by Eric B. Forsyth
The popular conception of sea conditions between the north American coast and Bermuda probably corresponds to the well-known painting by Winslow Homer depicting a bedraggled sailor lying on his dismasted boat, surrounded by steep seas and snapping sharks.
I have crossed the region many times on a sailboat, and although the trip is usually serene, on about 20% of my passages I have encountered very severe weather. The granddaddy of all squalls, however, occurred on a passage from St. Georges, Bermuda to Newport, R.I., in August 1988 when my cutter-rigged sloop Fiona was dismasted.
Fiona is a sturdily built and rigged Westsail 42 with a center cockpit that I bought unfinished in 1975 and launched in 1983 after completing her at home. Since Fiona was launched, I have managed to take cruises of six to nine weeks duration for most summers until I left for the South Pacific in 1990. The summer cruises have ranged the North Atlantic from my home port on the south side of Long Island to Newfoundland, the Caribbean, and the Azores. Fiona has seen her share of heavy weather and has always been a safe and comfortable boat in any seas I have encountered. The standing rigging consists of headstay and forestay, backstay and four shrouds on each side. In 1986, I fitted a roller furling system and reefing jib. The staysail is loose-footed on a boom, it has one set of reef points. The mainsail has three reefs.
I left Bermuda on Sunday afternoon, 28th August into a brisk easterly wind of 20 to 25 knots. Tropical storm Chris was moving up the mainland coast and was just about the same latitude as Bermuda, but well to the west. At 1800 EDT, I listened to the weather forecast from NMN, the Coast Guard station in Portsmouth, Va., and learned that Chris was diminishing. As evening drew on, a full moon rose. I was making good time with the Aries wind vane in control and the passage was off to a nice start.
By morning, the wind had dropped to about 10 knots and moved to the southeast. This change had been forecast, and, in fact, the wind was supposed to continue to veer to the SW. In the first 24 hours, I made about 170 miles from Bermuda on a course of 345anddeg; magnetic; excellent progress.
At about 0100 on the morning of Tuesday, 30 August, I gybed to port tack and set the vang as a preventer on the main. The wind, which had dropped during the night, picked up steadily during the morning. The barometer had reached a high of 1020 millibars at midnight and then began a slow slide to 1014 mb by midday. Station NMN broadcasts the coordinates of the north wall of the Gulf Steam twice a day and I plotted the position on my chart near my anticipated crossing point. By lunch time I was about 60 miles from the north wall. Squalls appeared in the early afternoon, but passed ahead or behind the boat. I was anxious to make time and get north of the Gulf Stream, since I had learned that a cold front lying roughly on a NE/SW axis was dropping down from the coast and it appeared the front would lie on the Gulf Stream early Wednesday, 31 August.
This was not good news. I had been clobbered in the Gulf Stream before in similar circumstances. I was particularly concerned about the NE wind behind the front, I knew from other trips that the wind setting against the current produced a nasty steep sea. Thus, my desire to keep moving and get into the cooler slope water to the north of the stream. In addition, lows tend to form along the front, causing squalls. In 1986, on the way to the Azores, a short but vicious squall had pegged the anemometer at 60 knots and damaged my staysail.
By 1800, the wind was southwesterly, the boat was 341 miles from Bermuda and the barometer was at 1009 mb. More squalls appeared an hour later and I rolled eight turns on the jib. The boat was zipping along on 345anddeg; magnetic and it looked like I would beat the front to the stream.
At 2100, I decided to call my wife on the SSB to let her know things were okay. Since my wife was somewhat apprehensive about my singlehanded venture, I made an effort to radiate confidence and predicted I would be in Newport by Thursday or Friday, depending on the weather. At 2300, I went on deck to check on the deteriorating weather. Gusting to 30 knots, the wind had backed 25anddeg; degrees; and the barometer was at 1006 mb, a drop of 14 mb in about 24 hours. I put on foul weather gear and a safety harness. The wind vane was coping but it looked like I was in for some work. I was about 13 miles south of the north wall and in the region where the stream runs with maximum current.Dismasted
At 2340 I made a log entry. When I returned to the deck, conditions had worsened markedly in just a few minutes. I figured I was in a nasty but not untypical squall and released the wind vane’s clutch on the wheel. The wind increased steadily and veered. I tried coming into the wind a little to release pressure on the sails. It was raining, but not very heavily. Spray began to fly, catching the moonlight. It was time to reduce sail.
I re-engaged the wheel and moved to the furling gear and managed to get several turns on the jib. Some sail was still exposed when the boat gybed all standing and the mainsail boom scythed across to the port side. The vang had parted like cotton thread; I suddenly realized that conditions had become very bad. Continuous spray flew across the deck as the boat sailed on a heading of about 120anddeg; magnetic with the jib backed. There seemed little I could do about it for the moment.
I crashed along for a time and then decided to go back onto a port tack. I brought Fiona into the wind and the sails luffed violently. The seas appeared higher once I was sailing into them. She lay in irons for a moment and then dropped back onto starboard. I decided to start the engine and a few minutes later I powered through onto port tack before securing the engine. This, at least, would take me out of the Gulf Stream, instead of deeper into it, as was the situation when I was sailing roughly east.
The luffing had been so violent when I was into wind that I gave up the idea of another reef in the mainsail and decided to ride it out by sailing with the main just filled. One factor in this decision was that I had tried to engage the wind vane so I could go forward to the halyard winch, but it would not hold the wheel down. Later, I discovered the wind had already blown away the plywood vane. Fiona was now sailing far too fast and crashing through the seas, which, fortunately, were not on the bow. The log was pegged at 10 knots and the noise was tumultuousandmdash;I really do not know how long I sailed like that. During this period bits and pieces began to fly loose. The signal flag halyards and the lazy jacks streamed to leeward. The staysail boom, which had been clipped to the port shroud, fell across to the starboard side due to the failure of the snaphook. After my return this twisted hook gave me some indication of the wind speed. By now, the boat was heeled way over, virtually knocked down, and seas poured continuously over the cockpit coaming, the spray was so thick it was like sailing in a snow storm!
Suddenly, silently, to my amazement, the mast and sails simply disappeared. The port shrouds lying across the cabin top were the only evidence that I ever had a mast. My overwhelming feeling was disbelief tinged with chagrin, how could I have been so stupid?
As Fiona wallowed in the seas, ominous noises could be heard from below as the wreckage crunched into the hull. I decided the port shrouds had to be released immediately. Although I had a bolt-cutter on the boat, it seemed easier to withdraw the clevis pins from the turnbuckles, so I crawled to port side to do this. As I left the cockpit clutching vice grips and pliers, the wind pressed so hard I had to slither along the deck on hands and knees, allowing myself to be pressed against the side of the cabin. Things were beginning to look awfully like Homer’s painting!
My adrenaline was really circulating by then and the cotter pins and clevis pins came out in quick time, despite the load on them. I released the stays, fore and aft, because of the enormous load they were putting on the pulpits. I also cut the headstay above the drum of the roller furling gear with a hacksaw. Before releasing the forestay, I unbolted the staysail boom which still had the furled sail tied to it. With the rig hanging on the starboard shrouds, I went below. There were still loud crashing noises coming from the hull. I imagine this was caused by the boom since I could still see the mainsail just below the surface. I made the following entry in the log at 0200 on Wednesday, 31st August: “Very eventful period. A very strong persistent squall required me to hand steer. In trying to reef jib I gybed and powered back to port tack after 1/2 hour sleigh ride on starboard tack. About an hour ago the mast went over the side. Released port shroud and fore and aft stays. Now mast is hanging by starboard shrouds. Wind has dropped. What to do – should I try to save mast and sails? Victor’s vane disappeared.”(Victor was the nickname of the wind vane.)
I decided there was no way I could bring the mast and sails back on board. The combination of mast, rigging, and sails must have weighed more than 1,000 lbs. Even though the wind had dropped from the maximum, it was still blowing hard. There was no lifeline left on the starboard side of the boat. With due apologies to my Scots ancestors, I went on deck and pulled out the remaining clevis pins. As the last one came out, the shimmering sail beneath the sea started its plummet to 2,000 fathoms. I went below to note in the log at 0235 that the mast had gone. I cleaned up the lines hanging over the side and started the engine, engaged the autopilot and laid off a course for Fire Island Inletandmdash;I was going home. It was fruitless to run the engine at more than 1,000 rpm due to the steep seas; the log indicated I was going 2 to 2.5 knots. I made some tea and lay awake until a gray dawn arrived at 0600.The trip home
During the night, the wind had switched to NE as the front went through, the pressure was 1015 mb by morning. When it was light, I spent about two hours rigging a couple of antennas, using the boat hook and oars, so that I could get the loran and SSB going again. The loran antenna consisted of a few feet of old wire elevated eight feet above the deck. This worked and the loran locked on immediately. The SSB antenna was a couple of feet higher. Fortunately, the SSB had an automatic antenna tuner so that the change in antennas from the insulated backstay to the jury rig gave me no major problems. I decided to make a andquot;Panandquot; call on 2182 kHz as it was clear my fuel supply was not sufficient to cover the 280 miles to the inlet if the boat maintained a speed of only two knots.
I had 110 gallons of diesel on board, enough for about 110 hours of running. Obviously, it would be touch and go if the wave height persisted. I made the andquot;Panandquot; call at 0845. After two calls, I received a reply from the Canadian research vessel Chebucto which was located near Georges Bank. I could not hear the Coast Guard station in Boston but Chebucto could and acted as a relay. I gave my position and situation and said there was no immediate danger as the hull was intact and the engine running well. They agreed to maintain a schedule of radio contact and at 1300, Chebucto called me to suggest I move to the four MHz band. I was then able to talk to Boston directly and we maintained a schedule of calls every six hours.
As soon as the first andquot;Panandquot; call was finished, I checked the engine room. Fiona was rolling heavily as she labored through the steep seas. I knew that would stir up the sediment in the tanks and sure enough, the fuel line suction pressure was 25 inches of mercury. I had fitted this gauge after sad experiences with Caribbean fuel in heavy seas. Changing the first two fuel line filter elements dropped the suction to 5 inchesandmdash;within normal range. I checked the bilge frequently but the boat was not taking water. I also called my wife via WOM to tell her I had experienced difficulties and would head directly for home, and might be home on Saturday.
As it happened, the seas gradually dropped and I was able to push the engine speed up to 1,400 rpm and achieve five to six knots. Boston Coast Guard handed my radio contact over the Moriches station as I approached the coast and I entered Fire Island Inlet just after midday on Friday, 2 September with 30 gallons still in the tanks.The meteorological situation
By the 30th a secondary trough or squall line had formed ahead of the cold front that was passing to the east, as seen in the accompanying diagrams. The boat’s position at 0700 EST on the 30th was: 36 degrees 14′ N, 66 degrees 51′ W. The squall line was probably responsible for the squalls I experienced on Tuesday afternoon, but the squall that demolished the mast was associated with the cold front itself, which was lying over Fiona’s position of 38 degrees N, 68 degrees W by about midnight on the 30th.
On the 31st, the front and the secondary trough coalesced, but the low at the north end of the front on the 30th persisted on the 31st. The ship reports in the area do not indicate excessive wind strengths, although the shift in direction after the passage of the cold front is very obvious.
In nearly 30 years of deep water cruising, I have encountered many squalls, usually with winds less than 45 knots, a speed most modern yachts can handle without difficulty if the sails are shortened down. As the wind velocity increased on Tuesday night I kept expecting a reduction at any moment: it didn’t come. Ironically, I had warned the skipper of a sailboat tied up next to me in Bermuda, who was also heading for Newport, of the dangers in encountering a cold front near the Gulf Stream. The tactical problem is the difficulty of predicting the arrival time of fronts near 38 degrees N when leaving Bermuda or the mainland two or three days earlier.
In a very interesting article in Proceedings, published by Naval Institute Press, the author traces the track and destruction caused by the storm which ultimately sank the 117-foot barque Marques in the 1984 Bermuda to Halifax Race. In that case, a secondary trough or squall line developed behind the main front. The author postulates that the Marques was overwhelmed by a microburst: a wind at hurricane strength but covering a limited area, usually less than a square mile. Subsequent letters in Proceedings took issue with his analysis and suggested that a vicious but not uncommon squall sank the ship, which was carrying square sails and had open deck hatches when beset.
Regardless what actually assailed Marques, there is no doubt there was a very rapid increase in wind speed to a level far above that experienced up to the time of the sinking. Meteorological forecasts do not usually venture guesses at the severity of the micro-meteorological systems that thread along cold fronts like beads on a string.What failed aboard Fiona
When I was disconnecting the wreckage from the boat, I noticed the aft starboard shroud, a 5/16 inch 7 x 7 stainless wire rope, had parted about a foot above the turnbuckle. All the rest of the standing rigging seemed intact. I was surprised to see that the failed shroud was made of flexible wire rope – the other three on each side used 1 x 19 rigging wire. The breaking strength of 5/16 inch 7 x 7 wire is about 9,500 lbs, compared to 12,500 lbs for 1 x 19 wire. The aft shrouds were covered with plastic to minimize chafe of the mainsail on a run and were original equipment supplied with the mast.
It is not clear why the port aft shroud did not fail first, since that was the windward side, but there must have been a strong component of the force pushing the mast forward. The aft shroud had been attached to the mast midway between the masthead and the spreaders. I surmise its failure allowed the aluminum mast to buckle and the mast then jumped out of the shoe on deck and disappeared to leeward.
The starboard chainplates were all intact but badly buckled. The chainplates holding the two lower shrouds on the port side were bent about 45 degrees. This damage was caused when these two shrouds absorbed the momentum of the mast and sails as they flew away to starboard. All the turnbuckles had two toggles, so bending of the chainplates could not have arise from twisting. The chainplates are all made of 1/4 inch thick stainless steel straps two inches wide and are attached to the hull by five 1/2 inch bolts. The chainplates on the starboard side were bent nearly double.
The life line stanchions were destroyed on the starboard side of the boat. Fortunately, the mast is stepped on deck, otherwise this adventure might have had a sadder ending. The deck under the shoe, which is between the shoe and the compression post in the main cabin, showed a slight depression caused by the compressive force exerted by the mast. The deck is made of one inch plywood sandwiched between fiberglass top and bottom. The compression post under the deck rests on the keelson and is made of three-inch diameter, schedule 80 stainless pipe, it was bowed about 1/4 inch over its length.
The plywood vane of the self-steering unit which senses wind direction was sheared at the metal clamp. The vane was made of 1/4 inch thick marine plywood and was six inches wide and 30 inches high. The wind apparently blew it away. Other random damage included a smashed grabrail on the aft cabin roofandmdash;I have no idea how that got broken. Wind speed estimate
I found the most interesting damage when I examined the staysail boom in the morning. The sail was furled on the boom, which was supported by a topping lift. The lift had a bronze snaphook that engaged a stainless eye strap at the end of the boom. The hook had a swivel that was tied to the port forward shroud in order to leave the center and starboard side of the foredeck clear. During the melee before the mast went, I noticed the staysail boom had become detached from the port shroud and had blown over the starboard side where it was held by the sheet. In the morning I found that the swivel had failed. However, the bronze hook (made of 5/16 inch diameter material) and the eye strap had deformed before the swivel let go. This must have been due entirely to wind pressure on the boom and furled staysail. The force to bend the hook and eye thus gives an indirect measure of the wind speed, assuming the boom acted like a flat plate, for which the force at a given wind speed is well known. At 60 mph the pressure is 9.1 lbs per square foot. Since the force goes up with speed squared, at 120 mph the pressure is 36.4 lbs per square foot. Tests performed later on the snaphook and eye strap produced similar deflections with applied forces of 350 to 500 lbs. The boom is 13 feet long and has a width of four inches. Assuming the furled sail doubled the effective area, this corresponds to an area of about nine square feet. The boom was secured at both ends, thus, assuming the bending force on the aft hook was 350 lbs, it appears the total force was 700 lbs – this corresponds to a pressure of 700/9 or 77.7 lbs/square foot. The maximum wind speed to produce such a pressure is 175 mph or 153 knots.
This estimate is subject to considerable error, but it confirms my subjective impression that the wind was more than 100 knots. Meteorologically, this seems to have put the squall well into the hurricane category. No doubt on boats of an earlier era, with cotton or canvas sails, the sail would have split long before the wind load caused a shroud to fail. That is the downside of modern synthetic material.
Could this accident have been avoided? If I had crew there is no doubt that at about 2330 I would have tied another reef in the main. At no time did I think I was facing a dismasting until it was too late to drop the reefed mainsail. I kept expecting the wind speed to diminish. Needless to say, if crewmembers had been working near the mast or had their safety harness clipped to the standing rigging or starboard life line, the consequences might have been disastrous. If I had furled the main sail at 2330, I think the mast would have survived, but that is 20/20 hindsight.
In letters written to various publications after the sinking of Marques, which was quickly overwhelmed, it was suggested a better lookout or better seamanship may have saved the ship. I was on deck when conditions went from routine squall to life and death. If conditions deteriorated as fast on the night the Marques went down, I don’t see how the crew could have done anything that would have substantially improved their chances.
In one letter, Commander J.W. Shazo writes, “Somewhere there is a wind or a sea waiting for each of us, and I believe that everyone who looks long and hard enough will find it. Every good ship captain understands this, and perhaps it is why some of the most intelligent men ever to go to sea – for example, Nathaniel Bowditch – retired to the land after relatively short careers at sea.”
Well, I refitted Fiona and subsequently sailed her to the Pacific and back round Cape Horn. Now that my wind and sea have found me, I hope they do not find me again – once is enough!
Eric Forsyth, an electrical engineer living in Brookhaven, N.Y., first crossed the Atlantic in 1964. He has navigated on six Newport/Bermuda Races, and rounded Cape Horn in 1992.