By Gary Caputi
The wind had increased to a force I had never experienced short of the great nor’easter that lashed the coastline in 1991; that was the very storm recounted in the book and movie The Perfect Storm, but this time things were different. I wasn’t standing on the boardwalk in Point Pleasant watching monstrous waves crash over the jetty rocks at Manasquan Inlet. I was on the flying bridge of 48-foot sportfishing yacht 85 miles offshore, being lashed by gale force winds and huge waves in the dead of night.
All onboard our boat were praying that a thin line of 800-pound-test monofilament, which was holding the bow into the wind, would stand up against the weight of the tossing craft. All the time I knew that, if it failed, our boat could turn and capsize in a heartbeat!
The trip had started like so many other runs to the canyons off Atlantic Coast. From late spring through fall, boats fish these canyons for tuna, marlin and dolphin. When conditions are right, they can be one of the most beautiful places on earth to devout saltwater fishermen, and the trip prior to this one was a perfect example.
During that previous trip, we encountered the edge of a warm-core eddy, a huge circular mass of deep blue water, running across the Hudson Canyon in an area called the Elbow. It was easily discernable by the distinct color and temperature difference from the surrounding water.
The fateful trip two weeks later started on a glorious afternoon in early September with an offshore forecast that would put any mariner at ease. The spirits of the crew of Due Course, an Ocean Yacht 48 Super Sport owned by Ken Avon, were high. Everyone on board had been offshore many times before and each looked forward to an evening of catching tuna, the hands-down favorite of this bunch.
The forecast was for light and variable breezes with seas less than 2 feet when the boat broke the inlet on a compass course of 146 degrees to our destination, a small crack in the continental shelf called Toms Canyon. Located about 20 miles south of the mouth of the Hudson, its sheer walls drop rapidly from 70 to 150 fathoms and then gradually to 1,000. There’s a little hook that points to the southeast at its tip, a place where you can encounter yellowfin tuna when the conditions are right.
The ride out was pleasant, the Due Course making 25 knots in seas that were near calm. We arrived at 7 p.m., and poked around looking for signs of baitfish and tuna. The crew decided they wanted to find a lobster pot buoy, called a “high-flyer,” to tie up to while we fished overnight.
Captain Avon cruised about until twilight when he happened upon a lone flyer. As members of the crew tied a 100-foot rope to it so the boat would stand off in the calm seas, I looked around questioning why there was no buoy at the other end of the string of pots; but it was getting dark and hard to see. As the boat settled back on the line, the weather was exactly as predicted: light breeze from the west, seas as flat as a billiard table. But things would begin to change rapidly, very rapidly.
Before we had a flat of butterfish cut into chunks and the chum bucket hung over the side, a cold wind out of the northeast hit the boat and spun it around 180 degrees on the rope. Within minutes the wind began to blow steadily and pick up speed. Within a half hour the northeast wind had cranked up to 20 to 25 knots and we were beginning to get a little worried about what was to follow. The sky that was full of stars one minute was now blanketed by dense clouds the next, and one of the crew said, “Doesn’t look like it’s going to be a very pretty night.” That turned out to the understatement of the year!
By 10 p.m., the wind had increased to 30 to 35 knots sustained. The sky looked as if God had spilled out the contents of a huge bottle of India ink and the seas were just as black with white crests foaming on top of the waves that continued to build. By 10:30 p.m., the boat was hanging taut on the line secured to the high-flyer in 12-foot seas. We were beginning to wonder just what was on the other end of that line. A check of the GPS showed our boat was moving to the southwest, so the flyer was not stationary.
Switching the radar to the 48-mile range, it displayed a single large vessel on the screen 19 miles away. It was in a perfect line between the bow of the Due Course and the direction the wind was hitting us. It could only be one thing: a commercial long-line boat. We were tethered to the end of the mainline it had out for the evening’s fishing.
The North Atlantic long-liner typically uses a mainline about 20 miles long with baited hooks secured to it at regular intervals. It is made from 800-pound-test monofilament, the same type of nylon line used by anglers in lighter tests. By now the wind was howling so hard and the boat was pitching so violently that there was no way we could send a crewman to the bow to cut us free.
While it seemed almost unimaginable, the wind continued to increase to the point where we couldn’t even guess how hard it was blowing. Thankfully the long-liner’s mainline was acting like a drogue, a sea anchor deployed by small vessels during violent weather conditions to keep the bow pointed directly into the oncoming waves.
As the sea conditions worsened, we all knew we were in dire straits. I stayed on the fly bridge, alone for a good portion of the night, at the helm so I could try and start the engines in time to prevent the boat from being swung beam to the huge seas should we break free. I knew the strength of the mainline and was doubtful it could hold a big boat swinging wildly to and fro. If the boat broached, it would capsize and we’d either be in the water on a dark, violent sea, or worse, pulled down in the rigging as the boat sank.
To add a touch of irony to the scene pods of large squid gathered around the boat changing colors, seemingly engaged in some macabre dance under the vessel’s spreader lights unworried about the weather or our presence in their realm. As I watched the spectacle unfold, I worried that the thin monofilament line less than half the thickness of my little finger was all that was protecting us from the onrushing sea and a much closer encounter with the squid.
After hours of tossing violently on the bridge, exhaustion overcame fear and I carefully climbed down the ladder to the cockpit and fell through the door into the salon. The rest of the crew was doing the only thing they could, lying on the floor with the auxiliary VHF and single sideband radios keyed to the emergency channels ready to broadcast a “mayday” message if the boat failed to provide us with safe haven. I collapsed alongside them waiting for the first hint of daylight.
As day broke, the wind had already begun to subside and with it the seas began to drop quickly. By sunrise, the seas were down to an estimated 10 to 12 feet and we decided to cut the line and make
a run for port.
After the harrowing experience, I learned that we had been caught in a weather phenomenon called a back door cold front. These fronts approach from the east or northeast, instead of from the west like regular weather patterns, and most commonly occur in the northeast U.S. when cool Atlantic maritime air strikes warmer continental air. This one was unusually violent and relatively localized. Boats 60 miles to our south experienced gusts to 30 knots and rough seas, but nothing like we did. Winds in our immediate area were estimated at over 50 knots through the night and a NOAA weather buoy some distance away recorded seas over 20 feet! The disturbance was never forecast and struck us by complete surprise.
We never did find out the name of the long-liner we clung to so precariously that night. Its crew was undoubtedly taking a beating as well on the other end of the thin umbilical cord that probably saved our lives.
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