IN THE BELLY OF HELL

Surfer turned sailor Liz Clark bat­tles an elec­tri­cal storm in this ex­cerpt from her new book

SAIL - - Contents - By Liz Clark

I down­load the weather files, and to my hor­ror I see a mas­sive low-pres­sure sys­tem build­ing to the south of me. It looks like it will blow hard from the di­rec­tion I’m try­ing to go over the next few days.

The skies re­main eerily clear un­til dusk. The winds then fal­ter, and a thick for­est of tow­er­ing thun­der­heads sprout up all around us. With no moon, I can only make out vary­ing shades of black­ness. I don my head­band to keep the hair out of my eyes and pre­pare for what ap­pears to be a jun­gle of thun­der­storms.

I skirt just ahead of the first squall, then sit back un­der the star­board side of the dodger for a mo­ment. “Wait, what’s that?” I say aloud. The black­ness is deep­en­ing off our port quar­ter. A mu­tant thun­der­head erupts sky­ward—bloat­ing and mush­room­ing and com­ing right to­ward us. I al­ter course to star­board and run up on deck to take more sail down. All at once the air be­comes oddly still and hot. There is lit­tle chance of es­cape, but I turn on the en­gine and push the throt­tle for­ward, revving into high rpms in the hope of out­run­ning it. A bolt of light­ning an­grily stabs into the sea be­hind us, mo­men­tar­ily il­lu­mi­nat­ing the face of the mas­sive cloud beast.

I’m short of breath and wide-eyed as it bar­rels to­ward us. There’s noth­ing more I can do. The sails flog and Swell bobs in the slack air. I clutch the main­sheet ner­vously. I want to close my eyes and dis­ap­pear. I want to be any­where but here. I mum­ble un­in­tel­li­gi­ble prayers, sud­denly pi­ous and sorry for every bad thing I’ve ever done. But this only causes more dread as it brings to mind the preacher from Moby Dick as he re­counted the Bib­li­cal story of Jonah: “Black sky and rag­ing sea…Ter­rors upon ter­rors run shout­ing through his soul…Woe to him who seeks to pour oil on the waters when God has brewed them into a gale!”

In an­other in­stant the mon­ster blind­sides us with the swiftest, fiercest paw of wind I have ever felt. The boom smacks tight against its tackle, and Swell is in­stantly pushed onto her star­board side. I fran­ti­cally re­lease the main­sheet, but soon the gust re­leases us. A ter­ri­fy­ing bolt of light­ning shreds through the dark­ness much too close, ac­com­pa­nied by a boom­ing, almighty crack of thun­der. My nerves snap.

“Da-a-a-a-a-addy!” I cry out des­per­ately into the night. He can’t hear me. No one hears me. I am hor­ri­bly and painfully alone.

“Crack!” The next bolt rips right over us, and again the deaf­en­ing sound of the sky tear­ing open.

This is it, I think. We’re go­ing to be struck. My body trem­bles with fright and adren­a­line as I brace for the hit. I taste blood. I sit up and try to gather my­self. I must have bit­ten my tongue when the first vi­o­lent gust hit us.

Rain be­gins to fall. It’s more like a sky of wa­ter. It drowns out the sound of the rum­bling en­gine. I re­main perched on the wooden seat in the com­pan­ion­way, do­ing my best not to touch any­thing metal. The sec­onds seem like hours as I won­der about my fate, un­til fi­nally the bolts of light­ning move west­ward, rag­ing on across the sea.

I hang my head and cry, bury­ing my face in my clammy hands. I cry for my fear, my pow­er­less­ness, my alone­ness, and the fact that the night has only just be­gun. Dear God, if you can hear me, please trans­port me un­der the crisp, dry cov­ers of a big queen-sized bed in a quiet room over­look­ing a flow­ery meadow. A drop of wa­ter lands on the back of my neck and creeps down my spine, re­mind­ing me how far I am from that vi­sion.

I squint out over the bow, tears still flow­ing down my cheeks. A small patch of stars ahead hints of hope, but light­ning flashes a few miles off and dread re­turns in my chest.

The thun­der­heads keep me busy all night, but I man­age to avoid be­ing struck. At 0530 the east­ern hori­zon is a chalky gray. I’m still perched on the com­pan­ion­way seat, ex­haus­tion weigh­ing on me be­tween lin­ger­ing pulses of adren­a­line. Like flee­ing vam­pires, the squalls van­ish with the ar­rival of day­light. I re­tire from bat­tle into my sea berth, des­per­ate for rest.

Barely half an hour passes be­fore strength­en­ing winds yank me from my prone po­si­tion to re­duce sail again. I try to rest through the day, but the wors­en­ing con­di­tions keep me busy. By evening the seas have dou­bled; we’re in an all-out gale. There’s no way to main­tain our course as the wind has swung far­ther south. I try three reefs in the main plus the storm jib, hop­ing to point higher into the wind, but Swell’s col­li­sions with the steep seas feel aw­fully vi­o­lent.

Thank­fully, my au­topi­lot, Monita, is able to main­tain course, but I still don’t get any sleep that night—brac­ing, heav­ing and winc­ing. Waves swat us here and there. Swell shud­ders and flexes. By 0400 it’s too much. I crawl out on deck in the deaf­en­ing wind and douse the main en­tirely. How­ever, with­out the drive a bit of main pro­vides, we’re blown far­ther and far­ther west. Each mile lost to lee­ward will have to be sailed dou­ble, back to wind­ward, later.

Heave-to, I think, and I re­mem­ber my Santa Bar­bara rig­ger, Marty, walk­ing me through the pro­ce­dure. Turn the wheel to wind­ward, mak­ing the bow come across the wind as if you’re go­ing to tack, but in­stead of re­leas­ing the sheet, back­wind the jib and leave it where it is. Then turn the wheel hard back over to lee­ward. The back-winded jib pushes the bow one way, as the rud­der steers the other. I give it a try. To my dis­be­lief, our hec­tic ad­vance turns into a calm and steady lift­ing and fall­ing over the chaotic seas. Swell’s western drift de­creases enor­mously. I col­lapse into my berth at dawn and man­age to sleep for a few pre­cious hours, while Swell takes care of us both. s

Liz Clark fell in love with surf­ing while earn­ing her BA in En­vi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies from UC Santa Bar­bara. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, she be­gan sail­ing through Cen­tral Amer­ica and then on into the South Pa­cific. Catch up on her lat­est ad­ven­tures at swellvoy­age.com. Swell: A Sail­ing Surfer’s Voy­age of Awak­en­ing is avail­able through ama­zon.com

The au­thor stands watch as Swell pow­ers her way through rough weather

The au­thor keeps an eye on the weather while at the helm (left); Swell on a close reach in ideal con­di­tions (fac­ing page); a tasty wave be­tween pas­sages (be­low)

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