Let Cobbler’s Boots or,
How Not To Do It…
An Atlantic Crossing, That Is
by Frank Pearce
Lucy did warn me, phoning from Horta, having just arrived as crew on the magnificent 140-foot Frers-designed Rebecca. She told me of predominant winds of 30 knots, reaching 40 knots, and huge seas. Rebecca had reduced to storm jib and trysail. “And it’s cold,” she said, “thermals, fleeces, oilskins needed.” And this on Rebecca.
Lucy made me promise to always be clipped on; she knows I am somewhat negligent in that matter. Lucy has made numerous Atlantic crossings to and from the Caribbean, two of which we did together, and for her to be signed on as crew on Rebecca shows that she knows a thing or two. Her warnings should have been taken seriously. I didn’t.
After sailing some 1,500 miles up and down the Eastern Caribbean islands during the 2009-2010 season and having taken part in various regattas, I was, in retrospect, complacent about the preparation of my 50-foot Sciareli-designed schooner, Samadhi, for the Atlantic. My previous five Atlantic crossings had been in relatively benign weather and I was looking forward to more of the same, catching some fish, playing a bit of music, reading some books at leisure, doing a few sail changes of course and getting out the old sextant for old times’ sake.
My crew, James, flew out from the UK, having taken a month off to do the trip. He and I have sailed a lot together and having him on board was the best bit of preparation that I did. The potential third crewmember was ultimately not available and by the time we were ready to go, most of the crew seeking positions had fled from Antigua, so it was just the two of us.
Samadhi, with her schooner rig, is beautifully balanced (more than can be said for me) and very easy to handle (ditto). We have an autopilot and an excellent Sailomat wind vane steering gear. My last crossing, aboard Whirlaway, a 42-foot teak-hulled Holman-designed sloop, had been singlehanded and no problem, so having two of us was going to be luxury.
Our initial intention had been to sail from Antigua to Anguilla. In Anguilla we could meet up with the new owner of Tradition, the 50-foot Carriacou sloop that I had previously refitted in Carriacou (see “The Tradition Project” in the October through December 2009 issues of Compass), wait for a good long-range forecast, and depart from there. But on leaving Antigua we had a brisk 25-knot easterly and were able to head off due north, so why drop down to leeward to Anguilla? We romped along, making good 165 miles in the first 24 hours.
I was taking forecasts from various US Coastguard stations and listening in to Herb Hilgenberg in the afternoons. Had we checked in personally with him on SSB he would have given us detailed weather advice for our area, as he was doing for about 20 other yachts on their way to the Azores. Herb had his work cut out as there were some nasty systems coming off the US East Coast, seemingly emanating from Guatemala and developing as they moved north towards Bermuda. His advice to other yachts I am sure saved many of them getting into foul weather by routing them either away from the systems or suggesting they stop and heave to until fronts had passed through.
When we left Antigua on May 20th it was the time of full moon — not ideal if there is prospect of heavy weather. As we sailed north, winds were often up to 30 knots or more, and the seas became huge when the strong full-moon current turned against the wind. Thirty knots of wind is not so unusual in the Caribbean, but the seas generated in mid-Atlantic, especially with a strong wind-over-tide situation, are another matter.
My lack of preparation was soon exposed. The decks, on what is a normally “dry” boat, were often under a depth of water and deck hatches that had appeared to be watertight were letting in water. I had failed to secure personal stuff properly down below and so guitar, squeeze-box and books were thrown all over the place. Bedding and bunks became soaking wet, and it was getting remarkably cold.
The only pressurized fresh water on Samadhi is to the “shower” in the cockpit: simply a trigger on the end of a tube stowed in the lazarette. I had just carelessly dropped it into the lazarette. Later, when going to use the shower, I found the pump was not working. Why? The trigger had caught on something and been pumping out our fresh water for goodness knows how long and the pump fuse had blown. Never mind the pump, how much water have we lost? Maybe one complete tank, half of our supply. Not good news.
Lying in my bunk, I heard the unfamiliar noise of water sloshing through the main bilge. Lifting the cabin sole I was alarmed to see how much water there was there. In 35 knots of winds with huge seas running, we lifted up the floorboards and pumped out the last dregs of water to check where it was coming from. After moving stuff around to gain access, crawling in beside the engine we eventually found water was draining into the bilge from right aft. How could that be? The lazarette hatch is on the aft deck. Seawater was rushing down the side decks, along the cockpit coaming and flooding overboard — in doing so passing over the lazarette hatch. This hatch had never needed to be sealed, yet. James caulked the hatch with rubber extrusion and the ingress of water stopped.
On past trips from the Caribbean to the Azores, I have preferred to be about 500 miles east of Bermuda to keep clear of dirty weather to the west. Then I kept going north until about 39 degrees North, before heading due east for the Azores — depending of course on the weather outlook. With so much northerly in it, we were hard on the wind, which was fine until during one night, when winds were again up to about 35 knots, the current started to run against the wind and suddenly the seas became huge. I should have slowed her down or even hove to, but from the comfort of my bunk (again!) Samadhi seemed to be coping well enough. Then she fell off two monster waves with sickening crashes. As I felt her lift over each wave and then become airborne, I lay there waiting for her to “land” — ouch.
Inspection below showed that a forward bulkhead had fractured in way of the foremast and there had been movement of other joints in the interior joinery work.
At the time we had no foremain set, had three reefs in the main and a tiny bit of jib; there was not much left to reduce. We really needed a strong storm jib hanked on to an inner forestay and a storm trysail, none of which we had. Using the 110-percent genoa rolled to pocket-handkerchief size is not satisfactory: the set of the sail is bad, it is halfway up the forestay and the material is not really strong enough. Changing down to a smaller yankee set in the groove of the foil was not a safe option in this amount of wind with only two crew.
A potential Tropical Cyclone was heading up towards Bermuda. (It truthfully could not be called a Tropical Cyclone until after the start of the hurricane season on June 1st, but that’s what it was.) We were then about 500 miles out of the Leewards, about 400 miles southeast of Bermuda.
Time for a council of war. “What you thinking, James?” “I was thinking how nice the Caribbean is!”
We called up coastguard weather on the sat phone, gave our position and received a most worrying report. Without exaggeration, they warned of seas up to 25 feet. Yes, really. Okay, moderating, but I should hope so! We either had to stop and heave to or turn and head south. With 2,000 miles to go and some damage, we decided on the latter. (It had been a trifle worrying that Maltese Falcon, at 290 feet overall, had been checking in with Herb and he had advised them to stay in Bermuda and let the weather settle down.)
Notwithstanding all the forecasts available to us, there had been no mention earlier of a feeder band, like a trough, extending west to east about 30 miles south of us. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Just when we had decided to head south and get out of it, here was this belt of serious weather in our way. Well, we’d either heave to and wait for it to pass over, or sail south through it and hope nothing blew out.
We dropped the main, took more rolls in the now very little jib, then the wind increased to more than 40 knots again. The size of the seas was something that in 55-plus years of sailing (help, am I that old?) I had never before encountered. If it were not a tad worrying it would have been exhilarating. I do believe that James had a grin on his face as Samadhi lifted to each of the huge seas and scudded down their backs.
Taking hourly stints on deck we sailed through the night. Samadhi behaved wonderfully and gave no cause for alarm, but would that scrap of jib hold out? It did, and in the morning we dramatically sailed out from under the heavy overcast clouds. The wind, of course, then went to the southeast with more heavy rain and poor visibility. But what else could we expect this trip but wind dead on the nose?
Eventually the seas calmed down and we even had to do a bit of motoring. When the rain cleared we got stuff on deck to dry out and started to get warm again. Three days later we were in Anguilla and pleased to be there, even if somewhat chastised by our experience and me being very cross with myself for not having assumed bad weather and prepared Samadhi for it. Sorry Lucy, sorry Samadhi — I’ll listen next time, promise! And thank you, James, for never being critical of my shortcomings in preparation, for always being cheerful and positive.
But, why “Cobbler’s Boots”? This could be called “Don’t do as I do, do as I say” but, like the old cobbler who walks around with the soles of his shoes hanging off, I as a Marine Surveyor had failed to follow the advice and requirements that I would request of others. Maybe it’s not a bad thing for the likes of myself to go to sea seriously now and again, if only to reaffirm my beliefs in how a vessel should be prepared.
What conclusions can one draw from the experience?
• Firstly, I should not have left at a time when I was really tired. This would also have avoided sailing at the time of full moon.
• I should have checked the watertight integrity of hatches and skylights with a serious hose test.
• I should have had heavy-duty storm sails. An inner forestay with hank-on storm jib and a storm trysail would have been so reassuring. With a small strong rig like that, Samadhi, being a very “sea kindly” yacht, would have jogged along and no doubt we would have avoided the damage caused by my driving her fast through big seas.
• As a rule of thumb I have often asked clients to consider what will happen in the event of a serious knockdown, something that would not have been unlikely in the wind and sea conditions we experienced. Will the cooker fall off its gimbals? What about batteries, gas cylinders and all that heavy gear in the bilges, maybe a spare anchor and chain, tools, portable generator, and the cabin sole itself — stuff normally secured by gravity that will fly up into the deckhead if she falls over badly? It happened twice to the Smeatons on Tzu Hang many years ago. Read their book Once is Enough: photographs of impact damage to their deckhead caused by flying tools and so on are alarming to say the least.
• Admittedly, we never came near to that, but we did find that moving about in the saloon became an acrobatic feat, largely because of insufficient handholds. Being thrown across the saloon to collide with the table could so easily cause injury. With big, beamy boats placement of sufficient handholds needs to be a serious consideration.
• A word about eggs! I simply stowed them in a locker in the forecabin. Bad place. Upon our return I found each and every egg was rotten and the yolks broken; I can only assume it was the severe motion that had scrambled them within their shells.
Many other yachts safely made the crossing at that time; some others turned back. Now Samadhi is back in Grenada, all the repairs have been done and she is stronger than ever. Hopefully we will have taken part in the Carriacou Regatta Festival by the time this is printed and can look forward to visiting Portugal next year.
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