No longer disguised by darkness, the storm shrieks in the shrouds and around us, whipping the Atlantic into unforgiving turmoil.
“Another five knots,” Barbara squints up from the wind indicator. When I say nothing,“What can I get you?”
“I’m fine. Are the kids okay?”
“They’re just stirring. Got a good night’s sleep.”
“Like us,” a weary smile.
We stand silently for a while, surveying the aroused seascape. Our eyes meet. There is nothing to say. We both know. A big wind and growing, big seas and growing. Barbara starts down the companionway, then stops and glances back, her brown eyes full of resolve. She will shepherd the girls through whatever comes.
The swells come at us tall as garages, but long, like North Sea dikes, above us now, foam-capped but rarely breaking, Grace rising to meet them, over the top, then down into the trailing trough where another one churns in, icy fingers reaching from its crest.
Flying fish, flushed out by Grace’s hull, soar into the looming waveface, glancing off , arching over backwards, or fluttering up over the crest. We follow them up and over, another trough, another dark wave face.
This will be a long day, a day of attrition.
Above the ocean’s angry face, the sky is a shocking blue. Mare’s tails run from one jagged horizon to the other. The sun fails to burn the intensity out of the wind, which eats the sunlight whole, and races on, invigorated. The rigging shudders when Grace soars over a swell, the snap and strain of the miniature staysail, then falls strangely silent in the ensuing trough, the sheer height of the next swell providing a moment’s relief from the onslaught of wind.
Damn, it’s beautiful.
“We are making good time,” I assure Barbara, when she offers up an early lunch.
“Are we going too fast?”Her grasp tightens on the companionway slats, fingernails white with compression.
“I think we’re okay.”
Wave-flattening gusts come on at noon, bending Grace over further still. She plunges on gamely, a low groan down in her body at the harsh pounding. Her hull forges counter-waves as she passes, spray blowing back at me from their collisions with the oncoming swells. This is what you are made for, I remind the two of us.
The wind stiffens in the early afternoon, seamless now, cold and merciless. This morning’s blue hardens, a steel undulation beneath a steely sky. The swells continue to build, frothy and tumbling, row upon row, unrelenting. An occasional odd-angle renegade mounts a row wave or is mounted, surging up to double the height of the others, and breaks in a hissing cascade.
The big one catches me by surprise, rearing up beside us—I’ve got you now—and dropping like a load of wet cement. I go down with the impact, saltwater burning my eyes, choking and spitting, and back up, yanking the wheel to center. Grace struggles to right herself, still sideways to the next breaking wave, a gunshot collision with the hull, over again in the trailing effervescence. I lurch to the surface in a cockpit full of water, first blood on the knuckles of the hand gripping the wheel.
I jerk the wheel to the left in the canyon between waves, and Grace swings upright again, rising like a carnival ride over the third wave.
A shouted consult with Barbara, nothing broken above or below. Whatever the mayhem out here, she and the girls are secure.
I tug at the harness line that tethers me to the toerail, looking for reassurance. Then I swing Grace directly downwind, hoping to rob the swells of their throw-weight. I slacken the staysail as we turn, wringing some force out of the wind.
Grace is a 50-foot surfboard now. The oncoming wave lifts us from behind, carries us along on its back, and thrusts us into the trough ahead. The exhausted wave rumbles on under us as we skid along in the sizzling foam.
The next wave lumbers in. We are plunging again.
Hours later, the sky black now, the cold comes to get me.
“Are you okay?” Barbara asks, with regular ministrations of soup and hot chocolate, a grilled cheese sandwich, and the still shrill wind.
“I’ll be fine,” I tell her, but not at this moment. I am shivering intermittently. Pressure is building in the center of my chest.
Not now. I fumble for the bottle of nitro in my pocket.
This is the storm within the storm.
From the prologue of “Sailing Grace”