On a 42 foot sailboat in a near hurricane
Surviving fatigue and a storm at sea
Coming on deck after six hours below, I squinted in the sunshine and looked wonderingly at Doug’s face, split ear to ear with one of the widest grins I had seen in a long time, his curly brown hair whipping around. Twenty foot rollers and white caps lifted the stern, cocked the boat forward and dissolved in a frothing cauldron as the boat gathered momentum sailing down the aquatic mountains which had made life so miserable the night before. Today, the water a deep shining green, topped with whipped ,white, water; cumulus clouds in a bright blue sky replacing the dense packed [whatever] of the night before, a ceiling so low it appeared the mast penetrated them.
A piece of teak, brought on board to become part of a ratlines system, tightly seized to the side frame of the bimini enclosure with multiple windings of marlin, effected a splint.
The patched frame tubing, and the gaping space where a paneled half door had been, giving admittance to the center cockpit, bore mute testimony to the forces of nature, from which we'd received a lesson in humility only a few hours before.
“Eleven-five, eleven-six,” Doug started shouting. I looked over at the boats knot meter; I had felt her accelerate, but not realized how much assist gusts and down hill sailing were giving her. The smiles were infectious, everybody likes the helm on a broad reach and 25 knots. Rick and Patrick, lodged off in a corner of the cockpit, wore big grins on them too.
The wind had veered, we had a broad reach for the day's sail, on this, the 6th day of a late season transit to the Virgin Islands by way of Bermuda. We'd enjoyed a small turkey for Thanksgiving three days earlier. The wind speed registered on the dial at 20-30 knots, compared to the number of times it had been pegged in excess of 65 last night (we had collectively decided it couldn’t possibly be accurate) it felt like a good sailing day with a good stiff breeze.
Had it really been only 36 hours since we’d looked at each other and said to each other wonderingly, “so this is how people lose boats”?
It had, but then it had been night. Boats prefer to break things at night, having their own sets of likes and dislikes, just as engines do. Ever notice the proclivity of a marine engine to stall in close proximity to a jetty, breakwater or dock?
When we'd pulled away from the dock in Deep River, Connecticut, we knew we were well prepared for the voyage. Three of us, having literally sailed all of our lives, felt we had stocked the spares and raw materials for virtually any problem. Perhaps we were cocky.
In the last 48 hours we'd experienced a series of failures, breakdowns and accidents that morphed into a cascade of problems finally resulting in mistake on our part..... resulting in the group epiphany that, yes, it *could* happen to us, too.
At about 9:00 p.m. Doug had called down, “Pat, Jon, all hands on deck, don’t get dressed, just get up here, Pat take the wheel,”
It had taken me a few extra seconds to get out of my bunk, as it was momentarily on the lee side, and I ran past Pat who had reached the wheel from the main salon faster than I could get on deck. He was start naked, but had grabbed his cap.
As I hit the deck Doug yelled, “Get the main sheet”. I ran for the winch, and looked up at the main cabin top, about three feet higher, both Doug and Rick were being swept back and forth across the cabin top by the loose boom, a 12 inch round solid wood monster, and the bundle of the partially furled mainsal, which was filling and snapping with each gust and getting ripped out of their hands, the unsecured sheet inching out a little more with each gust. I started pulling the sheet back in just as they were just about to lose their footing over the edges of the coach roof and hang over the sea at the snap of each roll. Leaning over the raised deck of the owners cabin in the stern, cranking on the two speed Barient winch, I felt water flowing past at mid calf height. Peering up the side deck, I realized that there was LOT of solid water coming over the boat. With the main finally secured, we were lying ahull, and the motion was not fun.
Doug and his brothers had completely rebuilt and partially re rigged this boat, a gorgeous 42 foot, round chine, steel hulled ketch, built in Germany some 30 years earlier. He'd changed the rig from a fractional rig and added a masthead, roller furling genoa, but was generally reluctant to fly any portion of that sail in winds exceeding 25-30 knots, as the wooden mast had always been painted and he did not have an absolute idea of its condition. 24 hours earlier we had blown seams in both the club footed working jib and the storm jib. AS it was suddenly clear that instead of catching up on rest, we should have restitched at least the storm jib, we attempted to do so immediately.
Unwrapping the heavily secured mizzen and flying it reefed to bring the bow up into the wind, was briefly discussed, but neither of the brothers were familiar with this method espoused by Don Street and instead, they determined we were OK lying ahull while the jib was stitched.
Doug liked to start the genset, in moments of stress, on the theory that you probably couldn't have too much light or electricity. As we gathered in the main salon to repair the sail, Rick dug out an assortment of palms, needles and waxed linen thread, and shortly thereafter, pliers, as we found it tough going through the storm jib, which it developed had two seams damaged, one torn out completely, and the second with just one row of stitching holding it. Each of us lodged himself as best he could, and proceeded to push and pull the heavy needles through the incredibly stiff cloth. Trying to keep oneself in position, push and pull the heavy needles thorough the sail and not spear a finger, other body part or a neighbor, were all consuming activities as the boats motion steadily deteriorated. Pat stitched for half an hour before he realized his teeth were chattering, he'd not taken a moment to get dressed. Standing was close to impossible. Doug tried to distribute granola bars to everyone, they could not be tossed across the salon, they had to be passed. Once the bar was in flight, its trajectory stayed straight, while the intended recipient would be moved somewhere else. Paul Simon was singing "Graceland" on the stereo as a particularly bad knockdown launched Rick, temporarily sitting on the starboard settee berth, across the salon, over a glass chimneyed lamp on the gimbaled mahogany table and onto the port bunk. The wave associated with this stove in the bimini and wrent asunder the cockpit door. Later we found it had knocked the stove out of its gimbals. The glass chimney was immediately and unceremoniously packed away in a soft locker.
About 1 am, with the jib finally whole again, the brothers, now with harnesses and jack lines rigged, crawled forward and hanked the jib on, attaching the clew to the jib boom, finally raising the sail, at which point we realized that at 1:30 in the morning, 300 plus miles north of Bermuda in a Force 8 gale, we no longer had command of the rudder.
During the time we had been lying ahull , possibly as a result of the big knockdown, the boat had backed off a wave and snapped a weak link in the system.
This presented a problem. Relieved to see the rudder head still swinging away as we looked down through the lazarette cover, it was clearly swinging in much greater arcs than when the quadrant was tethered to the steering system, and it looked like it had a potential for jamming at the far end of its swings. The ram from the hydraulic steering hung uselessly, an threaded extension having snapped. The connection of the extension, a piece of 3/4 inch round steel rod had been threaded onto the end of the ram with a piece of 1/4 inch threaded rod as a core.
Carefully we manhandled the 3 foot diameter round steel and teak hatch cover down into the cabin, there was no way to adequately secure it on deck, and the emergency tiller had to come up through, and swing, in the hole created by removing the hatch cover.
The emergency tiller itself was the barest solution to the problem at hand. Only about 4 feet long, it did not look to have near enough leverage to tame the 26 ton yacht in these seas, and dropping the diamond shaped collar over the top of the rudder posts diamond shaped head was a worthy challenge that ultimately took an hour of attempts to gauge the motion just right. In the interim we had planned and rigged lines directly to nearby winches that gave enough leverage with the oak tiller, to tie the tiller to leeward and bring the bow about 80 degrees off the wind.
Incredibly, at that point, having been charging from one bit of excitement to another, we all, except Patrick, whose watch it was, went to sack out. Now Patrick, who wasn't a sailor, is excused from this, but the rest of us should have know better.
It wasn't until Doug popped out of his bunk an hour an a half later, and his feet landed in water, did it occur to any of us we had in fact left a 3 foot hole in the deck. Standing in the spot winching in the main hadn't triggered the connection, and even Rick, who had been in the lazarette trying to collar the rudder post, and repeatedly drenched by boarding seas that swept along the deck and down into the lazarette, hadn't connected that action with a "big hole in the deck".
It was at that moment that we understood tales we've all heard of people being so tired they made incredibly stupid decisions, and how relatively easy it is to make a critically bad choice, or not even know there was one to be made when one is cold and exhausted, and lose the boat. Had the water gotten up to the top of the batteries or swamped the engine's starter, it could have triggered a much bigger cascade of failures and bad decisions, that would have made the series of problem we'd just been through seem like playtime.
What were our lessons? Take care of the vessels needs first. When every one is exhausted try to remember to voice the question, is there anything else we can think of...
It seemed an easy choice, however, to take the fitted cover to the dinghy, and secure it firmly to the teak deck with roofing nails (why were they onboard?) and halt the bulk of the intrusion until daylight.
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