The Final Test
Just days from the coast, the crew yearning for a sighting of land, coming on deck hoping for even the scent of terra firma. However the Southern Ocean was not to make things tdhat easy, there remained one final test of endurance before we were in the clear. As the sun pushed away the night sky, bringing in a new day, it also backlit the first enormous gray wall of cumulonimbus clouds building behind us once more. It heralded what was to a three day, three storm final trial for our already fatigued crew. A final parting gift from the grey southern ocean to end our 50 day voyage.
As it charged across the ocean’s surface we could start to feel a change in the air. With nothing to slow its advance, the front was upon us in a matter of hours, the first strike in the form of a 35 knot gust. The color of the ocean changed from its beautiful deep electric blue to a greenish grey hue, the swells becoming maniacal and disorganized, the ocean was beginning to turn in on itself. Waves of between six to eight meters began to throw The Nanook about like a fragile cork. Three different swell directions with an incredibly short period (the gap between swells) made it difficult to set a safe course. Within hours the primary swell developed from the port quarter but was accompanied by an ugly secondary swell off the port beam. The wind began to scream through our rigging, with salt spray lashing us sideways, the 45-50 knot blasts making for a very violent sea state.
The Nanook was doing her best to correct after every blow, but the swell direction and swirling wind made for extremely arduous sailing. Loud bangs rocked the vessel regularly as rogue waves hit broadside and flooded the cockpit, one wave coming over the entire stern pushing the live webcam and gps compass laterally as it passed through.
While war was being waged above , the storm below eventually took its toll on the crew, making sleep near impossible. The screaming of the wind through rigging, getting thrown from your bed and the rogue waves from the beam set us all on edge. These rogue waves started as irregular events but then developed into frequent events, every 20 minutes as the swell grew to over 9 meters. Now in complete darkness the menace seemed amplified. The only warning came as we could hear each wave coming via the roar of each breaking crest. Slamming us amidships before engulfing the pilot house windows and filling the cockpit. These waves would lift the Nanooks transom first before throwing her onto her leeward gunnel and rounding her up into irons where we would stop dead in the water. Normally we would always protect our beam from the storm, but in such a sea it was near impossible.
With the bow thrown into the wind, the hurricane jib would shake itself wildly, causing a violent shudder that would pass through the mast and rigging before being sent through the whole boat. From there the alarms would start blaring from the nav equipment warning that we have been pushed 180 degrees off course. Running a two man up watch system, we had a helmsman fully dressed in foul weather gear, life jacket and harness, ready to go into battle at a moment's notice and take the helm. The other crew member acted as navigational watch keeper, in charge of silencing alarms, relaying our heading and other navigational readouts to the helmsman. Together the two fought to maintain some control of The Nanook as her heavy steel frame fought back against the incredible forces railed against her.
Early on in the storm we’d dropped all sails and were running as best we could with just the bright orange hurricane jib up. They say, a captain's gut is the most reliable piece of equipment onboard and I watched this play out in real-time watching Geoff’s ability to make a 100 consecutive good survival decisions back to back, ensuring we stayed afloat. Our crew responded quickly as we adapted to the changing sea state and tried to avoid broaching, capsizing or losing our entire rig via a dismantling event.
The trials we had already passed through in the Tasman and earlier within the Southern Ocean had built up a bank of experience and complete faith in The Nanook’s ability to stay together and prevail. Despite the extreme duress and stress we were under, the unspoken understanding that each of us had worked together to get through this thing created some small calm within.
The barometer read out from the Enerdrive energy management system onboard provided a small window into our future as we had lost all satellite comms due to the violent sea state. With no forecasting available, barometric pressure was the only small indicator of wind pressure to come. We watched the pressure drop from 1013 millibars to a staggeringly rapid low of 998 by midnight. This marked the worst of the storm, but was now accompanied by a rapidly rising barometric pressure as the following high raced towards us. We watched as the chevrons on the barometer flipped 180 degrees and started to now rise at an unprecedented rate. Going from 998 m/b to 1015m/b within three hours, this would usually be a very welcome sight to us, but it was the rate at which it climbed that told us we were in for a second round. It was a very long 24 hour watch as the second system moved overhead.
This was the beginning of the second assault, round two in the ring with yet another overwhelming giant. It was to bring about a 90 degree wind shift from the west north west all the way down to a southerly buster, putting us now between it and the fast approaching Chilean Coast. Reaching gusts of over 50 knots across the deck with a scary sustained 70 knots of wind speed further south as the front hit against the southern tip of the Andes. As it connected with the vast mountain ranges it created a bottleneck effect, compressing the millibars frighteningly close together. At our position way north of this bottle neck, we continued seeing the barometer climbing higher and higher.
A desperate feeling of helplessness accompanied by bone depth weariness came over me. Just then we were hit by a gust of 55 knots and the boat rolled violently to the side. Skipper Geoff discussed running a drogue out behind us but decided against it as he was worried about an even more violent system pressing us against the continental shelf coming up fast. He asked us all to get dressed in foul weather gear, readying for the worst. We spent a tense 14 hours huddled together in the cabin, correcting all but the worst roundups using the autopilot from within. The barometric pressure settled at 1035 millibars and slowly our world settled somewhat.
A dim light shone at the end of the tunnel, the wind started to back off and settle to a beautiful 15 - 20 knot breeze. As it dropped we put out more and more canvas in an effort to stay with the tail end of the storm and ride its wake all the way into the mouth of Puerto Montt. Pure joy as the Nanook dug in, heeled over and raced towards the Chilean coast under full canvas once more.
As dawn broke on the fourth day, after three exhausting days back to back, we were greeted with what was another beautiful sunrise, hinting at our imminent deliverance into a promised land. With the sun's rays illuminating the clouds above, it was possible to think positive thoughts once more, possible to imagine a world without survival stress, a world with life’s simple comforts.
Seventy kilometers from land I was on watch alone on deck peering into the inky darkness when I saw it, a blip of light on the horizon. A hint of humankind. Grabbing the binoculars I confirmed it, land, land land ! The crew exhausted below, I kept my yells internal, fighting every urge to scream madly into the wind. I felt my soul backflip and dance within my chest as I gripped what we had just done. We had made it…