Excerpt: 'Overboard! A True Bluewater Odyssey of Disaster and Survival'

by Michael J. Tougias

Cover image of "Overboard! A True Blue-Water Odyssey of Disaster and Survival"
Cover image of "Overboard! A True Blue-Water Odyssey of Disaster and Survival"

In May, 2005, a crew of five people set off on the sailboat, Almesian, for a five-day voyage from Connecticutt to Bermuda. While the captain and first mate had made the trip dozens of times in the past, this trip would be different. Four days into the voyage, an enormous storm hit the ship, sweeping two of the crew into the sea. "Overboard!" tells the life and death struggles of the crew as they waited to be rescued from the middle of the ocean.

Chapter Three: A Warning

Sunshine streams down on the Almeisan on Wednesday morning as the boat turns south, passing through Plum Gut off Long Island’s Orient Point.  By noon the Almeisan rounds the tip of Long Island at Montauk and is now in the open waters of the North Atlantic, heading in a southeasterly direction.  The gray seas are relatively calm, with wave heights of one to two feet, and the air is still, dashing the crews hopes that they would be able to raise some sails once outside of Long Island Sound.

Ron Burd especially wants wind, and he even hopes for a bit of heavy weather, wishing to learn all he can from Tom – in all kinds of conditions – before he attempts to make a similar offshore voyage on his own boat. The former Marine and businessman has recently retired, selling his civil engineering company in New Hampshire, and he finally has time to spend more days on the water.

Ron perks up when he hears Tom on the radio, talking to a ketch traveling north.  Tom learns that the ketch is heading to Nova Scotia, and he jokes to the passing captain that they are going the wrong way, meaning the warm weather is behind them.  The captain on the other boat, however, is dead serious when he responds, “No, you’re going the wrong way.  There’s a low pressure system forming off the Carolinas.”

Tom already knows about this forecast, and answers, “Well, we’ll take the good with the bad.”

Tom and Loch know the low pressure system is expected to move due north, just off the coastline.  They estimate that by the time the low is as far north as the Almeisan’s position, they will be well to the east of the low pressure’s center, and out of danger.

The crew has listened to the exchange between the captains on the radio, and Tom assures them that if a gale does take shape, the Almeisan will be a safe distance away.  He explains that during many of his Bermuda trips he encounters heavy weather, and the Almeisan is more than capable of getting through it.  He does not volunteer specifics about the weather forecasts he’s heard, and Ron and Chris don’t dwell on the ominous words of the captain from the other sailboat.  Kathy, however, finds it difficult to do the same.  Her thoughts go back to her friend who drowned when he tried to stay on schedule while sailing.  We’re just off Montauk, she tells herself, we can go into port at New York City.  Kathy knows she’s the only one thinking this, but still considers asking Tom to drop her off in New York.  Then, her sense of responsibility and obligation pushes that thought away.

That evening Tom serves a lobster stew his wife made just prior to the trip.  The seas are still tranquil, almost glassy, and the air temperature is a comfortable 65 degrees.  Loch is talking about the approaching sunset and explains how he once saw the unusual green flash that sometimes occurs at the moment the sun dips below the watery horizon.  “And when we get to the Gulf Stream, it has its own micro-climate.  Not only is the water warmer, but the air also.  Each crossing is different, but all of them – at least for me – are extraordinary experiences.”  He explains that one of the main reasons he takes this yearly trip, is that nothing else can rival the feeling of being this close to nature.

On Thursday morning, there’s a hint of wind, and the crew is upbeat as they watch dolphins race in the bow wave of the boat and whales breaching off the port side, making Loch’s comments about nature seem prescient. Under motor, the Almeisan makes about six knots, continuing on its southeast course.  By late morning, a bit of breeze blows, and the crew is finally able to set the mainsail.  A three to four foot swell rolls beneath the boat, rocking it gently from side to side.  Tom explains that they will soon be crossing the continental shelf, and he keeps the motor running, knowing they are a bit behind schedule.

Everyone is enjoying themselves, but Kathy continues to be concerned about the low pressure system coming up the coast.  She keeps the worry to herself, not wanting to put a damper on the good mood and great chemistry of the crew.  Still, she can’t help but pay close attention to the marine weather reports occasionally announced on the radio.  And even though she does not fully understand what is being said in regards to the various geographic positions given on the broadcast, she hears enough to know that the ride is going to be a lot rougher in the coming days.

Tom, sensing her apprehension, tells her not to lose any sleep over it, and to let him worry about the weather.  Ever prudent, though, Tom has the crew make preparations for heavy weather.  The anchor rode (rope) is disconnected from the Danforth anchor so that the rode can be stowed below deck, while the anchor is secured to the bow pulpit.  Spinnaker halyards are secured to the bulwark, and hatches are dogged down. When the work is done, Kathy, Ron and Chris pass a couple hours playing cards, while Tom and Loch stand watch.

Tom makes beef stew for dinner, and everyone, except Chris, enjoys the meal.  Chris is feeling queasy – the first inkling of seasickness is upon him – as the swells grow to four feet.  He tries to stay active, plotting the Gulf Stream on the chart, and stowing the trash on the aft deck in an orange nylon bag tied to the rail.  But by 8 p.m. – about the time it begins raining – Chris is vomiting.  He is not prone to seasickness, but is so ill he is unable to stand watch.  Going below deck only makes his nausea worse, so he remains in the cockpit, spending much of the time lying on the deck.

Kathy feels fine physically, but seeing Chris become seasick, coupled with the rising seas, brings back her sense of unease.  She asks Tom about the latest weather forecast, and he again says it’s nothing to worry about, reminding her that they are approaching the Gulf Stream where it typically gets a little rough.  She isn’t buying the explanation, but instead thinks they are feeling the leading edge of the storm.  .

Approximately, 800 miles away, off the Georgia coast, the low pressure system is disorganized, and cloud cover extends far out to sea.  Earlier on Thursday, the ill-defined low pressure system crossed over Florida, heading in a northeasterly direction, picking up moisture from the ocean.  Pressure gradients, which funnel the wind in a counter-clockwise direction – characteristic of all lows – are not tightly packed, and wind gusts barely exceed 25 knots.  Satellite images do not yet reveal an “eye” or clear center to the system, but instead show a broken, yet massive, ceiling of cloud cover extending south off the Florida coast, and north all the way to Virginia.  At this time the system is slow moving, and meteorologists aren’t certain what will come of it, but one thing is clear; it’s heading north, directly toward the Almeisan.

Excerpted from “Overboard! A True Blue-Water Odyssey of Disaster and Survival” by Michael Tougias.
Copyright © 2010 by Michael Tougias. Excerpted by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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