Felicitations, Michel! C’est incroyable, absolument incroyable! Quel navigateur! Je me souviens toujours quand vous m’a aide avec mes questions pour le soixante pieds, j’ai ecrit en Francais, et vous avez fait votre repons en Anglais! Vous etes tres genereux, tres amicale, vraiment un vainqeur, un champion. Felicitations, Michel.
Congratulations, Michel! It’s incredible, absolutely incredible! What a navigator! I will always remember when you helped me with my questions about the 60-foot boat, how I wrote in French and you answered in English. You are generous, friendly, and a true champion. Congratulations, Michel.
The past 24 hours have been among the most difficult so far. A huge low, much wider east-west than forecast, has taken its toll. After finally getting to the west side which had the southerly winds, we took off at high speed with the storm jib and three reefs in the mainsail in the late afternoon/evening. Into the dark, the wind built from 25-30-35-40-45-50 knots. A dark, dark night, thick clouds obscuring any stars or moon, absolutely pitch black dark.
As the wind rose, the speed rose. At some point when the wind is rising quickly and you are going faster and faster, there is a decision to be made: do I take down the mainsail and slow the boat down, or not. There is risk to taking down the mainsail. First, there is risk in the maneuver itself, as it needs to be done facing upwind, and I was going downwind. I would have had to turn the boat upwind into the 25-foot breaking seas and 45-50 knots of wind, letting the sail flag back away from the mast, and then bring it down. Second, there is risk to me going to the mast in these conditions, in the dark, to pull it down and tie it down, with waves sweeping the deck.
If I leave up the main sail, there is risk of going too fast with the third reef. If I go too fast, I could bury the bow in the waves and break rigging. And because we were approaching the mouth of the Platte River between Buenos Aires and Montevideo, there was a good chance that there would be a lot of stuff floating in the water. If we hit anything going fast, it could be catastrophic. So, the wind and boat speed kept rising. And then you get to where, if you were going to take down the mainsail, you should have done it earlier, because it might be impossible to do it now.
Anyway, the boat would pick up speed, 17-18-19 knots, then into the 20s, and the highest I saw was 24.5 knots, our fastest of the whole race. Finally at about 3:00AM I realized that this situation could only end in disaster. The wind was not abating, and there was no way to know how much more wind we might get, or how big the seas might get. Already, seas were 25 feet and climbing, just gigantic, breaking in every direction, angry, and huge, gigantic masses of water with no good intentions.
Another risk is if the mainsail is down and the boat speed drops to 4 or 5 knots with just the storm jib, then you are at the mercy of the seas, and you could get rolled over. There is dynamic stability in speed.
I decided to try to get the mainsail down. I had one arm in the foul weather gear, and the worst happened. The boat veered high, then low as the pilot tried to correct. I saw the number 40 degrees low. OH NO, then a huge CRASH, and the boat lay over on its side. The boat had gybed, the wind was on the wrong side of the main sail, and the keel was canted fully on the wrong side. The boat went over at about 70 degrees of heel and just sat there. Then the autopilot alarm went off just to add to the fray. Got the jacket, helmet, and gloves on, and went into the cockpit sideways.
All old handholds are useless when you turn your world on its side. Waves were washing down the deck, but not too much was coming into the cockpit because it was to leeward. Good news is the mast was still there. If the main boom crashes into the running backstays, already under tremendous load, then the physics of a huge shock sideways into a high tension situation is that the cables could break or the mast just crumple under compression.
I tried to jam the tiller over, but there was no response. Then I remembered that is not the sequence. This has happened in various conditions three times before. OK, got to the keel, walking along the walls below, center the keel with the keel motor winch, was able to do this, and it was good that the batteries were up. Then go to the cockpit and try the tiller again, to try to gybe back. The boat was now more upright with the keel movement, and I pushed the tiller over hard. Still nothing.
Then something. Then here it comes. She’s turning. Oh boy, there’s going to be a gigantic CRASH when it gybes back. Hang on and duck, BAM, the mainsail gybed back again. Set the pilot at a higher setting so we wouldn’t gybe back again, and then went below to reset the keel to windward. Then in the cockpit I got set to sail upwind into this storm with just the storm jib so I could bring down the main sail. I trimmed the storm jib hard, got the main halyard ready to run, got the two tie-down lines I’ve used before, took the tiller, turned the boat upwind. Turning upwind, the wind howled louder, the spray became harder. I set the pilot, then dropped the halyard in a rush (Johnny Malbon had suggested this), and the main sail started down. It got halfway down, then stuck, then began to inch its way down again.
When finally the second batten was within reach at the mast, I hooked my safety harness into the jackline and crawled from the cockpit to the mast. There was no sense in being heroic here, crawling was safest way to get to the mast. Got there, went to the leeward side, found the third line to tie down the sail, got it up and over the second batten car, then pulled as hard as I could down to snug it and tie it off so that the sail would not blow back up the mast. Then went with the other two lines into the skirt of the sail and tied across the lazy jacks to keep the bulk of the sail down.
All of this was done with a headlight, because it was absolutely pitch black dark out.
Then back to the cockpit, bear off, sort out lines, put them into their line bags, take a few more waves over the boat and into the cockpit, then finally go into the cabin, utterly soaked, and utterly tired. Turns out now we could average 10 knots whereas before we were doing 13 knots, so that was great, the pilot could steer much more easily, and we didn’t go off on any huge tears. Well, maybe to 15 knots, but not to 24 knots. A success, and I should have been done earlier.
I write this in the late afternoon, the wind is down to 35 knots, the seas are still gigantic, and perhaps I’ll try to get the main back up before it gets dark if the wind continues to abate a bit. Getting the mainsail back up is the same difficulty as getting it down, because now I have to get the battens to clear the lazy jacks, a difficult job, so we’ll have to sail upwind again.
Anyway, dodged a gigantic bullet there, could have lost the rig, runners, could have gotten hurt trying to get the boat back in its right direction, or in bringing the sail down. But all is well now.