As skipper of the amateur crew of Uniquely Singapore, Jim Dobie handled MOB and knockdowns in Force 12 winds during the Clipper Round the World Race 2009-10
We started the leg from Qingdao, China in February, bound for San Francisco 5,500 miles away. We soon settled into conditions we knew well: spinnaker running in 30 knots, averaging about 12 knots with surfs over 25. The crew was loving it and we soon broke into the top three. Then we received weather files forecasting storm force and hurricane strength winds. A huge low-pressure system was barrelling towards us.
I briefed the crew and organised a storm watch system designed to reduce time on deck, as conditions were going to be brutal. Meals were prepared and everything was stowed. I suspect that most of the crew thought it meant more surfing, but I knew we were in for one hell of a ride.
Building swells and high cirrus clouds heralded the approaching storm. A building breeze can take you by surprise going downwind, as was the case when I came up on deck to find 35 knots, gusting 40, with our spinnaker up and out of control. Surfing at 30 knots sounds like fun but we were on a 68ft, 30-tonne yacht with 18 amateur crew and myself the only professional on board. This was now becoming dangerous.
A spinnaker drop in heavy winds can be stressful. One mistake could spell disaster: a wrapped halyard, a guy getting caught, a helming error. Trying to keep the yacht very deep downwind in a significant swell while trying to organise the drop is a bit full-on. Luckily all went well and the spinnaker was doused and stowed below.
We poled out the No.3 headsail, put two reefs in the mainsail and stayed like that all night, surfing down ever-increasing swell and waves at speeds into the high 20s. Then we surfed over a crest and fell off the front of it with a bone-jarring crash. Luckily the helm stayed in control but, in winds of 50 knots, gusting 60 (force 10-11), I knew we had to slow the boat or face the very real possibility of broaching, or even pitchpoling.
We had to take in a third reef. It took hours but we did it. Next we had to drop the No.3. One crewman had to be on the bow unhanking as the sail came down, while five flaked it over their legs.
The drop began and slowly but surely the sail started coming down, then I heard a wave. As the stern of the yacht rose, I was looking down at the bowman who stared back at me, wide-eyed, as we dived for what seemed like an eternity, down a combined swell and wave height of more than 100ft. The hull hummed as our speed topped 30 knots, but this was not fun. Eventually the crew got the No.3 below and hoisted the storm jib and, in steady 60-knot winds, our speed was still 10-12 knots with fully-reefed main and storm jib.
Still the sea state kept building. Our analogue wind instrument maxed out at 60 knots but I am certain it was a constant Force 12 (64 knots-plus). The noise was deafening and the spray blinding. Again we were overtaking the waves and falling into what seemed like a bottomless pit. We had to drop the main. We clawed the sail down and lashed it to the boom with mooring lines. With just a tiny storm jib on our inner forestay, we were still surfing at 10-15 knots down enormous swells ripped with spindrift.
It hit home that 18 amateur crew were looking to me for reassurance and guidance. I was doing my best to look calm and composed, but I felt overwhelmed. My practical experience had run out a while ago, this was all new ground and, for the first time ever at sea, I felt fearful.
We fell down the front of another huge wave and I was faced with a very difficult decision: do we drop the storm jib? Some books recommend running under bare poles, but would we have enough steerage to control the yacht? Sometimes you just have to make the call: bare poles. We were still doing 10 knots but no longer surfing. We had steerage. We were under control. Exhausted, I went below to get some rest.
Two hours later I was on deck for a watch change, helping the new helm settle in, when we got slammed as if by a freight train. I didn’t see the wave but I heard it. The boat was knocked down and I was an MOB. What felt like a lifetime later, she righted, dumping me back on deck in the process. I looked over at the empty helm and the cold grip of fear clutched my heart. Then I heard him shout – he was on the sugar scoop! He had been washed out by the wave and ended up on the scoop, saved by his tether.
Our steering wheel had buckled making it impossible to use, and the companionway hatch had vanished along with the washboards. We had already taken on a lot of water, one more wave like that and we would be swamped.
Steerage was my first issue. Together with a few double-tethered crew, we manhandled the emergency tiller out of the lazarette and fitted it. It would be impossible to steer with this industrial bar so I lashed it down to starboard. With no sails, I wasn’t sure how she would respond but we needed to fix the massive hole in the deck. Using various emergency hatch covers, we rigged something that wasn’t watertight by any means but would stop us being swamped.
The crew down below had avoided serious injuries but there was a lot of water. The pumps were on the centreline and, as we were heeled, they were sucking air so we used large pots to bail water down the heads, as the galley sink drained into a grey water tank. Pots were passed down a chain and it took an hour to bail most of the water. Thank God for a working heads.
I didn’t know how the boat would respond with bare poles and the helm lashed down. Waves would pick her up and push her bow down but once she had momentum, her rudder would turn into the wind before slowing and heading back downwind again, scalloping up and down. The occasional wave would breach our makeshift hatch but this was manageable. I told the crew to sleep and kept a radar watch but, in the middle of the world’s biggest ocean, I knew we were probably on our own. Soon the silence overwhelmed me and I fell asleep there.
We woke at first light refreshed and renewed. Over the satphone I heard that our sister yacht California had been rolled and lost her rig. We were relatively close so, after bending back the wheel and modifying the steering bracket, we diverted to offer assistance, improving the companionway repair en route. After transferring about 500 litres of diesel to California, we continued racing. It was with elation and relief that we sailed under Golden Gate Bridge with our spinnaker up.
This savage storm tried to get the best of our yacht. As it happened, it brought out the best in her crew.
If you know bad weather is on its way, prepare for the worst. Adjust watch systems to minimise crew time on deck; securely stow all equipment, placing heavy items as low as possible; screw down sole boards; prepare quick and easy meals.
Keep constant track of the conditions – wind, pressure, sea and swell. React appropriately and as soon as you can to any changes.
Running before or heaving to? In the end I had no choice but to heave to – or as close as I could get with no sail up. Not only did it work, the yacht seemed perfectly happy. I would never recommend it, but if you find yourself in a storm, try heaving to (with sails) and see how she responds.
Have a roving bilge pump intake. If you take on a lot of water, you will be more stable heeled over, which leaves the bulk of the water in the turn of the bilge, away from the centreline strum boxes. A long intake hose that you can take to the water will be a big help.
Nothing beats experience but training can give you some idea of what’s in store. The RYA/ISAF Sea Survival and Offshore Safety course will help you and your crew understand the importance of safety gear and preparation. Buying safety kit is all very well, but you and your crew must know how to use it.
Remember, every storm passes. You just need to be there when it does.