Lessons Learned in an Indian Ocean Gale

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The author prepares his boat for a blow at 47 degrees south latitude

The author prepares his boat for a blow at 47 degrees south latitude

By the time we entered the Indian Ocean in February of 2018, Moli, my 43ft aluminum-hulled expedition sloop, and I had seen plenty of high-latitude action. The previous December, we had entered the Southern Ocean from the Pacific for a nonstop loop in the Roaring 40s as part of my long-planned Figure 8 Voyage, an attempt to solo circumnavigate both the Americas and Antarctica in one year.

There, and while on our final approach to Cape Horn, Mo was overtaken by an intense low packing steady winds to 50 knots with gusts to 70. A knockdown late in that gale gushed just enough water into the pilothouse to find and short-out the autopilot junction box. Three days later we were 400 miles offshore and sailing hard in fresh westerlies when a non-serviceable part on my beloved Monitor windvane broke, leaving Mo without a way to self-steer. It took six long and cold days of 12-hour tricks at the tiller to make the sheltered waters of the Beagle Channel, after which it was on to Ushuaia, Argentina, for repairs. In other words, the Southern Ocean had already given us a rough go by the time Indian Ocean water began flowing under the keel.

Once back on the Figure 8 route for Cape Good Hope and several damage-free gales later, I had begun to feel a certain comfort with what the South could dish up. I knew—or at least I thought I knew—what to expect and how to handle the boat as winds and seas increased and rotated slowly on their circuit from northwest to west to southwest. Alas, my confidence, as I would find, was misplaced.

Reparing the damage from a knockdown

Reparing the damage from a knockdown

The Indian Ocean low that would ultimately teach me how misplaced my confidence truly began as a small depression off Rio de Janeiro. On the weather files, it looked at first like nothing special. As it slid under Africa, though, it intensified, trebled in size and grew uniformly round. When I spotted it in the forecasts, Mo was making slow way. We’d been headed by light northeasterly winds, and for two days we’d close-reached to the southeast, so that by February 10 we’d been pushed all the way down to 49 degrees south, well below my target of 47 degrees. Worse yet, we were in the heart of where the coming low would soon be at its worst. I immediately tacked around. We needed northing.

A week later we were passing under Cochon Island, in the Crozets group, when the low arrived. By now I wasn’t particularly worried. The intervening days had seen hard winds from the west with gale-force gusts and a heavy sea. However, we’d weathered it all with nothing more than a few broken dishes. Most importantly, we’d worked back up to 47 degrees south, where the forecast called for mean winds of 35 knots. Even after adding my customary 10 knots to the prediction, what was coming looked to be a very manageable bit of weather.

Soon afterward, I dowsed the main and working headsail in favor of the storm jib. It was now late afternoon of February 17, and the barometer had dropped from a high of 1012 millibars the previous noon to 996 millibars, with winds from the northwest at 35 knots and gusts in the 40s. This move left Mo underpowered and she slowed markedly, yawing a bit in the troughs. Nonetheless, I wanted a set of sail that would take us through an uncertain night.

Erring on the side of caution, I also eased off the tiller until wind and sea were slightly on the port quarter, after which I hunkered down to watch. Even in the early, northwest phase of the blow, seas were running much higher than I’d expected. The dominant train was from the northwest with another large train from the west. Graybeards were fast and steep. Most remarkably, they often threw up a line of break several hundred feet wide.

At 1900 I was seated in the pilothouse when a comber knocked the boat flat to starboard. By this time night had fallen like a lead curtain. A heavy deck of cloud and rain meant visibility was zero, save for the faint glow of breakers. As the wave laid Mo over, green water poured in through the pilothouse dorade vent above my head, the only one of seven that I’d left open. The laptop on which I’d been typing was soaked but miraculously survived. In a moment, Mo righted and continued on as before.

While the wind was manageable, the seas grew ever more powerful

While the wind was manageable, the seas grew ever more powerful

Popping open the companionway hatch, I searched the deck for damage and found the windvane looking as perky as ever. The rig was also fine, the storm jib drawing beautifully, although the force of the fall had bent in Mo’s starboard rail over the cockpit winches. This rail is made of thick-walled aluminum tubing. Lashed to it was a 200-watt solar panel, which took the sea flat in the face and shattered.

At this point, our average speeds were well within what I considered the safe range (I note 6-7 knots in the log with surfing runs to 10 and 11). One thing I did notice, though, was that Mo was tending to stall out in the troughs. This meant my desired course—slightly off-center from the sea—could become exaggerated, and without speed the windvane had no countermove. “Could be a problem if the wind really starts to come on,” I remember saying to myself.

Thinking it might be time to gybe, I rigged a port-side sheet on the storm jib. Once back in the cockpit, though, I thought better of it. The wind, now steadily in the 40s, was well below what we’d experienced elsewhere. We were also still in the early, northwest stage of the gale, which meant when it backed into the west, it would pull us more abeam the northwest swell. By 2300 we’d not experienced another knock, so I began my sleep cycle.

Several hours later we were pushed over again. From my bunk, I could hear the sea’s approach above the already intense din of the gale. There was a thundering sound at first, then just as the wave hit, a much louder, high-pitched hissing as if a jetliner were crash landing on the coachroof.

By the faint gray glow of dawn, I could see that the veering wind was now beginning to expose Mo’s port side to the northwest swell, so I gybed to starboard, taking the dominant westerly seas slightly on the starboard quarter. This seemed to give the boat a cleaner approach to both wave trains. Unfortunately, as events would prove, it wasn’t enough.

An hour later I heard thundering and hissing again, and braced myself as best I could with my hands and feet pressed against the pilothouse bulkhead. There was a battering sound as the wave hit the hull, after which Mo was suddenly lifted and slammed over, a much harder knock than the first two as the wave threw my 35,000lb boat around as if she were a dog toy.

The window repair, and a whole lot of soggy electronics!

The window repair, and a whole lot of soggy electronics!

First impressions: I see water pouring in. The boat rights, but the water keeps coming. It’s cascading thick and green over the chartplotter, over the navigation desk. A thick river flows over the pilothouse sole and down the steps into the saloon. It’s then I realize I can hear the roar of the sea beyond the boat. (Mo is amazingly quiet belowdecks when closed up.) Moments later I notice I can see through the port side window as if there is no glass. It’s then I see the shards of glass around the window frame. Finally, it dawns on me: the window is stove in!

The action I needed to take after that was not entirely clear. Nonetheless, there were three obvious priorities: 1) stop the hole 2) get the water out 3) find some way to make Mo safe. The winds were still in the 40s with gusts to 45. Again, much less than we’d seen in previous blows. However, by now the seas were beyond all reason.

Eventually, I started pumping out the water while I thought through how to stop the hole. Finally, when the bilge was half empty, I retrieved two bunk boards from the forepeak and bolted them together, one on each side of the broken window frame. They were not quite the right shape and left small voids on two corners, but I managed to fill these with silicone. After that, I finished pumping the bilge. That done, the final step was to make Mo safe again. For that, I had only one solution, put out the Jordan Series Drogue.

Unfortunately, though it had been flaked into a cockpit locker for easy deployment, the boat’s extreme motion had wedged it firmly into a low corner. I, therefore, had to haul it up hand-over-hand and then re-flake it on deck, a big job. As a result, it wasn’t until 1000 that I finally had it streaming aft and Mo stopped in her tracks. I pulled in the storm jib and felt a gush of relief. Finally, we were under control.

Belowdecks, it looked like the boat had been hit by a tsunami. During Mo’s fall, a cabinet in the head had opened, flinging toiletries into the galley. Books and cups and clothes were piled on the wet sole. Glass shards were everywhere. Worst of all, the electronics in the navigation station were now waterlogged. Only the chartplotter appeared to have survived.

Grabbing some towels I began the slow process of cleaning up. By now winds had begun to moderate, but the sea continued fast and mean. Even riding on a drogue Mo was being hit hard from astern, so much so that there was often white water slamming about in the cockpit. Two hours later I noticed a change in the boat’s motion and making my way out on deck realized we were now lying ahull. I pulled sharply on the drogue bridle, and to my amazement, it came in with ease. The drogue was gone. Retrieving the bridle I found the line had parted at the lead eye splice, leaving only the metal eye.

The author on shore with Moli at her berth

The author on shore with Moli at her berth

This was no sea for lying ahull, so I quickly engaged the Monitor windvane and put Mo before the wind again under bare poles. I had attempted this in the Pacific during our first big blow without success—even the autopilot had failed to hold course—but now the Monitor held Mo dead downwind with ease, and we rode out the rest of the gale without incident.

Unfortunately, while I was able to revive some of the electronics over the next few days, the single sideband radio, satellite communications (other than the Garmin Inreach), the AIS unit and the AA battery charger were all beyond repair. Without these items, I had no access to weather forecasts and no way to see or be seen electronically by shipping. Without the ability to charge batteries, I’d also soon have no flashlights for working at night out on deck. These factors, plus a questionably patched pilothouse window and the fact I was now down one drogue, convinced me to put into Hobart, Tasmania, some 4,000 miles farther on, for repairs.

Unfortunately, the Hobart stop, plus the earlier stop in Ushuaia, meant I would also now be critically behind my original schedule. To continue would mean a return to Cape Horn in the winter months of May and June and a just-on-time arrival, with no room for error, at the eastern entrance of the Northwest Passage. The two risks combined were too much. I decided I couldn’t complete the Figure 8 Voyage on this try.

As I write, Mo and I are coming to the close of an 8,000-mile passage from Hobart back to San Francisco. We’ll cross our wake in a few days’ time and will have completed a solo circumnavigation of the globe via the Southern Ocean. But we’re not done. I intend to take what I’ve learned from this longest shakedown cruise in history and start the Figure 8 Voyage all over again in the fall of this year. 

Takeaways from the gale

Given the profound effect the knockdown has had on the Figure 8 Project, I’ve thought hard over the intervening months about what I could have done differently. Here are some of my conclusions:

1. Boatspeed: Early in the gale, I put Mo under storm jib alone. This sail is a mere 175ft, and though I noted how it slowed our progress, I was eager for a conservative sailplan that I could wear throughout the blow. Much storm-management literature is about keeping boatspeed down so as to prevent loss of control and prevent pitch-polling in heavy seas. However, in this case, I think lack of sail may have meant Mo didn’t have the “reserve speed” necessary to move through the troughs without stalling. Without steerage in the troughs, the boat would naturally begin to round up as she climbed the next peak. Given the big seas and the big break, the result was disastrous.

2. Reading the right indicators: “It’s not the wind we worry about, it’s the seas” is an adage I failed to heed in two ways. First, when I aimed Mo for an area of the low where mean winds were forecast to be 35 knots, I failed to consider the wave height and intensity. The low had been raging for several days and would kick out a swell not necessarily defined by the wind we were going to get. Second, as we were bashed around, I continued to base my decisions on the wind velocities. “We’ve seen so much worse,” I thought to myself, so I let the boat sail on. I should have deployed the drogue as soon as I realized I didn’t have a workable approach to the seas (i.e. after the first knock). This would have stopped the boat with her stern to the worst of it and may have prevented the damaging knockdowns.

3. Emergency gear: Storm windows were on the pre-departure to-do list. But the list was very, very long, and I ultimately set out under out under the Golden Gate Bridge without them. I am Mo’s fourth owner, and each owner has taken the boat into harm’s way. She has been three times around Cape Horn, twice to the Antarctic peninsula and twice through the Northwest Passage. No previous owner has broken a window. I therefore assumed that neither would I. A sound enough rationale—just wrong.

4. Emergency gear maintenance: I had lavished untold care upon the bridle of the Jordan Series Drogue. The drogue came with the boat and had seen plenty of sea time, but the main drogue line and parachutes all looked clean and ready for action. That said, the cover on the bridle was worn, and the eye splices at each end were rock hard and their metal eyes, rusty. I therefore patched the worn cover and replaced the splices and thought it a job well done. As you can imagine, when the splice on the main drogue line failed, I was surprised. In hindsight, though, these splices were as old as those on the bridle, and I should have exercised as much caution with them.

Randall Reeves is the first person to attempt a solo circumnavigation of the Americas and Antarctica in one year. This ultra-long passage, which he is calling the Figure 8 Voyage, includes a full, east-about loop of the Southern Ocean and an east-to-west of the Arctic’s Northwest Passage. Randall originally departed his home waters of San Francisco Bay in October 2017. To find out more, visit figure8voyage.com

November 2018

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