Lit Bits

CRAZY SINGLEHANDERS: The Special Men of God

1995 Hurricane Season

I ARRIVED IN THE AZORES aboard Crazy Horse, my Alberg 35 yawl, in late August of 1995 already feeling kind of nervous about the hurricane situation. Earlier that summer I was caught in a tropical storm named Chantal while en route to Bermuda, and since then several other North Atlantic storms had chewed their way through much of the alphabet. The West Indies, I heard, had been blasted to bits. By late September, rumor had it the hurricane season would stretch through November into December and that the Greek alphabet was being dusted off just in case.

The Azores, however, are rarely visited by tropical storms, so I hoped I might be safe there. Together with one recently enlisted crew member, Carie, from Holland, I had cruised from the island of Faial to Pico to Terceira, and at last arrived at Ponta Delgada, the capital of the Azores, on the island of Sao Miguel. The day after we arrived, however, there came word that a hurricane named Noel was heading straight for us.

Our new dockside neighbor, a singlehander named Jim who hailed from Canada, was rather nonchalant about it. Just a few months earlier, he'd run away to sea, leaving his wife and family behind, and was caught alone in a tropical storm en route from Nova Scotia. O'Sean, his Bruce Roberts steel ketch, was rolled by an enormous wave, and Jim was hurled across the cabin and knocked unconscious. When he came to a day later he found he had three broken ribs, the boat was half-filled with water, his batteries were dead, and the steering was disabled. Somehow he managed to limp on to the Azores, where he was towed into Ponta Delgada and then was hospitalized for several days.

"Nothing to it," Jim remarked as we stood on the quay together, arms folded, watching clouds roll in from the southwest. He sounded almost defiant, but he was confident, I think, only because he was standing on land.

Track of Hurricane Noel, 1995

It turned out Jim was right, and the storm fortunately devolved into a harmless blob shortly before it reached us. Just three days later, however, there appeared another lonely mariner who had seen the worst of it. His name was Trygve, from South Africa, and he was bound for Norway.

He had not had a pleasant voyage. He and his wife spent more than a month struggling to beat around the Cape of Good Hope, then were caught in a bad storm in the South Atlantic. They put into Gambia for repairs and were nearly wrecked at the mouth of the Gambia River. Here Trygve's wife left the boat, and he continued on alone, only to face the fury of Noel.

Trygve's boat, Solveig, a beautiful 40-foot wood ketch he had built himself, had been reduced to a shambles. The fiberglass dinghy on the coachroof was crumpled like paper, the port side gunwale and stanchions had been torn away, the rigging hung in a tangled mass over the deck. Trygve himself had the haggard, haunted look of a man who had been to hell and back. He showed me a frail yellow clipping from a South African newspaper, dated 1964. It told the story of a young assistant plant manager who was building a boat in his backyard and dreamed of sailing her one day all the way to Norway, the land of his birth.

"It is a terrible thing," said Trygve, "to have the sea in your blood. It destroyed my first marriage, my building this boat, and now I'm afraid this voyage will ruin my second as well."

 

PERHAPS IT WAS THE NEW ENGLANDER IN ME, the generations of seasonal conditioning telling me that once October rolls around it is time to get off the water for a while. Certainly these horror stories weren't helping much, nor were auguries of an endless hurricane season. I did not relish the prospect of tangling with another tropical storm at sea with only Carie, a seasick landlubber, for crew, and the Azores, it seemed, might not be such a bad place to spend the winter.

Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel

Ponta Delgada marine, Sao Miguel

Only a few days after Trygve's arrival there appeared in the marina yet another singlehander, who, like myself, was wrestling with the question of whether to stay or go. This was Hans, from Germany, who Carie and I had first met a few weeks earlier on Faial.

Hans had purchased his boat, a well-found 48-foot Dutch-built cutter named Mariele, three years earlier in Mallorca, Spain. Immediately after taking possession of the boat, he at once set forth in a flight of whimsy into the North Atlantic and sailed to Madeira in search of a good cup of coffee. From there he wandered down to the Canary Islands and was preparing to return to Europe when another cruiser gave him a complete set of photocopied charts for South America. So Hans cruised over to Brazil to see what the coffee was like over there. Then one day, while studying his new charts, he made an amazing discovery.

"I could see on the chart," he explained to me. "Cape Horn is not a true cape; it is an island! So, of course, I decided I must sail around it!"

Which is what he did. And while cruising all on his own in the wild and inhospitable regions of Cape Horn and Tierra del Fuego, Hans also made an amazing discovery about himself.

"It is this," he informed me. "I learned I am the special man of God."

At which point I could not help but laugh out loud.

"No! No!" insisted Hans in a stern voice. "This not for laughing."

And as proof he recounted various episodes of outrageous good fortune he had experienced during his voyage. The climactic anecdote featured a storm that raged for three days while Hans was anchored at Cape Horn. After the storm finally abated and Hans prepared to leave, he found the shackle connecting his anchor and rode had worn down to nothing and was on the verge of breaking apart.

"If only the storm lasted one more hour, my ship would be lost!" he exclaimed. "So you see, I am the special man of God!"

Charlie and Hans in Ponta Delgada

From Cape Horn the Special Man sailed home to Germany. He spent several months there, wondering what to do with himself. Finally, for lack of a more meaningful purpose, he went to sea again in Mariele. When Carie and I first met him on Faial he had a girlfriend onboard, but life with the Special Man proved too hard for her and she had flown back to Germany in a veil of tears. And, indeed, Hans was a demanding fellow. Within moments of his arrival at Ponta Delgada, before even setting foot on shore, he had the entire marina in an uproar.

"No! No! It is too small for my ship!" he shouted to us from his cockpit as Jim, Carie, and I, along with two Portuguese dockhands and a customs officer, stood on the reception dock waiting to receive lines.

"I will go there!" he declared and pointed across the basin to an open spot on the seawall. Like Keystone cops we all ran around the basin to receive him there. But again Hans pronounced the space too small, so we all ran back to the reception dock.

"Damn him," muttered Rui, the customs officer. "I will have the dogs on his boat."

Hans circled about indecisively, shouting at us and waving his arms. Then he turned for the harbor entrance and the open sea beyond. There he goes, I thought, off to Cape Horn again. But in another moment he turned back and at last was persuaded to land at the reception dock. That afternoon I stopped by for a visit and found that Hans had dragged the entire length of his anchor chain out on deck and was carefully vacuuming it, inch by inch. He shut down the vacuum, and we talked for a while about what our plans were.

"It is not the same for me," said Hans. "When I sailed to Cape Horn I was so happy to be alone on the ocean, but I think now I am afraid. Really, I am so afraid. So this winter I think I will stay here."

He asked what I would do, and I shrugged and said I did not know. "The weather is strange," I remarked.

"Yes," said Hans. "It is so, so strange."

As if in confirmation of this statement there soon appeared on the weather charts, just two days after Trygve set out again for Norway, yet another tropical storm, this one named Tanya.

Track of Hurricane Tanya, 1995

The center of the storm passed west of Sao Miguel, which put us in its dangerous quadrant, but fortunately it was not too close. Still, we had winds of 45 knots, with gusts to 60, barreling down the length of the main harbor into the marina. There was enough fetch for a sea to build, and by nightfall there was a parade of angry whitecaps crashing on to the pontoon where Crazy Horse was tied up.

Carie and I lay below in our berths, unable to sleep as the boat jerked madly against all ten of the dock lines I had laid out. Sometime after midnight, as the storm reached its peak, I thought I heard someone shouting outside. I pulled on my foul-weather gear and went out to investigate and found Hans prancing about in the rain like Lear's fool on the heath. He was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and the dock beneath him was buried in a smother of foam, bucking in the waves like a wild bronco.

"I have come for coffee!" he shouted and held his arms wide to the storm.

I carefully crawled off the boat on to the dock, and we stood for some moments up to our knees in water discussing the weather. Then suddenly we looked up and saw that a large fishing boat had broken loose in the main harbor and was being swept down towards us.

"Oh, excuse me," said Hans. "I must go to save my ship."

I ducked below to get Carie off the boat, in case there was a collision, but by the time we were both on deck again I could see the fishing boat had just missed us and was passing between our pontoon and the wall where Mariele was tied up. The boat then swept past Mariele, just missing her, and landed on a large trailer ramp at the end of marina basin. Carie and I stood with Hans and watched as some fishermen tried to pull her off with a line tied to a car.

"It is good not to be on the ocean tonight," remarked Hans, and he shook his head gravely.

 

AFTER THE STORM PASSED Hans rented a car for a week, so that he might explore the island in detail, and one day he asked Carie and I to join him for a drive. He drove like a madman--grinding gears, lurching through corners, passing other cars in wild bursts of speed. Several times he brought the car to a screeching halt in the middle of the road and jumped out to photograph bits of scenery that caught his fancy. Once he stopped next to a large stonewall.

"Look at this beautiful wall!" he declared. "I could sit for hours and do nothing but look at this wall."

He sighed and snapped a photo.

"But come, we have no time!"

And we were off again.

We ended up in an extinct volcano crater, or caldeira, called Sete Cidades on the west end of the island. Pines and cedars marched down the steep crater walls to a pair of gorgeous lakes on the far side of which stood a small village backed by tracts of forest and open pasture. We careened down a switchback dirt road and on the lake shore found a small house with a "For Sale" sign on it. We walked the grounds for a while, admiring the splendid view of the village across the lake.

"I will live here," announced Hans. "I will buy this house."

Sete Cidades, Sao Miguel

We drove into the village and made inquiries at a small cafe where a group of men stood drinking wine together. They told us the house had been for sale for a long time. On the way back to Ponta Delgada, Hans talked excitedly about his new home and again drove like a maniac. By the time we reached the city, the engine was sputtering and various warning lights on the dash were blinking on and off. Finally the engine died, and the car rolled to a stop directly across the street from the office where Hans had rented it.

"You see!" he declared triumphantly. "I am the special man of God!"

During the next few days, however, the Special Man learned there was a legal dispute concerning the Special House on the lake and it would take many months, perhaps a year, to finalize any sale.

"My house, my beautiful house," he cried in anguish. But then a look of stern resolve passed over his face like a cloud. "It is decided. I am a sailor, so I must go again in the world."

Hans began making preparations to depart on Mariele, but soon changed his mind again. He had been offered a job, he told me, a very good job with a German construction firm that was building vacation houses on the island. He described to me at great length how ever since he was a small boy he believed he would one day live in the Azores. He believed this was his destiny, ordained by God, and the purpose of all his wanderings in life up to this point had been to lead him to this place.

"And you," he asked, "what will you and Carie do?"

"I think we will stay here this winter," I answered.

"This is good," he smiled. "We will learn Portuguese together."

That weekend, however, Carie and I left the boat to do some hiking and when we returned to the marina Mariele was gone. We asked at the marina office if Hans had left a message, but the woman behind the desk said no, he just suddenly left one morning.

"He seemed upset," she said.

"Do you know why?" I asked.

She shrugged: "He is always upset."

We walked back to Crazy Horse, and I stood on the pontoon for a while looking across the basin at the empty space on the wall where Mariele had been. There were clouds forming in the southwest, and somewhere out there the Special Man of God was at sea again.

 

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