A not-so perfect storm

It was five years ago this week that the 47-foot ketch Almeisan left a Bridgeport marina for an ocean passage to Bermuda, traveling up Long Island Sound during the night of May 3 and passing through Plum Gut, near Orient Point, N.Y., on the way out to sea on the morning of the 4th.

Little did any of the five people aboard know then what lay in store for them or any of the other small boats caught over the next few days in what would become an ocean storm of immense size and unexpected strength, with sustained winds of 50 and 60 knots stirring up 30- to 40-foot seas.

By the time it was all over, the Navy and Coast Guard and some commercial ships pressed into service had made a series of daring mid-ocean rescues, saving six people off two sinking boats and airlifting from another boat an elderly crew member who had fallen and split his head open, bleeding profusely.

The captain of the Almeisan, an experienced blue water sailor, died during the height of the storm in the arms of his first mate, after the two were swept off the boat by an enormous wave.

The first mate survived another harrowing 15 hours or so in the stormy seas, keeping the body of his friend with him, until being found and rescued, against all odds, by the crew of a 590-foot tanker.

The story of that treacherous 2005 storm and the brave rescues carried out over two days is told masterfully by Michael J. Tougias in his new book "Overboard!"

I read it the other day, after seeing a notice that Tougias will be giving a lecture and slide show about the book at 7 p.m. May 17 at Bill Library in Ledyard.

It wasn't until I got a few pages into it that I realized that the storm in the book was the same spring gale of 2005 that I experienced aboard Connecticut's Amistad, while reporting about the schooner's first ocean passage, from Mystic to Bermuda.

The 129-foot Amistad, which hit the worst of the storm after passing through the Gulf Stream, still two days from Bermuda, fared much better than the smaller boats that Tougias writes about.

At the time, I reported that Amistad proved the shipwrights who built her at Mystic Seaport proud.

"She is heavy and solid and, through the worst of the storm, rose and fell mightily, easily, on each massive wave, no creaking or groaning, all business," I wrote in a dispatch from the ship.

"As crazy as things got on deck, with the wind whistling through the rigging and big waves lashing the boat with cascades of sea water, it was always remarkably calm, even quiet, down below.

"Pulling a hatch closed behind you, shutting out the chaos of the weather, seems almost like pulling shut the door of a big Mercedes, with its reassuring thud."

I was thankful, too, for the calm grace of Eliza Garfield, Amistad's skipper at the time, who put the schooner into a maneuver known as "hove to," in which you set one sail contrary to another and suspend the boat in one position, sacrificing forward motion for safety and more comfortable conditions.

The Amistad's generator failed during the storm and some damage to the steering system eventually required a jury rig to finally get us to Bermuda.

But it wasn't until reading Tougias' account of the storm this week that I realized how fortunate I was to have weathered the unnamed May storm of 2005 aboard the Mystic Seaport-built Amistad.

One of the most remarkable things about "Overboard!" is the book's account of the bravery of the Coast Guard rescuers who never hesitated to step into the teeth of such a terrible storm, as soon as the call for help came.

Imagine the courage of a rescue swimmer, lowered by cable from a helicopter into the wind-whipped crashing waves, who then unclips his safety harness and releases himself to the mercy of the storm, to retrieve someone in peril.

Or consider the wrenching dilemma of a helicopter pilot who has to decide between the "bingo" timer, telling him he has to turn back immediately, to have enough fuel to make it hundreds of miles to land, and the rescue of one more soul still left behind on a sinking boat.

Many more people would have lost their lives in that storm had it not been for the preparedness, professionalism and heroism of the Coast Guard.

Thanks to Michael Tougias for telling their story so well.

If you start the book, I can promise it will be hard to put it down until you finish.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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