Captain’s log. The storm that changed us forever on 12 August 2006

“The air was thick with humidity and this did not bode well at all. A pale yellow sunset with a strange light announced a storm was on the way...”

On 12 August 2006 I was embarked on a 27-metre Benetti vessel built in 1971, the Five Stars. With us was a family of 6 adults and 4 fairly young children. A strange and somewhat unlucky charter: out of 14 days’ hire, 7 were plagued with bad weather: rough seas, wind, rain and thunderstorms.

Already upon departing from the port of Livorno, at the end of July, on our way to Corsica, our first stop, we ran into three twisters, while sailing along the southern coast of  Isola d’Elba. We then headed to Sardinia, along the Emerald Coast, stopping a number of times to drop anchor in various bays, trying to escape the many storms.

AFTER TWO WEEKS ON CHARTER, ON 12 AUGUST OUR CONTRACT CONCLUDED

By midday we were supposed to be back in Livorno. The 11 August was a calm day, even though there was a south-easterly wind, a very warm breeze. The air was thick with humidity and this did not bode well at all. A pale yellow sunset with a strange light announced a storm was on the way.

The forecast showed that on the morning of 12 August a powerful storm from the south west was supposed to arrive, but showed nothing for the 11th, and so we suggested that the client take advantage of the better weather in order to return to Livorno. However the client did not agree. They had already missed out on a number of days because of the bad weather and he was determined to enjoy this one in full! So I decided to leave in the evening, even though the wind was rising from the south west. A strange wind.

I DOUBLE-CHECKED THE WEATHER. IT CONFIRMED ROUGH SEAS AND STRONG WINDS FOR THE MORNING OF THE 12TH. A STORM WAS FORECAST

It was 8pm, the passengers were having dinner, and we had to leave right away. We had a 5 hour crossing and I planned to be back in Livorno by 1am, ahead of the storm. It began to get dark at 9pm and as we continued on our journey, the wind became stronger. We were sailing 4-6 miles from the coast and were fairly protected by Capo Corso, even though there were 2-3 metre high oblique waves crashing against the left side of the vessel.

I was captaining the ship from the upper exterior deck, where I had better visibility. You get used to seeing in the dark at night, and I didn’t have any reflections in the window caused by the instrument lights. I faced the biggest waves by turning the vessel to the left, then turning it back towards Livorno, even though, in this manner, we were getting further from the coast, going further out to sea, wave after wave.

AFTER PASSING CAPO CORSO THE WAVES BECAME BIGGER

And yet the storm was forecasted for the morning of the next day, otherwise I never would have left, I would have refused to sail in those conditions. It was already one in the morning and we were only about halfway there, the waves had slowed us down and we had to reduce speed.  We couldn’t turn back, it didn’t make sense, and even though the waves were frightening, the only thing to do was to go forwards and reach Livorno.

I was steering the vessel manually, completely at attention on the upper deck, so that the largest waves wouldn’t catch the side and capsize us. I would turn the bow towards the wave, ride it, then turn it back towards Livorno, but we kept getting further and further away. Until, finally getting close to Livorno, I saw the lifesaving light from the lighthouse, and aimed straight for it.  The lighthouse is to the right of the entrance to the port. We were still 8-10 miles away, moving slowly. It would still take us an hour to reach the entrance.

IT WAS A STORMY NIGHT, RAINING WITH STRONG WINDS. THE SEA WAS ROARING, THE WAVES SPEAKING TO EACH OTHER WHEN THEY COLLIDED, AND THE WIND YELLING EVER LOUDER

At a certain moment, the moon peeked out between the clouds, illuminating the sea, with its waves of 6 metres or more, formidable for a 27 metre long boat. At that moment I was awed by the power of nature. By the continued roar of the wind. By the crashing and frothing of the waves and the sublime beauty of the spectacle.

The moon, together with a line of thunderclouds still flashing with lightning on the horizon were of a supernatural, nearly spiritual beauty. It was there that I realised how insignificant human beings really are.  We were just a group of ants in a nutshell, in the middle of infinity, in the throes of a storm that I believe deeply changed me inside. Even now I still get shivers when I think about the sublime and frightening power of that infinite, dark sea, doing with us what it wanted, but also, at the same time, supporting us. They say that a man who comes through a storm is never the same man who went into it.

I wasn’t afraid for myself, but was very worried about the passengers, if anything had happened, I don’t know how I would have saved them. There were also 4 children on board. In the dark, with the sea as it was, it would have been impossible to see a person’s head even at just a metre away. I was afraid I wouldn’t have found them again if anything had happened. They were terrified, with their sick bags in their hands, they were strained from the continuing movement of the waves.

The vessel was a bit old, but luckily it had great stability, notwithstanding all the rolling. It was built by the Benetti brothers, with the same criteria of a ship, even if in miniature, excellent stability, and straightening speed. The waves to the stern increased the boat’s speed – it was literally skimming across the water, with the risk of me losing control and capsizing. I could feel the ship swinging and tried preventing it by using the rudders and engines.

THEN, ALL OF A SUDDEN, I HEARD A STRANGE NOISE, A LOUD BANG. I TURNED AND SAW A MONSTER: A FREAK WAVE

It sometimes happens that a number of waves come together to form a giant wave. I saw it, high and frothing, heading straight for us. It lifted us, passed under us, crashing, foaming and roaring. When we hit the trough of the wave, for a moment, everything seemed calm, only the sound of the engines could be heard, reassuring and pleasant. This moment felt like an eternity, but we were immediately lifted by the next wave, and it all started up again: the screaming wind, the crashing sea.

The deck was about 5 metres above sea level.  I am 1.90 metres tall, so a total of about 7 metres in height. The wave that crossed us was higher. I’m not sure if it was 8, 9, or more metres high, but it was terrifying. The coastline and all its lights, including the lighthouse, disappeared completely for a long while. I was captivated.

WHEN WE REACHED LIVORNO IT WAS 4 IN THE MORNING, THREE HOURS LATE

The undertow in Molo Mediceo was strong. In the port, at that time, there was nobody to assist or help us. Myself and the 4 crew members docked the boat on our own. As soon as we were finished, one of the crew lit a cigarette and finished it in one drag. When I saw him I started laughing hysterically. We both did.

Everything had fallen over in the boat.  The television, chairs, and sofas had moved because of the oscillation and rolling. After having tidied we slept a couple hours, a light and jumpy sleep. I got up around 7 and went to get a coffee and to thank heaven for having made it to the port in one piece.

I was alone for a while enjoying my coffee, thinking over what had happened, enjoying being safe in the port, appreciating the moment and enjoying the simple things in life. It was a windy day but the sun was shining. There were no vessels entering or leaving Livorno. Not even the ferries for Elba departed that day. Only us, pilgrims of the sea, having reached the port after facing the storm that decided to show itself early. The storm that changed us forever.

 

Captain Denis Dicic

 

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