Single-handed adventurer Webb Chiles outruns a south pacific storm as he sails between the US and New Zealand

As soon as I opened the companionway I knew we had up too much sail. Gannet, my ultra-light Moore 24, is a thin and often permeable membrane, but the wind was much stronger than I’d realised down below. Gale force. Gannet was being overwhelmed.

I hesitated only a moment before deciding to let the main halyard go and continue under furled jib alone. Running backstays were installed in Honolulu for just that purpose. The windward one was already in place, as it usually is on passages when I expect the wind to be on the same side of the boat for an extended period.

The fully battened main slid down the Tides Marine track. I grabbed a line from a cockpit sheet bag, crawled the few feet to the mast and, hanging on with one hand as 12 to 15ft waves crashed over us, crudely lashed the sail to the boom. Back in the cockpit, I felt that even the remaining scrap of jib was too much and furled it down to T-shirt size.


Gannet ploughs on with a reefed mainsail

My last tiller pilot had died the night before, so Gannet was sailing on a close reach with the tiller tied down. The first tiller pilot had lasted four thousand miles. In the last 2,400 miles five had failed, including one that had been repaired and failed twice. But they’d lasted long enough to make it possible that we’d make Opua, New Zealand, this day after what had been a three act passage from Neiafu, Tonga.

The first act was fine sailing with Gannet covering half the 1,200 miles between ports in four days. Act two was nearly incredible as we sailed through a high-pressure system. For three days Gannet made only 60 to 70 miles a day, but she did so in zero apparent wind. The days were sunny. The ocean flat and glassy. We might have been in a perfect anchorage except that the water was miles deep.

The little sloop kept moving when almost no other sailboat would have. She was perfectly level. The tiller pilot almost completely silent. Our course straight. There was nothing to cause the slightest deviation. I stood in the companionway and tried to find the wind.

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I turned my head from side to side to feel it against my skin. Nothing. I held up my hand. Nothing. No cat’s-paws on the water. At the masthead the Windex was stuck and useless. Yarn tied to the shrouds hung limp. Gannet sailed on wind imperceptible.

And those 200 miles had brought us to within 40 miles of Opua and act three, a chance to get in before the north-west gale turned south-west and headed us, effectively shutting the door and keeping us at sea for several more days.

I sail without outside assistance. No sponsors. No shore team. No weather routers. But I don’t consider it inconsistent to listen to AM radio as I near land and so had heard the forecast on Radio New Zealand National, but I know how wind circulates around lows in both hemispheres and would have expected the wind to back anyway.


Gannet under sail in San Diego before the start of her voyage

For that matter the radio forecast was partially wrong, predicting the west wind would veer north-west the day before. I very much wished it had. Twenty-five knots aft of the beam would have made the ride easier and faster. We would have been in by now. But the wind remained west until well after dark, and Gannet laboured south on a course of around 210°.

After more than 6,000 miles in four months, the little sloop was unravelling. Tiller pilots dead. The port pipe berth unusable after the tube jumped from its socket when Gannet became airborne off a wave and crashed into a trough. One of the two floorboards split full length. Insufficient solar charging with at least two of the six panels non-functioning.

Gannet’s interior had never been wetter, messier or more chaotic. Not a dry surface anywhere. I’d slept the night before in full foul weather gear, including sea boots, with a sleeping bag over me as a blanket. We really needed to reach port before the cascade became a torrent.

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