Award-winning sailor and expedition leader Bob Shepton regularly sails some of the most storm-swept latitudes in the world. Not bad for a pensioner in a 33ft Westerly
Nowadays we have no excuse not to know when a storm is coming. My weatherfax, tuned to the right station at the right time, throws out a synoptic chart. It’s obsolete now, replaced by laptops and satphones or HF radios with modems, but forecasts are always available. In a way this is a shame. If all the electrics go down, we have largely lost the ability to watch the barometer and the sky to predict what’s coming. How many of us still know ancient weather lore, such as ‘Rapid rise after low, it’s soon going to blow’?
As well as forecasts on board, there is another sense in which we are ready for foul weather before ever setting out: it is preparation. In 2010 my crew was the ‘Wild Bunch’ of star climbers who were pioneering new rock routes on the west coast of Greenland. As we were about to sail back across the Atlantic from the weather station at the east end of Prinz Christian Sund (we had gone there for the Danish pastries), I said, ‘Lads, I want to practise raising the trysail’ and we duly did.
This turned out to be a wise precaution as we hove to four times on that crossing, especially when post-Tropical Storm Danielle turned north and blasted over us. My trysail has a dedicated track bolted on to the mast alongside the main track, and the sail sits in its bag at the foot with the slides already rigged before ever we leave port. I believe in trysails. I am told that, with today’s improved sailcloth, a fourth reef can be just as good, but how do you rig a fourth lot of luff and leech pennants?
We used the trysail a lot in the continual gales, or near gales, we found sailing east to west round Cape Horn from Antarctica in 1994, but, as we were trying to make progress, I did not find it entirely satisfactory. Conventional wisdom dictates that the trysail sheet should be brought down to a cleat aft. Though possibly fine for heaving to, it lacked drive. In the end we dispensed with the trysail and just close reached on a No.3 jib hanked onto the inner forestay, which turned out to be an effective means of making progress.
Years later in the Atlantic I decided to run the trysail sheet through a block on the boom end and back to a purchase on the mast. I can control its draught using the purchase at the mast, and its angle using the mainsheet. It is not quite so effective on this second Dodo’s Delight (the first, also a Westerly Discus, was destroyed by fire while wintering in Greenland ice) as her trysail is cut slightly differently – nothing to do with the large ‘13’ stitched on it.
It’s too late to check your rigging as the storm approaches. You should do that daily, even if only with binoculars from deck. We check that everything is battened down, outside and in. Liferaft and dinghies well secured? Things stowed safely in lockers? Will the items on the shelves stay put? I learned this lesson in that horrible Chukchi Sea between Russia and America at the end of the Northwest Passage in 2012. It’s a shallow sea with virtually nowhere to hide and we had 40 knots of wind. We decided not to seek the only possible but unfamiliar shelter on that coast because the wind was northerly so we sped south under bare poles. During the night a freak wave smashed into the side of the boat with a loud whack, and all the stuff on the chart table shot onto the floor, including my computer. Serves me right for forgetting that possibility.
Over the years we must have used all of the recognised storm tactics, and some more. Some people frown on lying a’hull on the grounds that, with all sail down, you lie abeam the waves and in extreme conditions could be rolled. I have not used it in extreme conditions, and have found that it can be quite a comfortable way to ride out a storm, though the occasional breaking wave can hit the side hard and project missiles across the cabin.
96 knots in the Faroe Islands
I do remember a fearsome sail to the Faroes, hard on the wind all the way. We had 96 knots of wind in a harbour in the far north and all the fishing boats were coming back in so we had to move. Try moving a boat to a windward berth against 96 knots of wind: not a pleasant or damage-free event. Then we were hard on the wind all the way back to Scotland. We lay a’hull with a Force 9-10 off Cape Wrath and the boat would rise on the sloping shelf of the wave, pass over the top, and slide serenely down the other side. Lying a’hull can be effective if the storm is not too extreme.
We have hove to, with backed jib working against the trysail or reefed mainsail and the wheel hard over. It’s another comfortable, and comforting, way to ride it out, and has the advantage of pointing the bow up into the wind and waves. I was skippering a delivery from UK to Las Palmas in the Canaries, usually thought to be a ‘milk run’ trip, but not this time: 1,400 miles on the wind. One of the crew had a fall so we posted an anchor watch and hove to, to give her a good night’s sleep and some rest for us all. I am always surprised to find that not everyone who goes to sea knows how to heave to. Personally I do not think you should go to sea without knowing and trying it, in case you need to stop safely.
I was skippering another mountaineering charter and, though clearly bold, the three female crew, who dubbed themselves ‘Bob’s Angels’, were slightly apprehensive as we roared downwind in a strong gale with big seas under bare poles in mid-Atlantic at night, with the windvane self-steering doing a remarkable job. It was pushing us the right way, so we ran before it, reeling in the miles.
I also remember a big storm off Cape Farewell at the southern end of Greenland. Storms are frequent there and the accepted wisdom is to keep at least 100 miles south of the cape. We were 140 miles south but were still caught in wind gusting to 65 knots, and ran before it on bare poles. At one stage I put my head up through the hatch and asked, ‘How’s it going?’ The crew replied ‘Alright, but we are only just in control’. Two watches later, and without warning, a freak wave picked up the stern and threw the boat down into the trough, knocking us down. When the boat came upright there was a small split in the topsides and all the joinery on the starboard side had been pushed in two inches. But we could still sail and made it to Nuuk for repairs.
It was suggested that we should have trailed warps but I don’t think it would have helped with such a huge, steep-fronted wave. I tried it some years later but the experience was not encouraging. A deep depression was pushing up against the Greenland High, tightening the isobars, and six miles short of Upernavik the wind went round, strengthened to gale force and we turned and ran before it. It was getting dark and there was ice around – not pleasant. Later the mate came up and forcibly requested trailing warps. ‘Are you sure about this?’ I asked. ‘Bob, this is my life at stake here.’ We hadn’t quite thought of it like that, but soon a curious assemblage of an empty gas cylinder, chain, the odd kedge and long warp was streamed over the stern. It slowed us down too much, restricting our manoeuvrability, so we brought it all in again quite soon. All I would say is if you are running before, you need to keep the boat moving but not too fast. Only you will know what that means for your particular boat.
Heave to or keep sailing?
When should one heave to? I am 79 now, and do so sooner than before. Certainly if you are going to windward and the boat is shooting off the waves into the trough with a crash like an artillery shell exploding, it is time to stop. Much more difficult is when to start sailing again after the gale or storm. I have before now delayed longer than some of my younger crews wanted, but caution isn’t bad sometimes.
If the option is there, should you seek shelter or stay out at sea? It is entirely down to personal judgement. Will you be able to get through the harbour entrance in a storm? Will you be sheltered inside with this wind direction? Is there a bar at the river entrance? Will you be able to find that inlet? The old adage is ‘In a storm it is better to stay out at sea’ and this may well still be true – even if land is temptingly close. I remember coming back from an expedition in the far north west of Greenland where Polly and Tash, two of ‘Bob’s Angels’, had made the first ski traverse along the 30km ridge of Herbert Island. We put into Barden Bugt for a night’s sleep – it had been an exacting expedition – and next morning picked up our anchor to continue on south. Suddenly 40 knots of wind slammed in from the east. ‘I am not putting out to sea in that’, I said to myself.
We put the engine on, turned round and slowly, at high revs, pushed back against the wind. ‘Please may the engine last,’ I heard Polly praying. It was not till we had two anchors down and a heavy weight down one of the anchor chains that we felt safe, sheltering behind terminal moraine from a glacier stretching out into the bay. We kept checking that the wind did not go round and drive us up against the moraine, but we slept well and the wind moderated next morning.
I have made very few modifications to my 33ft Westerly Discus sloop. My son built me a fibreglass cuddy in place of a sprayhood, which might burst in strong weather. I fitted a trysail track and an inner forestay with a furling blade jib fitted which can be rolled from a No. 3 jib to a storm sail. This saves having to go forward to the foredeck in stormy conditions and it is good to bring the centre of effort further back, balancing the boat better in strong winds. I do have a liferaft, an EPIRB and a satellite phone in case of emergencies – the latter also being something of
a luxury as we can send emails. You see, we are wimps really, not completely cut off like the old masters were in the past…And just in case you are gaining the impression that we only sail in stormy conditions, we have been known to enjoy sunshine and fair winds!
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