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 / Summer 2006 / Issue 43(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Captain’s Challenge

By the time we approached the infamous Gulf of Tehuantepec — where gusts funneling through the Mexican land mass can build sea heights to 20 feet — I had learned more about everyone, including myself. Pete, the one professional sailor, did not like to share in decisions or to cede to anyone else’s weather analysis. He was prone to moodiness if questioned about a decision he had made on his own. He was also physically impetuous and had damaged the fuel manifold in a moment of anxiety when one of the tanks for the auxiliary engine ran dry. So now we were running the engine with a heightened sense of possible failure. Diane knew far less about sailing than she or Pete had let on, and I was afraid she might get hurt if things got rough and she had to trim sails suddenly at night. (We stood watch in pairs, rotating so that each person had four hours on and six off, and others could be called up to help at any time.) Joe had a journeyman’s knowledge about the workings of the boat, but he was not at all spry, which limited his ability to work safely on deck. Frank, my paying client, was an able enough sailor, but the complexities of this boat, where loads were huge and injuries could be serious, were far from second nature to him. The predominantly calm weather to date had not tested him, so I did not know how far his abilities might take him.

And there was another factor. The vaunted satellite phone service for up-to-the-minute local weather reports had refused to deliver. It was the apparent victim of computer glitches, mast interference, or operator error. I spent many hours trying to fix it. For all that, I was confident that Pete and I could handle the boat if we prepared well in advance for harsh weather. We could reduce sail to a minimum if the winds piped up too high. I believed that with everyone in safety harnesses, Coeur de Lion, managed conservatively, would safely endure the roughest seas we were likely to find.

As we neared Tehuantepec from the northwest, we still had only intermittent communications on which to rely. Our satellite-link fax machine wasn’t receiving anything from the weather stations in New Orleans, probably because of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction. In business, the most valuable information is often not at hand when it is most needed, and this was the case now. We had reasonable radio predictions that Tehuantepec gales would start three days hence, and one blurred fax hinted at a tropical depression further southeast, but nothing followed to confirm it.

I was quite confident we should be able to round the area of predicted gales before they set in, but what lay beyond that? Looking at the fax, Pete was afraid that a tropical depression could be forming to the southeast. In a season when a record number of hurricanes had developed late in the year, he said, who could be sure such a depression was not forming? This argument relied as much on unknown information as on anything the fax had shown us. I tried to reason that Coeur de Lion was especially well built for high seas and we had come to sail, not to hide from high winds. She had been professionally surveyed in every detail, had been refitted in every place we found any weakness, and was therefore ready for just about anything. Unmoved, Pete said that in his professional opinion it would be imprudent to take a 30-year-old boat with this crew into 50-knot gales or risk a tropical storm of unknown ferocity.

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