Southern Ocean - Latitude 48 South.
The barometer had been dropping for hours, millibar by millibar, a pointing finger towards some weather event approaching from The Nanook’s stern. It was hard not to feel like prey in an alien environment, as we prepared the vessel for the oncoming foul weather. It was easy to experience complete exposure out here more than 2000 nautical miles from land in any direction. The icy shores of Antarctica to the south, our closest refuge. As we approach Point Nemo (the most isolated point of any of the world's oceans, i.e. furthest from land in any direction) the vulnerability of our position is foremost in our minds. Tempered with these natural concerns is a deep understanding of how well designed and built the Nanook is for heavy weather. The vessel seems to relish foul seas even if her crew of four don’t necessarily, leaning into the big swells and grinding her way on, over or through any sea. As a crew we have weathered two very significant storms in Nanook, both with seas in excess of 8 meters and winds gusting over 50 knots in the Tasman Sea. The waves hit us on the beam (side on) and that made things quite dangerous as the mass of water and foam tried to roll the vessel from side to side.
Out here in the Southern Ocean one thing we have in spades is sea room. As the low pressure cell formed behind us I pointed the Nanook’s bow on a more northerly course to try and allow the front to pass below us. Checking weather models every six hours we could see that despite this, the storm was going to pass right over us. The models predicted similar wind strengths to our prior storms, so with good preparation we felt confident in our ability to stay safe.
Dropping the genoa (front sail) completely, we turned into the wind, the mainsail flapping madly in the cold salty air. As the boys dropped and secured the big powerful sail, I held the Nanook’s bow into the now consistent 30 knot breeze. Hoisting the bright orange hurricane jib, we turned downwind and ran before the storm. The dark clouds behind now showed real menace as the barometer continued its downward fall. Snow flurry’s and sleet started to splatter across our decks as we huddled below, our entire trust leaning on the autopilot once again.
I had the graveyard watch (1-4 am). Dressed in foul weather gear and harness I barely took my eyes off the wind indicator as the screaming gusts through the rigging became more and more extreme. Just occasionally we would be hit broadside by a wall of water, streaming over the decks and pushing our stern off course, the autopilot would alarm then amazingly self correct just as I prepared to dash outside to take the helm. I marveled at how well the unit coped with this enormous sea. Unable to see the sea state I prayed for dawn to come. Just before 4 am, the winds accelerated beyond anything I have personally seen at sea. Over a half hour period blasting past 60 knots, then 62, then 68, then 72 knots. After the 72 knot blast the entire vessel’s rigging thrummed like a high pitched guitar, the very deck and hull oscillating with the sound. I had an almost visceral response as I recognised the pitch, the sound like a thousand banshees, an almost otherworldly force.
Somo Veken Glacier, Queen Maudland, Antarctica 2013. Solo in a tiny red tent, I survived a Force 12 Gale where the wind topped out at 78 knots. I was transported to that vulnerable place and for a moment fought a crippling panic. Slowing my breathing, I focused on all I cared for, reminded myself that I needed to make good decisions and trust we had this. Trust in our vessel, trust in our competent crew, trust in the prayer cover from home, trust in the supernatural favour I have always had in the worst of times.
Ironically our Pivotel Satellite tether to the outside world was cut as the storm built, a wave flooding the cockpit and engine room leading to a 240 volt system outage that even Crusty couldn’t fix mid storm. I rang Sarah on the Satellite phone to explain our situation and tried to sound calm. My wife is someone I can never fool, she knew immediately things were dire from my voice. I promised to do my best and apologised for the stress I cause in her life. I then went and woke the crew, asking them to get ready for anything as the storm was now genuinely force-12 outside.
Watching the wind gauges and feeling the waves pass under us in the dark we spent a tense two hours until first light. Amazingly the autopilot coped with the huge forces upon the vessel and kept us running northwards away from harm. At first light I slid the companionway cover open and engaged with our first view of the sea state outside. I almost wished I hadn’t looked, as we got lifted from behind by a wave the size of which I could barely gauge. Looking forward I felt like a vast expanse of wave sloped downwards before us, like a football field on its side, the trough seeming a mile away as we began to surf at 12 knots. Sliding the hatch closed, we discussed options as a crew. Do we drop the hurricane jib and run “barepole” ? I watched the foaming sea clawing at the foredeck and decided the risk was too great to get crew up there. Do we turn and face the storm, “heave to”, let it pass over us? I felt we were stable with the small sail and safer running northwards. Just then a 15 meter wave picked us up and we began to surf at 16 knots towards the trough. My greatest concern was losing rudder, slewing sidewards and exposing ourselves to a catastrophic capsize or even worse burying our bow and pitch poling forward, both events didn’t bear thinking about. In the end as a crew we decided to deploy our Jordan Series Drogue, a 200 meter rope system with multiple small parachutes along the line to decelerate our surfing and ensure some protection against our worst fears.
Dealing with a huge mass of line and parachutes and making sure we didn’t create new problems for ourselves took time. True to prior form we worked seamlessly as a crew and an hour later our boat was held by an ocean tether that slowed our world down to a manageable and safe pace. Boat speed held at 2.5 to 3 knots, surging forward as we surfed at a glorious 6 knots, we breathed a huge sigh of relief and put a billy on below.
The drogue held us safe through another night, 15 hours tethered to a floating anchor, as the beast moved over us, leaving us largely unharmed. As soon as the wind dropped below 25 knots consistently, we hauled our drogue line back on deck and hoisted sail, turning our nose once more to the east and the coast of Chile so far away.
Over a period of three days we had been pushed more than 90 nautical miles of course, but the vessel was intact, our crew exhausted but entire and our confidence was buoyed by having done well in a contest the likes of which I would like to never repeat.
It’s hard not to draw parallels to our lives after an event like this. In post storm reflection I became aware that life rarely teaches us our limits in the good times. We seldom build character on the beaches of life. Our tenacity, grit, determination, self belief and faith is only built in the most ferocious of life’s storms. As a crew we had definitely been sculpted by the storm, forever remembering a point in the Southern Ocean where we built faith and developed as human beings.
As the Nanook’s sail filled with cold wind, we nudged her bows towards Chile and I called Sarah on the Sat-Phone to let her know we were safe and underway once more.