Collision anecdote

In 1997 the UK had one of the worst Junes on record and I was sailing from the Delaware River, USA to Southampton, UK. This was a four week passage and we encountered a Storm force 10, two severe Gale 9s and two Gale force 8s. We encountered the Storm force 10 three days after departure (see Appendix below) and, as a consequence, burnt out our starter motor, trashed our sea generator and were unable to start the engine. With no means of charging our batteries, I switched off all the instruments, lights, music, fridge and anything electrical so that, with three and a half weeks still to go, we would have reserve electricity in case of emergency.


I was able to use my sextant but with no sun, moon or stars available this was of no use. It was just like some of those old war films where you see the Atlantic convoys crossing with grey seas and grey skies. We were just an unlit boat sailing the Atlantic on dead reckoning, first principles.


About 3 days before the end of the passage we were just getting over what was going to be our last gale when a depressed and tired pair of experienced crew took the midnight watch. The standing instructions were only to turn on the navigation lights and VHF in case of emergency. We had not sighted any other vessels for over 2 weeks. As they entered the Western Approaches to the English Channel they saw the navigation lights of a cargo vessel approaching them. Tired and dissoriented, they completely misjudged the distance it was away when suddenly the dark hull of the vessel loomed above them. In panic they turned Vittoria away and she rolled away in the sea so that the main (taller) mast cleared it's hull. As they continued to turn, Vittoria rolled back and the (smaller) mizzen mast struck the cargo vessel - knocking our mizzen mast into the sea. Miraculously no other part of our boat was struck.


I awoke to the sound of thrashing sails, banging on the hull and general turmoil. Coming up on deck I said "What the **** is going on". They said "We've lost the mizzen". I said " You've lost the ****ing mizzen, what the hell are you talking about". They pointed at the fast dissappearing lights of the cargo ship and said "We were struck by that ship!". Needless to say, they were both in a state of extreme shock - we had been a hairs breadth away from Vittoria's hull being struck and us sinking without trace. With no lights, the cargo vessel wouldn't have seen us and wouldn't have stopped. The side it would have struck us even had our life raft attached to it.


We never sailed together again!




Our storm force 10 experience was a mega wind over tide situation that I foolishly got us into.


We were a couple of days into the Atlantic beating continually against a strong north easterly wind i.e. coming from the direction we were headed for. Being a heavy, long keeled yacht we were making next to no progress towards the UK as we don't tack at a very small angle - quite the opposite. Not far away we had the Gulf Stream flowing at nearly 3 knots in precisely the direction we were wanting to go in. I had on board an 18 foot diameter sea parachute. I had the "brilliant" idea of getting in to the middle of the Gulf stream, laying out the sea parachute and with all sails down I hoped the current would take us at over 2 knots in the right direction.


As we got into the Gulf Stream the wind strengthened becoming a north easterly gale. Laying out a sea parachute has to be a very carefully undertaken procedure as there are massive forces at work with a 12 ton boat being pulled against a gale by an 18 foot diameter sea anchor. The diameter of the sea anchor warp (rope) was well over an inch thick. It took me nearly 2 hours of flaking the warp, general preparation and reading and re reading the instrtructions before I was confident to release it. Luckily it launched successfully but during this time I had not been looking at the seas and weather. I finally looked around me to see the seas coming towards me like skyscrapers on the move and before long the wind had increased to storm force 10. Being in mid ocean there was a good distance between each wave and the sea anchor would drag us up the front of each wave and then we would fall down the back of it with the sea anchor rode (rope) going slack before the tension came on with the next advancing wave. I had put us in a very bad wind (50 knots+) over tide (nearly 3 knots) situation. There was nothing we could now do about it though so we closed all the hatches and went below to ride it out and try to sleep.


I was in the forepeak and above me was the deck cleat holding the sea anchor rode. Every time the rode slackened the bow fell away from the wind. As the next wave came through the rode tightened and the bow was dragged back up into the wind. With a long keeled yacht there is a lot of surface below the waterline resisting the pull of the rode and the graunching of the rode as the pressure came on became very worrying and I had visions of the cleat above me being torn off with the pressure and the deck above me with it. However, after 3 hours, the rode broke and we lost the sea anchor - much to my relief. Whether it had frayed or just broke under the pressure I will never know. The rest of the night we just lay a hull with the waves sweeping over the decks.


The next day we started the engine but, un benown to us, the sea had got into the ignition key spring and when the engine started the starter motor kept turning and burnt itself out. Our towing sea generator had also been trashed by the sea sweeping the decks. From there on in we had no means of generating electricity for the rest of the passage.


Postscript - I would never again use a sea anchor with a long keeled boat as the bow will always fall away between waves and with a long keel there is a massive amount of underwater resistance to be overcome when the bow is pulled back up to wind. With a catamaran the resistance must be negligible and with a fin keel the resistance would also be much smaller so it is probably fine with those type of boats.