The Domino Effect.
After a rough night watch over a wild sea with a hint of malice in the air, the dawn yesterday was a welcome reprieve. The first golden rays bringing with it a majestic Albatross, soaring in the wind spirals off our mainsail. Watching this mythical creature dance and play calmed my soul and I longed to join him in the golden morning air.
During the remainder of the day the sea state began to deteriorate, a westerly wind increasing from 20 knots to a base level of 35 knots with gusts over 45 knots. By mid morning the autopilot was straining and that’s when the first domino fell.
A huge rogue set wave on a slightly different angle raised our stern then dumped a small suburban pool worth of sea water into the cockpit, with our cabin doors closed the half a meter deep pool drained out the scuppers and we continued on. Until the cockpit autopilot control panel started to beep and squeak showing signs of water ingress. Suddenly the autopilot failed and we rounded madly into the wind, sails flogging and sheets flailing madly in the rising storm. Grabbing the helm and getting back on course I fumed internally as I realised we had yet another autopilot failure that would greatly add to the fatigue load required to make the kiwi coast 700 nm miles to our east.
Within half an hour our second domino fell. Pfffffftttt and suddenly all navigation screens, wind data, direction and compass bearing went blank. Navigation immediately went old school, compass and handheld gps.
The final domino came as Crusty, Kit and I were on the stern helping Crusty to climb into the stern locker where he felt the system short had begun. I was on the helm and Kit held the locker door open as we rolled madly in the now chaotic sea. I felt the wave more than heard it, smashing into our side it rolled down the deck, over the coach roof throwing me backwards, and lifting Crusty vertically, pinning him against the Bimini (canvas) roof at full stretch of his lifeline. With a pop his water sensor on his life-vest deployed and as the wave drained away and dumped us like three salmon into the cockpit, we looked at each other stunned. Seeing Crusty with a huge yellow balloon around his neck, and a strobe light active all three of us burst out laughing.
Despite seeing the humour in it, the final domino to fall reminded us of how small and insignificant we are out here. We pass through quietly and ask for favour, ask for grace so that we may pass by unscathed. The same awe and respect that the great Sahara demands, the Antarctic plateau demands, the Greenland ice sheet demands, the wild Arctic demands, so too does the Tasman sea.
On expedition things seldom go to plan, if they did we’d call it a holiday, but the trick is to look for dominoes early. A domino is something not going to plan, that puts pressure on you as an individual, as a team, a failure or event that increases your chances of a fatigue related mistake. A string of dominoes falling demands attention as it will eventually lead to catastrophe or expedition failure if not taken seriously. I sat on the helm brooding and staring across the messy wave crests realising this environment was no different to the Polar realms with respect to the gravity of the domino effect.
To stop a series of dominoes falling, we needed a “Pound the Ground” moment. This is a demand that is reserved for the most serious of times; a desperate call out by an individual, a captain, a human. It is a cry heavenwards for a cessation of misfortune, in fact a loud hail asking for a re-deal of the cards. It is a technique I have only used two or three times in my adventure career. It is only used to stop an established domino cascade from happening. I used it yesterday.
The autopilot had been offline for 15 hours and as the seas rose the effort needed to stop her surfing down waves or getting broadsided by mountains of water the size of a block of flats became extreme. Unsustainable for days on end. The boat was getting rag-dolled and the rogue sets became anxiety provoking as the seas deteriorated. At the start of the storm the base swells were around 4 m in height, during the middle of the night we had 50 knot gusts over the deck as we screamed at each other to communicate whilst dropping the main sail completely to continue on hurricane jib alone. The crew were below decks and at about 2 am I heard the roar behind me, a rogue wave. I felt the bum of the boat, lift alarmingly, until I felt I was looking vertically down the entire deck. The Nanook shot forward and we hurtled towards the trough. The rudder got buried in foam and I lost all steerage, suddenly she veered sideways and lay on her side. For a panicked moment, I thought she was going over, I could hear crashes inside as gear and crew became airborne. I felt the rudder dig in and I wrenched with all my might to starboard and the vessel shuddered, lifted her head and righted herself, water washing off decks in all directions. Down below all hell had broken loose with anything not lashed down becoming a flying projectile. The Nanook shook herself like a big dog after a wash, then regained her composure and resumed heading towards the NZ coast.
It was the final impetus I needed to “Pound the Ground”, I looked heavenward and prayed for a re-deal of the deck, prayed for a cessation of dominoes falling, for safety of our crew and for a calming of the sea. Not all miracles occur in an instant, but over the next ten hours, no more dominoes fell, we had no more knockdowns, no more gear failures. As dawn arrived so too did a re energised and more determined Crusty. By stealing parts from other less vital onboard systems he was able to rebuild the 12v feed to the autopilot and by mid morning, 30 hours after the first domino fell we drank coffee as we watched nervously as Nanook’s autopilot took full control of the helm once more.