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Voyagers 'squashed' by New Zealand storm

Jan 1, 2003

Gregory Forbes and I arrived in Maine on June 13, 1994, after a long and exhausting flight from New Zealand. We had always expected to return to the U.S.after 22 years abroad, by way of South Africa or the Red Sea aboard our 32-foot cutter Pilot. However, losing our boat in a major storm northeast of New Zealand drastically changed our lives.

The storm, which took away our home, our tools, and everything else we owned, was also a killer. The sloop Quartermaster, in closest proximity to us during the storm, was lost along with her crew of three. In all, 21 people were rescued from seven boats.

As it turned out, it's possible that the crew of Quartermaster saved our lives, for they set off an EPIRB that directed Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) Orion search aircraft to our vicinity.

The ocean between New Zealand and Tonga is not heavily traveled, except during the transitional weeks before and after cyclone season. There are two regattas to Tonga from the Auckland area each spring, one at the end of April and one at the end of May. We left with Sophia, a wooden double-ender similar to Pilot, two days after the start of the second regatta, which had 35 participants.

New Zealand's Meteorological Service (Metservice), which has an office near Westhaven Marina in Auckland, said the weather was okay, although we might go through a period with little or no wind. We heard no mention of a storm on the radio until Friday morning, when Peter on Wild Spirit warned those in Minerva Reef to get out as there was a 1000 mb depression then located just south of Fiji moving on a heading of 110° at 12 knots. The low was expected to deepen. There were about 45 boats over a broad area that could be affected, depending on which path the storm took.

The barometer aboard Pilot, our Westsail 32, showed no significant change during Friday. We had about 15 knots of wind and slight seas. All in all the weather was consistent with the large high pressure system we knew we were passing through. Given the report we had received, we felt that the storm would pass well to the north of us, leaving us perhaps on the edge of the squash zone (the area between two pressure systems that causes compression of the isobars).

By Saturday noon the wind was at gale force. We were sailing under only a storm jib on the staysail stay, jogging along the rhumbline at two knots. The Aries steering gear was doing a good job until about dusk when we were knocked down. Greg ran through the hatch and clamored to the diving foredeck to drag down the sail and bag it. After adjusting the Aries, he came below, where I was busy stowing items that had rocketed across the cabin during our knockdown.

Darkness fell and we were knocked down again. Alarmed at this turn of events, we were anxiously discussing our next course of action when we were slammed by a roaring breaker and rolled through 360°. Greg bounced off of the table and landed on top of me in my berth. It was over quickly, but the aftermath was an appalling mess.

Outside, the solar panel had parted from its boom gallows bracket, the Aries wind blade was a jagged stump, and the mast was twisted. The rigging, still intact, slapped violently about. The boom had been badly bowed as it was forcibly washed from its stowed position in the gallows. Remarkably, the dinghy still lay in its chocks, though its lashings were loosened by the roll.

Below, things were in disarray, but no damage had been done. The heavy things were secure even though we had never finished stowage details. Top loading food lockers were a source of grief. Fortunately, neither of us had been injured during the roll.

This was the beginning of 18 hours of hell at the helm for Greg. The tremendous pressure on the rudder and erratic thrashing of the tiller made it impossible for me to relieve him. We were sledding down a herring bone sea of 12-meter breakers -- a surfer's heaven, but a sailor's Hades.

It was quite light outside even though it was after sunset. The scene was more like a winter snowstorm in the Rockies than a seascape. The peaks would start to curl over, then a 90-knot gust of wind would tear the top right off in an explosion of blinding spray. Phosphorescence streaked past like tracer bullets. From below, it sounded like a hail storm. In between the gusts, the wind blew at 65 knots, leaving the crests intact so that the overhanging tons of water would hurtle down the slopes.

When Greg had been at the helm about an hour, the deafening roar of a rogue wave crashing down on us made my heart sink. He was torn from his grip on the tiller and was left floundering in roiling water. He didn't know whether he was still on the boat or overboard. It seemed forever before the decks cleared. I looked out and, thank God, he was still there. He gave me a little wave.

Monstrous seas propelled Pilot down the faces with frightening speed. The quarter waves curled, broke, and buried the hull to the cap rails. At the bottom, the wild ride finished with a crashing explosion that filled the decks to the top of the coachroof. Vertical walls of water were rearing straight up, breaking in a fashion more like the surf in Hawaii. Running before the seas was still the best tactic considering the conditions.

Pilot tracked extremely well, had plenty of buoyancy in the ends, and had an outboard rudder. We were able to run free without streaming warps or a drogue so that we wouldn't be caught by the worst breakers coming straight down on decks. Perhaps, if we had used this tactic in the beginning, instead of relying on the self-steering gear, we could have prevented the roll. Although, considering the immensity of that particular sea, we could have easily been pitchpoled with disastrous results.

Although Greg had tightened up all the turnbuckles, the boarding wave finished off the mast, and it came down. All the rigging was still holding the mast, which hung in the water to port like a crippled wing. It had been completely wrenched off a few inches above the mast step. The dinghy, which was also our life raft, remained in its chocks undamaged, although one oar was broken. The port lifelines were gone, and the stanchions were bent over the caprail. A ragged-bend in the mast was scoring the hull, so Greg set about removing the rigging. One by one, starting aft, he removed the cotter pins and clevis pins on the top of each rigging screw. Safety wire pliers made the operation possible. It also made it a singlehanded job, leaving him a free hand with which to take hold of something for support. The last pin was at the base of the forestay out on the end of the six-foot-long bowsprit. The pulpit was mangled and crimped permanently to starboard. As he crept out on the plunging bowsprit he wondered if this was how he was to die. Though frequently immersed in cold, green water, he managed to free the last clevis pin. The whole rig immediately slid over the port quarter and sank.

Without the mast, the motion of the boat was quicker and more tiring. Without so much as a stump, we now had no hope of rigging up enough sail to get us into port. Our thoughts turned toward survival.

I began watching the barometer on Saturday evening. What I observed was a dismal sight. About every 15 minutes it was dropping a millibar. Greg was in the early stages of hypothermia, so I made him hot drinks, found things for him to eat, and kept a hot water bottle filled to keep under his foul weather jacket. I couldn't bear to tell him the barometer was still falling at an alarming rate. I watched it until after midnight when it bottomed out at 979 mb.

By Sunday noon we were getting pooped less frequently. I had been attempting to clean up below so that Greg could be comfortable when he came below to rest. Although the bilge was dry, water was continually dripping in around the hatch boards and over the stove through the closure under the missing bronze cowl vent. A container of coffee grounds and one of parsley flakes had burst open and managed to stick to everything. Wet paperbacks littered the cabin sole. Every movement required great effort, so I had to sit and rest frequently.

At three o'clock Sunday, I was able to relieve Greg by putting a friction line around the tiller. He hobbled down below and proceeded to get the engine started. Without our solar panel, the batteries would soon be low. Salt water from the exhaust had made its way into the engine during the roll and had to be cleared. It took about an hour to get it running.

He made me a hot drink before he turned in. As soon as he handed it out, the wind started a whirlpool in the cup, whisking away half the contents. It made me wonder how much Greg had been able to eat Saturday night when the wind was at twice this velocity.

Finally, Greg had the opportunity to get into some dry clothes and rest. We were still running north. Twilight was upon us and there were only patches of low clouds. Stars were beginning to show themselves. As I watched them, I began to realize that one of the points of light was not a star but an airplane. When it turned away from us, the heat of its exhaust became visible. Although I had not thought about being rescued, I could see that this plane was operating in a search pattern, so I called Greg to see what he thought about sending up a parachute flare. He could barely lift himself up off the bunk to respond, but he found a flare and set it off. We sent two more up at 10-minute intervals, the third being a dud.

The Orion crew said they never saw the flares, but it seemed to us that they had seen the dud because they started flying around us shortly after it was set off. We tried to make ourselves seen with flashlights but soon realized that they were too faint. Greg handed up our searchlight, which we were able to use freely with the engine running. It was this that the plane crew say they saw.

All night long, RNZAF aircraft visited us at about two-hour intervals. We were unable to communicate with them as our handheld VHF wasn't working. At one point, an Orion dropped a huge fireball in our path. At first, I thought the glow from the flare was a ship approaching. When I saw it was a flare, I thought perhaps it was a marker for a helicopter or ship to find us. Another thought was that a life raft had shot it off in the hopes of attracting the attention of the aircraft. After all, we had not called for help. Someone else was in distress nearby.

Monday, June 6 was an eerie dawn. Pilot was in a corridor of sunlight with curtains of showers along either side. Rainbow shafts accented the edges of the mist. Melancholic flute music emanating from the bent stanchions seemed to forebode her watery grave 2.2 miles down. Generally shy shearwaters glided down the faces of the waves right next to the boat, seemingly attracted by the music. The seas were still enormous, but the wrath of the storm had been spent.

An RNZAF Orion passed overhead, so I called Greg. It seemed as though it must be time for something to happen. Poking his head up through the hatch, Greg drew my attention to a brilliant 180° rainbow astern. We were both admiring it when the gleaming white HMNZS Monowai, a New Zealand Navy survey ship, was elevated broadside out of the sea right into the center of the arch. The 97-meter ship was only a quarter of a mile away and yet was still disappearing in the swells.

Monowai still couldn't see us, so the Orion was buzzing us to give them a bearing. We didn't show up on radar and the coloring of Pilotwhite and light gray made us blend in with the whitehorses and foam.

A decision whether to abandon our vessel was now imminent. We couldn't sail anywhere, and we didn't have enough fuel to motor in to port. Neither of us had been hurt, but there was no guarantee that in our exhausted state, we wouldn't yet be injured. A tow was out of the question in those seas. Leaving Pilot seemed the sensible thing to do, but we cried as we watched Monowai launch its rigid-hulled inflatable (which had an inboard diesel and a jet-drive) to come get us.

Greg readied a bag to take with usif there was room. Many of the things we took now seem sort of odd, i.e., a hand coffee grinder. I seemed to insist on taking everything friends had given us on the trip. He also prepared a seacock to scuttle the boat. We didn't want Pilot to be a navigational hazard or wind up littering a reef somewhere. We could never have raised the money for a salvage operation 500 miles offshore on top of the cost of new rigging.

Things from here seem sort of surrealistic in my memory. Sub. Lt. Brad Tong, the boarding officer, pulled out some papers, which were immediately stripped from his hand by the wind. We were taken aboard Monowai's boat. After a roller coaster ride, the boat, crew, and passengers were hoisted up the side of the ship. It was a bumpy affair as the inflatable was thrown against the side of the hull each time the ship rolled in the swell.

We were escorted to the sick bay and examined by a doctor, fed hot soup, given hot showers, and dry clothes. After being shown to our berths, we were free to roam the ship. In the junior ratings' mess, we met an Australian couple by the name of Forbes, who had been taken off a catamaran, Ramtha, the day before. Their rescue was certainly a hair-raising tale.

Sunday, Ramtha had been near Monowai's path as she steamed for a dismasted yacht, which turned out to be Pilot. On the VHF, contact was established between the two vessels. Bill Forbes told Capt. Robbins that they had ripped their mainsail but were coping with the storm. As they spoke, Ramtha climbed up the vertical face of a wave and nearly capsized. Instead of flipping over backward, she, at the last minute, slid down astern, disabling her steering. Submitting to the catastrophic nature of the storm, Robyn and Bill requested that Monowai take them off.

As they prepared to help the crew of Ramtha, Monowai was rolling wildly enough to put her deck edges under. There was no way they could launch the ship's boat, so it was decided to shoot safety harnesses to the Forbes and drag them aboard in their wetsuits.

It was discovered, as Monowai tried to maneuver, that the ship could not turn. With the bow thruster engaged, one engine in full reverse and one engine in full forward, the wind and seas held her captive. Capt. Larry Robbins, however, was not thwarted.

He reduced his vessel's windage by retracting the hanger for the Wasp helicopter on the flight deck. It seemed to give them just the advantage they needed to maneuver. The wind was gusting to 80 knots and the seas were at least 33 feet. They persevered for four hours, getting close enough to Ramtha five times in an effort to send a line across. The fifth line, and last one remaining, was successful.

The only possessions Bill and Robyn could bring with them were those that they could stuff inside their wetsuits. They stood amidships donning their harnesses when Monowai took a massive roll to starboard. Without notice, the couple was catapulted over Ramtha's foredeck into the sea and pulled 150 meters through the water by a team of 15 Navy crew.

Miraculously, they were brought aboard with only minor bruises. Robyn wasn't in her harness correctly when she was launched. She was pulled backwards, getting three gulps of air until they were hoisted from the sea.

Monday afternoon, Monowai picked up a crew of four off the dismasted sloop Silver Shadow. They were not as lucky as the first four refugees. The owner of Silver Shadow, Peter O'Neil of Wellington, New Zealand, had a broken clavicle and shoulder blade. He had been injured by cabin sole hatches flying through the air during a 360° roll.

Conditions had deteriorated again by the time the Navy ship had reached Silver Shadow. Monowai launched their boat only because it was known that an injured man was aboard Silver Shadow. During the process of bringing the four men and their baggage off the yacht, the rigid hulled inflatable was holed. It was half full of water as the crew tried to break away from the hull of Monowai after the passengers had been hoisted away. The Volvo engine was coughing clouds of smoke and spitting out an oil slick as she tore around the ship with her self-bailers open.

That night Monowai was sent back to the area where we had been picked up to make ready for a search for survivors of Quartermaster the following day. Their life raft and EPIRB had been found, but there was no sign of the crew or wreckage.

Monowai sent her Wasp helicopter out all day, and the ship did a search pattern of her own with all available hands keeping watch for survivors. Wreckage identified as that of Heartlight was picked up. A New Zealand fishing vessel, San Te Maru 18, had picked up the crew, an American family, Daryl and Diviana Wheeler with their son Shane and his Kiwi wife. Nothing from Quartermaster was found by either Monowai or its Wasp, nor by the continuing efforts of the Orions, so it had to be assumed that the crew of three, a family from New Zealand, were dead.

During that Tuesday, we were able to hear about the plight of our friends on Sophia, Ursula Schmidt, a Swiss national, and Keith Levy, a New Zealander. The RNZAF was keeping watch over them while they waited for the French Naval vessel Jacques Cartier.

Sophia had been rolled over and had its rig washed cleanly away. Keith had injured his back and Ursula, a novice to sailing, had taken over. An opening skylight had been torn away, leaving a gaping hole for water to flood in. They were plucked out of their nightmare late Monday night.

Monowai was called off its search at the end of the day on Tuesday. We were three days from Tonga at that time. Monowai, which had been surveying throughout the rescue mission, continued to map the ocean floor as we proceeded to Nuku' Alofa. Greg worked in the engine room to earn his passage. Although it wasn't required, he enjoyed it and keeping busy helped relieve his grief. Scuttling one's boat is a lot like putting to sleep a pet that's been a part of the family for years.

After midnight, Captain Robbins was called to the bridge when the officers on watch closed in on a 12-meter ketch hove to with a strobe light blinking atop the mast. Monowai's starboard spotlight illuminated the bobbing vessel. Unable to rouse anyone with a loudspeaker or get any response from the VHF, Robbins gave a pull on the ships' horn. We were only a hundred meters away, so if anyone was aboard, they were likely to hear the blast.

The yacht came up on VHF. She was called Mary T., an American flagged yacht with four aboard. She had been one of the first yachts to alert authorities that she might require help. She had been taking on water, which was finally traced to a leak in the cockpit. The crew had been able to stem the flow and reported to Robbins that they now had rudder problems, but hoped to be able to go over the side to make repairs in the morning. Mary T. requested a weather report, which Robbins gave, and HMNZS Monowai resumed course.

On June 11, we arrived in Tonga, but bunked on the ship for the two nights it was in port. We talked to many of those in the regatta who had been on the fringes of the storm. It seemed that most everyone we talked to had some sort of damage.

On Monday, the small container ship, Ngamaru, from the Cook Islands arrived. It was bound for Auckland and had room for us. The captain, Jens Jensen, was a jovial Danish merchant marinerwho had been through a similar experience with his ship the very same week in June five years ago. He lost power in the storm and, broadside to the seas, all of his load had shifted to one side. The monstrous waves washed many of the containers overboard, leaving him nearly bankrupt. He had a sympathetic ear for us when we needed it. By Tuesday night, we were underway again, and, by Saturday night, we were alongside in Auckland.

More of the early June drama was revealed to us as we looked back through the newspaper clippings friends in Auckland had saved for us.

A Christchurch couple, Catherine Gilmour and John Hilhorst, had been preparing for a five-year around-the-world cruise for the past two years. Eight days into the journey, they had put out a distress call. Their boat, named Waikiwi II, had been rolled 360° twice, losing the rig, life raft and breaking out portlights. The crew of five had to scramble up ropes lowered down the side of a 35,000-ton Norwegian cargo ship when help came in the form of a headed for Panama. The ship tried unsuccessfully to take the Waikiwi II in tow.

Americans Dana and Paula Dinius, aboard the yacht Destiny, a 45-foot fiberglass monohull, were pitch-poled. Dana sustained a broken leg during the incident. Paula was not strong enough to cut away the broken mast in the raging seas, and they were afraid that the yacht would be holed by the rigging before help arrived, so they turned on their 406 MHz EPIRB. Destiny was taking on water when the Fijian freighter Tui Cakau arrived to take them off in 30-foot waves.

Yachts were not the only vessels to have trouble during the storm. A Norwegian freighter, Gulf Central, had their cargo shift, and was forced to return to port to reload.

One of the first things I did when we returned, was visit my friend at the MetService, Bob McDavitt. I was curious as to why a tropical depression with winds of 65 knots gusting to 90 knots was not classified as a cyclone and given a name. I also wanted to know what had happened between the time we left Auckland on May 31 and Saturday, June 4 when we found ourselves in the teeth of a force 12 storm. Bob dug out the surface maps for that week and showed me how a harmless looking wiggle in an isobar over Vanuatu on Thursday had become a 1001 mb low south of Fiji by noon Friday (New Zealand time) to create what is called a "bomb." I can only use his words to describe the mechanism.

"Once this depression moved south out of the tropics, it deepened rapidly. This is because it started entraining very cold air which had been brought all the way from 60°S by that high pressure system over New Zealand. When cold air meets warm air, the warm air is bumped upwards out of the way. If, as in this case, the upper winds remove the rising air faster than the lower winds can replace it, then the surface pressure in the immediate area falls rapidly."

Bob says South Pacific sailors can look forward to these bombs three or four times a year. I, for one, hope my next one is a UXB, the term for an unexploded bomb during WWII.

Barbara Parks and Gregory Forbes spent two decades voyaging, much of that in the Pacific.