Sailing the western Atlantic

Tall ship facing an Atlantic storm

Tall ship facing an Atlantic storm

Nobody should be surprised to encounter storms in the North Atlantic during the winter months so no one could have been surprised when a night that was the literal ‘calm before the storm’ turned into the worst storm of the journey so far and, according to one of the full-time crew, one of the worst storms the ship has had to deal with.

The Watch between 04.00 and 08.00 on the morning of Monday 25th February is the most benign possible. There is so little wind that all it is capable of doing is to cause the sails (that are set to provide some level of stability) to merely flap and crack in the breeze, having no impact whatsoever on our progress which would have been nil if it were not for the engine. (The few hours that the engine is used that night was the only time we were not under sail after leaving Bermuda.)

By 08.00 things start to pick up and the ship is tacked to take advantage of the ‘favourable’ wind. It is blowing strong and, more or less, in the direction we want to go. But by midday the ‘favourable’ wind is starting to turn into a fully formed gale and it just grows and grows.

There is havoc in the galley. All the food cooking in the ovens is upturned and ruined. The ovens have to be stripped down and cleaned before they can be used again. The cook and assistant are not looking happy and the chef’s somersault from the galley into the mess is not one of joy.

The ship rocks severely from side to side, sometimes without seeming end. This means that water is scooped up and washed over the well deck (the lowest deck on the main deck). Timing is everything if you want to go down below. If you get it wrong you will be drenched. The sun is still shining and if you had witnessed the scene without experiencing the wind you would have thought it was an ideal sailing day. But it’s the Atlantic and you don’t want that cold water shower.

Fortunately no one seems to be suffering from sea sickness as the time away from Bermuda had allowed most to develop their sea legs. But the rocking is severe and would have its effect if it continued and the sea sickness pills in the medicine chest would take a hammering.

These are big seas and some have worried looks on their faces. ‘I know where I’d rather be, home,’ says one. ‘Britain doesn’t have long-range aircraft since they scrapped Nimrod, do they?’ asks another. But this is all academic. If the ship, or its crew, fails then there is no power on earth that will be able to help. Survival would depend on whatever was left of the original 23. Dependence on others would be meaningless. Four hundred miles plus east of Bermuda the nearest effective help would probably be from Nova Scotia in Canada

There’s an incredible wild beauty about this storm. So powerful, so relentless, a clear demonstration of the power of nature and the sea. But at the same time there is also a celebration of human ingenuity and ability to solve problems by the way the ship dances amongst these huge waves.

You get a strange sensation when looking towards the bow of the ship from the stern in such huge waves. It’s almost as if the ship were flying. There’s no sound from the engine as all the power is being provided by the wind and the sails are full. The more than 250 tonne weight of the ship is no different from a matchstick to the waves which just lift the vessel smoothly on the crest of a wave. The trough of the previous wave appears as a chasm into which the ship will just fall but as it descends another wave comes up to meet the downward momentum. As it does so the bow of the ship goes above the horizon and it seems that it is about to take off.

Another strange sensation is when the ship seems to be passed from the crest of one wave to the crest of another. Although we are obviously on the ‘flat’ – a relative term in such waters – it appears as if the vessel is actually going up hill. A couple of optical illusions that I’d never been aware of before.

As the ship bucks and rears there is a wall of water either at the bow or behind you at the stern. If you are on the helm you are totally unaware of what is developing behind you. Breakers that would appear in a surfers wet dream if on a beach in California or Australia race past the ship on either side, challenging us to go faster.

Attempts are made to carry on life normally below decks – but with a few modifications. Food is served in the galley rather than the mess and each holds a dish (rather than a plate) close to themselves as they maintain some semblance of normality, even using a knife and fork in a pudding dish, habits learnt at an English dining table being hard to drop for some.

By late afternoon the storm has really taken hold and helming on the ship is not just a mind game you play against the elements with the help of an hydraulically powered rudder. It is now a physical battle between the helm and the wind. Instead of trying to follow a heading that’s been given it’s now a matter of reacting to the direction of the wind as shown on one of the four electronic indicators above the wheelhouse entrance. This time it’s the decision of the helm that determines the reaction of the ship, now the direction of travel is only a general guideline, the aim is to keep the ship moving in the way that the sails have been set. It is not always easy on the helm (it was a doddle in the Caribbean) but now it’s a fight.

The helm is there to prevent the vessel from doing what it would do naturally, and that is to turn into the wind. The combination of the sails, the way they are set and the course decided (within the limitations of wind direction) all combine to tame the ship but in no way tame the waves. Push the vessel too far or make a mistake and the forces of nature will take their toll and serious damage could be caused to the integrity of the ship.

The following morning the wind speed starts to drop and the storm abates. For some time the waves are still wild and impressive but as the day wears on they return to the ‘normal’ mid-Atlantic swell. It’s interesting just looking at the sea as the weather conditions change. In the early hours of the morning it was looking black and foreboding, even though the day was promising to be one of blue skies and sunshine, yet for a time the sea looked more like mercury, a heavy, slow-moving mass that could change at any moment.

Later that day it’s possible to assess the damage. Nothing hugely significant, but as all we have is what we carry any damage can only be partially ameliorated whilst at sea. This time the tally was damage to four of the sails. One is replaced whilst another is repaired in situ. If this goes on (and it is predicted to do so) then there will be a lot of work to be done on the short 48 hour stop over that we will have in Horta, on the Azorean island of Faial, before heading up towards the bay of Biscay and the Western Approaches.

If nothing else after the successful completion of this trip the likes of Alton Towers or Port Adventura will have absolutely nothing to offer.

Click here to take you to a link on YouTube for another attempt to capture the sensation of a storm at sea on a basic video camera. At least this time the water looks grey as opposed to blue! But take note of the blue sky and sunshine.

A storm in the Bermuda Triangle in February 2013

A tall ship lists to starboard during a storm in the Bermuda Triangle

A tall ship lists to starboard during a storm in the Bermuda Triangle

It would have been almost impossible to sail in the Atlantic in February without encountering some bad weather and we had to deal with our first storm on the 17/18th February, as we passed through the Bermuda Triangle.

After a couple of weeks sailing around the islands of the southern Caribbean it was time to start the long journey back to the UK. At first we remained with the calm we were used to and could be on deck at four in the morning in shorts and t-shirts, so benign was the weather.

But this couldn’t last. Heading north, especially at this time of year (it was the middle of February and that’s still the winter in the northern hemisphere) we were bound to hit something different. And on the 17th we did. We had been motoring along, getting no assistance from the wind, when we bumped into a gale, the bottom end of a system that had been dumping a lot of snow along the eastern seaboard of the United States and creating havoc in the seas to the north.

It was the first storm of the journey (we were to have 4 or 5 more before the end) so for those of us not used to sailing it was the first opportunity to see what the sea can do when it’s angry.

One thing I was to learn very quickly was that it’s difficult to capture, either with video or still camera, the sensation of a storm on a boat. The vessel responds to the waves in the way that it has been designed to do, which is amazingly well. The swell might be mountainous but the dance that the ship does to keep itself afloat seems to mitigate the storm’s force.

If you think about it, all the images you might have seen in films (which in themselves are a false reality) of storms, that make you wonder how the ship can survive, are taken off and away from the vessel itself. The small ship gets dwarfed by the huge, killer waves, but you only get that perspective from a distance which is impossible to capture if you are on board. In the middle of the Atlantic there’s no one out there to take pictures of your progress. The element of threat and danger in a film is created on board by someone throwing buckets of water at the cast, trying to give the impression that the sea wants to invade the man-made environment. But I learnt during the storm of the 17th – 18th February that the reality is somewhat different.

And recent technology goes against you when you want to capture the ominous colour of the water. I now know that digital cameras like blue and those black, threatening waves take on a less threatening aspect through a camera lens.

If you want to get a very short (only 30 seconds of a 30 hour storm) impression of what it was like click here for a link to a video I posted on YouTube.

Main Watch during the Bermuda Triangle storm in March 2013

Main Watch during the Bermuda Triangle storm in March 2013

FORECAST

Shipping Forecast issued at 06.00 UCT, 17th February 2013

General Synopsis: Bad news

Sea Area: Bermuda Triangle

Wind Direction: All the wrong way

Wind Speed: 35 knots, gusting to 50, Gale Force 8 to 9

Visibility: 8 miles – though nothing to see but sea

Precipitation: Nil – we hope

Chances of Mysterious Disappearance: Low to non-existent

Barry Manilow: Severe

The port side of a tall ship during a storm in the Bermuda Triangle

The port side of a tall ship during a storm in the Bermuda Triangle

SOUND

ventilators’ whistle and hum drowned by the ominous wind’s howl

foaming and fizzing sea, impassive still, uncaring, truly the cruel sea

breaking waves splash on deck, buckets of seawater elicit curses from the drenched

flapping, snapping, cracking sails indicate the wrong sort of wind

squeaking, straining ropes on clunking pulleys fight against the elements

grating of the bearings on the helm tell of the effort needed this day

no talking, gales kill the art of conversation, apart from nervous banter

ship’s bell, tolling for us all, so no need to ask

thump of the ship’s bow into sea and the clank of the loose anchor against the ship’s side

radio transmission of May Day calls, one Canadian fishing vessel lost a thousand miles away

below galley utensils play an impromptu symphony

plastic cups clatter in their purpose made niches trying to escape

in cabins restless tossing and turning replaces snoring

prayers being said in muted tones, atheists finding faith too late

The bow crashes into the waves

The bow crashes into the waves

LIGHT

ship’s lights, white, red and green, tell others what and where we are

grey turns to red on the heading indicator, hypnotising the helm after half an hour

lights in the wheelhouse, white for the log, red for the night

below decks portholes illuminate the foam

red lamp for port reflects momentarily on the spray, indicating danger?

the eerie green on the starboard side reminds us of the unworldly nature of the journey

high white mast light says we’re a vessel under power, sad admission for a sailing ship

moonlight, young first quarter, weak, red, low, short duration, shrouded in clouds – sometimes

pools of stars amongst the clouds, faint, their serenity belies the storm below

beyond the rails the dark abyss of the deep

torch to read temperature, hourly ritual unaffected by the storm

red flashing warning light, but it’s a false alarm, only the bilge

dark apparitions, reminiscent of Carpenter’s Fog, with their slow, unnatural gait, indicate the end is near

 

time for bed, to sleep, perchance to dream (or lie in the cold, wet arms of a nightmare)