Lisa Blair – storm, massive wave, knockdown!

Lisa Blair is attempting to become the first woman to circumnavigate Antarctica solo. She is currently south-west of New Zealand, in the Southern Ocean.

Afternoon all.

Well to follow on from my last blog where I was expecting a storm last night I can honestly say that the weather gods did not disappoint.  The low-pressure trough that I was sailing in for the afternoon mostly dissipated around 8pm.  I was sailing in 35 knots NE winds with seas around 3 meters in size.  I was sailing in a NW direction to get the right side of a deepening blow that was due later that night with three reefs in the main and the smallest amount of jib out.  I estimate about 2 square meters.  Once the winds went to the west I was to tack to the NE and aim for a course of 030.

I had been monitoring the winds closely waiting for a sign of the winds shifting to the West and in the last minutes of daylight I decided to put the tack in when the winds were coming from the NW.  The shift hadn’t occurred all the way but at least I was able to complete the manoeuvre in some daylight.

I got my complete kit of Zhik Isotak foul weather gear on as this was going to be very wet.  Normally tacking a yacht is an easy thing to do, simply hit the tack buttons on the B and G auto pilot and then release the working jib sheet and pull in on the other side, simple right……….  Nothing is simple when trying to manoeuvre in 35 knots of wind.

Every time I tried to get the boat through the wind it would stall out in the middle and get pushed back the other way. The only way I managed to get it to happen was to take the helm myself…. build up some speed and then throw over the wheel to full lock and hold it until the jib back winded. 

Straighten the wheel and hit auto on the pilot as I darted forward to release the backed head sail and take it in on the other side without it flogging too much.  Well the second the jib sail was back winded the boat leaned over on approximately a 60-degree angle causing me to make my way from the helm to the cockpit using the skills only a rock climber should need.  At the same time, I am still getting buffeted by lots of wind and even more sea spray. Simple right…

30 minutes later I finally dragged myself down stairs to the warmth of the cabin and prepared a freeze-dried meal of beans and rice.

These dinners normally need to sit for 20-30 minutes after the boiling water is added so I was just relaxing in the galley reading a book on my phone and watching the winds.  I noticed the moment I was in the thick of the real storm as the winds went from 35 knots to 50 knots in a heartbeat.

The boat that was comfortably sailing on a beam reach moments before was now laid over on her side with the off course alarm going off on the auto pilot, it was 9.30pm.  As the winds were so strong I was getting pulled up into the wind instead of staying on my nice beam reach, the main sail was flogging and making a hell of a racket over the howl of the wind.  I needed to go outside again only this time it was dark and a whole lot more wind.

I never stripped out of my wet foul weather clothing from the last deck visit so it didn’t take me long to grab a torch and climb out on deck.  In the hour that I was down below the conditions had deteriorated rapidly, the sea was a frothing mess of white water getting blown sideways.  The boat was on such a lean that the whole starboard side was almost continuously submerged. 

Treading carefully and making sure I was clipped on I poked my head out from the shelter of the cabin top to hear the full roar of the wind screeching through the rigging.  It was so loud that should there have been another person on-board I would not have heard anything they would have said.  Glancing back inside I noticed that the wind instruments were now reading a destructive 60 knots.

60 Knots roughly works out to be 100km winds, that is about the time that people start to lose parts of their houses…  In the Southern Ocean 60 knots is even worse as the air is so dense that the wind packs more of a punch.  60 knots here is like 80 knots in the tropics, lots of wind.

My first step once secured on deck was to try to get the boat to come away from the wind and run before the storm.  I tried by altering the auto pilots course a few times and easing all the sheets off but the boat just continued to be laid over on her side with the bottom half under water.  I needed to get to the helm and alter the course myself in one of the lulls.  Very carefully and as safely as possible I made my way back with a death grip on the hand rails and took control of the helm.  At first, I couldn't get it to do anything but in one of the lulls of wind I managed to get the boat to come away from the wind and run.  This lasted about 30 seconds before the next gust pulled it right back up to close hauled again.  Bugger.  I was exerting my whole-body weight on the helm and it was not budging. There was just that much pressure on it.  I decided that if I was to keep trying I would likely break something.

On my way back to the cockpit and the shelter of the cuddy I coped a couple of really large amounts of water in the face that went right down my neck and at once stage I was 3/4 under water from a wave……. I might as well have swam back.
Finally tucked up in the cuddy I considered my options.  Drop the main, bare away under jib only and deploy the drogue, no easy task in 60 knots, or trim on the sail to stop them flogging and stall the boat out to windward. 

Given that it was a lot easier to try to go to windward I tried that option first. I trimmed on the sails to make them as flat as I could.  This worked to a point. The boat started to settle and drift sideways in the leeway.  I was steering a course of 340 but my course over the ground was 030 thanks to the drift.  The sails weren’t flogging and providing that I didn’t bust a sail the boat should be able to ride out the night okay like this.  It wasn’t the best option but the safest at the time.

Once back under the cuddy I watched the storm for a bit just listing to the sounds of the wind howling and the water getting ripped sideways.  I witnessed a max gust of 65.7 knots of wind before I decided that I best get back inside.  I felt like I had just spend hours at the jib with how tired my muscles were from simply holding on…… so I was looking forward to finally eating my protein packed dinner.  First I needed to make a call on whether I shut the water tight hatch on the main entrance to the yacht or put the washboard in place.

Mostly this is left open because it is protected by the cabin top extending to create a cuddy but occasionally in following seas or really bad weather a sneaky wave could make its way inside.  Henry, one of the amazing volunteers in Albany made me a Perspex washboard so that I could have most of the hatch shut but still be receiving fresh air from the 10cm of open top section.

I have been using this wash board almost every day and for the most part it has been enough to prevent the water ingress so I was trying to decide if the conditions were bad enough to require the water tight hatch to be closed or for the washboard to be used instead.  I decided that given that I was sailing upwind the chances of a wave coming in were slim so I secured the washboard in place.

Half way through dinner and sitting at the seat that Henry also made in the galley I was listening to the storm and watching the wind instruments to see when the peak of the storm was over.  The boat had been shoved occasionally by a bigger wave but nothing alarming. The swell wasn’t too big, it was about 4 meters. 

Turns out I should have shut that water tight hatch because the next minute I could feel the boat being lifted by a big wave.  There was this moment of weightlessness as we reached the peak, I braced every muscle taught,  gripping the bench top.  Then the feeling of your stomach dropping as we were thrown down the face of the wave coming to an abrupt holt in the trough at the bottom, milliseconds later the wave over took us breaking against the hull and filling the cockpit with mountains of water. 

The boat tipped a bit more and as I watched the water filled the cockpit, swirled and came barrelling into the cabin through my nice 15 cm gap that I was so kind to leave open for it.  I blinked and when I opened my eyes everything that was on the port side of the boat was now on the starboard side, I cringed hearing the laptop strike the opposite wall.  And in the next second the wave was past, Climate Action Now righted herself and we carried on like nothing had happened.  My mast was just in the water seconds ago.

Shaken from my first knock down of the trip I darted to the back and rescued the laptop before further damage could be done to it and secured it back in its home adding a sail tie to hold it in place.  I looked outside to see if anything else was broken but couldn't see a thing with all the sea spray. From what I could hear and feel though told me the sails and mast were okay.

I finished my dinner and watched the wind instruments like a hawk and finally at about midnight the winds had begun to ease back to 40-50 knots.  When they had abated to below 40 knots I finally crawled into bed feeling like I had just spent a week at the gym… 

At first light I went on deck in a delightful 25 knots of wind and finally altered the sail trim to suit the course.  The first bit of damage I noticed was that one of the starboard side silent wind generator was missing all its blades, I am carrying spares but will need some very calm conditions to replace them.  All that was left was these little stumps sticking out.  Looking for other broken and missing things I noticed that my windex at the top of the mast was half missing and the safety knife and sheath at the helm had also jumped overboard.  All from the force of one wave.

So after the challenges of last night today was a day of eating lots of food for energy and sleeping.  The winds have now dropped out to 15 knots from the West with swells of 5 meters.  I am still sailing NE to get above some large swells due soon but I am in good spirits and still feeling very positive.

Goodnight all.


Mum needs to comment on this – My last text last night from Lisa at 10.41 QLD time reads, “Winds backed off to 35-40 knots, about 7 meter swell but long swell. All ok, will hold like this till first light then crack sheets and bear away to 030….off to try and get some sleep”

Jeanneau JY55
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