Galle: reliving the days of past terror
Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
149Trip End Jun 15, 2012
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In May of 1985 I spent a couple of weeks in Galle Harbor on the Osprey, the 97 foot yacht of which I was soon to become captain. Because we had just crossed the Indian Ocean and everybody was ready to spend some time on dry land, the owner’s family and the crew all scattered into the interior of the island or into shore-side hotels, leaving me on the yacht to keep an eye on things. I was in my cabin listening to music and drinking a beer, anchored in the best part of the harbor, well out of the swell when I felt the wind and swell suddenly grow. Since Al Gore hadn’t yet invented he internet, the yachting world had no way to check weather information when overseas. I didn’t find out for several months what actually hit the harbor that evening until my father wrote me a letter telling me about the storm I was about to experience.
This yacht was no stranger to hurricanes. The previous year we powered through the eye of a full force-12 cyclone* off the coast of Turkey in a place where cyclones weren’t supposed to happen, the Mediterranean Sea. We encountered winds that well exceeded 100 knots and 100-foot seas that lasted throughout one terrorizing night. We hadn’t expected that storm either, because we had no way to obtain weather predictions, but as we were pulling out of the harbor in Finike, Turkey a few hours earlier, a Turkish Coast Guard boat reached us on the radio. Since we didn’t understand Turkish, we didn’t know what they were saying to us so adamantly. We soon realized that they had probably been warning us about the coming storm.
Okay, back to Galle. The wind came up suddenly and severe. Over the next few hours the wind increased to a steady gale and then to near-hurricane force; and I slowly woke up to the horror that would soon engulf me. I burst up on deck to have a look around. Normally, a steady wind inside a harbor works to help set an anchor, but if the force of the wind is too great, it can cause a boat to ride up on its anchor chain as the hull essentially becomes a sail, and then the boat will fall off suddenly, causing the anchor to pull through the sand along the bottom. In addition, the wind I began to experience was generating a swell of perhaps five or six feet inside the harbor, and the swells were slapping the forward part of the hull, causing the anchor to drag with increased speed toward the jetty downwind. I saw to my horror that the yacht had drifted to a point where the stern was no more than twenty feet away from rocks. I was seized with apprehension for a few frantic minutes, and then worked up a plan that would have looked ludicrous to somebody with the benefit of rational thought.
I started the engine, pointed the yacht into the wind to take pressure off the anchor chain and locked the helm into place. Then I ran forward with the yacht underway to hoist the anchor. At first I would have presumed that this would have been an impossible task to perform alone. But the desire to save my life, the boat and my job had invaded my frontal lobes. After making several moves in the midst of panic, pulling the anchor for a minute, then running back to the helm to adjust the course or the speed, and pulling the anchor some more, I was eventually successful in getting the yacht relocated into the center of the harbor. I dropped the anchor, but knew that my night was far from over. Soon the first fat balls of rain were pelting me like rubber bullets as I ran around nearly naked, while the anchor walked back towards the jetty with the slap of each wave. I reset the anchor perhaps a dozen times throughout the night in this insane manner, then I dug into one of the aft holds to find a second anchor. I was able to rig it up with rope in the blackness and driving rain, and then I dropped it into the water beside the main anchor so that the hull would ride up on one anchor at a time, and soften the sudden jerk on the other. It probably slowed the leeward slip of the yacht by 50 percent, but I had to move the yacht and reset the anchor(s) at regular intervals all night long. Pulling and setting the second anchor turned out to be almost impossible in the circumstances, so when the wind peaked around two o’clock in the morning I changed tactics and kept the engine running and a steady thrust forward into the wind to keep the anchors from walking aft. The visibility had gone to zero and I was working off sound direction of crashing waves, a compass heading and a radar screen for navigation. I had one alternate plan left, and that involved diving into the hepatitis soup of Galle Harbor and swimming to the beach to save my own skin. I didn’t know how long this storm would last, or how bad it would get. Maybe it would last a few hours, maybe it would last for days. There was no way to know. Much to my relief the storm was gone by morning.
When morning came I was pretty frazzled and cross-eyed tired. When the rest of the crew came aboard I told them what I had been through, and they just kind of laughed it off, never having had the thought to come to the harbor to assist me. Not that another living soul could have managed to get on board with me in those circumstances anyway.
It was a truly frightening night for me, but in the light of day my story reached deaf ears by everybody else. I’m not sure the yacht’s owner fully realized what I had to do to save his many-million dollar yacht from beating itself to death on the jetty. The storm I had encountered that night became Tropical Cyclone #1 of the Indian Ocean 1985 season (it was before they named them) and went north to kill 11,069 people in Bangladesh, as one of the world’s most tragic natural disasters of the decade. You can look it up, I just did.
A smooth sea never made a skilful mariner. I’m glad I went through it; it made me a better captain down the line. But I sure as hell wouldn’t want to go through it again.
* Hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons are all the same thing, they are just called by different names based on where in the world they occur.