Cruise Story–Silver Winner: Dramamine: The Gateway Drug

By Cristina Topham

As the new chef aboard a 120-foot sailing yacht, I learned quickly that feeding a crew of six South African sailors is no small feat. Like a pack of roving hyenas, they’re always hungry and will eat anything in sight. Nothing is safe. I had made a lamb curry which was intended for our passage to the Caribbean, but the crew begged and pleaded with me to let them eat it because, as they said, lamb curry was their favorite thing in the whole world and they couldn’t bear the thought of it just sitting in the fridge. They said the same thing about the pasta Bolognese and the cod stew, which were also intended for the passage but had conspicuously disappeared one day while I was out shopping for the yacht. The yacht had been “on the hard” (out of the water) for a refit. And so after seven long months in a commercial shipyard in Staten Island, the crew were ecstatic to be back in the water and preparing to leave. I had been hired nearly a month before our intended departure but with delays on repairs to the galley, I had only three days from joining the yacht to prepare for our two week passage sailing from New York to St. Barth and to provision for the winter season. This included, literally, making dozens of trips a day to mega-marts and grocery stores, butchering and freezing 350 pounds of meat and fish, and finding stowage for several months worth of food and cooking supplies. All the while, making breakfast, lunch and dinner for the crew and preparing MREs (meals ready-to-eat) for our two-week sail. The night before our departure, I didn’t have it in me to cook another big meal. So with less than 24 hours to go, we celebrated our exodus from New York over the lamb curry, Heinekens and several bottles of wine. And, as the last of the MRE’s disappeared, I thought to myself, “how difficult could it be to cook at sea?”.

At 7:00 the next morning, I was awakened by the shriek of the ship’s emergency bell and flew from my bunk to the pilothouse only to find our captain there laughing wickedly as the crew mustered, him knowing full well that we were all a bit tired from too much celebrating the night before. At 8:45 A.M. the anchor was raised, and after weeks of anticipation we finally set sail. As we left New York Harbor, we passed several giant freightersit was magnificent to watch them pass by. New York and New Jersey disappeared beneath the horizon as we headed out to sea. It was an overwhelming feeling to look out at the endless expanse of ocean ahead, knowing that we wouldn’t see land again for at least 12 days. I was excited and nervous about the adventure that lay ahead; I’d hardly set foot on a boat prior to this, much less sailed. And now here I was, on my way to the Caribbean, cooking on a yacht and learning all about the sailing world firsthand. I had no idea what to expect; I felt like I’d just jumped into the abyss.

The headsail drifted in the wind, luminescent against a powder-blue sky. I found a cozy place on the bow protected from winter’s chill where the sun graciously offered up its warmth, and I slipped into a peaceful meditation to the sound of the ocean slapping against the hull. We would be hitting the Gulf Stream and warmer weather within a day and were expected to arrive in St. Barth in about two weeks.

Shortly after we’d left the channel, waved good-bye to New York and hit the open sea, the boat began to rock. At ten knots, the five- and six-foot swells created quite a roll. My stomach began feeling queasy. Is this what seasickness feels like? I really had no idea. Nevertheless, I wasn’t feeling too well and so I gave up my spot in the sun and made my way back to the pilothouse. I had made sandwiches for the crew before setting sail, but as the boat tossed, I grew increasingly anxious about my lack of preparedness. I thought about what I might make for dinnerstir-fry or pasta, something simple. I made my way to the galley to come up with a plan for dinner, but seeing the water rush by the portholes and fighting gravity to walk proved too much and I quickly realized that cooking at sea would be akin to cooking in the centrifuge machine at Cape Canaveral. But six-foot swells would have been welcome compared to what we were in for.

By mid-afternoon the boat was really rolling, and seasickness was a definite. Following the lead of the other crew members, I made myself as comfortable as possible in the pilothouse. Sitting with my back against the settee, I had my two feet propped against the table in front of me to stabilize myself as the yacht rolled. I tried to stifle my nausea. I was the rookie, and I didn’t want to be the first one down. But as evening came and the winds picked up, we started hitting 10-to-12-foot seas. My green hue gave me away, and our stewardess handed me a double dose of Dramaminefar too late to be of any use. Lucky for me, our deckhand was actually the first one to feed the fish, but I was soon to follow.

At sunset the crew began watch keeping in four-hour shifts, and between shifts most people slept or read. As the crew awoke for each shift they helped themselves to sandwiches, some pasta whipped up by a crew member sympathetic to my plight, and copious amounts of junk food, “chockies” as they called themCadbury bars, mini Hershey bars, mini Almond Joys, and chocolate-covered raisins.

By midnight we hit the Gulf Stream, which brought warmer temperatures, but 20-foot seas and gale-force winds. It was only a matter of time before the entire crew was seasick, and the worst was yet to come. Incapacitated, I held steadfast to my position on the settee in the pilothouse, moving only when necessarythat is, to run to the head and be sick, or to sip on a can of ginger ale and nibble at a box of Saltines. All night long and the entire next day our boat was pounded constantly by 20-foot waves, tossed about like a rubber ducky in a washing machine on spin cycle.

The winds picked up as night rolled in, and we were hammered as the waves grew to 30 feet. The crew had installed new rigging only days before our departure, but in the captain’s rush to leave, it had never been checked. The cotter pins hadn’t been put in place, and the two main shrouds (the equipment that holds the mast to the deck) began to come loose. The engineer and the two deckhands wrestled against high winds and rough seas to harness themselves to the deck for safety and go out for repairs.

It was our second night at sea, our engineer and deckhand were on watch and I was still holding tight to my position on the settee. The boat lurched from side to side, with the explosion of waves crashing over the bow, I felt as if I was on a German U-boat coming under enemy fire. I was so sick from the constant smashing about that I completely disregarded what sounded like cannons, bombs and gunfire going off outside and did my best to sleep through it. But I sprang to my feet at the sound of one tremendous explosiona direct hit on our starboard side. Within seconds the entire crew was at attention in the pilothouse. The engineer opened the doors to the aft deck. Waves crashed across the boat. The 50-foot, 1,000 pound boom had lost its main line and swung wildly off the mast, crashing into the side of the boat each time it was hit by a wave. We all watched as the boom swung across the lines of the staysail and ripped a huge mechanical winch clean off the deck tossing it overboard. As the yacht lurched erratically from the loose sail the captain, engineer and two deckhands geared up in their harnesses and went out on deck to get the boom under control. I stood in the pilothouse watching the drama unfold before my eyes and wondering what kind of nightmare I had just committed myself to. This certainly was not the adventure I had signed on for, and if this was how things were beginning, than I was afraid of what else might be in store! Just then, the boom reeled back and hit a wave, and against its own force, bent clean in half like a jackknife. “Get away from the glass!” our engineer hollered.

I darted down the steps to the main salon. The boom came crashing through the pilothouse, sending the entire crew running and glass shards flying everywhere. Terrified, I stood in the salon, arms and legs quaking, glass and seawater spilling down the stairs. I questioned how I could be so stupid as to give up my business in New York City and leave my friends and family behind to put my life at risk. I imagined abandoning ship and being rescued at sea by the Coast Guard. I wondered if I’d be able to grab my laptop before I was helicoptered to safety and I thought about all those damn nice bottles of wine that would go to waste if the boat sank.

By now, no amount of Dramamine could help me. Gripped by fear and completely nauseated I ran to the head, clung to the toilet for dear life and emptied the nonexistent contents of my stomach several times over. I sanctimoniously bartered with God, swearing to live out the remainder of my life in servitude if only I would to be spared from an untimely death in the middle of the cold Atlantic Ocean. My temperature soared and I was drenched in sweat. Paralyzed by shock, fear and seasickness, unable to move and not knowing what else to do, I curled up on the bathroom floor, fully accepting that I just might die. Sleep came on like a drug-induced coma.

While I slept, the captain sent a pan-pan (distress signal) in to the Bermudan authorities, who were still a solid two days away from usbut at least they knew we were in distress. They had our coordinates and would be following us on radar, expecting our arrival by late Saturday, or else sending help. Thwarted were my hopes for a dramatic helicopter rescue, but at least my laptop and personal stash of crew wine would be safe, relatively speaking.

I awoke the next morning groggy and disoriented, the yacht still being pummeled by 30-foot waves. I hesitated to move from the safety of the bathroom floor but the captain, being a masochist, requested that I make sandwiches for the crew. I looked up at him with complete and utter contempt, but then gingerly changed my clothes and made my way to the galley. The coffee machine had been ripped off the wall, sending grounds everywhere, and the garbage can had tipped over. The overwhelming smell of coffee and garbage clung to the hot, humid air, bringing tears to my eyes and kicking awake the fragile volcano in my stomach. I immediately closed the deadlights to the portholes so as not to witness the ocean roaring by at a wholly unnatural pace. My hands shook as I cleaned up the mess, pausing every few moments to try to regain my senses. I began to make the sandwiches, but the smell of foodevery smell in factwas thoroughly revolting: Ham and cheese were almost too much to bear; condiments were out of the question.

The recipe was something like this:

Ham and Cheese Sandwiches at Sea

10 slices Sourdough Bread

10 slices Swiss Cheese

10 slices Smoked Ham

To Make:

Take bread, ham and cheese from refrigerator.

Lie down on floor for 20 minutes and wait for nausea to pass.

Remove bread from bag and place on the counter.

Remove ham and cheese from packaging.

Lie down on floor for 20 minutes and wait for nausea to pass.

Put ham and cheese on bread.

Repeat steps 2 through 7.

Preparation time: 2 hours

Yield: 5 sandwiches that will never be eaten.

I went to the pilothouse. Our captain stood amid the wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood, clutching his copy of Master and Commander like a Bible in the hand of a Baptist minister proselytizing to the sinning masses. He proceeded to deride us all as a bunch of godforsaken wimps that couldn’t handle a storm, and complained that he needed some real sailors on his ship. Uninspired, I returned to my cabin and crawled into my bunk, but was tossed out two times and rained upon by a downpour of falling cookbooks. I eventually decided that the floor was as good a place as any to sleep.

For two more days the yacht crashed, lurched and rolled in the tumultuous and unrelenting seas. The crew balanced on the edge of exhaustion, our nerves frazzled and spirits sagging. But just when I thought that I could take it no more, the seas calmed. I looked out through a tangle of rigging and bent steel as Bermuda came into view.

The remarkable thing about seasickness, for the uninitiated, is not only how thoroughly it depletes your will to survive but also how quickly it passes! As soon as the waters calmed and St. George Bay came into sight, everyone began feeling better. By the time we dropped anchor the crew were famished and requesting that I make their favorite South African meal: steak, eggs and chips. After this ordeal, how could I deny anyone? Steak, eggs and chips it was.

Although I felt much better, the nightmare we’d just been through clung to me like a bad hangover. I pushed through my own exhaustion to clean the galley and prepare dinner. That night, the crew, blissful and unrestrained, devoured seven pounds of flank steak, ten potatoes, seven eggs and a large bowl of sautéed bok choy.

The next morning, I left the boat early to shop for fresh ingredients. Stepping onto dry land for the first time in a week, my legs felt like Jell-O, and the ground beneath me rolled like a stormy sea. A crowd had converged to assess the damage, the tale of our plight told and retold in hushed tones through the crowd. As word spread, our yacht became known around the small town as the “Crash Bang Boom” boat. I walked through crowd, the captain of another yacht approached me about what had happened and so I relayed to him the entire harrowing experience..

He looked at me earnestly and said, “Can I offer you a word of advice,?”

“Of course,” I replied.

“Get off right now and find another yacht to sail on down the Caribbean. You’re safety is too important.”.

I turned to thank him, or perhaps just to borrow his shoulder as extra support for my failing land-legs, but he disappeared into the crowd.

Over the coarse of the following weeks, the boom was removed from the boat and holes were boarded up. Plans were worked out to motor the remainder of the way to St. Barth and complete the repairs there. This time, I told myself, I would be much more prepared for the passage. I had food stashed all around the galley and the crew quickly learned that they would lose a finger if they came near my MRE’s. But, as the date approached for our departure, I couldn’t stop thinking about what that captain had said to me that day on the dock and the seeds of a one girl mutiny had had been planted…

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