Paddy Macklin describes a night of knockdowns and rollovers as he attempted a non-stop circle of the Southern Ocean in his 27ft wooden sloop Tessa
Captain Bungle’s Odyssey by Paddy Macklin is a great sailing book belied by its humble title. Extraordinarily self-effacing, Paddy makes light of a remarkable circumnavigation executed in truly Corinthian spirit, without sponsorship or hype of any sort. He sets out in mid-winter 2009/10 to sail a non-stop circle, which will involve him in traversing the Southern Ocean in mid-winter. This used to be a daunting prospect in a pre-war 5,000-ton steel four-masted barque, let alone a 27ft yacht.
The good ship Tessa is a long-keeled, wooden Clyde Cruising Club sloop designed by Alan Buchanan and built in the 1950s, but there is little standard about her. Reading of Paddy’s preparations for the voyage, one realises that just about nothing was left to chance. When Tessa is put to the ultimate test described below with so little fuss, she comes out with flying colours, a living example of what a straightforward man can achieve by foreseeing trouble realistically and tackling it head-on.
Paddy’s attitude throughout the book is one of self-help and can-do. When asked why he was sailing in winter, he replied that if you thought too much about what you were taking on, you’d never go. A lesson for life in general, and this book is full of them.
From Captain Bungle’s Odyssey
My log reads, rather tersely: ‘Strong gale, 4 knockdowns, two 360° rollovers, damage occurred but rig OK. Position 43° 29S 37° 50E.’ The following is therefore a description of the events of August 11, 2010 from memory.
So there we were, lying to. This was all that could be done in the circumstances, as to re-reeve the broken tiller line was not feasible. There were heavy seas breaking over the boat and I might well have been washed overboard in the attempt.
Up to this point, my Southern Ocean heavy-weather tactic had been to keep the boat moving through all the gales. The wind by now had reached a sustained mean of 45-50 knots. By this time I was quite adept at judging wind strength and sea height, having been subjected to almost continuous heavy weather since South Africa, 5,500 miles away.
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The seas had become enormous, the day wore on and night closed in. This was, after all, midwinter in the Roaring Forties, so nights were extremely long and days very short. I was totally exhausted. This was the worst yet.
It’s hard to describe the conditions. By now the gale had raged for 48 hours, with the high-pitched scream of the wind in the rigging wires, and the continual rumble of the huge breaking combers all around the boat. Before the onset of dark I had been too scared to look out of the dome of the main hatch, the entire vista was so terrifying.
The seas had become monstrous mountains 40-60ft high, huge tumbling breaks collapsing down their fronts. Awe-inspiring doesn’t describe it. The blackness closed down on this scene from hell, I wedged myself across the cabin, wrapped in my bedding. Sleep was out of the question in spite of exhaustion. I just lay there and waited.
Without wishing to sound in any way heroic, it never once occurred to me that I wouldn’t get through, or to ask for any kind of rescue. Complete trust in my little boat was essential and in the event she repaid my faith. We didn’t have to wait very long. The growling ‘thrump’ of the huge breaks all around meant it was only a matter of time.
The first knockdown was of course the most shocking. There was an almighty roar like an express train, then an explosive crash as the break hit the side of the boat. In a split second, Tessa was on her side, with the mast horizontal. Everything in the cabin that could fly flew fast as we were smashed sideways at high speed.
Apparently if you break up an ants’ nest, their first reaction is to wash their faces. I guess I was like an ant. My immediate reaction was one of indignation, and I set to putting everything back in its rightful place.
This was a Shackletonian discipline that had evolved over the months of Southern Ocean sailing. I had to know where everything was or chaos would ensue and endanger the ship. The old sailor’s prayer, “Lord, thy ocean so vast, my ship so small… Guide me”, was very fitting at this point.
It is not the huge seas that damage a strong, well-found yacht; it’s the breaking tops of the seas – several tons of very fast-moving water – that present the greatest danger. An hour later, the same again. Indignant swearing as I put everything back once more.
By now all the stowage cubbies were being stuffed with any available spare clothing, cushions etc. The galley cubby was blocked off with a sheet of plywood so that, in the event of a repeat, at least all its contents were contained, rather than flying jars breaking on the other side of the cabin, leaving a trail of jam or chutney and a lot of dangerous broken shards of glass.
For me this was a night of reckoning, as I was already exhausted. Two more of these violent knockdowns occurred. They were frightening because of the sheer vicious force, first the roar of the break, then the terrifying impact, a 5-ton sledgehammer.
Shortly after, the rollovers were almost benign by comparison, as they were relatively quiet. The mast was horizontal again, but instead of stopping there, it just kept on to 180° (i.e. upside down) then on round and up the other side. In the space of about 40 seconds I was thrown out of my bunk, onto the deckhead, then back to my bunk again.
The whole rollover happened quite slowly because 5 tons of ballast keel and a 32ft mast are being pulled in a 360° circle. Throughout the time I spent upside down, the most noticeable thing was the complete silence.
As Tessa righted herself, the raging, thunderous black maelstrom started again. My first reaction was to shine the torch through the dome to check the mast. Phew! Still there. Losing the mast was my greatest fear, and although I could see other damage, mast and rig were still intact.
There followed a second 360° rollover, though not much flew about this time, as I had chocked, tied and stuffed pretty much anything that could move, and surprisingly most things returned to their original stowage, more or less.
I had always been fastidious about keeping the bilges as empty as possible, using a cheap little hand-operated siphon pump (£5 from Halfords), as the larger, main pumps couldn’t clear the very last of the water. So when the boat was upside down very little water escaped from the bilges; if it had, it would have made me and my bedding wet. There was never more than one or two litres at most.
The importance of keeping salt water at bay cannot be stressed enough. Every time I’d been on deck I would wash my hands and face in fresh water afterwards. Clothes or bedding wet with salt water do not dry and salt-water sores are a constant danger.
The bilges would fill from the condensation that prevailed most of the time. A surprising amount would work its way down and back to the well to be sucked out into a 2½-litre plastic container I had rigged up to the pump and emptied through one or other of the opening cabin ports, depending on which side the seas came from. It became quite an art to eject the bilge water without letting the sea in at the same time.
The next quick check with the torch through the dome hatch gave me a rough idea of all the other damage incurred. When daylight finally arrived it was easier to see the full extent. The plywood wind vane was snapped at the base; it was designed to do just this and Starr, a good friend in Falmouth, had given me three spares. The radar reflector on the backstay was torn to pieces; all the instrumentation at the masthead had been wrenched off and was gone.
The big 60W solar panel, lashed to the dinghy on top of the cabin, had been ripped out of its frame, like the open top of a tin can; the wind generator’s pole was bent to 45°, and so were its supporting struts; and the plastic surround of the main bulkhead compass had been torn off – a design fault.
So there was a lot of ancillary damage, but the mast was still there, which meant we were not out of commission yet. My relief about this was profound, although the gale was far from over. It had already lasted for over 60 hours. Playing on the radio was the song Good Riddance by Green Day with the ironic final chorus refrain of ‘I hope you had the time of your life!’
It would be a lie to say it wasn’t all very frightening. But when you are exposed to prolonged danger, there is a kind of locking off, and the heart-thumping adrenaline and fear transform into apprehension and anxiety.
I still had to cut free the solar panel that had shattered into tiny pieces like a car windscreen. I changed the plywood wind vane and the tiller line, hoisted the 50ft2 storm jib and started sailing. Then I finished trying to restore the cabin to a semblance of order, made a cup of tea, smoked a cigarette and wondered what to do. The rising pressure indicated that the weather would moderate, though the interludes between gales were sweet but very short.
Mmm… I unwrapped the satphone and rang a dear old friend in the UK who, although not a sailor, was very empathetic. At a time like that the satphone came into its own. What a relief to hear my mate’s clear, objective voice after all I’d gone through.
I was about 450 miles south-west of Tasmania and realised that the project of sailing non-stop was now compromised, mainly because the charging systems were depleted by two-thirds. All that was left was a small old 25W solar panel that had miraculously escaped being wrenched from the pushpit.
All the thought that I had put into the rigging was now paying off, though there is never room for complacency. As Amundsen wrote: ‘Victory awaits him who has everything in order – luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time – this is called bad luck.’
Backup for backup
What to do next? I phoned my sister at our appointed time, explained what had happened and told her we would have to put in to Tasmania for repairs. Apart from the fact that I was battered and exhausted, with toes like fat chipolatas, I was close to suffering from frostbite, as up to this point I had been doing all deck-work barefoot. I was finally forced into the tedious business of wearing socks and deck boots.
I had backup for backup on Tessa. The hybrid three-way generating system consisted of sun, wind and a towing turbine. The Aquair towing generator was the one charging unit left, which up till now had remained lashed down in the forepeak, buried under all the sail bags.
Although the bracket to the pushpit was already rigged up, I had never had cause to use it. I ferreted it out, along with the towing turbine plus 120ft of unused 12mm towing line. This generates power, according to the boat’s speed, at the rate of 1A per knot. The job took all day, as doing anything had to be thought out in advance like a military operation.
Finally the big moment came. Over with the turbine, pay out the line very fast, then wait for the snatch and – bingo – Aquair spinning! Check battery regulator: 3-4A going in… Yippee! This meant the batteries started to charge up again.
It dawned on me that I could make it to New Zealand, to my old friends Graeme and Jules Donaldson in Timaru, who have a good slipway and a pressure washer. I had friends and family in New Zealand but none in Tasmania. After all, what was another 1,700 miles across the Tasman Sea in winter between old friends? Decision made.
The Southern Ocean doesn’t change, of course. These are the log readings:
13/7/2010: ‘Rain, wind shifted to north-west 8 and dropped. Sea chaotic. Shattered, feel like we’ve been in a gale for ever.’
14/7/ 2010: ‘As above, more endless gale, exhausted.’
And the next 22 days were more of the same.
First published in the May 2020 edition of Yachting World.