© 1993 REESE PALLEY
Should the Bermuthas let you pass
Beware , my skipper, of Hatteras.
A doctor from Dubuque, just turned 60, had begun to feel a 'mite peckish' (his diagnosis). He halved his practice, doubled his fees and set out to aquire a sailboat with which to sail to Tahiti.
He was drawn to the sailboats of Annapolis as a hurricane draws winds into its eye. His wife, claiming migraine and an unbreakable canasta date, declined to accompany him. She vaguely promised to meet him in Florida.
In Annapolis he fell afoul of a former used car salesman who had become rich selling boats to retiring doctors from Dubuque. A boat was found, a price was haggled out, the colors of the upholstry decided upon, and sea trials commenced.
Chesapeake Bay could hardly have been worse for searching out the weaknesses of a new boat. There were no seas to speak of and the wind was a zephyrlike 6 knots. Instead of an independent expert aboard to assess the seaworthiness of the boat, a crew was impressed from among the staff and buddies of the salesman. An inadequate two days were spent in determining the yacht's readiness, after which the doctor and the former used car salesman agreed that there never had been a better handling or more soundly built boat. The doctor took posession of his craft and looked about for a crew with whom to waft westward.
Absent his wife (one of the reasons for buying the boat) he found a pair of lightly oiled nubiles of the opposite sex. Each had the three requisites the doctor had been instructed, by longshore machos, to seek out in female crew. Could she tie a bowline, did she own a bo'sn's knife and would she sleep with the skipper (two out of three will usually do). For his deck hands he choose two inexperienced long hairs who had the most yar beards he had ever seen. They broke a bottle of the best bubbly over the bow and christened her Elective Surgery in honor of his disposable income. Then off they sailed, the innocent nubiles, the bubbleheaded coked out beards, the aging doctor, his hopeless dreams in his untried and inadequate boat.
During the passage south in the Chesapeake the winds, in league with the lack of experience of crew and skipper, cooperated be never exceeding a kindly 15 knots. The nubiles were set to perfecting their knot tying and acquiring hundreds of cans of She Crab Soup.
The doctor, in the midst of his dream, was feeling the physical strain. The yar beards were mostly moaning in their bunks or throwing up into their own faces over the windward rail. Elective Surgery went aground four times in the passage to Norfolk. This was no problem since the Coast Guard was only a radio call away. (The Coast Guard came to refer to them as the boat with "the old guy and the weird crew".)
They left Norfolk to round Hatteras and head into the Bermuda Triangle on their way down toward Florida. They were never heard from again. They disappeared 'without a trace'.
The Bermuda Triangle is a chunk of the Atlantic Ocean bounded by a line from Cape Hatteras to Bermuda thence to Miami and back to Cape Hatteras. From the time America was discovered, and continuing up to the present day, more vessels have been lost in these waters than anywhere else in the world. The weather conditions in which they disappear seem exceeding mild, viewed from the safety of land, and usually the loss is 'without a trace.' A rich brew indeed for delvers into the diabolic, conspiracy buffs and spinners of tales about silicon-based intelligences (far greater than ours) in flying saucers.
These 'mysterious losses without a trace' have precipitated a cascade of creepy scenarios. No mystery could be less knowable by the land-locked scenarists who dote on that "eerie body of water". Tales of the mystery of the Triangle keep coming up like too much garlic in a Ceaser's salad. Considering the rich and evocative material for conjecture, it is little wonder that of all the importunate question marks of our bewildering universe, the popular press on the Bermuda Triangle exceeds most others.
The solutions are subtle and ingenious. To some it is clearly the work of the Devil, just a bit more of the regular mischief that keeps the Old Boy from dying of boredom, (as some claim that God has.) Others ring through a thousand changes the inescapable images of great intergalactic space ships sucking up victims and vessels together.
Ship-devouring sea monsters are not as popular today as they were a hundred years ago and only a few of us continue to believe that the boats simply fall off the edge of a flat world. The newer explanations mix the 'black holes' of space with watery maelstroms. The really inventive, and really suspicious, lay blame to our own government's experiments with diabolical (small 'd') weaponry.
The real explanations are, alas, less exotic and less likely to be splashed about in the sensation-needing press. The real explanations of the disappearances are clearly rooted in (1) Probability, (2) Preparation and Capability, (3) Oceanographics and (4) Weather Patterns. These four factors lead inevitably to the disappearances of vessels, ‘without a trace’ in the Triangle. When we come to understand the circumstances in which boats sail in these waters, the vessels may continue to disappear but the mystery disappears.
Nowhere in the world are there more pleasure boats sailing about on the edge of an open sea. Pleasure boats use up a lot of money and the lands bordering the Triangle are where a sizable chunk of the world's disposable income lives. Between Hatteras and Florida there are more pleasure boats per square mile than anywhere else. This simple weight of numbers guarantees that there will be, numerically, more disappearances here than in other less trafficked areas. The immutable laws of chance direct that the more boats there are in a given area, the higher will be the probability for disasters.
(2) Preparation and Capability
Nowhere in the world are there more small boats sailing about in the open sea with more unprepared and untrained dimwits behind the wheel who, recently come to the sea, know little of their boats capabilities and less of the vagaries of the sea. Most importantly, since a great number of them are older than their most recent bypass, they are unaware of the testing that the sea can give their physical capacities. Crews are very nautical appearing chaps indeed, but generally too young to have had the experience which teaches lifesaving respect for the sea.
The lack of preparation of the crew is reenforced by the lack of capabilities of the boats they sail. These boats are built in a climate of fierce cost and price cutting, where expensive construction techniques, which do not show on the surface, can bury a boatbuilder under the flood of flimsy Chlorox bottles his competition churns out. While some of these boats should perhaps never be untied from their docks, all are enthusiastically sold as capable of tough ocean passages. (Consider the dilemma of a broker trying to peddle a boat that he says is not.) Sooner or later, these badly thought out and lightly stuck together cockleshells find themselves rounding Hatteras. The probability for disaster, inherent in (1) the large number of boats out there, is now exponentially compounded by (2) the lack of preparation of sailors and incapacity of the ships they sail.
Consider for a moment geography of the Triangle. Running up through its center is the most treacherous river in the world, the Gulf Stream. The Stream whips northward from Florida for a thousand miles before it meets its first obstacle, Cape Hatteras. As the stream churns eastward to escape the jut of the Cape, it runs smack into the weather patterns coming down from the North Atlantic. The hot air from the south mixes explosively with the cold air from the north immediately off Hatteras. Burgeoning, unreported storms are the natural result of the this mixing. When the weather wants to be capricious, and around Hatteras that is all the time, the wind, instead of coming up with the Stream or blowing harmlessly across it from the west, roars down from the north against the flow of the Stream and heaps up seas over the shallow waters of unimaginably destructive powers.
The Bermuda Triangle encloses a piece of water from which anyone, let alone antique and untrained amatuers in unprepared and inadequate boats, should stay religiously away.
(4) Weather Patterns
There exists one factor, unique to the Triangle, which guarantees that boats which are lost there will be lost, evocatively, 'without a trace'. In most cruising waters of the world there is a close downwind shore, or at least a jumble of islands, upon which an unlucky (lucky?) sailor will be blown by the prevailing winds. There is no such convenient safety net spread for the Bermuda Triangle. The prevailing wind pattern blows from the west. Toward the direction that it blows there is no land for three thousand miles and a sailor in trouble, or the remains of a shipwreck, are very likely to remain unsighted. Disappearance 'without a trace' is no surprise in these waters.
Now back to the doctor from Dubuque. Here is what happened. Elective Surgery sailed south from Norfolk on a lovely, bright and sunny morning. Just one day out, when they were still close off Hatteras and still in shallow, and therefore treacherous, waters, a cold wind came out of the empty ocean to the northeast and jerked the Gulf Stream into steep and killing seas. Unable to sail back northward against seas and wind, and too inexperienced to go east to get the hell out of the Stream into deeper and calmer waters, they ran south, too quickly considering the violent state of the sea. Eventually an inadequately battened down battery came loose spilling acid over the engine. The jenny track, which had been screwed down (not through-bolted as it should have been), tore out allowing the jenny to whip itself to shreds. The engine was now too corrosive to touch and would not start anyway on inadequate and untested backup batteries. The mainsail was not reefed until conditions were so furious that the topping lift caught itself on a spreader and ripped it out. The mast, left unsupported, was tumbled down by the next nasty sea. One of the nubiles was brained in the process and the other was thrown into the water where, because they had no man-overboard pole, she quickly disappeared. It was at this moment that the good doctor went from feeling 'a bit peckish' into a heart attack from which he died because neither of the yar beards had any knowledge of CPR. Then, instead of staying with the boat as long as possible, both yars were drowned while trying to launch a life raft into steep seas, a process for which they had not been trained.
The boat left on its own, sailed eastward and mastless, into an empty ocean and, except that the absent crew had failed to close the companionway hatch, Elective Surgery might well have made it to Europe. It finally sank on a quiet, sunny afternoon in the middle of the empty North Atlantic 'without a trace'.