Brad Van Liew has a morning to remember

He’s still in the lead of Class 2 of Around Alone, but it’s never easy. Here is a particularly interesting report from Brad Van Liew today about being overpressed, then crash gybing and wiping out – right into the path of a killer whale. Ah, the tranquility of life at sea?

‘What a morning!

‘You’d think the trade winds might bring sunny and peaceful days followed by star filled nights while you clipped along at a nice speed. Huh, yeah right. Not so this morning onboard Tommy Hilfiger Freedom America. I had gybed a few hours earlier to sneak in a bit of westing before the rest of Class 2 noticed at the 0600 position report and as I went offshore the winds began to fill.

‘The boat was definitely overpowered with the full main as the down wind conditions filled in to about 35 knots. I was getting geared up to put in a reef and gybe back to the south when the tight rope the autopilot was trying to walk broke. The boat was pushed head to wind by a passing swell just enough that the main sail became the steering device and the rudders had no effect as they simply cavitated. So I jumped on deck to ease the main.

‘Rather than taking over from the pilot figured I would let it steer back to course and then I would go about putting in the reef. Well, the autopilot had an over correction in and sailed through to the other side of the wind and crash gybe the boat. Now with the sails on the wrong side and the canting keel on the wrong side, the boat went right over on her side.

‘With the spreaders in the water everything slowed down because although I was wearing a harness I needed to work with one hand while I hung from something with the other. I wedged my feet against the side of the cockpit or whatever fitting I could find to help support myself. This situation will happen a few times as we get around the world and is not entirely new to me, however it’s something I will never get used to.

‘So my rule in these stable but precarious situations is to think before you touch, and fix the problem slowly so you don’t make it worse with frenzied or panicked behavior. So as I am working through my mental list I see a whale break the surface, take a big breath and with an arch of his back re-submerge under the waves.

‘I don’t know if Orcas or Killer whales live in these waters but it looked like a male killer whale with the 6 or 7-foot tall erect dorsal fin. The irony, fate, luck or hand of God part of the story is that this mammoth sea creature was taking his morning stroll directly in the path of my track. Five minutes before, the boat had been trucking along between 12 and 18 knots and this guy would have done some damage if I had hit him.

‘I got the boat reefed and headed south and marveled at the whole episode. At some point I need to try and get picture of the boat stuck on its side during one of these wipeouts. It would definitely stand some people’s hair on end.

‘The really good news of the day is that the crash gybe was the final push I needed to try out a piece of software installed in my autopilots that I have been very doubtful about. This is a feature that allows me to ask the pilot to drive the boat according to the true wind direction, rather than heading and correcting for these crash situations before they occur.

‘Well, steering to apparent wind is one thing but steering to true wind is the one remaining situation where a person is just better. So when sailing solo you reduce sail early, or sail a not so favorable angle. I decided my adrenalin was already running so what the heck. Let’s give it a shot.

‘I pushed a few buttons and configured the pilot and turned it on. I sat there with my hand on the tiller imagining what corrections I would make. At first I couldn’t believe it but after watching it for a couple of hours surf off at speeds up to 22 knots and recover I started laughing like a kid and saying stuff like: “I could kiss those guys at Raymarine”, or “Well, the Southern Ocean just got a bit easier”.

‘Let me assure you, this is real news in the world of solo racing and these guys are going to sell these babies faster than they can make them. Sometimes it pays off to be a willing guinea pig!’