Tuesday, April 1, 2014


In 2004, I signed on to help crew a 53-foot Catamaran sailing vessel from the port of Norfolk, Virginia in the USA to Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands.

There were four of us on board: the Captain/Owner, two other sailors and me.

It was in the fall, so the purpose of the trip was to get the boat safely out to sea and over to the Caribbean before hurricane season started. The year before, hurricane Katrina had shattered and battered many vessels in ports along the Atlantic Coast of the U.S.

We were part of a ‘Rally of Sailing Vessels’ that included around 50 boats. We’d ship off together, go our separate ways, and then stay in touch by daily radio contact in the evenings. Every captain and crew prided themselves on being superior navigators and sailors to all others, so there was a serious though good-spirited competition about getting to the islands with the most speed and efficiency. After much deliberation, some captains bet on a due east course; others due south; and variations thereof -- so in the evenings we kept track of one-another's progress. (I liken this pre-sail talk to the pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo that takes place before a horserace. In the end, ‘Lady Luck’ plays as much a  role in your outcome as anything else.)

Being on a 50-foot state-of-the-art Catamaran, we were favorites to arrive in the first echelon of arrivals to the islands. Plus, our Captain was a very skilled and proud sailor from West Texas. He certainly did not want us arriving behind any traditional wooden sailing vessels

It is generally a six to nine day trip depending on wind and currents, and we were sailing on target to reach the port of Tortola in 6 ½ to 7 days. The Captain had chartered our initial course due south, in the trail winds of a tropical storm that was expected to hit land in Puerto Rico and lose its force. From there, we expected smooth sailing northward to port. Cap’n  had picked the right course and we navigated it successfully.

Though on day 6, a high-pressure front on the opposite side of the island of Puerto Rico pushed the storm back out to sea and right at us. Even though tropical storms usually do dissipate with land fall, sometimes they don’t; and when they don’t, they come back to sea with even greater intensity (more moisture) than before.

Before we heard the updated weather reports, we knew something was ‘up’ when we sat down together on the back-deck and while eating barbecued Texas Ribs and listening to Roy Orbison, 12-foot swells lobbed  us up and down like a toy in a bathtub.

This is when you learn the real and literal meaning of ‘weathering a storm’. Because that is all you can do – weather it, survive it any way you can. All sails come down, the Captain mans the helm and you find a safe place to stow away on the boat while remaining awake and alert to help out in an emergency if need be. Though your main job is to not go overboard, and, not let any vital equipment or supplies go over.

So that’s what we did for the next 36 hours or so.

The storm finally passed in the early evening of the second night. Then the four of us, feeling and looking shell-shocked, gathered together again in the cabin of the boat to listen as the Captain made radio contact with the rest of the Rally for the first time in a couple of days. (Seemed much longer.)

It’s hard to describe the sense of relief, exhaustion and discomfort one feels at the end of  being battered around like that for the better part of two days. Naturally, you don’t sleep, or eat, or change your clothes.  You are soaked from head to toe with briny salt water, sweat, and other bodily discharges we won’t get into here.

We learned that a few boats had high-tailed it to the Bahamas, and another ducked under the storm and snuck into a port on the southern coast of Puerto Rico. (Obviously, they were the ones with Lady Luck on board.)

Everyone else was fine save for an older wooden vessel that had been demasted during the storm, which meant they were no longer able to set sail. Additionally, they were not sure if they had enough fuel reserves on board to power their way to the Virgin Islands, which was now at least another day and a half of further travel.  The Rally-Master asked for our position, the longitude and latitude coordinates. Turns out we were the closest vessel to the one in distress. Plus, as I said, our captain was from Texas: we had by far the largest stock of fuel-oil reserves (along with bourbon and cigars) than any other vessel in the Rally.

To give you an idea of how terrific the storm was, the boat in distress and its crew had circumnavigated the globe several times and never once had to be assisted into a port.

I had never felt more exhausted in my life, and when I heard my crew-mates mumble something about a Coast Guard rescue, I half-heartedly thought that it sounded like a sensible idea. The Coast Guard would be better equipped, and their crew fresher.

2004 was an election year in the US. George W. was trying to win a second term as president against Senator John Kerry. John Kerry was a decorated war veteran, and Bush, well, was Bush.

So the issue of leadership became central during the campaign and there was a national debate about what constituted leadership, and what attributes made someone a leader. Presidential elections in the US rarely produce interesting unpasteurized candidates, but some of the issues that come up inadvertently during the endless campaigns often raise thought-provoking considerations. ‘What is Leadership?’ was the leading one this year.

If my crew mates and I were tired, our collective fatigue could not compare to what our Captain was feeling. He had stood at the helm of the vessel throughout the duration of the storm literally driving through it head on. But when the Rally Master asked our Captain if he was willing and able to go and rescue the other boat – deliver it the fuel it needed to motor to port – without hesitation, our Captain said ‘Yes, sir. Tell their Captain we will be there just before sunrise tomorrow morning.’

‘Leadership?’ I thought to myself, ‘There it is.’

For a detailed account of the trip click here.


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