Against the Odds


Experience is a fine thing. You may think there is no substitute for it. Every sensible sailor would agree, but when it comes to extreme weather or generally rare events, there aren’t many who can put hand on heart and say that it’s all “old hat.” Luckily, sailing is rich in literature. Of all pastimes, it is probably the most blessed in this respect. This means that even if we haven’t been there ourselves, there’s usually someone else who has and who took the trouble to write about it.

The best-prepared sailors are those who understand their options when the time comes. A bit of study upfront pays handsome dividends, but if we haven’t read all we might, a well-stocked saloon bookshelf can still give us an extra chance when the stormy day dawns. That’s what this article is about. Rather than have the reader suffer accounts of my own jousts with significant gales, the editor prudently asked me to find one or two classics from which we all can learn.

Coincidentally, both of those below happen to involve Frenchmen. So here we go, and note well that Bernard Moitessier himself makes recourse to his ship’s library when he nears his wits’ end.

Joshua in the Great South Sea

Bernard Moitessier is perhaps best remembered for “going round again” in the Southern Ocean after passing Cape Horn in the original 1960s Golden Globe event. Driven by philosophical issues and having no interest in praise from those who had not been there, he sailed on to Tahiti instead of turning north into the Atlantic to beat Sir Robin Knox-Johnston for the glory of being first to circumnavigate nonstop. This unique story is recounted in his book, The Long Way, but it is in an earlier work, Cape Horn—The Logical Route, that he spells out his conclusions about storm survival.

On passage with his wife, Francoise, from France to Tahiti, Moitessier found himself under the hammer in the Great South Sea. By the end of the first storm day, he was in survival mode. Steered from below, with Moitessier looking out from a Perspex “astrodome” above the wheel position, the 40ft double-ended steel ketch Joshua was running under bare poles with five warps streamed astern, weighted down with iron ballast pigs and rolled-up fishing nets.

Things went swimmingly, to begin with, so long as he kept dead before the seas. The warps made steering sluggish, but maintained speed at manageable levels, although the yacht was regularly swept end-for-end. Shortly before dawn, the seas were running phenomenally high. Helming became progressively more difficult until finally Joshua broached and took a knockdown. The cabin was filled with flying objects, but she eventually righted herself again.

It was clear the wind was not easing and the seas were getting steadily worse. A seemingly innocent wave picked up her stern, which rose, as usual. The boat stayed dead upright and began to accelerate. Suddenly, without warning, the foredeck went under and was buried all the way back to the mast. She rose again, but the danger of pitchpoling was abundantly clear.

Moitessier now brought to bear his wide reading on the subject of storms, recalling the fates of Sandefjord, a Colin Archer sailing lifeboat—some would say the ultimate seaboat— and Tzu Hang, a well-crewed classic yacht. Both had been pitchpoled while running dead downwind, so whatever they were doing, it wasn’t successful. As day two progressed, dry under his astrodome and powered by coffee, Moitessier began to think about the Argentinian Vito Dumas in Legh II. Dumas traversed the Southern Ocean singlehanded in a wooden boat that was only half the size of Joshua. He claimed to have carried some sail in all weather, which Moitessier believed to be impossible. He couldn’t recall Dumas’s survival technique, so Françoise produced the Dumas book. The claim was confirmed. Dumas apparently left a lot of sail up. His little boat surfed at speeds of up to 15 knots and was saved by keeping up with the waves. Moitessier was cynical, remarking, “If we had followed that method we would have done 10 Catherine wheels by now!”

Further plundering of Joshua’s library brought out the opinion of Pilot Bohlin, a schooner skipper from Gloucester, Massachusetts, back in the glory days. He also recommended cracking on before a storm, but Moitessier wouldn’t have any of it until he had a sort of out-of-body experience. Perhaps this was unsurprising after being at the helm for more than 24 hours. Against all logic, he swore he heard Dumas saying,

“Look, I’ll show you…”

Yet another awkward wave now lifted Joshua’s stern. Even with her warps, she began to surf. She yawed and heeled heavily, but this time she didn’t bury her bow, because the heeled topsides forward acted like a ski and bore her up by virtue of her own speed. Moitessier had found Dumas’s answer. He grabbed his sharpest knife, went out on deck and committed himself by cutting the warps adrift.

Joshua was immediately a different boat. No longer was she held back, parrying the blows of the seas. Instead, she was running free under bare poles. Taking the waves at 15 to 20 degrees off dead aft, she heeled and took off, resting her bow against the trough and virtually planing. She steered easily, and the huge seas were suddenly harmless as they came up under her quarter.

Moitessier’s last words on the matter were these: “Everything had changed because a dead seaman had replied to my insistent question. Five blows with my knife had freed Joshua of the chains she had been dragging. A small gesture, but what a difference!”

The benefits of running off in a storm to minimise the force of the waves are spelled out in this account. An interesting corollary is that as long as the boat was steering freely, Moitessier believed her less likely to suffer the sort of potentially destructive knock down that Joshua took while her stern was inhibited by warps. By no means would all voyagers of comparable experience agree with this, and perhaps the effects of Joshua’s warps were exacerbated by the policy of ballasting. So far as can be deduced, the warps were also streamed from the extreme stern, which cannot have helped the steering. Awkward though it might be in practice, if they could have been led to a point forward of the rudder post, it might have helped. One thing, though, is sure: cutting them loose worked wonders.

Another possibility not considered by Moitessier back in the 1960s was to run with a drogue or series drogue. Many authorities now speak well of these, but they were not on the agenda 50 years ago.

Later in the same interminable gale, Moitessier finally succumbed to exhaustion after 48 hours at the wheel. His self-steering gear had long since thrown in the towel. As he handed the helm to his wife, he remarked, “You are driving a 15-ton lorry without brakes down a winding road at 60mph. If you don’t slow down before each bend by changing gear, we are bound for Chile like Tzu Hang.”

Tzu Hang had made it to Chile after a pitchpoling ripped off her doghouse and left her dismasted. Françoise Moitessier passed her driving test, and Joshua sailed free into the land of legend.


Griffin and Lorelei in the 1979 Fastnet race

The storm that hit the 1979 Fastnet Race cost the lives of 15 sailors, sank five yachts and caused the abandonment of 19 more. One of those lost was Griffin, the RORC (Roysal Offshore Racing Club) crew-training boat, ably skippered by Neil Graham and navigated by Stuart Quarrie. Griffin was an OOD (Offshore One Design) 34. A number of these yachts were involved in the race, and many of them fared badly. Whether this was due to a basic design fault or to the group being at the wrong place in the storm at the worst possible time will never be known.

The story of the rescue of Griffin’s crew is drawn from accounts by Stu Quarrie on Griffin and Alain Catherineau, skipper of the French yacht Lorelei. It describes seamanship of the highest caliber and underlines the selfless sporting spirit found in the best of ocean racing. It also serves to remind any doubters of the extreme difficulty of maneuvering in big waves and lifting casualties from rough water.

In full open-water storm conditions, Griffin took a 180-degree knockdown 40 miles southeast of Fastnet Rock in the middle of the night. She remained fully inverted for some time and was waterlogged when she finally rolled back upright. After a brief experiment with the pumps, the crew decided to abandon her in good order rather than wait for the inevitable sinking.

The crew of seven boarded the raft without incident but were unable to locate the drogue that is partly responsible for liferaft stability in extreme conditions. Perhaps as a result of this, the raft soon capsized. When it was righted, the canopy had been ripped away, and it was more or less full of water. All the crew survived but were now dangerously exposed to wind and sea.

Around 0230, after they had been crammed into the raft for an hour, they fired a red rocket flare. By good fortune, this was seen by Catherineau and his crew aboard the S&S-designed She 36 Lorelei, which was still racing despite a mean wind speed of 50 knots, surfing under triple-reefed main and No. 4 jib at 90 degrees to the apparent wind. Thierry, the mate, was at the helm, enjoying a thrilling ride through this wildest of nights with the boat standing well up and steering easily.

When the Lorelei crew saw the flare, they reckoned it to be about half a mile downwind. Three men then worked their way forward to drop the headsail, noting the gale was gusting to 60 knots. After a brief conference, they agreed to try to close with what they now took to be a red handheld. They reported casually that this wasn’t difficult with three reefs in the main, but they did have an issue trying to tack. Once through the wind, though, they headed roughly south, where the mate, who was still at the helm, saw the loom of another handheld. The light itself was out of sight among the tumble of big seas, but its halo popped up from time to time.

Rather than head directly for the glow, Catherineau decided to assess the situation and came away some 30 degree to see what sort of craft was in distress. By now Lorelei was being deluged by heavy seas and two of her crew had already been saved by their harnesses. Soon afterward, two smaller lights became visible above a dark shape only about 150ft downwind and in the trough of the same wave as they were. It was Griffin’s liferaft.

Lorelei stood on a short distance and then swung toward the liferaft. However, the first pass was unsuccessful. Coming within 10ft of the raft, they were unfortunately upwind and unable to spill properly. Surging by at 3 knots they hove a rope to the liferaft, but it didn’t reach. Two men in the raft tried to leap across to the yacht, but ended up in the water to be hauled back aboard by their shipmates.

Catherineau now took the helm himself, convinced that they could save Griffin’s crew. He knew his boat intimately and also understood her tiny engine with its surprisingly effective variable pitch-propeller that could transfer maximum power very rapidly.

Once again, working the boat through the wind proved a problem, but after seven or eight unsuccessful attempts the skipper finally succeeded in coming about. By now the distance had opened considerably, and Lorelei was again heading south in pitch darkness with all hands looking out for a red light. Suddenly, it popped into view a mere 75ft away. Catherineau tacked again, this time without difficulty, and aimed Lorelei straight for it. At the last minute he slammed the engine into astern, and thanks to that remarkable propeller, the rescuing boat lost way miraculously within a yard of the liferaft.

Catherineau reported that at this point he felt totally drained, but there was still much to be done. After some initial confusion aboard the raft, the crew hauled themselves alongside Lorelei safely using lines that had been tossed across to them. One or two climbed aboard easily. But three fell into the water where they hung onto the toerail at the stern. At one point the raft began blowing away, but one of the pair still aboard managed to haul it back with a rope leftover from the initial grab. They clambered across seconds before the raft drifted off again, now empty.

By the time the first few survivors were down below, there were only two remaining in the water, but lifting them aboard in the hurricane-force wind and the heavy sea was proving difficult. Catherineau, therefore, called the fittest “Griffins” to supply some extra muscle on deck as he hung onto a man stuck under the counter with only his head above water. A rope was passed through the man’s harness ring to hoist him, but the harness slithered over his head, and he had to be released. One of the Frenchmen was now hanging onto him by his T-shirt alone. In the end, the luckless survivor was only recovered to the deck with the combined help of several of his shipmates.

No one remembers how they brought the last man aboard further forward, although the suggestion is that as the yacht heeled hard in the wind and waves, they were able to take advantage of the temporarily reduced freeboard to drag him under the guardrails amidships. The man was stiff with cold and beyond self-help. As he lay in the cockpit surrounded by his rescuers, they saw that he was being throttled by a cord in his clothing. Catherineau yanked at it with all his strength until it snapped. The man breathed freely again, and they took him below.

All seven of Griffin’s crew were saved, and Alain Catherineau was awarded the YJA (Yachting Journalists Association) Yachtsman of the Year Trophy in 1979 for this rescue. An unexpected sideshow was offered when Stu Quarrie’s wallet, lost with the yacht, was dredged up by a fishing boat and returned to him, intact, by his bank. 

Sailing writer and author Tom Cunliffe’s latest book, In the Wake of Heroes, has been published by Adlard Coles Nautical

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