Freezing and alone, three-hundred miles at sea in the dark, rescue swimmer Mike Odom lashes his arms to his life raft. He knows he’ll be dead soon and wants us to find his body – If he gets thrown out again we’ll never find him. The three sailors that he put in the back of the helicopter with me don’t know that we don’t have enough gas to get back. Not into this headwind. Pilot Jay Balda is thinking that his crew might be dead soon and its all his fault. Mark, our flight mechanic, is silently staring at the broken hoist cable thinking it’s his. I’m crying now, afraid for my friend and terrified for myself. I just want to live. But the two with the best chance to make it are on the forty foot sailing vessel Mirage, the one we flew out to “rescue.” They’re on their way to St. Thomas, making six knots under sail in a watertight boat. I’m blaming someone else.

I had been a Coast Guard rescue swimmer less than a year that night in January of 1995. For a long time I was angry and thought it was about fault. It wasn’t. The Mirage crew did the best they could with the information they had. Their experience led them to believe that being offshore was easy and fun and nothing really goes wrong. Their experience with heavy weather was purely conversational. When a late winter storm churned up an angry sea and they took a hard knock down they weren’t emotionally or physically ready for it.

My friends and I and the three men who jumped from their seaworthy boat got lucky nineteen years ago. A miraculous 180 degree shift in wind direction just when we needed it most allowed us to land in Wilmington, North Carolina instead of in the ocean. Thanks to the heroics of our C-130 crew – who shut down two engines so they could stay on-scene – Mike wasn’t lost. He was recovered, albeit unconscious from hypothermia, five and a half hours later by a second helicopter. He was back in the water on another rescue just a few days later.

Even with a favorable forecast, heavy weather can come up suddenly. To understand how to be ready for it I interviewed the experts and found out success in foul weather is about spending some time playing and practicing in it – on purpose.

“Heavy weather is a relative term. 35 knots – a gale – can seem like a survival storm if you have no experience. So, given the ease of summoning help now, you get people frightened of moderate conditions, then stop working the boat, and just want to get off.”, says Steve Dashew, a veteran cruiser, yacht designer, and co-author (with his wife Linda) of Surviving the Storm: Coastal & Offshore Tactics. “If the goal is successful offshore voyaging, then the most important thing any potential cruiser can do is learn how to handle his boat in general and in adverse weather. By going out in increasingly unpleasant situations – however that is defined – you gain experience and equally important, increase your anxiety threshold.”

Dashew’s suggestions are mirrored by another husband and wife team. Lin and Larry Pardey are not likely to install a wine cooler, theater system, or even air conditioning on their boats – Items many consider essential to comfort afloat. But they are experts at staying comfortable in extremely heavy weather. Their acclaimed Storm Tactics Handbook is on my list of must-read books for all recreational boaters. The idea of gradually increasing your comfort in increasingly harsher conditions is exactly the thing Lin Pardey advises before attempting an offshore crossing.

“You need to get your sea legs first”, Lin said. “What Larry and I suggest to people is that they find 15 knots of sustained wind, run hard on the wind and carry something heavy – a bucket of water perhaps – from stern to bow and back again. Then do the same thing in 25 knots of wind, then 35. Then you’ll have an idea how to move around in heavy weather.” The marble floor in the dining area is beautiful, but you’ll want to find a different place walk with your wet deck shoes in ten foot seas. Hand rails inside and 6,000 lb test jack lines on deck don’t often blend well with a yachts décor, but they are essential safety items which if absent can cost you everything.

Pardey believes that the number one problem in offshore cruising is that when the bad weather comes, people simply don’t (or cant) rest enough. “Fatigue is the killer,” she says. “When things get rough out there, the rule is half the crew, head down, half the time. Not just off the helm,” she insists, “but truly resting.”

That advice was impossible to take for one owner who had called the Coast Guard for rescue from the Marine Flower II – a 64 foot sloop – 380 miles off the coast of Virginia. There was absolutely nothing wrong with his vessel. But the “crew” for his crossing from Virginia to Bermuda was his 13-year-old daughter, his wife, and his infant son. Once the wind picked up and the moderately heavy seas started rolling in he was by himself. His wife could only hold her baby. After a valiant forty hour effort to single handle his boat against the 60 knot winds and 25 foot seas, he relented to better judgment and called for rescue. After several high risk helicopter hoists to retrieve his family – including his 4-month old – he patted me on the knee and passed out, never to see his dream boat again.

I should tell you that I’ve searched for boats far more often than I’ve sailed them. Though I’ve spent a lot of time in nasty weather hundreds of miles offshore – even hurricanes – more times than I care to count, my purpose was to get on and then off a boat as quickly as possible, and always with a very expensive helicopter and extremely well-trained crew hovering nearby. So I am in no position to argue about if it’s better to run before the storm or work your way to windward. I’ve read a lot about it, but I’ve never had to decide weather to heave-to or lay a-hull. There are just too many variables on the big water to call any one storm tactic “the best.” What I can tell you from experience is that I have never had to rescue someone that was hove-to with a Para-anchor, or pulling a drogue. Like my state trooper friend who often quips, “I’ve never unbuckled a dead man” I’m a big fan of what (apparently) works.

The comfort and peace of mind necessary to keep you on your boat can be dramatically increased for a comparatively moderate investment in training and equipment. Sea drogues and Para-anchors have been successfully used by sailors, power-boaters, and commercial fisherman to ride out otherwise unmanageable heavy weather. The Pardeys have set hove-to with a Para-anchor off of South Africa in 85-knot winds and 65 foot seas. “The boat road beautifully”, Lin told me; “it was just beautiful out there.” In seas and winds like I have only heard about, the Pardeys managed to be relaxed enough to enjoy the view – while getting much needed rest and a hot meal.

“The personal skill sets are far more important than the hardware on the boat.” warns Dashew. Along with offshore practice with different storm tactics, boaters should learn more about the cause of their anxiety. “The other main point is to spend some time learning about weather, and how to make your own onboard forecasts.” said Dashew. Not being there when the weather turns hostile is always a safer plan.

In his must-read book, Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales wrote, “The word “experienced” often refers to someone who has gotten away with doing the wrong thing more frequently than you have.” Getting on a boat and taking it to sea without being physically and emotionally ready for heavy weather is definitely a wrong thing that people frequently get away with, but not always.

The men who leapt into the ocean from the deck of the Mirage learned the hard way that they weren’t ready to be out there at all. They got away with their lives, but so did the two who remained aboard. Though one of them chose to abandon Mirage the following day, the captain landing safely in St. Thomas seventeen days later*. The point isn’t whether to abandon ship or not. Again, there are too many variables for absolutes. I’d rather someone send a Mayday too early than too late so if you believe you need to get off your boat, then you should. Just don’t let it be because you yourself aren’t ready for what your boat can handle.

With a moderate investment in equipment and practice in less than perfect weather, you’ll be much better prepared when the heavy stuff rolls in, and you will make landfall the way you intended; in the cockpit of your yacht – nowhere near the one in a helicopter.

(* Thanks to Captain Brugger for the clarification in his comment below. The original article stated that both sailors made it to St. Thomas. This was incorrect. )

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