Heavy weather sailing in your own sailboat is something all voyage planners think about - and so you should, because at some point in your 'adventure of a lifetime' passagemaking you will encounter some. It can range from a tropical storm to a full blown hurricane and can be exciting, challenging and sometimes downright scary. The full power of Mother Nature in these situations is a wonder to be seen and brings us to appreciate that no matter what heights we reach as humans, she will always have the last say and must be respected.
The following extract is from my ebook 'Voyage of the Little Ship Tere Moana' and is my experience of some severe weather on passage home from Tonga to New Zealand. As it is quite lengthy I have broken it into two parts and will post the second in my next blog:
‘Bang!’, the wind hits, the first mighty gust, and within seconds the initial roar rises to a shriek as it screams through her rigging. Our little ship heels alarmingly as the two scraps of canvas take the full brunt of impact of this first strike. With the wind spilling out from the top of her sails, she rights herself easily and, as predicted, the wind settles to a steady roar. From no wind at all a few moments before, it is now blasting in at thirty five to forty knots. Everything is flapping furiously, and hairstyles have definitely gone overboard for now!
Wave height building rapidly, and already maxing out at two metres, they will increase when the storm surge arrives. The companionway duck boards are in their slots, protecting below from any rogue wave swamping (pooping) them from behind, filling the cockpit and pouring down the companionway into the cabin. A wave like that can pour a tonne or more of grey water down the hatch in a moment, with disastrous results. The ‘watch keeper’ in the cockpit is cut off from the rest of the boat by these boards and, if feeling lonely, can perch under the spray hood and slide the hatch back far enough to communicate with those below.
Adrenalin is running high which injects its own level of excitement into our crew. Senses are sharpened and any task is approached with a heightened sense of clarity and purpose not normally present. Out here on the edges, there is not much rain, but a few squalls dotted around the horizon. The lowering clouds, pressing down on them, resemble giants of bulging mercury globs, shoving and heaving their heaviness, handing it to them in the dim murk.
A pair of beautiful great Albatross’ skim by at speeds approaching mach 2, or so it would appear. Hugely graceful normally, this is heightened in these boisterous conditions. Travelling downwind, wing feathers minutely altering the flight path, and their wing tips following every little contour in the wave, they are impressive. Just grazing the surface of the waves, up and over, and down the other side, they are moving at an incredible speed. Tracking right to left and back left to right, they disappear rapidly, weaving into the gloom – no backing up and circling the ship in these conditions!
Wave crests are breaking now and tumbling down the face. Even at this height, one of those rising up and breaking at precisely the right moment – wrong moment for our little ship! – could crash over her, stopping her in her tracks.
White spume flinging off the tops of the waves, is spattering against the spray hood, and darkly spotting the teak of the deck. The moaning roar of the wind, as all engulfing as it is, is a constant. Under this continual hacking of the senses, other normal sounds begin to penetrate the brain again. Whilst at the beginning, when the noise of the wind first hit, it completely dominated, now, it is pushed into the background, so that the brain can function and concentrate on other matters. No doubt this is our way of helping to keep calm in extreme situations.
White streamers with creamy froth sitting on top, and individual wavelets in between the
troughs are beginning to appear, and our captain calls down for the wind meter. Poking it over the top of the spray hood it gives a reading of forty five knots, gusting higher. The first waves begin crashing over the foredeck as our little ship dips deeply into the oncoming seas. Some plunges, she digs her bow, scoop like, into the face of a bigger sea, rising again with water streaming over her foredeck and racing all the way aft, to disappear in a bubbly stream over her stern – her captain opens the sliding hatch a notch or two, calling down for the forward hatch to be double checked that it is clamped down hard and not leaking – it is tight and dry.
Our little ship is revelling in these conditions and is quite excited, her trembling transferring from the sails, all the way down to the foot of her mast and into the very fibres of her glass hull. How she is handling them! With her miniscule amount of sail, she is still making five knots through the water. Her motion, whilst at first appearing waywardly alarming, has in fact a rhythmic repeating pattern. As a wave approaches, she steadies herself, her bow rising up the face, momentarily sitting on the crest, then as the full force of the wind tries to turn her beam on, she checks. The wind streaming between her sails powers her bow back into it again, the water mountain passes along her length, and she dips her nose, sliding safely down the long back of the passing wave. Over and over she does this, minute after minute, hour after hour, she will carry on in this manner, and she turns her head to the task with relish – this is what she was built for!
Understandably, it is quite uncomfortable below in the cabin and our crew are sitting with their feet braced against the opposite bunk. There is no break, no rest from this motion, on and on it goes, maybe even for the next twenty four hours, or longer, or whatever it takes until the storm blows through, drained, eviscerated. Her crew settle in for the long haul. Sibling crew keeps a constant stream of hot drinks and nibbles coming. All food is served in deep bowls, passed gingerly up through the sliding hatch to the ‘watch keeper’ cowering under the spray hood. She is running quite comfortably on auto pilot, and will probably continue to do so. Driving into heavy oncoming seas places far less strain on this gear than continually sailing downwind in fine weather.
The remote control unit comes into its own in these conditions. It is plugged into a socket in the wall of the companionway. Whoever is on watch can look forward and study the wave pattern. If the wind shifts some degrees either way, it can be compensated for by punching in the equivalent plus or minus pads on the remote. The cockpit by this time, with the amount of flying spray, is a very wet place, so the ‘keeper’ can make the adjustments from safety without venturing out from under the hood. All crew are hooked on at all times in the cockpit in these conditions!
It is late afternoon now; low scudding cloud along with the constant spray makes visibility very poor, so a sharp lookout is kept for other vessels. An unseen merchantman is not something they want looming out of the gloom, coming straight at them in these conditions! Suddenly there is a glimmer low in the west and several shafts of sunlight burst through the angry clouds. The whole scene is lit with a dirty, flat, brassy light. White tumbling crests approaching, retreating leaden backs of waves passed, and the darker troughs in between are all washed by this surreal light. Her captain is just beginning to appreciate all the differences when, like the flick of a switch, the beams are cut, and the near darkness glowers on them again. This night is going to be long.............
Final of this episode will be posted in my next blog. Meanwhile start thinking about how to convert your dream yacht into the best 'well found' vessel you can.
You can read more about heavy weather sailing in my ebook 'Voyage of the Little Ship Tere Moana' which you can download from my website http://www.sailboat2adventure.com