Rolling in Monster Waves

Author: Ami Green

We left in May of 2000. My husband, Bob Green, a 1963 Notre Dame graduate,, and I closed the familiar doors from our 30 years together in Rhode Island, and stepped onto Scallywag, our 44-foot cutter-rigged sailboat. The boat was configured for single-handed offshore sailing, with all sail handling operational from the cockpit.

Our itinerary included a month on the southwest coast of Ireland and travel along the long coast of Portugal. By November, we would be in Las Palmas, Grand Canary, which would be our jumping off point toward the Caribbean. After wintering there, we planned for a slow passage north through the warm aquamarine waters of the Windward and Leeward islands, before our expected return home in June of 2001. That was the plan.

A small group of friends stood on the dock of the Watch Hill Yacht Club to send us off. My 86-year-old mother, her small arm stretched over the back of our youngest son, was smiling as we set off toward Ireland. They would spend the summer as roommates, neither ever knowing how difficult it was for me to say goodbye.

For 10 fabulous months we had the cruise of a lifetime. I began calling the ocean my home, my fears diminishing with each mile. With our two successful Atlantic crossings, I gained an appreciation for all that we had accomplished. I was on an eternal high. By December, we’d arrived in the Caribbean.

In March we sailed into Oranje Baai, the harbor in Saint Eustatius, hoping to spend a few days visiting this West Indies island that “touches the clouds.” Unknown to us, a series of deadly ocean swells caused by winter storms off North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras swept across the ocean on March 6 and 7, arriving at the Saint Eustatius harbor in the early morning hours of March 8.

At 4 a.m. the stern of our boat abruptly jerked to one side. Bob bolted from the V-berth into the companionway and saw a 30-foot breaking wave with our name on it. His voice calm, he said, “Ami, oh my God, hold on — this is going to be a bad one. We’re going over!”

When the wave hit, Scallywag rolled, and for 15 long seconds we remained under water. Then, in slow motion, while being assaulted by a procession of huge waves, she righted herself. The electrical circuits shorted, leaving us disabled. I heard Bob yell, “Ami, please come here.” As I left the relative safety of the narrow passageway, the work station broke loose. Stunned and trapped by toolboxes, heavy floorboards and floating debris, I began to panic. Another monster wave hit before I could reach Bob. Tons of water poured over us, crushing our bodies.

“Stay with the boat!” Bob yelled as another wave cascaded down the companionway. Waves continued to batter us at short intervals; the water in the boat was now up to our knees. Scallywag rolled back and we heard a snap — was it the mast breaking as it hit the bottom of the harbor? We sat huddled on the stairs, and another wave hit hard, tearing the glasses off my face. Each wave moved the unmoored boat closer to the rocky shore.

Then, with the gut-wrenching noise of fiberglass against rock, Scallywag shuddered to a violent stop. The mast, now broken in two pieces, had dropped our boom directly over the companionway. Looking up, we realized that its power to maim grew with each successive wave.

With Scallywag lying on her starboard side and the waves still pounding us, we became aware of a light on shore. Someone was trying to reach us. We yelled, telling him it was too dangerous to come out. Several minutes later, another wave lifted the hull a few feet closer to shore and the man moved toward us. Within seconds, he stood up to his waist in water, close to the hull, telling me he was there to help. The young man, named Mike Armstrong, guided me off. Bob soon followed. Another local resident, Tony Durby, drove us to Queen Beatrix Hospital, where doctors closed a large gash on my hand and severe lacerations on Bob’s head and back.

The boat that had protected us for 10,000 nautical miles was a complete loss. A few days later I wrote in my journal: “At 0940 Scallywag is torn away by a tug. The rocks that battered her beautiful hull, that tore an 8-foot hole in her starboard side, continue to cause havoc. . . . Looking out as the tug tries to pull her towards Saint Martin, she begins to sink lower and lower, the flotation bags dislodged.”

Like our boat, I felt my heart sinking. But then it dawned on me, stitched, bruised and saddened though I was, that we were still on the journey. It had just taken a different route. The cresting waves, the endless ceiling of cloud formations, gliding beside us at sea — they were still there.