The 4 Day Storm
It’s the law of averages, only a matter of time. You do something for long enough you see the extremes of both sides. So far, the weather for the majority of the trip to Europe has been good. Typical Trade Wind sailing. Wind from behind, clear skies. The wind has been up occasionally as has the sea but it’s been nothing compared to what we experienced for 4 days in the SW Indian Ocean, south of Madagascar.
We departed La Reunion in sunny skies and fair winds. We knew that we would get some wind off Madagascar from the weather forecast. We were prepared. The wind was nothing that we hadn’t seen before in any previous forecast of this type. 35 knots blowing straight out of the East. We would be moving along quickly bound for Richards Bay, South Africa, our intended destination. We knew where we could potentially hide to get out of any storm. One lone bolt hole on the south eastern tip of Madagascar. Apart from that the south of Madagascar offers nothing but warnings to stay well offshore as the sea state in this area can get very confused. We had the recommended waypoint to keep south of programmed into our chart plotters, gps’, mobile devices and the like. We were prepared, we were confident this would be like any other leg of the trip, great fun, great, fast sailing. Never forget the law of averages! What we experienced to the south of Madagascar for 4 days bordered on total insanity.
After sailing for four and a half days south to south west from La Reunion we reached our Madagascan waypoint, the point where we would turn more to the west and run the rhum line 950nm to Richards Bay. The weather had turned stormy and the wind had been picking up from the East as predicted so we thought we’d prepare the gyb to be furled away as we wouldn’t be needing anything but a storm gyb in 35 plus knots of wind.
It’s hard to remember the exact timing of what-happened-when and in a crisis situation it’s never one specific thing that causes the crisis, it’s usually a combination things that escalate a situation up the scale. Anyway, our combination was about to begin.
We had a double reefed mainsail and the gyb still out as we rounded our waypoint and bared away for Richards Bay when the portside aft, lower mast stay sheared off at the mast and the steel cable dropped to the deck. It’s never good when you lose part of your rig. It’s even worse when the wind is up and it’s a critical downwind component on the point of sail that we would be on for the next 950nm. We reefed the main down to it’s minimum height to reduce sail pressure on the mast. We then decided to unfurl the gyb a little so that we could furl it in more tightly so it was more secure in the expected high winds. The second event was about to occur that escalated the situation. As we eased out the gyb, like we’d done a hundred times before it decided to unfurl itself, not partially…completely, fully, independent of the furling line so that in about 5 seconds we had a fully powered up #2 gyb exposed to high winds putting massive pressure on the mast. Watching it unfurl was a little surreal. Why is it doing that I thought? I had the furling line locked off? It didn’t matter, the gyb was out and we had no way of furling it back in so we had to release the halyard and drop the gyb in 30 knots of wind and a now building 3m swell. No easy task for two people. The #2 is a large and heavy sail built for substantial winds and even though we now had the boat head to wind with the motor running the sail had a lot of power in it and was flapping incredibly dangerously. Gyb sheets were flying around our ears as I raced forward to release the halyard at the mast and then get to the foredeck to help get the sail back onboard the boat. The sail dropped to leeward of the foredeck and was now partially in the water making the job of hauling it onboard even more difficult. Gyb sheets now in the water and leading aft towards to prop, more sail down but not onboard and both of us on the foredeck getting submerged by waves. The last thing we wanted was the gyb sheets around the prop so with all our strength we heaved the sail up over the lifelines and tried to get the rest of it down. The pressure on the sail was keeping it from sliding down the track and the bolt of the sail had so much pressure on it that it had created creases in it, stopping the sail from moving downward any further. The creases could only be removed by re-hoisting. I had to return to the mast to get the halyard around the winch, hoist the sail about 20cm then get back to the task of dropping it and gathering it onboard. We managed to get the sail down after about 5 minutes but which seemed like 30. We were both lying on it totally exhausted. Our hands and forearms were spent, cut and bruised. I almost lost my glasses overboard, my mobile phone was now dead and I later discovered that I lost my wedding ring overboard, ripped from my finger trying to get the sail onboard. We lashed the sail to the leeward rail and exhausted, headed below to get dry. The 4 day storm was now on us and things were just about to get serious.
Losing the aft lower stay was never going to be good. I removed it from the deck fitting, looked at the sheered 19mm bolt and stowed it below. Not knowing how much the rig could now take, I contacted my rigger in Brisbane. Get the main down ‘now’ and head for somewhere close to get it repaired. Then I explained to him where we were and what our options were. Either a 4 day beat back to La Reunion, a difficult and rough 24 hour upwind beat through the (now) ‘no go’ zone to the south of Madagascar that would have definitely destroyed our mast or run dead downwind for 950nm to Richards Bay, South Africa. Like me my rigger chose the downwind option as the most favourable for keeping the mast upright. I chose to ignore his advice about dropping the main as the mast seemed stable at this point and I didn’t want to unload it and risk losing the starboard side aft stay as well. The aft stays put backward pressure on the centre of the mast to stop it from bending forward mid-mast. Losing the starboard side stay too would have sent the top 13 meters of the mast crashing to the deck. So it was to be. A triple reefed mainsail would be our only working sail until South Africa. At times during the next 4 days I thought about dropping this sail and running downwind just bare poled. The mast and the rig would have had sufficient surface area to do so and still have had us doing 8 to 10 knots.
We entered the first night of the storm with the nagging thought of how much could the rig withstand before it let go and came crashing down to the deck. I tried to put these thoughts out of my head and always met them with a ‘No, it’s not going to happen’! We WILL get the boat and crew safely to South Africa with the mast upright. The crew had exactly the same mindset and it became our main priority. Keep the mast. Manage the situation. Hold a constant wind angle and don’t overstress the rig. Not overstressing the rig was difficult in wind that gusted constantly above 40 knots. It would be what it would be. We just sailed the wind angles we could and hoped the rig would take it. With the seastate building by the hour we just tried to point the boat down the waves. Our average speed was well above what we’d seen at any other time on the entire trip until now and we surfed regularly at over 15 knots and averaged above 9. The law of averages again stared us in the face…. The average predicted wave height for the storm was 4 to 5m and average winds, 30 knots. GMDSS always has a disclaimer in their forecasts and every sailor knows it. Waves could be up to twice the height and winds gusting to 1.5 to 2.0 times the average.
Day two dawned with winds gusting over 40 knots and as the sky lightened we saw a sea state with large breaking waves and a cross swell at 45 degrees that amplified not only the peaks but also the wave troughs. I estimate the average wave height on day 2 at around 5 meters with 8 meter sets pushing through every 5 to 10 minutes. It was down one of these waves that we surfed the boat at close to 20 knots (19.8kn). I didn’t have the heart to tell the rigger! I was at the helm and remember looking into a trough that had a similar height to that of looking out of a fourth floor window. At about that time the top two meters of the wave broke. The almost 18 tonne boat dropped instantly with the wave and surged forward and down into the trough. We were surrounded by whitewater at about head height off the deck. The sound was incredible. The sight was phenomenal and to be honest something that I have no real desire to see again. Shit scared? My heart was pounding and my legs were shaking. I felt like a lamb at the slaughter. As my French crewmate and yachtmaster said, ‘To not be scared in these seas would be abnormal’. We were both grown men and felt like children surrounded by an angry sea.
We were slowly becoming exhausted from lack of sleep and physical effort so we reduced the watches to two hours. There were only two people onboard who could helm the yacht in these conditions and so it was at the start of each watch, one of us would open the hatch, remove the upper washboard, clamber over the lower one, replace the upper one and close the hatch. We would double-clip our safety lines to the jackstays to keep us in the cockpit, chat for 5 minutes about the wind, the sea state, any vessels that were around us then the person coming off watch would leave the lone helmsman and head below to get some rest. There is a huge difference being two up in the cockpit or being alone. Being alone you are left with your own thoughts, your own fears, your own doubts and these nag at you constantly. The mental exhaustion becomes crushing. You do everything you can to keep awake, to keep alert to stay sharp. The sea now demanded this of us. It demanded our attention and it demanded our respect. Put the yacht in the wrong place and it could fall sideways off a wave. That’s when people die. I stayed awake by singing and also talking to myself and to the boat. “We’re doing great”, “We’re gonna bring her home”, “Just slide off the back of the waves”, “Keep the wind over your left shoulder”, “Don’t back the main”, “Ease her through Mick”, “You can do it mate”, “Drive the fucking boat mate”, “Stay awake, c’mon mate”. Speech of a madman? Everyone does what they need to get them through.
As Day 3 dawned I started to pray which is strange for a not-so-religious guy like myself. The seas had grown to mountainous and were breaking at will onto the boat and into the cockpit. At times the cockpit was knee deep with water and the decks totally awash. You could hear the waves breaking behind the boat and crash and roll their way towards us. I stopped looking back. I’m not sure if out of fear or out of resignation. There was nothing we could do to avoid a breaking wave right on the stern so I just waited and listened. Waited for the crushing water pressure of a wave to drive my body forward onto the helm. Luckily we were spared a direct hit from a huge wave into the cockpit that would have put tons of water onto the boat. Knee deep was one thing. Neck deep would be another. There were also moments of beauty amongst the malestrom. Ocean blue waves rose up within an arms reach of the cockpit a meter or two above our heads. They danced and hung momentarily in the air with forms of extreme beauty like blue ice thrust up in a glacier. When the rain came it calmed the sea and kept the breakers quite for a while. It smoothed the sea surface, made a beautiful sound and rinsed our bodies and the boat of salt. It never lasted long but the contrast was a welcome break from the chaos going on around us. There were also moments of kinsmanship at sea that keep the lifeline to sanity and humanity open. We called a cargo vessel on our VHF radio to ask them for some leeway in the storm. The last thing you need in huge seas is a cargo vessel bearing down on you. The radio call is more to confirm that they have actually seen you on their radar or Automatic Identification System (AIS) and that they know you are there and don’t run you down in the darkness which happens with ever increasing frequency. The ship was a Dutch tanker and the radio operator a nice fellow. The captain decided that the ship would shadow us in case we needed assistance and so it was that a 290m tanker escorted our 17m yacht through the night. Always at a safe distance of 5 to 10 miles but it was good to know that help was nearby. They understood our position and contacted us via radio from time to time to check up on how we were. How were we? We were surviving. Battered and bruised, cut and scraped, tired, exhausted, wet, salty but still focused on our sole task, getting the boat and crew out of this storm safely. The rolling motion of the boat was at times extreme. When a wave hit the boat from the side we would heel over 60 or 70 degrees. Moving around down below was dangerous. Getting into and out of wet weather gear was done sitting on the floor outside the head. Standing up to do this would see you hurled to leeward with the movement of the boat. Getting out of your bunk was an equally challenging affair. On the low side the fight against gravity was extreme. On the high side however just a small body movement to get out of bed saw you flying across the cabin. Tilt your head to the left and you were out! Launched, like me, headlong into the opposite wall. Luckily the soft mahogany timber took the impact of my head and not the anvil hard steel of the electric cabin top winch that protruded through the deck into the cabin. I don’t want to think about what my head would have looked like if it had hit the winch. Injuries at sea are never good. In a storm even worse as it takes everyone’s focus away from managing the boat. We were lucky.
Day 4. Judgement Day
Just when I thought the waves couldn’t get any bigger on Day 4 they topped out. We really needed to stop the boat. It was insane. It was dangerous. The seas had grown mountainous and meters of their crests was breaking and surfing down their faces. I got my first mate to retrieve a sail in its sail bag from the bow and lash it in front of the washboards as protection against a direct hit from a wave in the cockpit. A direct hit from a wave that size would smash the inch thick washboards inwards and dump instantly a ton or two of water into the cabin, onto the chart table and electronics. We had to keep water out of the boat at all cost so we duct taped the washboards from inside and out to stop water squeezing through the joins. We discussed stopping the boat. ‘Heaving to’ as it’s called is the safest position for a sailing vessel in storm conditions. It’s proven itself time and again and saves lives and yachts. Heaving to requires two sails, a gyb and the mainsail working against each other, the main set and the gyb back-winded. With the helm lashed to windward the boat is balanced and no longer makes way forward and sits on the spot with its bow 30 degrees to the swell and wind. Unfortunately, we couldn’t hoist a gyb with the mast in the condition it was in so heaving-to and stopping the boat wasn’t an option. So, we headed south with the shifted wind and swell, not west to our destination, not south west to Durban or south south west to Port Elizabeth and Capetown, no, due south, towards Antarctica. Admittedly a long way off but we were no longer headed for the African continent! We knew the wind would ease at about midnight so we picked our way south through the 8 to 10m waves. Same deal as the previous 3 days. Say a prayer, talk your way through the seascape, sing a song, think of your family, think of your friends, most of all think of seeing them again and getting out safely. Staying positive and focused in this situation is not easy but it’s essential. Essential for survival and I’ve learned this in survival courses. Giving up and thinking negative usually leads to tragedy. Get up, get dressed, get out on the helm, get through it and do it again.
Heavy rain came in the late afternoon and darkened the sky to night. It did its job of calming the sea for which I was grateful. It dumped down for hours until the early evening, then something weird happened, the rain turned freezing cold, like ice water, instantly. It was watch change and I handed over to my French mate and sat in the cockpit for a while gathering myself before heading below. The wind began to back to the north from north east, to north-west, west, south-west then south. As we needed to keep the wind on our port aft quarter at all times we were now headed due north instead of south. Freezing cold, cyclonic winds now and we knew what it meant. It meant that the storm was ending. The winds eased and the waves calmed. No longer breaking mountains, they became rolling hills. The wind backed further to the south east and soon we were headed for our destination, Richards Bay in South Africa. We still had 500nm to sail but we had survived the storm. We got through what I consider to be one of the biggest tests of my life to date. As I write this we still have 50nm to Richards Bay. We’ll have a beer when we get in and swap stories with other yachties of their ordeals in the storm. I don’t think any of us will be laughing about it though. Even after the event, after the storm, after you get into that safe haven the sea still demands your respect and one way or another she’ll get it.
Thanks to the crew of S/Y Pacha on our voyage from La Reunion to Richards Bay 9.11.2019 to 20.11.2019. Loic Henuset and Arianna Bionda. We did it guys. Thanks for stepping up, thanks for keeping it all together.