Lessons Learned in A South Atlantic Gale

Lessons Learned in A South Atlantic Gale

This is not the first time I have had this sensation. The quiet, almost peaceful calm before the storm.

The SeaBear sailed east through the Strait of Magellan, carried along by favorable winds and currents at 9 knots. The barometer was still strong when we hit the Atlantic at 00:00 hrs so it was hard to imagine that by morning we would be rolling in a heavy and confused sea driven by 60 knots of wind out of the NNW.  Worst of all the intensifying gusts of wind were right on our nose, taking us aback at times with a drift of 2 knots even with the engine at full thrust.  The bow of our 53 foot safe haven remained for the most part obscured from our view from the bridge by the heavy spray. Turning to run with the storm was not a gamble I wished to take because further South off the Falkland Islands the frontal system’s center was passing, reaching as I was told later by a weather routing service truly hurricane strength.

By the time night fell the following evening it was clear that it was going to be impossible to negotiate the swells and maintain our heading and position in this seastate.  We decided to try and heave to for the night to continue attempting to make head way in the morning.  With the sea anchor promptly deployed the SeaBear settled into the swell and since we were about two hundred nautical miles offshore we half slept through our watches, trying as best we could to recover from the exhaustion of the previous day.

At three in the morning I awoke in panic with a sudden realization. When I had shut the engine off I had forgotten to close the seacock to the wet exhaust. Entering the engine room my fear was instantly confirmed by the steady trickle of seawater flowing from the breather of the oil pan.  Even though the conditions remained miserable, I set about urgently to rectify the situation.  Needless to say the kind of concentration required to perform the task at hand in such topsy-turvy conditions were just right for seasickness to do its worst. And I certainly am not immune to it.  Even through painful sessions of retching my guts out I luckily can remain completely functional. Albeit it was slowly and very painfully, but the job got done precisely and methodically. Just in time for day to break at 6:00 hours I had the engine running again ready for work.

Clipping in to the lifeline I went forward to the bow to bring in our sea anchor so we could get under way again.  If you ever have to deploy a sea anchor don’t forget to put in a trip line, on this occasion I learned this lesson the hard way. Without the trip line it was heavy work pulling it in at about three points off our port bow as the cresting swells washed over the deck. Since there was only two of us on board and my trusty crew-member, Fabian Velasquez, was extremely seasick he assisted me from the helm using the engine and the bow thruster to help recover the considerable amount of line we had deployed along with the sea anchor.  At least that was the game plan. Unfortunately the bow was brought through the wind with the bow thruster and in seconds we had the sea anchor tailing off our stern with the line instantly fouling our prop which free wheeled even in neutral.

The seriousness of this new situation hit us both like a freight train. I cursed and screamed in Spanish and English. It is just at moments like this that you figure out what you are really made of.  Do you have what it takes to pull yourself together, stay clam, and NOT, I repeat NOT go off the deep end.  Two hundred miles offshore in a raging storm without an engine of any use is no laughing matter.  Sure you can sail and try to make landfall or stay out at sea until the storm passes, but I had to face the fact that I do not posses the mastery that this feat would require.  Just one look at the chart and the number of wrecks that announce its numerous obstructions makes it clear that mechanical power is literally a lifesaver in these waters.

Of course the only means of unfouling the prop was to go in the water and cut the line away.  The question is how do you do this when the ship is heaving so heavily without getting your brains literally bashed in by the steel hull.

I grew up free-diving so I figured at the very least it was worth a try. In the past when I had dived in areas with a heavy surge to collect shellfish for my table I experienced how the water flowing around the rock obstructions along the bottom created a buffer that kept me clear of them provided that I did not fight against the turbulence. My hope was that the pressure wave coming off the rolling hull would act in much the same way.

As soon as I entered the frigid water in my wetsuit and favorite fins and mask with snorkel I guess you could say I entered the zone.  Ducking and weaving below the heaving hull drifting along at who knows what speed I cut away at the ball of tangled line one strand at a time with a serrated knife.  On each attempt I would try to hold my breath as long as I possibly could.  Pushing myself clear when I could endure no longer, I would surge to the surface and grab a hold of the line we had left trailing behind the stern where I could catch my breath before the next dive. After an hour of this I almost had the task accomplished, but as soon as I freed the prop it began to free wheel and once again it fouled in a deplorable ball with the sections of line that still trailed off the shaft.

Having come so close I hauled myself back on deck devastated because I was already exhausted and freezing cold. Not wasting any time I tore open the SeaBear’s aft lazzarette and pulled out a bottle and my scuba BC, I knew that if I rested and tried to warm myself the true exhaustion of the task was going to hit me. So instead I pulled myself together and immediately got back in the water.  Now that I had Scuba gear I lashed myself in place so I would move with the rolling bottom and began cutting using both hands with full concentration.

Once again everything seemed to move in slow motion.  In a way during these two hours I spent in the water struggling for the survival of our tiny ship I became very aware of my spirit’s innate will to overcome adversity. This is something that we all must have.  This is not the question.  The question is whether we are free and confident enough in our abilities to not let our fear petrify us from action.

These days we like sure things.  We like to think that we are safe and sound in the support structure that society provides for us – but whether we like to admit it or not this is a fiction.  Unfortunately by taking this fact for granted we also systematically strip ourselves of our own sense of self-reliance.  It only takes the after mass of one natural disaster to drive this point home with a vengeance.  Once again there is no such thing as a sure thing, so if we accept this but are ready to act for ourselves without second guessing or trying to tip toe around the sidelines with the minimum amount of pain and sacrifice for ourselves, YOU WILL EMERGE STRONGER THAN BEFORE.

This basic elemental truth is something I learned two hundred miles offshore in a South Atlantic gale at about 52 degrees south.  When I dragged my exhausted body back on deck, with the first signs of hypothermia, and collapsed, but the job was done, I felt stronger than I had ever felt before.  And YES my whole life stretched out before me with a vast new horizon because I had unraveled (like the line that tangled our prop) a secret locked deep in the most ancient recesses of
our DNA -“Where there is a will truly there is a way.”

I think this is a poignant and meaningful perspective in an era with so many seemingly insurmountable crises looming. The solutions are all plainly before us.  Yet as individuals and as a society we still prefer to ignore the CALL TO ACTION.

Two years later I headed south once again for the Strait of Magellan after a much-needed haul out and complete refit of the SeaBear in Uruguay. At about the same latitude but much further West because we sailed only 30 nautical miles from the coast we felt the effect of another steep frontal system that unavoidably put in our path another gale to be remembered. This time the lessons of the past served us well. Amongst the repairs and modifications performed on the hard in Uruguay was an alteration to the wet-exhaust to make it much more difficult for water to get back to the motor even if you do forget to close the seacock. Also the new pilot house I had welded in Uruguay provided a wonderful new sense of comfort and security even in these adverse conditions. Instead my two Argentine friends on board (Santiago Padin and Marcelo Wainer) and I got to spend the twelve hours that the storm lasted contemplating its power, somewhat frightening to be honest, and drinking mate tea and telling stories to sooth frayed nerves.

One of the stories they told me was of another sailing vessel that got a line fouled in its prop during a storm while they were in route to the Islas los Estados that are located between Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands. The vessel had three people on board, the owner and his wife, and one deck hand. The captain/owner wanted to run with the storm all the way to the Falklands. The deck hand however could not keep his head about him so without the consent of the captain he initiated a call for mayday. The call to abandon ship was answered by a factory fishing boat. Trying to send a rescue basket down to retrieve the people they accidentally took out the entire standing rigging. Once the people had been evacuated, the fishing boat attempted to tow the distressed vessel back to the mainland. The towline soon parted in the storm, and so the sailing vessel was lost. Over a month later it was found by another fishing vessel off the coast of Uruguay at least 600 nautical miles from the site of the incident having found its own way into the northbound Falkland current. Although it was still afloat it was not salvageable.

Listening to this story, I couldn’t help to feel that I had gotten off easy.

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