Single-handed sailor Miles Hordern meets a storm in the Pacific and recounts the visceral shock of being swept overboard
Back in the early 1990s, a young man called Miles Hordern sailed his 28ft Kim Holman-designed Twister single-handed from the UK to New Zealand. He lived aboard in Auckland for the first winter before moving ashore and becoming progressively divorced from the sea.
After five years, however, the call of the Pacific could no longer be denied and he set himself a voyage around the current system of the world’s greatest ocean. Following the streams, he sailed the Twister across the Southern Ocean to Chile, cruised the archipelagos, then headed for Easter Island before following the classic South Seas route back to New Zealand.
His book, Sailing the Pacific contains a good deal of historical commentary, some profound general observations on life at sea and is so beautifully written that, unlike many voyage accounts, it is a genuine page-turner. We join him in the trade-wind belt on the early part of the return passage a few days out from Juan Fernandez, when a fair weather idyll takes a sudden, nasty turn.
From Sailing The Pacific by Miles Hordern
On deck the trade was fresh, between 20 and 25 knots, warm and woolly; in these latitudes the wind is a light angora that surrounds your whole body, tugging in the direction of the flow. I ran between 140 and 150 miles a day, and was sure it could get no better than this. At 27°S I altered course and sailed due west for Easter Island, some thousand miles beyond the horizon.
Over those days the sea took on a quality I hadn’t expected, measuring out the miles as if progress was a certainty. The swells were a metre high, sometimes a metre-and-a-half, perfectly suited to a boat of this length. As each one passed around the keel I felt my home perform a cycle of predictable motion, lifting at the stern, dipping to leeward, always stiff and reasoned.
After breakfast each morning I faced the prospect of a whole day of easy progress. In the cabin I had time on my hands, surrounded by an ocean world of wind and seas that appeared almost mechanical.
I cut my hair and trimmed my beard. I sat with charts and books of the islands ahead and dreamed that this might be my best passage. It was light and warm: this alone was sufficient to guarantee contentment. I drank lime juice from a glass placed on the gimballed cooker.
I found pleasure in simply looking at that glass. It was a heavy, round tumbler, a little taller than the width of my hand. I had never used a glass in the Southern Ocean for fear of breakages; instead, I drank everything from one stainless steel tankard. But in the trades glassware could again be part of the fabric of my life.
I looked proudly at the glass sometimes, as sunlight flashed through the airy cabin. I saw it as a trophy of the peaceful times I had won for myself. As the tradewinds settled into place over the ocean, I all too quickly became accustomed to this genteel world of sipped drinks and mahi mahi steaks poached in Chilean chardonnay. It was easy to forget how quickly it could all fall apart.
Many of the things that I remember about the passage through the tropics happened at night. Daylight can be a corrosive force on the tropical seas. It is an anomaly of the marine landscape: by day, there is often nothing to see. The sky is hard and burnt, the water a bulge of silver reflections.
When the wind is light, the heat is desperate. During the day I often hid in the shade, seldom venturing out for long. There are events hidden among the shadows and languor, of course, but they are indistinct.
Critically, in my memory, all lack a clear starting point at which any one event can be said to begin. And because most things that happen at sea are so routine and inconsequential, without a starting-point, they disappear.
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The clarity of night
At night it is different. In the night-time any event, even a binge on chocolate and booze, is bounded by sleep, and so begins at the point of waking. The night has this clarity, like a frame around each scene, which has the effect of making it seem the most eventful time at sea.
I woke one night early in the passage and knew that something was wrong. I couldn’t think, or even focus my eyes at first. On deck, there was liquid everywhere. Then I began to feel the rain, heavy pellets biting into my bare back. After that I was fully awake.
The sky was yellow; cloud was layered at different heights, tearing overhead. Sheet lightning flashed in several places around the horizon, a gold circle revealing wet, black cloud. The sea looked thick and warm, like boiling broth.
Sound was all around, a mix of wind, waves, and rain beating on canvas. The boat was run through with energy, its roll urgent. The waves were steep and close, green water coming over the stemhead, white furrows cast to either side. The squall had struck hard.
I’d left the boat carrying full sail. Now she was over-pressed, the sails wrinkled and misshapen, straining to get free. The pole holding the genoa to windward was pinched tight, trembling when the boat surfed. The backstays were rods. The whole rig looked out of place: a paper-and-dowelling kite caught in a gale.
I hesitated. I was already beginning to feel cold, dressed only in shorts. I pulled the harness out from beneath the sprayhood. I preferred to wear it under, not over, a jacket; it was quicker to put on against bare skin.
I was still cold. My jacket was also stuffed beneath the sprayhood. Now it was sodden with rain from the squall. As I pushed my hands through the wet sleeves they kept catching on the lining. I shoved harder, growing impatient. I needed to get the wind out of the sails quickly. The boat was careering downwind and I was worried it might broach. With the jacket finally on I did up the zip. The tether came up from underneath the jacket, onto the harness at my chest.
The sheet for the furling genoa was coiled in a pocket in the cockpit coaming. I pulled it out and flicked two turns off the winch, then the rope was snapped from my grip, the sail rushing forwards, spilling its wind. But the sheet fouled in the sidedeck fairlead. The sail was flogging heavily.
I clipped onto the jackstay, then set off down the sidedeck. I don’t know exactly what happened next. I’ve climbed around the deck at night hundreds of times, sometimes without a harness. It was a bad squall, but not exceptional, the rain hard, the wind at 40 knots.
The problem was that I was carrying too much sail. Now, half-released, the genoa was crashing in the air overhead, sending tremors through the boat. One minute I was moving down the narrow sidedeck as I had so often done before. It is a tight squeeze around the sprayhood, awkward on a rolling boat. I was looking at the tangled rope in the block just ahead. Then it all changed.
The first thing I remember was a crushing blow to my chest. It felt like being broken in half. The jerk was unforgiving, spinning me round in the water like a rag doll. My body felt numb and dead. But I knew exactly what had happened: I’d fallen over the side and was being dragged through the water. The strong point on the jackstay had held. The tether was stretched like a bar over the rail, then down to the harness on my chest. I was somewhere against the boat’s quarter.
I couldn’t breathe. Water seemed to be everywhere. I’d been stunned by the initial blow, and now didn’t know up from down. I could find no window through which to break out into clear air. And for a moment there seemed little point in trying.
I had thought I would struggle and fight, keep going to the end, but actually those first moments in the water were a time of resignation and defeat, of sulking at the self-inflicted mishap. The sea was hard and unyielding: it seemed I was being dragged across gravel.
When I lay on my front and arched my back I found I could get my head clear of the water. My right shoulder was hard against the side of the boat. At anchor in flat water, it’s just possible, when you are swimming, to reach the toerail on deck and, if you are fit, pull yourself out of the water.
But the boat was heeling downwind and this distance was increased. In the big swell I kept slamming into the side of the hull. It was slimy with weed, the underwater sections exposed as the boat heeled.
I pulled myself up on the tether and made a lunge for the rail. Nothing happened: I couldn’t lunge against the force of the water. The sea was pouring in through the cuffs of my oilskin jacket, which was ballooning out around my shoulders, dragging me back. The bottom of the jacket was pulled up around my chest by the tether attached from underneath. I could feel the jacket biting into the small of my back. I had to get it off.
When I lowered my head to look for the zip, my body dived back under the water. My hands were torn from the collar. I rolled into my back and dropped my chin. This way I could breathe, and the collar opening was protected from the seas.
I found the zip with my fingers and undid the first half easily, but the bottom part of the jacket was bunched around my chest by the tether, which was now stretched hard over my shoulder. The fabric of the coat was torn all around the zip, and the zip itself was so buckled that the slider had jammed. I started trying to tear the zip open.
As I struggled, the loosened jacket came off my shoulders. I put my arms behind my back and the water did the rest, pulling the jacket down around my waist like a skirt. It was still caught round the tether. I tore at it some more, now from the bottom of the zip. The material finally parted, perhaps the zip broke. The jacket was gone in an instant. I must have lost my boxer shorts as soon as I hit the water: now I was naked in the harness.
I pulled up on the tether, waited for the boat to roll back towards me, then grabbed for the toerail with my right hand. My fingers closed around the worn teak. But when I let go of the tether with my left hand to get it on the rail, the force of the water broke my grip.
I fell into the sea, and was again slammed up hard against the tether. I didn’t wait now. It was impossible to rest in the water: every second left me more tired. I pulled up on the tether again and got one hand on the rail. Just then the boat gave a long roll downwind, lifting me almost clear of the water.
Without its weight around me I was able to pull my shoulders up onto the rail, then hook my feet up one at a time. It was a horrible tangle: there’s no sidedeck here because the cockpit coaming comes almost to the edge of the deck, and as I wriggled under the lifelines the tether got caught on the stanchion. I unclipped it and slid into the cockpit.
The first thing was to get the bloody sails in. I was thankful I had this task, some urgent work to focus my racing mind. I crawled along the sidedeck, freed the tangled sheet and furled the genoa. The power had now drained from the boat’s rush downwind, the noise overhead was hushed and the motion began to ease. Lightning strikes revealed a luminous green world folding and reforming beneath driving rain. Between time it was pitch black.
In the cabin I dried myself, put on a dry jacket, and went outside again. I wondered for a time if I would need to reef the mainsail as well. I waited five minutes. Then the boom of the thunder became more distant, and the wind died away. I sat beneath the sprayhood in the cockpit and smoked a cigarette as the lightning receded to the north-west and patches of starry sky emerged to windward.
The seas were shapeless. Heavy strands of spray occasionally slopped out of the darkness. It took me a long time to warm up, though the wind was softer now and my hair began to dry. I felt empty and thought I might drift off to sleep. But I was dragged back to the present. The front of my jacket and my legs were wet and sticky. I realised that I was being sick.
First published in the December 2019 edition of Yachting World.