VOE: An Unexpected Storm Tests Boat and Crew

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Last August, my wife, Lily, and I took ownership of our 2011 Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 409, Summerwind, in St Martin, and set sail toward her new home in Stuart, Florida. After lengthy stopovers in St Croix and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic—the latter to wait out Hurricane Otto—I was joined by my close friend Rolf, who wanted to sail the remaining 950 miles with me.

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Early on the morning of Monday, December 5, we headed out with the weather deteriorating around Punta Cana, but forecast to improve north toward Samana and Puerta Plata. Passing through a fast-moving squall with sustained 36-knot winds and 13ft seas, we motored north, tracking the Dominican coast. A couple of hours north of Punta Cana, the weather cleared and we hoisted our sails. This was the start of more than four days of incredible sailing, making 6 to 8 knots as we followed the Dominican coast, passed above Haiti and crossed the Windward Passage toward Cuba.

Conditions continued this way through Friday afternoon, with humpback whales breaching, and dolphins playing in our bow wave. At one point, we went a full 24 hours without seeing another boat. We had a DeLorme InReach, so friends and family could monitor our position. It also proved invaluable in that it allowed an experienced sailor friend to provide frequent NOAA weather updates for us.

After a day of near perfect sailing, it looked like conditions were going to deteriorate overnight Friday into Saturday as we turned north, along a section of the banks known as Hurricane Flats. Late on Friday afternoon, I tucked a reef in the main and almost immediately the wind increased to 24 knots. Not wanting to be forced to make sail changes in the dark, we furled the headsail and took the main down to the second reef.

Keeping tight along the banks proved to be the right course. As the winds continued to pick up overnight the wave heights remained relatively modest. We also had occasional moonlight so we could see the waves coming, in between the squalls. Summerwind sailed evenly and predictably through winds in the mid to high 30s. The wind shifted to north-northeast, and we fired up the diesel to help keep forward and northward momentum as we pointed higher, toward the Banks.

Then the engine stalled. I re-started it, and it stalled again so that I could only assume there were issues with the fuel. Unfortunately, this starting and stalling would repeat itself through the voyage. After that, with limited open water ahead of us, we turned downwind and rode out the last couple of hours of darkness with the winds and seas on our starboard quarter, on a course for Cuba, to put some distance between us and the banks. As dawn arrived, we knew we needed to come back on our course, and with the diesel now running and the main up, we headed back up the west side of the banks. After that we hoped to cross to Miami around Bimini or, if the winds favored, head higher toward Palm Beach or Stuart. NOAA was predicting sustained winds of 25 knots, gusts to 35, seas to 13ft—well within what we’d already experienced. At the time, we didn’t know that the previous night was merely a warm-up act for the main event. 

As we sailed north on Saturday we endured many rain and wind squalls. I hadn’t slept the previous night, and Rolf had had at most 90 minutes of sleep, which only made it all the worse. The winds intensified and the seas heightened the farther north we pushed, so that by Saturday night, what would have been a well-lit sky with a nearly full moon was pitch black. The ocean was similarly black, and there was no apparent horizon or separation between it and the sky. The diesel had been running reliably for 24 hours at 1,100rpm at this point, helping add a little forward momentum to the reefed main. As the wind built, the main started snapping as something let go along the leech due to the intensity of the storm. There was no way to douse it in the wind we were experiencing, and the boat was stable with the sail hoisted, so I made the decision to keep it up, believing that if I had to sacrifice the sail, it would be better than losing the boat in a broach. All we could do was keep pushing on.

Around 0100, as the storm intensified, the main started shredding above the third batten. In the darkness, the conditions were so demanding, just keeping Summerwind moving forward and navigating the 20ft waves took all of our attention. Rolf had the helm while I watched for rogue waves. As the main continued to shred, we saw a sustained 48 knots of wind. Believing that the storm could still strengthen, I took the helm and made the decision to turn downwind, toward Key Largo. This led to a six-hour hell ride, surfing these incredible waves in the dark.

At approximately 0400, I spotted low, dim lights appearing and disappearing off the port bow. It soon became apparent that I was looking at the starboard side of a freighter and that we were on a collision course. Rolf hailed the ship on the VHF, saying we were effectively dead-stick and had to hold our course. In a Russian accent, the watch officer said he would adjust his course. I managed to find a gap in the waves and headed Summerwind into irons to hold us steady while the freighter passed perhaps a quarter mile in front of us.

All this time our DeLorme device was transmitting position, speed and elevation every 10 minutes, and our recorded speeds were frequently in excess of 10mph over the six-hour downwind run. We could also tell that the waves were at least 40ft, based on out boatlength, as we rode up, over and down the crests. The DeLorme recorded numerous instances of elevations between -18 and +21ft. We could also see that many waves were in fact, much higher. Our highest recorded elevation was 67.585 feet at a speed of 10.187mph.

In these conditions, Key Largo is not the place where there would be a safe ending to this voyage, so we decided to head for Miami. However, while making our turn north, the diesel quit again—no great surprise, given the pounding and shaking the boat had endured—so we partially unfurled the headsail to give us some power and upwind speed. Fortunately, I was able to re-start the diesel after which I again furled the headsail in case we needed it later, an important consideration given it would be all we had left if the diesel ever died for good. After that, with the lateral resistance of the shredded main helping to steady Summerwind, we started motoring north. We hailed the Coast Guard to let them know what we were doing, and 15 minutes later an aircraft appeared, which kept in communication and circled as we continued on our way. Eventually, they swapped with another plane, then a cutter, followed by yet another cutter. Early in the afternoon, we motored behind the Coast Guard cutter Finback into Government Cut in Miami.

Looking back on it, I realize this story could have ended differently. Put bluntly, Summerwind saved our lives. At no point did it feel as though the 409 would fail us. If anything, it was only we who could have failed her. Riding these incredible waves coming from every possible angle at heights that I expect were beyond her design specifications, Summerwind would rise up, crest, surf down, even ascend and descend broadside with an instilled confidence. And she did this in winds that exceeded anything we’d experienced and that ultimately tested our own abilities as sailors. It’s no exaggeration to say Summerwind brought us safely home.

John Jones has been on and around the water since he was 6 months old. He lives in Delray Beach, Florida

Illustration by Jan Adkins

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