Wildest Ride Yet

We left Sainte Marie on the 15th of August intending to sail 320 miles to Diego Suarez. The winds forecasted were 15-20 knots until we got closer to Diego Suarez where 20-25 knots was expected. Since the angle of the wind was in the same direction, my assumption was that we would have following winds and seas. Tahina handles these conditions really well because we surf at higher speeds. So, if we are going 10 knots, the winds appear to be only 15 knots to us in 25 knots of wind.

Once we cleared the island of Sainte Marie, we were exposed initially to seas from our starboard side (beam). This meant it was a bit rolly. In the late afternoon it got kind of squally and we had higher winds, around 20 knots average with gusts above 30 at times, with rain showers. We just reefed down our sails and stayed inside letting the autopilot sail during the rain. No big deal. During the evening the winds started clocking aft of us as we expected, so the ride got smoother. Our only concern was that friends on s/v Solace, about 60 miles ahead of us, said they saw whales. With the seas all choppy and visibility down, we had little hope of spotting any. All night we were a bit concerned about the whales, but we just had to hope they kept their sonar running, and moved out of our way. Sailboats have been known to hit a sleeping whale.

Full Rainbow at Sea

Full Rainbow at Sea

During the early morning hours the winds died some more and went directly aft. I was able to put up our jib sail on the opposite side so we were “wing on wing”. This helped increase our speed a couple of knots. Picked up Internet from a town before sunrise, and it showed a stronger wind forecast ahead of us. After sunrise, I saw a really bright rainbow and captured it with my fisheye (see picture at right which was adjusted for the wide angle of the fisheye). We considered stopping with Solace at a town south of Diego Suarez. But, when they got there early that morning the pass had huge waves breaking, so we both decided to keep going to Diego Suarez another 80+ miles.

The skies cleared up mid-morning and the winds gradually increased. We had already reduced back to 1 reef in the main and the winds started getting to 25-30 knots. I told Karen we should put another reef in the main, but she had just finished making lunch. I went down to get a drink. One of our bilge alarms went off, and since it sometimes sounds for a long time, Karen went to the circuit breaker panel to turn it off. That’s when it happened. She shouts, “Uh oh! I bumped the chartplotter circuit breaker!”. I said “What?!” and RAN AS FAST AS POSSIBLE TO THE HELM. If the chartplotter goes down, the AUTOPILOT SHUTS OFF! We were close to dead down wind with our main sail all the way to one side, if we turned the wrong way the sail could accidentally jibe (i.e the wind goes on the wrong side of the sail and slams the sail in the other direction). In these winds who knows what would happen?

I was probably at the helm in 2 seconds, but it was too late. A wave or something turned the boat too many degrees. I watched and heard as the boom slammed to the left – and “BANG!” and then the boom went over and “BANG!” again. It all happened in an instant. I was cursing like crazy. I stuck my head up and saw the sail was still in one piece and the boom still attached. But, it was all the way over, and it shouldn’t have been. We have special “car” on a metal track (called the “traveler”) that goes across the roof of our cockpit which is moved with a rope system to move the car along the track. Before the jibe, it was all the way to the starboard. Not only that, we had the rope going to the boom out so the boom was even further out to starboard since we were down wind. The thing is, we didn’t move the rope for the traveler. I looked up and the traveler rope was a tangled mess. It obviously had broken, so the car just slid until it stopped. We were incredibly lucky the traveler car did not slam right off the end and stopped on the other end. If that happened, the boom would have been swinging free and all kind of damage could have occurred.

One reason this wasn’t a total disaster is that I had tied a rope around the boom called a “preventer”. This is intended to “prevent” damage from an accidental jibe like this. This is the reason there were two bangs. What amazed me is that the preventer line completely disappeared after that first bang. It had a bowline on one end and a huge trucker’s hitch knot on the other attached to a cleat on the side of the boat. The rope must have busted on both ends, and like a slingshot ejected itself off the boat. You have to realize that the forces involved must have been tremendous. The two breaking ropes helped to slow down the force of the boom as it moved across the deck, and this is likely the only reason the traveler didn’t break off the boat.

I was literally shaking from the adrenaline (and lack of lunch) after this first happened. I kept saying “This is bad! This is bad!” (and Karen says I was saying other unrepeatable words). The first thing I did was to sail the boat to make sure we stayed on the new tack. We got the system restarted and the autopilot working, but I got Karen to the helm and said “Make Sure We Do Not Jibe!” I explained I needed to go on top of the roof of the cockpit and see if I could fix the traveler. I said, while I’m up there, “My life depends on our not jibing!“. Karen understood this and was VERY attentive to the helm. First I ate my sandwhich and calmed down a bit. I re-assured Karen that I realized it was an accident – I’m sure she was shocked about the accident. Then I went up on the roof with a safety harness. It took several minutes, but I eventually got the lines untangled. The good news was that although it was sunny, with the sail on this tack it was shady up there. I laughed at the irony. I had to go back to my computer to examine photos of the proper way to run the lines. Then I went back and started running them. After another 30 minutes I got the lines re-rigged and tied off. It turns out we were only missing about a foot off one end. That was very lucky again because if I had to run new line it is a big job.

Back safely in the cockpit, I ran a test to move the boom, and it worked! We were back in business. We were incredibly lucky that the accident wasn’t worse. If the boom had broken loose it could have been catastrophic. The violence was so strong it could have damaged our rig. Right after it happened, I made a quick inspection of all our rig attachment points, and looked for signs of breakage up the mast – and there was no apparent damage. Whew!

The next thing we did was put another reef in the sail so we were double reefed. The winds were now 25-30 knots steady with gusts above 30 (our apparent winds were still 10-15 knots since the boat was averaging 10 knots). And the winds and seas were still building gradually. Tahina was actually handling the conditions quite well. The ride was relatively smooth, and we were often surfing the waves making 9-10 knots average and sometimes getting in the 11-12 knots at this point.

By late afternoon, the winds stepped up another notch. To 30 knots average with gusts to 35+ knots. The seas started looking more angry, but we had sunny skies and we were just going faster. We were sometimes surfing several waves in a row making double-digit speeds. Several times we surfed to 14-16 knots with 17 knots being the highest. The following is a video clip showing the conditions at 30 knots average:

We decided we needed to get the mainsail down and just fly a rolled up jib sail. But, to drop the main we would have to turn into the wind and face the full force of the winds and seas. I watched the seas carefully for a pattern, and we waited for a flatter area. I told Karen to be ready and then said “Get ready”. We turned right after a big wave passed us and I put the port engine in gear. As soon as we were facing the wind I told Karen to drop the sail and she did. We then quickly turned back. Wow! We didn’t even get wet! It only took a few seconds.

We then put out a small bit of jib sail and were back to 9-10 knots again. I went part way up the mast to grab our main halyard line and tie it off. While I was up there I heard a loud “KERPLOP!“. I looked behind to the left, and just 50-75 meters off our starboard stern was a HUGE TAIL OF A WHALE (no this is not a whale of a tale!). As I was watching the tail came slamming down and “KERPLOP!”. I shouted to Karen to look and she saw it too. It kept slamming as we rapidly moved away – at least 10 times it did it. We probably passed within 20 meters of the whale, and I think we startled it. Whales are known to slam their tails like this possibly as a warning. It sure got our attention (but, not until we passed it). Below is a picture of what this looks like from Wikipedia (I didn’t have my camera with me up the mast).

Whale Tail Flip

Whale Tail Flip at Wikipedia

We still had another several hours of sailing ahead of us, and the sun was setting. And, we were not going to be able to keep an eye out for whales after dark. But, I diligently kept an eye out until it was dark. The winds actually briefly hit 35-40 knots, but they gradually eased a bit as the evening wore on. By the time we got near the entrance the winds were down to 20-25 or even less.

Meanwhile, our friends on Solace, now only 20 miles ahead of us (because our speed was so much greater), were arriving at the entrance to Diego Suarez. I talked to them on the radio and they said things were fine except for some wave surfing on the way in. They arrived about 10 PM at the anchorage safely tucked behind some hills. We finally arrived about 11:30 PM through the entrance and 15 minutes later found a spot next to Solace and dropped the hook.

This was probably one of our most dramatic 1.5 day passages ever! Below is a map of where we ended the passage:

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5 Responses to Wildest Ride Yet

  1. Hugh says:

    Great report and great video. The downwind sail can lull you into thinking everything is under control even when the winds have picked up. Smart of you to reef. Must be nice to “slow down” to 9 or 10 knots…. We celebrate if we hit 8. Oh, and you should feel relieved that Karen didn’t jibe when you were in the coach roof. She had her chance and didn’t take it Congratulations.

  2. Christine Anne Millard says:

    What kind of line was your preventer? Glad you are safe and that your sandwich didn’t go stale

    • Frank Taylor says:

      I believe that was Sampson XJS Yacht Braid, 12 mm, 8300 lbs tensile strength! It was a bit old – about 5 years old and well-used. No chaffing though.

  3. SC says:

    With 20/20 hindsight, how dangerous is to lose autopilot for a minute or two?

    • Frank Taylor says:

      @SC: In most situations, losing the autopilot for a moment is not an issue. We have had autopilots in the past that would become overpowered or had other issues and it did not result in major danger. But, this situation wasn’t one of them where we were intentionally sailing close to a danger point. If we had not turned it off by mistake, it would have had a very low probability of being an issue.

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