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Monday, September 11, 2006

In the eye of the storm

I think we all have heard of hurricane and the "eye" of the storm. But I don't think any of us have heard much on what was really like to be in the eye of the storm. Here's a real story told by someone who was really there! The author was a young lad onboard a cargo vessel called "Mary K" in 1955 sailing acrossing the North Atlantic which was to be his second trip to sea. He is a fabulous story teller with a vivid recall of all that details. I guess it's hard not to remember the details of that kind of experience. Here are the highlights:

". . . I became aware that we were heading through the Gulf Stream and into the turbulent waters of the north Atlantic. We learned that a hurricane, named ‘IONE’, had formed in the Gulf of Mexico and was heading up the east coast of the U.S.A. in our direction. We had no idea what this meant for us, but knew the Captain was plotting its progress very carefully. As we neared the Grand Banks the ship’s course was altered to take us south of the hurricane’s course. Unfortunately the hurricane veered just after our last position report and we went directly into its centre. On 20 September it had now been downgraded to an ‘Extra Tropical Storm’, and began to affect our progress.

The build up of heavy cloud and increasing seas was the first indication of what lay ahead. The ship’s cook had been preparing a large roast in the galley as he knew we were facing bad weather and saw his chance of giving us a good feed before it all set in. As the galley boy it was my job to deliver the roast to the table. I was standing in the doorway of the galley holding the roast in a meat tray and waiting for a pause in the waves. I was fully prepared to run across the open deck to deliver it to the pantry beyond. I felt pretty confident at counting the waves as I’d gauged the pattern. I chose my moment and took off. I was half way across, when a rogue wave caught me full on and picked me up. In a split second I was engulfed in water and felt sure the wave was carrying me away from the ship. Suddenly I found I was being dashed up against the galley door, with a resounding thud. I still carry the scar on my knee caused by my sudden connection with the ship. Unfortunately the roast and I had parted company and was never seen again. No doubt Davy Jones dined well that night.

The helmsman swung the ship’s bow to face the increasingly steep seas. Over the next 24 hours the waves increased in size until they were as high as the funnel. Water was crashing over the bow and pounding the bridge. It became quite dark, even though we were in daylight hours and eventually we entered the eye of the storm. It was really weird. We were moving across water which had become less violent and more like a boiling cauldron. The waves were now only about 12 feet high but with no direction to them. All around the horizon was a wall of grey cloud stretching up, and yet the visibility was quite clear in our space in the middle. It really was like being in a large saucepan. The view in every direction being the same. The Captain told us that we were going to encounter even worse weather than the previous day as soon as we moved from the eye. How right he was.

As the ship began its course through the remainder of the storm and away from the eye, everything depended upon the skill of the helmsman. He had an enormous responsibility and the tension in the wheelhouse was something I had never seen before. I took mugs of tea to the Captain and crew on duty on the bridge and arrived just as we plowed into a huge wave. The water was over the top of the bridge, turning the light green. We emerged from what had seemed like a terminal dive beneath the waves for the Mary K. It was during those hours of fighting mountainous waves that it became apparent that all the lifeboats had been badly damaged, davits bent out of shape and the main sea door to the aft accommodation had sustained considerable damage. I took two empty 5-gallon drums to my cabin and tried to convince myself that if the ship went down then I would have my two drums to cling to. We spent over 3 days in the hurricane and were about 300 miles off course when it became safe enough to resume our journey towards the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

We proceeded up the St. Lawrence River passing the magnificent Chateau de Frontenac and beautiful city of Quebec. It was a great relief to be able to get our feet on dry land after our experience of the past days. . ."

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