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Wild Pick, chapter five: The whale

The life and adventures of Linda Syms, oyster farmer of Desolation Sound
MIRACULOUS SIGHT: During a storm in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Linda Syms witnessed one of the most miraculous sights of her life, a 50-foot humpback inside a massive wave while her sailboat was in a deep trough between waves.

Chapter four recap: Young Linda Syms, her boyfriend Wayne and two strangers found themselves in the middle of the raging Pacific Ocean in the fall of 1974. They were attempting to sail back to Canada from Hawaii on a borrowed, decrepit, leaking sailboat with no fresh drinking water, no fuel, no batteries, no radio, no bilge pump and no lights. Halfway through the journey, just when it felt like things couldn’t get any worse, one of them jumped ship.

“Man overboard!” Linda screamed to her boyfriend Wayne, and Norm, the other crew member, when Lenny had leapt into the frothing ocean. Their sailboat, Felicius, was moving at a steady clip in rolling, heavy grey seas.

Norm scrambled up the mast so as to not lose sight of Lenny in the swells, but he was quickly falling behind, his bobbing blonde head but a speck at the top of the waves, then disappearing completely at the bottom of the troughs. They finally managed to swing the boat around in a wide arc. It’s very difficult to turn a sailboat around in the middle of the ocean and pick someone up, but that’s what they had to do.

Norm called out the bearings from the masthead while Wayne steered the boat and Linda worked the sails. When they were closing in, Norm dropped to the deck, leaned over and stretched out his hand. At just the right moment, Linda yelled for Wayne to swing the tiller. Norm was able to reach out and grab a gasping Lenny on their first pass.

Lenny and Norm collapsed on the deck, chests heaving. Tucked under Lenny’s arm was the green glass fishing ball that led him to jump overboard.

Wayne lost it on Lenny, screaming that he not only put his own life in danger, but potentially the entire crew as well. Lenny cowered at the tongue lashing, retreating to the cabin below, glancing back and clutching his precious treasure like Gollum from Lord of the Rings.

Linda, Wayne and Norm looked at each and agreed: Lenny was losing it.

Stormy seas

As they sailed through storm after storm into the colder weather of the northeast Pacific Ocean, their problems continued.

The sewage tank was completely full but it couldn’t be emptied because the pump was electric and the batteries were dead. The rollicking storms had sent their waste spewing back up the toilet and shower drain. They had to stop using the toilet completely, which was hardest on Linda.

The only good thing about the storms was that it meant they were moving quickly.

Wayne and Lenny the surfer’s relationship continued to be as dark as the storm clouds above. At one point, Wayne was sure Lenny intentionally dumped steaming hot soup on him, but Lenny blamed the waves. Another time, they caught Lenny sneaking more than his daily ration of food. And despite Lenny’s protests, they insisted that he maintain his shift at the tiller so the others could get rest and work done around the boat.

On Day 16, November 1, 1974, Lenny was at the tiller while Wayne worked on a pole used to wing out the jib sail over the water for faster downwind sailing. Wayne looked back at Lenny.

“Pay attention and keep her on course,” he ordered. “Do not let that sail backwind while I’m out here.”

Lenny nodded and held onto the tiller with both hands. Wayne climbed up onto the cabin roof and gripped the mast with one hand, then leaned his body out toward the sail, over the edge of the boat.

Wayne glanced back at Lenny to make sure he was staying the course; they made eye contact. Lenny’s lips curled into a mocking grin, and suddenly he slammed the tiller hard to one side. The boat veered sharply, causing the sail to backfill, smacking into Wayne. It would be like being hit in the face with an airbag.

The pole snapped and burst into splinters, one of them slicing open Wayne’s cheek just below the eye. Luckily, Wayne landed on the deck and not in the ocean.

With his blood dripping onto the deck of the sailboat, Wayne screamed accusations of murderous intent at Lenny, who again claimed complete innocence. This time, it was Wayne who threatened to throw Lenny overboard.

Linda got between them, and Lenny once again retreated to his dank bunk, leaving Linda to clean up Wayne’s wound and wonder what kind of lunatic she had invited onto 36 narrow feet of sailboat in the middle of the stormy Pacific.

Water woes

By Day 18, everything was sopping wet and salt-encrusted, and they were desperately thirsty, still having not solved their fresh water woes. Their clothes were soaked, their bunks were soaked, and there was nothing but rationed beer to drink.

Then, finally, some good news. Deep within the hold, Linda made a fateful discovery. She found a gas heater, and next to it was a 25-litre jerry can, which was heavy and full of what she assumed was fuel. They could use the heater to provide a little warmth and dry out their clothes.

When she opened the cap on the jerry can, she couldn’t smell anything; no gassy odour whatsoever. She poured a bit out into her hand. To her astonishment, the jerry can was full of fresh water. They eagerly gulped down a pint each and rationed the rest. It tasted like plastic, but it was water.

By Day 22, the weather was freezing and the storms ferocious as the boat fell apart around them. During a gale, the boom snapped in two making the mainsail practically useless. During another blow up, both jibs were shredded, leaving them only with their genoa sail, effective in light winds, which these were not.

By Day 26, November 11, 1974, they plowed through a vicious, hurricane-force storm which sent waves crashing over them that were higher than the mast. It was during that storm that Linda witnessed one of the most miraculous sights she’s ever seen in her entire life.

As the Felicius slid into a deep trough between the mountainous waves, the sun poked out, causing Linda to look up. At that moment, towering above the boat, was a 50-foot humpback whale silhouetted by the sun inside the massive wave. And then it was gone.

Inside the boat, water was again ankle deep in the cabin and everything was covered in a thin sheen of leaking diesel fuel. Their propane for the stove had run out and they figured they had maybe a week’s worth of cold-canned food remaining.

Somehow, they had miraculously crossed into the Pacific time zone and Linda knew they were close to Vancouver Island. Seagulls appeared for the first time; land had to be near, but the weather was either dead calm or it quickly exploded into winds too strong for their one remaining sail.

The mast itself had weakened to such an extent that it could rip free from its mountings and come crashing down with any wind pressure. They were stuck in an offshore purgatory, pushed around in circles, with little ability to control their direction or their destiny.

It finally hit Linda: could they really die out here, so close to Vancouver Island and yet so far?

What happened next? You’ll read about that in the next chapter of Wild Pick: The life and adventures of Linda Syms, oyster farmer of Desolation Sound.

Grant Lawrence is the author of the new book Return to Solitude, and a radio personality who considers Powell River and Desolation Sound his second home. Wild Pick originally aired as a radio series and podcast based on Linda Syms’ two books: Salt Water Rain and Shell Games. Both are for sale at Pollen Sweaters in Lund, and Powell River Outdoors and Marine Traders in Powell River.