Delivery skipper John Kretschmer recalls wrestling with huge Atlantic seas and winds that were forecast to blow Force 12 and then some...

After shaking fresh ice out of the rigging, the three of us shoved off from Newport on 26 January, 1991.

Our plan was to sail near or just below the 40th parallel to the Azores, a route that I hoped would keep us south of stray icebergs and in a tolerable climate zone. By staying in or near the Gulf Stream, we were looking at expected mean temperatures in the 40s (°F). Breaking the trip in the Azores added extra miles, but it seemed a sensible plan, especially with a small crew, an ever-present threat of ice and extreme winter gales further north.

The weather forecast was promising and the first two days of the passage were actually relatively warm and pleasant, allowing us to hurry past Georges Bank and the worrisome shallows that extend well off the east coast of the United States. We were hoping that a large cold front would stay north of us. That didn’t happen.

A series of nasty line squalls heralded the arrival of the front and soon the wind backed to the south-west and piped up to gale force. A secondary low-pressure system had moved up from the Carolinas and merged with the cold front. Extreme weather was coming our way.

We reduced sail steadily during daylight hours. The main was reefed, then dropped, as we flew along on a reach with the mizzen, staysail and small jib. Then we furled the jib. Finally, as darkness swallowed us we doused the mizzen and continued on a deep reach under staysail alone, at times hitting 14 knots.

Survival conditions

Lashing spray on a frenzied ocean as Isobell plunged downwind.

Lashing spray on a frenzied ocean as Isobell plunged downwind.

The wind had clocked back to the west and the seas were massive, but steering was still manageable, with the autopilot coping just fine. I never considered towing warps or reducing sail further to slow down the boat. We were actually snug beneath a makeshift canvas pilothouse that Joe had fashioned back in Newport.

Molly had the first watch. At 2100 she screamed: ‘We’ve lost the staysail.’ Joe and I struggled into our foulweather gear and dashed on deck. I was amazed at the frenzied ocean. It looked like an old black-and-white negative, with the foam of breaking waves the only light source.

In another boat these would have been pure survival conditions, but the Ocean 71 is the most seaworthy boat I have ever sailed. Without the staysail we were running under bare poles, but still hitting double-digit speeds and occasionally surfing down what had become massive seas. The wind felt as if it would lift me off the deck as I made my way forward, and I had to stay low to not be carried away.

I quickly discovered why we had lost the staysail. The halyard had chafed through, and when the sail lost luff tension all the bronze piston hanks had ripped apart like plastic. The sail plunged over the side and was connected to the boat only by the tack and the sheets.

We wrestled it aboard and stuffed it into the forward sail locker. Then we hauled the storm jib on deck, only to find the luff had been cut to fit the furling gear foils on the forestay. This was an oversight of the skipper, namely me. I should have inspected the sail before shoving off.

Taking the furled jib off the forestay in Force 13 would have shredded it into hankies. And raising the storm jib in its place, feeding it into the headstay foils, would have been almost impossible.

We decided to raise the storm jib by tacking it to the staysail tack point and hoisting it loose-luffed, meaning that only the head and tack of the sail were attached to the boat. It would soon prove to be a poor decision. As Molly trimmed the sheet, the motion was immediately better and she was able to engage the autopilot.

A powerful wave crushed Isobell on the starboard beam and washed the decks just as Joe and I went below to warm up. The boat skidded off course and the storm jib backed violently. Then the tack shackle, which carried all the load of the sail, exploded. Without hanks to keep it on the stay, it flew upward and turned into a marauding wrecking ball. It wiped the masthead clean of instruments, lights and antennas and plummeted into the water.

Together with the sheet, which had ripped the staysail block right off the deck, the storm jib wound around the prop shaft with a death grip. The moaning of the shaft was terrifying. If the shaft was torn from the boat, we’d sink in the frigid waters of the winter Atlantic.

I grabbed my knife and was back on deck in a flash. Frantically I tried to cut the halyard end, which had jammed in the mast, thinking that it might free the sail if it could run. It was no use. Then, stretching over the side as far as I dared, I tried to cut the sheet, but it was just beyond my reach. I nearly sliced the knuckle off my thumb instead, and it hung by a mere strand of flesh.

But there was no time to think about it because Joe was screaming: ‘Now, now, John.’ He had pulled the sheet closer to the boat. I finally cut it and we watched the freed sail and sheet disappear into the blackness astern.

Completely spent

Once again we were running under bare poles. Molly, flailing the wheel one way and then the other, was doing a great job of steering, keeping the stern to the seas. Joe and I lay panting on the deck, knowing that we should hurry back to the cockpit. But we were completely spent.

Freakishly the spreader lights popped on – for no reason, it seemed, other than to reveal a bloodstained deck. It looked gruesome and I realized I had to deal with my thumb. A jarring crash sent us dashing below.

The problem was in the engine room. The generator had sheered its mounts and toppled onto the Perkins diesel, threatening to destroy our main engine. Joe hurried to get a line as I wedged myself between the engine and the generator, a human fender, and a stupidly vulnerable position. I managed to prop up the generator, and Joe lashed it in place like a cowboy wrestling a steer.

Returning to the cockpit, my thumb wrapped in a towel, I was utterly exhausted when Molly informed me: ‘It’s your watch . . .”

The storm force winds continued into the next day. We had no choice but to continue to run under bare poles. But the wind was pushing us right where we wanted to go.

Even a 75,000lb boat rolled from gunwale to gunwale without a steadying sail. It was vital to keep the stern directly before the waves, and we steered in one-hour increments. Concentration was paramount, and we were lucky to have three capable crew.

The winds moderated by the following evening, and we cautiously unrolled a tiny bit of headsail. We had survived a Force 13 storm.


Sailing a Serious Ocean

by John Kretschmer, is published by International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press Price £18.99

ISBN 978-0071 704403.

  1. 1. Why I teach sailing
  2. 2. Survival conditions
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