The ship fortunately responded to my hail.
Rowing in a grey fish bowl...
October 22, 2007 - Day 105 7.9936N,153.3101W
Saturday was a very unique day, which delivered the most serious weather to me on this crossing. I woke up that morning at day break, to do a conference call with the elementary school students at the Regional Boarding School in Kale, Denizli in Turkey. Geographically almost 180 degrees apart from me and accessible by satellite phone, these students receive support from the İLKYAR Foundation, which focuses on keeping girls in school in rural Turkey and provides basic educational support to children in their early years in school. We had done this with other remote schools in Turkey on this crossing, and each time we arranged a call like this, I got nervous that it would be raining; so I had prepared in advance - a large trash bag would go over my head and the satellite phone, if it did rain. Fortunately it did not. I really need an external antenna - add to the to do list for Australia!
Soon after I completed the call, I started receiving a drizzle. A couple miles to my north, I could see a dark grey curtain approaching under a tall cloud which covered my entire horizon. I did not have time to boil water for breakfast, I did not want to start the process. The SEA-ME transponder also had started chirping, announcing a radar signal source nearby. Then I spotted it: the dark silouette of a container ship to my east, blending in with the background.
I raised the other ship on my VHF radio, and I got a response. They were not seeing me on their radar screen. "What is you position?" the kind man at the helm responded after reading his coordinates to me. He had that sweet lilting accent from India which I recognized from friendships during my graduate school days. From the lat/long figures very near mine, I knew I was talking to the same ship that I was seeing. I was even with the Panama Canal now, about 4,300nm to my east, and likely on the shipping lane to Philippines and southeast Asia.
I gave my position in numbers, then added: "Yellow row boat two miles on your port bow, sir, over" "Poor visibility, changing course to starboard, course three-zero-zero, over." He still had not spotted me. "That should clear nicely, sir, thank you for acknowledging, over."
The big bulk of the container ship slowly turned, getting longer as I saw more of its port side. The grey curtain of rain soon advanced over it, as the ship passed to my north. I raised them again to report that they were now a mile to my north, and that we had cleared safely. We wished each other a "bon voyage, and out."
Then the rain arrived.
And it stayed.
I had quickly lathered with some soap as the rain picked up, which instantly rinsed off. It was blowing hard with the rain. This was different - before, the wind quieted down when rain arrived. I was receiving north winds, which turned to NE and maintained a 25kt blow, gusting to over 30kt. The wind chilled me, and I put on my long sleeve shirt, which proved insufficient. I reached in the cabin quickly to close the small vent, and to grab my Gore-Tex rain jacket, courtesy of the Skeltons in Scottsboro, Alabama. The cabin was sealed watertight with the rising seas.
The wind driven rain pelted on my face, stinging my skin as I faced into following seas to row. I was wearing the hood of my jacket, drawn tightly around my face and under my chin, yet still dribbling cool rainwater inside, down my chest. My eyes were burning in the wind; I had to put on my sunglasses which darkened further my 50 meter visibility. The rain drops hit my hood with the creshendo of a drummer, sounding as if I were in a tin shack during a hail storm, drowning out all sounds of hissing rain or rushing waves.
It was whitecaps all around, with steepening waves running closer together. Some waves arrived square, glancing off my transom to splash forward over my cabin on to the deck. Others peaked right under the boat giving it an upward thump, while few of their cousins arrived double peaked like a camel's back, their cavitation running along the length of the boat with a churning roar. The annoying ones were those which peaked just to my side rear, then rushed at an angle to bang against my gunwale, overtaking it with spray and splash. White foam was streaking on the water surface which now had a rippled texture to it. "This could continue a long time, ride it out," I thought to myself.
I was prepared to keep rowing through the night. I was moving at 3-4 knot average speed, hauled forward up to 6-7 knots with large waves, due SW, on a perfect course that I should keep. If that were the plan, then I needed water and food stashed nearby. Headlamp needed to be accessible. Gradually, taking advantage of any lull or decrease in the driving rain, I reached inside a bulkhead to fetch a bag of protein and energy bars. I refilled my water bottles, brought out the waterproof headlamp, still tucking it outside under cover. I dribbled from my wet jacket inside the cabin trying to find my underpants, then I was set.
I munched a protein bar right after an energy bar, while I kept sipping the rain which drained off my face on to my moustache. I was still hungry while rowing; this was going to be breakfast and it was now midday. Cooking a warm meal was out of the question. I had run out of salty snacks like nuts long ago, but I thought of the packets of ready-to-eat tuna fish that I had in an accessible bulkhead. One of those would do without heating as a late lunch.
A couple hours before sunset, the rain stopped, moving past me, revealing menacing curls of dark cloud patterns overhead like Medusa's hair. I was soaking wet, everything I touched got wet. Cooking a warm meal would have to wait a bit until the wind and body warmth dried me a bit. I measured the wind speed which had now dropped to 16-19 knots. I undressed, wringed the clothes and put them back on, returning just to maintain the rudder. I soon got chilled without the physical effort, reached in and put on my pile vest under the jacket. There had been a harsh beauty to what I had just experienced; I reflected on the experience as I sat there gazing over the stern.
I was not able to see my messages until I felt reasonably dry. Dane Clark had written: "A very strong area of showers and thunderstorms has developed near your position along the ITCZ as an upper level jet maximum is diverging overhead which causes rising motion and a flare-up. I don't see any circulation with this area at present, so sit tight and it should diminish slowly."