How to Handle High Seas Terror - OZY | A Modern Media Company

How to Handle High Seas Terror

How to Handle High Seas Terror

By Robert B. Sawyer



Because death, the way we figure it, is almost always a surprise. Even when it isn't.

By Robert B. Sawyer

The following True Story keys off of Defining Moments With OZY, which airs on Hulu, and follows viewers’ own moments, big and small, that have defined how they’ve chosen to spend the rest of their lives. Do you have your own Defining Moment? Tell us about it by emailing, and we may feature your story.

They say if you put an agnostic in the ocean with big enough waves, sooner or later you’ll pull out a believer. My life-changing story? Part perfect storm, part Gilligan’s Island.

My parents? Always safety conscious and adventurous, they combine practicality with freedom-loving and God-fearing leadership. So, when we left Baltimore for Ocean City via the inland waterway, my dad suggested that since it was a clear, sunny, summer day we should take a run outside/offshore to save a lot of time. As incredible as the inland waterway is, it’s a slower pace and there are lots of green horseflies. And they bite hard.

My brothers and I decided to get out of the sun and hunkered down for a board game in the main salon of our small refurbished wooden twin-engine, gas-powered cabin cruiser. Part of my great respect for mechanics comes from Dad revving the engines full blast while I was underneath them adjusting some nut or bolt he’d sent me down to tighten.

Dad leaped straight up in the air and in his vertical orbit as the boat wrenched over, the stern rose to greet him.

When the bowl of black cherries slid off the counter and almost flipped over onto the white shag carpeting, my brothers and I looked at each other and thought we would be dead if they had spilled. So we pushed them back to the bulkhead and continued our game. When the cherries hit the floor, we looked out the back deck toward the stern where we saw that a 50-foot wave was racing headlong toward us.

All three of my brothers and I scrambled up the vertical wood and stainless steel ladder. My parents were battling the helm as one wave pulled the back of the boat almost straight up and the bow went racing down.

Orders from my dad went out: I was to grab the antenna and lash it to the boat. As soon as I reached out for it, the wind took it. My brother was instructed to grab a knife from the galley and be ready to cut loose the lifeboat. Waves that reach 40 to 50 feet in perfect storm conditions have a bottom trough that’s also 40 to 50 feet, making the vertical faces almost 100 feet high.

And the sound that these monster waves make is like nothing you will ever hear. As the boat began to roll sideways, I reached my hand out and time stood still. Reaching further, I put my hand in the water. I touched the face of the beast, and it was growling.

There’s a mercilessness to the sea that any shipwreck survivor can vouch for. Because if, at one point, you think there’s a kindness there, and you might, that’s all dispelled when a wave smashes down, on you or the ocean itself, and your thoughts shift to reality: The sea has no mercy for the unprepared.

So I asked God to decide my fate. It was a 50-50 gamble. I said out loud I’d live a good life, and I’d give of myself. I promised that I would not be selfish. I’d be active in listening and act with charitable intent. When I popped out of my momentary lapse of reason, I looked up to the bridge. My dad was spinning the wheel from side to side. Within seconds the cable that it was attached to snapped! There goes my 50 percent I told myself.

The Sawyers, pre-their encounter with the savage sea

But one of the most courageous things that I’ve ever seen a person do happened that day.

Dad leaped straight up in the air and in his vertical orbit as the boat wrenched over, the stern rose to greet him. On his way down he yelled to my brother to open the hatch. That’s all he said. My brother popped the hatch and in my dad flew, landing with his feet spread apart from the horizontal trim tab stabilizer, a large bar that connects both rudders.

Before the boat turned sideways he bent the solid stainless steel cotter pin and removed it. At almost the same time he pulled the steering column bar from the lower helm station and with machined accuracy he inserted the old pin into the new bar. Before the boat could roll completely on its side he was inside spinning the lower helm to counter the roll.

It saved us.

See, as the weather had been getting rougher and we were playing board games, the sandbar that formed along the coast closed off all access to the mainland. It had forced us over 60 miles off course that day and night. This action, we discovered, was the reason where we were was described as the “graveyard of the Atlantic.”

Boats encounter shoals far offshore and these giant rolling waves crash down and that’s it. The seafloor is literally littered with boats a lot bigger than ours. Five days later when we were finally rescued by the Coast Guard we were safely towed to Annapolis, Maryland. In the pre-internet age, our story was never chronicled in any way that I know of.

On the eve of the first day after fighting the storm all night long we found a buoy and tied up to it. Immediately the entire thing crumbled to dust. We soldiered on until we found a break in the sandbar and in the early pre-dawn hours beached the boat onto the backside of one of them.

To fight off hypothermia my mom lit a Sterno cooking canister. Drenched, we all sat around it inside what was left of the Gypsy Queen. I felt my brother put his arm around my back and pull me in. I noticed both of his hands were on the flame. Each of us had the same feeling at the same time: cold, scared, alive. Later, in the military, I heard what they call the feeling people get after surviving a harrowing ordeal, that sensation of pulling together: the hand of God.

Which, by my lights and prior promise, works at least half the time since in 2014 I was awarded the Gold Medal of Lifetime Achievement for Community Service by President Obama.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories