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Running the Easting down

Jun 12, 2008

“Running the Easting down” is an old shellback’s term for a wild ride in the Southern Ocean. In the golden age of sail the great clipper ships ran before the fierce westerly winds between 40° and 60° south latitude. Clippers left the Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin and Cape Horn to port as they sailed round the bottom of the world for thousands of miles, week after week, dodging icebergs, enduring freezing gales and coping with every kind of equipment failure, injuries and even death. These square-rigged ships were built to take the punishment inflicted by mountainous seas and screaming storms. In fact, the big fore- and aft-rigged schooners, so common more than 100 years ago on both coasts of the U.S., were never very successful in that kind of tempestuous sailing.

Square sail or not, I decided to give the route a shot for Westsail 42 Fiona’s circumnavigation in 2002 to 2003. Fiona is a typical North Sea design of 100 years ago: double-ended, cutter-rigged and with a long, straight keel. For crew, I had Bob, who had about 10 years coastal sailing experience, and David, a recent college graduate with little sailing knowledge but a desire for some adventure before settling down in the workaday world. This he certainly got. The trip across the Atlantic north of the Azores-Bermuda High and then to Brazil was fairly routine, and we had our first taste of the Southern Ocean as we ran for Cape Town.

An inauspicious start
We left the Royal Cape Yacht Club in mid-October 2002, for the roughly 14,000 nm leg to South Georgia Island, which lies some 1,200 nm east of Cape Horn. We hoped to stop at New Zealand and the Falkland Islands on the way with a possible brief stop in the Kerguelen Archipelago if the weather was right. At first we had a fair wind and sailed south to Cape Agulhas, which actually edges out the Cape of Good Hope as the southernmost cape of the continent.

Once clear of South Africa, the weather deteriorated. Almost before we knew it we were dealing with heavy seas and wind up to 60 knots. After a couple of days the whisker pole dipped into the sea and fractured. Then the staysail halyard block disintegrated and the sail flogged itself to pieces before we could get it down. It was a rough introduction to what we might expect. After surveying the damage I decided to return to Cape Town, 400 nm astern. We crept into our old slip at the yacht club just a week after we left, our tail between our legs. The riggers and sailmakers in Cape Town were wonderful, and we left in shipshape condition on October 26, 2002, just four days after returning.

This time we had a beat to round Cape Agulhas but once clear the wind was fair and we headed for New Zealand. The Sailing Directions recommend holding a latitude of about 40º S, but by sailing to 50º S the distance is reduced by about 1,000 nm. The downside is that it is colder and windier, but the higher latitude would also put us in the vicinity of the Kerguelen Islands. The weather was indeed grungy, after about a week of booming fair winds, the breeze swung onto the nose and we eventually hove to under a double-reefed storm mainsail and reefed staysail. We drifted backwards more than 25 nm during the next day, which was frustrating.

A nasty accident
After the low passed we got the boat moving again but when David was working on the staysail its boom suddenly swung over and gave him a good knock on the head. I was at the wheel at the time and I saw him drop to the foredeck like he had been pole-axed. I left the wheel under the care of the wind vane and called for Bob.

David was bleeding copiously as we hustled him into the main cabin and wedged him into a dinette seat. The boat was rolling violently. Bob braced himself using some of the uprights and held me against David while I shaved David’s scalp. I didn’t think his skull was broken so I rubbed in Neosporin and pulled the edges of the wound together with butterfly bandages. That night he said he felt well enough to stand a watch — the days of iron men and wooden (well, fiberglass) ships are not over.

As we approached the Crozet Islands the seas built to immense combers rolling up from astern. One of them literally buried the boat, the cabin windows darkened and water squirted into the cabin from the main hatch slides. The fact that the aft cabin roof did not collapse as tons of water pressed the boat down was probably due to two steel supporting poles that rest on the inside of the hull. Much of the deck equipment, such as life rings and the MOB pole, were washed over the side but we were able to retrieve most of it.

Conditions improved as we approached Kerguelen and we got a good radar contact in fog. As the long, sub-Antarctic twilight faded, the fog lifted a few hundred feet to expose the stark, snow-covered coast. By morning it actually turned sunny as we headed up a bay to the French research station. This greatly surprised me: the coast pilot for the islands describes the archipelago as one of the stormiest places on earth, with gale-force winds more than half the time. David’s head was examined by the station doctor, and we enjoyed exquisite French cooking at the base before leaving the next day. I was not going to linger, if gales were really coming I preferred to deal with them at sea.

The South Indian Ocean
Two weeks after leaving Kerguelen we were 800 nm south of Cape Leeuwin, the southwestern corner of Australia. We had not experienced really bad weather but we were kept busy by constant sail shifting and reefing. The wind usually varied between southwest and northwest, to hold course we gybed once or twice a day. We rigged two whisker poles, one on each side, and ran the two sheets of the Yankee jib to snatch blocks on the respective poles, thus shifting tack was quite easy.

The heavy seas rolling up astern were hard on the steering systems: a couple of times the steering lines of the wind vane chafed through, usually when the wind had piped up and it took the efforts of all three to reeve a new one — one to hand steer and two of us to unship the heavy Aries wind vane. I was concerned that the main steering cables from the wheel to the rudder quadrant might fail also. One afternoon, just for a trial, we hauled out and rigged the emergency tiller, which was designed to attach directly to the rudder post. The forestay turnbuckle fractured on this leg — not a serious failure because the tack pennant kept the staysail luff fairly taut, even without the stay in tension. But changing the turnbuckle was an endurance test: the seawater temperature was in the high thirties, spray on the foredeck kept us drenched. As I struggled with tools to get the broken turnbuckle off the stay I developed considerable empathy for those hardy sailors of years ago who thought nothing of working on the wet foredeck for hours, often with minimal clothing.

Near the southeast corner of Australia the Aries gave up entirely: an aluminum tube, which was a structural part of the support assembly, sheared into two pieces. There was no way we could repair it. Hobart, Tasmania, was 1,000 nm closer than our intended destination in New Zealand so I decided to head there.

We had no coastal chart, just an offshore publication that showed Tasmania as an island about an inch across. By fortunate chance we had a sailing magazine on board that gave details of the radio schedule maintained by the Royal Tasmanian Yacht Club and I contacted them on SSB. On the last day as we sailed towards the coast the weather turned nasty with gale-force winds. Hand steering was a major chore but respite was not far away.

We entered the estuary leading to Hobart and in the lee shook out the reefs. A member of the yacht club talked us up the river as he drove along the shore road. He had arranged a slip for us in downtown Hobart and took our lines as we tied up on December 12, 2002, 6,203 nm logged since we left Cape Town. We sailed for Cape Horn on New Year’s Day, after a very busy fortnight. Besides getting spare parts for the Aries shipped out from England we found a broken bracket on the bow platform that required the attention of a welder. The webbing holding the slides on the mainsail was so worn that I had a sailmaker re-do it all. When I called on the VHF for outward clearance I gave our destination as Port Stanley, Falkland Islands. I had to repeat this several times — the radio operator apparently had no idea where it was.

The deep Southern Ocean
An enthusiastic member of the yacht club insisted that we visit Auckland Island, which lies about 300 nm south of New Zealand at 51º S. He said it was unique. It was on our way and he gave us Xerox copies of detailed charts, so we decided to give it try. A week later we arrived off the south coast as dawn was breaking. We were greeted by thousands of sea birds that wheeled and screamed overhead. It appeared to be typical sub-Antarctic tundra with no trees and no high mountains. Our friend had urged us to visit a scenic bay on the east side, but the bay was beset by turbulent winds and choppy seas. We sailed within a quarter mile of the shore — that was close enough. I noticed the chart copy we had was dated 1883 — things might have changed. We took some pictures and hung a right. Cape Horn and Port Stanley lay 5,000 nm downwind in the furious fifties.

On January 12 we crossed the international date line, it was a Sunday, so we had two of them: the first when ship’s time was 12 hours ahead of Greenwich and the second when we were 12 hours behind. The next day the weather deteriorated and eventually we hove to, just holding our position until the storm blew itself out. Unfortunately a heavy wave broke onto the boat and burst the staysail, which was sheeted to windward. This is a very useful sail for windy conditions so we carried it below to repair it with the old Read sewing machine.

We suspended our watch schedule and we all worked full-time to stitch two patches on the T-shaped tear. One person was needed just to stop the machine from sliding about as Fiona rolled furiously in the storm. We had the job done in about five hours and we were able to set the sail again.

The radar dies
A few days later we entered a region of very high humidity and the boat was plagued by heavy condensation — water dripped copiously off the bulkheads and hatches. It played havoc with the electronics, most of which we were able to dry out, but the radar was kaput for the rest of the cruise. Perhaps the condensation was associated with the presence of icebergs, which also appeared about this time. They were huge. They probably originated at the Ross Ice Shelf, which lay 1,000 nm to our south. Even though we kept a good lookout, it was a little scary at night without radar as we thrashed to the east hoping a berg would not get in the way. When they disappeared we encountered a period of intense squalls with wind shifts and cold rain.

Even without the temporary effect of the squalls we were finding that the weather down in the fifties was never constant for long: frequent shifts of wind direction and speed had us on deck several times a day reefing or gybing so that we could hold the course.

While we were furling the jib on January 23 we noticed that the furler had split vertically in half. The upper piece carried the drum, the lower the bearing, which was visible as the parts separated. I called the company on the Iridium satellite phone for advice, but they said the unit could only be repaired at a service center. We winched David to the masthead to relocate the stop and thus limit movement of the foils. This enabled us to use the jib in light winds.

A day later the wind increased to gale force and we reached under reefed staysail and reefed main. At the height of the storm I was working in the cockpit when I noticed a pod of pilot whales surfing close to the boat. They seemed to be enjoying the storm, their shiny black skins glowed. It was still blowing hard when David reported the toilet in the forward head had blocked up. As we pitched and rolled, I pulled the plumbing to pieces looking for the stoppage: this is when you find out if you are really cut out to enjoy ocean voyaging.

January 26 was David’s birthday. I baked a cake and we tossed a slice over the side for Father Neptune. After that we had an unusual spell of very calm weather. For six days we never even reefed the mainsail. Could there be something in the old sailor’s superstitions? Our daily mileage dropped, but near 100° W the wind came back and our speed picked up dramatically, Cape Horn was now a little more than 1,000 nm away.

One day the pressure fell by 17 millibars in 12 hours and when it bottomed out we got a gale. We arrived in the vicinity of Cape Horn as dawn was breaking on a rainy, misty day. The wind was piping up to 30 knots from the north. Just as I cracked the old joke, “There’s Cape Stiff, if you’re lucky you won’t see it again,” things began to go wrong. We were working forward to clear a fouled halyard when I noticed the vane seemed rather wobbly.

Walking over to the stern for a look, I saw that the support strut had broken again. This is the same failure that forced us into Hobart, this time it was the starboard strut. Shortly after the vane’s demise the starboard jib sheet parted with a bang. We passed about three nm south of the Horn at 1030 and gave the Chilean Navy a call on the radio. After recording details of the boat and voyage they wished us luck. The Cape was only intermittently visible in the driving rain and fog — I think they were being more than just polite. Later that day the wind picked up to about 50 knots. We furled the mainsail and set the spitfire jib on the forestay. When we lowered the boom the topping lift broke, permitting the boom to crash down. David was lucky to escape being brained but the force bent a stanchion. Despite all our problems there was one good thing: we picked up a 3-knot current that whisked Fiona past the Horn and Staten Island and ejected us into the Atlantic Ocean like a cork out of a champagne bottle. We made it to Port Stanley three days later, arriving in the late afternoon of Valentine’s Day, 46 days after leaving Hobart. We had added 5,634 nm to the log; I estimate we also received a boost from the current of about 552 nm, making a total distance sailed of 6,186 nm at an average of 134 nm a day.

South Georgia
Unlike the numerous abandoned hulks that lie scattered around the Falkland Islands we repaired our damage in short order. The British Antarctic Survey asked me to take their mail to the base on South Georgia. We loaded a 20-lb canvas bag stamped Royal Mail, and slipped our lines after a week tied up to the floating dock. The radar was still defunct and its loss added to our anxiety as we sailed through hundreds of miles of scattered icebergs. We slowed down at night and arrived off the spectacular coast as dawn was breaking, bathing the high, snow-covered mountains in gorgeous pink light. After a few days in Grytviken we powered over to Stromness. This is where Shackleton wound up at the end of the epic journey over the mountains and glaciers of South Georgia after his whaleboat had made a landfall on the west side of the island in 1916. We could see the manager’s house where the three men first made contact with civilization after two years, and we saw the stream they splashed down on their way out of the mountains.

We left for tropical Brazil, once clear of the coast we again encountered the field of icebergs that had plagued us on the way down. There was no moon, as night fell with gale-force winds we decided to lie a-hull until morning. Just after Bob came on watch at 2200 he was horrified to see a large growler close to the bow on the port side. He gave me a call to start the engine, as I came on deck we grazed the thing but by then the engine was running and we backed away without damage. I shall not easily forget the sight of its tortured outline in the beam of our flashlights as the storm tossed spray over it and it faded from view into the darkness.

When the sky lightened in the morning we counted 13 large icebergs in sight. We zigzagged through the field all that day and again lay a-hull the following night. By the next day the iceberg count has thinned although we still spotted a few. It seemed safe enough to sail through the night with a good lookout.

The next day we were clear of the ice, but by then the clouds rolled in and the wind increased to strong gale force on the nose. As we got into the roaring forties the wind strengthened to 50 knots, but that is an estimate based on the sea surface condition: the wind blew away our anemometer and its masthead mounting bracket. We slowly worked our way north to the horse latitudes, a band of variable weather lying above 39º S, allegedly so named because the old clippers had to abandon their cargos of horses and dump them in the sea when they ran out of fresh water. Variable is certainly the right word: on March 16 we enjoyed happy hour in the cockpit for the first time in months; a few hours later, just after midnight on the 17th we had to fight to furl the reefed mainsail in an estimated 60-knot wind that was shrieking across a foaming sea. But by evening we were jogging over a calm sea under a full moon. Our odyssey in the wake of the clippers was over, in many ways we were lucky.    

Contributing editor Eric Forsyth has sailed hundreds of thousands of miles, including two circumnavigations.

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