It was a bad start. We had two days of pea-soup fog off Newport and no wind of any consequence—and then two days of no wind at all. We just drifted in the Gulf Stream and watched the fungus grow on clothing and whatever else was stored below. The heat of the Stream warmed Scylla's fiber-glass hull to about 75°. The sun had added its share of heat by beating down on us as we ghosted along on the road to Bermuda.
But about 1530 that fifth afternoon, a Wednesday, we felt some air come in, and the boat came alive. We were soon responding to this opportunity by piling up onto the deck to enjoy the new experience and set and trim all the sail we could. At 1600 hours the destroyer Hank, our escort vessel, came on the air with the afternoon weather report, which was local squalls and clearing.
At 1800 Jack Weston, Findlay Corsar and myself, as well as Charlie Ulmer, the skipper-owner, reluctantly went off watch. At this point we had reefed in the main. Scylla was driving with a bone in her teeth on a close reach, and as the light began to go we passed others of our size—much to our glee. The cabin was still like a steam bath, and the humidity from the rain squalls that accompanied the freshening air kept everyone sweating, but sweating happily.
There just isn't anything like a cold martini, some chow and the lively motion of a hull driving through the sea to make a sailor happy, and that's just what we had. Jack had stripped to his skivvies; Charlie, Findlay and myself to just about the same. Joe DaCorte, our navigator, worked the helm while we ate.
By 2000 hours we were heeling over so that we were having difficulty getting about below. We decided that before turning in we would go on deck and help the other watch reduce sail so we wouldn't get called out of the sack to do this later on.
We all agreed that we should roll in more reef in the main and go to a No. 4 Genoa with a very high foot and low center of effort that would prevent the seas from loading the sail with water and eventually exploding it. After we finished we all sat up on the weather deck watching with great interest as our proud Scylla began to drive through a forest of masthead lights. Damn—if this wasn't the very essence of ocean racing!
By now the seas were extremely heavy, perhaps 30 to 35 feet high, and wind gusts were 55 knots—so violent that the tops of the seas were being ripped off and tossed on our decks, depositing the residue of the sea—sargasso seaweed, flying fish trying to escape our scuppers, even swimming between us and the cabin house in their rush back to the sea.
Before we went back on deck after chow, we had re-dressed for the storm. I still recall wearing a turtleneck sweater my grandmother knit for me during World War II and my foul-weather gear. Also, we all wore safety belts that permitted us to hook up to the ship to prevent being swept overboard.
Jack Weston hastily put his foul-weather suit over his underwear and slipped into someone else's Top-Siders in his haste to get back up on deck. It was still warm, and clothing did not seem particularly necessary.
Once on deck, we persuaded the other watch that we had too much sail and the boat was laboring. We all shortened sail. I guess Joe DaCorte became bored under shortened canvas, so at this point Chuck Wiley took over the helm.
Weston, sitting near the forward end of the cabin house, Corsar, just aft of him, and I, next to the after end of the cabin house, remained on deck. Two of the other watch, who were the duty watch, sat in the cockpit. They were Ray Kaufman, a well-known Snipe champion and naval architect, and Ed Curran, a veteran of ocean racing.
DaCorte was below now, as were Ulmer and the remaining member of the crew, Joe Dempsey. They began to bail with pails as, much to our surprise, the water suddenly came over the floorboards. Our pump would not pump. All the labels from our bilge-stored canned goods had soaked off and clogged our electric and mechanical equipment. This is the price we paid for organizing an ocean racing party too late in the season and not having a "soaking" party to remove the labels at home.
The three of us on the weather deck and off duty decided to stay there. The boat was being well sailed and no more than three could pass pails of water up on deck at one time, so we decided to conserve our energy until the bailers needed relief and then we three would take over their job.
We sat thinking of Beryl's (Charlie Ulmer's daughter's) remark as we left Newport for the race start. Scylla was built of fiber glass and was seamless, so there should be no leakage. "Don't worry, Dad, you will only leak through one crack—right up the middle." She was referring to some early hulls built in two parts which split in half. No one was scared, but with a boat full of water coming from God knew where, with mountainous seas and a constantly freshening wind, there was some anxiety.
It was late—perhaps midnight—when Jack passed the word aft that he was cold, and wanted to hit the sack. Charlie and his group below had gained against the rising water, and there seemed no reason why he should not. It was necessary to unhook Jack's safety belt from the rail, pass it over each stanchion, and then rehook it in order for him to reach the companionway. Each time we did so, one of us would grab him by the belt while someone else rehooked his belt onto another section of rail.
I was next to the companionway, and had the last grab. Holding his belt I lowered him down two steps on the companionway ladder. He was facing forward and hanging on. "Are you O.K., Jack?" I asked. "Yes," he replied. I undid his hook, and handed it to him. He fastened it to the ring in his belt, and started down the ladder facing aft.
As he was turning, a gigantic sea hit Scylla under her starboard quarter and pitched Jack out of the hatch like a circus performer fired from a cannon. The main boom and sail were just beyond where Jack dropped, so they failed to stop his flight. He fell between the stanchion rail and the waterway combing. I reached for him as he flew out and can to this day feel his belt rip my fingers as I tried to grab hold. I suppose one or two seconds at most elapsed as we watched in horror—and then Jack was gone into the boiling sea.
Ray Kaufman was the first to react. He shouted, "My God, he's overboard! Jack's overboard!"
We didn't know it at the time, but the effort to rescue Jack began before the race. A few months before we left Newport, he and I were riding in a car together and Jack said, half asking, half recounting, "I was going to put a case of liquor on Scylla for the race. Remember after the Block Island race when our wind indicator and compass lights killed our 12-volt battery and we couldn't start the diesel and had to sail from Stamford to City Island? Well," continued Jack, "I've decided to put a new 12-volt auxiliary battery and a set of jumper cables on board instead of the booze."
Kaufman's shouting brought us all out of shock, and we began to move. Chuck Wiley at the helm yelled into the cabin, "Navigator, give me a reciprocal course." Kaufman went to the weather side, our starboard, and cast adrift a rescue light with a horseshoe life ring attached. Ed Curran released a 10-foot-high flag and buoy that would locate the spot when daylight arrived. Findlay and I knew the boat was to be jibed, so we went forward to work the deck. We had little trouble getting the No. 4 Genoa down, but when we released the main halyard (it was on a self-winding winch and was of stainless-steel cable) we had a gigantic backlash on our hands from the great pressure on the sail slides. No one had released the main-sheet to ease this pressure off the mainsail. The wind and sea were so violent that those in the cockpit could not hear us ask them to do so.
Eventually, Fin and I managed to wind out the backlash with the wrench he carried on his belt and by my jumping up on the main boom and hauling on the bolt rope. We were still hooked on by our safety belts, but it was nonetheless an effort to stay aboard and still get the mainsail down. Meanwhile, our navigator had figured a reciprocal course and went to work on the ship-to-shore radio. He never did raise anyone.
While I was securing lines at the mast step, I kept looking aft at a strange light following us. I finally made myself heard, and Kaufman investigated only to find the old style rescue light he had thought he had released for Weston had fouled around the mizzen sheet and was, in fact, still secured to Scylla. He then threw over the new strobe-type rescue light and life ring, which we soon left far astern; we had not yet jibed Scylla.
Charlie Ulmer tried to start the engine with no success. The diesel just would not turn over. At this point Charlie carried forward the new 12-volt battery Jack had put aboard in place of a case of liquor. He hooked on the jumper cables, led them on deck and into a sail locker on the lee (port) side to secure them to the regular 12-volt system that was located in that locker. To do so he had to climb into the sail locker, and he had me shut it above him so the seas would not enter. It takes nerve to crawl into a dark locker thinking your boat is sinking, and ask someone to close the hatch on top of you.
We finally managed to get the diesel going, only to discover the propeller was out of water so much of the time we had no steerageway. The mizzen was taken down, and Findlay and I went forward and hauled up the jib, as it was obvious we would have to turn the boat with the help of that sail. Once the jib was flying we were able to wear the boat around.
Meanwhile, Kaufman kept an eye out in the direction of the second strobe light he had released. We could not see the light at first but in minutes—we don't know how many—we began to see a pulsing-halo effect such as you experience when approaching a lighted city at night by air. The surface light was being refracted by the tops of the seas torn off by the wind and turned into wind spume. When we got to the light, Jack was there, too—bobbing in the heavy seas and waving the light. He was hollering to us, his words fighting the wind. "I'm all right," he was saying.
Our approach to Jack was almost downwind, being the reciprocal of a very close reach when we lost him. We were on port tack, and our plan was to try and pick him up in the lee of the boat. It became quickly apparent we could not slow down, and if we moved in we might crush Jack with our bow. Ulmer grabbed a new spinnaker sheet from a sail locker and heaved one end to Jack. He just missed it. Then we brought the boat around into the wind. DaCorte and I lay in the windward waterway and Chuck eased Scylla up to Jack, and as a sea surged Joe and I rolled Jack on board, rescue light and all. Just then the diesel went dead. We raised a well-reefed main, the sails took charge and off we went back to hull speed.
Weston, in emotional shock, was put to bed. Wiley, Kaufman and I remained on deck the remainder of the night. Wiley had the helm at least 10 hours without a spell. Once during the remainder of the night a sea similar to the one which sent Weston over the side hit us and sent me all the way across the cockpit into the lee rail. I was hooked on and so cheated the sea of its prize. Wiley was also thrown, but the tiller caught him in the stomach and prevented his departure. In the darkness I wondered if Scylla would founder and the sea consume us all. In fact, I wondered why I had ever taken up ocean racing in the first place.
Dawn arrived, and now six years later I can still clearly see it and sense it as though it happened yesterday.
With the first gray light I began to see the size of the seas. I sat in utter awe as Scylla slid from a crest 40 feet in the air to a trough 40 feet below without turning turtle. As we reached the bottom of a trough our sails would go almost slack, since we were then below the wind. Then a sea would surge in under us and send us on a wild elevator ride back up into the gale and spray and cresting spine of each successive wave. Soon the sun came into view. As the clouds broke up and the sky grew brilliantly blue and the warmth of the sun increased, I began to enjoy the race again. The sea was still running big and the wind was strong, but it was apparent the worst was over. And we were still afloat.
The boys below who had had some sleep began to stir, and after a good breakfast we got down to the serious business of assessing our damages and opportunities.
Up forward we found the spinnaker halyard had gone adrift in the rescue and had fouled about the headstay aloft where a long steel pennant leads from the jib halyard to the head of the Genoa. With the jib fouled we were unable to change headsails.
We had no structural damage, but when Charlie threw over the spinnaker sheet in attempting to rescue Jack, it had fouled the propeller as we turned about, and that was the reason the diesel went dead. This is rather ironic considering Charlie manufactures throwing lines of polyvinyl that float and he had two aboard, but both were stowed away in the lazaret.
About 1100 that morning Jack came up on deck. He wanted to be alone, so we left him sitting amidships in the sun. Little by little he began to thaw out, and to tell us of his experience.
"I watched the stern light of Scylla disappear as my eyes adjusted to the light and the first shock of finding myself overboard wore away. I just knew you guys were the kind who would come back for me." But when we had sailed on Jack said he had reached a point of giving up hope. The seas were monstrous, and he could see no lights. Despair set in. About this time in Jack's experience Kaufman must have launched the strobe light. At some later point Jack became aware of this pulsing light and hope re-awakened. He removed his foul-weather suit and started swimming toward the light. Jack had been a fine competitive swimmer and knew how to swim in the surf. He rallied all his strength and swam under the waves and their dangerous crests until he finally reached the light.
I had had the helm a while and asked to be relieved. When I was, I went up and asked Jack if he would help me run a new halyard through the spare masthead block he had installed in Newport. This block made it possible to continue racing. Soon Jack was involved and by midafternoon was back up on the fore-deck as full of fire as ever. Scylla felt good; she was driving and so were we. By dusk we sighted Kitchen Shoals. By midnight we could see the finish.
We crossed the line at 0300, six days out of Newport. We dropped our canvas and took a tow from the very accommodating Bermudians since our propeller was still fouled from the rescue. Where did we finish? We finished twelfth in fleet—all of us.