The Belly of Hell

Swell lurches with a gust. I leap from my bunk for the third time that night to clip my safety harness to the jackline and crawl forward to pull down more sail. As I emerge from the shelter of the spray dodger, blasts of wind and sea strip me of exhaustion. My hands grip and release in rote, rhythmic placements, while my bare toes spread and press into the worn, wet grip of the deck. I wedge myself into my usual sail reefing position below the boom. Tangled clumps of hair batter my face and block my already shadowy view of the line that needs tightening. It doesn’t matter; I don’t really need to see it. Swell’s aluminum and nylon limbs are now extensions of my own. I close my eyes and lean into each crank of the winch.

Sail shortened, Swell’s wild gallop eases into a smoother lope. I scan the horizon for lights, and make sure nothing on the deck has come loose. After a reverent gaze to my constellation friends, I duck back behind the dodger, dry myself off with a salty T-shirt, then go below to plot our position on the chart. Leaning back into the damp pile of sheets and pillows that line my sea berth, I look up at my family smiling down at me from the pictures on the ceiling.

I sink into light sleep until I hear, Crack!

I scramble back on deck in a fluster. Among the silhouettes of dangling lines and blocks, I see that the pin on the boom vang has severed, freeing the mainsail to smack and swing with the bucking motion of the swells. I make a provisional fix, then try to rest a bit more.

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At dawn, the wind rips out of the east through piercingly clear skies. There is a manic, electric feeling in the air.

I take a morning drenching from the seas coming over the deck as I work through a better fix for the vang. We bash through the growing seas that day, and I’m frustrated as our heading slips west of our course with the shortened sails and westbound push of the seas.

“Elise, Elise, this is Swell, do you copy?” I hail Chris over the radio for our noon discourse.

“Hey Swell, I’m here. How you doing, girl?”

“I’m okay, but the wind came up hard overnight. We’re hanging on, about five to ten degrees off course.”

“Yeah, I downloaded the weather this morning and saw a strong pressure gradient forming over you.”

“Hmmm It’s strong all right. How are you? What’s your position?”

“I’m about two days out of Samoa and the wind has finally turned in my favor. Hang in there, Captain, I’ll be keeping an eye on that system for you.” After we sign off, 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 hopes 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 relinquishes 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 5:30 am 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.

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