January 11, 2009

One strike is enough

ONE OF THE MOST frightening experiences I’ve ever had on a small sailboat was a violent night thunderstorm in the South Atlantic. We were many hundreds of miles from the nearest land at the time and our shiny aluminum mast was the highest thing sticking up in the air from horizon to horizon.

I doused all sail and we lay drifting broadside on, heeled over in gale-force gusts while bolts of lightning crashed,flashed, and sizzled all around us like lethal blue strobe lights.

I followed the advice of the British sailor and author, Eric Hiscock. I wrapped a fathom of chain around the backstay, which ran to the top of the mast, and let it trail in the sea astern. I don’t know whether that helped, or whether it was just one of your everyday simple miracles that we avoided getting struck, but I still remember how scared I was for the hour or so until it blew over.

What do you do in these circumstances to calm the intense apprehension, the awful conviction that you’re going to be blown to smithereens at any moment? There’s always the bottle of rum in the medicine cabinet, of course, but I read a better (well, alternative) method on the Cape Dory bulletin board the other day.

Duncan Cameron is a Cape Dory 27 sailor from Montreal, Quebec. He lectures in Strategy at the John Molson School of Business, Concordia University, in Montreal. He once got caught in a series of squalls between Point Judith and Fisher's Island while he was sailing between Rhode Island Sound and Long Island Sound.

“I'm going to guess the swells were up to 10 feet,” he said, “and I had to squint sideways to see in the rain and spray. There was lightning all around, more than I've ever seen, huge purplish forks at times. I fell off a couple of waves, and was clawing off a lee shore most of the way.

“The boat seemed to take the weather pretty well, and I was towing the dinghy too, but that worked out OK. I did wish I had full lifelines and a stern pushpit, because I was worried about trying to stay in the cockpit some of the time.

“As far as the lightning went, I just decided I was an ant in a big field, with a farmer walking around it. That way, I reckoned my chances of getting stepped on weren't that high. But there were times when the farmer walked all around me in me in a big circle, and he was stomping his feet pretty hard at times.”

Duncan was adopting the fatalist’s approach, of course, and frankly I can’t think of a better way to keep calm in the face of calamity — especially if you have saved up a few points in your black box. Remember Duncan’s method next time you get caught out in a lightning storm.

Remember, you’re the ant. The lightning is the farmer. Don’t get stomped on. Good luck.

Today’s Thought
Fate, show thy force: ourselves we do not owe;
What is decreed must be, and be this so.
—Shakespeare, Twelfth Night.

’Twas in the tropic latitudes
While we were talking platitudes,
As any sailor might.
We forgot to take our longitude,
Which was a grievous wrongitude,
So we did not reach Hong Kongitude
’Til very late that night.

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