Randall Reeves leaves the storm jib in its bag while braving the Southern Ocean to prove that speed is safety when storm sailing
Storm sailing lessons learned
The first major blow of my first Figure 8 Voyage attempt – a solo circumnavigation of both the American and Antarctic continents in one season – stated the difficulties of storm sailing well enough, but I missed the clues, writes Randall Reeves.
It was December 17, 2017. My 45ft heavy displacement expedition sloop Moli (Mo) and I were 49 days out of San Francisco, crossing 52º south and on final approach to Cape Horn, when we were overtaken by an intense low packing steady winds to 50 knots and gusts to 70.
During the later stages of this gale, Mo was pushing on under storm jib when a knockdown gushed just enough water through the companionway hatch and into the pilothouse to find and short-out the autopilot junction box.
Though disappointing, this was not particularly worrying as, at sea, the autopilot is relegated to the role of a backup device.
Three days later, at 56º south and 400 miles west of the Great Cape, a non-serviceable, welded part on the windvane failed in a fresh northwesterly.
It took six long and cold days of 12- to 18-hour tricks at the tiller to make Bahia Cook, the sheltered waters of Chile’s Beagle Channel and then on to Ushuaia, Argentina for repairs.
Once back on the Figure 8 Voyage route for the Cape of Good Hope and several damage-free gales later, I had begun to feel a certain ease with what the south could dish up.
I knew, I thought, what to expect and how to handle the boat as winds and seas increased and rotated slowly on their circuit from northwest to west to southwest.
My comfort, as I would find, was in fact misplaced.
Storm sailing: second knockdown
The second major blow of this first attempt overtook us in the Indian Ocean.
On the weather charts, the system looked nothing special until it slid under Africa, where it would intensify, treble in size and grow uniformly round.
A week after the GRIBs fair warning, I had worked Mo to the north and near Cochon Island, in the Crozet group (46ºS 50ºE).
By now I wasn’t particularly worried.
This latitude put us in a less intense quadrant of the system where mean winds were forecasted to be 35 knots.
Even after adding my customary 10 knots to the prediction, what was coming looked to be a very manageable bit of weather.
I doused the main and working headsail in favour of the storm jib in the late afternoon of 17 February.
The barometer had dropped from a high of 1012 the previous noon to 996 and winds were now from the northwest at 35 knots with gusts in the 40s.
This change of sail left Mo under-powered and she slowed markedly, yawing a bit in the troughs, but I wanted a set of sail that would take us through a night of growing wind and seas.
I recall being seated in the pilothouse at 1900 when a comber knocked the boat flat to starboard.
By this time night had fallen and had brought with it a heavy deck of cloud and pelting rain.
Nothing of the outside world could be seen, save for the pale glow of a grey-beard as it raced aboard.
The boat rolled deeply from the hit.
Water flooded into my lap through the one dorade vent I’d left unplugged.
From the companionway hatch I searched the deck for damage and found that the force of the fall had bent Mo’s starboard rail in over the cockpit winches.
The rail, made of thick-walled aluminum tubing, also held a 200-watt solar panel, which took the sea flat in the face and shattered.
At this point, our average speeds through the water were within what I considered a safe range (I noted 5-7 knots over the ground).
However, even at such a pace, Mo still could stall out in the troughs.
This meant that my desired course – one of slightly quartering the sea – could become exaggerated, and without sufficient water over the rudder, the windvane had no countermove.
Wind remained in the 40s, and several hours later we were pushed over again.
From my bunk I could hear the sea approach above the already intense din of the gale.
A thundering sound at first, and then just as the wave hit, a much louder, high-pitched hissing, as if a jet liner were crash landing on the coach roof.
A gaping hole
Now there was the faint grey glow of dawn.
I could see that the veering wind had begun to expose Mo’s port side to a difficult northwesterly sea, so I gybed to starboard, taking the dominant westerly sea slightly on the starboard quarter.
This seemed to give the boat a cleaner approach to both the northwesterly and westerly wave train. This, I thought, would be a safer ride. I was incorrect.
An hour later I heard the thundering and hissing again. Mo was lifted and slammed over, a much harder knock than the first two.
Water poured into the pilothouse. The boat righted and the water continued pouring.
It cascaded thick and green over the chart plotter, over the navigation desk.
An ankle-deep river flowed over the cabin sole.
In the confusion, it took several minutes to see the problem: the gale had shattered a pilothouse window. I pumped bilges while I thought through how to stop the hole.
I am Mo’s fourth owner.
All previous owners – including solo, non-stop circumnavigator, Tony Gooch, in his then named Taonui – had sailed the boat into the harm’s way of high latitudes.
She had even suffered a full roll in a South Atlantic blow, east of Uruguay.
As I knew no previous difficulties had stove in a window, I had foolishly allowed the fashioning of storm shutters to fall from the prep list.
Now I’d have to get clever.
When the pumps sucked air, I retrieved two bunk boards from the forepeak and bolted them together, one on each side of the broken window frame.
They were not quite the right shape and left small voids on two corners, which I filled with silicone.
The next step, making Mo safe, had only one solution I could think of, deployment of the Jordan Series Drogue.
That done, we were finally under control.
The knockdown had destroyed most of Mo’s electronics – the single sideband radio, satellite communications and AIS units were beyond recovery, as was the AA battery charger.
Without these I had no way to access weather forecasts, no way to see or be seen automatically by shipping, nor could I maintain lights for night work.
These, plus a questionably patched window, convinced me of the need for a repair stop in Hobart, Tasmania, some 4,000 miles further on.
This stop would effectively end my Figure 8 Voyage attempt for that year.
The long sail home to San Francisco from Hobart for the second attempt gave me ample opportunity to lick my wounds and assess errors.
From the very beginning, I had intended to manage heavy weather following the example of heroes like Vito Dumas and Bernard Moitessier – that is, to keep sail flying, to push on even in the worst of weathers.
But if it had worked for them and in vessels so similar to my own, why had it not worked for me?
Only by chance did I recall a line by Rolf Bjelke in Time on Ice: ‘Speed is safety.’
Like me, Rolf favoured the ‘keep sailing’ heavy weather approach, but he added a stipulation I had ignored.
Early in both of the damaging blows, I put Mo under storm jib alone, a mere 175 square feet of sail.
And though I noted how, even in gale force winds, it slowed our progress, I was eager to conserve my own energy by flying a set of sail that would carry us through to the end.
This tactic also dovetails with one’s natural inclination, which is to establish order in chaos by slowing things down.
During the early and middle stages of a gale, such a manoeuvre may have no adverse consequence, but in the latter stages, when the blow is easing, the seas can quickly grow and become severe.
Wave speed follows the same formula as does hull speed – the bigger the wave, the faster it travels – and a big sea is travelling at many times that of a small, heavy displacement boat.
Moreover, by this time mature and breaking wave trains may be approaching from the several directions the wind has sustained during the blow.
With so little sail, I was leaving Mo underpowered precisely when she needed power to survive.
While sailing for home, I vowed to leave the storm jib in its bag during the second Figure 8 Voyage attempt and to take all heavy weather on the roller furling working jib.
This would have several advantages.
Not only would Mo be flying more sail for more speed, as conditions changed, her skipper could make frequent sail adjustments without having to go forward.
A new approach to storm sailing
Our first storm sailing test of the second attempt came in the South Pacific on 22 November 2018.
Mo and I were passing through 49º south, and again we were making for the Horn when we were overtaken by a northwesterly blow of Force 8 and 9 lasting four days.
By day two, my little grey boat was surrounded by great blue heavers with long troughs and cascading tops.
On a deeply reefed working jib, but which carried over twice the sail area of the storm jib, Mo rushed along with a steadiness that thrilled me.
Several times she surfed straight down a massive wall, throwing a bow wave whose roar rivalled that of the gale. But she never faltered.
Standing watch in the security of the pilothouse and amid this orchestrated madness, I felt my satisfaction growing. This was working.
Now we had a chance at a full circuit of the south, I thought.
Soon I found myself whistling happily with the whine in the rigging.
Only later did I recall with embarrassment that whistling in such weather is terribly bad luck.
Forthwith, I scrawled instructions on a piece of duct tape fastened to an obvious bulkhead by way of reminder, ‘No whistling allowed!’
My strategy for getting around the Southern Ocean was simple: stay as far south as I dared.
There were two reasons for this; one was that at my target latitude of 47º south, the circumference of the circle from Cape Horn to Cape Horn again was almost 2,000 miles shorter than at the more typical rounding latitude of 40º south.
Secondly, Mo would wallow in fewer calms.
The monstrous lows that march endlessly below the capes tend to hoover up everything around them, leaving vast tracts of windless ocean in between.
The further north of the lows one sails, the longer last the calms, the further south, the more consistent the wind.
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As it happened, a lack of wind would not be a problem during this passage.
By early December Mo and I were above the Falklands and had turned to the east when a powerful closed low swung in from the north.
Its winds built during the day but really came to force overnight with the anemometer touching 45 knots and gusting much higher.
The main had been doused, the boom lashed to its crutch, and the working jib was deeply reefed.
The sea continued to build.
Near midnight, I was dozing fitfully in my bunk when I felt Mo lift sharply; then there was a slam as a black wall hit the cockpit and companionway hatch; the boat rolled well over and then righted, and I could hear the tinkling and splashing of water in the pilothouse.
My heart sank at the thought that we’d yet again broken something vital – that my second approach to heavy weather was equally as wrong as the first.
Grabbing a flashlight, I crawled into the pilothouse but found there no shattered glass.
In the cockpit, the dodger’s plastic door had been ripped open and the windvane’s air paddle had vanished.
We had been badly pooped, but all that streaming wet below was from nothing more than the wave squirting in between the companionway hatch and the locked companionway slide.
I quickly swapped in a new paddle and Mo raced on.
As part of the Figure 8 Voyage, Mo and I would go on to complete a full 15,343-mile, 110-day circuit of the Southern Ocean that included two roundings of Cape Horn.
On average, we were overtaken by one gale a week, the storm jib stayed in its bag, and Mo sailed through all without incident.
First Voyage Lessons Learned
- Often the most dangerous seas while storm sailing will be encountered in the latter stages of a gale; when wind first eases, waves can stack up and become severe.
- In general, the larger the wave, the faster it travels, and a big sea is moving at several times that of a small, heavy displacement boat.
- Current can cause waves to be higher and steeper. After returning home I learned that during the Indian Ocean gale, Mo was likely in an area affected by unusual current. Near the Crozet Islands the bottom quickly shelves and over this some tongues of the Agulhas current are not unknown.
- When storm sailing, speed is safety. A fast-moving vessel slows the apparent speed of the approaching wave and provides for more rudder control.
- Letting storm shutters fall from the preparations list because no previous owner had needed them was a big error
Second Voyage Lessons Learned
- In general, the second, successful, attempt served to confirm the learnings of the first, that keeping boat speed up increases vessel control and thus, safety while storm sailing.
- ‘Keep the water out,’ was Eric Hiscock’s only advice for making a safe Southern Ocean passage, and this is actually quite difficult to do. During the second Figure 8, all dorade vents were sealed with stainless steel covers, and I learned to double-lock the companion-way hatch so as to create a tight seal. Still, the water gets in, and it seems one is continually mopping up below.
- Even if one does not intend to use it, having a stopping drag device, like the Jordan Series Drogue, provides for an emergency solution when all other tactics have failed. During the second attempt, the JSD was used only once and then for the purposes of keeping Mo from losing ground in a strong but contrary blow.
- Whistling in heavy weather is bad luck and should be discouraged. The prudent sailor will make every effort to control his brimming satisfaction at finding his vessel swimming with confidence in the worst of Southern Ocean snorters by refraining from wind-driven melodies at all costs.