Night flood

There are no trains in the Southern Ocean. Thus, when one hears the thunder and roar of a freight train rumbling up astern, it is time to take notice. The noise, accompanied by a subtle but definite change in the boat’s motion, likely brought about by the deeper trough preceding a large wave, is a sign of trouble. Trouble heading one’s way, at a respectable clip. I was in my bunk, trying to dry out a wet sleeping bag in wetter clothing. Sleep for the singlehander is sporadic at best, and I was trying to grab 20 or so minutes of rest on this, my 120th day in the Southern Ocean, when my situation took an interesting turn.

Floating Point, a Contessa 32, and I had been out of San Francisco, non-stop, for 166 days, having rounded Cape Horn and sailed south of the 40th parallel to our current position in late March of 47 S and 170 E. My goal had been a non-stop, solo circumnavigation from Victoria, British Columbia, and back again. Twelve days out from Victoria, however, a rigging problem forced me to stop in San Francisco.

After re-starting the voyage in October, the trip had gone smoothly with the usual ups and downs of a long passage offshore. I had managed to keep ahead of the repairs required to keep going, succeeded in not poisoning myself with my culinary experiments, and generally had a thoroughly good time of it.

The high point of the voyage was the rounding of Cape Horn, on December 18, the realization of a dream of many years. The Horn had provided some interesting weather: the night before I rounded it the winds had been gusting to 50 knots and my view of the scene was punctuated by squalls accompanied by hail and driving rain. Still, considering the reputation that “Cape Stiff” has, the weather could have been a lot more fearsome. I had a good look at the Horn and the seas sweeping past it from west to east, and I considered the plight of the early mariners attempting to hammer their way around in the opposite direction in ships that would be lucky to get within 90° of the wind. A wandering albatross, riding the air currents deflected off the 20- to 30-foot seas, completed the scene.After a good look at the Horn, a repair session to fix a wind vane blade, broken the previous night, returned me to the sail-and-fix routine of life at sea. Rounding the Horn was a major milestone of the voyage, but, given my start from the West Coast of Canada, it was my first “major cape.” The Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, South East Cape and South Cape lay a long way to the east, and I had to remind myself that just because I had avoided a drubbing at Cape Horn things need not necessarily go smoothly the whole way.My luck with the weather had, in general, been good. A bit of a beating south of Gough Island in the South Atlantic involving a knockdown had been unpleasant. The unprovoked attack on my person by my camera bag during that knockdown had re-emphasized the need to missile-proof the interior of the boat.

The weather got considerably nastier once I passed the longitude of Tasmania and headed south toward the southern end of New Zealand. A number of full gales and storms made progress uncomfortable. The conditions would vary from nice, benign winds and seas to 50- and 60-knot winds with huge waves lashed into a white foam and blinding spray. The interludes of relative calm allowed a variety of repairs to be effected and also allowed me to catch my breath and wonder what next was in store.

Avoiding Snares As I approached New Zealand I planned my route to the south of the land of the long white cloud. A glance at the charts of the south island is enough to cause one moment or two of sober reflection. Any place that has islands named “Snares” and “Traps” should, in my opinion, be treated with a modicum of respect. I decided to head south of the Snares and give myself some sea room, just in case.

The weather was bitterly cold the night I passed the longitude of South Cape, and to add to the fun a fleet of trawlers appeared over the horizon. My log entry from March 29 reads:

“Spent an ‘orrible night, dodging large trawlers and factory ships off the Snares Islands. Life complicated by the fact that the wind parked in the NE, i.e. just the direction I want to go in! Had a hard time keeping out of the way of the shipswhenever I successfully evaded one another would pop up in the most inconvenient spot possible! Raided my quickly vanishing granola bar supply to try and keep alert. Very cold; got very chilled sitting in the cockpit Barometer plummeted all night, 36 mb in 25 hours! Wind didn’t pick up until morning and then it suddenly went from about 30 knots from the NE to over 50 out of the west. Very large seas, quite confused too”Indeed, the seas spent a lot of their time being confused. The long westerly swell would be overlaid by the different wave patterns brought about by the storms that passed by. A complicated set of choices would present itself: which set of seas to take astern and which cross-seas looked less unkind and therefore manageable from the quarter. Invariably it seemed that whatever choice I made was the wrong one as another huge sea would come crashing over the quarter to take a good look at the cockpit interior. The winds had picked up to more than 50 knots, and I proceeded under bare poles and trailing warps, doing a good six knots. Once the wind eased, the task of arm-wrestling 500 feet of line back into the boat was attended to and progress resumed under storm staysail in about 40 knots of wind. The warps, stopped off in a neat coil, were secured over the aft locker hatch.

Hail storms and squalls made life rather damp and unpleasant, and after a warming dinner of something unremarkable mixed with rice I managed to get a few minutes of rest. A near knockdown re-arranged the mess down below, slightly bent the stainless pushpit aft of the cockpit and caused the self-steering gears to disconnect. By this time I had become a dab hand at whipping up into the cockpit with a wrench, leaning over the transom of the boat and reconnecting the self-steering mechanism. After chasing some errant clothing back into the port sea berth where it belonged, I retired for a few minutes’ more sleep. The sounds of the seas outside and the motion of the boat told of large seas coming from two different directions. A loud roar of a breaking sea caused me to consider changing course in the next few minutes. A second crash and shudder and it was time to bail out of my bunk and check on things.

Unpleasant hour When one is cold and wet, 0200 local is an unpleasant time of the night. It is decidedly uncivilized when you have to get out of a nice clammy sleeping bag to take a look for traffic. It is positively not the time to step into about 15 inches of cold Southern Ocean, especially when the latter is in the middle of your living room and appears to be eyeing climbing into your bunk.

The shock of the cold water halfway to my knees went completely unnoticed as a number of thoughts flashed through my mind. The first, rather naturally was, “how the hell did all this water get in here?” The second thought was, “how fast is the water rising?”

I was pretty sure that we had not hit anything, so the choices seemed to be the failure of a through-hull fitting or a blown window. The former seemed unlikely as only a few minutes earlier the boat had been “dry” in the sense that there was only the usual puddle of water wandering around the cabin floor, and I doubted that the flow rate from a through-hull could introduce so much water so quickly. The theory that one of the windows had been blown in was disproved after a brief inspection.

My next priority was to start the engine (thereby keeping the batteries charged so as to run the electric bilge pump) and start pumping by hand.

A brief consideration of plan B (we sink) led to the unpleasant conclusion that, with New Zealand to the northwest and the Chilean coast a few thousand miles to the east, a trip in the rubber ducky would be most uncomfortable. I had absolutely no desire to see the contents of the life raft canister: some years previously I took a sea survival course, some of which was spent in a cramped life raft. Even in a heated swimming pool the raft was no place to spend any length of time. The water in the high 40s latitudes was so cold that survival was a dicey proposition. Having gotten the engine running I grabbed the manual bilge pump handle from its storage space and headed into the cockpit. The boat felt surprisingly good, considering that there was an awful amount of water below, and she did not seem to wallow too badly. I pumped furiously for about 15 minutes and went below to check the water level. The bad news was that the water level did not seem any lower; the good news, however, was that it had not risen. Plan B was now a more remote possibility.

At this point I decided to get the gasoline engine-powered salvage pump that I had in the boat for just such an occasion. I had rigged a two-inch hose with a quick-connect coupler that could be attached to the pump once the latter had been brought into the cockpit. During the voyage I had ensured that the pump motor was in running order by starting it periodically. It had always obliged by starting at once, but now it decided to go on strike.

I got out the pump and connected it up. Nothing I did would convince it to start, and I felt that the energy I was expending trying to start the motor would be better spent operating the manual bilge pump. The last straw was when the salvage pump fell off the cockpit seat onto my foot. This was a bad move on the pump’s part as I was already considerably displeased with its lack of cooperation. It now rests in about 18,000 feet of water off the SE coast of New Zealand.

Finding the source The view from the cockpit was surreal: a dark night, bright streaks of phosphorescence in the spray, waves jumbled up from different directions. I was in sweat pants and a tee-shirt pumping away, still wondering about the source of the leak. As I bent to the task of pumping I looked down and found the cause of the flood. The aft cockpit locker on which the warp was secured had been torn open by one of the waves that had hit us. The cover had closed upon a piece of the warp, thus leaving a gap through which the sea had entered the locker. I had taken precautions against such an occurrence by securing the locker clasp with a pin. Later I found part of the pin rolling under the cockpit grating, a testimony to the force of the boarding seas.

The mess below decks was amazinga soup of loose clothing that had been dislodged by the boat’s motion, my sleeping bag, a dozen or so plastic shopping bags that had managed to escape from their storage space, bits of paper from the chart table, and so on. The floor hatches at least were in place as I had modified these when I “roll proofed” the boat. This was a bonus since the last thing that I needed at this point was for the bilge pump inlets to become plugged with flotsam.

My log reads “trying to stay afloat” as the sole entry for a six-hour period. Dawn found me still pumping and wringing out clothes, cushions, and my sleeping bag.

The aftermath of the “great flood” extended for the rest of the trip. Drying clothes and my sleeping bag became a popular pastime whenever there was a nice day. I had to re-wire the power supply to the VHF radio since a splice in the cable had been submerged. I spent days soaking my tools in kerosene in an attempt to prevent them from rusting. Part of my rice supply was soaked; after three weeks it acquired a strange and exotic taste and I was forced to discard some of it. A number of books got badly damaged, despite being sealed in plastic bags.

Life gradually returned to normal and, on April 8, I crossed the 40th parallel headed north. Despite the problems we had encountered, Floating Point and I continued in fine fashion, arriving in Victoria, B.C., after 247 days at sea and nearly 26,000 miles non-stop, having achieved the goal of completing an antipodean circumnavigation via the southern capes.

By Ocean Navigator