The Tornado

In Essays on April 17, 2012 at 6:24 am

By Dawn Leahy

For the past eight years, I’ve worked aboard luxury yachts. My first yacht job was as the solo chef onboard a 200 foot motorsailer. At the time, this vessel was listed as one of the 100 largest privately-owned yachts in the world. Back then, yachts typically ranged from 75 to 140 feet. These days, they’re bigger: the average size is between 110 and 180 feet, and the largest, called gigayachts, are upwards of 300-feet-long. On most of these vessels, the guest count remains low so as not to be classed as a cruise ship, but as the length of the yacht increases, the number of crew increases as well. For example, Eclipse, the world’s largest yacht at 536 feet, houses 70 crew to care for its 24 guests.

Among the qualified crew on these ships you’ll find the Captain, who gets the boat from A to B, handles the accounting and travel arrangements (unless the yacht is large enough to have a purser) and is the overall manager of the vessel. An Engineer maintains all of the mechanical equipment. The First Mate, assisted by the deckhands, is responsible for the exterior of the yacht. The interior crew includes a chef and at least one stewardess. The stewardess is both a maid and a waitress, and on larger yachts there might be four or more. One might also find a “stew/masseuse”—yes, a khaki-clothed vision who cleans toilets, serves drinks, and kneads away worldly cares.

For whatever reason, stew/masseuses tend to be a strange bunch. One I knew was a practicing witch who would whisper in her hand, then throw a curse at her offender. Another was an older woman who performed yoga poses in the wheelhouse—think downward-facing-dog in a skort. But the all-time nuttiest was Lauren.

I worked with Lauren onboard motor yacht Stanwick, a 100 foot charter. Although it was unusual for a yacht this small to have a masseuse, our owner required it to combat his chronic back pain.

The passage to the boss’ home in Fort Lauderdale was to take a little over three days—750 miles at 10 mph traveling around the clock. We’d just hired Lauren and this was to be her first yacht job as well as her maiden crossing.

Her resume said she went to Bible College, which worried us slightly as most of the crew had a habit of using the Lord’s name for all the wrong reasons. It turns out our concerns—at least on that front—were unfounded. Lauren was no prude.

We took her out to dinner the evening she arrived and, in between telling us intimate details of her sex life, she managed to make our gay waiter so uncomfortable with her flirting that he was forced to point out his boyfriend at the bar.

A week later we sent her to STCW in Fort Lauderdale, which is a basic safety and policy class all crew entering the yachting industry must pass. It teaches fledgling crew skills such as: firefighting, CPR, and important protocol related to living in tight quarters with one’s coworkers and adhering to the yacht’s standards. Many new crew are unprepared for the stringent rules practiced in yachting. There are often background checks and drug tests to take, as well as privacy waivers to sign—all to maintain the security and privacy of the guests wealthy enough to own or charter these luxury liners.

At this class—of all classes!—Lauren found a one-night stand to bring home to her bed, a bed which just happened to be at our boss’ multi-million dollar home. Needless to say, the Captain was not amused.

Back on the boat, Lauren was “equal opportunity” with her advances: when Rico, a 50-year-old Cuban and devoted family man, came aboard to do carpentry, she offered him, with a wink and in front of the entire crew, ‘a massage that is illegal in 50 states.’

Johnny, a 60-year-old painter with three teeth total in his head, was offered a ‘good style rub down’ with a lick of the lips. The sweet old man was flummoxed, as were the rest of us sitting at the table eating lunch.

Pedro was offered a professional lap dance from this ex-exotic dancer, a job title she had not included on her resume. Pedro, who couldn’t weigh more than 95 pounds and was just 16-years-old, looked worried. Lauren, when viewed from the waist up, looked to be of average build. But below the waist sat a massive ass and ponderous thighs, and the thought of anyone sitting under them disturbed us all.

Needless to say we all had our doubts about Lauren, but we were not in a position to replace her; we were under pressure to get to Fort Lauderdale quickly for an owner’s visit in five short days. As the Captain’s wife and an ex-stewardess myself, I was responsible for training Lauren as well as covering my chef duties. Her cleaning skills had a way to go to meet the standards of an industry that regularly uses Q-Tips for corners and toothbrushes for floors.

We were late getting out of the North Carolina shipyard with our new teak deck, freshly painted hull, and brightened interior. We pulled away from the dock and made our way down the Cape Fear River. The Captain had checked the weather and the next few days would be excellent for passage making. A rotational watch schedule was posted and I, as the only female and therefore semi-safe from her advances, was to be on watch with Lauren.

The weather started to turn for the worse on my 4am to 8am watch. The barometer was dropping as the wind and waves picked up. NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) was reporting flat seas and 5 knots of wind. At 7am we were experiencing 35 knots of wind and 10 to 12 foot swells. I sent Lauren to bed after she complained of feeling seasick. The crew quarters were down the stairs on the starboard side of the wheelhouse. Lauren exited the wheelhouse aft toward the guest staterooms, not to be seen again for the terrifying 24 hours we were about to experience. Within the next few hours the waves climbed from 12 feet up to 25 and the winds were dead on our nose at 50 miles an hour. This is when we discovered M/Y Stanwick was not completely watertight. The Captain and I, the only two members of the crew still functioning, took turns at the helm. Being the one “resting” meant sleeping on a lounge cushion on the floor in a pool of sea water, wedged between the wall and the console so we didn’t float across the room or slam into something as the next Mack-truck wave hit us head on.

The waves just kept getting bigger as the wind powered up. Every room had water pouring into it like one of those Zen rock walls and Roy, the Captain, was calmly and methodically emptying them all. Waves were breaking over the top of the 30’ high aerials. The latch to the anchor locker on the bow snapped off filling the 10 foot by 8 foot area with seawater. If this continued, poor Stanwick would sink. Roy volunteered to jerry rig it shut but I would not allow it. As the Captain and Engineer onboard, he was the only person equipped to get us out of this mess.

We said our tearful goodbyes and I made him promise not to endanger the crew, himself, and the yacht by turning around for me if I were washed overboard. Twice I donned my life vest and crawled out to the bow to lash down the heavy metal hatch each time thankful to make it back to the wheelhouse. The waves were 40 foot now and the wind meter had stopped working. Each wave as it slammed into us felt like it had a 10-car train behind it. We were listening to NOAA the entire time and the robotic voice kept repeating ‘clear skies and calm seas.’ This was not the case as the wind and waves mounted and thrashed us. Virtually the entire galley had been dislodged. The fridge had fallen over although it had been lashed to the wall. Both ovens had made their way across the room. Every drawer filled with knives and food and cooking utensils littered the floor. I was able to reach in to grab a box of Raisin Bran to get us through the rest of the evening.

Roy, the calmest, most level-headed person I know, said three words that I have never heard him utter before: “We are fucked.”

The rudder was stuck full to starboard and nothing Roy tried was able to release it. We were spinning in circles in the worst storm I hope to ever be in. We went to the stern to check the rudder housing which is in the lazarette—a 15 foot wide by 5 foot deep room that is 8 foot high. The lazarette held all the toys (fishing gear, wakeboard, skis, etc.), as well as the engine oil, transmission fluid, paint, and other maintenance supplies. Roy opened the hatch and again said, “We are fucked.”

The room was filled to the deck with greasy slimy water. Spools of fishing line bobbed on the surface, slowly unraveling. “Get the bilge pump,” Roy shouted to me.

I brought it to him, he plugged it in and started pumping. He got a third of the way down and the pump clicked itself off. He got it going again only to have it flip off again a few minutes later. Waves were slamming us from all sides as we spun in circles, but we were on the relatively sheltered aft deck so we continued trying and failing to empty the flooded compartment. The spinning was unnerving. It would feel eerily calm and quiet as we turned aft, then the seas would turn us so the waves were hitting our beam and you could hear the roar of the wind start up as we heeled over looking down at the roiling ocean below us. As we turned to face forward, the breaks plowed into our bow; water rushed down the companionways and the lazarette swallowed them up.

We were sinking. The lazarette overspill was flooding into the master stateroom filling up the guest area with water. The water coming in through the flimsy wheelhouse doors was pouring down into the crew area. It was only a matter of time before the latch on the bow that kept breaking snapped again. Roy called on the radio: “Mayday. Mayday.”

When the storm began we were 30 miles offshore. At the time Roy called the mayday, we had been pushed by wind and waves an additional 30 miles out to sea. We were not sure if our call would reach anyone. We did get a response, though, and we were overjoyed. A Navy warship doing practice maneuvers in the area had heard our call and radioed our mayday to the Coast Guard in Jacksonville, Florida. They assured us a helicopter was being sent out to us and would arrive within the hour. Then the most wonderful thing happened—the storm started to dissipate.

The first mate, who was extremely seasick, emerged as we continued to clear the rudder of seawater and debris. An hour had passed and there was no sign of the promised rescue. Roy radioed the Navy ship and they relayed to us that the helicopter had suffered an accident upon take off and was not coming as promised. We would have to wait until morning for the Coast Guard’s cutter to be dispatched, they informed us.

The first mate, donning fishing waders jumped into the lazarette and passed buckets of chemical laden water up to us as we pitched them overboard and handed them back. The three of us were able to clear the room enough for Roy to get in and remove the entanglement and repair the steering.

Roy canceled the helicopter, steering Stanwick towards shore, as the mate and I lay on the salon floor exhausted.

“Where is Lauren?” he asked me.

“I think she’s in one of the guest rooms,” I said.

“There is no way anyone could have slept through that,” he declared.

“I know and what if we were still sinking? Who would be the one to risk their life to save hers?” I asked.

“Not me!” he exclaimed, and we laughed.

The sun was rising, and the warship agreed to escort us into port as our rudder continued to fail. Each time it jammed, we spun around in the ever-calming sea until Roy was able to repair the problem.

The Coast Guard vessel joined us at 8am, a full six hours after they had promised. By this time NOAA’s claim of ‘calm seas and low winds’ was indeed accurate.

The Coast Guard asked to come aboard shortly after they arrived. They dispatched their 25 foot tender with four officers to assess the situation. There was still quite a bit of sludgy water slopping around. Without offering assistance, they allowed us to dump it overboard. Then they told the Captain that they would have to do an inspection. Two of the officers followed Roy to the wheelhouse to examine the ship’s paperwork while the other two followed the mate to make sure the ship’s bell worked and that we had the correct number of life vests. All four officers joined us in the wheelhouse to let us know we’d passed.

Lauren emerged from a door behind the Coasties. She had on a tube top and low slung yoga pants, her long blonde hair in perfect order. Yawning seductively between the uniformed men she coquettishly asked them: “What’s going on?”

“Just a routine inspection, Miss, nothing to worry about,” the lead officer replied. We were all covered in gloppy seawater and bruises from getting flung around so much.

The Coast Guard returned to their ship and joined the convoy to port.

“I didn’t even know we were in a storm,” Lauren said to no one in particular.

“Lauren, look around the interior and clean up any messes you find,” Roy said. She left the room, and the three of us began to talk about our harrowing experience as we hobbled toward land.

Lauren soon returned and said with a chirpy smile: ”I love you, Dawn, but I shouldn’t have to clean up your puke.”

I went downstairs, cleaned up the nickel-sized bit of vomit I’d missed the night before—in between helping to save her life and getting seasick myself—and went back upstairs to find her eating breakfast. I rolled my eyes and walked into the kitchen where she had stepped over all the destruction to make herself an English muffin with butter and jam. I truly think she would have sat there most of the morning if I hadn’t told her to get the boat back in order.

We made it to Jacksonville and surveyed the damage. The whole portside forward railing had ripped off. The brand new teak deck was stained with oil and various other chemicals. The Harley Davidson motorcycle on the top deck was a mess of smashed mirrors and broken glass. All our aerials were ripped clear off, and the entire interior was completely flooded. In the midst of surveying the damage, Lauren approached the Captain in tears. “I’m going to have to quit,” she told him.

He excused himself and took her inside to find out what the problem was. Turns out, Lauren thought I was very demanding and although she had agreed that I would be her boss until she learned how to do her job, she would have none of it. She insisted that the situation was so uncomfortable between us that she wanted to leave that day although she still owed us $1,000 dollars for her STCW class and the boat looked like it had been turned upside down and shaken. Later the mate told us that she had confessed to him her real reason for leaving—to be with her new boyfriend in the Turks and Caicos. She was planning to quit as soon as we reached Fort Lauderdale and had already booked her plane ticket to meet him.

The storm we had experienced was a group of deadly tornadoes that ripped across Florida, killing 19 people and devastating buildings coded to withstand Category 4 hurricanes. By the time it reached us 30 miles east of St. Augustine, it had significantly weakened. Although we had no wind meter, Roy reckons the wind peaked at 60 miles per hour and the waves reached heights in excess of 35 feet.

  1. What an amazing story! It reads like a movie and I hope that another excerpt is on the way. I’ve always assumed yachting is a calm and pleasurable undertaking, but we rarely think about the other side of it. Wow!

    • Mandie, You’re a miracle wkoerr . these photos are beautiful and truly capture all facets of our personalities. This process was a blast and is making us so anxious to see you again and have some fun at the wedding!You are amazing and we brag about how artful and stunning all of your photography is to all of our closest friends. You are one of a kind

  2. […] Dawn Leahy A chef who works on luxury yachts tells the tale of her toughest day on the job. […]

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