‘The boat was slammed over and water poured in'
Yachting Monthly|January 2021
Randall Reeves leaves the storm jib in its bag while braving the Southern Ocean to prove that speed is safety in heavy weather
Randall Reeves

The first major blow of my first Figure 8 Voyage attempt – a solo circumnavigation of both the American and Antarctic continents in one season – stated the problem well enough, but I missed the clues.

It was December 17, 2017. My 45ft heavy displacement expedition sloop Moli (Mo) and I were 49 days out of San Francisco, crossing 52º south and on final approach to Cape Horn, when we were overtaken by an intense low packing steady winds to 50 knots and gusts to 70. During the later stages of this gale, Mo was pushing on under storm jib when a knockdown gushed just enough water through the companionway hatch and into the pilothouse to find and short-out the autopilot junction box.

Though disappointing, this was not particularly worrying as, at sea, the autopilot is relegated to the role of a backup device. Three days later, at 56º south and 400 miles west of the Great Cape, a non-serviceable, welded part on the windvane failed in a fresh northwesterly. It took six long and cold days of 12- to 18-hour tricks at the tiller to make Bahia Cook, the sheltered waters of Chile’s Beagle Channel and then on to Ushuaia, Argentina for repairs.

Once back on the Figure 8 Voyage route for the Cape of Good Hope and several damage-free gales later, I had begun to feel a certain ease with what the south could dish up.

I knew, I thought, what to expect and how to handle the boat as winds and seas increased and rotated slowly on their circuit from northwest to west to southwest. My comfort, as I would find, was in fact misplaced.

SECOND KNOCKDOWN

The second major blow of this first attempt overtook us in the Indian Ocean.

On the weather charts, the system looked nothing special until it slid under Africa, where it would intensify, treble in size and grow uniformly round.

A week after the GRIBs fair warning, I had worked Mo to the north and near Cochon Island, in the Crozet group (46ºS 50ºE). By now I wasn’t particularly worried. This latitude put us in a less intense quadrant of the system where mean winds were forecasted to be 35 knots. Even after adding my customary 10 knots to the prediction, what was coming looked to be a very manageable bit of weather.

I doused the main and working headsail in favour of the storm jib in the late afternoon of 17 February.

The barometer had dropped from a high of 1012 the previous noon to 996 and winds were now from the northwest at 35 knots with gusts in the 40s.

This change of sail left Mo underpowered and she slowed markedly, yawing a bit in the troughs, but I wanted a set of sail that would take us through a night of growing wind and seas. I recall being seated in the pilothouse at 1900 when a comber knocked the boat flat to starboard.

By this time night had fallen and had brought with it a heavy deck of cloud and pelting rain. Nothing of the outside world could be seen, save for the pale glow of a grey-beard as it raced aboard.

THUNDERING SOUND

The boat rolled deeply from the hit. Water flooded into my lap through the one dorade vent I’d left unplugged.

From the companionway hatch I searched the deck for damage and found that the force of the fall had bent Mo’s starboard rail in over the cockpit winches. The rail, made of thick-walled aluminum tubing, also held a 200-watt solar panel, which took the sea flat in the face and shattered.

At this point, our average speeds through the water were within what I considered a safe range (I noted 5-7 knots over the ground).

However, even at such a pace, Mo still could stall out in the troughs. This meant that my desired course – one of slightly quartering the sea – could become exaggerated, and without sufficient water over the rudder, the windvane had no countermove.

Wind remained in the 40s, and several hours later we were pushed over again. From my bunk I could hear the sea approach above the already intense din of the gale. A thundering sound at first, and then just as the wave hit, a much louder, high-pitched hissing, as if a jet liner were crash landing on the coach roof.

A GAPING HOLE

Now there was the faint grey glow of dawn. I could see that the veering wind had begun to expose Mo’s port side to a difficult northwesterly sea, so I gybed to starboard, taking the dominant westerly sea slightly on the starboard quarter.

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