OK, here's a piece about a storm in a 30' trimaran
- a Chaworth-Musters Triune. It's a bit long, and a bit old (only the radio
direction finder and sextant
to navigate with), but it describes a couple of efforts I made to deal with heavy weather
. It's taken from something longer - I just snipped it out.
I think tactics that work for one boat don't necessarily work for another. I have a catamaran
now, and it is a lot faster than the trimaran
was, and I'd be afraid to surf down the waves in such conditions, but for that trimaran, I think that was exactly right. You just have to get to know your boat, bit by bit, what works in what conditions. I think you can find out a lot of that information in moderate weather
. Just get to know your boat, and your confidence will grow.
I hope this isn't too long, but then, you don't have to read it!
On the first of January I sailed out of the harbour (Viareggio, Italy) on a light easterly. It was surprisingly warm and sky was clear. The following wind
was just enough to fill the sails
. I drifted out of the harbour glad to be back on the sea. By late afternoon the wind
started to increase quickly, still behind me from the east, perfect for my voyage. I reefed down to smaller sails
and as the waves started to build up behind me I soon lost
sight of Italy
in the growing gloom of dusk. The sky had taken on a distinct greenish tinge. I could see the barometer on the bulkhead from the cockpit
. It showed high pressure, very dry. I went down into the cabin
and gave it a light tap. The needle moved clockwise, and I realised the needle had dropped through ‘stormy’ and gone right round to the other side. I had had such light winds throughout the summer I had come to consider the whole of the Mediterranean
to be sheltered water
, and I was so convinced that I should take the boat out while nobody was around I had given little thought to the weather. I had after all sailed in the North Sea, the Biscay and down the Atlantic in winter, and I was confident that I could handle whatever the Mediterranean
could throw at me. But I had never seen my barometer read such a low pressure.
As if confirming my new fears, the wind now built up rapidly and I went on deck
to take in the mainsail
. I still had the working jib
up, and considered putting up the little storm jib
instead. But with the wind directly from behind, I was beginning to make very good progress towards the Gibraltar
Straits, my exit from the Mediterranean. I left the sails and went below to make a big pot of stew. There was a storm coming for sure, and I might not have the time or inclination to cook later. As the stew simmered, I went back into the cockpit
feeling a little anxious.
The waves were becoming lively and noisy as the wind grew and I left the lee of the land. As waves built up behind the stern and the foaming crests rose and threatened to crash down into the cockpit, the boat began to surf down the face of the wave, suddenly picking up speed from a fast eight knots to a frightening fifteen knots. The big sail up front was pulling the boat out from under the tumbling crests, and so long as that remained the case I felt I was safe. I decided to leave the big sail up and go for speed. The wind generator
was producing four amps, its’ maximum output, which it had only achieved before sailing to windward in a gale. But now we were running fast down-wind and still the wind blew with gale force strength over the decks.
As the sun sank, black clouds loomed in the east and the wind speed increased steadily. There was no question of turning back; I was now too far downwind to make it back against these waves. I had to prepare myself for storm conditions at sea, but with plenty of sea-room the best option was to carry on running downwind. I realised this wind could only be the notorious Mistral, a wind local to the Gulf of Genoa
and the south of France
which is funnelled down the Rhone valley. Somehow I’d managed to cast this knowledge to the back of my mind while I was planning the trip. But if the wind was so localised, perhaps I could use the speed of the boat to get out of the area. I might find more comfortable conditions further west.
Leaving the land further behind, the fetch of the waves increased and they grew rapidly in height. I went below and hurriedly ate a bowl of stew - it tasted disgusting but I had thrown a bit of everything in and it was bound to be nutritious. There was no time for larking about in the galley
. As I ate, I listened to the noise
of the wind through sails and rigging
, and the low howling of the wind generator
. I was so accustomed to the noises and the motion of the boat I could tell from inside the cabin
how the boat was performing. By the time I had emptied my bowl, the self-steering gear
had reached the limits of its abilities. As the boat began to surf down each wave and the speed picked up, the tiller was pushing so hard against the steering gear
that it was being forced backwards. I would have to steer by hand. I put on some more warm clothes under my waterproofs, filled the pockets of the jacket with a torch, a lump of bread, and a bar of chocolate, switched on the masthead light, and went outside.
Thick clouds had blotted out the last of the sun, and both sea and sky were a thick dark green, with most of the ambient light seeming to come from the phosphorescence released in the breaking crests. A world upside down with the light coming from below, eerily relentless howling in the rigging
, and the wind generator
humming and throbbing like a helicopter. I glanced at the instrument panel as I put two of the three washboards in the companionway
. 6 amps. Force 10 across the deck
, with the boat speed varying between ten and twenty knots. I’d never sailed this fast. The waves were high now - twenty feet or more - and very steep. It was too dark to see the waves clearly, but by the green light of the phosphorescence there was a good three feet of breaking crest on the top of most of them. I had to keep the stern of the boat square to the waves so that as we began to surf I would be able to keep control and go straight down the wave face. If I didn’t keep straight down the face of the waves, one side of the boat might dig in and we would be swept sideways down the wave and end up side on to the following crest. I steered watching the crests just behind me most of the time, staring into the green foam hanging a few feet from the stern. It was the waves I had to steer by now, not the compass
It was easier than I’d expected. It was just a matter of trying to keep the boat level laterally and a small movement of the tiller one way or the other as we began to accelerate down each wave was adjustment enough. After an hour I’d reached the occasional speed of twenty-five knots. A light appeared on the port side, the north Cape of Corsica
, and in half an hour it was gone again over the stern. I consoled myself with the thought that Gibraltar
was only twenty hours away at this speed, and if necessary I could stay at the tiller that long, but that was wishful thinking. The wind couldn’t stay the same over that distance. But at least I would be able to see out this wind through, and I revelled in the speed and grace of the boat, coping so well with the fury of the wind and the power of the steep waves.
An hour later, another light passed by - Calvi, on the northwest corner of Corsica
, and that too was gone over the stern in half an hour. By eleven o’clock the wind began to die down and I was almost disappointed. But it died down so fast that by midnight there wasn’t enough wind to fill the sail and the boat began to flounder helplessly in the remaining waves. I went to the bow and pulled down the jib
and tied it to the rail. Now the night sky was black, without a star visible. There was enough light around me to work on the deck without using the torch, but it seemed to be coming from below the surface of the sea. The waves seemed to be just as big as in the wind but having lost
their forward motion with the loss of the wind, they just heaved straight up and down or passed slowly through each other, sometimes joining together and sending great slops of water
straight up from the wave-tops. One moment the boat was lifted high on a peak, and the next it dropped down like in a fast lift
, so that I felt almost weightless. At the bottom of a trough the waves were so steep and close around that I felt almost able to touch them by reaching straight out from the deck.
I went below and made another cup of tea. It was only then, after all that time standing steering
and thinking silly thoughts about sailing 400 miles in 20 hours, that I realised what I’d sailed into. Hurricanes don’t happen in the Mediterranean, but whatever this storm might be called, I’d sailed downwind right into the eye of it. I had been so pre-occupied with keeping the boat level on each wave that I hadn’t thought ahead to what might come next. This wind was not an isolated event. It was part of a much bigger system. Great winds were circling around me, sending these huge waves inward to slop together harmlessly in the near silence of the centre. Soon the centre of the depression would pass over me, and the wind would start to blow just as powerfully from the opposite direction. When it came I would have to use as much of it as I could to get away from this area of confused seas, but for now, with everything fastened down on the deck there was nothing more constructive to do than to stay below and get some sleep.
I made up a bed
in the middle of the floor. It was surprisingly comfortable, and apart from a bit of rattling of ropes and blocks and the odd fizz of a bubbling wave rising close to the boat it was eerily quiet. I left the masthead light on and went to sleep, expecting to be woken soon by the arrival of the wind. I slept solidly, and on waking was very surprised to find that it was light. I had slept through the night, and it was still quiet outside. I stepped out to the cockpit into 6 inches of snow. Snow! And ice up in the rigging wires! I stared around the boat and out into the waves, amazed. The waves were still washing
up and down with the same wild exuberance, but all night not a drop had come aboard to spoil the thick layer of snow on the boat.
I had to clear the decks, but first I needed a cup of tea and a chance to think about the situation. I was amazed at finding snow in the Mediterranean. I had never heard of it. The boat was covered in it, and with the green seas heaving up and down, just beyond the snow-covered decks, it was like a scene to be expected off the coast of Iceland
, not the south of France
. My position, not much more than guesswork, was somewhere to the northwest of Corsica. The nearest port was Ajaccio, but there was very little chance I would be able to get there if the wind built up as fast as it had appeared the previous day. A wind from the western quarter would put me on a lee shore and without an accurate position to work from I couldn’t risk getting too close to land. I could only go further out to sea, and make as much ground against the wind as I could.
I drank my tea, and dressed in my warmest clothes. I felt around the coachroof and found the deck-brush tied to the handrail under the snow. The snow was light and powdery. I had expected it to be wet, almost melting, and I realised that the temperature was far below zero. It was easy to sweep the snow off the decks. It was a little harder to accept dealing with snow and ice in the Mediterranean. The ropes were frozen stiff and had to be shaken about to crack the ice off. I bashed the rigging wires and was showered with pieces of ice. I swept the snow from the folded sail and washed the last of the snow overboard
with buckets of seawater. The snow in the cockpit had to be shovelled out with a dustpan, and just as I finished the wind arrived from the west. I’d got that much right at least. I untied the jib from the rail, bagged it and put it away in the locker. That wouldn’t be needed for a while. I hauled up the storm jib
and the smallest piece of mainsail
, dropped the centreboard, and the boat began to sail into the wind. Within half an hour of the wind returning, the boat was doing three knots southwest into a full gale.
I tried the radio
direction finder. Under a cloud filled sky it was impossible to use the sextant
, and the direction finder was my only hope of getting a position. If the wind became as strong as the previous night I might have no choice but to run before it towards the land. This was a dangerous enough situation, but if I couldn’t get a clearer idea of my position, the chances of sailing safely into a port were slight. Tuning from one end of the scale to the other, I heard nothing but crackle. I opened it up to look for water damage but could see nothing obviously wrong.
For four days I crashed on southwest into a westerly gale. Sometimes the boat would sail a little too fast over the crest of a wave, and tipped down the other side with a great crash that would have me listening for a new noise
that might indicate some damage. I had my smallest set of sails up, and if I took one down I doubted whether the boat would be able to sail well enough to keep pointing into the waves at a safe angle. I slept fitfully, often woken by a particularly loud crash, and I was constantly cold despite wearing all the clothes I could fit under my waterproofs.
Fortunately the wind never picked up to the strength of that first night. I spent much of my time pouring over the circuit diagram of the radio direction finder, and probing it with a meter trying to find the fault. The lack of sleep, the cold and the constant anxiety left me hardly able to think straight. It took a great deal of concentration to try to repair the radio, being so tired and often being thrown about by the larger waves. Though my position became less and less clear as each day went by, I was at least making a safer distance away from the land, and the radio was a constructive distraction from the cold and the wind and my anxiety.
On the fifth day the wind veered to the northwest and increased. In the afternoon, I was lying fully dressed in my bunk with a duvet over me, still cold and trying to sleep, when I heard the roar of a big wave approaching. The sound grew louder and louder. The longer I heard it before it hit, the bigger it must be. I felt the boat rise up to meet the wave, and then there was a great bang as it crashed against the starboard bow, followed by a thud as it fell down onto the coachroof. But there’d been another bang apart from the sound of the impact on the side of the outrigger, and it sounded as if it had come from the hull
. It had sounded as if the boat had sailed into something solid. I dived outside into the cockpit, in time to see the water sluicing from the roof and over the sides of the deck.
Everything was still in place. The boat was in the trough between the waves, almost stopped and side on. The trough was white with foam from the huge retreating wave, and was so wide that by the time the next wave came arrived, the boat had picked up some speed again and the self-steering had corrected the course. The boat sliced through it at a safe 45 degrees. Puzzled, I went below and heard a new sound. A creaking. My boat had never creaked. Looking down I saw the centreboard case bending in and out with each wave. I pulled the bunk cushions
out of the way and looked down each side of the centreboard case. The case had cracked away from the bulkhead, and with every wave it opened up and let a bit of the Mediterranean in.
I had to raise the centreboard, but first I had to go back outside and lower the sails. I couldn’t sail to windward any more without the centreboard. Raising it now would make the boat go side on to the waves, and I didn’t want to do that until I had the sails lowered. I went out and dropped the storm jib and lashed it to the deck. I folded the scrap of mainsail up, and lashed that to the boom. Up on the cabin roof, hanging on to the boom, I watched the great waves coming at the boat so that I could hang on as each crest hit. Back in the cockpit, I switched off the self-steering, and lashed the tiller to a central position so that the rudder
might not be damaged if the boat was forced backwards by a wave.
The leak wasn’t the greatest concern. Having three hulls and no ballast the boat was close to unsinkable. I just needed to pump out often enough to keep the water below the floor level. Without a centreboard, I could sail only downwind, but downwind, somewhere, was Corsica. Ports
are far apart on the west coast
and until I knew exactly where I was I couldn’t risk approaching land. The best I could do was to lie ahull and hope for the sky to clear enough for a shot with the sextant at the sun, moon or stars so that I could fix my position. With the board pulled up and the sails down, the boat lay side on to the seas and the wind, which continued at gale force with occasional stronger gusts.
It remained bitterly cold. There was no work to be done on deck and much of my time was spent in bed
fully clothed. Lying side-on to the waves with such a wide boat the motion was usually fairly comfortable and there was no cause for concern, but once in a while or so a wave bigger than the others would lift
the boat and begin to make it surf sideways. I lay listening to the waves, waiting again for the sound of one that was bigger than the rest. I was afraid that one of those waves might be big enough to cause the lee hull
to dig into the water and the momentum of the boat might then pivot us on the buried outer hull and tip it upside-down.
I lay in a numbed stupor for three more days and nights, always uncomfortable, always cold and occasionally on the brink of a catastrophic capsize
. Between dozing fitfully and getting up to look around the horizon for ships or signs of land, I thought of my family
and friends, and in particular one of my brothers who had spent a year with me on the trimaran sailing up to Norway
and down to Portugal
. We were both new to sailing then, and besides knowing so little about seamanship, we had had more than our fair share of bad weather. A series of unpleasant experiences had been enough to put him off the idea of living on a boat. He had left before we had reached the sunny Mediterranean and had never had any of that easy sailing in warm weather. It was some comfort to know that there was someone I could describe the voyage to who would understand so completely the difficulties I had experienced. Dwelling on this bond with my brother was a refuge from the feeling of being so alone in such a hostile environment
. He had left a safe job and a comfortable existence to sail over the horizon on an adventure that was difficult to justify logically. He knew the raw fear of having to cope, of being unable to just stop when we’d had enough, to switch off and go to sleep somewhere warm and safe. There were other people as well who understood my motives, and thinking of them brought some meaning to my situation. And so thoughts of family
and friends put my troubles in a context where they were bearable, and though I was so isolated and beyond physical help, I felt connected and a part of the curious patterns we weave for each other.
The wind died occasionally, and my hopes would rise. Then it would pipe up again, always from the west or northwest, still driving me towards the barren and rocky coast of Corsica. I had looked at the chart and read the pilot book and came to the conclusion that there was only Ajaccio that might be safe to enter in heavy weather. But until I could fix my position, I couldn’t set sail and sail downwind. If the coast appeared before I could identify my position, I was in very real danger
of being driven onto the rocks.
It was difficult to sleep, knowing the coast must be near, but difficult to do anything else except lie in bed, being exhausted by lack of sleep, the continuing cold and the constant anxiety. At around noon of the fourth day of lying like that, the clouds thinned. I went outside and got an occasional glimpse of a hazy sun. The wind was still blowing at gale force. I took out my sextant and struggled to get a shot of the sun. Clouds scudded over it and I was jostled about the cockpit by the motion of the boat. I needed a clear shot of the sun when I was on the peak of a wave and could get a shot of the horizon. At last I had a sight I was content with, and being around noon, this gave me a latitude of about 42 degrees - the latitude of Ajaccio. Perfect! Ajaccio lay directly east then, dead downwind. I could sail the course without needing to lower the centreboard. But how far off was it? There was no way of telling. If I’d made some error with the navigation
I might sail into a length of coast that wasn’t lit. If I sailed to the east and didn’t catch sight of land before nightfall I’d have to lie ahull again. I’d have to spend another night out lying side-on to the waves but knowing that by then I might be very near to the coast and unable to get back out to sea. The clouds thickened again and it was unlikely I’d get another sun-shot. Exhausted as I was I decided to set sail immediately and hope for the best.
Sailing downwind at last with the self-steering working, I was at least relieved of the danger
. Still, I had to keep a good watch, for land might appear at any time, but there was no sign of it all afternoon. At dusk, I looked anxiously ahead for lights. At first I saw nothing, and then, just as I was giving up and was going forward to lower the sail, I saw a bright flash. Rain must have been obscuring the light, because it was suddenly there close by and showed that I was in the mouth of the Gulf of Ajaccio. Greatly relieved, I sailed on in a dying wind. As more lights became visible, I fixed my position with near delight. Then the wind stopped.
The town of Ajaccio was 6 miles away down the other end of a long narrow inlet. I looked into the fuel tank
. There was perhaps half a gallon of petrol. Perhaps enough. I started the engine
and motored at a gentle three knots to conserve fuel
and went below and to make a pan of chips, having eaten little but the same stew for over a week.
The wind rose, but from the east now! Ah, but the sails were down and the engine
was on and the self-steering was doing the work and after the cooking
it was almost warm in the cabin. I stayed below and finished my chips. When I stuck my head
outside again, it began to snow again, and worse, I realised that all the time I’d been below I’d made no progress at all. The wind had increased enough to blow the boat back as far as I’d motored forwards. Cursing, I went into the cockpit and increased the engine speed. Through the thickening snow, I could see that I was just making progress. The wind had switched through 180 degrees. Against me again! It was hard to believe. My only refuge lay only six miles away, but up-wind. I looked at the chart and realised that the steep mountains just inland of Ajaccio were probably reflecting the prevailing westerly wind. I couldn’t sail upwind without the centreboard. Only the engine could get me to port. If I ran out of fuel
I would be blown back to the mouth of the inlet where there was no wind, and with no fuel left I would likely drift onto the rocks.
I shone a torch into the petrol tank. Nearly all the petrol had gone. But then I remembered reading that a two-stroke engine could run on paraffin, and I had nearly a gallon of that. I put it into the tank with a bit of oil
. An hour later, I could see the harbour, but the paraffin was almost gone. There was a bit more in the lamps. I emptied each into the tank and hoped. As the engine began to pop and splutter I was alongside a pontoon and by the time I’d secured the mooring
ropes the engine stalled.