An unsatisfactory meal aboard Thalassa while racing is closely followed by a ravaging storm of thunder, lightning, rain and high winds
The name of E P De Guingand will be well known to crews on the RORC circuit. The race for the trophy known as the De Guingand Bowl is run regularly in memory of him and his wife. Many of us, myself included, have competed for it in the dark of the moon around the back of the Island, sometimes onward to Guernsey, sometimes to the central headlands of the English Channel.
‘Buster’ de Guingand was an ocean racer of the old school. As well as being a good navigator, he was a bon viveur and a regular crewman aboard Thalassa, a classic 1906 yawl. Quite the gourmet, when the genoa luffwire parted off Berry Head at the start of a notably heavy-weather Brixham to Santander Race, he observed that although windward performance under staysail was limited, all was not lost.
“Think of all those lobsters in Brittany,” he said. The crew saw the good sense in his judgment and spent their time cruising the bistros of Northern France instead. They declared it a fine result.
De Guingand later became a Flag Officer of the RORC. Because he had considerable experience sailing in the US, he was heavily involved in the amalgamation of the American CCA and the RORC rules to form the International Offshore Rule (IOR) for ocean racing. Olin Stephens himself observed that Buster, a cool, calm barrister in his ‘day job’, had been essential to the completion of the process.
An article by him entitled North Sea Williwaw is reproduced below from The Yachtsman magazine of Autumn 1957. Crews of today whose lot it is to offer their bodies as on-the-rail movable ballast may shed a quiet tear at the description of dinner as the yacht and her merry men march onward into the night.
The comradeship and good humour that hold sway on this particularly nasty passage serve as a reminder of the relatively relaxed atmosphere aboard race boats in the days when stability was supplied largely by the lead keel.
The Yachtsman magazine has always been a rich source of yachting literature. Following their successful digitisation of the entire Lloyd’s Register of Yachts, the Association of Yachting Historians has scanned the whole publication from 1891 to 1939. It is available to order online, priced at £95 (£85 for members).
From The Yachtsman magazine
At about 2030 on Saturday, 6th July, more than a day out from the start of the West Mersea-Ostend Race, when in a position about 15 miles NW of the Goeree L/V we were congratulating ourselves in the expectation of rounding the Goeree before midnight and having a comfortable run to the North Hinder.
At this time the wind was light North East, favouring the East. The evening forecast had promised North Easterly and veering South Westerly 3-5 in the morning. On this forecast just in case the veer came more quickly than expected we were holding a bit in hand to windward. Main, Mizzen, No. 1 Jib and Staysail had been set at the start and not changed.
We had rather a sketchy dinner, a very unusual event on Thalassa, where considerable attention is paid to the preparation and enjoyment of choice and varied meals. Our previous night’s dinner had been a satisfying number and combination of courses. A few Portuguese oysters to start, a fresh lobster salad, grilled steak and new potatoes, cheese and biscuits and coffee.
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Unfortunately this evening the calor gas oven had developed hiccups and the oven jets appeared to cut out every time Thalassa took a dip in the short sea coming from about five points on the weather bow. On this account a superfine leg of lamb remained uncooked and we made do with hot soup, an ample cut of boiled bacon (cold) and garden broad beans and new potatoes (hot); cheese and biscuits filling up the odd gaps.
We were then settling down for the night and had optimistically arranged watches of one hour on and one hour stand-by each for the night, subject to the loud protests of a member of the crew who had the middle the previous night and had discovered he had been allotted the hours of 1 to 3. His protests received no support from other members of the crew who appeared satisfied with their own appointments.
At about 2045 the mate of the watch observed a line of heavy full-bellied clouds from about 3 to 6 points on the starboard bow. Visibility, though still daylight, was poor but these clouds seemed to be some miles away.
The under belly of these clouds which was of a dirty rusty yellow appearance, suddenly broke up giving the impression of cloudbursts at several points, and of violent rainstorms falling to the sea.
It was not possible to see the actual impact of this rainfall onto the sea. At this time distant thunder was rumbling and there were frequent flashes of lightning to the southward.
The mate, realising the importance of keeping up the morale of the watch by remaining dry himself, went below to don a precautionary pair of oilskin trousers. Two hands remained on deck, this would have been about 2050. Operation oilskin trousers complete, the mate declined the cook’s invitation to join him in a quick scotch, and returned on deck. Probable time below five minutes.
On returning to the deck it was seen the sky had darkened and a huge low dense black cloud had formed over and all around the ship. It was evident something was going to happen quickly and all hands were called somewhat urgently.
The main halyard was cast off and as the main was being gathered in, a violent wind struck the vessel from about 6 points on the port bow. Fortunately, after a struggle, the main was safely secured with only one batten pocket started at the leech. It took all hands for this job, partly because when the main was half way down, the halyard block was blown hard against every possible obstruction on its passage up and was continually jamming.
Sails in tatters
The wind force was quite remarkable and even with the main down and the sheets of jib and mizzen let fly, the force was sufficient to press Thalassa down till the water was lapping her skylights and passing over the cockpit coaming. It also seemed as though the heel after the first impact was not excessive but that the ship was pressed vertically down into the water.
By this time matters were becoming quite exciting. The jib had blown out and was streaming in several pieces to leeward from the luff, the hanks on the stay having all parted. The mizzen was in a similarly unhelpful condition. The staysail was manfully doing its job (a boom staysail) and seemed to help the ship a lot, giving a measure of control. The ship would not bear away to the full, however, probably owing to the mizzen mast and rigging holding her up and lay mainly a’hull in a fast rising short sea.
It was really quite a sight in the brilliant, almost incessant, flashes of lightning to see the lee decks awash to the skylights and the jib flying to leeward in streamers with the lashing rain and spray driving across the ship, and a short high sea, curiously luminous, with the tops blown off in spume, rearing up in ridges on the weather side and driven in white water to leeward.
It was afterwards found that the mizzen track, although the mizzen was holding no wind, had torn from the mast and fractured, for a time jamming the slides. It was also found that most of the bronze snap hooks of the jib had broken off on the fore topmast stay and the rest had opened and looked as though they had been filed down and then beaten flat on an anvil.
The short pennant (about 18in) of bronze wire at the head of the jib had snapped soon after the hooks gave, leaving the halyard aloft. This method of reducing sail is not to be recommended, but it is certainly effective. With this wind came rain and what rain – for a time solid, and, even in the most brilliant flashes of lightning, visibility while it lasted was only a few yards. The sea, which got up very quickly, was never dangerous.
By now the Thalassa was riding more easily and we were sufficiently recovered from our surprise to carry on tidying up and securing odd bits and pieces, which were trying to keep urgent appointments elsewhere. It was not possible to recover what was left of the jib as yet, but the mizzen, or what was left of it, was tidied up.
There was nothing much more that could be done and we settled down to watch a display of lightning none of us had ever seen equalled. It was not a question of seeing one flash of lightning strike the sea within sight of the ship (one wide bolt did not seem as much as 50 yards away), but of seeing several bolts strike all around the ship almost in the same instant of time.
One of two thick jagged shafts seemed to leave a string of golden beads in the air for an appreciable time after striking and others to etch the sky from horizon to horizon, in the form of the branches of a leafless tree. Thunder seemed to take but a minor part in this display, though that may have been because of the roar of the wind and sea.
There is a lightning ‘conductor’ down Thalassa’s mast but one member of the crew had an uneasy feeling that it was disconnected at a point where the mast passes through the heads compartment. Fortunately, we were not called upon to experience whether a Baby Blake can be converted from a place of rest and contemplation to what Americans call a ‘hot squat’, when charged with a few million volts of electricity.
The wind did not appear to vary in velocity until it left us as though turned off suddenly at the tap. After waiting a few minutes in case we were going to be treated to the other half we started to clear up as best we could, gathering in the remnants of the jib and other stray pieces of gear overlooked before.
After all was secured it was found 50 minutes had passed since the storm struck us. A light fitful breeze started to blow from the East, apparently straight from a hot oven, so hot the cook considered fetching his uncooked leg of lamb.
The main was set again and followed by the reserve No. 1 jib, which was set on the reserve halyard. It is interesting to note that the main halyard, which had been thoroughly soaked by rain and spray, was now quite dry and pliable, either on account of the high wind after the rain had stopped, or the extraordinary hot easterly, which followed, or both.
As sail was being set the light of the Goeree L/V now lying about 12 miles distant to the South East was seen, together with several shore lights, visibility having quickly become excellent. The Easterly lasted only a short time and was supplemented by a Southerly breeze, which built up nicely to a fresh South Westerly by sunrise the following morning.
We estimated the force of the wind during the storm at force 10 Beaufort and were relieved to hear a rumour on arrival at Ostend that the Goeree L/V had reported a windspeed of 140 kilometres per hour (70 knots – Ed). Interesting though this experience is in retrospect it is one we feel it unnecessary to repeat.
First published in the July 2019 edition of Yachting World.