A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE
Yachting World|November 2021
FACED WITH A FORCE 11 FORECAST OFF CAPE HORN, ANDREW HALCROW CONSIDERS AN IMPOSSIBLE DECISION
TOM CUNLIFFE

Rudyard Kipling famously wrote that the complete person can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same. Most books of the sea end with some sort of triumph, be it a gentle circumnavigation or a race well won. Andrew Halcrow’s Into the Southern Ocean is cut from a different cloth. Having already sailed around the world through the tropics in his engineless, self-built yacht Elsi Arrub, he felt the need for harsher challenges and set out in 2006 to cross the Southern Ocean singlehanded, navigating entirely by sextant.

Having been foiled by a medical emergency, he vowed to do it again, from east to west against the prevailing wind. In 2013, a dismasting cut short this effort, but the book this Shetland islander wrote about his great voyage is stirring stuff. In this extract, he has just weathered the Horn, but is now faced with the certainty of a dangerously extreme storm. He has to decide whether to run for shelter or ‘ride it out’. The choice is far from simple and the description of his seamanlike decision-making is exemplary..

The good sailor weathers the storm he cannot avoid and avoids the storm he cannot weather,” (anonymous).

Elsi and I had rounded the Horn but the weather chart showed winds up to Force 9 which, by the way the forecasts had been going, could easily be Force 11. I had to try and make the most of the present fair wind to get offshore as far as I could and get some sea-room before it hit us. I really didn’t fancy being off the Horn in a Force 11 but there was a chance it might ease back a bit as it moved east. Even if it went down a little, I was sure we could cope with that.

But where was the best place to go to avoid the worst of the weather? Almost 60 miles south-west of Cape Horn are a small group of islands called Diego Ramirez.

The islands didn’t offer any chance of shelter and, worse, the seabed rose steeply from the deep ocean to the shallow shelf the islands sit on; probably a perfect place for massive waves to form. If we went south it meant heading more towards the centre of the low and the weather would be worse. To the north of Diego Ramirez the seabed was very uneven and heading there would also bring us nearer to the coast with less searoom. But I also didn’t want to turn back and run for shelter east of the Horn after having got this far. The fact was there were no good options and I had to make the best of a bad thing.

By midday there was no wind at all. When the storm came in I knew it would blow from the north-west first and Diego Ramirez would be a potential lee shore. Between there and Cape Horn we were literally between a rock and a hard place. The only option now was to go south of Diego Ramirez to make sure we had open water to leeward and hope for the best. By the time we reached there on late Friday afternoon the wind was north-west Force 6-7 and rising. The early hours of Saturday morning were miserable as we lay hove to under triple-reefed main with a Force 9 howling in the rigging.

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