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Prepare for survival conditions

Apr 4, 2011

A passage to the Caribbean is interrupted by hurricane force winds and a piece of heavy weather gear proves its worth

We left the Huntington Yacht Club, in Huntington, N.Y., in late October at about 2200, bound for the Caribbean. We were destined to sail into hurricane conditions and have to make an unscheduled stop. Had I known what was in store for us, I would have postponed the trip.

On board my 53-foot Amel Super Maramu 2000 Kimberlite were Jim Casazza, Roberto Labrador and Charles Moschini three of my friends who have made many offshore passages with me. We had spoken via high frequency radio with Herb Hilgenberg, the weather router located in Canada, before our departure. As far as I am concerned Hilgenberg is the guru of Atlantic weather.

The forecast was for winds from the west at 40 knots, gusting to 50 for the next 24 hours.

Knowing that we were well prepared for these conditions, Hilgenberg gave us the green light to go.

That would make for a nice run down the sound and then a beam reach south. I wasn’t concerned, because Kimberlite is extraordinarily well found for these conditions. I also always go offshore with a 10-oz, 110-percent Yankee cut headsail. This sail is super reinforced with a webbed on clew. We have been through many gale storms and one hurricane on Kimberlite.

From the Sound to the Atlantic
Our trip east down Long Island Sound was uneventful but rather bouncy as the Sound is shallow and the wave period was about two seconds. We then turned south through Plum Gut at Orient Point, then past Montauk Point and into the Atlantic. The wave period was still short until we were off soundings about a day later. Then we had the normal Atlantic swell.

The extended forecast was for decreasing winds and a fine sail for a few days.
We sailed south and after about 24 hours the winds abated to about 30 knots as we sailed the rhumb line.

The Gulf Stream was presenting us with an interesting pattern. It was flowing east on the western side, then flowing north, then east again. We were heading 60 miles west of the north flowing eddy and I planned on entering the Gulf Stream in a section about 80 miles wide on the first eastern flowing section of the Gulf Stream. We were at sea and the day-to-day routine of sailing and relaxing was setting in. Since Amels can be sailed without leaving the cockpit by one person, we sail one man per watch for three hours. A year prior I sailed non-stop from St. Martin to Huntington solo.

The evening of the third day, we were about 60 miles from the easterly flowing Gulf Stream to our south and the northern flowing eddy 60 miles to our west. The wind was picking up and again, we were in 40- to 50-knot conditions. We checked in with Hilgenberg just before 1600 as everyone does. Hilgenberg is extremely organized and speaks to boats in order of their location. At this time of year he usually speaks to coastal boats heading south and then he works his way south, boat to boat.

Time to get ready
I was surprised when Hilgenberg spoke to me first and asked how long it would take me to make land. I said two to two and a half days. “In that case, prepare for survival conditions,” he replied. He said that a low had turned around and we would be facing extreme conditions. I’ve heard Hilgenberg say this only a few times in my life.

My main concern was that the weather was coming from the west and we would be headed towards the northern flowing eddy of the stream 60 miles away. I hoped that the bad conditions would be short as entering the Gulf Stream in a northern flow and sailing west would be horrific in high winds.

He told us to prepare the boat and he would call us at 0900 to see how we were making out. I have made more than 27 offshore passages using Hilgenberg and have only heard him come on three times in the morning to “check in.” That usually means, “Are you still floating?”

The wind kept building until we were sailing in a steady 50 knots with gusts to 60 knots. At that time we had just a little genoa and mizzen out.

Series drogue to the rescue
At that moment it was time to launch our savior: The Jordan series drogue. For those of you who are not familiar with it, it is a long line with about 157 10- to 12-inch parachutes attached. On the boat end is a bridle about 30 feet long made of one and a quarter-inch braided line and then a series of parachutes that face the boat. At the far end, about 300 feet, is a length of chain to keep the drogue in the water. As with all drogues it is launched from the stern. The secret to launch it is to fasten the bridle to the reinforced attachment points on the boat and then flake the drogue on deck to make sure there are no kinks or knots in the drogue line. I then have all the crew look at the setup, because if it gets tangled in something you can kiss that thing goodbye as a gift to Neptune.

Once that is done the launch is ridiculously easy. Just drop the far end (chain) in the water, feed out a few feet of drogue and off it goes. You would think once the drogue is fully launched there would be a yank on the boat. Some of the brilliance of this drogue is that the line stretches the boat squares to the oncoming wave and the world quickly becomes much calmer.

Almost everyone who I speak to about this drogue thinks that it puts you in peril from oncoming waves. That is far from the truth. The boat just rides on the oncoming waves like a duck and the wave passes under the boat. Since the drogue is longer than a wavelength there is always resistance to motion and you are not relying on one device in the water to slow you down.

Driving a submarine
Of course, if the oncoming wave is breaking, you are going to get wet. The Amel Super Maramu has a center cockpit. On every watch we were pooped at least once. One crewmember was up to his armpits in water in the cockpit. Amel has unusually large scuppers and the center cockpit drains in less than 30 seconds. On a few of my watches, the boat was totally invisible being completely under water. It was more like driving a submarine than a sailboat. As far as I know the Jordan is the only drogue actually tested and approved in a wave tank. You might think that I have some financial interest in Jordan but I am just a fanatic about it, having launched it too many times.

The only problem I found with the drogue this time is that the bridles were sitting against the mizzen backstays and as I attached a rolling hitch to the bridle to put the boat exactly square to the oncoming waves it put strain on the backstays. So we had to stay at about 20 degrees to the oncoming waves. This was not perfect, but much better than trying to run off by hand steering. Of course we had plenty of chafe gear both where the bridle passed over the hull and at the backstays. We checked that every hour.

It was then a matter of waiting out the weather. Everyone except the man on watch was safely in their bunks with weather board in place. The boat was amazing, not a drop of water inside, no squeaking furniture, all doors, cabinets and hatch boards in place. A bilge that is so dry that we keep paper towels in it.

Full hurricane conditions
The wind continued to build until we were in full hurricane conditions, with gusts to 100 knots and a minimum record of 69 knots (force 12). I estimated that the wave height was about 60 feet. We always had to have someone in the cockpit in case we were going to be run down by a big ship and had to cut the drogue away.

We have a Sea-Me radar transponder and an AIS receiver. At one point there was a ship about one mile away and I called them and asked if they saw us either visually or on radar — the answer was no. The motion down below was not like a ride in the park, however, considering the conditions the ride was smooth, with nothing flying around.

That night we heard on the VHF what no sailor ever wants to hear “This is the U.S. Coast Guard, KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR MEN IN THE WATER.” The signal was coming from either an airplane or helicopter. We later found out that the sailing vessel a Swan 44 Free Fall was dismasted, the crew was in the water and the captain was dead. (You can see the rescue video and the Coast Guard story at http://lifefloatingby.blogspot.com/2008/10/coast-guard-rescues-2-mt-pleasant.html)

Free Fall was about 150 to 200 miles to the west of us and I was surprised that we could hear its VHF transmissions. They were about 100 miles offshore and the Coast Guard reported winds 50 to 60 knots with waves 40 to 50 feet. So my estimate of wave height was accurate. Being farther offshore, we faced a greater fetch of the waves and thus higher waves and stronger winds.

Staying behind the doghouse
The seas were white with spume and the spray actually hurt your face. Our Amel also has a hard dodger and what we call a doghouse. The dodger is strong fiberglass with two big Plexiglas ports in front and smaller ones on the side. The doghouse portion is made of a white vinyl material with tie downs and clear soft plastic windows. It entirely encloses the cockpit from the dodger to the deck. I was amazed that the doghouse actually held up almost through the total hurricane, as it was facing directly into the wind.

On deck the sound of the wind through the rigging and around the doghouse was very eerie. It ranged from a loud whistle to a very loud deep groan.
The next morning we heard from Bermuda that two more boats had been abandoned to the east of us. Since we had left a little early and in a period of bad weather and there were only the four boats between New York and Bermuda. We were now the only boat still sailing.

Later I found out that there was another boat out there close to Bermuda, Sir Richard Branson’s 99-foot Virgin Money. Branson was attempting to set a trans-Atlantic speed record. Branson and Virgin Money eventually had to retire from their attempt, putting in to Bermuda.

On the drogue we were averaging about two to three knots downwind towards the northern flowing Gulf Stream. That was my main worry as I figured we had about six hours before we were in the horrific conditions in the Gulf Stream in a hurricane. Hilgenberg came on the radio at 0900 and gave us the best possible news; the northerly-flowing stream had been blown 60 miles farther east. It was amazing news!

Not done yet    
In the afternoon we again checked in with Hilgenberg at his normal time and he gave us the bad news, we had at least another 12 hours to go in these conditions. He came on again at 0900 the next day to see how we were doing; we were fine, unfortunately our Tuscan chef Charles could not cook so we stuck to basic foods.

We continued sailing on the drogue for a total of 36 hours and then the wind abated to 40 to 50 knots. We decided to take in the drogue. Retrieving the drogue was a dream. We had two people on the stern guiding the drogue on board so the parachutes would not be torn and two people on the primary electric winch. The drogue has to be tailed by hand as the line is too large to fit into the jaws of the winch. Additionally, we had to be careful not to tear the parachutes on the horn of the jaws of the winch. It took about 15 minutes to bring back the drogue with little effort.

Putting into Bermuda
We then made a beeline south. The ride was quite bumpy but we made it through the stream. In the afternoon Hilgenberg came on at his usual time and said that there were two more storm fronts headed our way and we should head to Bermuda since he felt the crew was tired and beat up. Bermuda was about 100 miles out of our way, but off we went. We clocked off two 200-mile days. In fact, we made such good time that Hilgenberg said we had outrun the storms and just keep on sailing south. We received the news just as we passed the Bermuda spit buoy and were looking at St. George’s and the lights of Bermuda.

Finally a gourmet meal — linguine with vongole white clam sauce, a garden salad and Carvel ice cream cake for dessert.

The rest of the trip was uneventful and six days later we were lying at anchor outside the Simpson Bay Bridge, Sint Maarten waiting for the 1730 opening.

The only damage we suffered was that the attachment points for the small bungee cords that held down the doghouse were torn off or damaged. Considering the winds the doghouse faced, I thought that was amazing. Even the zippers on the doghouse held.

All in all I think we did almost everything humanly possible to make the best of a horrible situation and I thank my crew, Roberto, Jim, and Charles for their professional work and Dave Pelissier of Ace Sailmakers for the drogue that probably saved our lives.    

It is interesting to note that my good friend John Lowth, owner of Trinity, also left from Huntington four days later and had a nine-day beam reach to St. Thomas.  
 
Eric Freedman lives in Huntington, N.Y., and has sailed more than 60,000 ocean miles. He is a member of the Ocean Cruising Club and The Cruising Club of America.

What we did right
• I had a great crew, everyone was familiar with me and the boat, and they all had made many passages with me and were strong and stoic in the worst of conditions.
• We had the Jordan series drogue.
• We had an SSB radio, radar and we were able to keep in touch with the weatherman.
• We also had three satellite phones on board.
 
Improvements based on the experience
• What we did not have was an AIS transceiver-we do now.
• The doghouse now has webbing to hold it down. I had the sailmaker make about five loops of webbing on both sides of each zipper, so if the zipper breaks we can tie the doghouse together.
• I am also designing a different set of attachment points for the drogue bridle so we can adjust it without putting strain on the backstays.

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