Life and Near Death Aboard the Noka
EXPERIENCE MAY BE THE BEST TEACHER, BUT IT'S BETTER IF THE LESSON COMES FROM SOMEONE ELSE'S EXPERIENCE
My wife Susan and I were crossing the Gulf Stream on the way back from Grand Bahama Island to Hillsborough Inlet, Lighthouse Point, Florida, a distance of about 80 nautical miles.
The weather had kicked up, with wind and seas coming from the northeast ― the worst possible scenario for that particular crossing in open waters. For with surface wind and seas opposing the Gulf Stream current, which often runs at nearly six knots in a northerly direction, some really nasty and confused sea conditions were building up. And for the first time in a long while, we had a genuine concern for our personal safety.
As the seas built up, we began to realize that it was the Noka which had led us into danger. But not for the reason you might suppose. As we were not at that time aboard our beloved Noka, the stout 18-ton wheelhouse cutter shown in the header photo above, on which we had cruised and lived for some seven years. Instead, we were aboard our much smaller 28' twin-diesel sportfishing yacht, the Noka II, which we had acquired after we swallowed the anchor, moved ashore and sold the first Noka.
Noka in Ojibwe stands for the Bear (Clan), which is the symbol for strength and courage... And our first Noka was every inch a bear of a boat...
I had designed, and we had built her ourselves in our Toronto-area boatshop. She was such a strong, stable, seaworthy and seakindly vessel that, in seven years of cruising on her, we had come to trust implicitly in her abilities in all manner of weather and seas. So much so that in the easier-going sub-tropical summer season, we paid almost no attention to the weather reports ― except, of course, for those of hurricanes that might be headed our way.
In this case, we had left Grand Bahama on the Noka II with the same devil-may-care attitude that we had developed when we were sailing on the first Noka. Unfortunately, the Noka II, in which we were now running in two- to three-meter seas, wasn't a tenth as tough or forgiving or watertight as the original Noka. And we were really in deep shit, so to speak bluntly.
In our beloved Noka, we could have run on a reach under a triple-reefed main and forestays'l only, with the engine ticking over slowly and us steering from the comfort and safety of her enclosed, self-bailing wheelhouse. But not now. Now, we were exposed and vulnerable, with an open cockpit and precious little shelter from the weather.
Not that the Noka II wasn't a great little vessel, for she was. But although she was a good boat, for what she was, she was never intended to be out in the kind of wind and seas we were facing.
Susan and I both thought, but didn't speak about Fort Lauderdale restaurateur Chuck Muer, his wife, and two friends who had been lost at sea a few years prior, crossing the Gulf Stream in their 40-foot sailing yacht during a sinilar storm.
If you're goin' through hell, keep on going ... Don't slow down, if you're scared don't show it ... You might get out before the devil even knows you're there ...
Rodney Atkins recording
Since I'm here to write the story, I’m pretty sure you’ve guessed the outcome. Fortunately, in the instance, neither the weather nor the seas worsened significantly. And although the Noka II was only 28 feet long, she had good, strong diesel engines, big reduction gears, and relatively large props ― all of which combined to enable us to power through that truly nasty seaway relatively quickly and emerge safely into the quieter waters west of the Gulfstream, before time, fatigue, and the odds caught up to us.
The irony of the situation was that seven years experience living and cruising aboard the first Noka had, in fact, led us into danger — not because she was inadequate for offshore work, but precisely because she had been so superbly fit for it that we did not make the adjustment to a smaller, less capable vessel without first being taught a hard lesson by the Sea. Which is: pay close attention to the characteristics and capabilities of the boat you’re on, not the boats you used to run. And always, always keep an eye on the weather forecast, no matter how confident you may have become over the years in the vessels upon which you sail.
That’s a lot easier these days, a couple of decades later than the incident referred to. Weather forecasting is ever so much improved. And ever so much more readily available. So learn from my experience in this matter, and pay attention when heading for an offshore crossing. Don’t insist on learning from only your own experience. Because what kills you doesn’t make you stronger; it only makes you dead. ― Phil Friedman
Author’s Note: An earlier version of this story originally appeared in beBee.com.
Copyright © 2023 by Phil Friedman — All Rights Reserved
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