A little more than a year ago, Norfolk high school senior Ken Perry could be found steering a 14-foot sailboat through the shallower waters of Chesapeake Bay.
Less than a week ago, Perry, now 18 and a Navy midshipman third class, was on the Irish Sea, in charge of cranking a winch aboard the 54-foot ocean racer Alliance amid the 30-foot seas and howling winds that brought disaster to the internationally respected Fastnet yacht race.
The violent storm that ripped through the fleet of more than 350 yachts and killed 17 crewmen brought only minor damage to the Alliance, the U.S. Naval Academy's entry in the race, and its crew of 12.
But that made the experience no less harrowing. Perry and Capt. Edwin Shuman, the yacht's skipper, said at a Naval Academy press conference here today.
Perry stood three 3-hour watches at his post amidships, using the winch to trim the tautness of the mainsail, one of the factors that dictates the vessel's speed.
"On deck was the place to be. Sometimes you get kind of queasy when you go below," said Perry, a slightly-built, freckle-faced youth in his second year at the academy. "The spray and salt stung my eyes, you're screaming and they can't hear you 10 feet away. You were either freezing or you were roasting from working so hard."
Perry, whose father is a career Navy officer assigned to the Pentagon, strapped himself to the deck with a six-foot-long nylon safety harness when the storm hit at 11 p.m. Tuesday, and stayed there until 2 a.m.
Below decks there were crackers and candy bars for nourishment, cold, soggy sleeping bags, leaking hatches and the sound and smells of seasickness.
I had on six layers of clothes -- and all of them were wet. That was undoubtedly the most frustrating part of the trip," Perry said. "I don't know if you've ever had to sleep in a cold, wet sleeping bag, but it's terrible."
Down below, the midshipmen joked about their misery as the mammoth waves pounded the aluminum hull around them, Perry said. They talked about what a "vacation" their cruise was and had unkind words for classmates who had teased them about taking a "luxury" summer yachting assignment."
"One of us said he'd rather be back in the Naval Academy" enduring the grueling regime reserved for plebes, the first-year middies who are put through calesthenics and close order drill each summer, Perry said. "That's when we knew he was sick."
As the rain pelted down, Perry and Charles Kineke, another 18-year-old midshipman aboard the Alliance, attempted to keep the crew's spirits up.
"It was funny -- we were playing Neil Armstrong," because they felt like astronauts in their thick, soaked clothing, "climbing out of the hatch and tromping around on deck. And we imitated John Belushi in 'Animal House.' It didn't make 'em feel any better, though. They were mad we didn't feel sick like they did," Perry said.
Six of eight midshipmen on the crew were first-year men with less than six months of experience aboard the Alliance. But Perry said none was scared.
"We just put our backs to it and tried to stay on deck," he said. "I guess some of them were nervous ... Maybe we were just too young to be scared."
One reason for their lack of fear, Perry said, may have been their failure to realize how severe the storm was. When the Alliance finally finished the race and docked at Plymouth, England, last Wednesday, "We were all on deck tying up the boat when a man came up and said 'Welcome back. Latest count is 13 dead."
"We were stunned," Perry said. One of the midshipmen asked, 'thirteen people died? For what?' We were all thinking the same thing."
But despite the hardship and the tragedy, Perry said the adventure "was great. The racing is unparalleled over there. Everyone trying to squeeze the most they can out of their boats. It's really demanding."
A Navy commander and a handful of ensigns are now sailing the Alliance back to Annpolis and will arive by mid-September, Captain Shuman said. But the regular crew of the Alliance will split and man several academy vessels for the Governor's Cup race that begins Friday night in Annpolis and ends the next morning in St. Mary's City, Md.
"I'll be ready," Perry said.