'A new kind of hell': Pip Hare's sailing ordeal
The passage started on a warm autumn day from Ireland. We were a crew of two, sailing my 39ft cruiser/racer south, bound for the Canaries, then an Atlantic crossing. I had spent the previous year refitting while living aboard and felt relaxed and confident about the trip across the familiar waters of the Biscay.
Every day before leaving I studied synoptic charts. The forecast looked stable and favourable for the time of year. There was high pressure to the north of the UK delivering easterly winds – ideal for our trip south. The 5-day forecast showed little change and the trip should have taken around 3 days. My budget was meagre so satellite communications were out of the question. I’d installed an SSB [single sideband] radio for communication offshore and planned to rely on verbal ocean forecasts while at sea.
The first day was fun, smooth sailing with light winds and a bright sun. The gentle rhythm allowed us to ease into life at sea. I was thrilled to have finally started an adventure. The radio remained silent and every hour was taken up with sailing, eating and sleeping. The forecast had been good on departure so checking for updates was in the back of my mind.
Those 36 hours will be forever in my memory
On day two, the wind started to veer, first to the south then the southwest. It was an unexpected shift but not bad. We tacked and were heading for Finisterre, this time close hauled. The 36 hours that followed will be forever in my memory.
We reefed, then reefed again. The wind kept building and the sea with it – these conditions were a far cry from the forecast, but I was not alarmed. The wind was gale force but manageable. We had a suitable amount of sail and the boat was managing the sea state well.
Night arrived early as a total layer of cloud blacked out all illumination from stars and moon. I sat watching the barometer. It had fallen dramatically in the past 12 hours and was still dropping. The realisation this was no ordinary gale washed over me in a sickening wave.
By midnight the wind was a force 10, we were making whatever course we could with just the storm jib. The waves were growing in size and force, and in the total black out were impossible to spot, hitting the boat suddenly from unexpected angles and breaking through the cockpit.
I went below decks to a new kind of hell
I stared at the barometer, willing it to stop falling, but things were still to get worse. By the early hours of the morning even the storm jib was too much to handle. Crawling around the boat on all fours, lifejacket on and harnessed with a short tether I took all sail down and lashed everything I could to the deck. We had seen gusts over 60 knots before the wind instruments broke. It was dangerous to be on deck and we could achieve nothing, so I set the autopilot and went below decks to a new kind of hell.
The waves were now bigger than mast height. At the bottom of a trough it was eerily silent as the wave provided a total wind break and the boat drifted. As we rose on the approaching wave, the mast head breached the wave crest and we heeled dramatically from the windage on the top of the rig. Inside the boat you could hear a rumbling crashing sound which evoked terror.
In our bunks, we would brace for the impact of a breaking wave. At best this would be a slam with enough force to throw a person across the cabin, but the worst was like being broadsided by a freight train, knocking the boat over. I found myself lying on the deck head while the contents of every top loading locker showered around my head, glass bottles shattering, heavy items narrowly missing windows.
Lonely and helpless
During the 6-hour peak of the storm I felt lonely and helpless. My crew was incapacitated with seasickness, so I managed alone: putting my head out of the hatch when I dared, to assess the boat’s condition, broadcasting my position over channel 16 every 15 minutes to minimise the risk of collision and listening to the roar of every approaching wave desperately hoping it would not roll the boat over.
When the storm eventually subsided, we were left with a boat in tatters. My lovely home was in pieces around me but the mast was still up and we were alive.
We limped into Spain to discover we’d been caught in a freak weather event. A rapidly developing low with winds in excess of hurricane force had formed in the Atlantic and swept into the Biscay. It was only forecast 24 hours in advance and we had missed all warnings.
I often look back to our departure and wonder if with an additional 15 years of experience I would have ended up in this situation, but times change and I think I will never know. The lessons I learned through this experience were about what I did well and also the mistakes made. They have formed the basis of an offshore ethic that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
Pip's lessons learned
- Never take the forecast for granted. Get updates at least once a day by whatever means you have. You can call passing ships, check the barometer and these days low-cost satellite data options are available.
- Know every inch of your boat before going offshore. Make shake down passages, take things apart, gain confidence in its strength and get to know its weaknesses.
- Act early – if conditions are deteriorating, set limits for taking down sail or making storm preparations and stick to them.
- In big waves use short tethers and don’t keep people on deck unless they need to be there.
- For ocean crossings, carry storm boards or make a plan for how you would block the hole if one of your windows got damaged. Locker lids with strong backs will often do this job.
- Prepare for a knockdown. If you store heavy items in top loading lockers or under the floorboards then ensure they can be locked in place during extreme weather.
- Never give up hope – if you wait long enough the weather will always subside.
Before you hit the water for your next adventure, make sure you take a look at our sailing safety advice.