Sunday, 30 May 2010

Heavy Weather Sailing for Sailboat Voyage Planners - Part 2

Well, I promised to follow up with the rest of the storm experienced on the final leg of my voyage to New Zealand. The passage between Nuku Alofa, Tonga to Opua in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand is 1037 nautical miles. The course is pretty much due south and this stretch of the Pacific is notorious for producing violent storms which have claimed the lives of many yachtsmen over the years. In good conditions the passage should take 5 -7 days, which is plenty of time as we were to discover, for some heavy weather to build and hand out a good pasting. Our serving hit us two days out from landfall and was a stern test for boat and crew.

Here is the extract from my ebook 'Voyage of the Little Ship Tere Moana':

'The watch system has been changed to two hours on and four off, and they will run it through the night.

As the wind is coming over her port bow, they have backed the staysail, and our little ship is now riding in the ‘hove to’ position. All being well, she will ride out the night like this, without losing too much ground, and a decision will be made in the morning whether to go back into sailing mode.

Another wind reading shows it has risen to almost fifty knots and howling around them. The storm surge has arrived and the waves are five metres plus, with some even higher. The motion is still reasonably comfortable because the fetch in between the waves is so long that our little ship has time to rise up the face of the oncoming wave, over the top, and down its back into the trough, just in time to prepare to do it all over again with the next wave.

If the seas stay like this, they will have no trouble. The danger though, is two fold. If one of the larger waves roaring along rises up before them and its crest breaks exactly onto our little ship, there is the danger of being swamped by the tonnes of water suddenly dumped on to her. This weight can roll a boat, inundate her and possibly cause her to founder. The more worrying aspect though is that these storms, being circular in their motion, have a habit of the wind changing direction and subsequently pushing up murderous cross seas. These can then come at a boat from any direction, causing extreme havoc. So far, the wind has been constant and her captain hopes fervently that this does not change.

Dripping wetly down the companionway he hands over the watch to WK who starts upward with a mile wide grin and gleam in his eyes – he loves these conditions! The hatch slides closed with a click and the cacophony of noise topsides is replaced with an eerie stillness below. The roaring wind is replaced with a dull moaning sound, belying the ferocity of the extreme conditions outside. Happy to wash down a biscuit with tea, our captain falls into his bunk.

Seconds later, or it seems, sibling crew is waking him. In reality he has been asleep for almost four hours, but cannot believe it. Grabbing handholds out in to the saloon, he looks around in the dull red glow from the nav area. The noise from outside sounds as though it has gone up a notch or two, with the pitch and yaw of our little ship also more violent. A wind reading shows that it is coming in now at more than fifty knots. Some waves have been breaking over the boat, so it is decided to call off the watch, seal the hatch, and everyone below until daylight. Her captain goes up for a few minutes to look out and make sure in his mind everything is safe and secure.

‘Don’t worry’, she assures him. ‘I am quite comfortable in this mode, I will ride out the storm all night’.

Crouching under the spray hood he looks out in wonder. Dark as it is, and it is pitch black with no stars to inject any light into the raging scene, he can see surprisingly well. Walls of water march continuously toward them. Some huge and black as they rise up and look to break, but don’t, others breaking with the roar of an express train and passing by with a loud hiss of troubled, turbid, boiling foam.

On the point of turning to go below, out of the corner of his eye, something makes his heart stop. Far off in the blackness, rearing above all the other waves in between, is a solid white wall which looks to be a hundred metres wide. He has heard and read about rogue waves, but never seen one. This looks like one coming now. It is massive and dwarfs everything else around it. Higher and higher it rises and is coming directly at our little ship. The front wall is just a mass of boiling white froth tumbling and crashing down its own face. No boat could survive being caught up in that.

Looking down the tunnel of his life, her captain decides he will be better off below and vaults down the hatch, crashing, in his haste, to the cabin floor. Scrambling to his feet, he slams and bolts the hatch shut, managing a strangled cry for the others to hang on. Watching from the cabin strip windowlight and gripping the overhead handhold he sees it close on them, looming to an impossible height in front of her. Ever higher it rears, up and over them, till it seems it is going to crash onto her with all of its terrible weight. At the final moment, as once again her captain is peering down that tunnel with a range of life events parading before his eyes, the monster subsides a little at their end, and will largely pass to starboard.

Even though out of the main path of this freakish brute, and therefore not going to take the main force, it hits our little ship amidships with a huge crash, and she shudders convulsively in her tracks. The view through the glass is obliterated with innocent bubbling water as it gushes over her deck from stem to stern. Then, it is gone, hissing into the distance. Our little ship, amazingly staying mostly upright, kicks herself over the top, rights, and readies herself for the next wave.

An eerie silence succeeds, and on looking around, a small trickle of water from the hatch track rail and the kettle leaping from its holder on the stove, is the only evidence down here of the behemoths’ passing. Our three stalwarts, now all in the cabin, gaze at one another speechless, but with a glow in their faces, happy that they, and our little ship, are still in one piece. Having witnessed and felt the terrible power of nature, and survived who knows what might have been, they all look heavenward, nodding their thanks – no atheists here tonight!

Several more of these ‘freight trains’ of waves pummel them during the rest of this long night. The approaching nerve taughtening roar, wide eyed breath holding of her crew, until it either slides harmlessly, hissing by, or slams her amidships with the subsequent wait to see how far she will heel, and how long she will take to right herself with water streaming off her decks back into the black turbulence all around. Lightning has not been a feature of this storm and her cabin has been lit only a few times during the night.

With the tired dawn approaching, the wind frees and abates. Sunrise sees an almost clear rain washed cobalt sky all around, containing a few straggling wisps of cloud, chasing the storm down, somewhere over the southern horizon. Now the storm has blown itself out, and the breeze dropping below twenty knots, mildly ruffling the surface, the staysail comes down. The furling genoa rolls out, snapping tight as it fills. Mid morning, the wind has virtually died, but a considerable swell is running still. Around noon, the southern breeze is back, billowing in over her port beam. Within minutes she is bowling along, white wake creaming, as if nothing had ever happened, and last night was just a faraway fantasy.'

Images courtesy Jessica Watson, Sail World and Centreboard Yachts

You can read more about heavy weather sailing and planning for your sailing ' adventure of a lifetime' in my ebook 'Voyage of the Little Ship Tere Moana' downloadable from my website


Admiral Ackbar said...

Sometimes a smaller boat, e.g. 32', is better than a bigger boat, e.g. 52', in that it may ride over the waves more easily. It will be rougher in some respects but may actually get through the storm better. Of course, it depends on various factors including the amplitude of the waves.

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