Black Wave: a book worth $1 million

Have you been considering saving up some money, selling your house, and retiring to a 55-foot catamaran for a round-the-world trip? If so, reading Black Wave by John and Jean Silverwood should save you approximately $1 million. The Silverwoods and their four children, aged 4-15, take the dream trip, which starts with crippling seasickness in huge storms to and from Bermuda. Phase II is dodging low-lives and pirates in the Caribbean and on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. Phase III is waiting in Tahiti for parts to fix the new-in-Panama generator. Phase IV is smashing into a coral reef (Manuae/Scilly) a few hundred miles west of Bora Bora. The Emerald Jane had a GPS, up to date charts, two experienced adult sailors, two vigilant teenagers, and reasonably good weather. Nonetheless, they hit the reef, which quickly shredded the hulls.

A layperson might think that a shipwreck should be manageable because one can always escape in the life raft. If the problem is that one’s sturdy fiberglass boat is being pounded to pieces by surf on a coral reef, of what value is a flimsy life raft? Things get worse very quickly when the 80′ mast of the Emerald Jane comes down on John Silverwood’s leg.

Thanks to the fact that this happened in 2005 and the Silverwoods carried an EPIRB, we’re able to read about the experience and the husband’s life is saved by a French Navy helicopter evacuation. Most people would conclude from this book that the open ocean is not to be messed with, or at least not in a ship smaller than a Coast Guard cutter (200′ to 400′ long (though of course ships of this size sometimes get into trouble and need to call for the helicopters, most notably in Alaska)).

More: read the book

[The pricing of this book is rather odd. The Kindle edition is only $2 cheaper than the hardcover, which includes some nicely printed color photos. The book on 6 audio CDs is $19. The book in MP3 format on a single audio CD is $23 (i.e., they charge you more when their production cost is lower). I would recommend the hardcover because the book makes a nice gift for any friend who likes to sail.]

12 thoughts on “Black Wave: a book worth $1 million

  1. All kinds of people do this and don’t suffer a calamity… It’s true that the ocean is serious business (bad things even happen to unbelievably well-equipped and seaworthy cruise ships!)
    I’m learning to fly near a big lake. One of the first things my instructor says to me in the air, as we cross it, is,”stay over that peninsula; if we have to go down, I’ll take the trees over the lake every time”.
    Apparently even baseball can be dangerous. Admittedly, I suspect most baseball deaths are without much misery, but I’d probably rather go due to a shipwreck than a line-drive to the chest or head.

  2. Two points…

    1) Risk is “exposure over time”. The ocean is a very big/hostile place (exposure), and sailboat-travel very slow (time). The statistics for (small boat) transoceanic travel approx that of an infantry soldier in Iraq (“all kinds of soldiers do this and don’t suffer a calamity”).

    2) In 1972 I crossed the south pacific many times (USS Saratoga, aircraft carrier). During “bad weather” I used to pity our destroyer escort (approx 250′ ship). During the Pacific storms of typhoon season (or, anytime in the North Sea, USS America 1974) the destroyers would literally “go under” not in “white foam” but taking “green water over the bridge”. Absolutely horrific.

    Oceans can be, and often are, *terrifying*.

  3. Sounds like a good book. Makes a “staycation” sound like a viable option after winning the lottery or selling a business.

    My Dad was a surface ship Navy man and he used to complain that the submariners got more hazardous duty pay than him, since “at least there were no waves underneath the waves.” I’m not sure what’s worse, bouncing around on top of the ocean worrying about ending up on the bottom, or just starting out closer to the bottom in a sub with a smooth ride, but going to sleep knowing the actuarial table is working against you.

  4. This reminds me of reading “Survive the Savage Sea” during junior high school. A primary difference being that was before EPIRBs, away from any sort of island, and they spent 38 days at sea before being picked up (as I recall).

  5. For an absolutely astounding story of an eventful rounding of cape horn (rolled and dismasted twice, rebuilt boat from the wreckage, that sort of thing) read Miles Smeeton’s “Once Is Enough”. It’s a great read and if you’re still game to try your luck with a serious passage in a small boat, at least you were warned.

  6. I was on board a submarine in a Pacific hurricane. We were taking 20 degree rolls hundreds of feet below the surface. Ocean physics are not to be trifled with. I won’t get on a sailboat. People who think being on the ocean is relaxing seem to have significant capacity for self-delusion regarding exposure to risk.

  7. Catamarans are ultimately unstable (or perhaps it’s better to say they’re stable in an upside-down configuration) and really should only be used for coastal sailing. A boat that large can’t be managed by a small crew without total reliance on lots of (potentially unreliable) power gear for managing the sails. They may have been experienced sailors, but in my view they made a crap choice of vessel for trans oceanic sailing. It may not have contributed to the shipwreck directly, but it makes me wonder about their other choices.

  8. A few years ago I went on a 42′ Catamaran charter (open ocean) out of Hawaii. Interesting experience. I asked the captain “Why are Cats so popular in the pacific?”

    He had a good reply… “Look at the wind-meter” (20kts+) then “Look at the waves” (approx 2′, no “swells” at all). That’s the reason Cats are popular in the pacific: *Relatively* flat-sea during *relatively* high-wind.

    Our Cat was running 12+ kts (hit 16-kts for a minute), honestly at times I thought it was going to come out of the water. Thrilling 🙂

    For cruising, Cats have (compared to mono-hull) vastly-larger interior space and “flat ride”. Very comfortable.

    Please note I am making no judgment on the use of a Cat for world-travel.

  9. Reading about Kon-Tiki and Thorhyrdahl crossing the South Pacific by raft in 1940’s.

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