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Sailmithril - ocean cruising adventures

Mithril in Peril


 Mithril in Peril


Even a salty old seadog must learn new tricks sometimes as I found when knocked down on passage between the Caribbean and Ireland. Now I know what an earthquake feels like. My whole world shifted. Everything from the weather side plummeted leeward landing in a broken jumbled heap - 25 tons of steel and wood tossed like a paper cup.


My partner Peter Maxwell and I have sailed more than 140,000 miles since 1991 when we launched Mithril; our home built 50 foot van der Stadt steel ketch. We've circumnavigated by the Roaring Forties and were the first Irish yacht to ever to visit the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia. We normally sail without crew and our longest non-stop passage was 83 days from south Georgia to Ireland.


I'm reeling off these statistics to give some idea of our vast experience of short handed ocean sailing. We're never casual, or arrogant, in our approach to voyaging. Over the years, however, we've become confident of our own and Mithril's abilities to survive just about anything the ocean can throw at us; from heaving to in Southern Ocean storms to lying becalmed in tropical waters for days on end. Therefore the 4,000 mile journey between Venezuela and Northern Ireland held no terrors for us.


This passage was different in that we were in a hurry as my mother was seriously ill. We actually welcomed the forecast of a vigorous depression when we would be 80 miles south west of Fastnet.


Normally in gale conditions we run off downwind streaming warps if necessary. This time we motorsailed across wind and sea not wanting to sail away from our destination. When the worst of the gale struck from, a WNW direction, we were in the worst possible position, 20 miles inside the 200 metre contour. Here the ocean swells pile up gathering tremendous force in the shallow waters of the Continental Shelf. These seas were awesome not for their height but for their foaming, curling crests. They were almost like waves on a beach - surfing waves. We'd never seen their like on the open ocean before.


We weren't worried though. We'd been out in much worse than this and North Atlantic depressions move quickly. The wind would soon veer and the seas would drop with Ireland only 60 miles to windward. However this Low didn't behave properly. It stalled at 971 millibars in the Irish sea; isobars packed tight on its western side.


Mithril was being increasingly battered by breakers slamming the hull and shoving us sideways. Around noon THE wave arrived; not much bigger than its fellows but hissing and foaming, the crest curling round on itself. Peter shouted a warning to me wedged below on the quarter berth. The next 10 seconds was bedlam as Mithril was thrown on her side. I was forced back into my leeward seat and the entire contents of the galley vomited across the boat. What a cacophony of shattering glass, falling crockery and cascades of rushing water. I could hear it all clearly now as the engine coughed and stopped.


We banged upright again. I was dumbstruck - this couldn't have happened to us. Every single locker lid and floorboard had burst open disgorging their contents. Normally benign domestic objects had become lethal weapons. A saucepan lid left a 3 mm dent in headlining only inches from my right ear. The place smelt like a Chinese carry-out as bottles of sauce and oil had rocketed across the boat to shatter on ceiling, walls and floor. After one brief, horrified look inside; Peter quickly shut the hatch preferring waves and weather to this interior chaos. Half a dozen times I tried to stand and fell. I had no footing on the oily floors now strewn with shards of glass. Outside everything appeared intact. Peter steered off downwind. With no engine and only a scrap of genoa the motion was much more sedate, although huge roaring waves slammed the stern sending green water forwards into the cockpit.

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If you have a specific destination or timetable to be adhered to go by plane. 13 years of lying ahull or running before gales had shown Mithril to be a safe sea-boat. We've sat reading by the fire in Southern Ocean storms without a single breakage.


On this passage we could have drifted about for a few days in warm, calm weather 500 miles south avoiding altogether the well documented depression. Later we could have slowed down and sat out the gale in deeper water missing the awful waves on the continental shelf. Later still we could have run downwind in a SE direction streaming warps. But with commitments to meet we plugged on northwards and paid the price. Every single item aboard that wasn't bolted down moved.


On a more detailed level we learnt or rather re-learnt that glass and china are a liability aboard; but it is one I accept as I hate eating off plastic. In future we will transfer the contents of glass jars to plastic. We will also be putting catches on every floorboard and locker lid. Our saucepan, mug and spice racks will have to be covered while at sea.


Another re-fit task is to mount a permanent reel for the long streaming warpsw onto the pushpit. It was stored in the forward deck locker with the dinghy lashed above it. Conditions were too bad to reach it when we needed to.





Mithril is 24 tons of steel with heavy close framing and 7 tons of lead in her keel. Never go to sea in anything less. The integrity of the hull was never in doubt and we sustained no structural damage at all. A fibreglass boat would have been a different story and we believe a rubber mounted engine would have torn free.


Apart from ripped sails and damage to the mainmast track our only external injury was to lose the globe of our anchor light. It's at the top of the mast - 65 feet up. I'd love to know what happened to it.


I also got my skipper right. He was calm, confident and inexhaustible. We kept one another going with good humour and affection.


All the RYA theory in the world is no substitute for experience but experience is no guarantee against being caught out in foul weather. We will prepare for every gale as if it might be our last and never again will we contend that an Atlantic depression in May isn't something to be wary of.



From Yachting Monthly October 2004

And so began 9 hours of clearing up. I wiped up oil and tossed glass and broken china into a bucket which Peter heaved overboard. My favourite mug was just a handle; our cast iron frying pan was in 2 pieces and I found my engagement ring and Maori necklace hanging from the handle of the toilet pump. Fortunately the microwave hadn't moved and the galley cupboard doors held.


I could hardly fight my way aft to the saloon - the normally cosy hub of our home afloat. From amid a jumble of cushions and carpet tiles I picked up my precious books, trying to ignore the broken spines and loose pages. Tins of food and beer rolled about, tossed from lockers beneath the floorboards. Souvenirs and C.D.s crunched underfoot. A hi-fi speaker, weighing about 4 oz, had flown across the cabin with such velocity as to make a dent in the plywood face of a settee berth. I replaced the lid on a locker of broken jars of jam. I was just too weary and disheartened to do any more. I had a shrieking headache caused by fumes from a leaking tin of contact adhesive. Dozens of tiny shards of glass were embedded in my hands and knees. It was the first time aboard Mithril that we'd been unable to cook at least some sort of hot meal and the evening forecast was for force 9 winds to continue.


Peter insisted I sleep while he continued to watch and steer. I relieved him at midnight, after 15 hours on deck, when the wind had veered and the seas diminished. Tantalising whiffs of turf smoke and wet grass, followed by sighting the gently rounded hills of Ireland convinced me I'd had enough of this sailing lark. I can do without being frightened and buffeted about like a pea in a drum. I want to live without fiddle rails and grab handles. After 13 years afloat I felt ready for a steady base.


But that was then. Now I've been in a house for a month; the view from the window doesn't change and a cup of coffee stays full and hot no matter where I leave - how boring is that?





Lowest pressure ever recorded, during May, in Irish waters was 971 at Valencia in 1967.

Lowest pressure of "our" gale was 972.4; recorded at Malin Head.

Windspeed on the south coast of Ireland during the gale averaged 40 knots maximum gusts 64 at Roches Point.

M3 weather buoy at 51o13'N 10o33'W recorded 9 metre seas in the early afternoon. Our position was 50o30'N 09o47W (50 miles SE of the buoy).


This article appeared in Yachting Monthly October 2004.


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copyright Geraldine Foley.