A beautiful Atlantic cruise turns into a heavy weather situation for Maarten Zeeuwen

On 3 May we set off under a beautiful Portsmouth sky, on a journey to the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean.

It was the first long passage of a 5-month sailing adventure.

Under normal conditions we would expect to cover the distance of almost 1,400 nautical miles of open ocean in around 9 days, non-stop. We sailed out of the famous Solent via the ever-impressive Needles.

A yacht approaching the Needles channel, Isle of Wight

Heading out through the stunning Needles channel

Luna is a fully equipped and strong-built Wauquiez Pilot Saloon 47, designed for offshore blue water cruising. On board we had a highly motivated crew of four: Steve Woods, a multiple Fastnet competitor from the UK, Rebecca Mitchell, a racer from the UK, Kay Polders, an adventurous sailing enthusiast from the Netherlands and myself, the owner and skipper.

Luna was loaded with provisions and fuel, technical checks carried-out and safety equipment for every scenario. The weather was thoroughly checked and with our communications equipment on board we could keep a close look on the weather forecast.

The first couple of days were ideal sailing conditions: Sunshine, 10-20 knots of wind and bitterly cold, but there was no complaints. The great feeling of a well-functioning watch-keeping rhythm, disconnection from hectic daily life, sunrise, sunset, happy hour at 1700 and of course, the daily dolphin visits.

It was pure magic to feel the force of nature driving the bow of the boat through the water!

An unexpected depression
Often while sailing, we are confronted with unexpected situations. On 6 May we got an indication on our Navtex station that a low-pressure system heading from the North Atlantic to Great Britain was deviating from its expected track and looked like it was going to cross our path.

The pressure was forecast around 999 millibars with force 6-7 Beaufort winds to be expected.

We started to prepare for some heavier weather, double-checking everything, preparing heavy weather sails and preparing food in advance. No heavy weather without good food.

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New weather updates showed the pressure deepening to 980 millibars with strong gale warnings and very rough sea state plus some more interesting weather systems possibly becoming significant for us.

Now things got a bit more exciting but as we were in the relative safety of deep water and land was a day away anyway, the best option was to enjoy the ride.

The weather arrives

Late afternoon on 7 May the storm hit with force 8 to 9 winds, heavy rainfall, thunder and 6 metre waves with a forecast for further increase later. Just before dark some damage started to occur. The radar scanner went overboard, the connection between the autopilot drive unit and rudder snapped, we ripped the 1-month-old heavy weather sail and one hatch started to let water in after being pulled by a rope. Well, we had our real adventure now! Time to make decisions.

Deploying the drogue

Being the owner and skipper the safety and wellbeing of the crew is my responsibility. To survive the increasing weather and sea conditions and minimise the damage I decided to stop the yacht and deploy our parachute sea anchor. We deployed this piece of deep water survival equipment over the bow. The parachute opened a few meters under the water and kept our bow pointing into wind and waves. I think this is how the ship can take the forces of nature best. I broadcasted a VHF securite message and with the satellite phone I informed the Dutch Coastguard about our situation. The boat was closed off, we stayed securely inside and got as much rest as possible to ride out the storm.During the night conditions became more hostile with 50+ knots winds and huge waves. There was not a sign of human life anywhere around us and the parachute anchor did a perfect job keeping us almost stationary as the boat was smashed around by the waves. The landings on the water sometimes sounded like canons fired next to you. The main concern during the night was rudder damage, which could mean sinking of the yacht. We weren’t looking forward to a temporary relocation to our cosy life raft.

To Vigo

We stayed calm and the rudder remained intact. In the morning conditions calmed down. New weather updates showed that ‘our’ storm had gone to South Portugal, but a new depression with severe weather warnings was close to the Azores whilst another depression swirling around in the Gulf of Biscay. Taking into account the weather systems and the storm damage I decided to change our plan and set course to Vigo in Spain at two-and-half days distance. We informed the Dutch Coastguard about our decision and when we came closer to the Spanish coast we found that the Dutch Coastguard had already about our situation.

A yacht anchored at port

After a sustained period in heavy weather, it made sense to divert to Vigo

The Spanish Coastguard contacted us when coming into VHF reach to offer assistance should it be required. Knowing that the authorities work so efficient together keeping an eye on us, even from afar is a great and secure feeling.

An anchor on a pontoon

Drying out the sea anchor after arriving in Vigo

Thanks to excellent sailing conditions we were able to sail most of the distance to Spain and we arrived in Vigo on 10th May where sailing Yacht Luna underwent repairs.

Lessons learned

It was exceptionally interesting and fascinating to see how excellent teamwork, good equipment and a can-do attitude helps you through the worst of conditions.

A man helming a yacht in the Atlantic Ocean

Maarten Zeeuwen, 41, is from The Netherlands. He reguarly cruises he North Sea and South coast of England aboard his 47 foot Wauquiez Pilot Saloon. Credit: Rebecca Mitchell

Making long offshore passages is great but it is serious stuff where small errors or failures may have big consequences.

Here are some words of advice to help anyone else preparing for a long trip:

  • Safety first: Buy good safety equipment and make sure you and your crew know how to use it;
  • Get to know your ship: not only in harbour, but use all your equipment at sea during shakedown cruises to find out which adjustments must be made to make life on board easier and safer, the difference can be in the details;
  • Have experienced crew on board and organise equipment/safety briefings together;
  • Change your plans according to the circumstances, be decisive;
  • Inform the authorities about your plans and inform them in case of changes;
  • Communicate clearly to the crew and the authorities to minimise the risk of misunderstandings;
  • Don’t take things for granted, check and double check: You are on your own out there;
  • On a long passage bring a parachute sea anchor, in my opinion this is a relatively safe way to sit out heavy weather.

But the most important lesson of all is to just get out there, live your dream and do it!