Alex Stone provides pointers to storm seamanship in a catamaran after a difficult Tasman crossing.
The Tasman can throw it at you. And it did. On an eastbound crossing from Bundaberg to New Zealand we survived two gales and one intense storm. We sailed nearly 400nm without rudders. We sat at sea anchor for a total of eight nights. A weather window that should have been open – no less than six prediction systems assured us of it, two weeks of westerlies, none more than 25kts – well, that weather window had slammed shut. Decisively.
Tasman: (synonym) unpredictable, challenging, arduous.
Finding, buying and equipping the boat that’s just right for you is both an adventure and a journey. So much for the truisms. The multiplicity of vagaries of real life, both on the hard and on the water, complicate things. The journey and the adventure can come to include frustration and delight, confirmation and disappointment. And yes, we had all these on our way.
After cruising for years – in a zippy, lightweight kind of way – around New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf in our 8.5m Great Barrier Express catamaran, we began dreaming of a bigger, bridgedeck catamaran. We’d been fortunate enough to sail a number of these, and to know their best points. Perhaps our bigger boat syndrome was an unconscious response to the quizzically raised eyebrows from other sailors, when introduced as a couple in their 50s cruising a GBE. Perhaps it was the appeal of the horizon, as encapsulated in a haiku I wrote for someone in place of their resignation letter from a desk job:
Who am I,
If not to follow?
No – for us, it was something more considered, a sea change with a bigger purpose.
So we searched. This became many years of nightly forays into multihulls-for-sale websites. We got to know and memorise the attributes of many production boats, and could make educated guesses about custom designs. We had a simple three-part bottom line: the boat had to be fast, beautiful and we both had to agree on it. Beyond that, design numbers and ratios and sailing elements that we considered significant were laid on each possibility: length to displacement, beam, mast height, hull length relative to beam at waterline, bridgedeck clearance from water, twin steering positions and helm visibility, type of auxiliary propulsion. We got to a stage of being able to scroll rapidly down the listings, discounting the vast majority. We even carefully researched the possibility of resurrecting two boats that had capsized (long story, we would have made them work again, but …) As we expected, we narrowed on contemporary Australian designs, especially those from the drawing board of Jeff Schionning.
We finally found the boat we wanted within the budget we had, on the hard (having not been sailed for a few years, but outwardly in apparent good condition) at a dusty yard beside a crocodile-habitat mangrove creek in north Queensland. Among its dodgy neighbours, the 12m Schionning Line Honours design (a fore-runner to his Waterline series) stood out like aristocracy, albeit in need of a scrub. This was at Cardwell, a little town 100 miles north of Townsville.
Cardwell is a sleepy wee place, that seems to live on its reputation only as small footnotes to history. Most recently, as the exact spot where the devastating Cyclone Yasi, made landfall on the Queensland coast in 2011. A hopeful marina development was stalled, perhaps irrevocably reversed, by the storm. The marina is now silted up; waterside homes have for sale signs bearing the desperate phrase ‘offer anything.’
Or as a place of alien sightings. The alien-themed weekend fair on the weekend of our departure from Cardwell, is one way on celebrating this. Most locals I spoke to seemed bemused by the idea. But hey, any excuse for a few drinks in the torpor of tropical North Queensland.
Or as a forward air force base in the supply chain for the Battle of the Coral Sea, a turning point in The Second World War.
Or as the nearest town to the truly spectacular Hinchinbrook Island, a national park just offshore of imperious peaks, clad in thick green jungle, in which clouds are tossed like streaks of unruly teenager hair. Hinchinbrook is quite lovely; and as yet, relatively undiscovered. But, beyond that, not much else.
Our boat was at the other end of town from the erstwhile marina, at an altogether more feral setting. Still the boat was a beauty. And a good buy, we thought.
We were careful. A proper survey was done. All standing rigging replaced. Engines overhauled (two retracting Yamaha 9.9 outboard motors). All running rigging was replaced too. Note to self – this should in future also include shackles. In many the stainless steel had gone brittle, and they broke. A sea trial trip, Cardwell to Townsville, was done before the sale went through.
From there, we planned to sail down the Queensland coast to near Brisbane, then sail home to New Zealand across the Tasman. We equipped the boat with the best safety equipment we could find. We double-doubled up on systems. For example, for communication we installed a SSB radio, an AIS system, took a second VHF, and also invested in an Iridium Go device – this last a satellite communications docking device, from which we should have been able to ‘easily’ access internet, email, and make cellphone and text calls. The reality was different. Fortunately the old technology (the SSB) worked fine when it most needed to.
The trip down the coast was more testing, spending most days hard on wind into the SE trades, 20-25kts mostly. Wind against tide in the Whistsundays Passage. And a litany of small things breaking – halyard shackles, reefing blocks, headboards of sails, one engine’s starter motor – little things, we thought we’d get past. But the boat proved to be a lovely sailing machine, slicing to windward well, and demonstrating the promise of her design and light balsa-core construction (the boat weighs only about 4 tonnes).
At Mackay we replaced the boat’s on-board energy generation and storage systems. We tripled the battery capacity. Put on two 250W solar panels, after learning those on the boat were hardly working at all. We felt confident with this improvement.
We tested navigation and comms systems. The chartplotter worked. The AIS worked. So did the SSB radio we had installed in Townsville. We had, however, ongoing problems in trying to set up the Iridium Go. This was supposed to be a sat phone hotspot, offering online access, cellphone reception for voice calls and texts. The supplier later found it was faulty and replaced it.
We had faith in the ship’s complement. All of us had ocean crossing experience, three of us in Southern Ocean storm conditions. We had been there, done that. But didn’t exactly want to again.
We reached Bundaberg and decided to leave from there, headed for Auckland, New Zealand. We loaded the Zodiac six person liferaft. And the Coppins Stormfighter sea anchor and Seaclaw drogue – both world-leading quality products from a New Zealand company based in Motueka.
We consulted weather patterns. On Predict Wind – which offers four systems predictions – Windy.com and on the University of Victoria weather website. Things looked good, mostly.
The one area of concern was a thin band of strong westerlies, predicted on the Thursday ahead of us, but south of the latitude Coffs Harbour. This band was predicted to fade away while moving directly eastwards.
We resolved to go nowhere near the Coffs harbour latitude until after that Thursday. We thought we’d be right. After all, we could (should) be able to get Predict Wind updates on the computer via the Iridium Go. But this we managed only twice in the trip.
After four days of moderate sailing, quite slow actually, one evening we took down the code zero, and took in a reef at dusk. Just a usual cruising precaution, after a day of reaching in 10-15kts. Fifteen minutes later, a second reef, then a third, followed quickly by whole mainsail down. By 8pm that night we were hard reaching in 35-40kts, under a half-furled blade jib. Our first gale. Where did it come from? That band of wind was supposed to be hundreds of miles to the south. We learned the old lesson: weather changes of its own accord, it cares naught for your expectations, or your itinerary. And sometimes, it changes much faster than you expect. Predictions are only so good, and last only so long.
This weather system intensified and spread quickly. Part of it was a giant storm that hit Sydney with very little warning.
On the second night of that first gale we sea-anchored for the first time. Only two helmsmen on the boat were confident sailing the boat through the nights in the increasing wind and sea (the boat was surging down the waves at up to 20kts), and were getting very tired. The sea anchor deployment system worked perfectly. The big parachute tipped overboard in a bag from the cockpit, then drifting away from the boat while slowly unfurling, the rode and bridle breaking away from cable ties on the stanchions and then being paid out from the foredeck, the boat turning head to wind as the parachute took its grip in the water and lying quietly.
The only downside of the sea anchor is that it imparted a motion that was sea-sicky for me, but had no effect on the other crew. Apart from forays to the foredeck, foul-weather-geared and clipped on to check the bridle ropes and fairleads, I had to spend most of sea-anchor time head down. The crew read books, played cards, slept. We were comfortable enough, despite big seas.
Retrieving the sea anchor was a simple enough process, that had to be done methodically and sequentially. Motor up to a floating buoy behind the anchor, collapse it from behind, pull it aboard, carefully re-pack the parachute, flake and re-bag the rode and bridle, set the system up again along the side deck guardrails. That takes an hour or so.
A second gale came pretty much as a continuation of the first, forcing us to sea-anchor again on the second night of further sailing. It was a strange feeling being so immobile (in terms of co-ordinates, certainly not in terms of up-down motion) in the middle of the ocean. Our GPS devices showed we moved nowhere in the night. I dreamed of anchoring near a shoreline somewhere. The boat would take an occasional slap of a whitecap, but at this stage nothing serious, despite the 45kts plus blowing outside.
A day of reasonable sailing followed, reaching in 20kts of breeze, boat going nicely. The helm felt smooth and light, which I attributed to the top-up of hydraulic oil we had given to the steering system. At dawn the next day my wife Lesley woke me saying the helmsman had lost steering. Sure enough – there was nothing. We poked around under the hulls with boat hooks and string. No rudders. Lifting the rudder boxes confirmed this. Both gone. Rudder posts both snapped off. (The smooth steering the day before may have been from only one rudder). Middle of the ocean. Norfolk Island about 250 miles distant, to our north east, but no point heading there, as we believed there are limited berthing and repair facilities. Our motoring range of only about 100nm precludes that option anyway. What to do? Talk to Taupo Maritime Safety Radio, to appraise them of our situation. And, keep sailing.
Previously, we had found the boat to be well-balanced as long as the mainsail wasn’t overpowered. With three reefs in the main, it has the same hoist and similar area to the blade jib, so we continued with that configuration. With warps off each stern and by adjusting the sails (inches at a time), we got the boat moving at about 6kts, at around 50° to the wind, and exactly on our intended course. We managed this for a day. Then the wind swung to SE – directly on the nose if we wanted to continue heading directly to North Cape.
We bore off (or rather the boat did this automatically) on a course due east, for two days. This long tack still had us making some VMG towards North Cape, but was setting us up for a tack onto port, and heading directly there. This we did and had another two days making ground towards New Zealand. We felt we could sail the boat rudderless in up to 30kts of wind, but weren’t comfortable doing this at night. The nights we did sail through were with about 20kts of wind, but we had resolved to sea anchor if there would be any more wind.
Messages relayed via NZ Maritime Radio from our families urged us to please go quicker. The ocean forecasts blackened, with talk of storm conditions and more than 50kts of wind. But sailing without rudders, we could only go so fast.
We looked at our options. Could a big game fishing boat from the Bay of Islands head out to the Three Kings, with extra jerry cans of petrol for the outboards? A friend in Opua asked around, none willing with the weather worsening. Could a Coast Guard boat come and tow us in? No, Coast Guard boats in Northland, we were told, can only go 12nm offshore. Our option was to simply keep sailing, head for Opua, and sea anchor if conditions dictated it. Then, just outside a 100 mile radius line drawn around Opua, and almost at the latitude of the Three Kings Islands, we were forced to deploy the sea anchor again. This time, for four nights. The weather had now worsened to a full-on oceanic storm. We should have been home in Aotearoa already. All we could do was batten down, sit tight, check the bridles for chafing, and check in contact Maritime Radio regularly (twice, sometime three times a day).
The mental and emotional contest began. How to maintain a balanced outlook, while being simultaneously largely inactive (in the midst of this wild, confused, sea), and concerned. We had faith in the sea anchor. We had faith in the boat. But some of the crashes from the waves were frightening. Mostly because they came from everywhere. Although the boat was lying head to the ENE wind, the peculiar current dynamics of this part of the Tasman Sea set up chop in two different directions on top of this. The boat would be slapped from below, white water would rush under the hulls with the noise of a train in a subway, waves would crash right over the cabin top, others would cuff the hulls from both sides. The noise was never-ending.
Lesley and I had been in a Southern Ocean storm before. One of our crew, had done the Southern Ocean legs in the Whitbread Round the World Race. We had experienced enormous swells, majestic in their regularity, with at the breaking tops the white water as high as houses. But the Tasman Seas, though smaller, seemed to come from everywhere. Although he had not seen conditions like this before, another crew member was stoic. “I’m cold, wet and grumpy now,” was his extreme complaint, after a foray outside in the storm.
We monitored each other’s level of tiredness, and allowed people to sleep – as far as they could – beyond their watch times when it was necessary.
The stability of the catamaran platform (all things being relative in these conditions) allowed us to keep making hot food. This was a great boost. As were the calm voices of the team at New Zealand Maritime Radio. And the voices of the leaders on the yacht race from Auckland, who were well above the band of gale-force winds. But no matter how collected and professional the radio operators were, they couldn’t change the tenor of the weather forecasts. A litany of extremes kept coming: “Storm warning Brett, Kaipara, extremely high seas, confused, gale, 60kts, barometer falling.” There is nothing you can do about that.
Apart from succumb – which I did. “I’ll believe in God if the wind dies this afternoon, and the sun comes out,” I said aloud to myself at a dawn watch. Now I know that was facile, and a depraved insult to the notion of true faith. And no, the wind did not die, and the sun did not come out that afternoon. The weather forecast extended the gale warning off Cape Brett for another few days. We were going to have to stay sitting it out. Activity was confined to keeping watch, sitting or dozing in the cabin, radio scheds, eating, and regular wet and wild forays for me crawling to the foredeck (clipped on of course), to check the bridle ropes to the sea anchor. All punctuated by our VHF securité calls every 20 minutes to broadcast our position and immobility. Most ships did reply, and all offered assistance bar one who we figured was not keen to be bothered – perhaps an illegal fishing boat?
On the fourth night of the storm, and its incessant pounding, things started breaking. A carabiner, through which the sea-anchor bridle was led over the bow, broke loose from its lashings, and came crashing back along the cabin top with a sound like gunshots. We started wondering – could the bridgedeck floor take any more pounding from below? With the white water coming over the bridgedeck and cabin top, the walkways to the stern steps were washed clean, the under-floor stern compartments were flooded, and no amount of bailing could clear them, given how much new water was coming over the top. Still, I reckoned this extra weight seemed to settle the boat a bit. The sealant around coachroof windows began to drip, and the radio was in danger of becoming wet. A slow leak appeared in one cabin compartment. The hull side portholes would allow a squirt of water in through their hinges, with each slap of a waves. The waves had also earlier smashed the bow prodder aside, and I had had to lash it to the front cross beam to stop it thrashing about.
We had just completed a radio sched with with New Zealand Maritime Radio when the bow carabiner came crashing back. We called them up again, and agreed – after days of saying no thanks, not yet – that now it’s time, and a tow home would be appreciated.
The latest forecast had the storm subsiding in the next 24 hours, with a day or so of calm, then two fast-moving southerly fronts expected to come in quick succession. More wind, this time cold as well as strong, and again, bang on the nose.
We were told the Sea Pelican, an oceanic tug, could leave Whangarei the next day.
This dawned clear, with a wind of around 15-20kts in our area (though we later learned there were still severe gale conditions east of us and along the NE New Zealand coast). The tug battled the gale for 20 hours on its way to us. The hardened crew cheerily told us that most of them were seasick themselves. We tried sailing again this day, in an attempt to shorten the distance to the tug rendezvous. But the confused sea simply threw the boat around. This time we couldn’t make headway without the rudders. Deciding to stay safe and in position, we sea-anchored again and waited.
Midday the next day, under an arch of four albatrosses, the Sea Pelican came into view. Still rolling horrendously in the left-over swell, the crew made an unbelievably neat job of grappling our floating line, and with limited ceremony, began the 20-hour tow back to Whangarei.
At midnight we saw Brett light. At dawn we saw the unmistakably land-bound clouds, wreathing then uncovering the familiar, convoluted coast. And tourist boats taking day-tripper scuba divers out to the Poor Knights Islands.
Our emotions since, were like those clouds, swirling, uncertain, dissipating in the sun. We were now convinced of the boat’s sea-keeping qualities, even though (or possibly because) it is very light in weight, and silently applauded the designer. Lesley took great comfort when, every time we were sideswiped by a particularly large wave, she could feel the boat’s buoyancy kick in, lifting us safely up out of the wash. We know that what we learned can go into the store of knowledge about the seaworthiness of cruising catamarans – and the importance of good safety equipment, carefully chosen and diligently used. But we will remember the Tasman with mixed feelings.