“Hey, look! A whirling dervish!” Ryan exclaims with delight and confusion, like he’s just spotted a floating Dairy Queen selling soft-serve off the coast of Virgin Gorda.
Despite the smile on his face, there’s something about the way Ryan is pointing to starboard with his neck strained to get a better view of the sky that quickly alerts me to shut down the stove in the galley and leap up the companionway.
There are three things I know before I even reach the cockpit:
1) Despite being an English teacher, Ryan almost never uses comprehensible vocabulary for things unfamiliar to him.
2) “Whirling” is not a word that should be used to describe anything on the open ocean. At least not with a smile.
3) The Caribbean is not where one commonly finds Turkish men in white skirts spinning in meditative circles.
“Holy shit, it’s a waterspout!” I scream in panic, tripping over the companionway in my haste to jump up into the cockpit.
“Um, is that bad? Like, take the sails down bad?” asks Ryan.
“Yes, it’s bad! Very VERY bad! Jesus, remember the waterspout that knocked down GB in the Clipper Race?!”
I’m watching a spinning funnel of unpredictable air and water, like a skinny, black, aquatic tornado, headed directly for Hideaway with an angry, spitting vengeance.
“You get the jib and I’ll do the main!” Ryan yells, grabbing a winch handle.
We up the throttle on the engine and break a sweat cranking the winch handles with both hands as fast as we can, furling in both sails in a matter of seconds. We are in a race not to be knocked down but we can’t help but pause and stare with alarm at the looming black cloud overhead, as we watch the water at the base of the spout being kicked up violently. The only thing we know for sure is the waterspout is moving towards us much faster than we can possibly motor away from it at full throttle.
The wind is dead on our nose, so my only hope is that the wind carries the black cloud hovering over us astern as fast as possible, taking the waterspout with it so we can avoid the thrill of being bitch-slapped by a funnel.
As we stare nervously off to starboard with our engine screaming at 2100 RPMs, the waterspout suddenly veers away from us and towards Virgin Gorda.
Our shoulders relax and we breathe a sigh of relief as Hideaway motors forward towards St. Martin, our destination, under a clear sky in 12 knots of wind. Though as the black cloud is drifting further and further away, I swivel my neck 360 degrees every few minutes to make sure no other surprises are creeping up behind us.
This is our second attempt at leaving the Virgin Islands to join our friends, s/v Senara and s/v Pelita, in St. Martin. Yesterday, we left our mooring ball in Maho Bay, St. John at 7 am because the forecast showed light winds from the northeast, which would give us a calm motor-sail to St. Martin, roughly 185 nm away.
But as we motored past Virgin Gorda and nudged our nose out into the waves building up on our bow, Celia, our black and white cat, took on the look of a tortured soul and proceeded to vomit every 20 minutes. The wind was blowing 28 knots from the east, directly on the nose, with swells of 6-8 feet knocking us around and causing Celia to empty the contents of her stomach while Charlie, our deaf cat, slept peacefully in the V-berth, snoring away even as she bounced off the mattress in the crashing waves.
We watched the anemometer closely as we carried on optimistically, hoping the forecast of 5-10 knots from the northeast and 0-3 foot seas would materialize as promised.
When Ryan screamed from the helm, I was below deck, trying to soothe our seasick cat. “Quick, get up here! I need help!” Ryan was shouting. I bounded up into the cockpit to find Ryan desperately holding onto our dinghy as half of it bounced up and down in the waves behind the boat. Hideaway was heeling so severely that it had loosened the lines securing Mighty Mouse and knocked it off its hooks. I ran to the stern and grabbed a handle so Ryan and I could both yank the dinghy upwards and back onto its hooks, just missing an opportunity to learn how to fish a loose dinghy out of the sea from a moving sailboat.
“What do you think? Should we keep going or turn around?” Ryan asked.
We looked at the waves sloshing the boat around, then at Celia’s miserable expression, the string of drool dangling from her mouth, and we agreed it was time to turn the boat around and try to make it back to Virgin Gorda before sundown.
Sometime during the night, the howling wind died down and the boat stopped swinging violently on its Saba Rock mooring. And by the time we woke up, the seas were as flat and calm as they were predicted to be the day before.
Optimistic as ever, we left Saba Rock just before sun up and nudged our nose out past Virgin Gorda once again, hopeful for a calm crossing with no surprises this time.
As we downed our morning coffee, Ryan and I looked intently at Mighty Mouse, still hanging on its hooks on the stern and decided to haul the dinghy up and strap it down on the foredeck. After all, we’d be fools not to learn from the previous day’s mishap.
With the dinghy secured on deck, we drank our coffee in peace, listening to the din of the engine as the sun crept up over the horizon, confident we’d made the right decision in turning around the night before. We encountered a problem, we examined our options and we’d made a decision we were happy with. This was what sailing was all about — letting go of control and adapting to the changing conditions at sea.
But just as we started feeling smug and comfortable, like we’d seen it all and could handle anything, Mother Nature rubbed her hands together and stirred up another challenge.
Today it’s “whirling dervishes.” Tomorrow, who knows?
Footage of Great Britain’s encounter with a waterspout during the 13-14 Clipper Round the World Yacht Race, which Ryan and I both participated in: