That time we sailed in 50 knots...
For any sailor the thought of being in the ocean with the wind blowing at 50 knots plus is a frightening thought. It was at the top of my list anyway, that’s for sure. I had never experienced wind strengths that ferocious and didn't think it would happen to me. We always said that with weather forecasting these days and being diligent, you will never need to experience these circumstances as you can plan ahead. Our tactic was always, if there is a storm there, don't be there. Simple right... Well, that is all good in theory. I used to think along those lines and boy did I have a lot to learn.
Before heading offshore for the first time, we felt that we were competent sailors, still had a lot to learn but competent. We had dealt with 30 knots on multiple occasions, sailed in big swell and stormy conditions and thought we were ready to try our first open ocean passage crossing the Coral Sea. We had our predetermined technique in the rare case we would have crazy strong winds where we would, reduce sail to nearly nothing and run off down wind. As Nandji is a full keel vessel and has a heavy displacement, I was confident this technique was our "go to" way of dealing with weather.
Confidence and stubbornness goes a long way for my attitude. When I have my goals and thoughts set out on achieving something, I knuckle down and push to achieve that goal. I’m not sure if that is confidence backing myself to succeed, or stubbornness as the thought consumes me and I won't let it go until I have completed what I wanted to achieve. It’s probably a bit of both.
Before our grand departure leaving the Gold Coast seaway, we had spent months in preparing the vessel to be blue water ready. We did all the work ourselves from installing AIS, wind monitors and even changing the rigging ourselves. We did this mainly because we were on a very strict budget, but also as I wanted to learn more about the boat and be competent in handling and fixing her ourselves. All this work however took much longer than expected of course and continually delayed our departure. On our shake down sail to the Gold Coast, we had gearbox dramas. Towed into port we replaced the gearbox, cutlass bearing, slapped on the anti-foul and finally thought Nandji was ready for her big departure. All this work meant we had spent very little time sailing over the 6 months prior to leaving and had not given all the new equipment and toys on Nandji a good test run. I was confident though that I had done everything correct and was stubborn enough to believe it.
Sailing from Australia to New Caledonia is a difficult sail as you are attempting 800nm against the trade wind. Because of this you need to pick your times and weather window to make the crossing. You rely on a low to bring Westerly winds and then sail either in front or on the back of that low and utilise the Westerly wind for as many days as you can before the inevitable South East trade wind slaps you in the face. After completing all the work to Nandji, a low was predicted in only a few days’ time. We tried hard to be ready for the expected Westerlies but unfortunately were not ready to leave. Not wanting to rush ourselves and make sure we had all our ducks in a row before attempting our first ocean crossing. A week later another low was forecasted and we decided this was our time to shine.
After experiencing the storm from the previous low at anchor, we noticed the winds didn't get very strong. This predicted low looked to be similar strengths and we thought it was perfect for our departure. We would leave on the back end of the low with the winds and set out to sea on our way to New Caledonia. We watched the system intensely on the lead up and the day we had planned to depart, things looked a little too rowdy. After conversing with a few other yachties in the anchorage, we decided to wait another day and let the winds ease. As the sun rose on the following day, the winds were still strong and we thought we would wait one more day, as hard as it was as we were eager to get sailing and begin our passage. On the third morning we decided that today was the day and set off down to the marina to clear out of the country.
The wind was blowing 25 knots in the marina but as the excitement was high, we would be fine. It would be a bit of a rough ride to start, but we would fly out to sea with ease and then things will calm down after. Chatting with the customs officers, they explained if we wanted to return because the weather was too bad, it is not a problem. Just turn around and call us once you’re at anchor again. Checking the weather once more before departure, it appeared we were in the middle of the low and thought things could not get any worse than their current conditions and thought, she will be right. Oh, those famous last words of an Australian right there...
All the formalities were completed by 9am and we were out of the seaway not long after. Under a full headsail and 20 to 25 knots up the rear, we flew out to sea with our PDF's, harness and smiles all firmly positioned. At Around 5pm in the afternoon we were 40nm offshore and were enjoying the ride. The sea had grew gradually to 1-2m, but that was to be expected since we were so far away from land with an offshore breeze. We had not noticed a change in the sky or the wind strengths, but reefed down the headsail as our first night was creeping upon us. We were organising ourselves for our night watches when the news came over the radio of a predicted strong weather warning.
I quickly dug out the computer and loaded a weather forecast for the next 12 hours. The ugly sight of red filled my computer screen as far as the eye and screen stretched. For those that do not understand the colour coding of weather in most programs and forecasting apps, You don't ever see red as a good happy gentle friendly colour. That is reserved for the likes of Blue, Green and sometimes Purple. Red, you are in for a ride.
As soon as the forecast told us something was coming, we felt the increase in wind strength. We battened down the hatches so to say, reduced sail to only 30% of the head sail and let the autopilot do its thing running with the wind. We do not have a storm jib and use the furling headsail to reduce the amount of sail we carry. After an hour the wind had increased to gale strengths of 35 knots and the autopilot had decided it was too much. It did not only get overpowered but burnt out altogether and back then we did not have a self-steering wind-vane like we do now. The sun had set and it was now pitch black as the wind showed no remorse and continued to increase. The newly installed rigging started the high pitch whistle of air rushing through it at furious speeds. We could not see the state of the ocean but you could feel that the waves had increased as they started to pick Nandji up and we surfed down the face. Reaching speeds up to 10 knots, we needed to reduce sail even further.
Furling in the headsail so that the smallest slither, a 1m square triangle, roughly 5% of the sail remained. It was around this time we realised that we were in for a ride. With every gust, the whistle in the rigging became louder and the wind odometer read a slightly higher reading then the last. By 8pm, we had gusts over 43 knots but it continued to feel that she was not done yet. We continued running off downwind as Bonita huddled in the companion way trying to hide from the onslaught, whilst I stood behind the wheel swinging it side to side as we ran off with the wind and waves. My eyes fixated on the compass to keep us on course and hoping my skills as a rigger would keep the mast upright.
As if the stress levels were not on edge enough, the AIS gave us a warning we were on a collision course with a tanker heading south. Over the radio the ship made contact with us. We think since Nandji is a Hindu word meaning "joy", the Indian voice on the other end was very eager to speak to us. Bonita advised we were experiencing strong winds and do not wish to deviate off course and requested to pass in front of his bow. Much obliged the tanker said no worries, slowed their speed and changed course to pass behind Nandji. The new AIS Just paid for itself we thought.
By 9pm it sounded and felt like the Bimini was going to be ripped off as the material vibrated in the relentless increasing wind. The gusts continued to gain in strength and we were now in a force 10 blow, reading a sustained wind of 50 knots. "What have I got us into" I thought to myself. But by this time, any fear and worry I had was out the window as there was nothing else that could be done but deal with it myself. There is no one else to rely on when you are at sea, it all rests on the captains shoulders. This is what I wanted and this is what I had dealt to me. It was time to deal with the situation and steer us through it. I had made the decision to leave land when we did and I was going to get us through this. I felt confident in controlling the vessel and Nandji felt good in the conditions. It was the noise that really threw my attention and kept me on high alert. Everything was screaming at us. With each gust a new noise would yell something obscene at you. With nothing more Bonita could do but try to hide from the wind, hold on and block her ears. I sent her down stairs to try hide and relax, as once this was all done she would have to take watch whilst I rested.
By 10pm the wind still showed no signs of letting up and after reading a sustained wind speed of 54.7 knots on the odometer, I turned it off in disgust. What’s another couple of knots when it is already storm strength. It did feel however that the gusts had stopped increasing in strength. They had definitely not subsided as every couple of minutes another gust would scream into your back to remind you what your situation is. For the next 5 hours I stood wrestling the wheel battling to keep Nandji in a straight line. I could feel the swell growing in size as Nandji's bow rose for seconds at a time as the swell raced underneath us. At around 3am in the morning after 8 solid hours of hand steering and staring at the compass, the weird shapes and imaginary objects begun appearing. Fatigue was beginning to overwhelm me. Battling the conditions and now sleep, it all got the better of me as I did not correct Nandji in time and were spun around 180 degrees. Now with the bow pointing into the waves and the small amount of headsail holding us in a hove to like angle, I sat for a couple of minutes nervously evaluating if we stay like this or continue on. Anxious, as it was pitch black and I had no sight of the sea conditions, I opted to spin Nandji around once again and continue running with the wind and waves. The sun would be up in only a couple of hours and for some reason that made me feel better, like the sun would tell old mate 50 knots that enough is enough.
At around 4am the wind begun easing and by 5am as the sun started to rise, the wind had dropped back below 40 knots. As light shone onto the surrounding ocean it revealed a tremendous swell running with 8 metre seas. Nandji would be sitting on top of the giant waves and then disappear into the lull. I would watch as these mountains of water taller than our mast, bare down on Nandji from behind and ever so gently lift us towards the sky as the swell rolled through. I was kind of glad that I could not see the size of the ocean all night as my now weary senses became heightened once more looking at the sheer size of the waves.
By 6am the boat had slowed to 4 knots with the amount of sail we were carrying. In the 35 knot winds I unfurled a little more sail as the high boat speed we had been doing all night felt much more comfortable then the rolly 4 knots. With 20% of headsail out, it felt like we were flying once again and I settled into the couch, hand steering happily watching the sun rise. After the strength of wind, the vibration of everything and the constant noise yelling at you saying, what are you doing here? sailing in the easing 35 knots felt like a walk in the park. The swell was massive but it was only the appearance that made you worry. Still not having slept all night, I decided the best option was just to look forward and monitor the compass as the boat felt good and comfortable. When I would look back is when things got exciting again!
At around 7 am the wind had levelled off at a now comfortable 30 knots. It is funny that I say comfortable 30 knots. It seriously felt like nothing as the boat was no longer screaming. Nandji just cruised on unfazed by what she had just endured. Bonita's weary head appeared in the companion way ready to release me from my duties. After first adjusting to the instant wholly sh*t look at the size of the sea, she contently vomited yesterdays dinner up on the deck. With a quick swish of water in the mouth, said well done Yosh and then stood behind the wheel to begin her shift hand steering. Just as I thought I was about to go pass out on the newly made bed on the floor, the fishing line started fizzing and I reeled in a Mahi Mahi. A nice end to a gruelling night and an experience I do not wish to repeat any time soon, but hey, that is sailing. Full of surprises and more experience gained. Yew!
Check out the vid from our first crossing when it all went down! We did not film much of the above story as you can imagine, we were a little occupied.
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