Crash Course to Syd­ney

A SAILOR RE­COUNTS A DRA­MATIC DIS­MAST­ING IN THE STORM-LASHED IN­DIAN OCEAN.

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A sailor re­counts a dra­matic dis­mast­ing in the storm-lashed In­dian Ocean.

that bad things tend to hap­pen at night in de­te­ri­o­rat­ing con­di­tions.

As mid­night ap­proached, I was at the helm of 73-foot (22.2me­ter) ketch On­dine in a bumpy ocean. A loud crash an­nounced that the main­mast had snapped and fallen across the boat’s star­board side. Our skip­per, Sven, rushed to the deck within sec­onds de­mand­ing, in his nat­u­ral Fin­nish ver­nac­u­lar, “Wot­the­fock?!” The pitch-black night, icy rain­squalls and sting­ing salt­wa­ter spray made it dif­fi­cult to as­sess the full ex­tent of the dam­age. Pound­ing into heavy seas, On­dine was los­ing steer­age and rolling freely in the de­te­ri­o­rat­ing con­di­tions. “Bad things” had ar­rived with a vengeance.

Sail­ing small boats across big oceans con­jures mis­con­cep­tions of the mind. Tales of big storms beget vi­sions of fear and dan­ger. Flat calms in equa­to­rial lat­i­tudes un­der the burn­ing sun may sound prefer­able, but those wind­less days with life­less sails slap­ping, thirst­ing for a breath of air to give them form, will tor­ture a sailor’s mind as the boat goes nowhere—a bound­less hori­zon where wa­ter and sky merge in a sphere of ethe­real blue. A true sailor prefers the heavy weather … well, most of the time.

We were sail­ing on an able off­shore racer. On­dine was built in 1967 for one of the most revered rac­ers of his time, Sum­ner “Huey” Long. She was an all-alu­minum Abek­ing & Ras­mussen go-fast that was built to win off­shore races against the world’s best. In French folk­lore, On­dine was a wa­ter god­dess and nymph of le­gendary beauty who, be­trayed by her un­faith­ful hus­band, Pale­mon, placed a curse on him, al­low­ing him to breathe only so long as he was awake. He never slept again. Lit­tle did we know that we, too, would face a sim­i­lar curse with many sleep­less nights ahead.

Amer­ica, here I come, or so I’d thought, step­ping off a dock in Greece onto On­dine’s deck a few weeks prior, with all my worldly be­long­ings not quite fill­ing a medium-size duf­fle. Sven was quick to in­form me that we would in­deed be sail­ing to the States, but via Aus­tralia and a date with the 1968 Syd­ney Ho­bart race. (De­cently, he gave me the op­tion of swim­ming ashore had I de­sired a more di­rect route.) It was a crisp, beau­ti­ful day with light breezes, be­nign wave­lets and a wine-dark Aegean Sea sparkling in its dis­tinct

shade of blue. A mere 10 miles to the east, Po­sei­don, from the re­mains of his lofty tem­ple on Cape Sounion, smiled. The gods were at peace. The omens were good. I de­cided to stick around.

My ship­mates and I—three Amer­i­cans, two Brits, one Aus­tralian and one Ja­panese—were all ex­pe­ri­enced sailors. Be­ing in our 20s, we also were un­der the highly skep­ti­cal eye of our skip­per. All sinew and mus­cle with salt­wa­ter run­ning through his veins, Sven moved like a cat and bit like a croc­o­dile. No one knew his age, and he wasn’t telling, though we es­ti­mated around 50. Chew­ing through the stem of yet an­other pipe, Sven had two things on his mind: de­ter­min­ing how many times he had sailed around the world (17 in all, but since one had been in the op­po­site di­rec­tion, he couldn’t de­cide whether to sub­tract it from the to­tal) and de­lib­er­at­ing how to con­vert seven hot-shot sailors into able sea­men while get­ting On­dine quickly and safely to Syd­ney in time for the race.

It had been mostly smooth sail­ing as On­dine rounded the Cape of Good Hope and en­tered the In­dian Ocean. The gods were smil­ing. Spir­its were high in an­tic­i­pa­tion of sail­ing some of the world’s most chal­leng­ing wa­ters as we headed south in search of the mighty west­er­lies that live be­low 40 de­grees south lat­i­tude to whisk us the re­main­ing 7,000 miles to Syd­ney. But the barom­e­ter was fore­telling a more omi­nous fu­ture.

Winds rapidly in­creased to sus­tained Force 4 and 5, with Force 6 in squalls. Twin head­sails were set with try­sail and mizzen. The ocean be­gan to as­sert its power, de­liv­er­ing a re­lent­less suc­ces­sion of im­prob­a­bly enor­mous swells high enough to shield us com­pletely from the wind in the troughs, and then ex­pose us to its full fury on the crests. It was fright­en­ing, it was awe­some and it was beau­ti­ful.

In­vert­ing his om­nipresent pipe to pre­vent it from flood­ing, Sven barked a sin­gle or­der: “Keep look­ing back, and keep the f***ing tran­som at right an­gles to the swell.” We did, and for three days, watch-on, watch-off, en­joyed one hell of a sleigh ride.

It was close to mid­night when things re­ally hit the fan. With a mighty bang, down crashed the 90-foot-tall mast. Sven was on deck within sec­onds and gave the or­der for all-hands. The off-watch sprang quickly and, in var­i­ous stages of foul-weather gear un­dress, went straight to work. About 60 feet of bro­ken spar, sus­pended only by in­ter­nal hal­yards and wiring, was swing­ing dan­ger­ously. De­spite our ef­forts to get lines around it and ten­sion them on deck winches, there was still fric­tion and bang­ing be­tween the bro­ken-off spar and the re­main­der of the mast, and, more per­ilously, the hull it­self. The stay­sail and head­sail were both in the wa­ter, drag­ging and keep­ing the spar an­chored. What seemed like end­less miles of stain­less steel wire rig­ging and rope lines lay all over the deck in a tan­gled mess.

Fac­ing such a catas­tro­phe in rag­ing wind and heav­ing seas thou­sands of miles from shore might have shaken the most ex­pe­ri­enced sailors, but to a man, we were sin­gu­larly fo­cused. We

pain­stak­ingly re­moved all the fixed rig­ging from its an­chor points on deck and cut the rest to clear the bro­ken spar, which con­tin­ued to pound the side of the hull, prompt­ing the de­ci­sion to jet­ti­son it al­to­gether. It sank like a stone, as I re­call, into the depths of the mael­strom be­low. In an at­tempt to re­gain steer­age, we turned on the en­gine, which promptly seized as the pro­pel­ler fouled the re­main­ing lines at­tached to one of the sub­merged head­sails. Af­ter we cleared most of the re­main­ing clut­ter, noth­ing more could be done un­til day­light. The wind con­tin­ued to build. The sea was furious. We posted watch and slept in­ter­mit­tently as On­dine, crip­pled, rolled vi­o­lently out of con­trol.

The bot­tom fell out of the barom­e­ter overnight, and by 0500, it was blow­ing a full gale. With ev­ery­thing air­borne now trav­el­ing hor­i­zon­tally, On­dine was in a per­sis­tent state of ag­i­tated mo­tion. An artist’s pal­ette of grays painted an in­fi­nite land­scape of empti­ness as Sven and I tried in vain to re­trieve the stay­sail, whose sheets were wrapped around the prop. Nick—one of our Amer­i­can mates and a fear­less ex-ma­rine—vol­un­teered to dive on the pro­pel­ler to cut the tan­gled lines free. Re­luc­tantly, and with lim­ited other op­tions, we

tied a se­cure line around him and low­ered him into the icy wa­ter, aware of the very short time he’d be able to func­tion. For al­most 15 min­utes we waited anx­iously on deck be­fore winch­ing him up.

“Crank up the en­gine,” he mut­tered as we took him be­low and set about rais­ing his body tem­per­a­ture.

We were 2,300 miles from Cape Town, 3,500 miles from south­west Aus­tralia and short on fuel, and we needed to no­tify the boat’s New York owner of our sit­u­a­tion. Above all, we had to fash­ion a tem­po­rary rig and get On­dine sail­ing again. Our avail­able re­sources were a 28-foot mast stump, the re­mains of the sails we had cut free and var­i­ous bits of hard­ware. We man­aged to rig a storm jib up­side down from the mast stump, which, with a strong wind from astern, gave us ac­cept­able speed un­der sail alone.

The gale peaked early that af­ter­noon. At last, the barom­e­ter be­gan peel­ing it­self off the bot­tom of the scale, per­mit­ting us to be­gin mak­ing new sails from the tat­tered re­mains of those we had sal­vaged. With sail­maker’s nee­dles, palms, twine and knives, we cut and stitched with fer­vor over the next sev­eral days to pro­duce a ser­vice­able stay­sail and a trape­zoid main­sail to work as a gaff rig us­ing the spin­naker pole. Tech­ni­cally speak­ing, On­dine was now a schooner rig, al­beit not an el­e­gant one. At least we were mov­ing and some­what un­der con­trol.

Nine days later, we raised the tiny is­land chain of New Am­s­ter­dam and sighted a pas­sen­ger ship ap­proach­ing from the east. She turned out to be the for­mer ocean liner Canberra, en route from Aus­tralia. We raised sig­nal flags on the mizzen­mast and hailed her via sig­nal lamp in Morse code. Canberra of­fered to help and re­layed a mes­sage to On­dine’s owner that we were dis­masted and limp­ing to­ward Aus­tralia un­der jury rig.

We set course for Al­bany, South­west Aus­tralia. Pushed by strong west­erly winds and ever-rolling swells, we ar­rived some 16 days later, and a mes­sage from the owner in­formed us that a new mast had been shipped to Syd­ney. We left again the fol­low­ing morn­ing, hav­ing taken on fuel, pro­vi­sions and a few wel­learned beers for the fi­nal leg.

Eleven days later, On­dine passed through the Heads of Syd­ney Har­bour on a warm sum­mer night, two days be­fore the ar­rival of our new mast. It had been 89 days since leav­ing Greece, and we had sailed more than 14,000 miles. Sit­ting with my back propped against what was left of the mast that had served us so well, watch­ing the ap­proach­ing lights of the city, my thoughts drifted to that per­fect Aegean day and the many oc­ca­sions I had sailed around Cape Sounion, pay­ing homage to Po­sei­don in the Greek tra­di­tion with a glass of Me­taxa.

Our ad­ven­ture was over. The omens had, in­deed, been good. Author’s note: With her new mast and rig­ging, On­dine not only went on to com­pete in the Syd­ney Ho­bart race, but she fin­ished first with a time of four days, 3 hours, 20 min­utes, 2 sec­onds, best­ing Syd Fis­cher’s

Raga­muf­fin by mere min­utes.

be­low: The On­dine crew in more tran­quil times— seven hot-shot sailors and Cap­tain Sven (kneel­ing, bot­tom cen­ter). The author is third from left.

left ( top, bot­tom): A tem­po­rary storm jib rigged up­side down from the mast stump gave ac­cept­able speed un­der sail alone in the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math; The off-watch takes some much-needed rest.

ABOVE: In the Roar­ing For­ties, keep­ing On­dine’s tran­som at right an­gles to the swell was no sim­ple task. LEFT: The jury-rigged main­sail work­ing as a gaff rig us­ing the spin­naker pole.

right ( top, bot­tom): Sven aloft, se­cur­ing an an­chor point for a jury-rigged tem­po­rary head­sail; Un­der full rig again, On­dine races to­ward Ho­bart.

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