On a solo race across the North Atlantic, British skipper David Southwood meets hurricane force winds
Competitors in the 2017 Original Single-handed Transatlantic Race (OSTAR) experienced the worst conditions since the race was initiated in 1960 in the era of Blondie Hasler and Francis Chichester. This race is run in the true Corinthian spirit of the original event, with private yachtsmen sailing their own boats.
Several contestants, including Mervyn Wheatley of the Royal Cruising Club (RCC), had competed in previous OSTARs or TWOSTARs and most were otherwise experienced in short-handed ocean racing. During two desperate nights in mid-Atlantic, the fleet was so torn apart by hurricane-force wind and huge seas that only seven of 21 starters made it to Newport, Rhode Island.
The notably modest extract below is taken from the RCC journal for 2017, Roving Commissions. David Southwood, a member, describes how he coped in his Warrior 40, Summerbird, as things went literally from bad, to worse, then to simply awful. David, who started sailing aged eight in Gosport Creek, went on to serve in the Army before becoming a Lloyd’s broker.
The self-discipline and capacity for making tough choices in grim circumstances learned in the armed forces are an example to us all. One can only say, as we join him in mid-Atlantic, that we British are fortunate to have men like him on our side.
Extract from Roving Commissions 58
The first problem occurred when I rather clumsily reefed the main resulting in a D-ring supporting the starboard lazyjack parting from underneath the spreader. With string and mainsail all over the deck the solution was to swing a spinnaker halyard around the outside of the spreader to hoist the lazyjack again. This sounds easy but not in a heavy sea. The lazyjack got caught on everything and the halyard got in a wrap, but at long last the problem was solved.
I had decided to use a large genoa for the race, because in the Azores and Back Race in 2015 I felt under-canvassed with the smaller one. The idle sheet rested on top of the staysail furler drum. However, in heavy seas it jumped up and down as the genoa shook. I was down below when I heard a loud flapping noise. I came on deck to find the lower part of the staysail flying free because the genoa sheet had caught the staysail snap shackle, thereby opening it.
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Having dealt with the shackle I sat on deck to re-hoist the sail, pulling the halyard with one hand and feeding the tape into the groove with the other. However, the cord at the bottom of the sail had parted. My remedy was to furl the sail with a couple of turns.
All was well for a few hours until there was a loud crack as the T-bolt at the head of the stay sheared. The sail remained held up by only its halyard, but was of no use. I furled it by hand and tied it off. This meant I was reduced to just a large, reefed genoa and two or three reefs in the main in quite lively winds.
Summerbird bashed into the headwinds still achieving 7 knots of speed. Four of us including my friend Mervyn Wheatley in Tamarind were roughly abreast, vying for 1st place in our class. The rest trailed behind. Summerbird doesn’t have internet comms, so I only knew this because of a very short 0800 daily satellite telephone call with Jill back at our house.
On the morning of 8 June my position was 49°N 30’W. Jill said: “I’d remain well reefed if I was you, something nasty is coming your way.” I did, but wondered why, as the day passed without too much problem. In the dog watches the wind suddenly increased, winding up to 58 knots about 1800.
I reefed the genoa to handkerchief size with three reefs in the main. I put the washboards in and controlled the vane with a continuous line from inside the hatch. Eventually, I set the vane at 90° to our track with it lowered on its axis. I lashed the wheel to assist, so that the rudder and the Hydrovane rudder worked in unison. Summerbird lay hove to just off the wind.
When dawn came, the wind eased. I decided to press on thinking the storm had passed. Sadly, I was mistaken, as we were in the eye. The storm was a convergence of two systems with a central pressure of 964mb (15mb below the 1979 Fastnet Race) and waves of 10-15m. Rogue waves would have been much higher.
On the evening of 9 June the wind wound up again. I recorded 59 knots, but found out later that Raymarine instruments only read up to 60 knots. Harmonii, a Najad 490, recorded 72 knots before his masthead unit blew off. Summerbird’s was also lost that night. The new wind generator gave up as it had spun itself to death. Not being one for too much innovation I adopted the same tactics as the previous night. We lay hove-to and I went below.
Feeling a bit more confident about Summerbird’s ability to withstand the pounding I heated a tin of ravioli, had two glasses of red wine, turned in and went to sleep. At 0220 BST I heard “Summerbird, Summerbird”. It was a Canadian Air Force Hercules on VHF. Tamarind was in distress 100 miles south of me. Could I go to Mervyn’s assistance?
I explained that he was a very good friend, but being hove-to in excess of 60 knots I was in no state to sail towards him. The reply came back; “Well, we don’t want any more casualties.” I didn’t know that the Canadians were dealing with four of our racing fleet in distress.
At about 0900 I heard a call from a Canadian aircraft to a ship thanking it for going to Tamarind’s assistance and that apparently Mervyn was in good shape. Later Jill told me he had been picked up by the Queen Mary 2.
During the morning the storm passed and I set sail once more. I had not used my lifejacket and thought I had better keep it handy. I reviewed the contents of the grab bag in case I was also picked up by a ship. All went well for a day or so, except the confused sea was wild. Jill told me afterwards that the congregation of the churches of Newton Ferrers and Noss Mayo prayed for me in peril on the sea during the Sunday services.
We were heading west and I was below contemplating where to cross the Grand Banks when there was another loud sound of flogging sail and I emerged on deck to find the big genoa totally unfurled as the reefing line had parted. A large sail flapping around in a heavy sea is frightening, with the leaping sheets particularly dangerous.
If I lowered the genoa, I knew that I could never get it up again on my own as I had done with the staysail. I just had to fix the reefing line. I tried knotting the two ends but the line parted again. I went below to dig out another line.
Normally one winds in the line with the sail off by turning the drum. Obviously this was not possible. Having attached one end to the drum I had to pass the entire line around inside the drum some 15-20 times, immersed in crashing waves as the bow plunged. This took patience, but eventually the job was done. Returning to the cockpit I furled the genoa and on we went. Two hours later the sail unfurled again and I repeated the procedure.
The third time it happened I realised that I had to lower the sail. This I did bit by bit, trying to lash it to the guardrail. Inevitably a large part of the sail went over the side and under the hull. I was pleased that my three workouts per week during the previous two years were for a good purpose.
It took ages to haul up the sail inch by inch and eventually to secure it as best I could. I laughed to myself as I sat on the deck with only my sea boot heels on the toe rail, thinking that at least I was in the right position for a sea burial if I slipped under the guardrail.
There was nothing for it but to get the storm jib out. It had strops to fit round a furled headsail, not as I now had, a bare forestay. The strops had small eyes to place in carabiners. Bouncing up and down at the pulpit it was a bit like playing ‘It’s a Knockout’ to attach them all.
On hoisting the sail, I found one strop had been missed, so had to lower it again. Once up it looked good and did the job. Then I heard a weird noise coming from up forward. This turned out to be the windlass motor at full spate within the anchor locker. It had malfunctioned. The solution was to flick the battery switch to off. I wasn’t planning to anchor in mid Atlantic anyway.
What I did not discover until reaching port was that the stainless steel stem plate had snapped in half. The stem opened up like a shark’s mouth allowing considerable seawater ingress into the anchor locker. Worse still, the lower end of the forestay was virtually swinging in the breeze. Also unknown to me at this time was that the forward lower shrouds were 50% gone.
I went below for a large, well-earned G&T and decided to write an appreciation and plan, as I had been taught in the Army. The process led to me conclude that my mission should change from attempting to reach Newport, Rhode Island, to survival. Trying to sail another 1,500 miles with just a storm jib as a headsail would be silly.
It would be slow and I would arrive too late to avoid the hurricane season for the return trip. My best option was to turn south out of these dreadful weather conditions towards the Azores. I knew repair facilities were available at Horta, so that became my preferred port of refuge. Bearing in mind the stem plate problem this was just as well, because Summerbird would almost certainly have been in distress later had we carried on.
The confused sea produced large waves from all directions. Each time the boat hit one we stopped dead, barely picking up any speed before the next one. In the first few days of the 710-mile passage we made good only 1-2 knots. One by one the strops on the storm jib parted and I replaced them.
In the end I gave up, with the sail just attached at head and tack with one or two strops. The mainsail slammed around even though a preventer was fitted. The gas strut in the rigid kicker went. A metal mainsheet block D-ring on the cabin top broke so I had to arrange a jury rig system to attach the mainsheet to the toe rail.
Jill had told Falmouth Coastguard of my predicament and I was required to telephone the Canadian Coastguard in Halifax each day on the Iridium. Eventually we crossed 45°N. The Canadians passed me on to the Portuguese and the weather calmed a bit. The sea state lessened. The wind went north, astern; that was good in one way, but the Hydrovane found it more challenging. I resorted to the Autohelm, but this failed.
Jill spoke to our electronics man who deduced that, because the wind instrument had gone, the SeaTalk link between all the instruments was affected and that the Autohelm needed to be isolated. To do so, I was advised to stick my head through a small locker door in the quarter berth where the computer was located in order to disconnect a wire, one of very many and probably red.
As the locker door slammed against my head and the yacht rolled violently, one by one I disconnected wires and reconnected them while checking the Autohelm each time, until – bingo – I found the right one. The Autohelm fired up to my great relief.
Now surfing downwind on big waves with 30 knots of wind behind us, progress was much improved. Eventually the island of Faial came into view. I berthed just as light faded at 2100 on 20 June, three weeks after departing Plymouth.
How the mast stayed up on the seven-day voyage to the Azores is a mystery, but being off the wind with a double backstay taking the strain must have helped, as must the prayers of the good people of Newton and Noss back home.
First published in the February 2019 edition of Yachting World.