Mina2 Survives Storm – Arrives S afely in Stanley, F.I.
Position: 51:41.484S 057:51.5W
Date: 23 November 2011
The storm continued unabated. For more than 24 hours we had been tossed around in the screaming winds and mountainous seas. We were feeling bruised and battered. How long would this last for? At one point, when we had had enough of the pounding and the wind was on the stops at a screaming 60+ knots, we heaved to (a way of just stopping the boat). Many modern boats can’t heave to, but luckily Mina2 can. We just bobbed around, rising and falling in the giant waves. It was bliss and gave us sufficient respite to have a cup of tea, without kettles, mugs and scalding water flying around. But we couldn’t stay hove to forever. We were being pushed by the Falklands Current at 1 or 2 knots to the north east which would drive us to the east of the Falkland Islands. From there it would be very difficult to fight our way back against the prevailing westerly winds – next stop South Africa? So half an hour luxuriating in the comparative calm, we gritted our teeth, swung the boat south and continued the torture. By this time we had reefed the mainsail down to the size of a pocket handkerchief and, for the first time ever, had reefed the small staysail.
During the afternoon, Linda was on watch in the cockpit looking at the flock of birds that were wheeling around the boat. Whilst we were suffering the appalling conditions, they seemed to be relishing them. Linda leant down into the saloon and said “I’ve just seen a Cape Petrel flying backwards. That’s not a good sign is it?”
On my iPod I have a compilation of music called “Songs for Stormy Weather”. It has a selection of stirring tracks designed to stiffen the sinews, like the theme music from 633 Squadron, The Dambusters and Raiders of the Lost Ark, mixed in with a few hymns: For Those In Peril On The Sea and I Vow to Thee My Country and finishing up with Land of Hope & Glory, Jerusalem and the National Anthem. The compilation was played so many times we all knew the words backwards.
In the middle of the night I had gone down below for some well-needed sleep when half an hour later, there was a call from John in the cockpit. “The autopilot controller has packed up!”. John was now hand-steering in freezing 58 knots of wind in the pitch dark. We still had more than 12 hours before we would get to Stanley. The very idea of having to hand-steer in these conditions was unthinkable – but it would have to be done. The air temperature was about 5 C. With the fantastic wind chill factor of 50 knot winds, 10 minutes at the helm and you would be frozen rigid whatever protective clothing you had on. I’ve never seen John look really alarmed before. I did then, and I shared his alarm. This was disastrous news.
They say that long-distance cruisers own two boats: the one they’re sailing in and the spare one in the lockers. At this stage I didn’t know what the problem was, was it the controller or the new course computer that had been installed in Buenos Aires. The easier fix would be to change the controller and see if that worked. Thank God I had one on board. But first I had to take apart all the ceiling panels in the aft head to get to the back of the controller to disconnect it. Not easy in the tumbling conditions. Eventually we wired up the replacement controller – and BINGO!! – it worked. Our relief was immense.
As we approached the Falklands, the wind slowly moderated as we motored into Stanley Sound. It was bitterly cold. The bleak landscape was dotted with the bright yellow blossom of gorse. Linda said “You can tell it’s summer only because of the gorse. I can’t imagine what this place is like in the winter”.
I have for some months been in contact with Barry Elsby, the Honorary Representative of the Cruising Association who had been answering questions I had, and who had arranged for a berth for me. So, at 1315 Dave Eynon was standing by his jetty ready to take our lines. We had arrived after the most challenging passage any of us had undertaken. Job done.
Well, almost done – we had the entry formalities to go through. Within a few minutes, the uniformed Customs officer arrived at the boat together with a civilian. The civilian introduced himself as the Chief Medical Officer for the Islands. He pointed towards the cruise ship lying at anchor in the bay. “I’m afraid to tell you that there has been an outbreak of Novovirus on the cruise ship. The Islands are therefore restricting entry until tests have been carried out. I will need a stool sample from each of you for analysis. Would now be convenient? Linda and I were open-mouthed. The Argentine bureaucrats had driven us mad, but they had never asked us to crap for them.
“Are you being serious?” I asked.
“No” he said grinning broadly and putting out his hand, “I’m joking. My name is Dr Barry Elsby. Welcome to the Falkland Islands”.
Within minutes we had carried out all the paper work and had our passports stamped. Barry then went through with us all that we needed to do. By the end of the afternoon, with Barry’s help, our spinnaker pole end had been taken away for repair and we had two full gas bottles in our gas locker.
Whilst the last two days had been a murderous experience, it was at the same time an incredibly valuable learning curve. These sorts of conditions we have to expect in the Southern Ocean, and it was good that Mina2 had been stress-tested to this extent. She came through with flying colours. Previously in very strong winds, I had felt some anxiety at how she would hold up. But knowing how well she coped with winds and seas as strong as they were for as long as they were, slowly my total confidence in the boat built to the point where, whilst extremely uncomfortable, I felt completely relaxed.
Two new bits of kit need a special mention. We had fitted a new autopilot course computer (that steers the boat when we’re not hand-steering which is most of the time). It was brilliant and much better than the old one. It steered in those ultra-demanding conditions, hour after hour, with much greater skill than almost any human. How it does it I don’t know. The other success story was the extension to the spray hood that I had made up in Buenos Aires. It provided fantastically greater protection for the watch keeper from the bitter wind throughout the gale.
I would also like to thank John for coming up with ideas for strapping the deflated RIB (dinghy) to the fore deck, and the jerry cans full of diesel to the aft deck with such ingenuity (and many ratchet straps) that they didn’t budge even whilst having tons of water slamming into them. Again, we now know that this will do for Drake Passage.
This blog would not be complete without mentioning my crew, Linda and John. The conditions we experienced were worse than any of us had ever experienced but they carried on standing their watches, and doing everything else with cheerful stoicism. I can’t tell you how helpful it is to a skipper in those conditions to have two people on whom he can absolutely rely They were just fantastic throughout, and I owe them both a great debt.
I’ve asked Linda and John to write about their take on the passage:
Kind words indeed from the skip, but I can tell you it was fantastic having as skipper someone who was so unflustered and down to earth, making really good decisions about managing the boat in the extreme conditions. Good on you bro’!
So what was it really like? Impossible to put into words really. The noise of the wind screaming in the rigging was alarming in itself, and as the hours went on with no let up, became very wearing. The waves were towering, although we had experienced waves of similar or even greater height, maybe, coming out of the Caper Verde Islands three years ago. They presented Mina 2 with no problem at all, she just rose effortlessly over them. We did get the occasional slap from a wave coming in from a slightly different direction, but the boat just juddered a bit and then picked herself up again and moved on. As Tim says, as time went on, and it was clear that the boat could handle the conditions, anxiety levels dropped and it became exhilarating in a masochistic sort of way. Night time was different though. There was no moon, so it was pitch dark and all you had was the terrible howling of the wind and the waves coming out of nowhere at you. The wind of course, saved its worst for the middle of the night, when on Tim’s watch it didn’t drop below 45 knots. I found the best way to cope was to try and keep a lid on the imagination, which of course really gets going at night. My greatest fear was of gear failure which simply didn’t bear thinking about. Mercifully, none of us was sea-sick. I can’t imagine how terrible that would have been on top of everything else.
But this was only the last 36 hours. The previous 6 days had been very pleasant cruising, quite a lot of motoring, unfortunately, but latterly some good, comfortable sailing. Good food, good music, good company, and everyone getting enough sleep despite the 3 hours on, 6 hours off watch system – it was a very happy ship. We even started thinking that Maria might have enjoyed the passage and what a shame it was she wasn’t with us. Just as well she stuck to her guns and gave us a fond farewell in Buenos Aires.
Now looking forward to some more leisurely cruising around the islands before bracing ourselves for the passage across to Ushuaia in a few weeks time.
The storm started when I was trying to sleep in the forward cabin – actually impossible with the waves crashing into the starboard bow and the very fractional movement of the anchor (which was strapped down hard) making a noise like being in a dustbin and someone thrashing the lid with a baseball bat. When I took over the watch from Tim at midnight he rather mildly said he wished the wind would go down a bit ! The next two hours was much the same at 45-50 knots of wind and occasionally up to the mid 50’s. The autohelm failed just as the sky turned even blacker and I had to leap aft to take the wheel. Tim did a brilliant job replacing the control head in those conditions while I hand-steered for about 45 minutes and the wind peaked at 59 knots. It was very cold and very wet at the aft end of the cockpit and I was happy when the wind dropped to only 35-40 knots in the last hour of my watch. It felt like a calm after the previous 5 hours.
This was the most memorable passage I have ever been on, and an experience to recount at many a dinner table to come. Mina2 handled herself like the thoroughbred she is, and is a tribute to her designers and builders. We the crew came through it all tired but happy, to go ashore and pick the Victory pub (we had a choice of six) for a couple of beers and then back to the boat for fillet steak and ten hours sleep.