He looked again, squinting into the darkness. He’d been at the helm for hours now, the wind and seas steadily growing as we sailed south through Cook Strait. At the start of the gale, he could see the rollers charging toward Sereia’s starboard quarter, and he cracked off to port, keeping his stern to the swells. But now everything was black. He could still hear the waves, rushing waterfalls hissing up behind him, until the gusts came. Then all he could hear was the wind.
Something white was rushing at Sereia in the darkness. He couldn’t judge how large it was, or how fast it was approaching. There was no reference in the blackness. Is that a wall of water? It can’t be water. It’s too big.
I’d started throwing up that morning. It wasn’t much—I was eating lightly, drinking lots of water to keep the nausea at bay. When the vomiting started, it was my watch, so I tried to be quick. I held my hair out of the way, retched, wiped my mouth, then turned back to the helm so we didn’t fall off course.
Toward the end of my watch, I started throwing up water. And then I got a little worried.
Once you can’t hold down water, you fall into a downward spiral. When your stomach is empty, you dry heave—your body racked with exhausting, unproductive spasms. As time passes, you get weaker and more dehydrated, which makes you sicker. It’s a very difficult cycle to reverse. The only thing that’s worked for me is taking tiny sips of water, or sucking on ice chips.
Later, I sat on deck, watching the horizon as I sipped from my sports bottle. We could still see the coast of the North Island—we weren’t yet into Cook Strait—but the wind was already picking up. The water was grey and choppy, topped with whitecaps. Occasionally, waves rushed up the lee side, and I jerked out of the way, not wanting to get too wet, too soon. Wet foulies are a misery. I retched, emptying my stomach again, then sat down heavily. A much larger wave raced up the port side, bigger and faster than the others, lifting me up and floating me. I dug my fingers into the netting, adrenaline momentarily drowning the seasickness.
“Well, okay,” I said, dryly. I glanced at Peter. I wanted to see if he was alarmed. He smiled thinly. We both knew that this was the beginning.
I stayed on deck for awhile after that, knowing that the wind and spray were keeping the sickness from overwhelming me. But I was soaking wet from the waist down, and the wind was getting stronger. My teeth started to chatter.
“I’m shaking,” I told Peter. “I’m just going to go down below to warm up.”
He looked at me, and that was the first time I saw fear. I didn’t come back on deck for two days.
***Peter was at the helm for the knockdown.
When the gust hit, it ripped his mouth open. His cheeks pulled away from his teeth, his face blasted by salt spray. He stumbled backwards, still gripping the wheel. That’s the strongest wind I’ve ever felt, he realized. Then: we’re completely overpowered.
The gust knocked Sereia on her side. She struggled to right herself, pinned by her sails. Our double-reefed main is tiny. There’s practically no canvas up, and it’s still too much. The third reef is our storm trysail. I was saving that for hurricane-force winds.
She was still heeled hard over when Peter heard the breaking wave. He couldn’t see it in the darkness, but the sound told him it was bigger and faster than the others. He could hear it hissing as it curled, breaking behind Sereia. There was no way to dodge it. He turned the wheel slightly to port, and held on.
The wave crashed over his shoulder like a blast from a fire hose. He felt Sereia skid sideways across the white water. She leaned hard over, pausing as the lee side filled with ocean and her bulwarks dug in. Then she fell, the main boom skidding across the swells. And her sail went into the water.
The cabin top was submerged. White water tore back toward the helm on both sides, filling the cockpit like a bathtub. Peter felt his legs floating, the ocean up to his chest. He was swimming in the cockpit. We’re like Silas’ bathtub toy, he thought, like that little plastic tug boat that fills up with water, right before it sinks to the bottom of the bath. Silas loves to sink that boat.
He thought: There goes the engine. It’s never going to start now.
He thought: I wonder if we’ll come back up? If we take another wave now, that’s it.
There was a sucking sensation as the water churned out the gunnels. Gravity returned, and he scrambled for a foothold. Sereia stepped up, out of the sea. And she started to move again.
It was the stench of piss that made me think of steerage. At about twilight, the waves got so rough that I was tossed out of the quarterberth onto the floor, and I remembered Peter had told me that the steadiest place on the boat was low down, amidships. Clutching my green plastic bucket, I crawled forward, laying my head on the floorboards.
The cabin sole was cold and gritty, which felt nice against my skin. My head was near the through hull for the head, the stench of ammonia cutting through the sickness. My thoughts wandered to those poor European immigrants, thousands of them, who’d crossed the Atlantic to New York in steerage class. They must have been lying on the floor like this, too wretched to move, the smell of piss in the air, vomit in their clothes.
Silas was crying. I could hear that he was crying, but I couldn’t move. My face flushed, I lifted my head to puke again, just clear stomach juices now, nothing left to throw up. Over and over, I convulsed, then lay my head down, the sickness paused. Now, I felt the cold. My face was bathed in sweat; my body shaking.
Silas was screaming. Somehow, through the sickness, I heard my own voice. Get your ass up off the floor and go help that baby. You’re his mother.
I staggered to my feet, steadying myself on the galley sink as I heard Silas retch, then scream. He retched again. I got there, too late. He was red, frightened, sick. There was vomit down his front, across the blankets. “It’s OK,” I told him. “Mama here.”
I pulled his shirt off, tossing it to the cabin sole, clearing away the soiled blankets, grabbing at a towel to mop the mattress. Silas kept screaming. He retched again, spraying his undershirt, his new storybooks, the towel. “That’s good,” I soothed. “Good boy. You got it all up. Mama here.”
I took off his undershirt, leaving him in his shorts. He lay back, exhausted, his eyes dull. I curled him into me, then sat up, spitting bile into our last dry towel.
The cabin was dark. Dimly, I was aware that it was night, that we were sailing through a storm. Waves smashed on our heads like bomb blasts in the dark. Below decks, the sound was magnified. The cabin was the inside of a fiberglass drum, each wave a tooth-jarring crash that made me think of Sereia’s structural integrity. I thought about steel against steel, an inch of fiberglass pressed against the seething ocean.
Silas and I rolled back and forth in the seas, the stinking mattress scattered with toys and storybooks. I’ve got to get this baby into the lee side, I thought. I’ve got to get him pressed up against me where I can protect him with my body.
I sat up, my head swimming. I started sweeping toys to the bottom of the bed with one hand, grasping Silas with the other and using my legs to brace against the bulkhead. I fell into the port side, reaching down to pick one plastic teacup from the small of my back. I grabbed my baby and snuggled him into my core, wrapping my arms and knees around him. He did not protest. He burrowed into me like a frightened animal.
When it came, the crash was violent and loud. I heard steel screaming in the darkness. I felt us go over, pitch gently sideways. Water sprayed into the cabin, spattering our faces. My mind hurtled through the possibilities. Knocked down. Dismasted. No, I don’t hear any broken rigging, if the rigging was shredded I’d hear something terrible. Knocked down, I think. And then: Jesus Christ is Peter still on BOARD? What if the harness snapped? What if he’s not there?
Above our heads, through the moaning wind, I heard my husband’s voice: “I’M OKAY! WE’RE OKAY!”
He was on board. And I blessed him.
I held Silas close in the dark, my body shaking against his little head.
Someone else was on board that night as well. Marina Nijs was our crew, a Belgian go-go dancer who’d never sailed a day in her life. She’d hitchhiked three days to meet us in Gisborne, and she was waiting for us on the dock when we arrived. We were impressed, so we hired her.
Marina is from a small town in the center of Belgium. Before joining Sereia, she’d been to the beach a few times, but she doesn’t like to swim unless she can see the bottom, because she’s “a bit wary about the animals.” She’s never surfed. She’s never been pushed down by the ocean. The closest she’s come to big waves is watching old surfing movies on DVD.
I asked her, later, if she’d ever been in a storm.
“Yes,” she said, “I’ve seen thunderstorms, in Belgium.”
“Have you ever been outside in one?”
“Oh, yes!” she nodded. “I love to watch them. Sometimes I open the window or the door, and I watch from the doorway.”
Throughout the storm, Marina conducted herself like a hero. And later, she said it herself: that was because she didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on.
Peter did the math in his head. It looked as though Sereia wasn’t going to sink. She was moving again, still on course for Lyttleton. The winds and the seas were huge, but the cockpit was dry, and he could stand again. How long is this going to last? He tried to remember the forecast. The winds weren’t supposed to lie down until the next afternoon, which meant he’d have to helm alone, through the storm, for another twelve hours at least. After the knockdown, there was no way he’d see any of his crew again. They’d be crouching down below, probably terrified. He hoped no one was injured.
The companionway hatch slid back, and Marina popped her head on deck.
Peter blinked. He couldn’t believe his eyes. “You’re brave,” was all he could say.
Marina looked confused. “What do you mean? It’s my watch, right? Ahh,” she conceded. “Yes. It’s very bad down below. Pots and pans go wizzing above my head!”
Yup. That’d be the knockdown, thought Peter. He assumed she knew what had happened.
“Oh, I almost forgot to tell you!” Marina went on. “There is water in the boat!”
Peter swallowed. This was the nightmare. The leak that a captain can’t find, the water that keeps rising until he can’t bail fast enough. “I think you’d better take the helm, if you can,” he shouted over the wind. “I have to check that out.”
Sereia has four bilge pumps on board, and that night, one by one, they started to fail. When he got down below, Peter looked first into the head, where Marina had seen the water. There was ocean sloshing around, three inches above the floorboards.
It hadn’t spilled into the main cabin yet, but Peter knows Sereia’s shape like that of his own body. If it’s above the floorboards in the head, that means the bilges are full. Sereia’s bilges are maybe three feet deep. How much water was that? Seventy-five gallons? A hundred? At eight pounds a gallon, that meant nearly a thousand pounds of dead weight, sloshing around in the boat.
He opened the floorboards. Peter, you cheap bastard. The primary bilge pump, the one that’s supposed to go off automatically, was broken. He’d known that before we left Napier, but the repair kit he’d found had been so wildly overpriced that he’d refused to buy it. I’ve got three other bilge pumps, he’d reasoned. That’s plenty.
Only, they weren’t enough. Now, he could see why. When he lifted up the floorboards, Peter saw black ocean, glinting in the light of his head lamp. Water had risen all the way up to the engine. The bilges were completely full. And the secondary bilge pump was only working intermittently, because some genius had installed it so that it only sucked water when the bilges were just about to overflow. With each wave, water flowed over the pump, and it sucked once or twice. Then, the water sloshed back the other way, and the pump just sat there, silent and useless.
On to the third bilge pump. This one was mounted on deck, and Peter would have to open up a panel in the cockpit to get to it. He grabbed a screwdriver and crashed on deck. Marina was still at the helm, a dim shape in the darkness. He couldn’t think about her now. He had to get the water out of the boat.
The problem with this pump was that it was potentially dangerous. When he opened up the panel to access it, Peter would be creating an six-inch hole in the deck. If we took another wave while that hole was open, or if we got knocked down again, the boat would take on more water. Maybe this time, it would be too much.
But he didn’t have a choice. At least, it’s on the windward side. We’ll be okay. He jammed his screwdriver in the fittings, twisting the panel open. He’d completely rebuilt this bilge pump just a couple of weeks ago. He knew it worked perfectly. He knew exactly where the handle was stored. He reached into the hole and fitted it into the slot.
One arm wedged in the bimini frame, braced against the crashing seas, Peter started to pump. Instead of water, he heard the unmistakable sound of sucking air. “This is bullshit,” he muttered. "I JUST rebuilt this fucking thing. I KNOW it works."
But it didn’t. He’d have to go to his fourth bilge pump, now. And if that one didn’t work, it would be buckets. He didn’t want to think about that.
Quickly, before another wave could come, he closed the circular panel. He unhooked his life harness and crawled to the leeward side, snapping in again on the port side jackline. This bilge pump, the last one, was stored in the port lazarette. When he opened the locker, there would be a four foot-square hole in the deck, just inches from the sea. Before the passage, he’d moved the pump to the top of the locker. He knew exactly where it was. But if we got knocked down while that lazarette was open, we would take on a catastrophic amount of water. It could sink the boat.
Working fast, he unlatched the locker and snapped open the lazarette. Reaching down into the hold, he put his hands on the bilge pump, hoisting it up and jamming it down into the cockpit well. He slammed the locker shut and turned his head to starboard, just as a breaking wave came over the windward side.
“Damnit, Marina, we’re trying to keep water OUT of the boat!” he hollered.
“I’m sorry! Talk to the water gods!” She grinned at him, her hood plastered against her face in the driving wind. Later, she told me how glad she was that Peter was still telling jokes.
When boats are lost at sea, it’s usually not because one thing went wrong. Every now and then, there’s a whale attack, or a someone falls asleep and hits a reef, but usually disaster comes from a combination of factors. Sailors call this the “cascade effect.” A boat is a complex system of interconnected functions, and when something goes wrong, it often means that another system fails as well. If you have enough equipment, enough crew, and enough knowledge, you can usually compensate, and everyone makes it out safely. It’s only when the cascade accelerates beyond your ability to keep up that you get into serious trouble.
Peter slammed his last bilge pump onto the cabin sole, ripped open the floorboards and inserted the hose into the sloshing pool of black water. He ran the other hose on deck, securing it to the stern rail so it would drain overboard. And then he reached for the handle, which he’d carefully lashed to the pump before the passage.
The handle wasn’t there.
This is it, he thought. This is the cascade. If I can’t get this bilge pump to work, then it’s buckets. If we’ve got a leak or a failed through hull, there’s no way we’re keeping up with buckets. Then, we get out the liferaft.
He heard a giant wave crash on deck, dumping another fifty gallons of water into the cockpit. And he had an idea. He went for his biggest screwdriver.
Peter’s got a screwdriver that’s at least a foot long, with a head about as wide as a man’s thumb. He pulled his tool bag out of the main cabin, trying not to smell the stench of vomit on the crumpled towels and blankets, trying not to think about the dark shapes of his wife and baby, pressed against the leeward side.
He grabbed the screwdriver and jammed it into the fitting, pumping so hard he thought for an instant he might snap the thing two. There was resistance. He knew he was pumping water now, but he couldn’t tell if the level was going down. A hundred pumps. Two hundred. It was much less efficient, pumping with the screwdriver. He knew he was only moving about half the water he could have pumped with the handle. As he worked, he calculated. There’s two buckets down here, the rubbish bin and the one we use for washing dishes. First, get the liferaft on deck. Secure it to the binnacle and toss it overboard, pulling the rip cord to inflate it. Send out a Mayday on the VHF. Set off the EPIRB. Get Antonia on the helm, tie her on if we have to. I’ll start bailing, then hand the bucket to Marina so she can pour the water overboard. Three hundred pumps. The water was going down. He pumped a few more times. It was definitely lower now. There wasn’t any leak.
Now, he had to relieve Marina. She’d been up there too long, she was probably freezing by now. He grabbed a muesli bar and drank some water. He popped his head up.
He couldn’t believe how much louder it was on deck. The wind was still screaming through the rigging, the deck pitching up as the waves lifted Sereia’s stern, then crashed to port in a surge of white water. Marina’s brow was furrowed, her face a mask of concentration.
“How you doing?” he yelled.
She answered him, but her wind whipped away her words. Peter gestured to her that he’d take over, and she crawled forward, unhooking her life harness when she got to the companionway.
Peter stood at the helm. The night was still black, though it had to be nearly dawn by now. He felt strong. Sereia had made it through the knockdown. He’d gotten the water out of the boat. This storm couldn’t last forever. We were going to make it.
When the second knockdown came, there wasn’t any gust. It was just a massive wave, breaking on Sereia’s stern. Peter never saw it. He heard it coming fast, like the rumbling of a giant waterfall, rushing up Sereia’s starboard quarter. There was nothing he could do.
Then it was blasting him, ocean white water cascading over his head. Sereia slid horizontally. Fuck, we’re going over again, he thought. Then: That’s too much water. This time, we’ll roll.
But she didn’t roll. Sereia slammed down this time, her mainsail hitting the water. But she wasn’t pinned, for those sickening few seconds. This time, she popped back up. The cockpit well was full, but it drained fast. Peter smiled. He knew it would.
Dawn did break, finally. Marina was on watch when the sun came up, and she could see the waves for the first time. “It was a bit… unsettling,” she told me. “They were above me. I think they were above the bimini. They were black. Not the normal color of the sea at all.”
Peter came in to the cabin, that morning, to see if Silas and I needed anything. I asked for some water. “I can’t look at you,” he said to Silas. His voice sounded unsteady. “I ‘m afraid I’ll cry.”
“What was that noise?” I asked. “The big one. The really big one.”
“We got knocked down, baby,” he said. “Twice.”
Then he went on deck. I realized, then, how serious it was. How horrifying it might have been. I held Silas close, tears sliding into his hair.
We made it to Lyttleton on the third night, then stood off the coast until daybreak. When it was light enough to see, Peter steered us into the harbour and dropped the hook.
Neither Silas nor I had held down any food or water for two days. When I got out of bed, I was shocked to see myself in the mirror. My stomach was flat. It looked like I wasn’t pregnant anymore.
The cabin sole was a foot deep in sodden possessions. Clothing, towels, books and saucepans lay in heaps of salt-soaked debris. We’d need a shovel to clear it all away.
Marina was cold and wet, but exhilarated. She came to get Silas, to give him a big hug and change his diaper. Silas loves Marina, but he screamed when she touched him. He was terrified to be out of my sight.
At first, she couldn’t find the diapers. We usually keep them in the quarterberth, aft on the starboard side. When she finally found them, they were all the way forward, hidden under the dining table. They’d flown to the opposite side of the boat.
We sat in the cockpit, drinking tea and talking about what had happened.
Peter was particularly perplexed by water I’d felt, spraying into the main cabin. The windows were all intact, so a leak didn’t make sense. Then he smacked his forehead. “Of course. It’s so obvious. The dorade.”
I blinked. “The dorade?” Dorades are periscope-shaped fittings on deck, specially designed to let cool breezes in down below, while keeping out water and spray. There’s no way the fitting could have leaked, unless it was submerged.
Still, that was the only way we could have felt the spray. We measured the dorade’s position from Sereia’s port side. It’s three feet in. During the knockdown, Sereia had a third of her beam underwater.
I wrapped my hands around my cup of tea, warming my fingers. “I’m amazed no one’s hurt. And the rig’s okay?”
“It looks fine. I’ll have to do a complete check, but it looks like all we lost was a bucket over the side.”
Peter raised his mug to Marina. “Excellent helming. There’s not many crew would come right back on deck after a knockdown like that. That was very brave.”
“After a what?” asked Marina. “What’s a knockdown?”
She had no idea what had happened. So we told her.
After a great deal of thought and discussion, we've decided to put this sailing trip on hold. The Southern Ocean is a place for experienced, adult sailors— it's not for little babies, and it's not for women who are nearly five months pregnant.
We've purchased a beat-up van to continue our exploring New Zealand by land. Stay tuned for Sereia's ongoing adventures... this time by gypsy caravan!