Rumours that UHURU has been lost at sea have been greatly exaggerated!

Steve Powell
Sat 2 Apr 2011 16:45

Anyone who knows how to read Lat/Long’s will realise that far from being a long way north in Uruguay as planned, we are back in the Falkland Islands, about 800 miles south of where we wanted to be. Well we are all safe now, and warm and cosy in Port Stanley, so I feel comfortable telling the story.

Just as I thought we had successfully conquered the Southern Oceans, Antarctica and the Chilean Channels, some of the most notorious waters in the the world, and had started north feeling very smug and happy with myself. Mother nature decided that we had had it too easy and she wasn’t going to let us go without instilling a little respect. So she did, with a vengeance.

Tuesday 29th March
We left Ushuaia on Tuesday and headed east down the Beagle Chanel, we turned north through the Estrecho De Le Maire, the channel that runs between the hockey stick point at the bottom of South America and an island called Isla De Los Estados at about 1am on Wednesday morning. All was well.  During the night the winds had started building and veering north until they came round to north east. Which made it a little uncomfortable but we are used to head winds so we plugged on not too concerned. The weather forecast had predicted a short period of northerlies followed by a shift to the west with 30-35 kts and a 8-10 foot sea running. It sounded perfect for our trip north, a little vigorous, but a good sail.

Wednesday 30th March
The winds stayed at 20kts N to NE most of the day, until about four in the afternoon, fortunately I was on watch, when I saw a sudden change in wind coming at us. I dumped the main as quick as I could and waited to see what was going to happen, it all took less than 30 seconds, the wind backed to the west and started coming at us beam on at about 45kts. This was accompanied by freezing rain and a sudden change in sea state, the waters started to boil as two different wave patterns fought for dominance.

As it started to get dark the seas built and the winds increased, we were still heading north but as the seas got bigger I started to get uncomfortable about being beam on to such a sea. We couldn’t bear away and run with the  wind, the normal tactic in this situation, because we had West Falkland Island less than a hundred miles away, a very uninviting lee shore. And in these winds even with very little sail up we would be surfing towards the rocky Falkland shores at about 10 to 12 kts. I was keen to keep as much sea room as I could. We carried on for another few hours, but now I was getting really concerned, the seas had grown significantly and we were getting breaking waves hitting us beam on. I tried coming up wind a little but we then just got hammered. Beam on was getting dangerous and running with the wind wasn’t an option with the lee shore, so I decided to Heave too.

Heaving too is a technique that all sailors know about but very few use, for various reasons, either they don’t really understand the process or don’t trust it. And to be honest I have never used it before other that in training sessions in perfect conditions. But I was running out of options. The technique involves setting a small amount of head sail and small amount of main sail, then coming up into the wind and letting the head sail back on itself and then locking the rudder hard over to drive the boat into the wind. By balancing the amount of headsail that is pushing the boat to leeward (off the wind) and main sail that is pushing the boat up wind, you can in theory stop the boat still in the water, or nearly so.

So a little before midnight, Chris and I started to prepare to do an exercise that we had only ever done in perfect conditions, we now had 20 foot breaking waves and steady winds howling around 40kts with gusts over 50kts. It took us over half an hour but we finally got her balanced. And although we weren't ‘stationary’ our speed was down to 1-2kts very acceptable. Then we went below and closed the hatch.  It really is a remarkable sensation, sitting there having a cup of tea in a severe gale, absolutely pitch black outside, in the middle of the South Atlantic. Your still rolling quite a bit but nothing like the hammering we were getting. The guys set up a radar watch system between themselves, to give me a chance to get some sleep. Then we all went to bed! It’s amazing but true, I never really believed heaving too could really work like that, but it does.

Unfortunately, just when we thought that we’d ‘cracked it’, Mother Nature came back to teach us another lesson. About 5am that morning, still dark outside, we got hit by a big breaking wave that hit on our windward side (Starboard) and water poured in through the engine venting system, up into the head linings and soaked our 12v Electrics panel, blowing all the breakers instantly. After an initial inspection, I shut down all the effected systems and decided that none of them were ‘critical’, and we could continue without. The most important system on that panel was the generator/Battery charger but we could do that with the engine. The other thing was our PC was on the panel so emails were out. No big deal I thought, and went back to bed to wait for dawn.

Thursday 31st March
Dawn presented us with a truly daunting sight, the winds were still howling from the West at 45 knots and the seas were now running at a good 25-30 foot, with breakers. Continuing North in these conditions risked a serious beam on knockdown. Trying to go upwind would get us nowhere and a good kicking, while bearing away to the NE risked being blown onto the West Falklands, so I decided that the only safe option was to head SE back down to the south of the Falklands and then run East with the wind behind us with a view to seeking a safe haven in Port Stanley which was 280 miles away.

Once we were under way we very quickly realised that the auto pilot was not going to be safe in these conditions. The seas were still building and confused because we had the effect of the strong northerly Falklands current and the seas still coming from a little north of west. The auto pilot kept kicking out and setting off all kinds of alarms, I tried increasing the response level but in the end I felt I couldn’t risk it failing at the wrong moment and putting us beam on to one of these breakers. So Chris and I, the only two onboard with any helming experience, started manually helming 1 hour on, 1 hour off.  And then conditions just got worse by the hour, the winds built and we were getting gusts of 60kts, and the seas grew to horrendous great walls of water chasing us down. The underlying wave pattern was still probably 25- 30ft, but then we’d get a set of six or seven giants come through, I don’t think that 40-50 foot would be an exaggeration. And when the first one hits you if you didn’t take it absolutely right it would twist you round hard putting you beam on to the next giant that was following a few seconds later. Then the real terror began, can you straighten her in time, is this the one that’s going to roll you? This went on hour after hour after hour as Chris and I continued to change helm every hour, snatching a cup of tea and a short break in between what was physically and mentally exhausting work.

We finally got ‘pooped’, something I had been expecting, it’s when a wave that is running faster than you breaks over the back of the boat. Tons of water smashed down onto the back of the boat, Chris was at the helm at the time and managed to stay on his feet and steady the boat I was sitting in the cockpit. We both got soaked, it had ripped the dingy cover to pieces and bent the Stainless Steel Davit arm that is designed to support a 13 ft Avon Rib with a big old outboard on it. It was amazing that we didn’t lose the dingy at that point but it was still all hanging on so we lashed some further support around it.

This was turning into a very long a tiring day with no respite in sight. We did set a few records though, fastest boat speed ever in UHURU under double reefed headsail only while surfing down the face of a mountain, 16.9 kts or 21.5 kts SOG!!!!!!!!!!!! I still don’t believe it, but I saw it with my own eyes! I promise.  We were now in a  full on Force 10 Storm, described by the RYA Handbook as ‘survival conditions’.

Meanwhile, our two ‘guest crew’, David and Fiona, who had signed on for a nice little delivery trip up the coast of South America, where taking there turn in the freezing cockpit to relay messages between Chris and I while we were on the helm, constantly keeping us fed hot soup, sandwiches and cups of tea. It should be noted that while this whole experience was a first for all of us, apart from a short Competent Crew course three weeks ago David has never been out on a sail boat! And Fiona, who was just travelling around South America, volunteered to join us when her step father, Alan Brooks, retired MD of Oyster, told her I was looking for crew. Her previous experience was family holidays and doing the ARC (Atlantic Rally Crossing) with Alan on his new Oyster 56. All very modest compared to this. But not once, not even for a moment, did either one of them show a moments doubt or uncertainty, not once did they loose their sense of humour. They just pitched in and took it on the chin, knowing that it still wasn’t over yet, far from it.

At this point I had a frantic call on the Sat Phone from Beans. “Darling, are you OK? The Argentine Navy have just called me and they want to know where you are”. We had agreed to send daily email position reports to them as we left Ushuaia, which we had done until our email system went down. Why they wanted this information probably had more to do with them wanting to make sure we weren't going to the Falklands without a permit than our safety. But the last thing I wanted was an Argentine Gun boat chasing us because we didn’t have a permit, or them sending out the Air Sea Rescue looking for us. So after assuring Beans that all was well and we were having a lovely time, I called Richard Haworth who has an agent in Ushuaia, Roxanna, and got him to contact the Argentine Navy and explain our situation and that we have no choice but to got to the ‘Malvinas’ for repairs. Botty called shortly after, seeking assurance that all was well. More confident words, more happy sailor talk. He then reassured Beans we were fine, thanks Botty.

That afternoon the storm seemed to really hot up, I kept looking for a break on the horizon, but nothing appeared, no respite, just more and more of the same. I kept reminding everyone, including myself, that nothing lasts forever, everything has to finish sometime it’s just a question of when. Both Chris and I were getting very tired now, the physical effort of trying to keep UHURU surfing straight down the waves and fighting against a broach was enormous. I’d taken a fall earlier and my back and arm, which has a massive bruise, were aching like mad, but I couldn’t let on, we had no choices but to just plug on. Chris was tired, we all were. So once again I decided that we would heave too, this time as soon as it got dark, I couldn’t risk misjudging one of these breakers in the dark.

Despite our high speeds we had only covered just over a hundred miles in eleven hours. We spent as much time sideways or wallowing in the deep troughs as we did surfing at high speed down the waves so progress was not a fast as we could have hoped. But Chris and I once again heaved too and felt very proud that we got it right quickly, we were becoming experts at this. Fiona and Dave had prepared a ‘Spag Bol’ for when we got below which was woofed up with relish. They volunteered to take the bulk of the night watch while Chris and I got some sleep. Night watch in these circumstances means sitting in the saloon reading a book with the heater on watching the radar display, with the occasional pop up to give a quick 360 degree look around. But it’s a strange sensation to be just bobbing along in the Southern Oceans rising 30 to 40 feet in the air then plunging down again to start the whole process again. All the time knowing that you are completely......... and utterly........ alone....... in a fibre glass bubble...... just inches from the frigid ocean.

Friday 1st April. ‘April Fools Day’
At this point some of you will be saying “Oh, this is just an April Fools joke”, God, how I wish it were so! But it wasn’t, it was dawn and we were still 180nm from Stanley and the new day offered no hopeful signs of the storm abating. A quick bowl of Ready Brek and we were off again. I had managed to get some sleep so I felt a lot better. Large doses of Ibuprofen and Paracetamol helped. We all thought it highly amusing that we should be out here on April Fools Day, and it offered a little light moment as we faced what promised to be another gruelling day.

Then the routine started again, one hour on, one hour off. Every monster wave, seemed to be the one that was going to end it all for us. Later that morning, Chris was on the helm and I was sitting in the cockpit having a break, when we both looked up and our hearts stopped. Coming up behind us was the biggest, scariest monster wave we had seen so far. I can not explain how it felt, after all we’d been through this bastard was coming along to finally end our adventure. We both looked at each other just shouted ‘Fuck’.  

UHURU raised up and up and up as it went under her, we had to hold on to stop ourselves from falling down the boat as she was bow down 45 degrees, and the stern was being lifted high in the air, but the wave didn’t break. We fell down the backside of it squirreling in the turbulence. I suddenly realised that we were going to be fine, we were in a great boat, an Oyster 62, the crème de la crème. Nothing was going to stop us. Bugger you I shouted and got angry. I don’t know who at or why, but I just got angry.

Shortly after the first dolphins arrived, Peele Dolphins, the prettiest dolphins I have ever seen, white & light blue bellies, jumping and spinning in the air as they escorted us. They never left us, all day they stayed with us, some would go, others would arrive but we were never, never alone. The sun started to break through occasionally and the light bouncing off the spume that was flying horizontally off the top of the breakers became the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Power, beauty, and fear all wrapped in together. I was suddenly enjoying it.  

I was “in the zone”, I suddenly understood what it was all about, UHURU, sailing around the world , leaving family and friends, leaving the comforts of Ladycross, I was truly out there, King of all I surveyed, surfing a forty two ton boat down forty foot breaking waves, being escorted by dolphins and albatrosses.  You don’t get this with video games.

Well my reign didn’t last too long, we got pooped again at about eleven in the morning, the port side davit strut finally gave way and the tender and motor was just hanging on one of our bits of rope that we had used the secure it earlier. It was too dangerous to try and go back and put more lines around it so I just left it. If it got worse we would just cut it away. We sailed on, wave after wave, fight the helm over and then back again, but all the time we had the dolphins. We started giggling, stupid but true, these little buggers were hilarious. David and Fiona were jumping up a and down trying to get pictures of them, impossible in these conditions but it was something to do, to take our minds off what was really happening.

Later that afternoon we had  the first signs of the storm slowing down, the seas started to recede, we still had the scary sets of bigger ones but they were fewer and the general conditions improved the winds dropped to 30-35kts and I started to relax. Now we just had to get into Port Stanley. I had assumed that when we turned north behind East Falkland that we would get a break and be in the lee of the island. No such luck the seas followed us around travelling up the east coast of the island. But the worst thing was that I still had not had any sight of land, we should be just 10 miles offshore. In these conditions I knew in my head that the chances of seeing land this far out was slim at best, but my heart just kept praying for a sight of land. Why wasn’t the radar picking it up? Surely radar should be picking up land by now? Hour after hour I had this private nightmare that I’d made some massive navigational error and that the GPS, which I have always trusted, was wrong. I even got one of the handhelds out and quietly double checked our position. Everything was telling me we were fine, but until I had physical evidence I couldn’t get rid of the doubts. It’s a long lonely way to South Africa if you miss the Falklands.

It came as a massive relief when I finally picked up a radar contact from Sealion Island, a rock just south of East Falkland, it was right there just where it was supposed to be, but that was the last contact we had until we were almost outside Port William the entrance to Port Stanley Sound.

Saturday 2nd April
We arrived safely at three o’clock in the morning. We had other problems coming in, our hydraulic sail furling system jammed so Chris had to go forward and manually furl our sails in. Getting into Port Stanley on a moonless night was a challenge, but all of it paled into insignificance to what we had survived.

There are no pictures with this blog, because for the first time in my life I have to admit that there are occasions when one picture is not worth a thousand words. I might include some pictures in a future blog, but they will never, ever, be able to do justice to the sights, sounds, and emotions that we experienced.

My crew can not be honoured enough. Heroes everyone of them. Chris Durham, 23, 1st Mate, who shared the helm with me, hour after hour, day after day, never tiring, never once showing any fear or doubts. Fiona Sparks, occasional family sailor, who fed and watered us in the worst conditions imaginable, never ever complained, and stood watch while we slept through the long lonely nights. David Jeffs, Golf Pro and recent Competent Crew sailor, who despite it being, or maybe because it was, his first time in a boat offshore thought this was all normal and never failed to smile and take his turn on watch. Thank you guys, true Heroes.

Luv to all


4th April 2011