Attempting a transatlantic race in a Sadler 32, Martin Thomas faces an onslaught of gales. Tom Cunliffe introduces this extract from Heavy Weather Sailing

Back in 1986, Martin Thomas and Alan Taylor entered the Transatlantic Two-Star Race in the Sadler 32 Jenny Wren. To say they didn’t have an easy trip would be a marvel of understatement. In fact, they and the rest of the contestants in that awful year experienced what can only be described as a trip from hell.

It would have been tough in any boat, but perhaps not quite so shocking in a modern yacht with roller headsails. Back in the 1980s, many yachts were still operating under hanked-on headsails with a wide choice available from a foc’s’le rammed full of wet canvas.

To their credit, Martin and Alan kept a narrative going in addition to the ship’s log. Written at an acute angle during one storm after another and now published in Heavy Weather Sailing (8th edition), it carries the authenticity of a real-time account. For these extracts, very few words have been changed from the original diary written in pencil. It serves to remind us of just how grim going to sea in a small yacht can be, but it also gives us a warm feeling when we sense the continuing morale of these two young men under conditions that would have crushed many a dreamer.

Extract from Heavy Weather Sailing

Day 1. We got off to a moderate start about halfway down the fleet, flew past The Lizard during the night and in the early morning came close to the Scillies. The wind was up to a gale by now and we changed down to the storm jib. The next morning the wind came up again at 45-plus knots (Force 9). We rode out the storm with a triple-reefed main alone for four hours or so. We have pumped the bilges and lockers of a surprising amount of water.

Day 5. We reckon two full gales and this current plus two near-gales in the first five days is enough. We continue on port tack and the wind has remained from the same quarter at Force 7, occasionally 8, for 40 hours now. We tore the No2 Genoa this morning when a green sea came over and ripped it.

Day 6. This wind is relentless. We are still in a 35 knot (Force 7) south-westerly. The sea is worse and the poor boat is really being chucked about (including her occupants). Just now she seemed in mid-air for a few seconds and then landed with a fantastic crash as if on concrete. We have lost a hank from No3, which I hope does not also rip. No3 is doing good work and we need it badly.

Day 7. The first present opened (from wife Vivien) was a very black joke (the book Total Loss, an account of yachting disasters). At the time we were belly flopping from one wave to another and shuddering and shaking fit to break. The wind piped up again last evening at 2100 so we put up the storm jib. In the morning the wind dropped a little, but we left the storm jib up to give us an easier ride while we pumped the bilges. We then celebrated at quarter way with champagne and salmon. Only then did we pull up a bigger sail. May as well be hanged for a sheep as a rat.

Mast fears

Day 9. The night watch. There is a gloom over the ship’s crew tonight. This evening we found three fractured strands in the portside inner mast stay and two of the four bolts pulled out of a deck plate. If any more go we are in real danger of losing the mast. We have reefed the main and eased off the wind to try and take the strain off. The plan is to climb the mast in daylight and get a line from the spreaders down to a block on the toerail and back to a winch. At 0430 needless to say the wind piped up to 35 knots (Force 7) and there are quite big seas running now. We have dropped the main altogether to ease the strain on the stays at least until daylight. At 0530 it blew harder so that we were going dangerously fast in worsening seas. As I crawled up to the foredeck to change to storm jib the wind gauge read over 45 knots (Force 9). Getting the sail down and back to the cockpit was quite a struggle. We decided to go bare poled. The wind rose further and the gauge showed over 55 knots (Force 11). We don’t know how much over as that is the limit of the instrument. This is a storm Force 10 anyway, possibly gusting 11 on the crests of the waves. [Later it was confirmed by others that for a while the wind that day reached in excess of 65 knots (Force 12) and, sadly, one boat and her crew were lost]. Aries was set to steer us diagonally across the waves with the port quarter to the sea. We were doing 3.5 knots with no sail.

Day 10. The wind remained at Force 10 (55 knots) with the needle hard against the stop. There were the lurchers which picked up her port quarter and threw her sideways onto her starboard beam ends with a great crash so that one wondered if she would simply go on over. She shook herself and righted. About every 20 minutes an even bigger wave would hit us and throw her so violently sideways that the mast would dip almost to the horizontal and the spreaders got wet.

Then there were the slammers which were cresting and breaking as they hit us. They slammed into the boat with a great shudder and moved her bodily sideways. The violence of the North Atlantic storm is awesome. The seas are huge and fearsome; there can be no confusion with the English Channel now.

Close hauled in a Force 7.

At 1130 the wind moderated briefly to 35 knots (Force 7) and we surfaced into the cockpit. The fractured strands in the port stay continue to unravel and show for 3ft up the stay to remind us. We have a plan but it means going up the mast, which is out of the question in these seas. 1730 we are back to storm jib and a triple-reefed main. The wind remains up at 40 knots (Force 8) and the seas have not had a chance to settle. Worse than any of this is that we cannot make headway towards Newport. The wind remains steadfastly in the west and has not dropped below 7 all day and for most of the time has been 8 or mainly 9. Incidentally we found splits and cracks in the woodwork around the heads door and forward bulkhead as well as two inches of movement in the port pilot berth partition and some splintering and cracks in a GRP keel batten. The boat has been taking a hell of a beating.

Day 11. Last night was the most violent of my life. A gale came up again about 1830, blew 8 and then 9 all night. We ran on storm jib alone but even that was too much. The ferocity of the sea is unimaginable until you have seen it. The days of heavy weather (this was the 11th day running of rough weather) have blown the sea into foaming mountains. By 0200 we realised we had taken a lot of water aboard and started pumping. The water was well above the cabin sole and the engine bilge was very full. I had to venture into the cockpit in the maelstrom as the aft pump
is outside.

It was then, in a cockpit full of seething water, while pumping away in the midst of a violent chaos in the dark that I realised, for the first time, that there was a small but distinct possibility that we might not make it. The weather must moderate to give us a chance to pump the boat and sort it out. One particular wave last night crashed so violently on the roof, I thought the mast had gone or that we had hit a ship. I can’t believe the boat would break up but after a wave like that and our knockdowns, one wonders. When the really big waves hit us every 20 or 30 minutes I believe we are completely submerged. At 0400 we pumped again. I am afraid this log is getting rather repetitive. The wind is still blowing Force 9 from the west-northwest and we are running off south.

Reefed main and a No2 jib for Force 6 conditions.

Fractured water pipe

Day 13. Unfortunately, while clearing the starboard locker of wet tea bags, congealed bread and spilt long-life milk, the pipe from one of the fresh water tanks fractured. We lost a lot of fresh water into the bilges. It was not possible to effect a repair without losing the rest, so we painstakingly emptied the water into a saucepan and thence into a spare jerry can. We still think 29 days is possible. We are eternal optimists but I must say I hope we are right. (We were wrong, the trip took 34 days).

Day 14. This is cruel, cruel. We have been becalmed for the past 16 hours and remain so. We remain completely fog bound, quiet and still with 3,080m of water beneath us. We have moved about four miles all night. At 1600 the wind came up and quickly rose to 7 and then a full gale. The seas became rough surprisingly quickly, just an hour or two. So we spend the first part of the night with a storm jib and deep reefed main.

Day 16. We eventually reached 39°W, our halfway mark, at 0200 today. Promptly the wind died and the current was able to drift us east back over the 39° longitude. So embarrassing. We opened some presents to mark halfway, a tin of dressed crab, new underpants (good thought) and a Playboy. This latter had a nude picture of Linda Evans, whoever she is, but the effect was spoilt by 17 days of seawater which had wrinkled the pages and stuck them together. Just another little disappointment.

Foaming seas

Day 17. This trip is tougher, more demanding and longer than either of us expected. When we take down the No 1 the whole of the inside of the boat is full of wet sail and wet oilies. Having to hank on our headsails is a major effort. Every headsail change means a tiring and soaking trip to the foredeck followed by incessant heavy winching (45 turns to sheet in the big genoa). Every reef means a trip to the mast. Today we have made six headsail changes and taken reefs in or out three times. The wet sails turn the accommodation into a quagmire.

Pumping out the bilge was a frequent and necessary job

You may think, reader, that I am complaining, please do not do so. I am just pointing out how crossing the Atlantic in this 32ft boat is harder than I thought. I was amazed to see about three days ago, when the boat slewed round on a large wave, that both cockpit coaming winches were under water and the cockpit filled with foaming sea. If you look at the cockpit when she is sitting in a marina it is almost impossible to envisage.

Day 32. We passed over the south-west corner of George’s Bank of the Nantucket Shoals confirming our position with the depth sounder. We heard a yacht, a Contessa 32, calling on VHF and spoke to her. She gave us her position which we think is south and west of us and at least 10 miles nearer to the finish than us.

Sir Alec Rose joins Thomas and Taylor for a post-refit relaunch

Race to the finish

Day 33. The wind has shifted slightly in our favour so we can make straight for the line, at 6 knots in a 13-knot breeze. The Contessa called again and gave her position. She was 5 miles dead ahead of us on the same course. We got out the binoculars and could see her. The race for the wooden spoon is truly on. We spent ages poring over the charts and checking the tidal information. We must not get set down into Martha’s Vineyard by the tide. We changed course 10°, but the other yacht does not seem to have done so as far as we can tell through the glasses. Someone has got to be wrong. We are going to stay up all night to trim the sails for each other. Can we possibly make up 5 miles on another 32ft boat in one night?

Day 34. The Contessa is showing no navigation lights so we have lost her. They will blame no batteries but we know the real reason. We have just 30 miles to go. We called, as arranged, after daybreak. They gave us their coordinates. We quickly calculated our position by taking bearings from Buzzards Light and Gaze Head. If correct, the position puts us ahead of them. Once the light came up properly we could see her on our starboard quarter probably a mile back after 3,000 miles and 34 days. The wind dropped so we raised the spinnaker using the light weather sheets and started moving again making a steady 3 knots. Eventually we set the big No 1 and crossed the line on starboard tack in the rain. The Contessa was 12 minutes behind.

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