A MIS­SION TO SUR­VIVE

ON A SOLO RACE ACROSS THE NORTH AT­LANTIC, BRI­TISH SKIP­PER DAVID SOUTH­WOOD MEETS HUR­RI­CANE FORCE WINDS

Yachting World - - Great Seamanship -

Com­peti­tors in the 2017 Orig­i­nal Sin­gle­handed Transat­lantic Race (OSTAR) ex­pe­ri­enced the worst con­di­tions since the race was ini­ti­ated in 1960 in the era of Blondie Hasler and Fran­cis Chich­ester. This race is run in the true Corinthian spirit of the orig­i­nal event, with pri­vate yachts­men sail­ing their own boats.

Sev­eral con­tes­tants, in­clud­ing Mervyn Wheat­ley of the Royal Cruis­ing Club (RCC), had com­peted in pre­vi­ous OSTARS or TWOSTARS and most were oth­er­wise ex­pe­ri­enced in short-handed ocean rac­ing. Dur­ing two des­per­ate nights in mid-at­lantic, the fleet was so torn apart by hur­ri­cane-force wind and huge seas that only seven of 21 starters made it to New­port, Rhode Is­land.

The no­tably mod­est ex­tract be­low is taken from the RCC jour­nal for 2017, Rov­ing Com­mis­sions. David South­wood, a mem­ber, de­scribes how he coped in his War­rior 40, Sum­mer­bird, as things went lit­er­ally from bad, to worse, then to sim­ply aw­ful. David, who started sail­ing aged eight in Gosport Creek, went on to serve in the Army be­fore be­com­ing a Lloyd’s bro­ker. The self­dis­ci­pline and ca­pac­ity for mak­ing tough choices in grim cir­cum­stances learned in the armed forces are an ex­am­ple to us all. One can only say, as we join him in mid-at­lantic, that we Bri­tish are for­tu­nate to have men like him on our side. The first prob­lem oc­curred when I rather clum­sily reefed the main re­sult­ing in a D-ring sup­port­ing the star­board lazy­jack part­ing from un­der­neath the spreader. With string and main­sail all over the deck the solution was to swing a spin­naker hal­yard around the out­side of the spreader to hoist the lazy­jack again. This sounds easy but not in a heavy sea.

The lazy­jack got caught on ev­ery­thing and the hal­yard got in a wrap, but at long last the prob­lem was solved.

I had de­cided to use a large genoa for the race, be­cause in the Azores and Back Race in 2015 I felt un­der-can­vassed with the smaller one. The idle sheet rested on top of the stay­sail furler drum. How­ever, in heavy seas it jumped up and down as the genoa shook. I was down be­low when I heard a loud flap­ping noise. I came on deck to find the lower part of the stay­sail fly­ing free be­cause the genoa sheet had caught the stay­sail snap shackle,thereby open­ing it.

Hav­ing dealt with the shackle I sat on deck to re-hoist the sail, pulling the hal­yard with one hand and feed­ing the tape into the groove with the other. How­ever, the cord at the bot­tom of the sail had parted. My rem­edy was to furl the sail with a cou­ple of turns. All was well for a few hours un­til there was a loud crack as the T-bolt at the head of the stay sheared. The sail re­mained held up by only its hal­yard, but was of no use. I furled it by hand and tied it off. This meant I was re­duced to just a large, reefed genoa and two or three reefs in the main in quite lively winds.

Sum­mer­bird bashed into the head­winds still achiev­ing 7 knots of speed. Four of us in­clud­ing my friend Mervyn Wheat­ley in Tamarind were roughly abreast, vy­ing for 1st place in our class. The rest trailed be­hind. Sum­mer­bird doesn’t have in­ter­net comms, so I only knew this be­cause of a very short 0800 daily satel­lite tele­phone call with Jill back at our house.

On the morn­ing of 8 June my po­si­tion was 49°N 30’W. Jill said: “I’d re­main well reefed if I was you, some­thing nasty is com­ing your way.” I did, but won­dered why, as the day passed with­out too much prob­lem. In the dog watches the wind sud­denly in­creased, wind­ing up to 58 knots about 1800. I reefed the genoa to hand­ker­chief size with three reefs in the main. I put the wash­boards in and con­trolled the vane with a con­tin­u­ous line from in­side the hatch. Even­tu­ally, I set the vane at 90° to our track with it low­ered on its axis. I lashed the wheel to as­sist, so that the rud­der and the Hy­drovane rud­der worked in

uni­son. Sum­mer­bird lay hove to just off the wind.

When dawn came, the wind eased. I de­cided to press on think­ing the storm had passed. Sadly, I was mis­taken, as we were in the eye. The storm was a con­ver­gence of two sys­tems with a cen­tral pres­sure of 964mb (15mb be­low the 1979 Fast­net) and waves of 10-15m. Rogue waves would have been much higher.

On the evening of 9 June the wind wound up again. I recorded 59 knots, but found out later that Ray­ma­rine in­stru­ments only read up to 60 knots. Har­monii, a Na­jad 490, recorded 72 knots be­fore his mast­head unit blew off. Sum­mer­bird’s was also lost that night. The new wind gen­er­a­tor gave up as it had spun it­self to death. Not be­ing one for too much in­no­va­tion I adopted the same tactics as the pre­vi­ous night. We lay hove-to and I went be­low.

Feel­ing a bit more con­fi­dent about Sum­mer­bird’s abil­ity to with­stand the pound­ing I heated a tin of ravi­oli, had two glasses of red wine, turned in and went to sleep. At 0220 BST I heard “Sum­mer­bird, Sum­mer­bird ”. It was a Cana­dian Air Force Her­cules on VHF. Tamarind was in dis­tress 100 miles south of me. Could I go to Mervyn’s as­sis­tance?

I ex­plained that he was a very good friend, but be­ing hove-to in ex­cess of 60 knots I was in no state to sail to­wards him. The re­ply came back; “Well, we don’t want any more ca­su­al­ties.” I didn’t know that the Cana­di­ans were deal­ing with four of our rac­ing fleet in dis­tress.

Royal res­cue

At about 0900 I heard a call from a Cana­dian air­craft to a ship thanking it for go­ing to Tamarind’s as­sis­tance and that ap­par­ently Mervyn was in good shape. Later Jill told me he had been picked up by the Queen Mary 2.

Dur­ing the morn­ing the storm passed and I set sail once more. I had not used my life­jacket and thought I had bet­ter keep it handy. I re­viewed the con­tents of the grab bag in case I was also picked up by a ship. All went well for a day or so, ex­cept the con­fused sea was wild. Jill told me af­ter­wards that the con­gre­ga­tion of the churches of New­ton Fer­rers and Noss Mayo prayed for me in peril on the sea dur­ing the Sun­day ser­vices.

We were head­ing west and I was be­low con­tem­plat­ing where to cross the Grand Banks when there was an­other loud sound of flog­ging sail and I emerged on deck to find the big genoa to­tally un­furled as the reef­ing line had parted. A large sail flap­ping around in a heavy sea is fright­en­ing, with the leap­ing sheets par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous. If I low­ered the genoa, I knew that I could never get it up again on my own as I had done with the stay­sail. I just had to fix the reef­ing line. I tried knot­ting the two ends but the line parted again. I went be­low to dig out an­other line.

‘MY BEST OP­TION WAS TO TURN SOUTH OUT OF THESE DREAD­FUL WEATHER CON­DI­TIONS’

Nor­mally one winds in the line with the sail off by turn­ing the drum. Ob­vi­ously this was not pos­si­ble. Hav­ing at­tached one end to the drum I had to pass the en­tire line around in­side the drum some 15-20 times, im­mersed in crash­ing waves as the bow plunged. This took pa­tience, but even­tu­ally the job was done. Re­turn­ing to the cock­pit I furled the genoa and on we went. Two hours later the sail un­furled again and I re­peated the pro­ce­dure.

The third time it hap­pened I re­alised that I had to lower the sail. This I did bit by bit, try­ing to lash it to the guardrail. In­evitably a large part of the sail went over the side and un­der the hull. I was pleased that my three work­outs per week dur­ing the pre­vi­ous two years were for a good pur­pose. It took ages to haul up the sail inch by inch and even­tu­ally to se­cure it as best I could. I laughed to my­self as I sat on the deck with only my sea boot heels on the toe rail, think­ing that at least I was in the right po­si­tion for a sea burial if I slipped un­der the guardrail.

There was noth­ing for it but to get the storm jib out. It had strops to fit round a furled head­sail, not as I now had, a bare forestay. The strops had small eyes to place in cara­bin­ers. Bounc­ing up and down at the pul­pit it was a bit like play­ing ‘It’s a Knock­out’ to at­tach them all.

On hoist­ing the sail, I found one strop had been missed, so had to lower it again. Once up it looked good and did the job. Then I heard a weird noise com­ing from up for­ward. This turned out to be the wind­lass mo­tor at full

spate within the an­chor locker. It had mal­func­tioned. The solution was to flick the bat­tery switch to off. I wasn’t plan­ning to an­chor in mid At­lantic any­way.

Un­seen dam­age

What I did not dis­cover un­til reach­ing port was that the stain­less steel stem plate had snapped in half. The stem opened up like a shark’s mouth al­low­ing con­sid­er­able sea­wa­ter ingress into the an­chor locker. Worse still, the lower end of the forestay was vir­tu­ally swing­ing in the breeze. Also un­known to me at this time was that the for­ward lower shrouds were 50% gone.

I went be­low for a large, well-earned G&T and de­cided to write an ap­pre­ci­a­tion and plan, as I had been taught in the Army. The process led to me con­clude that my mis­sion should change from at­tempt­ing to reach New­port, Rhode Is­land, to sur­vival. Try­ing to sail an­other 1,500 miles with just a storm jib as a head­sail would be silly. It would be slow and I would ar­rive too late to avoid the hur­ri­cane sea­son for the re­turn trip. My best op­tion was to turn south out of these dread­ful weather con­di­tions to­wards the Azores. I knew re­pair fa­cil­i­ties were avail­able at Horta, so that be­came my pre­ferred port of refuge. Bear­ing in mind the stem plate prob­lem this was just as well, be­cause Sum­mer­bird would al­most cer­tainly have been in dis­tress later had we car­ried on.

The con­fused sea pro­duced large waves from all di­rec­tions. Each time the boat hit one we stopped dead, barely pick­ing up any speed be­fore the next one. In the first few days of the 710-mile pas­sage we made good only 1-2 knots. One by one the strops on the storm jib parted and I re­placed them. In the end I gave up, with the sail just at­tached at head and tack with one or two strops. The main­sail slammed around even though a pre­ven­ter was fit­ted. The gas strut in the rigid kicker went. A metal main­sheet block D-ring on the cabin top broke so I had to ar­range a jury rig sys­tem to at­tach the main­sheet to the toe rail.

Jill had told Falmouth Coast­guard of my predica­ment and I was re­quired to tele­phone the Cana­dian Coast­guard in Halifax each day on the Irid­ium. Even­tu­ally we crossed 45°N. The Cana­di­ans passed me on to the Por­tuguese and the weather calmed a bit. The sea state less­ened. The wind went north, astern; that was good in one way, but the Hy­drovane found it more challenging. I re­sorted to the Au­to­helm, but this failed.

Jill spoke to our elec­tron­ics man who de­duced that, be­cause the wind in­stru­ment had gone, the Seatalk link be­tween all the in­stru­ments was af­fected and that the Au­to­helm needed to be iso­lated. To do so, I was ad­vised to stick my head through a small locker door in the quar­ter berth where the com­puter was lo­cated in or­der to dis­con­nect a wire, one of very many and prob­a­bly red. As the locker door slammed against my head and the yacht rolled vi­o­lently, one by one I dis­con­nected wires and re­con­nected them while check­ing the Au­to­helm each time, un­til – bingo – I found the right one. The Au­to­helm fired up to my great re­lief.

Now surf­ing down­wind on big waves with 30 knots of wind be­hind us, progress was much im­proved. Even­tu­ally the is­land of Fa­ial came into view. I berthed just as light faded at 2100 on 20 June, three weeks af­ter depart­ing Ply­mouth. How the mast stayed up on the seven-day voy­age to the Azores is a mys­tery, but be­ing off the wind with a dou­ble back­stay tak­ing the strain must have helped, as must the prayers of the good peo­ple of New­ton and Noss back home.

David South­wood’s War­rior 40Sum­mer­bird braved fiercestorms

The 2017 OSTAR fleet ne­go­ti­ates a huge storm. Af­ter it passed, only nine of 21 the starters re­mained in the race

Hy­drovane self steer­ing found the wind from astern ‘challenging’

Sum­mer­bird’s stem plate tore away, al­low­ing wa­ter into the an­chor locker

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