During the worst of the storm, with the engine dead, one sail shredded and the 70-mph wind off the Massachusetts coast shrieking in the rigging, the 33-foot ketch Sara Gamp rolled wearily onto its side and seemed ready to succumb, the skipper said.
Visibility was about 100 yards in cold rain and mountainous seas. The slender Virginia-based vessel had been pounded for hours by the nor'easter that enveloped it this week. And its 74-year-old captain, a veteran Washington mariner who already had been swept off the deck once, was cold, bruised and hallucinating.
With the masts tipped to about 10 feet off the water, Vic Gillings tried to coax his 38-year-old boat upright. "You come on, Sara," he said. "You can handle this. Get back up. Get back up."
Gradually, it did. And Gillings, who lives on a boat at the Gangplank Marina on the Potomac River at Water Street in Southwest Washington, eventually was plucked amid heavy seas from the Sara Gamp on Wednesday by a Coast Guard helicopter. He was flown to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where he was treated and released.
He had some cuts from being tossed about the cabin, had suffered hypothermia and was still a little disoriented Thursday when he recounted the story from a motel in Gloucester, Mass.
"Apart from feeling like I was being kicked all over the place, I'm all right," he said.
During his solitary three-day ordeal, Gillings said, he prayed, ate raw onions and cheese sandwiches, saw visions of friends who were not there and sang songs by the Ink Spots and Frank Sinatra.
He said he had seen similar weather only once in 45 years of sailing but, being from "the old school," had not called for help.
In the end, as he was hoisted aboard the helicopter northeast of Provincetown, he said he felt as if he had abandoned the Sara Gamp, named for a character in the Charles Dickens novel "Martin Chuzzlewit." All his gear, including his two hearing aids, was still aboard. But he realized he might not have survived had he stayed behind, so he left the vessel to drift to its fate.
Gillings, a former police officer in Britain and Korean War combat veteran, began his adventure last week when he and a friend, Marcy Logan, also of Washington, drove to Nova Scotia to retrieve the Sara Gamp, which he had put up for sale.
Gillings, who works as a bricklayer when he is not on the water, planned to sail the boat to its home port of Kinsale, on Virginia's Northern Neck, to be viewed by prospective buyers, he said. It would be a two-week trip, he said, but largely "a milk run." He left Liverpool, Nova Scotia, last Friday morning bound for Gloucester, his first stop, where Logan was to drive to meet him.
He said he knew bad weather was coming, but he'd heard it wouldn't arrive until Tuesday. He thought he could reach Gloucester by Monday, "fool that I was."
On Tuesday, he found himself still north of Cape Ann, Mass., overdue and overtaken by the storm. The Coast Guard said the wind neared 70 mph. "I don't think I'd argue with them," Gillings said. "I wondered if my neck was strong enough to keep my head on."
He said the wind sounded like "the wailing of a banshee, played tunes in the rigging" that resembled a dirge and scoured the 30-foot waves smooth. "It was raining like nobody's business," he said, "and it was cold, cold, cold."
Gillings said one of his sails had been ripped apart and he had taken the mainsail down for fear that it, too, would be destroyed. He said he still had one sail raised and could make some headway. The water had doused his engine, which had killed his batteries.
At one point, he said, a huge wave swept him overboard. But he was saved by the harness he was wearing, which kept him tethered to the vessel. The wave "came right on top of the boat," he said. "I have never known such force in my life." He said he was stunned for a few moments and when he came to found himself clinging "like a fly" to a mast boom.
On Tuesday afternoon, he said, he realized with dismay that he was being pulled into the plunging surf on the Massachusetts coast near the Merrimack River. Someone on shore -- Gillings thought the person was in a lighthouse -- spotted him and called the Coast Guard.
A rescue boat battled through the surf but in the fading light couldn't find the sailboat. Gillings managed to steer back to open water and spent a final, harrowing night in the storm. "Once it gets dark," he said, "you can't see anything. That's when your imagination starts working." He tried to sleep but got pitched out of his berth and thrown across the cabin.
Logan, meanwhile, had also called the authorities to express her concern. And around dawn, Gillings heard the roar of an aircraft overhead. It was a small search jet, and when he looked up, he saw that it had the orange markings of the Coast Guard.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.