Knocked down by an unexpected storm

There are two quotations that come to mind as I reflect on the last few days.

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

“God will not be mocked”

Not to deify or anthropomorphise the Southern Ocean, but you can insert it into both of these phrases with little difficulty.

A bit of context. It was the evening of May 9th, (afternoon May 10 Sydney time). I thought the gale was over and I was feeling rather smug and self-satisfied. This is what I wrote :

“I got sick of being becalmed at about midnight last night, so I dropped sail and hoisted my storm sails prematurely, set it up for the direction in which I thought the wind would come, and went to sleep.

The winds came early in the morning. I opened my eyes, rolled over, and went back to sleep. I ended up staying in my berth all morning, just cos I could.

I stayed comfortably hove-to all day, and then when the winds dropped this evening, I put away storm sails and hoisted double reefed sails.

I got blown around 20 miles south during this time, and I’m just waiting for the promised tail winds and I’ll be on my way again!”

The forcast had told me that the worst of it had passed and that it would be plain sailing from here.

Just as I had finished typing this, I could feel the wind picking up and, unexpectedly, it felt just as strong as before. I hit save, and rushed on my wet weather gear to get out and react to what was going on. I thought I might have to rehoist the storm jib, so I put on my lifejacket and harness as well.

The sun had set and it was a moonless overcast night, so I flicked on the down point spotlight on the front of my mast that illuminates the foredeck as I passed the switchboard next to the companionway hatch.

As I got out into the cockpit, the entire contents of Hell, its first reserve team, and the rest of the substitutes on the bench broke loose.

Suddenly, it was like I was in a dinghy. Five tons seems like a lot of boat when you’ve graduated from small trailer sailors. But to the force of this wind, it was nothing.

Even with a minimal amount of sail set, the boat was completely heeled over to the point where water was lapping into the cockpit.

My wind turbine generator has an auto protect setting which puts a brake on the blades when it hits 50 knots. This came into effect so I had some idea of the wind speed at minimum.

The helm was like wrestling with a elephant, and I had no choice but to sheet out the sails to put them parallel to the wind and to depower them.

This gave a little bit of relief in the heeling motion, but she was still heeled over a fair bit as the wind took to flapping the sails with all the vigour of its power.

There still wasn’t a lot of sea at this time. I think it was pouring down raining, but it was hard to distinguish the spray from the rain.

On a fine day with no swell, you can see out to the horizon in all directions, and the world feels immense.

Now I could only see what was within 6 metres of me, and my tiny world was being buffeted by a power that, until now, I had never come close to experiencing.

With the sails flapping, my priority was to get them both down, so I started on the genoa first.

It was here that I made a horrible mistake which compounded on a previous mistake. This was to make my life rather uncomfortable.

I use the same blocks for both my storm jib and genoa sheets. When I had re-hoisted my genoa and switched sheets, I didn’t put stopper knots on the winch side of these lines. That was my previous mistake.

To furl away the genoa, one has to loosen the sheet leading to the sail at the same time as winching in the line that causes the furler to spin which winds the sail up on itself. It takes a bit of dexterity to do single handed, but something I was now well practiced at.

A well-timed wave heeled the boat and I grabbed at the lifelines to steady myself, and in the meantime, let go of the genoa sheet.

Within seconds both port and starboard sheets had released themselves to fly into the wind. I wasn’t quite three sheets to the wind, but I was two sheets, which is pretty close.

Having lost complete control of the genoa. I tried to keep winching the furler with some success until I had about 4 square meters of sail left showing. At this time my furler would no longer furl, and I had no way of doing anything more to it from the cockpit.

I leapt to the mast and wrestled down the mainsail and lashed it to the boom. All the time, the wind was sitting at the same strength with extra gusts every 20 seconds that would throw the boat over.

By this stage, what was left of the front sail was destroying itself in a horrible gut-wrenching display of self flagellation. I had to get control before it at best destroyed itself, and at worse took down my whole rig.

The front wire forestay was vibrating with the flapping, and the shuddering through the whole boat was immense.

The sheets had formed an impenetrable mass of rope around the front starboard wire lifeline. I tried to approach it to affect some form of disentanglement, but the force of the flapping rope was unapproachable. I got a big whack on the head and on my wrist, and I retreated to a safe distance before it broke a bone. I could see bits of genoa seam flying off to the sea on occasion, and I could see at least two moderate tears along its edge.

I clambered back to the cockpit and got out a 20m coil of the strongest line on my boat. I went back to the foredeck and got through the end of the rope at the pulsating mass of rope and lifeline. It wrapped around it, and became one with this mass.

Time for some trivia: the other end of a rope attached to something is called the ‘bitter end’, hence the expression. I hung on to the bitter end.

Making my way back to the cockpit with the bitter end in hand suddenly was suddenly even harder. I couldn’t see it in the moonless night, but I could feel that the sea had started to pick up to match the wind. I had to time movement between the lurch of each wave, during which all I could do was hang on.

I coiled this new rope around one of the side winches and tightened it, but it had no effect whatsoever. The lifeline was anchored too firmly and all I would do was pull out the staunchens and possibly damage the hull if I kept winching.

For some reason, my boom with the dropped mainsail lashed to it suddenly started flinging itself left and right. With the heeling of the boat, the end would dip into the water and then fling a flurry of spray as it swung back. I found out later that one of the shackles attaching the mainsheet line to the boom had snapped.

I grabbed the remaining line attached to the two other points of contact and hauled in the boom back to centre line. Even with the mainsail down, the force of the wind on the sailbag was immense and it took all my weight to get it across. I lashed it to the port winch and prayed that it would stay there.

The deafening vibration of the flapping genoa was all the time reminding me that I still needed to figure out how to save my jib and possibly the whole mast and rig. When in strife, bring in the big guns, and with no options remaining, that’s what I did.

I opened up the companionway hatches, undid my safety line, and dived down into the cabin. With each fling of the boat, I would hang onto whatever hand hold was available. The cabin was a mess, but I ignored that.

I flung up the mattress on my berth and found what I was looking for.

A pair of 30 inch bolt cutters. You have to keep them handy as they are vitally important if your mast comes down. In a big sea with a demasted boat, the risk of the mast beating a hole in the hull is very real. They must be capable of severing the 8mm stainless steel shroud lines that keep the mast attached to the boat.

I got forward as fast as possible to the front of the boat. Mostly on my hands and knees. Keeping my face away from the spray which felt like bullets on my face.

Just as I got to the front of the boat, I heard a particularly amplified roar. Instinctively I held on to the bolt cutters with one arm and grasped the spinnaker pole, attached to the side of the rail next to me, with my other hand and lay flat.

The next few seconds are both a blur and at the same time a memory forever etched into my mind.

In what felt like an eternity, I was completely weightless in a world of solid water. Then the most curious sensation of falling as if the boat that I was on didn’t exist. It felt like a freefall ride at an amusement park.

Then the boat made contact with the surface again. This mating was less rough than what I had braced myself for. I started to get some idea of my bearings, and I was still hanging onto the spinnaker pole which was now directly above me. The end of the cabin wall and the lifeboat canister, which were previously on the other side me, where now underneath me.

My vision, which was blinded by the water, started to work again. I have a vision of my mast head light around a metre off the surface of water that it was brightly illuminating.

The world then quickly righted and I realised that I had experienced what could only have been a 90 degree knockdown.

The job was still at hand and I needed to get off the foredeck before it happened again. With a satisfying clunk, the lifeline was severed on each side of the mass of rope and the rope was now free.

I made my way back the cockpit, tightened up the sheet on the winch, and threw the bolt cutter back into the cabin.

At last some semblance of peace!

I grabbed the tiller and got the boat onto a partially downwards run in the, now massive, sea. It was going fast even under the small amount of jib showing, and I wasn’t sure if I could get the genoa any smaller.

There was only one option. I got back into the cabin and came out with my series drogue. It is a long nylon line made up of a series of 107 mini cones along its length.

It is stored in a webbed bag and set up so that you can dump the end over the side and it will feed out without tangling. The drogue is designed to keep the stern of the boat into the waves, and can impart 4-5 tons while doing this. If anything gets tangled between it and the reinforced attachment points, it will rip it out like paper.

In a heaving boat, it was more optimism rather than anything else which would see it not get tangled. I ran the double bridle line around the side of the boat, then lent over the back of the boat and shackled it to each attachment. I found the other end and then checked to see what it would take with it. I then realised it was tangled around my safety line.

During my years as a intern and resident, when I found myself getting overwhelmed with calamity, I grew into a habit of silently singing a song over and over in my head. I find this very effective to set myself back on my feet and calm my thoughts. At this stage I realised that for some reason I had chosen Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life”. I wasn’t quite sure what the bright side was, but at least I was alive in a still-floating boat I guess.

I detangled my safety line and with a silent prayer flung the end of the drogue over board and started to frantically feed its length over the side.

It fed out without a lot of issue, occasionally getting caught on the bag, but this was freed with little effort.

With most of it fed out, I suddenly realised that a loop had been caught by the wind and had twisted itself on my steering gear.

I frantically rushed with desperation and lent off the back of the boat. If it caught, it could rip the steering gear and transom off the back of the boat. If my fingers were in the vicinity, it could take those too. I watched it rapidly tack up the slack as I tried to free the loop, and with milliseconds to spare, I got the loop free and then the drogue pulled the rear of the boat around into the waves.

The drogue is a weapon of last resort. Once let out, you pretty much can’t get it back in until the sea settles. It does all the work necessary to keep the boat stern to waves, so there really isn’t much to do at this stage but to go down into the cabin.

I went down, got out of all my clothes, which were sopping despite the wet weather gear, and towelled myself down. I didn’t have my boots on, and at this stage I suddenly realised I couldn’t feel my toes. I put on dry thermals, clambered over the mess that was the cabin, got into my sleeping bag and lay face down into my pillow.

The boat was much more settled with the drogue running, and I ignored the complaints of the various objects still migrating around my cabin and went to sleep.

I woke several times throughout the night, but I didn’t care anymore, I just lay there, ignored the world, and went back to sleep.

In the morning, the full force of last night hit me. I was in one of most isolated spots on the planet, fighting forces that I barely knew existed, apart from sterile academic knowledge. I felt like an idiot.

But I was alive and there was work to do!

The wind had died down, but the sea was still running quite big, 5-6 metres with an occasional monster over the top of that.

I got to work on fixing things. I first unlashed the boom and replaced the shackle, which allowed me to tighten up the mainsheet to hold it properly.

At this stage I realised that the self-steering gear didn’t look right. I examined it more closely and found that during the night, the bridle leading to the drogue must have caught the steering arm and the force of this had shattered the bearings on the pinion side of the servo-pendulum mechanism.

I then looked at the furler. I couldn’t find anything wrong with it. Last night I had assumed that the sail had partially unwound from the furler and that I was at the end of its line. Even now I’m not sure why it had stopped furling when it did.

I furled in the rest of the sail. There were the two tears, and some of the seams looked pretty worn, but all fixable.

I then had breakfast and watched the seas. Porridge brought a more optimistic mood, and with the seas falling while I cleaned up the cabin, I set about retrieving the drogue.

I ran a rolling hitch on the bridle as far back as I could reach and then winched the bridle onto the winch. Timing the winching with each wave, I eventually got all 107 cones back in after an hour.

Leaving her lying ahull with beam to the seas. I then set about replacing the bearings on Bruce.

Bruce is a heavy bugger. About 15 kgs. And Bruce sits off the back of the boat attached to four brackets. Bruce is close to two metres tall with steering rudder attached.

I realised that there was no way I could remove the steering arm while it was hanging off the back of the boat.

I had to completely unbolt Bruce while hanging over the back, bring him back into the cockpit, fiddle with delicate and precise fittings, reassemble, and finally fit to the back of the boat.

I will spare you all the gory details, but a job that could have taken an hour on land, took me six hours.

Eventually I had the boat ready to move again.

With the memory of how rapidly the storm hit me last night, like climbing back onto a horse, it took all my courage to hoist my storm jib.

I got the boat moving, let my family know that I was still alive, and then had dinner.

The boat was terribly undercanvassed, but I was very happy with this. I had a night’s run of about 40 miles and this morning hoisted full mainsail in a pleasant 10 knot tailwind.

While I was retrieving the drogue, I got pooped by a big breaking wave, and I foolishly had left my cabin open. The wave well and truly baptised my cabin, including the inverter which sits under the centre cabin table. The inverter promptly stopped working which means I can’t charge my laptop as the charger takes a 240 volt input.

I spent much of today de-assembling it and cleaning it with contact cleaner spray. I found some corrosion, and I’m hopeful that it might work. I’m just letting it sit there to make sure it’s fully dried out before I try it. If not, I’ll have to find a way to McGgyver a 19.5 volt input. I think I’ve got the parts to do it, but let’s see what the morning brings.

The only other thing left to do is to drop the genoa and mend the tears. I’m going to wait for a nice sunny day with a calm seas, so I can dry the sail first.

Otherwise I am back on my feet, a little less smug, a little more humble, and holding a little more respect for the Southern Ocean.

I am headed north-east as planned and, with last night and today’s runs, I am nearly out of the Roaring Forties and headed for the gentle joys of south east trade winds!

Latitude: -40.53, Longitude: -145.59, Time: 05:08:20 12-05-2018 UTC