Midnight Knockdown

Everyone warned us about crossing Cook Strait, the stormy stretch of water between New Zealand’s North and South Islands. One man even asked us, “Why are you doing this to your family? Do you enjoy fear?” It was a fair question, and we weren’t sure of the answer. What we did know was that if we had stuck to the usual choices, we never would have sailed across the Pacific in the first
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Everyone warned us about crossing Cook Strait, the stormy stretch of water between New Zealand’s North and South Islands. One man even asked us, “Why are you doing this to your family? Do you enjoy fear?” It was a fair question, and we weren’t sure of the answer. What we did know was that if we had stuck to the usual choices, we never would have sailed across the Pacific in the first place.

So we did what we could to prepare Sereia, our 36-foot fiberglass Mariner ketch, for the passage to the South Island. We also hired Marina, a strong and enthusiastic young dancer from Belgium, as crew. Because Sereia has no self-steering, we wanted a third hand at the helm, so we could run a three-on, six-off watch schedule. Since I was four months pregnant and couldn’t take any seasickness medication—I also had to watch out for our son, Silas, who was two—Marina would alternate with my husband, Peter, if I could not stand my watch.

Marina had never sailed a day in her life, but she was intelligent and eager to learn. After interviewing her, we decided she could handle the job. And as things turned out, we were right. Unfortunately, our judgment wasn’t infallible. A valve had worn out on our primary bilge pump, an old belt-drive electrical model, and it was out of commission. Because the rebuild kit was very expensive, Peter had decided not to repair it. We had three other pumps on board—an old Rule 12-volt submersible and two manual Whale Gushers—so why spend the money?

The afternoon of our second day at sea, the wind and waves started to build and water occasionally came into the cockpit. Peter had taught Marina about how to handle heavy weather, and she learned quickly. Later that night, when Peter was on deck standing my watch, he felt the wind and waves increasing quickly as we sailed south. When the wind had started to build earlier that afternoon, he could see the rollers astern charging toward Sereia’s starboard quarter, but now everything was black. He could still hear the waves rushing like waterfalls behind him, but then suddenly they were overwhelmed by the sound of wind.

Our boat doesn’t have a wind indicator, but based on past experience, Peter estimated the gust that hit us was well over 50 knots. The wind ripped his mouth open and pulled his cheeks away from his teeth. Gripping the wheel, he realized we were being completely overpowered. The gust knocked Sereia on her side and she struggled to right herself. Pinned by her double-reefed main, Peter heard the roaring sound of an approaching wave. He couldn’t see it, but the sound told him that it was bigger and much faster than any of the other waves. It hissed as it curled, then broke just astern.

Water blasted Peter’s shoulder like a fire hose, and he could feel Sereia skidding sideways across the surface of the white water. The boat heeled over, again pausing briefly as the lee side filled with ocean. Her bulwarks dug in and she fell over further. As the boom skidded across the swells her mainsail was buried in the water. This was it, Peter thought, this was a full-on knockdown.

The cabintop was now submerged and white water tore back toward the helm on both sides, filling the cockpit like a bathtub. Peter felt his legs floating as the ocean came up to his chest. He wondered, “Will we be able to come back up if we take another wave now? Or will we be rolled all the way over?” There was a sucking sensation as the water began to churn out the gunnels and then gravity slowly reasserted itself. Peter scrambled to get a secure foothold as Sereia re-emerged from the sea. Once she was back up, she started moving forward again.

Down below the cabin was dark and the noises of the waves smashing over our heads were like bomb blasts. Each wave made a tooth-jarring crash that made me worry about structural integrity. I thought about steel against steel, but I knew that only an inch of fiberglass separated us from the seething ocean outside. I held Silas tightly, with my body curled protectively around him. I could feel myself shaking and knew I was not going to be able to go on deck again, because I was sick as was Silas. Peter and Marina were going to have to stand my watches, and Marina was now facing a situation that would stretch even an experienced sailor to the limit.

But she was a hero and stood her watches with great strength and good humor. Somehow she knew just what to do to keep the boat moving through the water and to keep it from being pummeled by approaching waves.

Over time, we discovered the boat had a weak point: the lazarette hatches were not watertight and whenever we took a wave in the cockpit, water would leak past them into the bilge. At four the next morning, Marina was about to go on deck for her watch when she saw water sloshing around in the head. “Could it be the lazarettes?” Peter wondered when she told him about it. Once Marina was securely clipped in at the helm Peter went below to check things out. When he lifted the floorboards, Peter saw nothing but black water glinting in the light of his headlamp. The bilge was completely full and the secondary bilge pump, the old Rule, was working only intermittently. Peter knew the reason why. He had deliberately positioned it so it would come on only when the bilge was about to overflow.

At this point Peter had a decision to make. He decided the water must be coming in just from the lazarettes; Sereia didn’t have a hole. As long as the hull was sound, he reasoned, he could pump out the bilge with the third pump, a manual Whale Gusher with a 17-gpm capacity mounted under the cockpit. He had completely rebuilt it several weeks earlier, so it should have worked perfectly. But it didn’t.

When he began pumping, all Peter could hear was the unmistakable sound of sucking air. He didn’t have time to diagnose the problem in the middle of a raging gale, so he immediately went to our fourth pump, another manual Whale Gusher with a 30 gpm capacity. But there was one small problem. The pump was located in the port lazarette, and he knew that opening the hatch would put a 4-foot-square hole in the deck just inches from the sea. If the boat were knocked down again while the hatch was open, the boat might easily sink. But somehow he managed to get the pump out, secure the hoses and feed the intake hose down into the bilge. Then he reached for the handle he had carefully lashed to the pump before we got underway. But the handle wasn’t there.

“This is it,” Peter thought. “If I can’t get this bilge pump working, our only hope is buckets. And if we do have a serious leak, or a failed through hull, there’s no way we can keep up with buckets. We get out the liferaft.”

But then he had another idea. Digging into the bottom of our tool bag, he located our biggest screwdriver and jammed it into the fitting and pumped until finally he could see the water level going down. He had guessed correctly; there wasn’t any major leak. He kept pumping until he got all the water out of the bilge. Then, somehow, he found the energy to go back up on deck to relieve Marina who, even though she was getting cold, was still steering the boat through the waves and darkness.

Sereia was knocked down again that night, but she popped right back up. By the following morning the wind and seas were subsiding and Peter and Marina went to a two-hour watch schedule until we arrived in Lyttelton the following morning.

I still was no help, because neither Silas nor I had been able to keep down any food or water for two days. We were both weak, but once the boat stopped moving and we were able to get something to eat and drink, we bounced back quickly.

Though Sereia’s cabin was a mess, she had sustained no serious damage in the storm. But for the crew things were now a little different. We talked it over and decided that it would be a good idea, particularly for Silas and me, if we finished our circumnavigation of New Zealand by car. This part of the Southern Ocean, we agreed, is best left to experienced adult sailors. It’s certainly not a good place to be for pregnant women or small children.

WHAT WE DID RIGHT:

-We fitted sturdy washboards in the companionway and wood battens over our large windows. It's possible this saved our lives.

-Peter had checked our three bilge pumps and rebuilt the one that didn't work.

-Peter and Marina always wore two tethers in case one failed.

-Because we expected heavy weather, we were all well rested and well fed. When the storm did hit, Peter and Marina stood two-hour watches to preserve their strength.

WHAT WE DID WRONG:

-Peter should have spent the money to fix the main pump before we sailed.

-Getting an extra crewmember was a great idea, but novice crew can only do so much. If something had happened to Peter, Marina and I would have been in serious trouble.

-Peter knew our lazarette hatches weren't watertight, but he didn't think they'd let in so much water. On the first knockdown we took aboard about 100 gallons, adding more than 800 pounds of weight to the boat.

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