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Sailmithril - ocean cruising adventures

Fastnet Follies


The wrong place and the wrong time - the sailor's nightmare.

Had a 35 day passage back which was longer than we expected. Left Venezuela on 02.04. (04.02 in America!!) and had fair winds up until 22nd when we were becalmed and so motored - which we normally don't do on passage. We had a 15 foot minke whale alongside for about 11 hours - we think he must have been a lonely young male travelling the same way as us and looking for company. It's a rare thing to have 3 consecutive log entries "whale still here - yawn yawn". Then from about 24th we had head winds - north easters which is very unusual for the north Atlantic so early in the year. It wasn't so bad when the winds were light and we could motor sail and make some progress. Then just 70 miles south west of the western tip of Ireland we had a severe gale from WNW. We knew it was coming and tried to get closer to the Irish coast for some shelter from the swells but couldn't make it and ended up in just the wrong place at the wrong time - right on the continental shelf break where the water shallows fairly rapidly and where the waves build up a very considerable force.
The wind was about 45 knots and instead of running before it we tried to motor and sail across it. The seas were very big and active. There was lots of white water in the air and blankets of foam on the surface. I had to admit defeat on steering through them but Peter managed well taking the really bad ones on the quarter. For a while we made steady progress but then the waves started to get too strong and eventually we were hit by the wave from hell and were knocked down. Peter was outside and kept his weight on the main hatch which prevented much water getting inside but the cockpit filled up and water came down through the engine room vent. Worse was what happened inside. Every single locker lid and floor board on the whole boat came open including 2 lids under the seat on which I was sitting. It was like a war zone with household objects becoming deadly missiles. I was sitting in the passage alongside the engine room watching kitchen bombs on one side and saloon bombs on the other. We were lucky neither of us was hurt.
A few examples; the cast iron frying pan which lives under the cooker, and normally needs winkling out to use, landed beside me on the chart table in 2 pieces. A saucepan lid left a 3 mm dent in the wall beside me. In the saloon a stereo speaker which is as light as a feather left a dent in the plywood face of a berth so it must have had considerable velocity! But the worst was the emptying of the bottle hole. This is a locker about 2 feet deep with a lid recessed into the work top and one we never expected to move. The lid flew off and the bottles were catapulted out with all the glass ones breaking. I ended up in a sea of olive oil and chilli sauce which made the cleaning up process doubly difficult as it was like a skating rink below; even the walls were green and slippery to hold on to. The fridge also opened and dumped its contents - yoghurt and avocado salad dressing (complete with little green lumps) from floor to ceiling. Then the engine stopped (took a big gulp of air down the fuel line as we were so far over on our side). Peter came below then and we surveyed the damage.
The bilge was filling up now with oily water displaced from the engine room as new sea water still came down the vent. Peter went back out and bunged it up and then we bailed. The bilge pump was blocked and the emergency one was too slow. I never, ever expected to see Peter on his knees filling a saucepan with bilge water while I pumped it out through the galley sink. Until we realised that the water was coming in through the engine room vent I thought we were sinking. A tin of contact glue spilled in the saloon creating a virulent chemical fog inside which was dangerous with all the hatches and vents shut. It took me over an hour to locate it and then get to it so as to jettison the tin and melting carpet tiles. During breaks in the waves Peter would lift the main hatch as I stood below it breathing deeply for as long as the seas allowed.
After about 9 hours tidying I had some semblance of order - but still slippery floors as it was too rough to wash them. I went to bed for 2 hours then relieved Peter from outside where he had been steering for the last 15 hours. By now the waves were less as we were over the shelf but the wind still raged and the depression didn't move away eastwards as it should have done but hovered over the British Isles meaning that the gale lasted longer. It did eventually decrease by the evening of the next day. However when we went to set the sails again we found that the bottom 2 feet of the mainsail track had pulled out of the mast, the poor oul mizzen was virtually in tatters and the genoa had a rip along the leech allowing only about 3 feet of it to be unrolled. So we motored the last day or so up the Irish Sea.
The wave that hit us wasn't that tall, about 20 feet, but it was very powerful and steep with a great curling crest and a tremendous hissing roar. These shallow water waves have great 'oomph' behind them and when they hit the boat they really slammed us sideways and the bad one also lifted us up and dropped us on our side. A wooden or fibreglass boat would have suffered structural damage but our big steel drum was fine. We also think a rubber mounted engine might have moved! The moral of the story is that if you have a timetable to meet fly!! With all the time in the world we would have stayed south of the gale area for another 3 days or else we'd have lain ahull and drifted before it.
Now we're back in the Newry in the canal which we left last September. We have plenty of time to tidy up and make storm catches for floorboards!! We will try and stay here until they ask us to leave as it's a good berth right in the centre of the city with water and electricity. When the kids get over the novelty of having us here we shouldn't have any trouble with trespassers or vandals. So far we've had a bottle thrown at us, coca cola spilt through a hatch over our bed and a couple of Russians wanting to sleep in the cockpit and that's all in the first 4 days.
Read the account of our return published in Yachting Monthly in October 2004.
See weather data for the day supplied by Met Eireann.
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copyright Geraldine Foley.