Mid Atlantic Storm
by Lia Ditton aboard "Shockwave" mid Atlantic. The big storm.
50 knots in the Atlantic
Terror on the high seas on board Shockwave Lia's update for sunday 12th June. The Low is currently stationary over her position, which means she needs to sail away from it to find lighter airs and a respite from the constant howling. Add to that problems with the autopilot, electrics, and a sail that won't come down! A difficult 24hrs for Lia Ditton:
I woke at some early hour this morning with a terrible fright; to the sound of shattered glass. My hand skidded over the condensation on the inside of the survival hatch, for a split second convinced that it was fractured. I felt only the outline of the Lewmar sticker and I slumped back in the bunk with a quiver. A wave had splattered the godpod in a gust of 45 knots true. I glanced at the Pilot remote, which was among a small eclectic mix of objects lurking by my left ear - the Satfone, a waterproof flashlight, a roll of electrical tape and a sachet of hot pepper sauce [!] and saw that we were at least tracking away from the low [159 True @ 2.5 kts] which was better than being dragged into it, as we had last night [040 True @ 3.3kts]. All the sails were lashed in expectance of a Tornado - [more bits of string than when Grandma sends you a sweater in the post] and we were riding along with an 8sqft storm jib which was starting to fray at the leech. Wearily I dressed in my damp layers with wet socks [I had long since given up the plastic ones], tipping my boots upside down for good measure. There was little to do. I hardened in a few halyards for extra rig support and attempted to hand steer us onto a better course - the choice was not good. NE or SE the decision wasn't hard, so it was tack over and back down below. After autopliot failure and shredding a jib, I was on red: my batteries needed recharging.
It is rarely that I get woken by two cooking pots tumbling on my head. When the spoon follows suit, to clink on top as an afterthought, there is an element of forewarning: today is not going to be a good day. Tempting though it is, to roll over and throw the dice again, take it from me, it is more than likely that you will on days like these, AGAIN wake up with your nose pressed against three laminated charts rather than the hood of your foul weather gear. [I have yet to decide which is better.] So when I stumbled on deck first thing on Friday, there was only a small lurch in my stomach of bacon and baked beans in tomato sauce, when I looked at the headsail. The tack of the sail was flying free and had ripped a good foot up the luff tape. Worse, on closer inspection, the shackle was still clipped to the tack, which was still attached by a split-pin to the aluminium band [that rotates to furl the sail in], which had ripped itself clean off the furler. We were starting to get overpowered with the sail up. It clearly had to come down. At about three quarters of the way down, the halyard jams. To my horror it has got stuck on yesterday's repair that I made to the foil. It will now neither winch up or gravity dump down. Like King Lear exposed on the heath, his words swallowed by the macrocosmic tempest, I am on my knees on the tramp. I watch the bow plough water intermittently in pursuit of its own mystery rhythm of rising up a wave edge and plummeting down the other side. We are doing 8 knots with a reefed main alone. With 10ft of the head beating free and vibrating the foil, there is a cacophony of noise more grating than the combination of a baby with teething trouble and the kid learning to play drums on fourth floor. I am adamant at this point: I am NOT going up. Climbing up a rod at a 60 degree angle to the vertical, nevermind the fact that it is vibrating so hard that I fear for the rig, AND on a moving vessel is more crazy than trying to scale a mossy wall in your bedroom slippers to escape a Rottweiler attempting to take a bite out of your dressing gown tail. My only option was to lash the beast down. Sail ties appeared to dance their way loose, but perhaps jumbo zipties would work. Picture this: I am stood on the pulpit, the squelch factor in my boots not compromising their grip, my chest leaning on the angry foil with my elbows wrapped around it. I feel like an alcoholic, 8 am at the bar trying to light my first cigarette - will the zip and tail PLEASE line up! A few colourful words later... and I eventually manage to man-handle the zipties shut [not a peep out of the sail thereafter] as far as I can reach. Unfortunately the 'as far as I can reach' isn't very far and there is still a good 5ft of the head waving away. But at least the pumping action had now been diminished and the aural torture no more than a luffing sail. The situation was going to have to stay 'is/was' until the breeze abated. There was nothing more I could safely do.
Everything about the foil is underspec for this voyage and I returned to the cockpit berating myself that I hadn't rolled the furler earlier once and forever. I collapse into the 'Armchair,' my head pressed against Raymarine TV, and slip into an exhausted doze. 'Bleep' and I catch out of the corner of my eye, the autopilot go into 'Standby.' I switch my head from leaning against Godpod portside rim to, equally uncomfortable, starboard side rim. 'Bleep,' the autopilot does it again. No big deal. For the sake of some snatched sleep, I can play the press-button game. [I manoeuvre my hand to a better vantage point for easy button-pressing access.] 'Bleep' AUTOPILOT > STANDBY. 'Bleep' AUTOPILOT > STANDBY. My feet in their private paddly pools are starting to go numb, so I drop down below, strip to my thermals and curl up in the bunk, the remote in my palm. 'Bleep' AUTOPILOT > STANDBY. 'Bleep' AUTOPILOT > then the messages get scarier. 'Bleep,' AUTOPILOT > NO PILOT or 'Bleep,' AUTOPILOT > ST 6001 with the remote now going into its full-on ' Are you distressed yet?' alarm. No amount of sweet talking or button pushing seems to make any difference. I ring Simon, the remote in one hand, the Satfone now in the other, my eyes still shut and curled up like a foetus in the bunk. 'Why is it doing this? Why now?' I lament.
Gradually Shockwave, turns off her course and rounds up into the wind and with the ability to auto hove-to that comes naturally to a trimaran, the jib backs. We go into irons and I, past caring, fall asleep. A little while later, I rally and begin to go thru the sequence - is it the Rudder Reference Unit? 'No.' Has the ram over-extended? 'No,' Has the course computer got wet? 'No,' Have any of the wires in the course computer come loose?' 'No' Is there water in the wires at the back of the control head? Possibly... In fact they all seemed to have been infiltrated by the dreaded Sea H20. I press auto again and we chug off merrily for a few minutes before 'kboomf' a wave thuds the boat and the 'Bleep' follows suit. Perhaps Clue #1. Something somewhere was ALSO loose. I tighten the Rudder reference rod - but am dissatisfied - its a clever system and would signal 'RUDDER REF' if therein lay the problem. I cut the control head cable and dismantle the unit to check the circuitry is dry and re-wire it. It now won't work at all which could denote Clue #2 or was itself a set-back, but my mind at this point is unable to think it through.
Darkness blankets the sky and my aching body begins to signal 'game over.' To add insult to injury, the stove won't start and there's not a 'flick' out of any of the lighters. They too must have got wet. I eat a couple of cereal bars, clear the bunk and climb in. It is freezing cold when I awake in the dark. I pile on another layer and a hat, curl up tighter and wait for the light. What difference was another two hours? My stomach was knotted with anxiety, stress and fatigue: the idea of handsteering some 400 miles to Newfoundland [What's in Newfoundland?!] did not thrill me with joy. But unlike the jib nightmare, I had a good feeling that there was a way round getting the autopliot to work. I had alot of spare parts courtesy of Raymarine.
If there is an autopilot God, his name is Nick Heyes, MD of Marine Electronics Services. About 7 in the morning he replied to my voicemail and we started to go through the 'check this' list. By 13.45 in the afternoon, I had re-wired the course computer twice, cut and re-routed the entire Sea-Talk system, traced innumerable cables, used all the crimps I had and Hallelujah! Otto van Helm was back to health. Rather than hard-wiring the pilot to the batteries, I switched back to routing it via the switch panel, when oops, the front of it accidently fell out of my hand. 'Bleep' AUTOPILOT > ST6001 the second clue was answered. Not ONLY had one of the Sea-Talk cables been wet, but the circuit breaker itself was loose. Having eaten a pure cereal bar and chocolate diet since the jib incident the day before, I treated myself to a cold packet of 'vegetable curry' and finally cleaned my teeth, the latter of which I think I enjoyed more!
If we had endured being bumped and nudged by 35 knots while hove-to, the breeze had finally laid down and I siezed the perfect moment to ascend the foil. Alas the remaining patch of sail, which I couldn't ziptie now fluttered in ribbons. The Atlantic however is perpetually a sleeping dragon and without a sail to cling onto, I got span around the foil, fighting furiously, until I felt nausea. As is often the case, one way is fine. The descent transpired into an unrepeatable nightmare. I had little energy resource left and hugged the foil intermittently like a Koala bear, counting to 10 in recovery. I was at one point so entangled that I felt I would be stuck up there forever: the Personal EPIRB in my pocket a desparate temptation. Apart from looking like a victim of domestic violence [more painted with inner arm and leg bruises than a leopard has spots], the sail got packed away and the old jib set-up for hoist. Of course at this point after a only a humble few hours of rocketing along as before, the wind builds again...
Right now I am cowering inside. It is gusting close to 50 knots apparent - more wind than I would ever have liked to experience in a 35ft racing tri. The starboad float is first picked up by each wave, before it roams under Shockwave's belly to the port float and gallops away into the field of white horses. Out of the survival hatch, I watch incredulous the starboard float launch into the air and expose a gaping hole of sky. Then the float crashes back down, the rig shuddering afterwards, the whole boat myself included, reverberating in shock. If I said I was not frightened right now, I would be lying. I am terrified. The sea is a cauldron of black and white flames, pitted on the surface where the wind is carrying the topsoil away. It's verging now on Force 10. The wind generator spins its swords ferociously off the back. I was relieved this morning still to count three. The storm jib is cranked hard in and shuffling us at ninety degrees to the wave pattern, like a crab moving sideways while looking forward. The small luminous orange patch its beady eye. Shockwave is hurled mercilessly around, like flotsom in desert ocean. A randomn wave picks up the float beyond 30 degrees, 40, 45 in its rampage, threatening to toss Shockwave over. With the grab bag at my feet and the Satfone on charge, I hope safely to see dawn. Please can I go home now? But the tempest continues.
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