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

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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


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 during the storm

The port side during the storm


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


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)

More on sailing on a tall ship

The start of the day on a tall ship?

Cabin 10 en suite bathroom

Cabin 10 en suite bathroom

More on sailing on a tall ship

Everyday activities that we take for granted take on a different dimension when attempted on a tall ship. The mundane becomes a major task, needing care, thought, consideration, and a very great deal of luck and good fortune to be able to leave the cabin and carry out whatever activities are called for on a normal working day.

Before going any further it might be useful to set the scene. When a tall ship is in motion, except on the flattest of seas and in the most favourable of circumstances, it will be listing to either port (left) or starboard (right). Under sail that tends to be more gentle and easier to deal with than when under power. Then the movement of the vessel becomes much more erratic and more difficult to predict.

Another matter it is difficult to image, until you experience it for any length of time, is how heavy the most common, every day pieces of furniture, becomes. A door that swings effortlessly on an even keel seems to weigh a ton when at an angle of 20 degrees or more. Drawers that open and close with no problem can either shoot out of their runners on their own accord or need the strength of Superman to open.

OK. So we will take a ‘typical’ day and try to do what is automatic at the start of the day in a land based environment and see what happens at sea, on a bucking bronco of a tall ship.

The human body, even after millions of years of evolution, does not fully use all that is taken in in the way of food and drink. Waste products are created and have to be expelled on a regular basis if the body is to function at any reasonable level of efficiency. Most people will go through this process first thing in the morning without any thought whatsoever. Not on a tall ship.

Assuming you have evacuated your bunk and arrived at the bathroom door without being bounced against every surface on the way (everything seems much harder on a ship) your first problem is the door to the bathroom. (In this scenario I am using the luxury cabin situation, i.e., one with an en suite bathroom.)

Depending on its positioning it will either weigh a ton and need all your strength to open or will close so quickly you are in danger of crushing either fingers and/or ankles/legs. But for the sake of brevity we will assume that entrance has been gained without major mishap.

Men might piss standing up, gentlemen do so sitting down. Homo sapiens is the only mammal that doesn’t mark its territory with its scent, but that’s exactly what you would do if you attempted a pee standing up. At the same time, if you were able to stand long enough without crashing painfully into the metal wall, you would be able to see graphically the effects of gravity as the normally straight stream of liquid gets distorted depending upon the relevant listing of the ship.

The use of toilet paper also has to be thought about. Standing up in the normal manner is not recommended, you don’t know how well fixed to the wall the tiny basin might be, as that’s all you really have for support. To add to the difficulties related to the ship’s movement the toilet system itself is quite delicate and excessive solids can have the impact of breaking the vacuum and then disabling the whole toilet system on the boat. Not a way to make friends and influence people.

Next to a shave. (This section could be relevant to both genders.)

Standing in front of a mirror to lather up is not really feasible. (In fact, the more experience I have on this ship the more I realise that sitting is preferable to standing in most circumstances.) The use of two hands to carry out an action is just not possible. All the techniques you might have learnt about keeping your legs wide apart and flexing the knees in response to the movement of the vessel will only be effective for a few seconds. Having already broken an ankle as I was getting undressed for bed I don’t want to add to that the breaking of a leg that had been trapped between a toilet bowl and my own momentum, a thought that has crossed my mind not a few times.

However, sitting down on the edge of the bath tub means looking at the mirror at an angle of 90º, which is not easy. A fish would have less problems but evolution having put both our eyes at the front of our face we have to make the best of a bad deal. As to the sitting I’ve found that naked skin is definitely de rigour, as this provides friction which would be lacking if clothed. This is easier in the first class, en suite cabins as streaking along the corridor of the cabin deck would probably be frowned upon.

As to the actual shaving that becomes an acquired skill, either that or you only do so in the calmest of conditions or wait until the ship is tied up in port. After attempting to shave you realise why sailors in the past were predominantly bearded – before the invention of the safety razor the cut throat would have lived up to its name.

Now to the shower. Easy, no? No!

The small bath tub is designed for sit down use and unless tied to a dock that’s the best policy. Again, on land too many assumptions are made, things are done without any thought as they have been carried out so many times before. Those assumptions are positively dangerous on board a tall ship.

Handrails exist but too much dependence upon then whilst standing could lead to the most dire of consequences. Yes, it seems strange sitting whilst having a shower, especially when the water is on a push button timer, but it does make sense. Think of it. Whilst showering there are times when you are effectively blind, either by soap or shampoo. In an environment that is moving it’s very easy to lose your orientation and the next thing you know you are clutching at thin air rather than the handrail you thought was there.

But your problems aren’t over yet. Now you have to get dry. By now you are used to doing things much slower and in a more considered manner so getting rid of most of the water shouldn’t be that difficult. But what happens when you want to get out of the bath tub? You know that non-slip flooring that is common in showers nowadays? Effective, isn’t. Yes, but also no. Not when it gets wet and then you tip it up on its end. I would challenge any manufacturer of such surfaces to prove that they had tested their products under such circumstances.

So, a final warning. DON’T let the floor get wet. Bare feet and a slippery surface don’t mix and when the ship is really moving about that broken leg is just waiting to happen.

I hope from the above that there is now no need to describe the difficulties associated with dressing, they are much the same as already written about.

So a process that is carried out without any thought in the comfort of your own home takes more than twice as long on a tossing tall ship on the high seas with the added threat of imminent personal injury at virtually every stage.

Living space for two months

Living space for two months

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The joys of sailing in the rain

Main Watch in the rain

Main Watch in the rain

More on sailing on a tall ship

The rain in the Caribbean/Western Atlantic might be warm when it falls but you get wet and add a little bit of wind and it’s as unpleasant as being on the top of any mountain in Britain in bad weather.

Getting up for 06.00 is no fun. Doing so when you’ve heard rain against the side of the ship doesn’t make it easier. Being told by the person waking you up that it’s been raining makes it worse. Your cabin mate saying that you’ve 3 hours out in the rain makes it perfect.

But it isn’t raining! That joy is short-lived as you are told there’s ‘a lot of rain on the radar’ and that ‘volunteers’ are needed to go to the top of the mast to untie the uppermost sails, when daylight comes. After wanting the sun to rise you start to hope it never does.

But someone has to do it, and there are few other’s around. Get to the top as soon as possible, do the job and get down quick. We might beat the rain.

We don’t. Half way up the lower shroud it starts. Big drops of the tropical kind. You’re soaked by the time you reach the first top (the nautical name for the platforms at stages up the mast, where each yard (which holds the sails) meets the mast).

Strangely, although the ship is rolling (though in a gentle sea), the rain is now falling heavily, hand and footholds are slippery and wet, there’s no problem with the height. You’re too concerned with the task in hand. That’s the same when out on the yard to untie the sails that have been stowed for the night. The ropes are wet and have swelled – so not that easy to loosen. Only when taking a breather do you notice that the deck is a long way below.

Getting up is ‘easy’. Getting down less so. You are wetter and so is everything you touch. Caution kicks in and progress is slow, too slow. Will have to work on that. Once down of wet (dry) land (or the nearest to it that a deck can be) ropes have to be pulled. By now you’re so wet you don’t give a damn. Then it’s all worth it as the sail fills and speed increases. As you go to change at least you know that it was a job well done.

We have the luxury of heat to dry clothes, the engine room or the tumbler dryer. You have to feel for the sailors in times past who had none of this and were forced out in much worse conditions. I’m complaining and the air temperature this morning, at 07.00, was 23 degrees C.

The dry clothes don’t stay dry for long. Water always finds its way through the best of waterproofs, especially the ones for the countryside and not at their best. Wave upon wave of rain comes, taking us by surprise as it comes from behind and catches us unawares. A chill starts to develop. There’s really no such thing as warm rain, especially on a ship at sea.

Then we are given a pleasant surprise. The wind has dropped and the t’gallant which we untied just over an hour before, has to come down – together with all the others. All that for an hour and about 3 or so miles progress. But this has it up side. All the activity warms you up and moves the watch forward to its conclusion.

Now the ship is coming to life, the day crew starting to appear, they are warm and dry and if out in the rain only for the duration of the task. The sun breaks through, for a few minutes. It’s still hot if it can break through the cloud.

Then the three hours are up. More wet clothes in the dryer. Now a whole 6 hours (or more likely 5½) to relax – before the same again

Only 105 watches or 315 hours on watch (more or less) – depending on the system decided for the next part of the voyage – to go before landing in the UK, with the Atlantic in winter in between.

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