Monday, 27 August 2012

Crossing The Atlantic - Part 2: MONSTROUS!

For a day or two after being becalmed, we happily sailed downwind making good speed in the direction we wanted to go. The sunrises and sunsets were consistently beautiful, and the good weather and numerous visits by dolphins kept us all in good spirits and feeling somewhat invincible.

Nick had been downloading weather charts from the SSB radio to a fax reader app on the iPad. He had been warning us since the becalmment that according to the weather forecasts, the benign conditions we had been experiencing would change into a rather rougher environment at some point in the not too distant future. The wind, however, at no point seemed like it would pick up wildly or get crazy.

At 9am on August 26th Matt and I went up on deck to take over the watch from Nick and Nathan. Nick had sent Nathan off-duty first, and as he came down below, he told us it was still plain sailing with light winds and the conditions hadn't changed. In the few minutes it took Matt and I to finalize our preparations (warm clothing and wellies on, life jackets on) and get up on deck, all hell was breaking loose.

The wind did a sudden leap up to 20 knots with gusts to 25, and we helped Nick change the sails down to a more manageable configuration.

Throughout the morning, the wind speed gradually increased, and bit by bit we reefed the mainsail, making the sail area smaller and smaller. With the increased wind, the waves increased in height, and regularly splashed over the deck.

Just before Nathan and I went on our mid-afternoon watch, Nick decided to take the mainsail down totally, after which we were jogging along with just a smallish foresail, and as the wind continued to increase, we found ourselves still making 6-7 knots: a very respectable speed for a sailing yacht. The waves were generally manageable, but Nick had pointed out to me some bigger waves of 2-3 metres which rolled through from time to time. As these waves appeared more and more often, it became clear that unless we steered a course downwind - to the south - these waves would hit us side on, and risk tipping the boat over on its side. Even steering downwind was tricky. The waves came in sets, and caused strange illusions: the boat would surfed down the steeper waves, and as the wave overtook the boat, the deceleration caused the illusion of travelling backwards up the wave behind us.

In light of the challenging conditions, Nick announced, "Right. It's drogue time." The drogue he referred to was a Jordan Series Drogue - essentially a long line to which are attached hundreds of fabric cones. When dragged behind the boat, this piece of equipment will slow the boat right down, and align it perpendicular to the waves, supposedly preventing it being tipped over by the waves.

With the drogue out, there was no need for anyone to steer the helm or even be out on deck, so for the night, we set up a 1-person watch system to look out for ships, which allowed us all to get some rest. Once more the Taniwha's progress was stalled: this time not by too little wind, but in struggle against the effects of too much wind. We were now almost exactly half way across the Atlantic, with the handbrake on. The nearest land mass was the Azores, which was in the region of 1000 miles away - the same distance away as either St. John's or Falmouth.

Before we could sleep, though, there was the bilge to worry about: this was discovered to be rather full of water, so a lot of pumping had to be done. What made matters worse was that since we were now essentially stopped in the water, the larger waves (which were still increasing in frequency and size) were coming right over the back of the boat and flooding the cockpit.

The deck areas all have drains, so this would not have been a problem, were it not for the fact that there was an unstoppable hole in the deck where a piece of equipment had been installed. I noticed the stream of water coming into the stern of the boat, and Nick did his best with a twisted rag to convert the flow to a trickle, which allowed the bilge to be pumped almost (but not quite totally) dry.

It was difficult to relax in the evening, and I frequently got up to have a look out at the waves. On one occasion Matt and I both went up the companionway for a quick glance.

As we looked out, we both saw the biggest wave either of us had ever seen bearing down upon us - it was fully 5 or 6 metres tall, and we had no time to react before it broke violently over the stern of the boat, and caught us both full in the face.

In the morning, there were still some mighty waves around, but Nick decided that since we were all well-rested after our overnight, drogue-induced pit-stop, we should be able to cope, and so the new plan was to continue sailing as long as we could. The first challenge was to pull the drogue in. It took all 5 of us to perform this feat, and we had to use the "coffee grinder" - a pair of handles that attach to the winch to give us more leverage for tricky manoeuvres like this. Pulling on handles for the 20 minutes or so that it took to retrieve the drogue, I was taken straight back to the rowing training I did at school, and the necessity of pushing oneself through the pain of exhaustion.

 By and by, we got the drogue back on board, cleared it out of the way, and rigged up a conservative sail plan under which to sail on. The day was surprisingly sunny, but we continued on a heavy-weather watch system of 2 hours on, 2 hours off, with 4 of us manning the watches and Michelle detailed as backup to provide us with food and moral support as required. We made a steady 7-8 knots all day. With challenging but consistent conditions, we built up enough confidence to feel that we could sail through the night. In the middle of the following night, a long dark cloud approached us from behind. As it came over, the wind suddenly switched 90 degrees to a cool flow out of the North, causing us to change the boat's direction from heading South-East to heading South-West. Nick was woken by the change in the boat's motion, and he came up to help Matt and I change the sails so that we could continue Eastward. As I went to bed, I thought perhaps that this new weather pattern would bring a lull in the wind and the return to more benign conditions.

When I woke, however, I realized that this was not the case. Nick had popped down briefly, and I asked him how conditions were, expecting to hear that they had mellowed nicely. On the contrary, his one-word answer was "MONSTROUS". He went on to say that it frequently felt like we were steering our way through a washing machine. Looking above deck, I realized that he really wasn't kidding.

There before my eyes was the very definition of Monstrous. All around us, independently rising and falling, were peaks and valleys of water, all constantly changing and undulating.

 Throughout the day, the wind trended stronger and stronger, and the waves even seemed to get larger. We all agreed that the waves were frequently at least the size of our parents' houses. These were multilayered waves: veritable mountains of water. To hike up one of these, if they were static and solid, you would have to hike for a while, stop for a rest, then hike some more before you got to the top.

At the crest of the wave, given a gust of wind and the right boat direction, we would surf, careening down into the vast valley below. We hardly went below 8 knots all day, and surfing down the waves we frequently made speeds of 10-11 knots, with a maximum speed of 12.92 knots!

 Little by little, we improved our boat-steering technique, but all too often an unexpected wave caught us from a different angle to the majority.

The boat would heel and roll violently over onto its side, causing much discomfort to those in the cabin, frustration to whoever was on the helm, and causing the other person on deck to cling on for dear life until the boat had righted itself. Not infrequently, the boom and part of the main sail would go right down into the water, and even the side of the deck went below water level more than a few times.

On one occasion, in the middle of the night, after I had almost been tossed from my bed a few times, the boat was thrown over so violently to the starboard side that it seemed impossible that those on deck could have hung on. Inside the boat, the wall became the floor onto which we fell, and what had been the floor did a remarkable impression of a new wall, with a table fixed calmly in the middle of it. As I emerged from sleep, the boat righted itself, so I got out of bed and poked my head up through the companionway to make sure Nick and Nathan were both still aboard.

"The spreaders go underwater, did they?" I asked, referring to the horizontal parts near the top of the mast.

"Nah, we just got blindsided by a freak wave," replied Nathan, who sounded surprisingly calm.

It must have been that sort of calm that comes from being in a state of shock, because he and Nick later told us that when the boat went over on its side, a third of the deck went underwater, as did a large proportion of the mainsail. Nick was wedged in between the hand hold wheel frames, and Nathan, who had little control, due presumably to the rudder being out of the water, simply had to hang onto the wheel for dear life as the wave subsided and the boat came around.

Although this moment did not seem as scary as some that we experienced, it was probably the single point on the whole voyage where our lives were most at risk. Had another wave come from such an angle as to tip the boat even further over, there is no knowing what state we and the boat might have ended up in.

The ocean, it seems, is a dynamic environment.

We were able to keep going, so we did.


Nathan said...

Haha "sounded surprisingly calm!" I was shaking like a leaf.

Awesome blog entry. Hope everything's going well!


farmacist said...

Mark great blog, gives us a window into what your experience was all about. I must say from what the pictures show I am very comfortable experiencing through another persons eyes!!

Nathans dad!!