The Tumultuous Tasman
By Tom Morkin
Our summer job is finished, and Liz and I are visiting family and friends, about to head back to Malta and to Feel Free. As our time in Canada draws to a close, we’re excited to head back to the boat, and my memories of happy times aboard are getting stronger. Here’s one I’d like to share.
If you were to go back into the weather annals of Australia for 1987, you’d discover that quite a big storm hit the New South Wales (NSW) coast around Newcastle on November 11. From old newspapers you’d learn that winds of 65 knots were recorded at Nobby’s Head and virtually all the harbors from Coff’s Harbor to Sydney were closed. So what, you say, the Tasman is notorious for its tempests. Maybe so, but this one was special: Liz and I, aboard our first boat Hoki Mai, were in it.
Nine days out of Noumea and 100 miles east of Newcastle, the weatherman reported the merging of no fewer than three very low-pressure systems in our immediate area. For the next 36 hours we hove-to in what we refer to as survival mode.
That 36-hour period, while being particularly “unfun” was a pretty intense learning experience. Not only did we learn something about ourselves, we learned some invaluable lessons about storm management. The storm very quickly and dramatically pointed out chinks in the boat’s armor as well as our onboard procedures. Hoping that others might benefit from our experience, complete with mistakes large and small, I’ll take you back to November 1987 and put you on board Hoki Mai.
The trip from Noumea, even before the storm, was a miserable one. Strong winds forward of the beam were followed by light fluky airs which made for not only an uncomfortable passage, but a slow one as well. It was at 0200 on November 10 when life went from bad to worse. In 20 knots of east-southeast wind, Liz awakened me, bellowing, “Oh, no! The main’s ripped from luff to leach!”
The rip was above the second reef point and we didn’t have a spare mainsail, so we could only hoist the storm trysail. This proved to be a mixed blessing because it meant we raised the trysail (something we’d never done before at sea) in moderate conditions. Even so, it was a bit of a hassle, dragging it out of the bottom of the locker, rigging sheets and blocks, and finally bending it on to the trysail track. What should have been an easy and routine procedure took over an hour. Doing it for the first time in storm conditions would’ve been a Herculean task, resulting in seasickness and possibly dangerous fatigue.
While down below contemplating whether or not to drop the jib, I was startled by a huge wave crashing onto our starboard side. The roll that resulted almost put us on our beam ends. This in turn was followed by a primal scream from Liz who was, until that moment, never known to have screamed in her life! In two seconds flat, I was on the deck to be greeted by the sight of Liz in the cockpit looking like a drowned rat knee deep in water. We’d been pooped for the first time. The decision to douse the jib was an easy one.
The next decision was whether to run with the trysail alone or to heave to. We’d hove to successfully on previous occasions, so we chose the latter course and this time it was a simpler matter as there was no jib to back-wind. Hoki Mai was rounded up to about 65 degrees off the wind and there she stayed for the next 36 hours.
After heaving to, I went below to check if we were close enough to pick up a VHF weather report. While down below, I was appalled to see the results of a light tap on the barometer. It fell so low I thought I’d broken it! I was at first relieved then manically depressed when we made contact with Sydney Radio, some 90 miles to the west
“Pan pan, pan pan, pan pan” the voice said. “For information pertaining to two gale warnings and one storm warning, stand by on the channel.” That was our first contact with Australia -- what a welcome! It was the forecast of 55-60 knots in the center of the storm, and then the realization that we were in fact, in the center of the storm, that caused my facial color to pale, and the strange feeling of weakness in my knees.
On the positive side, we had some forewarning and about two hours of daylight to prepare for the onslaught. Dinner (Cup of Noodles) was cooked and eaten, extra lashings were put around the main and mizzen sails, the deck was cleared of unnecessary objects, and the jib, which was still hanked on to the headstay, was tied to the lifelines. Not bagging it and stowing it below was mistake # 1. It was our first casualty as, inevitably, wind and water ripped the sail around the ties. Although it later proved to be salvageable, it required a lot of stitching.
The sky became so dark it was difficult to tell when night actually arrived. Visibility was less than a couple of boat lengths in driving rain and spume. We easily convinced ourselves that it was pointless to stand watches -- we couldn’t see any approaching hazards and couldn’t maneuver out of the way even if we could see them.
Down below, things were already getting wet. Although the main hatch was closed and hatch boards were firmly in place, the waves that were now crashing on the deck were taking their toll. Dollops of water were gushing through what we thought was a watertight hatch. Inevitably, one of the waves flattened our dodger. The forward hatch was no more watertight than the main, and soon it was totally drenched and rendered the forward cabin unlivable.
Surprise followed surprise as drawers and lockers earlier thought to be storm proof broke free and emptied their contents onto the cabin sole. Cans of food rolled and banged around under foot. It was like a vaudeville act: crawling around the main cabin stuffing cans back into their lockers only to have them pop out again like jack-in-the-boxes with the next lurch. The offending cans were finally thrown into the forward cabin, which became a very large wet locker.
When some remote semblance of normalcy returned to the main cabin, we set up the lee cloths on the port and starboard settees and tried to get some rest. The port settee was actually comfortable for a time, and were it not for the acute anxiety attacks, sleep might have been possible. Instead, it was stock-taking time.
On the credit side, the boat was riding the seas remarkably well; surprisingly, neither Liz nor I was seasick (no doubt, adrenaline is a potent seasickness remedy); we knew our exact position, our set and drift; and we still had our strength. On the debit side, we were soaked; inside, the boat was a disaster area; visibility was nil; there was no telling how long this nonsense was going to last; and given our rate of drift, we were 48 hours from a lee shore. Seated in a warm, dry room, that sounds like a good distance, but at the time, it was close enough for us to ask ourselves: If we do end up on a lee shore, what’s the protocol? Given that there’s no way to sail or motor in these conditions, do we stay clipped to the boat until we hit the shore, or don our life jackets and abandon ship just prior to contact?
Every two hours we traded berths so we could both benefit from the relative comfort of the port berth. We hit a new low when a breaking wave shifted the position of our inflatable from directly over the center hatch. The next major wave crashed directly against the hatch resulting in a gush of water that completely soaked our last corner of refuge -- the port settee, along with the bedding and yours truly. For the remainder of the storm, we were unable to stay dry. Despite the clammy bedding, we stayed in our berths, praying there would be no need to go on deck on this godforsaken night. We rose only to listen to the hourly weather reports and to mop the galley and companionway sole, which received regular dousings from the not-so-watertight main hatch.
Dawn brought a greater sense of dread rather than relief, as we were dumbstruck by the seascape that engulfed us. What we saw outside looked like an Arctic landscape. The waves were now mountains covered in blowing snow and hurling themselves at us at a sickening pace. Reluctantly I dragged myself topsides to survey the situation.
Although I expected to have to do some tidying up, I was shocked by the scene. It looked like a war zone. Our nine-foot dinghy complete with floorboards was flying like a flag off our port side. One of the two solar panels had broken free and jumped ship. The wind vane was knocked off its mount and dangled precariously over the stern. The weather cloths surrounding the cockpit were ripped to ribbons.
The first order of business was the flailing dinghy. Had I a less parsimonious nature I would have yielded to Liz’s plea to leave it alone. In fact, I did promise that if it was too difficult or dangerous to retrieve, I’d let it be. As I inched my way forward on the deck, Liz watched me disappear into the blindness. We yelled back and forth above the screeching wind every couple of minutes to reassure each other that we were both still aboard.
After securing the dinghy, the remaining solar panel was taken below along with the broken wind vane. On the way to the stern to retrieve the dangling wind vane blade, I heard a wailing “WATCH OUT!” from Liz. I looked up to see the monstrous breaking wall of water just in time to dive into our deep bathtub-like cockpit, clutching the steering wheel as the green water flooded over the cockpit. Luckily, I landed without injury and the cockpit drained almost as quickly as it had filled.
Following the rescue of the vane, the collapsed dodger was secured, trysail hardened up, anchors resecured and all lashings doubled. These tasks would have taken 30 minutes under normal conditions but, tied to my leash, crawling everywhere and working slowly to minimize fatigue, I spent close to two hours on deck.
Although Hoki Mai continued to ride safely to the waves, the weather side of the coach house took regular beatings and raised the question: At what point is it prudent to drop the trysail and run under bare poles? We still hadn’t been knocked down and the motion below was bearable, so we remained hove to for the duration of the storm. Throughout the day the wind and seas maintained their wrath. We’d done as much as we could in terms of storm management, so for the remainder of the storm we could only listen to weather updates, conserve energy, try to get dry and stay warm.
By midnight of the second day, the winds began to abate and the weather forecast promised the passing of the weather systems by the next day. Sure enough, the following day the storm passed even faster than it had come. By noon we were powering through giant seas, under bright sunshine and no wind -- such is life in the Tasman Sea.
So what did we learn from our trial by water?
After 10,000 miles of sailing we still weren’t ready for a Force 12 storm. Hatches that we thought were watertight weren’t. Things we thought were well stowed on deck such as fuel tank, dinghy and solar panels, were not. Practices acceptable in normal circumstances such as tying a headsail to the lifeline will lead to the near destruction of your favorite jib in a storm.
Our strategy of heaving to with just a trysail was a good one. It relieved us of the necessity of standing watches and allowed us to get some much needed rest. I’m now convinced that by heaving to we prevented any potential knock downs and minimized the pounding the boat received. A Danish boat in the same storm (Frig, a moderate-displacement double ender) ran before the storm trailing warps and even sails to slow the boat down, but suffered three knockdowns resulting in a crew member being thrown over the side twice. Fortunately, his safety harness saved him on both occasions.
It is of utmost importance to be able to hank on the storm sails without any fuss. This means being able to find them, and get them out easily as well.
Should it have been necessary to run before the wind with bare poles, we were not prepared to stream warps or any type of sea anchor. Before any major passage, all the lines, shackles, drogue, and chafing gear should be ready for deployment. Practice trailing drogues and warps in less than storm conditions will certainly minimize the stress should they ever be required.
Although I could never say I’m happy we had our Tasman Tempest, we surely are wiser sailors for it. Not only do we have the inevitable greater respect for “the deep,” we also had a greater respect for the seaworthiness of our boat at the time, especially after many of the shortcomings had been rectified. As for the next storm, we’ll undoubtedly make other mistakes, but I can assure you that after our Tasman episode, there are a few mistakes that won’t be repeated.