That Damn Guy!
October 26th, 2017 - By Patrick T. McBriarty
I have been anxious the past several weeks and the funny thing is . . . it is probably Mark’s fault. The anxiety is over potential mishaps and fears of sailing a small sailboat on the Atlantic. It has caused several sleepless nights. Looking back on the eve of setting off it has been two months alternating between outright worry and sweeping my fears under a rug of overconfidence and positive thoughts. Yet, most days they creep back, particularly at night.
Having raced sailboats for twenty-five years and completed five Chicago to Mackinac Races, I know all too well that conditions on the Great Lakes can quickly deteriorate, become rough and dangerous. Lake Michigan takes lives every year due to weather, accidents, and/or poor judgement. I have chartered and cruised sailboats from island to island in the Caribbean, and helped with three deliveries of a 40’ sailboat up or down the East Coast. So all-in-all I am reasonably well prepared for this impending trip.
My anxiety stems (love that word STEM ;)) from the last delivery in 2006 and getting caught in a storm 120-miles off the Carolinas. Winds got well over 40 knots and a night so dark I (thankfully) could not see how big the waves were. What ensued after midnight was a lot of shouting, a couple dicey jibes, two of four crew members incapacitated by sea sickness (luckily not the skipper or myself), confused seas, a loss of steering (thankfully temporary), and a Satellite phone call to my parents at 2 a.m. to ask my Dad inform the Coast Guard of our current position and situation (precautionary). Sometime before dawn the winds settled to the low 30s and then high 20s. By dawn we could see wind torn seas of 8-to-12 feet with a favorable wind direction (in the upper to mid-20s), and without debate we sailed west to reach safe harbor (Wilmington, NC). Without the use of our engine and the aid of SeaTow we docked just before dark. The entire next day was spent repairing the boat’s electronic instruments, getting a diver to remove the tangled rope around the prop, running errands and making other repairs. Thanks, Mom and Dad for meeting us at the boat and shuttling us around!
To say my storm experience, “was not fun,” goes way beyond understatement. I was miserable, hated being stuck in such a situation (with little or no control), and afterward just waiting for an excuse to jump ship. I did not want to spend the following week to take the boat any further. Only keeping my word and the fact the other two crew members did not jump ship kept me on board. But I digress.
It was a call to Brian, who in the course of the conversation threw out the possibility of joining him and his son Blue (age 15) to sail from Onset, Massachusetts to Bermuda, and if I was game from there to the Caribbean. The first leg to Bermuda is about 750 miles. The second leg to the Caribbean almost 1,000 miles. For many sailors, an offer like this would be the trip of a lifetime. As a writer and author my schedule gave me the freedom to do it. Within a 10-minute conversation I was essentially committed, it was later I began having second thoughts.
I never really liked long distance sailing and prefer sleeping in my own bed. Yet somehow, I could not turn this trip down, the specter of getting caught in a storm be damned. Seasickness was my greatest fear, but rouge waves, hitting a partially submerged shipping container, or being hit by a freighter were not far behind. I knew Dramamine or Bonine would help counteract the dreaded mal de mer and it worked in my last storm experience, but…there was a lot more to think about. The Atlantic is no Lake Michigan.
While these thoughts swirled in my subconscious the severe hurricane season fired off Irma (early September) and Maria (two weeks later) ravaging the British Virgin Islands (our planned destination). I tried calming myself with Brian’s refrain that we would choose a good weather window. Officially the hurricane season starts June 1 and ends November 30th, however most storms hit during peak season between August and October.
The plan was to drive to Onset, Massachusetts on Buzzards Bay where the boat awaited, arriving on Thursday. We would provision and hopefully finish final preparation of the boat on Friday to potentially leave as early as Saturday, October 28th. Would we be taking too big of a risk leaving during hurricane season?
On the plus side, we did not have a set schedule so a favorable forecast and conditions would dictate leaving for Leg 1, a 4-6 day sail to Bermuda. Then we would hang out in Bermuda a few days before picking a second weather window for the 6-9 day sail to the Virgin Islands (either U.S. or British). The weather and what we find once in the Caribbean to determine where we stay and how long. Apparently the islands further south were less ravaged particularly from St. Lucia down to the Grenadines. My expectation is to fly back around Thanksgiving time, while Brian and Blue will cruise the boat through the islands and plan to come back to the U.S. in the spring.
Today, breaking this down and looking at the current weather outlook I am feeling pretty excited by the prospects for Leg 1. No major storms. Plus, I know and trust Brian more than I trust most skippers to do this trip. I have also spent some time with his son, who I like as well. Brian sailed his own small sailboat around the world in his early 30s and this new boat (I’ve seen pictures) was lunched in 2015, and he bought it specifically for it’s design for ocean-going passages like this. The boat is a Kurt Hughes catamaran and we hope average speeds of 8-12 knots per hour will allowing us to easily rack up 200-300 mile days (overly optimistic). This would greatly shorten the time away from landfall and risk of catching an open ocean storm.
Last week I felt became apoprehensive researching recommended courses from New England to the Caribbean. I stumbled across an article by Don Street entitled, “Sailing South? Forget Bermuda.” Needless to say this fueled my fears and I emailed Brian talking about a life raft. Two different friends had offered life rafts for the trip, but Brian seemed indifferent by his emailed response the next morning. I tried NOT to freak out. Other sailing friends I was with at the time could not believe it. I made some phone calls and put in motion getting a borrowed life raft certified and shipped in time for our departure.
Then I called Brian. He explained he had done this passage to Bermuda a half-dozen times (north or south) and viewed this as a romp in the neighborhood, compared to sailing around the world (repeating this does make me feel better). He did not want me to worry, the boat is unsinkable, floats if capsized, which by the way is nearly impossible given the relatively small sail area and wide beam. It is not like it is a little 16’ beach catamaran. Okay, YES, I was being a pain in the ass, but lacked his experience and had real concerns, but I did still want in on the trip. Brian’s abrupt email had been sent while he was knee deep in a 25-page punch list of spare parts, safety, and backup items for the trip. His resistance assumed mounting a canister life raft. There was no deck space nor easy way to attach such a thing to the boat.
We talked through things. I explained the raft was in a valise and the size of two stacked pizza boxes. He made it clear I would have to take full responsibility for it. Brian already knew most airlines no longer let you check a life raft as luggage. The compressed air cylinder (allowing it to automatically inflate) raises safety issues in our post 9/11 world. However, I had already called UPS International and they will take life rafts via air freight. Brian recognized my apprehension and desire for a life raft, “Yes, of course he would be crazy to not want a life raft,” and volunteered that it would fit nicely under the pilot house table. So problem solved.
As I mentioned this angst was all Mark Devries’ fault. He and I met about fifteen years ago through a mutual friend in Cincinnati, who worked at Fidelity Investments. When Mark moved to NW Indiana our friend introduced us and became good friends. We were both single at the time. We got along well and took a couple trips together. One vacation in the Bahamas with friends Jamie and Sue, involved sailing little two-person sailboats (called Sea Pearls) and camping on the mostly deserted islands of the Abaco Islands for a week. Mark and I were paired (not in the biblical sense) on one of the three boats and I admit we did sleep together that week (simply sharing a tent). Mark complained (good naturedly, I think) about my snoring and I was witness to his explosive early morning reaction to a greasy pork steak from the night before. The ensuing hilarity became a favorite story among friends.
Brian created the charter company, led the trip, cooked for the six of us (including a fun Canadian couple) and we got to know him and his wife over the course of the trip. In subsequent years, we would catch up with Brian, who was also a pilot and had his own airplane. We once flew (white knuckled) with him from Michigan to the Bahamas. Another time Mark and I made a road trip to his house in Michigan for his Australian themed Outback Party.
Mark, a fun-loving, irreverent, and yet quite responsible guy worked with a couple different small and mid-sized banks in NW Indiana (close to his family) after leaving Fidelity. Helping people was always at the core of Mark’s motivation sharing his knowledge to help folks with significant life choices regarding money, investments, and planning financial security. It was Mark that talked me into doing a self-guided bicycling trip around the Ring of Kerry (Ireland). The following year, with three other friends we bicycled around Tuscany (Italy). It was Mark during that trip who in retort to my tired, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” refrain to encourage continuing our bike ride, coined the gem (that soon became a running gag), “Onward Christian Slater!” Just some of the typical wacky, irreverent, clever and good spirited humor Mark is known for. We all laughed so hard, in recollection I can hardly believe we did not fall off our bikes.
The reason I even talked to Brian’s let alone got invited to take this trip was because of our friend Mark. He had been better about keeping in touch with Brian and would keep Brian and I updated about the other. I called Brian because Mark was suddenly taken from us by a heart attack. At the wake Mark’s sister and brother-in-law asked if I would write something about Mark that could eventually be shared with his young son, Matthew. Of course, I agreed, but over the past couple months, I have thought about it, but could not muster the words or impulse to begin. It seems embarking on this trip and writing about this IS a bitter sweet a gift from the “old man.”
I don’t know if Mark would have wanted to join us on this trip. Most likely he would have given his typical response, “Hey man, I got stuff to do.” A nod to his sense of responsibility to his family and work. Yet, I got a bit choked up thinking . . . in Mark’s heart of hearts or a younger less attached Mark would have dropped everything and joined us. Now in a way he will be with us (at least in spirit) to yuck (and hopefully not yack) it up with us on the trip.
When one door closes . . . I hope Mark’s friends and family will not mind my sharing memories of him. I miss him and like the thought (now that it has occurred to me) that this trip is about something bigger. It’s not just some middle-aged guy taking a chance and confronting his ocean of fears. I know for Brian it is bigger and about sharing his love of sailing, adventure, and the sea with his son Blue. And I already have a strong sense of honor and shared kindness at being invited to share and contribute to this trip with them. Thanks Mark, though I’m sure I’ll be cursing you at some point later on the high seas!
This aside the non-sailor might still wonder, “why even get on a small boat for a trip like this?” A fair question and best answered in additional posts to describe the trip’s progress . . .