Atlantic Challenge 2011

N 43° 39' W 08° 59'

Part 2: Biscay continued...

November 02, 2011

Saturday 22nd Day 5

I was starting to feel a bit uneasy, that something wasn’t right. The wind and swell were rising, and the pressure was falling. I realised that I hadn’t given the after (back) edge of the sail any protection stitches, so prepared for another battle and an early morning cold bath. At the very least it would give me peace of mind if we were in for a lumpy ride. While the tear was in my hands again, I popped another few into the front edge for good measure, and that was all I could do for the time being. Conditions continued to deteriorate throughout the day, with me steadily reducing sail area to keep in line with them.

I was lamenting the visit of the sock monster when I was packing my clothes. I wished I had taken more as a fresh pair was such a comfort in these conditions, but knew I had to ration the few I had.

My transponder was also giving me headaches. I’d taken loads of spare batteries (or so I thought), but hadn’t banked on just how quickly they were being used up. It was great idea for everyone’s peace of mind back home, but transmitting my position to some distant satellite every 10 minutes was a power luxury I could no longer afford. I sent a final “check in / ok” message, then turned it off. From now on I would just have to update it manually at hourly or greater intervals. When it came to rationing, my head torches had to take priority.

I carried on sailing until conditions became too bad, then hove to (where the boat is in a stable position but not moving) under one sail alone. I didn’t really plan to stop with the main, it just sort of happened like that. I’d rolled the genoa in completely, and had all three reefs in before I realised we’d stopped- due to the continuous passage of the waves I was still seeing a speed over ground on the GPS even if we were stationary relative to them. By now, conditions were so bad outside I couldn’t do anything about it. Rigging the inner forestay to fly the storm jib (a small, heavily stitched foresail rigged on its own detachable wire stay) was no longer an option due to the necessary trip on deck. I kept in mind what my brother had said to me before I set off “I’ve no doubt you can do this, but the one thing that would stop you for sure is parting company with the boat”. I knew that going out on deck for anything other than an immediately life threatening situation was asking for trouble, and could be fatal in itself. I stayed put in the cabin, contemplating the situation, very very scared. So there I was, in a proper grown up gale, with a sail aloft which was only being held together with a few stitches I’d put in myself… and I am no sailmaker.

There is a saying, “the sea will always find the weak point”. On a boat it’s amazing how quickly one failure will lead to the next weakest link in the chain breaking, and so on and so forth. If the stitches failed, there was no doubt that the seam would immediately open, and right the way across. The flogging would be so bad, it may well tear the sail in two, leaving the top portion irretrievable, halfway up the mast. In such high winds, this would increase the loading on all the wire stays and their attachment points, until one of those broke. And then the next one. And then the mast would come crashing down potentially holing the hull. Even looking back now two days after the event, I still don’t believe that that chain of events was an unrealistic possibility by any means.

It suddenly occurred to me that despite having bought three brand spanking new dry sacks to use as emergency grab bags, not one contained anything more useful to me than my laptop computer and a load of toilet rolls! As valuable as they may be in other ways, neither would improve my chances if I had to leave in a hurry so I packed one up properly. As much as anything, it gave me something to focus on. I glanced at the liferaft and physically shuddered. The prospect of abandoning all five tonnes of my lovely safe Makatea in favour of something I could sling over my shoulder was not tempting, and certainly nothing I’d be doing before she actually sank from beneath me.

The motion was actually quite steady considering what was going on outside, but the noise was horrendous. Every now and then a wave would break over us, and throw us back a few metres. I kept checking that up was actually up. Despite not showing signs of a knock down at this point, if anything changed this was a good possibility. I grab-handed around the cabin lashing down anything that would injure me if thrown. I locked the cooker in position, and brought the transponder in from its usual home beneath the sprayhoood in case the whole lot was washed away. And then I sat and waited. And waited.

That was the most awful part, the not being able to have any more influence over what was coming. I was absolutely terrified, and I don’t mind admitting it. I spent the rest of the night and all the following day in and out of a fitful sleep of very strange dreams. They were all about people- Eve and my family, but also those who I have known in the past on any level such as people I went to school with. Although not in coherent sentances, I heard people I knew  speaking, and the familiar sounds of home… the mind does funny thins under stress. [Reading accounts of other singlehanded sailors since, it appears that hallucinations like this are actually quite common in such situations.] I managed to find a tanker also riding out the gale six miles from me who confirmed it was a force nine. I had no way of accurately measuring windspeed as when I had poked my anemometer out from behind the sprayhood, it promptly gave up the ghost and died. (I could only estimate the force from the conditions I was seeing which put it at 9- subsequent weather reports confirmed this.)

The last time I had been in really bad weather was with my longest friend Ben Lane, his brother Charlie and another great friend Mike Simms in 2006 when we’d set out to deliver a 46ft yacht from the Caribbean to the UK. The conditions were almost as bad, but even though the boat was nowhere near as solid as Makatea (and falling apart around us) I didn’t feel half as frightened back then. Safety in numbers maybe?

At one point in the morning I was contemplating my meteorology and the fact that I haven’t yet been able to print off synoptic charts using the SSB radio. I came to the conclusion that being on starboard tack must mean that the depression was to my right (west). Therefore, if I could gently sidle away eastwards I may be at least be able to do something to help myself so I decided I’d burn some diesel to help me along. I clipped on before creeping out into the cockpit; I needed to have a really good check to make sure that there were no stray lines overboard as a rope wrapped around the prop shaft was the last thing I needed right then. That done I fired up the engine and started trying to slide sideways across the wave fronts, taking great care with my angle of approach. Selecting the correct throttle and rudder was absolutely vital- I knew that altering our position relative to these waves significantly could be catastrophic if I wasn’t very careful. I carried on like this for an hour, feeling comfort from the reassuring thudding sound. Although the barometric pressure had risen ever so slightly, my approach didn’t appear to be making any real change.  I shut it down from inside (still in gear), took some anti sickness medication and went back to bed- telling myself that “all storms pass”.

By 18.00, I was sure that things were moderating. I was still contemplating setting up the storm jib, and still I decided against it. All I needed, I reasoned, was a small sail area set forward to hold the bows off the wind, and we could be moving again. (Remember, the mainsail had been keeping the boat hove-to by pushing from behind, the front into the wind.) I reckoned that although not ideal, a small triangle of the genoa (front sail) would do the trick, and crucially I could set that from the cockpit. I did. It worked. We were on our way.

 

Sunday 23rd, Day 6

…was spent going through the events. I was aware of how much the gale had knocked me both physically and psychologically. I felt weak in body and mind, partly due to the fact that I hadn’t been able to eat anything at all for more than 30 odd hours but was still working just as hard to sail the boat. Or was I? I was drained, but although I found myself being quick to take in sail when the wind was rising, I was slow to get it back up again when it fell. Reacting to the wind is important if we were to avoid languishing with not enough sail set. Wallowing around not getting anywhere wasn’t doing anything for my frame of mind either. I started making the odd mistake such as when I came on deck to find the cockpit winch handle missing; either the gypsies had had it away for scrap while I was sleeping, or I had left it in the drum. (As my friend Matthew “Bowler” Bennett would have said, “a schoolboy error…”)

 I couldn’t afford not to be thinking straight and knew I needed to make some changes, so started by clearing up the cabin and forcing myself to eat something. Two slices of my dad’s homemade bread and butter was what I’d been keeping until it was really needed, and now was the time. I also managed half a banana, a spoonful of custard and a cup of water. Well it was a start at least.

 

Monday 24th, Day 7

I was determined I was going to be more on the ball with keeping the boatspeed up and spent all day chasing it. I had definitely improved in my ability to find the optimum sail settings, but was still wishing that my brother JonB or friend David Chasney Evans were there to give me some pointers!

With all of this fine tuning came a lot of dressing. For any operation which may mean having to go forward I couldn’t afford not to be able to quickly. This meant that for even something as simple as tacking (where the boat’s head is turned through the wind) I would have to be in full sea kit; boots, foul weather jacket and trousers, harness, hat, gloves, knife and +- head torch. Quite often this takes longer than the job itself, but what if I am caught out? If a sheet (rope to control a sail) gets snagged on the way across and starts flogging wildly, do I say “I’ll risk it just this once”, or leave it to destroy itself while I get my harness on? Definitely not a chance worth taking…

 

 

Tuesday 25th, Day 8

Quite a big swell today, but also great WNW F6 wind. Although this means the motion is lively, we are currently making fantastic speed towards Spain- 5.8 knots at last glance to the GPS! I have finally been able to type this up from all the scraps of paper I had kept over the week. All’s well on board, and I’m aiming to finally close the land tomorrow morning and enjoy the champagne that my friend Pauline Warner had given me to mark the occasion.

Camarinas is looking like the favourite, but I need to find a sailmaker and also an agent for the company which supplied the brand new wind generator. Ever since screaming along in the gale it has been progressively deteriorating, and now sounds very like the bearings from my knackered old boat trailer- with added grit. I also need to repair the wobbly saloon table which hasn’t been quite right since I body slammed it a few days ago. Still, if that’s the worst that has come from this passage, I will be very happy!

I can’t get over how well Makatea has looked after me so far. It really is very difficult to see something which has kept you alive in that way as an inanimate object, as nothing more than wood and fiberglass. My friend Jenna Lane sent me a quote by Vito Dumas from “Alone Through the Roaring Forties” which sums up how I felt beautifully  ‘From the bottom of my heart I thanked the boat, I talked to her with endearments that fled down the howling wind.’

 

Wednesday 26th Day 9

How things can change in a few short hours. We’d been eating up the miles while tearing down the 9 degrees West line. Makatea was firmly in charge of the sailing, with me strictly hands off and feeling like we were actually flying! We made it right down to the decision point between Camarinas and La Coruna, when the wind backed, and against the tide. Neither option was going to be easy pickings now especially as both wind and swell were building, but as we were 30 miles or so from either, things couldn’t go against us at this point surely? It was time for the weather forecast. Whatever they threw our way we were as good as there now so it didn’t really apply. I listened to it anyway, if only to feel smug that we were only a few short hours from finishing our Biscay crossing.

 “Southerly storm warning imminent… Finisterre” The word ten was in there too which filled me with horror. The Beaufort wind scale is often misinterpreted where people think that the steps are equal; i.e. a five is 25% of a force four again. Not so. As the wind force is proportional to the square of the windspeed, each extra marker gives an exponential rise in the pain it causes.

If my optimism was taking a knock, it was about to receive a hammer blow. Less than a minute later I heard and felt the unmistakable sound of flogging sailcloth and dived outside. My sail repair which had borne out a force 9 had just decided it could take no more and failed. As I’d feared it had split right through the sail, tearing it in half. The top section was completely independent of the bottom, and the violent action was sending shockwaves right through the rigging and hull. 30 odd miles from finishing a 600 mile passage, in a force seven with yet another gale around the corner..! I could have lain down and cried except that I didn’t have the time.

Clipping on, I dived on deck to tame it before serious rig damage resulted. Having bought myself some breathing space I paused to ponder my options- continue to make for either port, or stay at sea? Contrary to natural instincts and however uncomfortable, it is often safer to be out at sea in really bad weather if making port safely cannot be guaranteed. One thing for certain was that I was not going to sit back and accept it like a passenger this time, I was determined to either get going again and escape the worst, or at least occupy myself better. First job was to ready the cabin again, re-securing everything I’d lashed down previously. I made a flask of hot soup, and another with water as I didn’t want to attempt to use the stove in those conditions. I even found the two audio books I had brought along in case I was too sick to read.

Next on the list was to set the storm jib on its removable forestay. This took about an hour with four trips around the deck moving inch by inch, having to double harness while moving around obstacles to stay secured. This felt more like the Southern Ocean than a few miles from a country many take their summer holidays in! Having managed to get this small foresail up and driving, I paused to look at the chart. If I headed west for Camarinas I ran a much greater risk of being hit by a ship in the “pinch point” around Finisterre. Could I make east for La Corunna instead? With no mainsail I just wasn’t going to be able to aim high enough in the Southerly wind, and would simply drift with the tide.

What I really needed was the spare mainsail; the downside was that this would involve removing the old one (plus the self stowing system) from the boom, a job which usually takes two people on a sunny calm day in the harbour. There was no question however- there weren’t two people available, and doing something had to be better than nothing. I then spent the next two hours on deck painstakingly stripping down the boom. This was made all the more difficult when I lost some lines up the mast. A wave caught us broadside on, and I let go for an instant to stay aboard- then saw the cat’s cradle of lazyjack lines wrapping themselves around whatever they could 15 feet up. If I was to stand any chance of setting another sail now, these would also have to be removed. Armed with a boathook and harness, I climbed the lower part to retrieve the offending bits of string, before hacking them away with my safety knife.

After what seemed like hours, I eventually had the spare mainsail on. The downside was that the reefing method for this sail was outdated, and didn’t allow me to set it efficiently on my own. Although I was making a few more degrees to the wind, it was still not going to be sufficient. It looked like another bad night was in store, made all the worse by being so close to the shipping lanes this time…

An hour or so later, I was alarmed to see a ship on the AIS on a collision course. Speaking with them on the radio, they were concerned about my predicament and asked if there was anything I needed. I explained my situation via the shore link, saying that I’d really like a tow but was concerned about the cost. (For all I knew, the Spanish system could allow a vessel to claim salvage for rendering assistance.) The nice lady on the radio assured me that it “won’t be much for your little boat, don’t worry…” Ever so grateful, I accepted and soon after was snug on a berth in La Coruna. Then came the small matter of payment. The “not much” fee turned out to be the princely sum of 632 euro! My initial thought was that the skipper had got his decimal place muddled up, sadly a look at the figures confirmed that there were no problems with his maths.

It’s taken me some time to get over this. My only comforts are that 1) I didn’t have to ride out yet another really bad blow, and 2) if I had stayed out and the mast had come down, it would have cost more than £9000- and possibly my life.

 

 

(Later)

 

So there you have it, you’re up to date. I am currently holed up in La Coruna sorting out the damage, before getting underway once more. I’m safe and well, and fortunate to never have had to use the special “life preserver” my colleagues at work gave me.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about what I want to do now over the last few days, i.e. whether or not to carry on with the trip. The truth is that even when things were looking really bleak and I was terrified, I never actually thought “I wish I hadn’t come” (even if I did wish I wasn’t there at the time). I always said I wanted to have an adventure, and this is definitely fitting the bill. I’m going to push on for now with an open mind; if I change my plans for whatever reason and I do decide to come back, I hope people will understand that I’ll have given it my best shot. And it can be tough out there you know!

p.s. if anybody can spare a few quid for my charity Nightingale House Hospice Wrexham, please feel free on http://www.justgiving.com/Tom-Williams7 thanks.

 

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