A dear friend’s tale of life and death on Catalina

The following account is from a long-time friend and former professor, Lynn Nelson. Lynn and her husband were caught in a terrible storm this last New Years Eve. Are summary is so vivid, I had to share. Her story is a good reminder to embrace the moment and be thankful for all we have.

Special praise to the service men and women who fought to protect so many and to the two who lost their lives in the process. Tim Mitchell, one of the deceased, actually saved Lynn and Mark earlier in the evening by helping them to tie up a broken mooring.


2014 December 30 & 31

Avalon, Catalina California

In Tonga we hunkered down on anchor while a cyclone blew around us. In New Zealand we got sails down and anchored in another cyclone. Off the coast of Northern California, eighty miles out to sea, our boom broke in heavy winds and high seas, and Mark had to hammer it down and strap it to the deck.

None of that was as bad as our night of hell in Avalon on December 30-31, 2014.

We had gotten into our pajamas, finished watching a movie as the winds picked up around 8 p.m. At 9 p.m. I went to bed and Mark had just closed his eyes in the main cabin, when the first hit occurred. “Maria,” a forty-two foot power vessel crashed down on our bow, once, then twice. We scrambled up top to watch as it bobbed uncontrollably around in waves building to six feet. The boat had lost the bowline to its mooring. Harbor patrol cut the stern mooring line and the boat tried to power out. The last we heard was that it was drifting toward the ferry docks. I dug out our foul weather jackets and our suspender life jackets, put on a sweat shirt and shoes. Mark was fending off “Yorkshire Rose,” another forty-two foot power boat that had lost its stern line and was swinging wildly. He yelled to me to start the engine and put it in forward. But that boat to our port side crashed into out port stern. Imagine a huge vessel lifted high over your own boat, and there is no way to know if it will hit you or not. Sometimes it does. All told over the next eight hours I counted at least fifteen strikes, maybe more, port stern to starboard stern. Our solar stick that survived the Baja Bash is bent to one side. The stern pulpit is crushed. The bow pulpit is crushed, and all the lifelines sag. The anchor roller is folded over the anchor. We lost our stern anchor. The teak on the bow is splintered and fiberglass smashed. Our Volvo engine ran for eight solid hours keeping us into the wind and away from Yorkshire Rose or we would have been smashed to pieces. Mark fended off the boat as much as he could without getting killed. He sat out in the freezing cold while I “drove” our boat, a manner of speaking since it was only 3000 rpm against winds that were clocked at 42 mph and waves washing over us.

At one point there was what sounded like a gunshot, and when I looked around I saw “Susie Q,” a forty-six foot Hunter sailboat snap its bowline. As it swung wildly, the Captain struggled to cut the stern line, but that line fouled his prop and once free, he could not go anywhere. Again the Harbor Patrol was there to get him tied to something. We couldn’t tell if it was another boat or a mooring. In any case, it didn’t matter since it broke free from that. In the morning it sank. Only its mast showed about ten feet above the water. Its passengers had gotten off in the middle of the night.

boats2 harbor

Men screamed over the screeching wind. Women cried over the VHF for help. Some people asked inane questions such as “When is it going to stop blowing?” as if someone could just turn off a switch to calm the sea. Harbor patrol boats mounted the rising waves throughout the harbor. One wave, probably twelve or more feet completely swallowed our boat. The salt formed against our windows and ports like Christmas snow. Three boats ended up on the shore. Ambulance lights turned in the freezing darkness. There were ambulance lights at the Casino and at the beach. There were Lifeguard boats out and Harbor Patrol boats out. Everyone who could help were there. Yet for all that, it was not enough.

There is no way to make sense of all of this. We can try to understand and control the machinations of mankind, but there is no way to govern the power of the wind and the ocean.

Mark hunkered near our enclosed cockpit, but he shivered uncontrollably until the next moment came to fend off the other boat. I focused only on that boat, that one enemy, trying to make sure we powered forward in time to avoid another collision. If I looked around at the waves or other heaving boats, I felt sick. I heard that people were vomiting all over; hands broken; lives taken. Water shot up thirty or forty feet into the air as it hit the rocks at the beach. We watched “King Neptune,” a sixty-five foot dive boat, break loose. It was two or three rows in front of us, but it was directly in front of us and coming our way. It was the boat Tim Mitchell, the Harbor Patrolman who died, was trying to save. News said it crashed on Step Beach which was behind us. Later the Harbor office told us it had disintegrated. Perhaps we were concentrating too much on our own situation to see.

You don’t cry and whine through all of this; you struggle on, you focus and concentrate on the simple tasks at hand. There will be time to cry later when you survive it all, if you survive at all.

I can only thank Mark for all that he taught me about sailing and for his own good judgment and wisdom. Everything he was trained to do as a fireman, lifeguard came into play that night. And I can only thank my mother for the strength I saw in her through many years of struggle that perhaps was passed on to me.

Maybe it was around one or two a.m. that Patrol came by to ask if we wanted off our boat. “No, we’re staying. We’re ok,” Mark shouted to them. It must have been sometime after three a.m. that Patrol came by again and Mark heard his name being called. Patrolman Orne Carstaphian, one we knew, and others helped us tie another line to a mooring two away from us. One of our lines had broken loose. Then they managed to get Yorkshire Rose to another mooring where it was swinging free the rest of the night. All of this was painfully slow against the wind and waves. But after watching another hour, we finally felt that we could go below to get warm and perhaps sleep. To quote Dylan Thomas, “I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”

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