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Storms at Sea: Lessons in Bluewater Survival

Here's how to prepare yourself for whatever Mother Nature might throw in your way.

In December 1968, John McDonnell was eastbound from Vietnam to Los Angeles as the 492-foot freighter American Robin’s first mate, and I was westbound from New York, via the Panama Canal, to Japan as a cadet aboard the 496-foot Export Agent. It was only recently, though, that I learned from his blog that our two ships shared a harrowing experience near the intersection of the Tropic of Cancer and the International Dateline.

I’d gotten used to the rhythmic rise and fall of the Agent’s foredeck as three of us carried out routine maintenance, but there was nothing routine about glancing up and seeing more water than sky. I yelled to the others as a huge wave approached. We barely reached the shelter of the main deck in the lee of the fo’c’sle before tons of green water passed overhead.

It was the opening salvo in a sneak attack by Mother Nature. For three days, we hove-to in seas that reached an average 40 feet, leaving us rolling 45 degrees and pitching 15 degrees. With each cycle, our rising stern lifted the prop clear of the water and buried our bow into the next wave, sending a shudder throughout the ship. It wasn’t long before the automobiles in one hold broke their chains and began sliding in all directions, threatening catastrophic structural damage as they crashed against the hull sides, watertight bulkheads and stanchions supporting the deck above.

It was bad for us, but worse for McDonnell and his crew. Their cargo, too, had become internal battering rams—including a hold full of heavy Army tanks.

The Tropic of Cancer is nowhere near the extreme latitudes, of course, but it was far enough north for the most brutal storm either McDonnell or I would ever encounter in long careers on and around the sea. In meteorological terms, it was a “mid-latitude cyclone,” a rotational storm that can generate gale-force winds up to 1,000 miles from the center and that, frighteningly, can grow from nothing to maximum intensity in less than 24 hours. Transiting such a storm is a once-in-a-lifetime event (you hope).

The lessons I learned in that storm have served me well regardless of what sort of deck was under my feet.

The first lesson is to have a suitable vessel. If it’s not built and equipped for bluewater passagemaking, then don’t take it on a bluewater passage.

Second is to be prepared. Things can come upon you suddenly, and there may not be an opportunity to secure gear and openings once a storm hits.

The third lesson is to maintain situational awareness. It’s vital to know what’s coming at you, over the bow and over the horizon.

Fourth is to recognize that you may be entirely on your own, without any chance of timely outside assistance. Your life and those of your crew are in your hands, so act accordingly.

The fifth lesson is to have as many emergency alternatives as possible: not just a Plan B, but also a C, D and E.

And last, time any passage to the weather. Each area has its best and worst seasons, so schedule accordingly. If you’ve missed the window, wait until next year.

Bluewater cruising is the best of adventures, the portal to many experiences not otherwise available, so don’t hesitate to venture out. As Psalm 107 says, “They that go down to the sea in ships…these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”

Just make sure you’re ready for whatever wonders may come your way.

WATCH: Huge Wave Splits Cargo Ship In Half

A bridge camera captures the moment a cargo ship is snapped in half off the coast of Turkey. Click here to watch.

A bridge camera captures the moment a cargo ship is snapped in half off the coast of Turkey. Click here to watch.