Adrian Flanagan, now nearly three months into his global record attempt, faces his first storm in the South Atlantic
Current position 40.40S 57.23W
Log date 18 January 2006
Friday 13th January started badly – a steel sky and leaden seas. I knew bad weather was on its way and that from this latitude, 36 degrees south close to the Roaring Forties, I could expect bad weather from here to Cape Horn and up the Chilean coast to a similar latitude on the Pacific side.
The weather built through Saturday and by Sunday morning, I was running downwind with one reef in the mainsail. The shore team had advised me to expect winds of 18 to 20 knots. My weather data file indicated something similar. My experience of these data is to add 5 to 10 knots to predictions of wind speeds greater than 20. At 30 knots of wind, I would have three reefs in the main, but because I was running, the wind on the sail was reduced to about 18 knots.
Comfortable. No problem. The seas began to heap. I kept checking the state of the weather from below decks while my trusty Hydrovane kept Barrabas to her course. At 0800 UCT, I decided to shorten sail. As I prepared the cockpit lines, the wind began to shriek, then howl and finally to scream. This escalation had taken only minutes. The seas, goaded by the winds turned from ugly to monstrous, great walls of water rampaging up behind Barrabas’s stern. Very soon, in the dimmed lighting of this boiling theatre, the crests of these marching armies began to tumble over in great grinding cauldrons of hissing spume. It is the noise which intimidates, that seeps beneath the sinew and climbs to invade mind, replacing calm with fear and control with chaos.
Barrabas was committed to her course. It was too late to heave-too, a manoeuvre to stop the boat. Heaving-too requires turning the boat’s nose into and through the wind as if too tack. At the point when the wind takes the sails across, the wheel is put hard over the other way while the sails are allowed to back onto the rigging. The sails and rudder then seek to oppose one another and the result is a stalemate and the boat stops. For me to attempt a heave-too manoeuvre now would mean to bring her nose round 180 degrees and in the process expose her beam or side to the potential devastation of 25ft breaking waves. It is to place the boat in the greatest jeopardy and at the severest risk of a knockdown, or worse a complete roll-over.
I checked the wind instruments – 42 to 45 knots constant. All too frequently the readout would register 48, 49, 50. As waves passed beneath the hull and gripped the keel, Barrabas would slew to windward. The sudden decrease in the angle of the wind strike on the sail pulled Barrabas’s nose further into the wind, heading her up. The power of the pull began to over-ride the Hydrovane’s ability to steer the boat back on course and I had no option but to take the wheel and hand steer. I did so for six gruelling hours, watching behind as these giant waves in a relentless sequence stormed up behind me. Judging the moments as the crests passed the keel, I bought the wheel over to the left to counter the waves’ effect of forcing the boat right. But I could not judge each wave perfectly. As the physical and mental fatigue began to tell, so I began to progressively mis-time my turns. The force I had to exert on the wheel as the water whipped the boat round required the total of my strength. I knew that the steering system would not take that degree of punishment for too long. I prayed for a break in the weather, a lull, just enough for me to get the boat round and shorten sail. But no lull came and after six hours, I felt a sight release in the wheel beneath my fingers. I doubt another helmsman would have noticed, but I have become so attuned to this boat, to the way her heart beats, that when the first strands of the steering cable parted I felt it as surely as if I had felt an earthquake. I gripped the wheel harder. The slight bucking came again. And then the wheel went free, all tension gone as the cable failed.
I knew at once that the boat was in dire peril. She was out of control. A wave pushed us skywards and even as I sensed her nose heading up, I was unattaching my lifeline to go below and secure the companionway to prevent a massive flooding in case the boat rolled. Most boats if rolled will right themselves. If they lose the keel, they will still float. Barrabas is made of steel. She will not float. In a rollover, if sufficient water floods in while she is upside down, the weight of water will quickly match and then exceed the weight of the keel. It would be her death knell. She would not come up again. I have fitted the three deck hatches with steel restraints to prevent them being torn away in the event of a rollover. But I had to get the companionway closed.
I called Louise, told her the situation and gave her my coordinates. By this time, the boat had been headed up and turned beam on to the seas. If she was going to be knocked down, now would be the time. The imperative for me was to get back up on deck and get the mainsail down. Now side on to the wind the sail was flogging and in 50 knots of wind the flogging was fearsome. I suspect most sails would have been damaged in the few minutes that it took for me to get to the mast, secure my life line and drop the main halyard. Some would probably be destroyed. Kemp sponsored the sails for Barrabas. Rob Kemp and Matt Atkins of Kemp Sails knew that Barrabas would experience extreme conditions repeatedly and the sails needed to be able to meet those demands. My subsequent inspection of the sails has revealed no damage at all.
With the mainsail down and lashed, the wind took hold of the five square metres of headsail I had been flying to stabilise the bow. Barrabas pointed back downwind and the Hydrovane self steering took over. Because the Hydrovane is completely independent of the ship’s rudder, a steering failure does not render the Hydrovane useless, as it would most other self-steering systems which connect to and control the ship’s rudder. It was a huge relief to see the boat back in control and without me having to do anything.
Two hours later, I had replaced the failed steering cable. By morning the winds had calmed to 16 knots, but during Monday and throughout the night, the winds built and stayed at 30 knots.
During the storm, I lost the spinnaker which was lashed on the foredeck at the foot of the mast and behind the dinghy. Three webbing straps with which I would confidently tow a small car were torn through. Two small areas of Treadmaster anti-slip decking were torn, lifted and ripped away by the force of water washing over the port side deck. The wind generator was disabled, possibly beyond repair which is going to have severe repercussions on my fuel reserves for battery charging if it cannot be repaired. The inverter, which converts the ship’s batteries’ 12 volts to 240 volts was shorted out and destroyed, which means that I can no longer use any power tools. I do have a small back-up inverter of 300 watt capacity to charge the cameras and provide emergency lighting. Forty litres of fuel in two 20 litres jerry cans were ripped from their mounts in the aft cabin. About 15 litres leaked away into the bilges.
As for me personally – I am okay. A bad wrench to my right shoulder has left me barely able to lift my arm. I think I have damaged the joint capsule. I have a few days of calm now as the centre of a high pressure system passes over. The shoulder will mend in this time. My relationship with the sea has changed. I respect her more, but curiously I fear her less. We are utterly powerless in the face of her wrath and fear is a wasted emotion because it changes nothing.