Sail enough mileS, and eventually bad Stuff catcheS up with you.
i seem to be stalked by force 10 blows. according to the beaufort Scale, force 10 indicates wind speeds of 48 to 55 knots and a sea state described as having very high waves (29 to 41 feet) with overhanging crests. the sea surface is white with densely blown foam, inducing heavy rolling and affecting visibility. force 10 is second only to force 11 (violent storm) and force 12 (hurricane). i have sailed in mean force 10 weather several times.
in the infamous 1979 fastnet Race, i was crew aboard eric Swenson’s Swan 47, as she made her way through a dark night and a force 10 out to the fastnet Rock lighthouse off the coast of southern ireland. as the wind built from strong to extreme to outrageous, it became harder to steer the boat, so we decided it was time to shorten sail almost to minimum by tying in the third mainsail reef. Someone had to climb up and onto the boom to straighten things out, and that someone was me. the strong hands of my shipmates secured my legs, and every ounce of adrenalin kept me focused on the job, not the mounds of churning white waves a dozen feet below me. with the reef tied in, i took the helm and we got back to sailing to fastnet Rock.
later, an immense wave stopped us so suddenly that the forward hatch sprang open to the sea. my watch mates rushed forward to shut it. other waves tossed wads of cold salt water over the deck, ripping off my eyeglasses and filling the cockpit to my knees. and then our navigator, Johnny coote, a portable radio in his hand, announced, “men are dying out here.” boats were sinking, sailors were lost.
no wonder people who have read my book about the storm, “fastnet, force 10,” ask, “were you frightened?”
there is always some concern in extreme conditions, which is a good thing because it stimulates you to stay alert and engaged, and to attend to the seamanship lessons you have been taught. yet outright fear paralyzes. it helped that we were in a good boat with an experienced crew and captain. we were well-rested and well-fed, we had our sea legs (seasickness was behind us) and we donned good safety equipment.
Still, on that bleak august night in 1979, there was one striking moment of terror in “visibility affected” conditions. when a green running light appeared ahead, we knew that a boat returning from the rock on a reciprocal course was headed right at us. but when the light vanished, we were left to the mercy of forces beyond our skill and care. happily, the light eventually reappeared safely off to our side. even today there are times when i can’t look at a green light without feeling a chill.
we found fastnet Rock and rounded it, and had a safe sail in dying winds to the race finish, where we learned that five boats in the race had sunk, and 15 sailors were dead or missing.
for some of us on Toscana, the fastnet gale was not our first force 10 experience. Seven years earlier, on the other side of the atlantic, i and other crew members had encountered heavy weather while racing in the 1972 newport bermuda Race. i was then on the Swan 55 Dyna, owned by another fine seaman, chesapeake bay sailor clayton ewing. after an ominous first day (we nearly collided with a whale), a violent easterly gale sprang up and gusted straight into the teeth of gulf Stream eddies, stirring up such high, steep waves that a sailor in another boat compared steering to “driving a truck into a stone wall three times a minute for two days.”
was i wet? yes. tired? that, too. and nervous in a healthy way. Someone on another boat wrote in his log, “the watchword for today is survival.”
but i didn’t fear for Dyna in that force 10. water was everywhere on deck and in the cockpit, yet the boat worked her way through the seas. ewing and our crew were capable and alert. as the wind came up to force 10, we clipped on our safety harnesses, moved cautiously around the boat, steered with care, shortened sail with deep reefs and small jibs, and slogged on. in due course, the navigator advised us to keep a lookout for the beams of bermuda’s two lighthouses ahead.
the most severe challenge in a race or cruise to bermuda comes at the end, near a great coral reef. in the very rough 1956 edition of the newport bermuda Race, the big 73-foot Bolero skirted the
reef so closely that a nearby navy ship signaled, “You are standing into danger.” Dyna, in 1972, felt her way around the edge of the reef in “visibility affected” conditions, gauging depths by the color of the water and the size and shape of waves—big green seas in deep water, small transparent waves near shoals—until a sharp-eyed Australian fisherman in the crew spotted a navigation buoy and we crossed the finish line off St. David’s Head.
Although all seemed at ease on Dyna as we made our way up the long channel to the city of Hamilton, on shore I felt a fear that, perhaps, I had otherwise denied. Rows of silent women and men stood helplessly staring out to sea, each searching for a loved one’s boat. There was damage in this race, and some injuries, but no losses of boats or sailors.
I encountered Force 10 again in 2012, as crew delivering a boat back to North America after the Newport Bermuda Race. A ferocious weather system stirred up two days of very hard going. One boat was abandoned, and another suffered a serious injury to a sailor. The boat I was on, 42-foot Hinckley Zest, sailed through heavy rain and strong squalls for a day and a night, and then was smashed unexpectedly by a 60-knot gust that, with a big bang, blew the forestay and a jib right off the boat.
Our crew’s initial response was stunned silence. Skipper-owner Brian Swiggett immediately turned the boat downwind. As we jogged along slowly and comfortably, we realized the damage to the boat was local and isolated, and perhaps the same for the crew, as well. We patched up the broken bits, and we calmed our nerves.
At least one of us felt reminded that the sea is always there, always potent, and never to be sentimentalized or taken for granted. race for first ocean race, the ed Bermuda nicknam is newport s, the amateur sailor of and recogniti on smaller yachts Patch” in to the onion stream the gulf the “thrash stirred up by was race wild weather the both the heritage. ral this agricultu ’s th running Bermuda 50 and its will have more in 1906 and 17. For founded d for june schedule start is year. the ace.com bermudar ion: informat