The Sailing Trip from Hell

The four-day trip around the Channel Islands, just off the coast of Southern California, started out like it was supposed to…calm seas, plenty of sunshine, and 18 to 20kts of wind. The channel was only about 35 miles across which would put us in a safe harbor for the evening in 5-6 hours.  So far so good, right?

 The Backstory

I’m not a sailor. I love the idea of being a sailor but I don’t think it was meant to be in this lifetime. In fact, the only other time I sailed it ended with disastrous results. You see, a few of us went out on one of those little sailboats for beginners with a single sail. And then suddenly, as if on command, the weather became violent and the wind caused us to tip over. But that was just the beginning. As I fell into the cold water, my shoulder dislocated on impact, leaving me in intense pain and with only one arm to dog-paddle to the surface. It wasn’t pretty, to say the least. We not only had to be rescued but I had to pop my shoulder back in place. Ouch!

Needless to say, can you understand why I was a bit hesitant when my buddies Coy and Timmy asked me to fly out to Santa Barbara with them for a four-day sailing excursion?  But hey, I thought to myself, how bad could sailing in Southern California be? Plus, both Coy and Timmy were experienced sailors and assured me over and over again that they’d be doing the bulk of the sailing.

Back to the story

After motoring out of the Santa Barbara Sailing Center in a relatively new 32-foot long Hunter sailboat, we began to notice the swells getting deeper as we moved out to sea. I looked over at the faces of my crewmates for any indication of concern, but only saw smiles as they welcomed the challenge.

Shortly thereafter, the wind picked up to 25 knots.  I don’t really know what that means other than I was tightly gripping the rail as the swells got deeper and deeper.  Just then two thoughts emerged in my head. First, I was thankful that I was wearing one of those patches to prevent seasickness. And second, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d be able to stand in the little bathroom in the cabin area without falling over.

The increasing wind picked up to 30 knots as dark clouds filled the sky. By now the sea swells were to the point that when the boat reached the bottom of the swell with a crash, all you could see on either side was a wall of green seawater. I glanced over once again at my crewmates, hoping for reassurance. Instead, what I saw sent a surge of panic throughout my body. On one side of the boat was Timmy, hanging over the side, heaving whatever was left of his lunch; his face as green as the seas. On the other side was Coy, frantically trying to sail the boat by himself, in desperate need of assistance.

I helplessly watched as this nightmare unfolded, unable to release my arms from the rail. The wind was howling now as the angry ocean doused us over and over again with freezing seawater. My body was shaking from head to toe. The clouds were so low that it became difficult to decipher between the sky and the ocean. Up and down…left to right…up and down…left to right…and no end in sight. Without question, this was the most uncomfortable moment of my life. It sucked, to put it mildly.

The sea raged on for what seemed like hours. The wind was now over 40 knots and the swells over 18 feet. Timmy was so sick that he could no longer move from the fetal position. I tried to help Coy as he barked out orders but most the time I either couldn’t hear him or couldn’t understand what he wanted. He was basically on his own.

Then, just as life could not get any worse, the most amazing sight appeared right in front of me out in the water. A school of dolphins came up alongside the boat, jumping up and down and clearly playing with each other with glee.

The irony was overwhelming. How could they be having such fun, I thought, when I’m literally experiencing the worst moment in my life!

And then something came over me as I slowly relaxed my grip. I began laughing out loud, admitting to myself that this really wasn’t as bad as I was making it out to be…I was going to make it through this after all! Smiling now, I thanked the dolphins for essentially telling me to lighten up. I’m still smiling now as I write this.

The 5-to-6 hour trip ended up taking us 9-hours. The seas eventually calmed down and the absent sun once again re-appeared. Later that evening we never laughed so hard in telling the story we just experienced over and over again. And what still amazes me to this day is how the worse day of my life transformed into one of the best evenings of my life.

But isn’t that how life is?



  1. Great story, Geese, and one I know from Coy’s perspective as he shared this defining moment in his contribution to the men’s anthology Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Lives ( I appreciate your resilience and reflection. Gratefully, Doug

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