Knocked down in the Southern Ocean

Willem: Pictures of the Southern Ocean, taken in the Roaring Forties and Screaming Fifties, are well known these days – racers surfing 60-foot waves under spinnaker, the helmsman wearing ski goggles in a lashing snow shower, preferably with a mighty iceberg in the background. It is estimated that annually, during the short southern summer, between 10 and 20 family cruisers make the crossing of one of the oceans along the high southern latitudes.

With the experience of a few trips to Spitsbergen, to Greenland and the passage from Cape Horn to South Africa via South Georgia under our belt, we thought we would be ready for the southern Indian Ocean, the 5,100-mile journey from Cape Town to the west coast of Australia. However, we had our doubts, too: The broach we experienced, at 44° south and 20° west, while crossing the South Atlantic from South Georgia, was still fresh in our memories.

The broach was caused when the steering line of our Aries wind vane broke, which made us turn cross to the breaking seas. Water poured down into the galley through the only ventilator that was not closed. It was amazing how much water came in during a few seconds. The only damage on deck was a smashed vane blade and a broken dan buoy.

With all this in mind we had paid extra attention to the storm safety onboard Terra Nova. I changed a traditional open battery for a closed-cell type. The new dan buoy found a safe place, tied to the mizzenmast. Like always before an ocean crossing, we stowed all loose gear belowdecks: rubber dinghy, outboard engine, fenders, the smokestack of the heater, and we even took the wooden brackets used for storing the outboard off the stern rail. Finally, the storm jib was hanked on the cutterstay, ready to use.

It was a quiet Sunday morning in the beginning of January as we passed through the narrow breakwaters of the Great Berg River, which enters the Atlantic Ocean some 120 miles northwest of Cape Town. Next morning at daybreak, we stood off Cape Town encased in fog. We had hoped to get a last view of the old city and famous Table Mountain, but it was not meant to be. At sunset, the wind picked up from the southwest, the sky cleared and we had a last glimpse of the Cape of Good Hope. Once clear of the Cape of Storms, as the old mariners called it, we could ease off a bit. Not too much, since we wanted to make a fair bit of southing before heading in an easterly direction. It is essential to stay out of the notorious Agulhas Current that runs down the African east coast at an average of 4 knots and can cause dangerous situations over the relatively shallow waters of the Agulhas Plateau.

Great-circle route more dangerous

The great-circle course – the shortest distance between two points on the globe – is not always a straight line. In our case, it would have led us far into the southern 50 latitudes, a course that would give a greater chance, almost a guarantee, of westerly winds but also a much higher storm frequency. During the southern summer months (January and February), the average gale percentage lies between 5 and 8 percent for the Roaring Forties, a figure that more than doubles for the Screaming Fifties. We decided to take the longer route and sail between 40� and 42� S.

Depressions passing south of us swept their frontal systems over our heads, often bringing winds between 40 and 50 knots, from northwest to southwest. Terra Nova did fine under small yankee or storm jib while our indefatigable Aries wind vane did the steering. When the Sun came out, the seascape around us was magnificent. From deep down in the troughs we looked up to see the white foamy tops tumbling down; moments later, we were high amidst these hissing white crests, able to see for miles around. However, there was always the stress: What will happen if the wind gets stronger or if the sea goes from rough to very rough? It is not the wind that can cause a problem, but the enormous seas that run around the globe, unstopped by any landmass. Particularly when a regular wave pattern from the west is disturbed by a frontal system, which brings northerly winds, the seas can become very confused.

During calm days, we were surrounded by groups of shearwaters. In his book The Long Way, Bernard Moitessier wrote about the shearwaters in these parts of the ocean and how he fed them with cheese and butter. We could see them collecting their food: In the weak turbulence behind Terra Nova, they dipped their heads in the water to pick up something. When I tried to feed them with a piece of a muesli bar, one of them almost took it out of my hand while the others watched from a safe distance. During the spells of calm weather it was nice to sit in the bowsprit and scan the blue water below for all the different creatures: beautiful striped pilotfishes joined us for hours, and small jellyfish showed all radiant colors.

After three weeks we met our second ship when a freighter underway to the Philippines passed us. Exactly one week before, a huge fishing trawler heading south had crossed close ahead. It was a strange encounter, suddenly seeing lights on an ocean that seemed to be deserted. We were not completely on our own, however. About 1,000 miles behind us sailed the American yacht Shingebizz, also heading for Australia. After our daily sked with Alistair, a ham in South Africa, we kept in contact with Shingebizz.

A cyclone approaches

Corri: On the weatherfaxes, we followed with anxiety the movements of Galifo, a cyclone that had caused havoc on Madagascar. It took a rather uncommon course to the south. Although after some time it had lost its cyclone status, it was still a deep depression.

During the night of Feb. 11, the northwesterly wind increased to storm-force and the seas started to build up. Only at daybreak could we see the mountainous seas, but Terra Nova handled them well, plunging along under a single sail, our smallest yankee. In the afternoon, the Sun appeared in between the racing clouds, and it looked like the worst was over. We sat in the cockpit, gazing at the seascape around us. How small we felt under these immense natural forces. The blue skies, the white foamy wave crests, and the fact that the barometer had stopped falling made us relax a bit. Although the wind was still gale-force, we were making good progress, which kept up our spirits.

However, in the evening, the wind increased, and under storm jib we raced through the night. The seas got even higher, and every time Terra Nova sprinted down into the deep troughs, we were afraid she might be swallowed by a breaker. On Willem’s watch he lay fully dressed in the starboard sea bunk while I tried to rest in the portside bunk behind the table. It was impossible to sleep, we were pretty stressed by the brusque movements and the wild noises from outside.


Willem: I lay sleeping in my bunk and suddenly found myself fully awake, lying on the ceiling, diagonally across from my bunk. The devastating sound of a thousand and one things falling or moving was horrendous, and I heard Corri shouting, “Willem, Willem �� we are coming up �� coming up!�VbCrLf Again there was the tumultuous noise of everything falling back into its normal position; this drowned the rage of the storm outside. Because all hatches were closed, no water had come in; the only things that had marked our escapade were the dirty tracks of bilge water on the ceiling and the contents of a pack of custard that had spread around.

Corri: In a split second my world was turned upside down, while I found myself lying against the cupboard partition (fore and aft bulkhead) The feelings of slow uprighting Willem catapulted across the cabin infernal noises black world clinging to something how small I was.

As I got dressed, I tried to switch off my emotions before going outside, where I found Willem busy disconnecting the wind-vane steering device. The vane blade was gone, and I started steering by hand. By handsteering, we could anticipate the huge breakers, something the wind vane had not been able to do. Although the small companionway dodger had been folded down, it was destroyed by the water. The fabric was torn in pieces, and the strong stainless-steel frame was bent. After Willem took the wheel, I went inside and braced myself on the floor in a fetal position. What a joke to do simply what my body asked for: to close my eyes and go to sleep! My nerves were working overtime.

Half an hour later I stumbled up, put a bottle of liquid honey in my pocket and went outside to take the wheel. Slowly we extended our watches up to two hours as we struggled on through the night. The tiny compass light was my only fixed point in that pitch-dark night. The compass �� there was something strange about the compass! Suddenly I realized what was wrong. The bracket of our Sestrel Moore compass was bent over at an angle of 45�! To open the hatch and check our course on the GPS was out of the question. Trembling, I held myself on to the steering wheel. “Keep them from behind, straight from astern,�VbCrLf I told myself. “There is another one coming,�VbCrLf echoed through my head. I could hear the breakers coming, sometimes a bit over starboard and sometimes attacking from port.

Shivering from cold, energy drained by fear, I heard the monsters approaching us like an angry train that wanted to drive us into a corner. Claustrophobia in the immense space of the Southern Ocean! A suck at the honey bottle gave me some energy. Oh, how we longed for the daybreak (of Friday the 13th). Only then could we see how we were surrounded by huge water monsters, creatures formed by the invisible force of the wind.

Willem: It was clear that the wind vane had not been able to keep us on course. Due to a too-slow correction or because the wind in a wave trough had died, we had broached, and a huge breaker had tipped us over. Two hours at the helm was long enough, for how long could we go on like this? At daybreak, we could see how huge the waves were as we sleigh rode with high speed down into the troughs. I was afraid that, after such a downride, our bow would dive into the rear of the wave ahead of us and we might pitchpole. Luckily, Terra Nova shook the water off her decks as she prepared herself for the next climb. Under bare poles, we made an average speed of 5 knots.

Streaming the drogue

At the end of the day, the sea was still very wild. Because we were dog tired, we decided to stream out our drogue. We made our own version of a Jordan Series Drogue years ago: around a 1-inch polyester line, about 400 feet long, we fixed 150 small sailcloth cones. The cones act as a brake while the holding force is divided over the long line. This avoids the effect of the sea anchor being undermined by a breaking wave, something that can happen with a parachute-type sea anchor. Using a bridle, I attached the drogue at two strong points near the stern, tied a 22-lb block of lead to the end, checked carefully if the whole line would run freely, and then let it go. From the moment the line became taut, we noticed the difference. Terra Nova’s movements were more gentle, and she kept her stern nicely into the seas. Our speed had come down to 2 knots. Not before we made sure the bridle was safeguarded against chafe did we go below to catch up on some sleep. The pieces of fire hose we had put around the lines kept well, and even after two days, there was little chafe.

The next day the wind abated a bit, but the strain on the drogue was still too much to even think about getting it back onboard. A new problem arose: Due to the heavy pitching, the bridle lines tended to get tangled with the pendulum of the wind vane. At times, it even got around it! By hoisting the storm jib we put more force on the drogue line and kept it free from the Aries.

After the wind decreased a bit more, we could think about hauling the drogue back in. It soon became clear that this was not an easy task. Even getting it around one of the sheet winches was a dangerous exercise that I gave up after I nearly got one of my hands amputated. To start the engine and go in reverse looked like an option; however, the engine failed due to water in the fuel tank! Waiting for the sea to calm down seemed to be the only solution. After two days of waiting restlessly and knowing we could have made at least 300 miles in the right direction, we decided to sacrifice our drogue and cut the lines. Gone was a useful piece of gear, but we were moving again.

As soon as we were sailing, Terra Nova’s movements became more gentle, and I could spend some time in the engine compartment and start looking into the engine problems. Once again it turned out that a small cause can have a big effect. One of our cross-country skis that was mounted belowdecks in the engine compartment, had prevented the closing-valve in the tank-breather line from shutting completely. Therefore, during the knockdown, many liters of seawater had entered the fuel tank. Changing the filters did not help. However, after cleaning the fuel lines, I was able to hook up the day tank of our heater to the engine so we could use the engine to enter port.

Soon some other defects came to the surface: Our tricolor masthead light was out of order, and the automatic antenna tuner, mounted halfway up the mizzenmast, had stopped functioning. During calm weather I rigged up our spare vertical antenna that is tuned for certain ham frequencies and hence does not need a tuner. We had been off the air for a couple of days, which also meant we had not been able to send emails. Now I could contact Alistair, our ham-radio friend in South Africa, again and ask him to mail our friends in Europe about our situation and explain to them that we would not be able to send emails until we arrived in Australia. Later we heard that the story went around with our contacts back home how Terra Nova was drifting dismasted in the Southern Ocean.

On the morning of the 51st day, we made landfall. We had made the crossing at an average pace of 100 miles a day. Neither of us was eager to set out again immediately.

By Ocean Navigator