John Simpson has kindly written for us once again – this time about a trip that involved some strong winds (a subject that fascinates every sensible sailor), and an intriguing tale of survival in his own personal nature reserve. Thanks John!
It was late in the year to take my little 22ft yacht Miss Content south to the Canaries from England and the news from the Coastguard (CG) at Pendennis Castle in Falmouth wasn’t good. The jet stream had moved south and low pressure systems were tumbling in to UK – and I’d already sat out a storm force (F) 10 north-westerly blow in the harbour waiting to sail.
The fact that I’d done the trip three years before in the same boat didn’t help my state of mind – that run had taken 29 days of hard slog. The weather wasn’t going to improve quickly and the forecast for the next day was better than before. So I started my final preparations by topping up the water cans and buying fresh food etc, and we sailed at noon the next day – the 29th October.
My strategy was to go west at least 100nm from Lands End before heading South to give us a good offing. The classic Ocean Passages for the World suggested this and, while the book was originally written in the days of square rigged sail, my little yacht with no engine needed sea room just like the old timers!
By 0600 the next day we were hove-to under storm jib in a SW gale; some 9 hours out of the first 27 were spent like this. It wasn’t exactly a fast start. The third day was worse, not in terms of wind but because of poor visibility. Two container ships passed by very close in the afternoon in going fast, which was bloody frightening. I took the view that it was better not to look and went below…
The next day I was so tired I forgot to log down when I started heading south. All night in SW F6-8 wind I’d been awake with fishing boats and big ships. A light plane twice buzzed me around midday. Was that the French safety people?
We had had two gales already.
These are the joys of single-handed sailing in the Western approaches in a small boat.
On the fifth day, a Sunday, I threw out the lamb chops I’d bought in Falmouth. The paraffin stove had packed up as it often did in bad weather, and I used my spare gas stove to cook. Up to that point I’d been too apprehensive to eat much! The wind was down to SW F4-6 so we plodded on with two reefs and the number 4 jib, and I used the little generator under the spray hood in the cockpit to do some much-needed battery charging. I was very overtired, but got the sextant out to try and establish my position.
Large rain clouds cut down the visibility during the night. At dawn a ship stood off me (perhaps to render assistance) as I came out of a massive rain cloud. There are some good seamen about.
By 1030 it was NW F6-7 and I was driving Miss C hard, for I had a fair wind at last!
The forecast was now very encouraging, with a high 1032 moving into sea area Sole 150nm west of us, which meant we might break south.
Another big ship passed me by to port on a parallel course heading for Cape Finisterre (the southern end of the Bay of Biscay). Lunch was delayed till 1500 when he was clear. We were sailing flat out, and he took awhile to overtake.
On day 7 lighter fair winds allowed me to obtain a better position but progress wasn’t good. At 1400 the block on the jib halyard failed, so I used the spinnaker halyard. The sea would have to be pretty calm to enable me to go to the top of the mast to fit a spare.
Guy Fawkes day 5th November allowed me to catch up my missed sleep from the western approaches, as I was becalmed. There was a lovely orange sunrise – the best I’d seen for a long time.
I repaired the cooker (it had two blocked jets) and cleaned up the galley area which was black with soot. A ground swell discouraged me from going up the mast.
A huge school of dolphin passed by astern of me (I was going so slowly they didn’t want to play), and then a spider came out of the wind vane tubes and spun a web! How did he survive in there?
I picked up a light NW wind and at dusk spent hours watching ‘George’ (the wind vane) doing the steering. It was one of those moments you never forget with the boat humming along at hull speed in a flat sea. Magic!
The wind was very light again the next day and I was getting frustrated with my lack of progress. The temperature is well up like yesterday and I’m tempted to change out of my woolly bear but I’d gone through one set of dry clothes and decided not to risk another. There was only me to put up with my smell, after all.
The next three days were also slow in terms of progress. I was well behind my first trip position by 250nm in the equivalent time because of bad weather followed by calms. The barometer was dropping and I was back to headwinds again, but a last we were sailing at 4/5 knots without being stopped by the seas yet.
Conditions continued to be very unsettled with the wind strength up and down, mostly ahead, with a shallow low until the 11th Nov… Cape Finisterre was astern at last, and the wind swung NW fair and strong.
Two days later the 13th lived up to its reputation with stronger headwinds and I ended up hove-to, suddenly after midnight the wind veered as a cold front came through giving us WNW F8. This was the worst night of the entire trip with a shocking sea, black as Hades, cold and bloody wet. We ran off under storm jib with flat batteries due to the lack suitable conditions for charging in the past few days!
It was a real bummer and meant that with no navigation lights I could not get any sleep.
Things changed for the better after that with a high pressure system and strong fair winds (mostly F5/6) which blew us all the way to Lanzerote. By the 17th November, after 19 days at sea, I passed my earlier trip’s position by 19nm and then accelerated to arrive in Playa Blanca after 23 days on 21st Nov.
I’d had quite a lot of strong wind sailing for a little boat. My resident guest, the spider, came out and spun another web.
When I phoned my sister who lived in France she seemed surprised. I think she’d thought I’d drowned.
Apparently another Briton in a 22ft yacht had gone missing in Biscay and France’s best single-handed racing sailor had drowned in the Route du Rhum. Even Eric Tarberly had abandoned his tri as they raced into a deep low off the Azores.
Janet whom I’d not known that long hadn’t worried. She’d decided the missing Briton couldn’t be me (for various reasons) plus she felt she would have known!
It seemed Miss Content and I had been very lucky compared with some other souls…
What did I learn about strong wind sailing in little boats?
The first thing is to avoid them if you can! This was an extremely rough trip and not really like the sailing I like to do, which is usually fun, not longish trips in cold bad weather but day sails with the occasional overnighter.
Miss Content and I had done one Atlantic circuit already; she had been beefed up and I was confident in her seaworthiness in bad weather but she had still opened up on the port-side hull to deck joint, however.
My route had given us plenty of sea room. In sailing the position of the boat in relation to land can be important and often tends to determine strategy: if out sailing and conditions turn rough, where is the best port of refuge, or should the skipper find some sea room so the boat isn’t blown ashore.
Other factors also come into play to influence our final decision if we are out sailing in rough weather, such as wind direction, tidal constraints, navigational hazards, and crew strength plus boat size and type. Force 6 in a mini-cruising yacht is of course the equivalent to force 8 in a bigger one…
It is sometimes better to turn back on a passage if against strong wind or tide; otherwise the fun can become a dangerous slog. Any port of refuge has to be checked out for constrains like tidal overfalls, rocks, depth etc. preferably before leaving, when planning the trip.
If the port or ports of refuge involve risking your boat and your life it is sometimes better to stay at sea, particularly if the weather is getting worse! Only you can make this tactical choice given each individual set of circumstances.
So what methods do you have in your armoury if you decide to stay at sea?
Again this depends very much on the conditions, the type of boat and your own personal choice. On Miss C I used these three most often:
- Heaving-to (backing the jib to windward and lashing the tiller to leeward)
- Laying a-hull (taking down the sails and using rubber bungees to hold the tiller amidships).
- Running off downwind (streaming warps with fenders tied in the middle to disrupt the crests)
I used option 3 when the first two looked like they weren’t working due to the size of the seas and breaking waves. I also carried a sea anchor/drogue on the boat but didn’t ever use it in anger. Perhaps it would have been better than running off?
In the infamous ‘79 Fastnet we ran off the half-tonner I was racing on streaming warps, but we still managed to roll three times (360degrees). She was a light displacement boat for her time- nowadays boats can be even lighter. So ballast ratio is something worth thinking about if you want to sail long passages in a small boats, safely.
When I read Larry and Lynn Pardey’s books they seem to recommend using a sea anchor from the bow of the boat in extreme conditions. During my sailing in Miss Content, although I had bad conditions, I certainly never encountered extreme conditions, thank goodness.
The Pardey’s have done more miles in small boats than anybody else currently voyaging so they are certainly worth reading. Most sailors I know read all they can on this subject – one day what you have read may help find a good solution in extreme conditions.
The wind strength and the length of the fetch (distance the wind can blow over the sea) determine wave size, which is why ocean sailing in small boats can be more hazardous.
When coastal sailing the major problem may be the lack of sea room – ie, the distance you can allow the boat to be blown before hitting a lee shore. So if the weather allows you time to seek refuge this must be a better option.
Finally if it all goes really bad, as happened to a friend of mine (option Z perhaps?) you could choose your place and deliberately put the boat ashore! Sounds bad but it worked without totally wrecking the boat and no loss of life. But it’s not the sort of decision I’d like to have to make.
Sailing as safely as possible in strong winds really comes down to having a well-found boat and a good crew, making the right choices at the right time, and having Lady Luck!