Sooner or later, you run out of luck !
The previous year, our summer cruise had been so blessed with luck that we had carried the spinnaker all the way south to northern Spain, then nearly all the way back! With that sort of luck it was only a matter of time before the fickle hand of fate had its revenge.
Jem, my regular crew and I have relished longer passages for a number of years. Maybe this craving has been provoked by fantasies of crossing Oceans, flying fish and trade winds, rather difficult to experience based in the Solent and with jobs to keep. Our attempt to achieve the single passage to Northern Spain the previous year had turned into a series of hops due to crew sickness so this year it was to be the South West coast of Ireland.
We were joined on this first leg by Peter Cole who was to fly back from Cork after a week and this was to be followed by a complicated schedule of flights in and out by family and friends over the course of the next three weeks.
We left Portsmouth on a Friday evening in late June allowing enough daylight to get safely south of the Isle of Wight before dark. We expected to be close hauled and bashing into a lumpy sea but by late afternoon on the Saturday and having resorted to motor sailing, we decided that the prospect of catching last orders in Plymouth was more attractive than satisfying our long passage ambitions.
Putting into the Mayflower Marina we achieved last orders and had a very interesting chat with a chap at the bar who had just completed an Atlantic crossing as crew – inspiration, if it was needed!
We left Plymouth on Sunday afternoon with a forecast of Westerly 5 backing SW with the possibility of SW 7-8 on Tuesday, we should be in Ireland well before then with the wind backing giving us a fast passage up to Cork, well in time to meet my 7 year old son flying unaccompanied into Cork Airport. As we left we had a North Westerly and we flew down to the Lizard. Our watch-keeping system is well tried and suits us very well. At 2100 Peter starts his watch while Jem and I turn in, Jem relieves Peter at 0100 and calls me at 0400. I then stand watch, leaving the other two to sleep uninterrupted until the smell of frying bacon becomes too much for them.
By 1000 on Monday morning the wind was still NW and increased to 6-7. We were not laying our course and slamming badly in trying to pinch up, expecting the wind to back later. Karisma, our Parker 31 is very well equipped and is a fantastic yacht, fulfilling all our expectations in the 4 years since her purchase. We had rigged the storm jib on a secondary forestay behind the rolled genoa and this tends to give us good drive with three reefs in the main and she feels manageable in a blow with this arrangement. I was not prepared, however for the shock of looking up at the main to see two of the luff sliders broken and the sail billowing out, putting extra strain on their neighbours. I called Jem up and by the time he emerged from his berth, another two had gone and it was clear that a major operation was required. Leaving Peter on the helm and by motoring flat out to windward, we were able to keep her ‘head to wind’ in what had become seemingly mountainous seas. With Jem and I fully life-jacketed, double harnessed and armed with all the tools and spares we expected to use (in duplicate) we edged forward along the jackstays. The yacht was slamming badly off each crest and we had to strap ourselves in position on the coachroof with our lifelines around the mast. The main had to be subdued as we dropped it to run the remaining sliders out of the opened gate in the luff groove. We prized the broken nylon clips off the sail, clamped on replacements, running them up the groove above the gate while fighting the conditions to maintain our balance and footing. This called for turbocharged adrenal glands and the job was finished with great sighs of relief.
I returned to the cockpit to man the halyard while Jem stayed forward to replace the third reef tack. I remember looking forward to see green filling my whole field of vision as we crested the wave and plunged into the next trough. Jem became airborne and crashed back onto the deck, landing painfully with his shin striking the blade jib track. It was to be several days before he recovered the feeling in his leg. Little surprise then that it was me that went forward to secure the aft end of the spinnaker pole which had come adrift and was lifting with its buoyancy in the waves that swept over the deck as the bow was buried.
It was at about this time that several other problems began to show themselves. Our auto helm which tends to do sterling work through the long night watches chose to ‘pack up’, it turned out to be from salt water ingress, no doubt from the repeated soakings. We lost our wind instruments from, we expect, a similar cause and the forward cabin was saturated with a good deal of water underfoot. We were regularly burying the bow when surfing the wave ‘ridges’ towering over us. We would normally rise innocuously to the top and slip down the back face but the crest would often break just as we approached and the wave would crash down into the cockpit, down our necks and up our sleeves so we all became pretty well saturated.
We tried to cook some sausages in the oven for lunch but the rolling was so great that the gimballed oven kept turning off the gas tap. This had never happened before in over 10,000 sea miles! We tried to overcome this problem by ‘tacking’ the pan in the oven and locking it in place. All we managed to achieve was to spill sausage fat all over the sole of the galley and saloon which was just what we didn’t need!
The 1800 forecast gave NW backing SW 6-7 but with no sign of the wind backing at all and unable to lay anything like the necessary course, we chose to bear away for Milford Haven in South Wales which we expected to see by first light in the morning. Although we had all had a reasonable sleep the previous night, it had been a fairly long and tiring day and without the auto helm, we chose to stand 45 minute watches with 1.5 hours sleep in between. Helming downwind and down swell in these conditions, fighting the tendency to broach was exhausting and even after 45 minutes we were grateful to be relieved.
Next morning the wind continued as before but the motion off the wind was much better. The Yacht was not slamming and was not under the stresses of the previous day. Our coffee however didn’t taste at all like it should and we discovered that our water tank had been contaminated with salt water. It must have infiltrated through the breather, I guess with the sea water flooding the decks to such an extent it was probably inevitable.
Neyland Marina in Milford Haven could not have been more accommodating. They left their drying room running all night to help dry our wet gear and cushions and they copied every weather computation imaginable so we could evaluate our next move – all of this with patience and a cheery smile – exceptional.
The flooding of the forecabin did at least enable us to nail a problem we had struggled with from our very first passage. We had previously replaced the forehatch seal, re-seated the forehatch, completely re-sealed the top of the fresh water tank but the problem persisted on this passage. It turned out to be a hole for the bow navigation light cable from the top of the anchor locker into the forecabin behind the head lining. It had not been properly sealed and the tiny gap around the cable was enough when the anchor locker was flooded with water and the drains could not cope with the amount that our buried bow scooped up, to allow the sea water to seep progressively into and flood the forecabin. In the extreme conditions on this passage, the chain locker must have been constantly full of water and with the continual pitching, the tiny gap became a major leak. Although we didn’t notice for a couple of days, we had also lost our rather nice boat hook which had been lashed to the foredeck so, no doubt there is a happy beachcomber somewhere as a result!!
It was interesting, and vindicating to observe that a neighbour in the marina was a lifeboat on a delivery trip from the south coast to southern Ireland at the same time as us. They had also taken the same decision to run down to Wales. When we finally reached Crosshaven in Ireland (just in time to meet my 7 year old son off his first unaccompanied flight – very emotional as it happens) we rafted against a Farr racing yacht having been delivered for Cork racing week by a veteran delivery crew who were also circumnavigators. They had rounded Lands End soon after us and they had also run downwind and estimated the wind strength at 8 gusting 9 with seas to match.
At no time did we feel particularly at risk and we believe that, given the information to hand and equipment available we made the right decisions throughout. There are, inevitably, several lessons to be learnt.
- Replace luff sliders regularly, these things wear, degrade and lose some strength, for the minimal cost, it is worth it.
- Do not have deadlines imposed. We have all heard this before and probably claim that our judgement would not be clouded as a result but it is best to avoid this sort of pressure if at all possible.
- Before the onset of bad weather, don’t just put on the right gear, make sure it is done up properly as well – wrist gaiters, zips and remember a towel round the neck. Once wet, it isn’t easy to get dry and comfortable again so best avoid getting wet from the beginning.
No one in their right mind goes out to court bad weather but, if caught out, there is a great sense of achievement in having dealt with such conditions. There is also another plus – the decks have never been as clean – either before or since.
The remainder of our cruise was quite devoid of crisis and we visited some beautiful places in our remaining two weeks on the wonderful Southern Irish Coast.