Knockdown at the Antarctic Convergence

The Southern Ocean has always fascinated me for as long as I can remember, perhaps because I had a grandfather who was a master of one of the last square-riggers sailing around Cape Horn at the beginning of the last century. Little did I realize that I would be involved in a knockdown that damaged a rig and left me limping back to Port Stanley in the Falklands.

In 2006, I was lucky enough to be aboard Skip Novak’s Pelagic Australis on an exploration trip from Tierra del Fuego to the Antarctic, my first sailing experience in the Southern Ocean. After that trip, twice crossing the infamous Drake Passage and still none the worse for wear, I mistakenly thought I knew a bit about the Southern Ocean. Ultimately, I was delighted to come to a charter arrangement with Cath Hew and Darrel Day from Brisbane, Australia — the owner/operators of Spirit of Sydney — who had also always wanted to explore South Georgia Island.

Our basic plan was a 24-day voyage starting from Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands out to South Georgia and back, timed for November 2007, which is the Austral springtime breeding season and the best time of year to see the prolific wildlife on the island.

Spirit of Sydney is a 60-foot exploration vessel of Australian Registry designed by Ben Lexcen (designer of America’s Cup winner Australia 2) and originally launched to sail solo around the world on the 1986 BOC Challenge Race. Cutter-rigged, Spirit was built of aluminum to very heavy scantlings in an era when sailing performance was tempered by respect for the ocean.

For our trip, Darrel was the skipper and Cath the navigator. As the charter party/crew we brought aboard two other Australians and four Americans: Andy Ritchie, in his 60s, from Perth, Australia, a retired corporate mining executive; Taryn Naggs, in her early 30s, from Brisbane, Australia; Geoff Kontje, in his 50s, from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he has been a building contractor; Mel Collins, about 60 from both Atlanta, Ga., and Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia; Dick Low, mid 60s, from Hamilton, Mass., a retired international banker. Lastly was me, John Parker, early 60s from Princeton, N.J., a former corporate executive.

For the voyage out, we frequently had true wind speeds of 40 to 50 knots and once briefly 65, which was a bit of a wake-up call and set me briefly to thinking what it might be like on our return trip back to the Falklands when we would be heading upwind. Usually we were under double or triple-reefed mainsail and a partially furled genoa or staysail, doing 8 to 11 knots, except when the seas built up. Top speed was 13.4 knots. We made the 800 nm rhumb line distance from Stanley to Grytviken in South Georgia in a little less than five days with a through-the-water trip log of 1,006 nm and an average boat speed of 8.7 knots. Just before making landfall we were passed by a pod of orcas, making about 15 knots headed due west away from the island.

For the next 12 days or so, we cruised from down to the southern end of the island and then turned back to the northern tip where we would make preparations for sea to start back to the Falklands.

We left Elsehul on South Georgia in the early afternoon of Nov. 16, figuring that we would need seven days to work our way back upwind to the Falklands. However, the winds were a bit more favorable than we expected so that after four days we were within only 150 nm of Port Stanley — extraordinary progress upwind in the Southern Ocean, especially the last day when we made 240 nm good in 24 hours. The grib forecasts suggested that our last day was going to be pretty calm — light and variable winds forecast — so we were expecting to make landfall the next day and could almost taste the beer at the Globe Tavern in Port Stanley.

The forecast was wrong.

On Nov. 20 when I went on watch at 0100, the wind was 25 knots from the SW. I noted from the logbook that in the previous 1.5 hours the barometric pressure had increased from 971 to 979 millibars. Obviously a severe blow was headed our way from Antarctica. Although we were then just north of the Antarctic Convergence, the southerly wind was getting quite a bit colder and during the watch it increased in strength so that by the time I went below at 0530 we were in 30 knots, gusting to 40 knots and down to a small staysail with the mainsail double-reefed. I went below to get some sleep but awoke with a start at 0900, as all hell broke loose on the foredeck when a weld at the base of the staysail furling drum failed and the drum was ripped out of the deck beam. Staysail, foil and drum were whirling about, crashing into the mast, shrouds and the remaining forward stays. After I went off watch, the barometric pressure continued to rise so that by 0830, with frontal passage, the wind had picked up to 50 knots with gusts to 60 knots. The waves increased remarkably quickly to 20 to 30 feet.

Cath and the on-watch crew were hove-to briefly to further reduce sail and the skipper was up attempting to work on an engine cooling problem. In the high-sea state, with the surface now mostly covered with foam and spume, air was getting under the boat and was being ingested into the strum box, causing an air lock in the engine-cooling raw-water system. After this problem was sorted, while the boat was trying to get out of the heaved-to situation and underway again, the staysail sheets fouled. The sail started flogging and this ripped the stay fitting out of the deck. All hands were called as the skipper went forward on deck to attempt to get the remains of the staysail rig under control and down on deck.

Four other crew were now in the cockpit helming, line handling and watching the seas, which continued to build rapidly and were beginning to break. Below, the remaining three of us were getting tools, storm sails and extra lines ready to go up to the cockpit. We had the watertight door to the cockpit open and latched so we could hear what was needed and began to hand up the gear.

Suddenly Geoff, up in the cockpit, yelled out, “Wave — hang on!” as a particularly steep rogue wave of 40 feet or so crested close aboard, broke over Spirit, overwhelmed us and pushed us under.

The wave knocked Spirit down to port and rolled us about 125 to 130 degrees, judging later from the watermarks and debris stuck in the overhead. The skipper on the foredeck, who was obviously wearing a harness and tether, had his back to the wind and seas but heard the warning cry and grabbed the starboard lifeline, jack line and anything else within reach. Darrel said later that he was completely underwater for what seemed to be 30 seconds and was carried into the rigging, so that by the time he got his head above water the only thing he could see of the boat was the outboard end of the lower spreaders sticking out of the water. The mast, sail and hull were still completely underwater.

In the cockpit, when the warning was given, all four of the crew dived into the corner under the hard dodger and hung on. All were wearing harnesses and tethers and were clipped into the cockpit pad eyes so no one was washed overboard.
For the three of us below, the situation was different. None of us heard the warning shout so we were caught unaware when the boat rolled. I remember that we didn’t seem to roll very fast but maybe that was because time seemed to slow down as the wave crashed down upon the deck, all the ports went dark as the boat was forced under and we began to take green water down through the open cockpit watertight door. I shall never forget the sight of that downflooding green water.

Mel Collins was in the galley manhandling sails out from the forepeak and fo’c’s’le, I was in the saloon getting the sails and lines from Mel up to the companionway, while Taryn was back by the companionway to the cockpit, sorting tools and communicating with the cockpit crew. As the boat started to roll, Mel saw what was coming and curled into a ball on the port side of the galley, where he was deluged with pots, pans, crockery, knives, the eight loaves of bread I had recently made and about two gallons of hot, simmering chicken stew.

I was midway in the saloon so I curled up into a ball, fell back into the port side nav station where I was indecently assaulted by the cushions and back plates from the saloon settees, the ships library of books and magazines and much other paraphernalia falling out of racks as the boat inverted.

Taryn had the worst of it when she was rolled into the portside aft bunk where she was subsequently covered by the gear we were staging up to the cockpit, including a couple of bagged storm sails, the spare lines and the companionway ladder, which decided to take the opportunity to unship and fall on her as well. At this point there were several feet of water below from the downflooding, so Taryn was holding her breath and thinking about how to get clear of the sails, line, ladder and other debris that were pinning her underwater.

After what seemed to be 30 seconds or so, the boat started to right itself, first returning to the horizontal and then, as the water slowly cleared from the triple-reefed but now ripped mainsail, gradually getting back on her feet until we were up, but carrying about a 30° port list. We were now broadside to and fully exposed to the wind and breaking seas. Up above, Darrel was sliding down out of the rigging, getting his feet back on deck and then racing aft to the cockpit.

Cath jumped back to the wheel and got the boat turned back to windward so that the seas were now on the starboard bow. Geoff tripped the latch and started to close the open cockpit door. Dick and Andy started to sort out the cockpit mess. Down below, Mel was digging himself out from the cutlery, pots, pans, loaves of bread, chicken stew and dirty water mixed with diesel fuel. When I could get to my feet and out of the water, I got to the engineering panel, got all the bilge pumps on line to commence clearing the water below and dogged the watertight hatch as Geoff closed it from above. After that, I could hear some sputtering and gurgling noises behind me so I turned around and pulled the sails, ladder, lines, tools and so forth off of Taryn and helped her out of her bunk, which was now a sort of shallow swimming pool.

We were able to get the boat stabilized on the starboard tack, broad reaching under the damaged triple-reefed mainsail on a course about ENE. This course put the damaged port side to leeward in order to protect the mast. Cath fired up the main engine to have available a burst of power if necessary. We had to monitor the engine-cooling water discharge as we continued to ingest air into the strum box and occasionally air lock the engine’s raw-water pump. Unfortunately, on this point of sail our course was directly away from the Falklands and we were headed toward the Cape of Good Hope at about 8 knots.

Darrel needed time, however, to work on jury-rigging the damaged standing rigging after first finally getting a line on the staysail drum and lashing it to the intact starboard shrouds. After that, it took Darrel about three hours working out on the port rail to work up a system of blocks, shackles and Spectra line made up to halyards at the masthead and remnants of the shrouds to serve as a jury-rig for the port side standing rigging.

During this time Darrel was exposed to the full force of the wind, much cold, near freezing spray and sometimes solid water over the deck. The air temperature was in the low 30s and the sea about 34° F as of our last log entry before the knockdown. Finally the jury-rig was in place and Cath waited for a least large sea before beginning our turn to windward. When the time was right, she goosed the throttle to full after we had crested one large sea and was able to get the bow through the eye of the wind while we were in the trough before the next breaker. We were finally back on the other tack headed WNW toward the Falklands.

We all held our breath, but the jury-rig held.

Once on the new tack we kept the engine turning over at minimum revs so it was available for storm maneuvering as the damaged triple reefed main wasn’t much good and we dared not put up any more sail with the rig still wobbling around. We were doing about 4 or 5 knots through the water and had 180 nm to go to get to Stanley, the nearest and only port of refuge.

The weather continued to deteriorate throughout the day. Although our instrumentation was all shot, I estimated the wind speed from the sea state which was a good solid Beaufort Force 11, maybe verging on Force 12, so I’d call it a sustained 65 knots, gusts maybe 10 knots higher. Using our wobbly 66-foot mast as a guide, we estimated the seas peaking at 45 to 50 feet, occasionally considerably higher, wickedly steep and breaking. I was struck by how much more force there is in cold wind (more molecules per cubic foot) than in warm air.

As Darrel worked on the jury-rig, Cath had the helm for the first three hours, at the end of which she was pretty well paralyzed from the cold. Thereafter, Darrel decided that Cath and I would share the helm two hours on, two hours off with always another crew in the cockpit to watch the seas and call the breakers. We occasionally took breaking seas aboard which laid us over 60 to 70°, but no real further knockdowns.

When Cath finally went below, she got the SSB going and tried to get a pan-pan message out on 2182 kHz and the other distress frequencies, but there was no contact. Fortunately, as the ship’s Iridium phone still worked, Cath was able to contact Jonathon Selby of Xaxero in Ushuaia, Argentina. Jonathon is a computer genius who runs his business from his sailboat when he is voyaging. He had personally designed Spirit’s communications and weather tracking systems and also maintains a communications net with most of the yachts, many of the government vessels and cruise liners in the area, most of whom also use Xaxero gear and software. Jonathon told Cath that he thought Skip Novak’s Pelagic Australis was just leaving Stanley for South Georgia and could be headed our way. Cath and Darrel were relieved once Jonathon was in the loop because they were convinced he would take action to alert the proper authorities on our behalf.

At about this point, the jury-rig broke. Using the engine, we were able to execute an emergency tack again to get the wind and seas back on the starboard side and protect the mast, which, unaccountably, still didn’t come down. It turned out that one of the snatch blocks had exploded under load and the jury-rigged Spectra shrouds had parted. Darrel went back up on the port rail again to renew the jury-rig with more Spectra and more blocks after which we tacked once more back again toward Stanley at about 1600 in the afternoon in very bright sunshine, a totally clear sky with hurricane-force winds and breaking seas all about. A bit surreal, but the distance made good since the morning rollover was now zero.

During the night we lost the jury-rig two more times, each time having to crash tack back toward the ENE to protect the rig which each time headed us away from Stanley. Each time Darrel went up to renew the jury-rig; he would not consider letting anyone else up on the rail in those conditions although Geoff was chomping at the bit to help. Darrel figured we probably had enough fuel left aboard to motor for about 40 hours at low revs, which, in conjunction with our damaged mainsail, gave us an estimated 4 to 5 knots.

Although we were rapidly expending our supplies of snatch blocks, shackles and Spectra, after each failure the jury-rig lasted longer and took less time to renew; Darrel was fast learning the best way to set it all up but toward the end, he was worn down to a nub and Andy told him to just go to bed. All in all, Darrel’s tenacity and endurance through the whole affair was one of the most extraordinary feats of seamanship I have witnessed.

By morning, the winds started to subside although the seas remained high, 30 to 40 feet, but at least weren’t breaking very much anymore. Cath and Darrel spoke several times with Jonathon Selby, who confirmed that the appropriate Rescue Coordination Centers had been advised of our situation. Jonathon’s weather update was worrisome as another powerful storm was already centered over Tierra del Fuego, about 400 nm away, and was forecasted to reach us in 24 to 36 hours, about our ETA at Stanley. Before that the winds would be veering to the west, putting the Falklands directly upwind from us. It appeared we would have to race the storm, even with our damaged rig and low fuel state, if we were to reach Stanley before the next storm broke. We didn’t think our chances would be high if we ran out of fuel and didn’t make port before the next storm.

Jonathon also told us that Pelagic Australis had to turn back to Stanley because they had sustained some damage to their hydraulic systems in the storm and that the icebreaker James Clark Ross was still in Stanley because she had been damaged on her way back from South Georgia. However, there was still the possibility that the JCR would put to sea to assist us if we were forced to declare a mayday situation.

As it played out, we were able to get back to Stanley without outside assistance and beat the next storm in by a couple of hours. Everyone has special skills and capabilities and we were lucky to have such a diverse crew, already welded into a great team by 25 days of voyaging before the knockdown. However, raw material alone isn’t enough as the essence of leadership after major damage at sea is to keep morale up, mobilize and utilize the available skills to best advantage. My hat is off to Darrel and Cath.

We spent a day or so helping Darrel and Cath get the boat sorted out, assessing what needed to be repaired or replaced and then, unfortunately, all of us in the charter party had to jump on the once a week flight out of the Falklands as there were no seats available for several weeks afterward if we missed that flight.

Later, I had an email from Darrel who told me that they were able to accomplish enough repairs to the boat in Stanley to be able sail Spirit to Ushuaia, Argentina to complete the rest of the work and to take up their next voyage to Antarctica, on schedule. 

By Ocean Navigator