Rousmaniere on killer storms at sea

Offshore sailor and premier marine writer John Rousmaniere recently sent along the excerpt below from his introduction to Rob Mundle’s excellent book on the deadly December 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race. Rousmaniere wrote Fastnet, Force 10, The Annapolis Book of Seamanship, A Berth to Bermuda, and other books. The following is adapted from his introduction to the 2007 edition of Fatal Storm: The Inside Story of the Tragic Sydney – Hobart Race, by Rob Mundle, published by International Marine/McGraw-Hill. (Used with the permission of the publisher.)


A recent re-read of Rob Mundle’s Fatal Storm got me thinking again about killer weather. My Australian friend approached his book about the 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race gale (in which six sailors died, 44 were rescued, and five boats were lost) the same way I did mine about the 1979 Fastnet Race storm, Fastnet Force 10.

We each strove to be objective and fair about a great disaster, and we believed that if we told the story straight, our readers would come up with their own lessons learned, of which there were a great many.

Among the things you learn from storms is that distress can stimulate bleak humor. Fatal Storm is the only sailing book I know that features a dialogue whose punch line is, “Mate, who gets to eat who first?” People who crack jokes as their heads are drawn into a lion’s mouth have considerable experience wrestling with lions. Aussies know two truths about going to sea. The first is that in places like the Bass Straits, England’s Western Approaches, and, for that matter, the Gulf Stream, discomfort and danger must be expected. The second truth is that we’re on our own out there. The great American sailor Carleton Mitchell likes to quote a Bahamian saying about the weather: “You eats what the cook serves.” Nobody is going to step in and order a more palatable meal for you – not the Coast Guard, not an EPIRB, not GPS. To put it another way, there is no business as usual at sea except that everything is a surprise.

On December 27, 1998, and August 13, 1979, the sea served up two phenomenal meals. Fatal Storm confirms four lessons that I have learned from bad weather experiences like that Fastnet Race. One is that the sound of a storm usually is more frightening than its appearance. Another is that while bad weather always threatens to come between people – “a great wind isolates one from one’s own kind,” Joseph Conrad wrote in Typhoon – well-led crews unite rather than fracture. A third is that after disasters, blame-finding from remote places can be wrongheaded and cruel. Finally, there is the look of a storm: in each hard chance there appears at least one moment of astonishing beauty.

A question that inevitably arises when a storm and a race collide is whether the start should have been postponed. When the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, the Hobart’s sponsor, said in its post-race report that “No one cause can be identified as being responsible” for the catastrophe, they engaged in predictable bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo. Obviously there was a cause. It was the force 10 storm into which the fleet sailed after the race was started. Traditionally, the guiding principle of ocean racing was that the ultimate decision to race lay with the crew. Yet the club obviously (and properly) felt it had a duty to the sailors because it subscribed to weather services. Then came the cataract of contradictory forecasts, the most pessimistic of which was the most accurate and, alas, the one that was not believed.

Such a disagreement would a good reason for postponing a race, but in 1998 that had little precedent. Of the approximately 150 starts in the histories of the world’s “big four” long-distance races (Sydney-Hobart, Fastnet, Transpac, and Newport-Bermuda), to my knowledge only two were postponed. Both were for the Bermuda Race, whose organizers are both obsessed with safety and unusually authoritative, if not authoritarian, in race management.

In the wake of the 1979 Fastnet, many rules were written, unstable boats were penalized, safety gear was developed, and training programs were created (safety at sea seminars became popular, at least in the United States). More regulations followed after the 1989 Hobart storm. But regulations are written on paper. On board the boat, there must be a regime of tough inspection, rigorous self-examination, and reasonable fearfulness. They add up to the word “forehandedness,” which is another way of saying, “Take nothing for granted.”

Sir Edmund Hillary, the conqueror of Everest, once became so discouraged during a slog to the South Pole that he was unable to sleep. As he lay in his sleeping bag, nagged by his faltering confidence, he took an inventory of his aptitudes and came up with this: “Slightly crazy, frequently terrified, and not a bad navigator – and that about summed it up.” Reassured of his fundamental competence and caution, Hillary slept like a baby. He had succeeded in making healthy fear his business as usual.

By Ocean Navigator