It is, by all appearances, the dead of winter. There’s piles of snow all around—not as big as when we had the big blizzard two winters ago,but these piles have been around for longer now than those were, and keep getting added to a couple times a week. Nor is it as long a winter yet as last year, which dragged on far beyond the bounds of decency. Nevertheless, it’s bitterly cold, and often very windy, and nothing could be farther from most people’s minds than going out seafaring in weather like this.
Which made it all the more astonishing when I heard a couple of weeks ago that a sailboat had set out from Jamestown, RI., bound ostensibly for Australia by way of the southern ocean, with two people aboard on the eve of a serious, well-predicted blizzard that dumped a huge amount of snow, had some storm-force winds, and brought dangerously low temperatures across New England. Almost needless to say before they were barely a couple days out they called for a rescue and abandoned the boat.
That very same weekend, a little further south along the coast, a trimaran was abandoned and the people aboard airlifted out. All of this coming on the heels of the Rainmaker incident, a large, brand-new catamaran that sought to defy the North Atlantic winter weather, got dismasted, and was also abandoned after a crew rescue.
Now, I haven’t heard that any of these boats were in imminent peril of sinking—in fact, the search for Rainmaker’s presumed-still-afloat hulk was still ongoing a few days ago, so it seems the crew called for a rescue because they were wet, or scared, or cold, or afraid of becoming so. Don’t think I blame them for it: I’ll never judge anyone who calls for a bailout under any circumstances, since even a little while of being beat up, and cold and wet and uncertain amidst the tossing wavetops, or the threat of the same, can be a terrifying thing. No, I won’t say that they were wrong to call for help, but I will say they were wrong for putting to sea in the dead of winter, and for either not checking the forecast or ignoring it. One smacks of ignorance, the other of arrogance, and both of stupidity.
Now, to be fair, Danielle and I have done our share of things others might consider foolish—putting to sea with a near-gale and 17-foot swells predicted, groping around unknown fog-bound harbors in the dark, sailing to South America in a boat with a broken-off centerboard, messing around northern Newfoundland and the Cote du Nord in September, but always (I’d like to think), with an extra measure of caution, and a keen eye on weather and season. And maybe it’s only providential that our number hasn’t come up, but I don’t feel that we’ve tried anything that seems THAT unreasonable or strains credulity—certainly nothing like putting to sea ahead of a howling blizzard in the dead of winter in a boat only recently bought off of eBay. Or in a brand-new, pretty much untested boat, as was the case with Rainmaker, and astonishingly enough, a brand-new Alpha Cat that suffered a similar fate one year before that.
It’s not as though the perils of wintertime sailing are unknown. The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, set circa the thirteenth century, has Sir Patrick, the best sailor of his time, bemoaning the news that he must put to sea in winter:
“O Wha is this has done this deed,
This ill deed done to me,
To send me out this time o’ the year,
To sail upon the sea!”
They drowned, of course, Sir Patrick and his Scots lords, and left their bonnets swimming half o’er to Aberdour. But closer to home, we have another cautionary tale: The Wreck of the Hesperus, by Longfellow, tells of a storm that wrecks a New England schooner with the loss of all hands during an ill-advised winter trip:
“And then the shrouds, all sheathed in ice,
With the masts went by the board.
Like a vessel of glass, she stove and sank.
Ho ho! the breakers roared.”
Whether these poems are based on actual facts matters very little; the fact is, three boats in barely three weeks this winter were abandoned on the high seas, making one wonder what the owners could possibly have been thinking. Was it hubris? Ignorance? Arrogance? They might claim nothing more than a run of bad luck, but given this winter’s three, and last winter’s one, I hope sailors will think long and hard before attempting offshore passages in a season better suited for staying safely indoors, planning future voyages, and reading dark poetry.