The doubled-up wave on the quarter immediately spun the 50-footer’s stern down and the bow up to weather. But, the worst was to follow…
I met the owner of the Grand Soleil 50 early on an October Saturday morning, and we quickly went through the boat, tied to a mooring in Jamestown’s quiet little harbor. The crew, “Kentucky” Mike, Jon and I, were to meet later that afternoon to do the final preparations to take Sugar Plum to Puerto Rico. The weather looked good for a Sunday departure. Waiting much longer would only make things worse, as the weather in New England does not improve as one gets deeper into fall and early winter.
As usual, the trip to the Caribbean would include a transit of the Gulf Stream. Sometimes one can catch a favorable current, a meander flowing in the same direction to the south or southeast that we would be attempting to travel. More often we would just try to get across that capricious stretch of water as quickly and painlessly as possible.
It’s true enough that as one travels south out of New England, crews look forward to the warm water and sometimes-sunny skies of the Gulf Stream. But those warm waters can conceal a double-edged sword: stronger winds, steeper waves and increased squalls. It isn’t always so. Much depends on the temperature and direction of the wind. When cold northerlies are in vogue, the colder air sinks as it gets to the warm water of the Stream, increasing the winds. Winds that might otherwise be in the 30 to 35 knot range can suddenly become 50 knots or more over the northern wall of the Stream, and the colder the air, the stronger the winds along the north wall. Winds blowing against the flow of the current will create a much steeper wave pattern. As we departed late that Sunday, however, the winds out of the northwest weren’t particularly cold, and they tended to blow at right angles to the current. Leaving a few days earlier than usual would help us avoid the worst weather, predicted for later in the week.
True to form, winds began to increase slightly as we sailed into the Stream late on Monday. As usual, I prefer to reef early, well before it’s actually needed. We progressively reduced sail area both in the main and headsail, rolling each one up before the exercise became a drama, but keeping way on so we could maneuver through the seas. As the seas built, the relatively shallow-draft boat was having difficulty maintaining a course under autopilot. As the autopilot responded to the waves slamming into her quarter, our heading swung 40 degrees on either side of our desired course. At times, the waves pushed the stern down and the bow lurched to weather, but eventually the autopilot would correct back to our desired course. Hand steering was becoming necessary in order to anticipate the waves and correct our course appropriately.
Hand steering in heavy weather is an art form that requires a little practice. After sailing well over 50,000 miles in the Roaring 40s and 50s of the Southern Ocean alone, I’ve done more than my share. While taking in the instruments’ digital information by eye, your body feels the wave rise up behind the boat. The back of the neck feels the wind to sense the wind angle in real time. Hands and arms guide the ship’s wheel to keep the boat on course. It becomes a rhythmic choreography with an underlying awareness that erratic waves will change everything, and a sudden response may be required at any moment.
And then a big one hit us. We were quickly spun up to weather, and the boat rolled to leeward as I called out, “Here we go!” Mike dove for the bunker, sliding from the high side in the cockpit to the floor on the weather side of the cockpit table. Jon, who had just unclipped himself in the leeward, aft part of the cockpit, clenched the backstay with an iron grip, knee-deep in white water. I tried to spin the boat back to course without over-correcting and hung onto the wheel, knowing that if I let go, the boat would be spun around, out of control. The boat, slow to respond, was suddenly overwhelmed by the second part of the wave. The wave that hit us was double the size of the others, which were in the 12- to 15-foot range. When it slammed into us, it was over the top of the frame in the back of the boat on which the solar panels were mounted. Those panels and the top of the frame were about eight or 10 feet over deck level, and one of the solar panels was mangled when the solid green water cascaded down on it.
As Sugar Plum stood back up and we regained our course, I could see that everyone was onboard and no one was hurt. We quickly checked for damage, which, happily enough, turned out to be relatively light. The dodger was torn on the leeward side, a pair of binoculars swept overboard along with the bag for the man-overboard sling, and a few other things. Down below, books and papers from the nav station had been relocated to the galley.
Now, a couple of weeks since that knockdown, I’ve had a little time to reflect on what I learned. Most of it I knew before, but it has certainly served to refresh my memory. In retrospect, I’d have to say that it was a good thing we didn’t have the dinghy mounted in the davits under those panels, or the entire frame could have been taken out, along with substantial chunks of the transom. We had the dinghy secured forward on deck, rather than hanging from the back of the boat in its davits. It was completely undisturbed by the event.
Fortunately, I had been hand steering when we were hit. Over-correcting can take a bad situation and make it considerably worse by throwing the vessel into an unplanned jibe. I would strongly urge people to practice driving whenever possible and preferably when conditions start to get rough. Unfortunately, we had several things under the dodger that eventually were washed overboard. It’s common enough practice, and at night it’s convenient to keep items like binoculars handy for the deck watch. It’s worth remembering, however, that stowing things is an ongoing process—both on deck and down below. Consider that at any moment your vessel might be tossed on its side and shaken, as well as “stirred.” What is it that you’d like to see flying around in the room with you?
Perhaps most importantly, I was reminded how important it is to clip in, even while in the cockpit. Even while driving. The conditions that were prevailing at the time were not daunting. We had 32 to 38 knots of wind with gusts to the low and perhaps mid-40s. Waves were 12 to 15 feet—in all cases but that one. While those conditions may be rather brisk by some standards, they are not terribly out of the ordinary for offshore work, especially while crossing the Gulf Stream in the fall. Like reefing and shortening sails, it’s best to clip your harness onto a secure padeye or jacklines before it’s necessary. After it’s necessary may be too late.
Bill Biewenga is a navigator, delivery skipper and weather router. His websites are www.weather4sailors.com and www.WxAdvantage.com. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org