Severe Gale anecdote

On my first Atlantic circumnavigation en route to Norfolk, Virginia we chose to round Cape Hatteras rather than take the ICW (* see note below). I didn't realise at the time that Cape Hatterras is notorious and the worst Cape to round in the whole of America - which is why so many people use the ICW. It is similar to the Bay of Biscay in that it has rapid shelving from deep Ocean depths up to much shallower coastal water. It is also the meeting point of the south flowing, cold Labrador current and the warm, north flowing Gulf Stream.


During an afternoon the temperature dropped significantly as we fell out of the warm Gulf Stream current and came under the influence of the cold Labrador current. However it was a completely cloudless sky as we sailed on. As night fell the wind increased from a force 5 to a strong gale force 8 (just under 40 knots) in 3 hours but still with a cloud less sky. The waves started heaping up dangerously.


I had 3 teenagers (17/18 years old) on board and one had sailed all the way round the Atlantic with me. He was the youngest person to ever become an RYA Yachtmaster, was good company but had some teenage traits. As the Gale was coming upon us I asked him to go forward with me (as he was the fittest, most experienced person on board) to help mount the storm jib on my relatively complicated and specialised Dyarchy system. His first reaction was "Why always me - get someone else to go". Later it was "let me finish my beer first" (no I dont run a dry boat!). Eventually, amidst howling winds and flying spray I managed to coax him and the Storm Jib onto the fore deck. To my horror I saw he had a bottle of beer in one hand and I told him to get rid of it before we started. He said "no, I can manage OK". I refused to commence dealing with the Storm Jib until he got rid of his beer. For about 5 minutes we had a standoff, covered in water and spray on the foredeck, in the middle of a howling gale until he finally relented!


With the seas getting worse, I had to drop the fully reefed mizzen sail (the main had been taken down long before) as the waves, coming from the stern, were tending to twist the boat round which could have been very dangerous if we presented ourselves broadside to the waves. I reckoned that, with the jib only at the front, it's pull would counteract the tendency to twist round.


It was important to keep the waves coming onto the stern quarter in order to keep control. John (another teenager) was fortunately a pretty experienced racing sailor and I only trusted him and myself to judge the waves accurately enough to hold Vittoria on track.


The seas became quite horrifying. In the darkness of the night you would first hear the tremendous roar of a breaking wave approaching the stern. Next you would see the white wall of surf coming out of the dark. Then you would struggle to stop the boat from twisting as the surf thundered past.

Miraculously we stopped it from going broadside on throughout and we never got pooped - maybe because of the voluminous galleon stern at the back always rising to the waves. In typical teenage fashion, John would let out a loud whoop of delight every time a breaking wave thundered through - he was acting as if it was some fantastic fair ground ride.


After 6 hours the wind started to abate and exhausted and cold John and myself handed over the watch and fell into our berths.


The next day one of my older crew, Brendan, admitted he thought we were going to die the previous night. One of my regular and very experienced crew admitted to me several years later that he also thought we were going to die that night and the third teenager, Pip, said it was just like he imagined Cape Horne would be like - so what must Cape Horne really be like!


We later heard on the radio that another yacht out that night had sunk but it sounded like no deaths.


* ICW stands for Intra Coastal Waterway - an inland waterway that shadows the coast and stretches from Norfolk, Virginia to Florida and was "built" by the American Army Corps of Engineers for security reasons. It relies mostly on existing natural waterways and allows a passage for vessels inland of Cape Hatteras.

For more info click on "Log of Vittorias Voyage" above then "Individual Legs" then "30th March - cruising the ICW"