Big Weather: The Gale

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1995

Big Weather: The Gale

Riding a thousand-ton surge of furious Pacific, waiting...waiting...for the ship to roll back over
By Robert Stone

For weeks we had been heading south through azure tropical waters a thousand miles west of South America, crossing the equator under starry nights, seeing off the last gull and sighting the first albatross. Then, just north of latitude 40, the horizons seemed to close in on us and the sky grew dappled. The days were longer. Our sunsets featured subtler colors and fateful horsetail clouds that suggested philosophy. But the concentration of cosmic rays that caused the solar magnetism we had come to study was still far to the south and west.

The big seas came through first, rolling at us from the far side of the world as far as we could tell, with nothing anywhere to stop them. With every westering day, the troughs were higher and deeper. Shortly, the marine operator in Christchurch told us what we already knew: We were in the teeth of a South Pacific storm. At breakfast the next morning, we watched the men on the bench across the table from us go over backward. It was distinctly odd to see them chatting one minute, then raising their chins collectively like a chorus the next and simply disappearing. Their heads slammed the deck together, knocking most of them cold, sending us into cruel paroxysms of laughter.

During the afternoon, we slung safety lines on deck as the speed of the winds climbed above 40 knots. We began to see rogue waves that looked 50 feet at the crest, the heralds of what sailors call "a breaking sea." At that intensity the old arrangements, the laws of motion we'd spent our sea lives learning, had plainly been suspended without notice. The gray-green Pacific was coming at us in furious thousand-ton surges, towering walls driven forward and downward by the gale. The driven seas rolled over themselves, crests siding down the face of each wave before it could break. Dense streaks of foam appeared in the troughs. Sea, sky, wind, and rain merged to become a single threatening presence. Things, things themselves, had become violent, irrational, and somehow unfair.

We took our cold meals flat on the mess deck, trays on our laps. The cooks limited themselves to making coffee, the single hot, black necessity.

In a storm at sea, the life of a ship goes into a kind of suspended animation, a state not untouched by a certain absurd euphoria. This fateful state descended on us as the force of the wind increased. Hour by hour, we could feel our place in the great scheme of things diminish.

Lockers began falling and had to be lashed. At night, we lay in our racks between sleeping and waking, listening to the creak of every seam and join and rivet, hearing over the wind the whine of the propellers spinning uselessly above the waterline. Each of us waiting...waiting...waiting...for the ship to come back, to arrest its roll and start to right itself.

Although it seemed hardly possible, the next day's winds were even higher, howling through the superstructure as though it were a shanty, stripping the A-frames, whipping our disks and grids and solar gadgetry into tin whistles. Struggling topside, we could see the ocean more white than otherwise. Crests seemed to rise up off the waves on their own power, the storm walking, raising dripping, ghostly limbs and disappearing into sheer whirl.

For 30 consecutive days across the South Pacific, that whirl defined our world. To this day, I can close my eyes and see the huge gray troughs. And the sound of the wind can take me back, to the Roaring Forties all those years ago when the best thing in the world was coming off watch and going below and getting blessedly dry. Never again will I be so dry and free and happy.

Robert Stone is the author of Outerbridge Reach, A Flag for Sunrise, and Dog Soldiers, for which he won the National Book Award.

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