Day Six - Gale One

Where Next?
Bob Williams
Mon 20 Dec 2021 03:30
Noon Position: 43 44.5 S 145 31.1 E
Course: ESE Speed 6 knots
Wind: W, F7 Sea: rough
Swell: WSW, 3 meters
Weather: mostly cloudy, mild
Day's Run: 156 nm

"Both men and ships live in an unstable element, are subject to subtle and powerful influences and want to have their merits understood, rather than their faults found out."
Joseph Conrad, 'The Mirror of the Sea'

The above quote came to mind in the early hours of this morning as Sylph and I came face to face with our first Southern Ocean gale, albeit a relatively modest one, which has exposed a few weaknesses in my preparation.
Late yesterday, when I left you, we were making excellent progress running wing-on-wing before a strong breeze, three reefs in the main and a small section of jib poled out to starboard. We were moving fast but Sylph seemed comfortable with the wind vane self-steering holding course well. The wind was forecast to freshen but I was loathe to reduce sail further because it would have upset Sylph's balance. She had handled all the gusts. some of which were very strong, so I thought she would be able to handle an increase in wind. I retired below getting up on a regular basis to check that everything was as it should be on deck and below.
Some time during the night I heard a crash of a wave and a loud screech of what sounded like metal grinding on metal. I had no idea what it might be so I got up and poked my head out of the companionway to have a look around. Nothing appeared amiss. I grabbed a torch to have a better look. All seemed fine excepting the port solar panel appeared to be missing. As I watched I could see that it had broken free from its mounting and was flapping in the breeze outboard of the pushpit, held on by goodness knows what. Then it flipped up and landed on deck inside the pushpit rail. It did not look damaged. I quickly donned foul weather gear and went on deck to lash it down.
As I was lashing it in place I noticed that the pushpit, despite the reinforcing braces I had bolted to it, was slightly bent out of alignment on the port side. Bother! At this stage it was obvious that the wind had picked up quite a bit more than forecast, at least it appeared that way to me. I really needed to slow Sylph down either by reducing sail or streaming the drogue, or both. Unfortunately streaming the drogue was not an option as where I had lashed the panel obstructed where the drogue normally streams over the stern. I proceeded up to the foredeck to consider reducing sail. As I stood on the coach house beside the mast with the gloom of night brightening into dawn, a large wave picked Sylph up and she started to surf down its steep front. I watched in amazement as Sylph threw up an enormous bow wave, what I judged to be about six feet into the air. Then, as I watched, Sylph slowly veered to port. As Sylph's speed increased the apparent wind angle was changing and the wind vane was losing control. (I later checked the GPS for our maximum speed and laughed to see that it read 20.2 knots - impossible!) Then the mainsail started to go aback. I made my way aft to the cockpit as fast as I could to get to the tiller and correct Sylph's course before she gybed. But I was too late and we ended up lying beam on the wind and sea. I eased the vang-preventer which allowed the boom to come across and for me to be able to regain control. I quickly had her pointing down wind but with the mainsail and jib both on the starboard side Syph wanted to round up to port and the wind vane did not have the grunt to hold her off the wind. I steered for a bit wondering what to do. I concluded there was only one thing to do under the circumstances and that was to drop the main. I let go the tiller hoping that Sylph would not immediately fly up into the wind. First I went aft to increase the gain on the wind vane self-steering then to the mast to drop the mainsail. With the wind pressing the sail against the shrouds it took a bit of effort to drag it down. Once down, Sylph settled a bit and I threw on a couple of sail ties to keep the main in place.
We ran on just under the scrap of poled out jib for a while but I wasn't happy with the way it was causing the forestay to pump. I needed to get rid of the pole. First I gybed the jib relieving the pole of the strain of the sheet. From here it was relatively easy to drop the pole but I regret that in the process I managed to get a line caught in between my damaged fingers which opened up the wound slightly causing it to bleed. Things were not looking good. With the foredeck sorted, I proceeded back to the cockpit to go below and dress my wound. As I did so I noticed that the port cockpit rail was slightly bent as well. The cockpit rails are made of 1 ¼ inch gal water pipe and are very robust so I wondered what could have bent it. I figured it that it must have happened as the mainsail came across in the accidental gybe. Another problem.
We have managed to settle things down now but Sylph rolls heavily without the stabilising effect of the mainsail and the near gale force winds are expected to continue for at least another 48 hours before moderating slightly late Wednesday. I see two options: continue on and repair things as the weather permits, or pull in somewhere in Tasmania, likely the D'Entrecasteaux Channel, and anchor for a night to have a rest and think things through. Certainly repairs will be easier to complete while at a calm anchorage, especially with a damaged hand, then at sea in conditions that are likely to remain boisterous or worse for some time to come. On reflection, the decision seems to be pretty obvious even if it is a disappointment to have to stop so early in the voyage.
On the plus side ... actually, not that I am superstitious, but I think I will count my blessings quietly to myself.
All is well.