After a not-so-minor accident, Jim Wallace decided to set sail across the Pacific singlehanded – in more ways than one. He soon realised it wasn’t the wisest choice
Having reached Bora Bora, I was about to set off on the next leg of my circumnavigation, covering the 1,850 miles to Fiji on my own. There followed a series of unfortunate events which made the passage much more challenging than I hoped or imagined.
Four days before my departure from Bora Bora we moved the boat by hand along the jetty, with four lines and four crew. The crew took a mooring line each and walked the boat towards the new berth. I was urging the crew to slow the 17-tonne boat down, when I made a very inadvisable move to stop the boat going too far – I dropped my stern mooring loop over a mooring post but was not quick enough to remove my thumb from the loop.
The resultant coming together of mooring rope and post caused me to lose part of my thumb.
An emergency helicopter ambulance was called and I was flown to a hospital in Raiatea where I had a two-hour operation on my injured hand. I returned to the boat to prepare for a truly single-handled sail.
Doctors advised me to delay my departure, but they relented once we agreed that three days of medical care, medical supplies and instruction on self medication would suffice. I was beginning to regret giving myself a tight schedule to get to Fiji in time for a booked flight home to see the family for three weeks.
The weather looked like it might provide a few challenges. There was a deepening low pressure south of my rhumb line track with a high pressure to the north with slack wind isobars. My friend and weather router, Simon Bevan, emailed me a forecast for the route which didn’t give too many concerns, though he warned of active fronts and troughs along my track.
In preparation for my departure I took some advice from an experienced solo skipper: take it slow and sail easy – use headsails only downwind. I took his advice and prepared the spinnaker pole before departure, ready to pole out the headsail.
The first day was gentle. A light wind prevailed, so I had my first of several motor sailing days with a full genoa. The next day saw the start of many squally shower days, with some heavy rain, but at least I was able to switch off the engine for the first time and sail.
I was pleased about this as I reckoned on only having about six days’ fuel to get me to Fiji – about 14 days away. Depending on the rpm of the engine, I would use between 4 and 6 litres of diesel per hour.
I rued the fact that my radar had stopped working. I could have used it to avoid the worst of the cumulonimbus clouds which threatened at night. The morning of Day 2 provided the first real test of handling the tough weather. A storm developed and hit very quickly. The wind had been averaging 15 knots, but within minutes it was up to 55 knots. By that time I had furled all sails and motored into wind on the engine. The storm lasted about two hours, after which it was like nothing had happened.
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During the afternoon of Christmas Eve 2019, I was steering a tubby old steel ketch called Cristina on a delivery…
I sailed with just a poled-out genoa until the next day when another storm hit very quickly. I was down below when there was a big bang on deck. I poked my head out of the companionway to find the genoa pole swinging in the fore triangle in 35 knots of wind and rain.
The car attaching the pole end to the mast had detached from the mast. With difficulty, I detached or cut the control lines and secured the pole to the stanchions. As I tied the securing ropes I noticed the bandage on my injured hand was filthy, sopping wet and unraveling. I remembered, with a wry smile, the doctors’ cautionary words regarding my dressing: ‘Keep it clean and don’t get it wet’.
As I was tidying up the mess on the foredeck I noticed the fore hatch open at one corner about four inches. Apparently a frenzied genoa sheet had got caught under one corner of the hatch cover and ripped it open, making short work of destroying the securing clip in the process.
By the seventh day I had used half of the diesel on board, leaving about four days’ motoring available for the remaining passage of about seven days. Light winds were forecast. There were stronger winds forecasted to the south, but the isobar gradient was steep. I decided to route further south to get more wind. You should be careful what you wish for…
On the ninth day I encountered a frontal passage during which the wind switched from NE at 18 knots to SE at 33 knots. I bore away to the NW and reefed the sails for a fast passage away from the rapidly increasing wind – I had got too close to the depression. By about 2000 I was surrounded by very active lightning storms.
I made all the preparations I could to be ready for what might happen. I took the sails down and motored. I secured all loose items on deck as best I could in the short time I had left. I put on my foul weather gear for first time in a year.
When the storm hit I secured myself down below, washboards in, boat on autopilot. The lightning and thunder were incredible. I monitored the wind on my chart table indicator. On two occasions the wind was over 70 knots.
I feared an imminent lightning strike. This lasted for six hours. I felt helpless. I occasionally popped my head up to see what was happening to the boat. Things were breaking, but I was powerless to prevent it or make repairs. The bimini had come down over the cockpit and escaping it was like finding your way out of a large, very wet, collapsed tent.
There was nothing more I could do to minimise the risk, I just wanted it to be over. Eventually the lightning petered out, the wind abated and I emerged into my brave new world. I found that the frame for the cockpit tent had been pulled apart and one of the metal tubes had jammed itself into the steering wheel. This had caused the autopilot to disconnect, with associated warning, which I didn’t hear.
Luckily the wheel had been jammed in neutral with the rudder so the net effect on the boat’s course was minimal. I hadn’t had time to secure the wind vane steering paddle. As a result, the waves had bent the rudder tube 90º, so it was out of action for the rest of the trip.
The next two days gave me good sailing winds and I got the cruising chute out again. Just as I was thinking things were going well, the spinnaker halyard broke at the shackle, and I had to retrieve the cruising chute from the water.
It was undamaged, and I thought the best way to dry it out would be to hoist it again on the other spinnaker halyard.
After a few hours, this spinnaker shackle broke as well, dropping the chute in the water. I examined the broken snap shackles on the halyards and remembered ordering them online, thinking I had a bargain. They turned out to be cheap copies. Lesson learned.
The wind was becoming light, as forecast, and a potential fuel shortfall was quickly becoming a reality. If I stopped in Suva for fuel, a day earlier than my planned arrival in Lautoka,
on the other side of the island, I would be in danger of missing my flight home. I really needed to get to Vuda Point Marina to give me a day to secure the boat and organise the repair jobs which needed to be done in my absence.
I transferred the contents of my four emergency diesel containers to the tank, hoping there might just be enough to get me through. On the last day of the journey, as the sun came up I was motoring west along the south coast of Fiji, with 70 miles to go to the marina.
The fuel left in the tanks was 40 litres – enough for about 40 miles at best. My options were few. I could go into the coast, anchor, inflate the dinghy and get to a filling station for diesel. This would have taken all day and cost me most of my last day at the marina. Or I could get diesel from another boat – this might have been possible but I had not seen another vessel for many days.
I was getting desperate. There was no wind. I checked the chart again to confirm the best time to get a tidal slingshot through the reef passage – I could expect a 4-knot push for an hour or two if I could get there. That’s when I saw it – an AIS target coming towards me, about four miles away.
It was a cargo ship doing 13 knots in the opposite direction. I called her on VHF radio Channel 16. I explained my urgent need for diesel and asked if they could help. The watch keeper said, ‘Standby, I’ll ask the captain.’ There was a wait of about a minute, which seemed like an hour, before the response came. ‘Right Choice, we are stopping to help you. Turn towards my position’.
I was open-mouthed and almost forgot to answer as I watched the ship start a U-turn and come to a complete stop, one mile from me. The bridge asked how much diesel I wanted. I didn’t want to push my luck but I said at least 40 litres, and asked how I would pay them for the diesel. They replied, ‘There’s no charge.’ I wanted to give them something so I got the Mahi Mahi steaks I’d made from the huge fish I had caught a day ago and put them in a bucket – there was enough for the whole crew.
When the transfer of four 20-litre containers by hand line was completed, I passed my heartfelt thanks to the crew and hoped they would enjoy the fish.
When I arrived in the marina there were several dock hands to help me tie up to the jetty. A group of marina staff presented the boat with a garland of flowers and I was welcomed to Fiji with a traditional serenade. I’ll admit to shedding a few tears at that point. The incident-packed 14-day trip was over. Against the odds I had made it in time to secure the boat and catch my flight home. I was a very happy sailor.
Don’t set deadlines – Having a fixed schedule for sailing puts undue pressure on decision making and causes stress. I regretted not allowing some spare days on a long journey for unforeseen problems with weather or issues with boat equipment.
Safety conscious – As skipper you need to treat your own safety with at least the same importance as that of your crew. They won’t thank you for injuring yourself and putting them in a more dangerous situation.
Proper preparation – When sailing solo, do as much preparation as possible before departure and allow yourself plenty of time to carry out any changes on board.
Fuel efficiency – Know your engine fuel consumption at different rpms, and know your best range rpm – it may be important on an offshore leg.
Don’t buy cheap – Chandlery is expensive, and I bought replacement rigging parts online cheaply, without checking the quality, and I paid the price when they failed.
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