I am frequently asked about the worse weather I have ever encountered. The highest winds occurred on a trip from Bermuda to Newport in the summer of 1988. FIONA was dismasted about 300 miles from Fire Island Inlet. A shortened version of the article below appeared in Ocean Navigator in 1994.
The past few summers I have been able to take long cruises of six to nine weeks duration on my cutter “FIONA”. She is sturdily built and rigged West-sail 42 with a center cockpit that I bought unfinished in 1975 and launched in 1983 after completing her at home. These cruises have ranged the North Atlantic from my home port on the south side of Long Island to Newfoundland, the Caribbean and the Azores. FIONA has seen her share of heavy weather and has always been a safe and comfortable boat in any seas we have encountered. The standing rigging consists of headstay and forestay, backstay and four shrouds on each side. In 1986 I fitted a Harken roller furling system and jib which was designed to be reefed. The staysail is loose-footed on a boom, it has one set of reef points. The mainsail has three reefs. On 5th July 1988, I sailed with two friends to Block Island and then, on 7th July, left Block Island for a direct trip to St Martin, in the Dutch West Indies, arriving there on 18th July after an eleven day passage. St Martin was used as a center for crew changes and we cruised as far south as Palm Island in the Grenadines before turning north. St Martin was convenient as there is a regular air service to New York and we have friends who live on the island. When choosing a point for crew changes try to have friends there who own a shower, a telephone and preferably a car! When the time came to return we sailed with three on board from St Martin to Anguilla and on to the British Virgin Islands. We left Tortola on 14th August and tied up in St Georges, Bermuda, on 20th August after a fast and comfortable passage of just over 5 1/2 days.
Bermuda was intended to be the last port for crew changes before returning to the U.S. by Labor Day. When I phoned my wife on Long Island she told me that unfortunately the fellow I had lined up to fly down to Bermuda had called to beg off due to a death in the family. I discussed the need for a crew with friends in the St Georges’ Dinghy club and while I entertained my daughter and her friend, who flew down for a few days on the boat, the sailing fraternity in Bermuda was scoured for crew. In the end no one could be found with the time to spare and as the date for my daughter’s departure came close I decided to single-hand back to Newport, Rhode Island. It was a trip I had made many times before. Although FIONA is not completely rigged for single-handling, she is easy to sail and has both an Aries wind vane and a Benmar autopilot. If I was overconfident the sea was about to administer a sharp lesson!
The First Two Days of the Trip From Bermuda
I left Bermuda on Sunday afternoon, 28th August. There was a brisk easterly wind (20-25 knots) blowing as I chugged out of St. Georges through the Cut and to the Mills buoy. At Mills I could lay off to the north for Kitchen Shoal and I set a reefed main and some jib. Tropical storm ‘Chris’ was moving up the mainland coast and was just about the same latitude as Bermuda but well to the west.
At 6:00 PM (EDT) I listened to the weather forecast from NMN, the Coast Guard station in Portsmouth, Virginia, ‘Chris’ was diminishing. As the evening drew on a full moon arose, I was making good time with the Aries vane (called ‘Victor’) in control, things looked good. By the morning the wind had dropped to about 10 knots and moved to SE’ly. This change had been forecast and, in fact, the wind was supposed to continue to veer to the SW. In the first twenty-four hours I made about 170 miles from Bermuda on a course of 345o magnetic; excellent progress. On Monday evening the wind was S’ly and light. Victor was having some difficulty holding a steady course with a light wind over the stern and we were yawning around 20 degrees or so. At about 1:00 AM on the morning of Tuesday, 30th August, I jibed to port tack and set the vang as a preventer on the main. The wind, which had dropped during the night, picked up steadily during morning. The barometer reached a high of 1020 mbar at midnight and then began a slow slide to 1014 mbar by midday. Station NMN broadcasts the coordinates of the north wall of the Gulf Stream twice a day and I plotted the position on my chart near the course. By lunchtime the wind had picked up a little and I shortened down the jib. The main still had one reef. The staysail was not set, as on a broad reach it tended to blanket the jib. The boat was moving fast and easy. I was about 60 miles from the north wall, squalls appeared during the early afternoon but passed ahead or behind the boat. I was anxious to make time and get north of the Gulf Stream. From the Coast Guard radio I had learned a cold front lying roughly on a NE-SW axis was dropping down the coast and it appeared it would get down to the Gulf Stream early Wednesday, 31st August.
This was not good news. I had been clobbered in the Gulf Stream before in this situation. I was particularly concerned about the NE wind behind the front, I knew from other trips that the wind setting against the current produced a nasty steep sea. In addition, lows tend to form along the front, causing squalls. In 1986, on the way to the Azores, a short but vicious squall pegged the anemometer at 60 knots and damaged the staysail. At the time FIONA was in the Gulf Stream but a little further east. Thus my anxiety to keep moving and get into the cooler slope water to the north of the Gulf Stream. By 6:00 PM the wind was SW’ly the boat was 341 miles from Bermuda and the barometer was 1009 mbar. More squalls appeared an hour later and I rolled 8 turns on the jib. The boat was zipping along on 345o magnetic and it looked like I would beat the front to the Stream. At 9:00 PM I decided to call my wife on the SSB to let her know things were OK. I called the AT&T Marine operator at their Florida station, WOM, and had no difficulty getting through. As my wife was somewhat apprehensive about my single-handed venture, I radiated confidence and predicted I would be in Newport by Thursday or Friday, depending on the weather. After that I had a short nap and at 11:00 PM or so I went on deck as the weather had deteriorated. The wind had backened 25o
And was gusting to 30 knots. The barometer was 1006 mbar, a drop of 14 mbar in about 24 hours, which did not seem particularly alarming at the time. I put on foul weather gear and a safety harness, Victor was coping OK but it looked like I was in for some work. We were at 37deg 47minN, about 13 miles south of the north wall and in the region where the stream runs with maximum current.
At 11:40 PM I made an entry in the log noting the squally wind and the fact it had backed. When I returned to the deck, conditions had got markedly worse in just a few minutes. I figured I was in a nasty but not untypical squall and released Victor’s clutch on the wheel. The wind increased steadily and veered. I tried coming into the wind a little to release pressure on the sails. It was raining but not very heavily. The boat was illuminated by a glow from the moon. Spray began to fly which in the moonlight gave an impression of whiteness to the scene. It was time to reduce sail. I locked the wheel and moved to the Harken furling gear and got in several turns on the jib. Some sail was still exposed when the boat jibed all standing and the mainsail boom scythed across to the port side. The vang had parted like cotton thread. Expletive deleted. I suddenly realized that conditions had gotten very bad. The boat was sailing on about 120o and continuous spray flew across the deck. The wind had gotten so high the seas were being flattened. The jib was now backed. There seemed little I could do about it for the moment. I crashed along for a few minutes and then decided to tack back onto a port tack. I brought FIONA into the wind and the sails luffed violently. The seas seemed higher once I was sailing into them. She lay irons for a moment and then dropped back. I decided to start the engine and a few minutes later I powered through onto port tack. This at least would take me out of the Gulf Stream, instead of deeper into it, as was the situation when I was sailing roughly east. The luffing had been so violent when I was into wind that I gave up the idea of reefing the mainsail and decided to ride it out by sailing with the main just filled. One factor in this decision was that I had tried to engage Victor so I could go forward but it would not hold the wheel down. Later I discovered the wind had already blown away the vane. FIONA was now sailing far too fast and crashing through the seas, which fortunately were not directly on the bow. The log was pegged at 10 knots and the noise was tumultuous, I really do not know how long I sailed like that. The boat was heeled way over and seas poured continuously over the cockpit coaming. By this time the spray was so thick it was like sailing in a snowstorm! Suddenly, silently, to my amazement the mast and sails simply disappeared. The only evidence that I ever had a mast were the port shrouds, now lying across the cabin roof. My overwhelming feeling was disbelief tinged with chagrin, how could I be so stupid?
As FIONA wallowed in the seas, ominous noises could be heard from below as the wreckage crunched into the hull. I decided the port shrouds had to be released immediately in order to drop the mast deeper. Although I had a bolt-cutter on the boat it seemed easier to withdraw the clevis pins from the turnbuckles and I crawled to port side to do this. As I left the cockpit clutching vicegrips and pliers the wind pressed so hard I had to slither along the deck on hands and knees, allowing myself to be pressed against the side of the cabin.
The adrenaline was really circulating by then and the cotter pins and clevis pins came out in quick time, despite the load on them. I also released the stays forward and aft because of the enormous load they were putting on the pulpits. I decided to cut the headstay above the roller furling gear and this I did with a hacksaw. Before releasing the forestay I unbolted the staysail boom which still had the sail tied to it. When the rig was hanging on the starboard shrouds I went below. There were still loud crashing noises coming form the hull. I imagine this was caused by the boom as I could still see a sail just below the surface of the sea. I made the following entry in the log at 2:00 AM on Wednesday, 31st August: “Very eventful period. A very strong persistent squall required me to hand steer. In trying to reef jib I jibed back to port tack after 1/2 hour sleigh ride on starboard tack. About an hour ago the mast went over the side. Released port shrouds and fore and aft shrouds. Now mast is hanging by starboard shrouds. Wind has dropped. What to do- should I try and save mast and sails? Victor’s vane disappeared.”
I decided there was no way I could bring the mast and sails back on board. The combination of mast, rigging and sails must have weighed over 1000 lbs. Even though the wind had dropped from the maximum it was still blowing hard. There was no lifeline on the starboard side of the boat. With due apologies to my Scots ancestors I went on deck and pulled out the remaining clevis pins. As the last one came out the shimmering sail beneath the sea started its plummet to 2000 fathoms and I went below to note in the log at 2:35 AM that the mast had gone. I cleaned up the lines hanging over the side and started the engine, engaged the Benmar and laid off a course for Fire Island inlet- I was going home. It was fruitless to run the engine over 1000 rpm due to the steep seas, the log indicated I was going 2 to 2.5 knots. I made some tea and lay awake until a gray dawn arrived about 6:00 AM.
The Trip Home
During the night the wind had switched to NE as the front went through and the pressure by morning was 1015 mb. I had decided how to rig a couple of antennas using the boat hook and oars off the dinghy so that I could get the loran and SSB going again. This took about 2 hours. The loran antenna consisted of a few feet of old wire elevated 8 ft above the deck. The set immediately locked on and I had my position. The SSB antenna was a couple of feet higher. Fortunately the set (a Hull # 230) has an automatic antenna tuner so that the change in antennas from the insulated backstay to the jury rig gave no problems. I had decided to make a “Pan” call on 2182 kHz as it was clear my fuel supply was not sufficient to cover the 280 miles to the inlet if the boat maintained a speed of only 2 knots. I had 110 gallons of diesel on board, enough for 110 hours of running. Obviously it was touch and go if the wave height persisted. I made the Pan call at 8:45 AM and after two calls received a reply from the Canadian research vessel ‘Chabasco’ which was located near Georges Bank. I could not hear the Coast Guard station in Boston but the RV Chabasco could and they acted as a relay. I gave my position and situation and said there was not immediate danger as the hull was intact and the engine running well. The agreed to maintain a schedule of radio contact and at 1:00 PM the ‘Chabasco’ called me to suggest I move to the 4MHz band. I was then able to talk to Boston directly and we maintained a schedule of calls every 6 hours. As soon as the first Pan call was finished I checked the engine room. FIONA was rolling heavily as she labored through the steep seas. I knew that would stir up sediment in the tanks and sure enough, the fuel line suction was about 15″. I changed the filter and the suction pressure rose to 5″- within the normal range. I checked the bilge frequently but the boat was not taking water. I also called my wife via WOM to tell her I had experienced difficulties and would head directly for home, and may be home on Saturday.
As it happened the seas gradually dropped and I was able to push the engine speed up to 1400 rpm and achieve 5 to 6 knots. Boston Coast Guard handed my radio contact over to the Moriches station as I approached the coast and I entered the inlet just after midday on Friday, 2nd September with 30 gallons still in the tanks.
Intense squalls in the vicinity of the Gulf Stream, particularly in the vicinity of cold front, are not uncommon. The meteorological situation in the area was thoroughly discussed in an article in the Proceedings of the Naval Institute and in subsequent letters, following the sudden sinking of the ‘Marques’, a 117 ft barque which was participating in the Tall Ships race to Halifax from Bermuda in 1984. In more than twenty years of deep water ocean cruising I have experienced many squalls and watched them form on hot afternoons in Azores-Bermuda high. The one I ran into early in the morning of 31st August, 1988 was simply bigger and more intense than any I had previously encountered. In my experience, wind velocities over 45 knots are rare in squalls and modern yachts can usually handle that without damage. Ironically I warned the skipper of a sailboat also heading for Newport about the dangers of cold fronts near the Stream when we were gamming in Bermuda. The tactical problem is that the Stream is roughly half way between Bermuda and New England and it is difficult to predict the time of arrival of cold fronts near 38o when leaving Bermuda two to three days earlier. I have never heard of any meteorologist venture a guess at the frequency or severity of squalls that may be met on the way.
When I was disconnecting the wreckage from the boat I noticed the aft starboard shroud, made of 5/16 inch stainless wire rope, had parted about a foot above the turnbuckle. The shroud was attached to the mast midway between the masthead and the spreaders. All the rest of the standing rigging seemed to be intact. I surmise the failure of this shroud allowed the aluminum mast to buckle and the mast then jumped out of the shoe on deck and disappeared to leeward. The chainplates were all intact but badly buckled. The chainplates holding the two lower shrouds on the port side were bent about 45 degrees. This damage was caused by these two shrouds absorbing the momentum of the mast and sails as they flew away to starboard. All the turnbuckles had two toggles, so bending of the chainplates could not arise from twisting. The chainplates are all made of 1/4 inch thick stainless steel straps 2 inches wide which are attached to the hull by five 1/2 inch bolts. The chainplates on the starboard side were bent nearly double, i.e., they were pointed down. This damage was probably caused after the mast was in the water and the wind drove FIONA over the mast which lay beneath the surface to windward. Scoring of the keel by the wire rigging was evident when FIONA was hauled. The lifeline stanchions were destroyed on the starboard side of the boat. Fortunately the mast is stepped on the deck, otherwise this adventure might have had a sadder ending. The deck under the shoe, which is between the shoe and the compression post in the main cabin, showed a slight depression caused by the compressive force exerted by the mast. The deck is made of 3/4 inch plywood sandwiched between fiberglass top and bottom. The compression post is made of 3 inch diameter schedule 80 stainless pipe, it was bowed about 1/4 inch over its length. The plywood vain which senses wind direction was sheared at the metal clamp of the Aries. The vane is made of 1/4 inch thick marine plywood and is 6″ wide and 30″ tall. The wind apparently blew it away. Other random damage included a smashed grabrail on the aft cabin roof- I have no idea how that got smashed. I found the most interesting damage when I examined the staysail boom in the morning. The sail was furled on the boom, which was supported by a topping lift which had a bronze snaphook that engaged a stainless eye strap at the end of the boom. The hook had a swivel which was tied to the port forward shroud in order to leave the center and starboard side of the foredeck clear. During the melee before the mast went I noticed the staysail boom had become detached from the port shroud and was held by the sheet on the starboard side. In the morning I found the reason was that the swivel had failed. However, the bronze hook (about 1/4″ cross section diameter) and the eye strap had deformed before the swivel let go. This must have been due entirely to wind pressure on the boom and furled staysail. The force to bend the hook and eye thus gives an indirect measure of the wind speed, assuming the boom acted like a flat plate, for which the force at a given wind speed is well known. At 60 mph the force is 9.1 lbs per square foot, the force goes up with speed squared, i.e., at 120 mph the force is 36.4 lbs per square foot.
Test performed later on the snaphook and eye strap produced similar deflections about about 350 to 500 lbs force. The boom is 13 ft long and has a width of 4 inches. Assuming the furled sail doubled the effective area this corresponds to an area of about 9 sq. ft. The boom was secured at both ends, thus assuming the bending force on the aft hook was 350 lbs it appears the total force was 700 lbs. This is conservative as the furled sail increased the area at the forward end, not the aft end, and the total force was probably higher than 700 lbs. Nevertheless, this corresponds to a pressure of 700/9 or 77.7 lbs/sq ft. The maximum wind was thus 175 mph or 153 knots. This estimate is subject to considerable error, but it confirms my subjective impression that the wind was well over 100 knots. Meteorologically this seems to have put the squall well into the hurricane category.
Could this accident have been avoided? If I had a crew no doubt about 11:30 PM I would have tied another reef into the main. At no time did I think I was facing a dismasting until it was too late to drop the reefed mainsail and at anytime I kept expecting the wind speed to diminish. Needless to say, if the crew had been working near the mast or had their safety harness clipped to the standing rigging or starboard life line the consequences might have been disastrous. If I had furled the mainsail about 11:30 PM I think the mast would have survived, but that is 20/20 hindsight.
In letters which were written after Rear Admiral Kotsch’s article about the ‘Marques’, which had been very quickly overwhelmed, it was suggested better lookout or seamanship may have saved the ship. I was on deck when conditions went from routine squally to life and death. If conditions deteriorated as fast on the night the ‘Marques’ went down I don’t see how the crew could have done anything which would have substantially improved their chances. In a letter from Commander J.W. de Shazo (Proceeding, March 1985) he writes “Somewhere there is a wind or a sea waiting for each of us, and I believe that everyone who looks long and hard enough will find it. Every good ship captain understands this, and perhaps it is why some of the most intellegent men ever to go to sea- for example, Nathaniel Bowditch- retired to the land after relatively short careers at sea.”
Well, I plan to refit FIONA but now my wind and sea found me I hope it does not find me again- once is enough!