“So wake me up if you see another boat, if the wind picks up or if you see a black cloud,” Captain Francois informed me before retiring below deck for the night.
It was 21:00, the start of our 3.5-hour night-watches and I was the first one up.
“No problem,” I said. “Boat, wind, black cloud.” I looked around.
Above me the stars shone, hanging delicately like a crystal chandelier. On the water the kryptonite-green phosphorous plankton blanketed the wake the boat was leaving as we floated by at 2 knots due to the lack of wind.
Black cloud. Black cloud.
I stared out into the black night. The Indian Ocean reflected the blackness turning everything into the kind of darkness that you only ever read about in the bible. In the distant horizon an electrical storm was blitzkreiging the northern tip of Sumatra, bombardments of light resembling an artillery fire in a war zone.
Black cloud. Black cloud.
Manu came up to hang for a bit and survey our surroundings.
“Hey Manu,” I began sheepishly, “how am I supposed to see a black cloud in the black night?”
“Don’t worry,” he grinned. “When you see it, you will know.”
We were anticipating a tropical storm that had been brewing in Thailand two days ago. It was scheduled to reach just north of our position and travel parallel to us towards Sri Lanka. We were to take advantage of its tail-end and use the weaker winds to push us along towards the island nation of tea and cinnamon at our SSW heading of 240°.
After being denied safe anchorage in Sumatra due to lack of papers (but the 4-hour stopover provided some awesome snorkeling) we had continued chugging along with almost no wind. South East Asia had just been hit by the most powerful storm in recorded history, making Hurricane Katrina look like a walk in the park. I was under the assumption that anything after that would be pretty powerful so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to sailing in the middle of the ocean with a storm up my stern.
So with the ocean turning into a lake with water flatter than a chopping board we motored throughout the night. Before the sun blew itself out in another spectacular array of orange to yellow-pink-red light I registered the positions of the surrounding clouds.
At night their outlines resembled a Roman garrison patiently waiting out a fortified Masada before going in to sac and pillage.
I loved sitting on the beach in Darwin during the wet season and watching the storms roll in, huge black clouds with lightening shooting out of every corner in every direction, like Pink Floyd’s ‘Pulse’ concerts.
I was in the state of Kentucky back in 2005 when Katrina hit. I experienced her tail-end with sheets of rain coming down.
Not drops – sheets.
The storm we were avoiding was bigger in size than the island we were headed towards. The kind of storm that would make the news. And not just local news – international, “This is CNN” news.
I love storms – from a distance, in the safety of a concrete home with a crackling fire and a soft couch; a rhythmic, hypnotic tapping of rain on every surface. The ferocity and power always makes me think of them as nature’s mercenaries, sent for a quick in-‘n’-out operation.
‘Reek as much destruction as you can,’ I can imagine Gaya pep-talking to her clouded army. ‘Leave nothing untouched. Remind the humans who still has control.’
But here I was in the middle of the Indian freakin’ Ocean – no cracklin’ fire, no couch. Just water all around.
And if the anticipation of a mega tropical storm wasn’t enough, my stomach was not handling the salt content of this night’s dinner too well, a storm of its own brewing deep within me. Apparently, the good people of Thailand love a high salt intake. There was more salt on the noodles than in the ocean.
When Manu had dropped the noodles into the boiling water they immediately floated to the top, as though they were in the Dead Sea. I suppose shooting the salt water in chasers with the chef wasn’t the best idea either.
Neither is waiting for a category 3 newsworthy storm.
Two hours into my shift my panic and terror, like the artillery lightening in the distance had subsided.
The shell-bombing that was ripping through my stomach didn’t.
I double-checked for boats – none.
Wind – calmer than air.
Black clouds – all whites and albinos as far as I could tell (the moon had popped up and I used her for assistance).
Now was a good a time as any. I hit the head and hoped, like Gaya’s mercenary storm clouds, for a quick in-‘n’-out operation.
16 DAYS AT SEA
The watches came and went. Breakfast was whenever one would wake up and lunch and dinner served at regular times, a split job between myself and Manu, a French culinary genius who taught me a few tricks in the galley.
Showers were a dip in the sea, getting dragged behind the boat on a rope. Nothing like swimming in 4,000 meters of the bluest water I had ever seen to make you feel smaller than plankton. When the rains hit, we used the opportunity to shower in fresh water.
During our first night the Genoa got shredded and we had to sail on the main sail and a smaller replacement called the troutement (or something like that). In the morning I helped the captain hoist another Genoa that was already torn but we hoped would last until Sri Lanka.
4 days later it ripped along with the spinnaker. 2 days later Manu and the Captain stitched up the Genoa and with the wind picking up we were finally making some head way.
I wasn’t sure what day it was when I awoke to the sound of a fishing boat chugging along side us with Manu and the captain bartering for some fish as we hadn’t caught so much as seaweed. Where they came from is beyond me as we were 450 miles from land. We exchanged some smokes, a bottle of Kickapoo soft drink and some canned goods for two large fish that served us well for two lunches and dinners.
“Big storm coming,” said one fisherman.
The captain wasn’t taking any risks and brought out the life vests. “When you go on watch attach yourself with this rope to the boat,” he said.
That’s when I realised that this shit was about to turn real.
That night the wind whipped up. In the distance I saw the biggest, blackest angriest cloud I had ever seen. There were no stars as it descended down, appearing to swallow up the sky.
“Francois?” I woke the captain during my watch. “Big black cloud on the horizon.” I hoped that the shaking that I felt didn’t come through in my voice.
The rain that hit us was torrential and when the wind changed direction – right when I changed shifts with Manu – we were blown into one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. We were surrounded by at least 16 ships, cargo, tankers and super tankers, boxing us in. It was the equivalent of riding a bike and being boxed in by 18-wheeler trucks.
I went to bed, rolling from side-to-side (not by choice) terrified of what may or may not happen.
When we sailed from November to December I was glad to sight land on the horizon. After the formalities of customs, quarantine and other country entry bureaucracy we were finally allowed entry into Galle, Sri Lanka.