10th December 2001
The storm reached us late last night and got progressively worse through the night and this morning. I snatched the odd doze during the night but gave up on sleep in the early hours.
I went onto the bridge, but couldn’t see much of the weather in the dark. Not that I needed confirmation but the needle on the anemometer was pressing against the little maximum lug at 80 mph (70 knots)- hurricane force winds, or a force 12. The barometer was still dropping, and so quickly you could actually see it falling.
At 9:15 it began to get light and I got my first glimpse of the weather. The waves were huge and crashed relentlessly over the bow and bridge. In the bad weather I’ve experienced before there are always gaps between the pounding, lulls in the storm when the Santa Maria could shake off the water and life could go on. This storm was different; there was no time between waves to pick up the things that had fallen on the floor, you just had to sit this one out. The bridge was a shambles with bits of paper all over the floor. It stank of stale cigarettes since a full ashtray had emptied onto the floor and the ashes and butts scattered and ground into the floor.
All of a sudden it was as if the waves came from a different direction, and rather than the Santa Maria riding over the waves bow first, the waves came at us on the beam (sideways) so we were rolling dangerously with huge seas hitting directly against the side of the ship. We were rolling so far that I genuinely thought that we might keep going over beyond the point of no return and capsize into the froth which was the sea. Waves began to lick up the trawl ramp, and wash the trawl deck with tonnes of water. Things began to look decidedly not good.
Miguel the Captain, didn’t look any less concerned than I felt. He leapt up, flicked some switches on the auto pilot and began to spin the big old ship’s wheel furiously. The waves hadn’t suddenly changed direction, but our autopilot had been overwhelmed by the heavy seas, allowing the ship to swing dangerously off course at the mercy of the waves. The ship didn’t respond immediately, the waves show us any mercy and continued to kick us hard while we were down. We had been hove-to, making slow headway into the heavy sea, but now our low speed meant that we didn’t have much steerage. It took time to get up some speed and the ability to point the bow back into the heavy seas. Little by little the Santa Maria stood up, turned and faced her aggressor once more. The gloves were off!
The autopilot couldn’t be trusted again after that, so a helmsman was put on watch to steer manually through the storm. They took turns on 6 hour watches. During the day it was tricky enough but when it got dark again and you couldn’t see the approaching waves it was even harder, having to rely only on the compass and helm indicator to steer the ship. Since you need to turn the wheel several times to get the rudder from full starboard to port, it’s easy to lose track of which way you are actually steering. The helm indicator shows you you much rudder you have applied, or when you are heading straight again – without it in the dark you could find yourself going around in circles!
After the drama of the near capsize I popped back to my cabin to check how my pants had fared the fright. I was amazed to see that somehow Bazil Fawlty had still managed to change my bedding and remake my bed like he does at this time every week, despite it being virtually impossible to stand. I thought he would have postponed it but it seems that it takes more than a hurricane to put Baz off his stride. Amazing. Happy to report the underwear was ‘good enough’ to last another day. Pfft.
I spent much of the day weather-watching from the bridge, it was an awe inspiring sight, and luckily one I never tire of because a) this happens frequently out here, and b) when it does, there is absolutely nothing else to do.
At lunch I was amazed to watch the waves through porthole of the mess (which is deck level). The waves looked even higher and more daunting from down there. It wasn’t until the last minute that the bow would rise to meet the wave and when it did all you could see was angry sky. Then, when you plummet back down and hit the bottom the other side, the blood feels like its draining from your head down to your feet, it makes your eyes bulge. I wonder how many G’s you pull on a ship in hurricane force winds?
We hit a wave in the afternoon which sent the ship into juddering spasms as the shock wave rippled through every steel plate in her 30 year old body. When the water had cleared the fore deck we could see that the wave had buckled the bow rail in as if it was made out of balsa wood rather than steel.