KNOCKDOWN!

LESSONS LEARNED DUR­ING A GALE IN THE IN­DIAN OCEAN

SAIL - - Features - BY RAN­DALL REEVES

Fig­ure 8 sailor Ran­dall Reeves faces a killer gale deep in the South­ern Ocean

BBy the time we en­tered the In­dian Ocean in Fe­bru­ary of 2018, Moli, my 43ft alu­minum-hulled ex­pe­di­tion sloop, and I had seen plenty of high-lat­i­tude ac­tion. The pre­vi­ous De­cem­ber, we had en­tered the South­ern Ocean from the Pa­cific for a non­stop loop in the Roar­ing 40s as part of my long-planned Fig­ure 8 Voy­age, an at­tempt to solo cir­cum­nav­i­gate both the Amer­i­cas and Antarc­tica in one year.

There, and while on our fi­nal ap­proach to Cape Horn, Mo was over­taken by an in­tense low pack­ing steady winds to 50 knots with gusts to 70. A knockdown late in that gale gushed just enough wa­ter into the pi­lot­house to find and short-out the au­topi­lot junc­tion box. Three days later we were 400 miles off­shore and sail­ing hard in fresh west­er­lies when a non-ser­vice­able part on my beloved Mon­i­tor wind­vane broke, leav­ing Mo with­out a way to self-steer. It took six long and cold days of 12-hour tricks at the tiller to make the shel­tered wa­ters of the Bea­gle Chan­nel, af­ter which it was on to Ushuaia, Ar­gentina, for re­pairs. In other words, the South­ern Ocean had al­ready given us a rough go by the time In­dian Ocean wa­ter be­gan flow­ing un­der the keel.

Once back on the Fig­ure 8 route for Cape Good Hope and sev­eral dam­age-free gales later, I had be­gun to feel a cer­tain com­fort with what the South could dish up. I knew—or at least I thought I knew—what to ex­pect and how to han­dle the boat as winds and seas in­creased and ro­tated slowly on their cir­cuit from north­west to west to south­west. Alas, my con­fi­dence, as I would find, was mis­placed.

The In­dian Ocean low that would uli­mately teach me how mis­placed my con­fi­dence truly was be­gan as a small de­pres­sion off Rio de Janeiro. On the weather files, it looked at first like noth­ing spe­cial. As it slid un­der Africa, though, it in­ten­si­fied, tre­bled in size and grew uni­formly round. When I spot­ted it in the fore­casts, Mo was mak­ing slow way. We’d been headed by light north­east­erly winds, and for two days we’d close-reached to the south­east, so that by Fe­bru­ary 10th we’d been pushed

all the way down to 49 de­grees south, well be­low my tar­get of 47 de­grees. Worse yet, we were in the heart of where the com­ing low would soon be at its worst. I im­me­di­ately tacked around. We needed nor­thing.

A week later we were pass­ing un­der Co­chon Is­land, in the Crozets group, when the low ar­rived. By now I wasn’t par­tic­u­larly wor­ried. The in­ter­ven­ing days had seen hard winds from the west with gale-force gusts and a heavy sea. How­ever, we’d weath­ered it all with noth­ing more than a few bro­ken dishes. Most im­por­tantly, we’d worked back up to 47 de­grees south, where the fore­cast called for mean winds of 35 knots. Even af­ter adding my cus­tom­ary 10 knots to the pre­dic­tion, what was com­ing looked to be a very man­age­able bit of weather.

Soon af­ter­ward, I dowsed the main and work­ing head­sail in fa­vor of the storm jib. It was now late af­ter­noon of Fe­bru­ary 17th, and the barom­e­ter had dropped from a high of 1012 mil­libars the pre­vi­ous noon to 996 mil­libars, with winds from the north­west at 35 knots and gusts in the 40s. This move left Mo un­der­pow­ered and she slowed markedly, yaw­ing a bit in the troughs. None­the­less, I wanted a set of sail that would take us through an un­cer­tain night.

Erring on the side of cau­tion, I also eased off the tiller un­til wind and sea were slightly on the port quar­ter, af­ter which I hun­kered down to watch. Even in the early, north­west phase of the blow, seas were run­ning much higher than I’d ex­pected. The dom­i­nant train was from the north­west with an­other large train from the west. Gray­beards were fast and steep. Most re­mark­ably, they of­ten threw up a line of break sev­eral hun­dred feet wide.

At 1900 I was seated in the pi­lot­house when a comber knocked the boat flat to star­board. By this time night had fallen like a lead cur­tain. A heavy deck of cloud and rain meant vis­i­bil­ity was zero, save for the faint glow of break­ers. As the wave laid Mo over, green wa­ter poured in through the pi­lot­house do­rade vent above my head, the only one of seven that I’d left open. The lap­top on which I’d been typ­ing was soaked, but mirac­u­lously sur­vived. In a mo­ment, Mo righted and con­tin­ued on as be­fore.

Pop­ping open the com­pan­ion­way hatch, I searched the deck for dam­age and found the wind­vane look­ing as perky as ever. The rig was also fine, the storm jib draw­ing beau­ti­fully, al­though the force of the fall had bent in Mo’s star­board rail over the cock­pit winches. This rail is made of thick-walled alu­minum tub­ing. Lashed to it was a 200-watt so­lar panel, which took the sea flat in the face and shat­tered.

At this point our av­er­age speeds were well within what I con­sid­ered the safe range (I note 6-7 knots in the log with surf­ing runs to 10 and 11). One thing I did no­tice, though, was that Mo was tend­ing to stall out in the troughs. This meant my de­sired course—slightly of­f­cen­ter from the sea—could be­come ex­ag­ger­ated, and with­out speed the wind­vane had no coun­ter­move. “Could be a prob­lem if the wind re­ally starts to come on,” I re­mem­ber say­ing to my­self.

Think­ing it might be time

to gybe, I rigged a port-side sheet on the storm jib. Once back in the cock­pit, though, I thought bet­ter of it. The wind, now steadily in the 40s, was well be­low what we’d ex­pe­ri­enced else­where. We were also still in the early, north­west stage of the gale, which meant when it backed into the west, it would pull us more abeam the north­west swell. By 2300 we’d not ex­pe­ri­enced an­other knock, so I be­gan my sleep cy­cle.

Sev­eral hours later we were pushed over again. From my bunk I could hear the sea’s ap­proach above the al­ready in­tense din of the gale. There was a thun­der­ing sound at first, then just as the wave hit, a much louder, high-pitched hiss­ing, as if a jet liner were crash land­ing on the coachroof.

By the faint gray glow of dawn I could see that the veer­ing wind was now be­gin­ning to ex­pose Mo’s port side to the north­west swell, so I gybed to star­board, tak­ing the dom­i­nant west­erly seas slightly on the star­board quar­ter. This seemed to give the boat a cleaner ap­proach to both wave trains. Un­for­tu­nately, as events would prove, it wasn’t enough.

An hour later I heard thun­der­ing and hiss­ing again, and braced my­self as best I could with my hands and feet pressed against the pi­lot­house bulk­head. There was a bat­ter­ing sound as the wave hit the hull, af­ter which Mo was sud­denly lifted and slammed over, a much harder knock than the first two as the wave threw my 35,000lb boat around as if she were a dog toy.

First impressions: I see wa­ter pour­ing in. The boat rights, but the wa­ter keeps com­ing. It’s cas­cad­ing thick and green over the chart­plot­ter, over the nav­i­ga­tion desk. A thick river flows over the pi­lot­house sole and down the steps into the sa­loon. It’s then I re­al­ize I can hear the roar of the sea be­yond the boat. ( Mo is amaz­ingly quiet be­lowdecks when closed up.) Mo­ments later I no­tice I can see through the port side win­dow as if there is no glass. It’s then I see the shards of glass around the win­dow frame. Fi­nally, it dawns on me: the win­dow is stove in!

The ac­tion I needed to take af­ter that was not en­tirely clear. None­the­less, there were three ob­vi­ous pri­or­i­ties: 1) stop the hole 2) get the wa­ter out 3) find some way to make Mo safe. The winds were still in the 40s with gusts to 45. Again, much less than we’d seen in pre­vi­ous blows. How­ever, by now the seas were be­yond all rea­son.

Even­tu­ally, I started pump­ing out the wa­ter while I thought through how to stop the hole. Fi­nally, when the bilge was half empty, I re­trieved two bunk boards from the fore­peak and bolted them to­gether, one on each side of the bro­ken win­dow frame. They were not quite the right shape and left small voids on two cor­ners, but I man­aged to fill th­ese with sil­i­cone. Af­ter that I fin­ished pump­ing the bilge. That done, the fi­nal step was to make Mo safe again. For that I had only one so­lu­tion, put out the Jor­dan Se­ries Drogue.

Un­for­tu­nately, though it had been flaked into a cock­pit locker for easy de­ploy­ment, the boat’s ex­treme mo­tion had wedged it firmly into a low cor­ner. I there­fore had to haul it up hand-over-hand and then re-flake it on deck, a big job. As a re­sult it wasn’t un­til 1000 that I fi­nally had it stream­ing aft and Mo stopped in her tracks. I pulled in the storm jib and felt a gush of re­lief. Fi­nally, we were un­der con­trol.

Be­lowdecks, it looked like the boat had been hit by a tsunami. Dur­ing Mo’s fall, a cab­i­net in the head had opened, fling­ing toi­letries into the gal­ley. Books and cups and clothes were piled on the wet sole. Glass shards were ev­ery­where. Worst of all, the elec­tron­ics in the nav­i­ga­tion sta­tion were now wa­ter­logged. Only the chart­plot­ter ap­peared to have sur­vived.

Grab­bing some tow­els I be­gan the slow process of clean­ing up. By now winds had be­gun to mod­er­ate, but the sea con­tin­ued fast and mean.

Even rid­ing on a drogue Mo was be­ing hit hard from astern, so much so that there was of­ten white wa­ter slam­ming about in the cock­pit. Two hours later I no­ticed a change in the boat’s mo­tion and mak­ing my way out on deck re­al­ized we were now ly­ing ahull. I pulled sharply on the drogue bri­dle, and to my amaze­ment, it came in with ease. The drogue was gone. Re­triev­ing the bri­dle I found the line had parted at the lead eye splice, leav­ing only the metal eye.

This was no sea for ly­ing ahull, so I quickly en­gaged the Mon­i­tor wind­vane and put Mo be­fore the wind again un­der bare poles. I had at­tempted this in the Pa­cific dur­ing our first big blow with­out suc­cess—even the au­topi­lot had failed to hold course—but now the Mon­i­tor held Mo dead down­wind with ease, and we rode out the rest of the gale with­out in­ci­dent.

Un­for­tu­nately, while I was able to re­vive some of the elec­tron­ics over the the next few days, the sin­gle side­band ra­dio, satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tions (other than the Garmin In­reach), the AIS unit and the AA bat­tery charger were all be­yond re­pair. With­out th­ese items I had no ac­cess to weather fore­casts and no way to see or be seen elec­tron­i­cally by ship­ping. With­out the abil­ity to charge bat­ter­ies, I’d also soon have no flash­lights for work­ing at night out on deck. Th­ese fac­tors, plus a ques­tion­ably patched pi­lot­house win­dow and the fact I was now down one drogue, con­vinced me to put into Ho­bart, Tas­ma­nia, some 4,000 miles far­ther on, for re­pairs.

Un­for­tu­nately, the Ho­bart stop, plus the ear­lier stop in Ushuaia, meant I would also now be crit­i­cally be­hind my orig­i­nal sched­ule. To con­tinue would mean a re­turn to Cape Horn in the win­ter months of May and June and a just-on-time ar­rival, with no room for er­ror, at the east­ern en­trance of the North­west Pas­sage. The two risks com­bined were too much. I de­cided I couldn’t com­plete the Fig­ure 8 Voy­age on this try.

As I write, Mo and I are com­ing to the close of an 8,000-mile pas­sage from Ho­bart back to San Fran­cisco. We’ll cross our wake in a few days’ time and will have com­pleted a solo cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of the globe via the South­ern Ocean. But we’re not done. I in­tend to take what I’ve learned from this long­est shake­down cruise in his­tory and start the Fig­ure 8 Voy­age all over again in the fall of this year. s Ran­dall Reeves is the first per­son to at­tempt a solo cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of the Amer­i­cas and Antarc­tica in one year. This ul­tra-long pas­sage, which he is call­ing the Fig­ure 8 Voy­age, in­cludes a full, east-about loop of the South­ern Ocean and an east-to-west of the Arc­tic’s North­west Pas­sage. Ran­dall orig­i­nally de­parted his home wa­ters of San Fran­cisco Bay in Oc­to­ber 2017. To find out more, visit fig­ure8voy­age.com

The win­dow re­pair, and a whole lot of soggy elec­tron­ics!

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