Later, I asked Jonny, “How could you pass that up?” He answered, “I just didn’t want to go.”
So easy for him. But it’s never been easy for me. My family came to the United States from Bolivia when I was 3. As an immigrant, every time I walk into a room, I raise a figurative finger to feel which way the breeze is blowing, to know which way to proceed. It makes for an easy decision, in that it’s not a real decision at all. It’s how I’ve survived. When Mary Ann invited us to sail a 123-year-old ship from Brooklyn to Bermuda, I did not want to go. But I knew I was supposed to want to go. And so I would go.
After that, I was dead man walking.
At the time, the four of us were working as proofreaders on the graveyard shift at a prominent law firm. We went straight from the Norman Baker lecture to the firm to announce we’d be out for the next two weeks sailing to Bermuda. To our proofreading pals, this was bigger than any legal brief they might have been working on, and the place was abuzz with vicarious excitement. I wandered off in a daze.
As I turned a corner, I ran into Nora, who knew me as well as anyone. We often joked that we were siblings separated at birth, even though she’s five years younger than me. As we passed each other in the hall, she didn’t even say the words — she just mouthed, “Don’t go.” I wanted to fall at her feet and thank her, beg her to tell the others, to set me free. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.
And, yes, I understood that in some rational, objective world, I could have spoken up at any time, raised a hand, said I’d changed my mind. That seemed about as likely as walking on the moon.
The next morning, Pete, Mike and I made our way to Mill Basin, where Anne Kristine was undergoing final preparations. Amid the yachts and sailboats in various stages of repair, she was unmistakable: With a jet-black hull, white trim and two tall masts, she looked like something out of a children’s adventure book.
Specifically, she was a gaff topsail schooner carrying a square sail. Her length was 95 feet, and she was 20 feet at the beam. She drafted 10 feet, 6 inches. She was built in Norway in 1868 and rebuilt by the Bakers in Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, from 1982 to 1986. They’d spent everything they had — financially, physically, emotionally — on making her seaworthy again. Their dream was to sail her around the world, and this was to be the preliminary leg of that journey.
Notably, this would also be Anne Kristine’s first trip without Norman at the helm. Busy with lectures and other commitments, he’d hired a young sailor — Joey Gelband — to get her from Brooklyn to Bermuda. Norman would fly down later to take over.
As we stood on the dock, Joey approached us. He had some bad news.
“We’re eight,” he said. “I need nine. I can only take one of you. I’ll take the most experienced.”
I bit my lip, trying to figure out what expression I should have on my face. Surprised? Quizzical? Expectant? Who knew? Inside I was DANCING. A. JIG. Because I knew that, while Pete was a landlubber like me, Mike had been sailing his whole life — sunnies, daysailers, dinghies — all kinds of small craft. Then, it was my turn. “Nothing,” I said, shrugging my arms in what I hoped looked like disappointment. “A week on the Clearwater.” It was true. I had volunteered on the famous sloop and spent a week on the Hudson River. We’d sung sea shanties.
Joey scratched his beard stubble. “Well,” he said, “the Clearwater has the same kind of rigging as Anne Kristine. It’s only a week, but you’ve still got more experience on a tall ship than these other two.”
And so I would go.
It would be a trip of eight days and 769 miles. I had $200 in cash, a credit card, and a one-way ticket back from Bermuda. As we motored out of Mill Basin, Brooklyn on a still, cloudy Friday, I had a clear, three-point plan:
1. Stay out of the way.
2. Don’t screw anything up.
3. Get through this and get home.
And as I met the rest of the crew, my strategy began to look viable. They were a varied bunch — besides Joey, five men and two women — with a mix of experience and skills, but they all seemed at home on the water.
By Saturday morning, the breeze had picked up and the sun had broken through the clouds. We unfurled the sails and began what everyone agreed was a perfect day for sailing. The second mate said to me, “You sail a lot of crummy days for one day like this.” I stood on the deck and turned slowly, 360 degrees. Water in every direction, with not a smudge of land in sight. Joey let me take the helm. I could feel Anne Kristine coursing along at full sail, my hands on the wheel. I felt myself breathe for what seemed like the first time since I’d stepped on board.
Later that afternoon, a weather report came in — a low-pressure system south of Bermuda had been upgraded to a tropical storm named Grace. It was 500 miles away, tracking north and east, with winds of up to 70 miles per hour. Joey didn’t seem particularly concerned. The storm was far away, and Anne Kristine was sailing well. That night, I looked up and saw a clear sky and a moon that was just past full. A cruise ship was passing us on our port bow, headed in the other direction.
At 6 a.m. Sunday, Joey decided to alter our course. Instead of a direct route to Bermuda, we would chart a course further east. That way we would skirt the storm as it came up from the south. This was our first mistake, though we didn’t know it at the time. Joey called a meeting to announce the new plan. The day had dawned gray, and the winds were definitely stronger than they’d been. But we hadn’t lowered any sails, and as I looked around at people’s faces, they didn’t seem worried. If anything, sitting in a circle below deck, we seemed like a ball team getting a pep talk before the big game. I half expected Joey to tell us to put our hands in the center for one last cheer.
As Joey headed back on deck, I followed to help him in any way I could. He took the helm and asked me to check a gasoline-powered water pump nearby, in case we needed it later. I felt happy — scared and happy and exhilarated. Joey smiled like a kid on a skateboard, the wind and water whipping off him as Anne Kristine sluiced through the growing waves. We were still Bermuda bound. The ship was sailing beautifully, and it seemed like the plan to sail around Grace would work.
Late Sunday afternoon, another weather report came in. Grace was much, much larger than we had thought. It had been upgraded to a hurricane and would eventually become one of the largest storms of the 20th century — the southern end of what would later be recounted in story and film as the Perfect Storm. As conditions worsened, we began to take measures. We struck the sails, gradually, over the course of the day. The last just before dark. We bolted the hatches. We ran a lifeline around the deck and wore harnesses; if you were on deck, you were clipped in.
Later, we learned that trying to skirt Hurricane Grace to the east was exactly the wrong thing to do. That you never go east when confronted by a hurricane from the south that’s tracking north and east. We should have turned west. But now we were in the middle of it, with winds approaching a hundred miles an hour. A nor’easter was pushing down from the north. There was no way around the storm.
We made other mistakes that undermined the ability of an otherwise sound ship to weather the storm. We failed to close the vents to the engine room and galley, and water came in that way. We didn’t prime the pumps properly. Of the six pumps on board, only three were operating at all, and none to capacity. We had oil bags. These are cowhide bags that you fill with oil, puncture, then tie off with a line and toss over the side of the ship. As the bags drag alongside the ship, they release a film of oil around its perimeter, and this keeps waves from forming because they can’t build up enough tension. We used the wrong kind of oil.
Sunday night, we were still sailing to Bermuda. At least, that’s what we told ourselves. I think we had to find some way to believe that things were still normal, that we’d run into a rough patch, but that we’d get through this. We’d reach Bermuda as planned, if a little beat up.
But as the night wore on, I couldn’t tell how.
These were my last hours on deck, and they left me with my most vivid impressions: the color of each wave as it rose up — a deep blue turning green. The ship, which had seemed so solid, suddenly lifted up, weightless, frozen for a moment before crashing down. There was a moment at the top of the wave when the ship and I were both suspended, and my breath was in the middle of my chest. The wind roared around us and the timbers of the ship creaked below. The reason a wooden ship can withstand these conditions is because wood is so flexible. It will bend and give. But this wood screamed under the strain, and I wondered how much it had left to give.
On Monday at 6 a.m. Joey called another meeting. We sat in a circle again, but this time it felt very different. I could feel Joey’s eyes searching ours as he spoke, looking to see what we had left, to see if he could count on us to do what was needed. I struggled to meet his gaze. Joey told us we were turning the ship around. We would sail west to try to reach the Chesapeake Bay. The five most experienced sailors would be on deck; the rest of us would stay below to support them.
The hatch slammed shut, and we were left in darkness.
A sinking ship is like an hourglass in reverse: Your time is marked not by falling sand, but by rising water. By this time, the water was almost to our knees, and we were like crabs pummeled in the surf, falling all over each other as we tried to anticipate the next wave. Every step became several, like a complex dance that changed with the movement and sound around us — step wait, step step step wait, step step wait. As the water rose, the ship’s cramped quarters seemed to close around me even tighter, and I longed for the crazy exhilaration I’d felt on deck just a few hours earlier.
Before going on deck, Joey had given two of us a task, so I slowly made my way to the cabin where my ostensible partner lay. Laingdon had been seized by seasickness early on, and it had taken an alarming turn. As the seas got rougher and he’d gotten more and more sick, he had finally lost more than his physical strength — he’d lost his will. His worst moment came when he realized that he was too weak to lift himself up from the floor. It was then he knew that he might not be able to save himself, if that’s what it came down to.
When I got to Laingdon, he was lying in a bunk with a metal bowl to retch in, and he looked spent. In fact, he looked like I felt. The combination of fear and effort and exhaustion had caught up with me as well, and I wanted simply to lie down. I pictured myself in the bunk next to him, the two of us just fading away. It was as if I was looking at us from a distance, and I couldn’t muster an opinion about whether I wanted to live or die; I just wanted to rest.
I wish I could say that in that moment I discovered my will to live. That I thought of my parents, who didn’t even know where I was, didn’t know that they might never see me again, and that this gave me the strength to carry on. But that wouldn’t be exactly true.
I looked down at Laingdon, and through the fog my mind moved a couple of clicks. I decided I would keep him alive, if I could. I helped him up, and we dragged ourselves from the cabin to the head.
We took the pump from the head and jury-rigged it to so that we could lower it into the bilge and pump out water by hand. We were probably pumping next to nothing, but Joey had asked, and it was something to do, a place to put our attention. After a while, something told me it would be good to sing. And the songs I knew best were Bob Dylan songs. So I started to sing.
Come gather ’round people wherever you roam
I was halfway through the verse before the words sunk in.
And admit that the waters around you have grown
I paused, and Laingdon and I looked at each other. We burst out laughing as he joined in.
And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And then we screamed it, against the wind and the water and the creaking wood, as if by sheer volume we could hold back the storm for a moment.
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone!
For the times they are a-changin’
And we sang, and we pumped. And we sang, and we pumped. “Mr. Tambourine Man”; “It Ain’t Me, Babe”; “Blowin’ in the Wind.” All the old ones. And I could feel our spirits rising. And whenever I felt us fading, I’d bring us back with another chorus. And on and on we went, into the night.
Joey had first radioed the Coast Guard at noon to alert them of our position. He told them that we were sailing well, that we were in no danger of sinking, and that we were trying to reach the Chesapeake Bay. After that, each call became more urgent, and at 6:39 p.m. he finally put out a Mayday. The Coast Guard first sent out a C-130 airplane and tried to drop a high-volume pump onto our deck. The C-130 made 15 passes, flying at a hundred feet above the water’s surface, and dropped three pumps. Given the conditions, it wasn’t surprising that none of them found its mark.
Finally, sometime after midnight, a single Sikorsky HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter appeared, its rescue light cutting through the darkness. Joey came below deck and laid it out for us. The helicopter couldn’t safely take us off the deck of the ship, so we would jump into the water, one at a time. The helicopter would pick up that person and come back for the next one. It would do this nine times.
We opened the hatch, and I followed Laingdon, Barbara and Jennifer onto the deck. They would be the first three to go. I would be fourth. Each of us wore a life vest and carried a small flashlight and a whistle. I watched as each person jumped and was quickly left behind, bobbing as each wave lifted them up like a cork. It seemed anything but certain that the pilot would find them, and I was surprised at how quickly they disappeared into the darkness.
The Jayhawk’s rescue light appeared for a fourth time. After 30 hours of fighting to stay alive, I didn’t want to fight anymore. I needed to let go and let someone else fight for me. Or not. I would live, or I would die, but I would finally do one or the other. I unclipped myself from the lifeline, climbed onto the ship’s rail, looked up at the light. And jumped.
Over the years, people have asked me again and again, “How did it change you?” And I always detect in their voice the hope that it changed everything. I mean, how could you live through something like this without being affected in some profound way? And the truth is that it did. And it didn’t. I didn’t come back and alter my life in some radical way. I went back to the graveyard shift, for a while at least. I continued to live what to all outward appearances was a fairly conventional life.
But one thing occurs to me: That standing on the deck that night, staring up at the light, stunned and scared and wondering how I’d gotten there, wondering if I would survive, I knew I was alive. And the challenge has been to realize that I was no more alive then than I am right now, writing this, or when I’m walking in the park, enjoying the sun, or when I’m sitting in my room, feeling bored. I am never any more or less alive at one moment than I am at any other moment, if I choose to notice. A hurricane helps you notice. A hurricane will get your attention. But it’s not, strictly speaking, necessary.
Another thing that I found out afterward is that once you have survived something like this, you are considered a good-luck charm by other sailing people. And they want you along. I received lots of invitations. Sometime after, I sailed on another tall ship out of Boston. Laingdon was on board as well. We sailed to Martha’s Vineyard. We sailed those waters for several days. And nothing bad happened.