Jester’s Ultimate Storm
by Mike Richey
In Heavy Weather Sailing, Adlard Coles defines a survival storm, as distinct from a full gale, as those conditions in which, the wind at Force 10 or above and perhaps gusting at hurricane strength, wind and sea become the masters; there is little the unfortunate mariner can do. It is impossible for anyone in a small boat in the middle of an ocean storm to judge wind-speed or sea-state accurately, if only because the height of eye will be too low to see enough of the sea surface. However, an experienced observer will be able to distinguish between storm-force and gale-force winds and if he knows his craft well enough he will sense when she has become at the mercy of the seas. In precisely these terms I believe Jester to have experienced a survival storm in the vicinity of
48° 30′ N., 12° 30′ W. on 1 August 1986. She was on her way back from Nova Scotia to Plymouth, some 25 days out, 250 miles from her destination. It was her thirteenth transatlantic crossing.
The source of the trouble was a fast-moving but initially inoffensive depression which had travelled over from Newfoundland and, in the region of forecast area Sole, rapidly deepened to 978 mb. An analysis of the storm and possible reasons for its particular violence is given later.
I was single-handed and had filed a route with the Canadian coastguard at Chebucto Head passing south-west of Sable Island, south of the Grand Banks to about 43° N., 50° W. and thence by great circle to the Lizard. Hard weather towards the latter part of the voyage had put us a bit south of track, but there had been few headwinds and by and large the route plan had been adhered to; in normal circumstances we would have made Plymouth on or around the date suggested to the coastguard, 5 August.
Jester, a 25 ft Folkboat hull with full enclosure and a single Chinese junk sail, had been almost two years in Nova Scotia and as we sailed down the Arm past the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron on 6 July before a brisk northerly I could but remember that morning in 1984 when the boat put alongside at the end of a long windward passage, leaking more than I would have liked, the sail damaged and thus diminishing an already abysmal windward performance. I had taken almost a week beating up from Canso, the nominally westgoing Labrador current setting merrily eastward. A shoulder injury prevented me sailing back the following year and Jester had again wintered in that cold and inhospitable climate so inimical to wooden boats. Now, leaving Armdale homeward bound, I felt once more master of my fate. It was, it so happens, my birthday
The 31st, some 25 days later, was a perfect day. The sun shone and you could see for miles. A gentle but dying north-westerly sped us towards the Lizard. It was the start of that period, shortly before landfall, when the voyage starts to take shape and is seen as a thing made – whether well or badly. By 1630 there was not a breath, but even this interlude seemed welcome. We had had a slight blow the night before and I took advantage of the calm to open up the hatches and air the ship out, drying damp clothes and so on. I took a Moon and Sun sight, the bodies at a broad angle of cut which transferred back gave a noon position 48° 28′ N., 12° 50′ W. It was to be the last position fix.
At about 1950 a gentle breeze set in from the south-east and Jester sailed on under full sail, close-hauled on the starboard tack, (Times throughout are GMT, many of them approximate.) The wind increased rapidly and I took down successive reefs until, by 0245, 1 August, we were under a single panel of sail, in effect storm canvas. The seas had started to get up and at 0420 I decided to ride the gale out in comfort, hove-to on the starboard tack and using the self-steering gear to keep the boat on the wind; in this fashion she would fore-reach a little drifting to leeward in the general direction of the Lizard. A gale with such little warning I expected to be short-lived.
The rain now came down with a marked increase in wind strength. It fell in torrents, of an almost tropical nature, and seemed to go on forever. I began to wonder at all this violence. It was scarcely the latitude for hurricanes and there had in any case been no tell-tale signs. By 0630 there was too much wind to carry any canvas and I decided to run before the gale, letting the self-steering gear keep the wind on the starboard quarter. I had many times used such a tactic. I had, as it happens, considerable difficulty stowing the top panel of sail, so hard was it now blowing, but finally lashed it securely to the boom. Having set the boat on course I retired to my bunk, the best place to monitor a gale, from where every sound can be identified, every movement interpreted. The seas had by now become heavy and turbulent, the tops falling off and occasionally overwhelming the boat like a waterfall. There seemed little point in watching all this and I suppose I dozed off. I was not at this juncture particularly anxious, although the boat was travelling at near hull speed and I knew that at some stage we would have to slow down.
At about nine the boat was smashed down heavily to port, shipping water through the open (19 in. diameter) control hatch. I shot out of my bunk, instinctively making for the light. We had clearly capsized, though whether through 360° or not I don’t know. With her ton of outside ballast Jester had quickly righted herself. The water was above the floorboards, and I started to bail vigorously. The wind vane had been carried away, the metal shaft buckled over to port and the 12 ft sweep lashed on the foredeck had somehow snapped in two. Down below everything detachable lay in ugly heaps: spaghetti, books, torches, anchor chain, socks, papers, instruments and so on. Bailing through the central control hatch was slow and difficult but to open up the lee side hatch would be to get swamped. I was able in due course to poke the Henderson pump outlet pipe through the forward scuttle but the pump itself soon jammed, the bilge full of an amorphous mess that clogged the strum box.
The wind was now clearly of storm force, stronger than anything I had previously experienced, the seas massive and treacherous. The options before me were not many. With no self-steering I should either have to use the whipstaff, which precluded the possibility of fitting the ‘hurricane hatch’, a wooden plug which seals the central control hatch, or to lie a-try. The seas I judged to be too heavy and too violent to make towing warps or (as I have on occasion) the Bruce anchor worth while. Running, I felt the boat might easily pitchpole. Better let her take up her own position in the storm, offering the least resistance to the waves, even though lying beam-on carried with it the risk of a roll-over. It was Hobson’s choice. Accordingly, at 1050 I let the boat lie a-hull on the starboard tack, the helm lashed amidships, at the mercy of the storm but at least rolling with the
punches. In such conditions Jester normally takes up a position with the wind just abaft the beam, and so she lay for a while, the tempest raging about her.
The mess below was indescribable. I did what I could to reduce the water level and then fitted the hurricane hatch. In theory we could now roll through 360° without letting in too much water: unfortunately, however, recent work on the whale-back cabin top had left the side hatches far from watertight. The strum box I was completely unable to clear or, with the bilges full, detach. The pump was effectively out of action.
By 1400 the storm seemed to be at its height. The seas through the scuttle looked like mountain ski slopes, completely white and spume blown off the surface had created a green fog. The noise of the wind had risen from a roar to a shriek. At one stage I remember seeing through the scuttle a breaking wave travelling at great speed across the wave train, which I took to be an indication of wind shift with the passage of the trough: but it is more likely to have been a freak wave or rogue, although the cause of the cross-swell remains obscure. From time to time the approach of a breaking wave would be heralded by a hissing, until it passed over the boat like a waterfall, forcing water through every crevice. At 1450 Jester was again smashed down heavily to port and lay for a while on her beam ends. The sea was now clearly master; all I could do was hope to weather the storm.
Thus I lay athwartships on the bunk aft, my feet to leeward wedged against the cabin top. I was by no means confident that I was doing the right thing. The violence had reached alarming proportions and I wondered how much more the boat would stand. This might, I thought, be the end. I viewed the prospect with equanimity, although without enthusiasm, wondering how the last moments might pass. It had, I reflected playfully, at least a certain style. At 1800 the boat was knocked down again heavily to port. Our chances I thought were about even.
At 2030, approximately, I noticed through the scuttle the ends of the downhauls and hauling parrel trailing from the rope box on deck. The weather must by now have eased for I removed the hurricane hatch to clear them. At that moment the boat was knocked down violently to port, rolling through 360° in perhaps 10 seconds. I had my hands on the inside rim of the control hatch and must have been doubled over backwards, shouting as we came up ‘ God, I’ve broken my back’. The mast had snapped about 12 ft above the deck and, for some reason (pressure?), the forehatch cover had blown completely out. The boat was now wallowing, although more stable without the mast. The first thing was to get rid of the water and I seized the heads bucket, a pliable plastic object which would fit into confined spaces. Filled, I couldn’t lift it; my back had seized up completely, frozen. (As it turned out, I had fractured three vertebrae.)
This was a new situation and I had to reassess the options. Like the desert traveller with his mirage, I foresaw the possibility of a dry sunny day, the seas calmed and the boat pumped out, sailing towards her destination under jury rig. Even the prospect of hand-steering for two or three hundred miles did not dismay me for I had done that before. The boat, I told myself, was damaged, not sinking. If I could survive the night I would be able to make a sound judgment. Then I remembered my back: with no mast or effective jury rig, no self-steering, no forehatch cover (and probably no food) it seemed unlikely that I would be able to make port without assistance. I thus activated the emergency switch on the personal locator beacon (EPIRB) and placed it on deck, made fast to a cleat. This was about 2130 on the 1st, as night was approaching.
I had neither eaten nor drunk since the storm began and found a pot of honey intact in one of the lockers. The water bottles were still in place held between the frames by shock cord, and so I ate and drank. The boat was awash but there was nothing I could do about it. There was no light on board. The battery had been thrown out of its stowage and the torches for some reason refused to work, the bulbs no doubt broken. I began to feel intensely cold, shivering violently. I remembered advice once given me that the body feels cold through evaporation and got into my wet sleeping bag, drawing the cord tight around my neck. So, amidst the undistinguishable chaos aft I wedged myself, back to the starboard side, feet on the cabin top, and waited for the dawn. I was starting to hallucinate slightly, no doubt through fatigue, confident that a companion had taken over the watch. Colin Irwin (who attempted the North West Passage in a junk-rigged boat some years ago) had helped me prepare Jester for sea and I started to address him by name.
The mast, to weather, still attached by the halyard, was now charging the bottom, the metal fitting no doubt cutting into the planking; at one stage I got out to try to cut it loose, but I was unable to sort things out. The lights of a trawler fishing were clearly visible and I thought of firing a red flare but refrained. By now I seemed to have forgotten the EPIRB and made plans for the next day. I would first cut loose the mast and then saw through the pump inlet above the strum box and pump out. Then I would reassess the situation, see if I could devise a jury rig, and even repair the self-steering gear, somehow constructing a wind vane.
When dawn came I successfully got rid of the mast, cutting through the halyard. I watched it float off, an old friend with whom I’d travelled many thousand miles. At 0720 an aircraft flew over, her lights on, and put down green flares. For some reason I assumed it was French, perhaps from Brest. I was far from happy at the sight for by now I was regretting the distress call, thinking it premature. I had no intention of abandoning Jester and wondered what the situation would be if a helicopter arrived, dropping a life-raft so that I could be winched to safety. It would seem discourteous to ignore it; on the other hand, to leave Jester floating in the Atlantic would be quite unacceptable. All I wanted was assistance – perhaps a tow.
The aircraft, in fact a Nimrod (Flight-Lieutenant Gary Soul) from RAF Kinloss, came back several times, putting down flares to reassure me, and just before 1000, first a Spanish trawler and, a few minutes behind her, a pretty white cargo vessel flying the Red Ensign approached from the north-west. The Spaniard got to windward and fast drifted down. There was still a heavy swell running, although the wind had abated, and I could see that Jester was going to be damaged. They wanted to get me on board and abandon the vessel and put a grapnel round the stump of the mast, the crew ready to catch me as I jumped. I could not make myself understood and with some difficulty cast off the grapnel. Jester slid down the port side doing considerable damage to her deck and top strake as she passed the otter boards. The Spaniard’s intention had been wholly honourable and I regretted an ungracious parting.
The British ship, Geestbay (Captain David Boon), meanwhile stood off, scrambling net and jumping ladder lowered. She hand-signalled that she could lift Jester on board and then fired two Schermuly pistols with heaving lines. I fished out one of the lines with the boathook and was able to get the boat alongside. Then, under the Captain’s direction, but with some difficulty, I passed a strop lowered on one of the crane hooks down through the forehatch, twice round the stump of the mast and up through the hatch again to the hook. I scrambled on to the ladder and climbed up to the deck. ‘You’re Mike Richey aren’t you?’ asked the First Engineer, a sailing man. ‘God you look tired,’ he said.
Jester was lifted out like a fish on a line, the entire weight (including water) taken by the mast stump, held at the heel by heavy oak timbers through-bolted and at the partners by a metal reinforcement to spread the load across the deck. The ship was rolling heavily at the time with perhaps a 15 ft swell; the whole operation was a fine display of seamanship. Alas, during most of it I dared not look.
Jester with heaving lines attached
Once Jester had been settled on deck I was shown the Owner’s cabin. A whisky and soda soon appeared and after a hot bath I turned in and slept the clock round. A day later we reached Barry Docks in South Wales. Slightly vulnerable at the time (we people do not, after all, have to put to sea), I was overwhelmed by the kindness of the Captain and crew. It was a fine example of the brotherhood of the sea. I was later to receive a letter from the Chief Executive of the Geest Line ending: ‘.. .like many others, I am delighted you made the decision to activate your locator beacon’.
Jester was recovered in position 49° 22′ N., 10° 43′ W., in much the same spot that Geestbay rescued the crew of Atlantic Challenger a year earlier. The storm caught Jester right on the edge of the Continental Shelf, though what effect this might have had on the wave pattern is a matter for oceanographers. There are at least theoretical reasons for believing that internal tides caused by the rapid change of depth at the shelf-break, superimposed on the surface tides, can significantly affect the steepness of storm waves at the surface. During the storm the boat made good 100 n.m. in a direction 057°, an average of 2.5 knots.
From an examination of the surface analysis charts and 500 mb winds and temperatures as well as sea temperatures for the area in question, Alan Watts has suggested that the particular violence of the storm was probably due to convection from unusually cold air at altitude, which would also account for the rapid deepening of the low. The low appears to have migrated through the axis of a more or less stationary cold trough at altitude. The measured gradient gave 80 knots of wind at 2000 ft which would give 60 knots at sea-level, though with convection currents the full 80 knots would at times be felt, creating conditions similar to those in the Fastnet gale of 1979, where episodic freak waves so devastated the ocean racing fleet.
There is generally something to be learned from such events, exceptional though they may be. Much has been written about how to behave in storm conditions but I have the feeling that above Force 10 there can be few hard-and-fast rules. Boats respond differently, and knowing how the boat behaves must be more than half the game. Jester rolled over whilst lying a-hull and may have gone
through 360° at the first knockdown before she lay a-try. I still think it would have been imprudent to start running again, even towing warps in such conditions. Whether the helm should have been lashed down (or in Jester’s case the whipstaff to windward) is a moot point. I doubt whether the outcome would have been different either way.
Undoubtedly familiarity breeds contempt, in the ocean as elsewhere. Perhaps crossing so many times in Jester without incident made for a casual approach. Certainly I was not prepared in all respects for the worst, though it would be tedious to elaborate. It is difficult to envisage the sheer physical destructiveness of a storm once things start to be thrown about. Had more meticulous attention been paid to sea stowage the pump might not have jammed. Strum boxes or filters are still recommended, but with a wide-bore pipe their advantage in extreme conditions seems dubious; if used they should be detachable on flexible suction hose that can be lifted out. Perhaps two pumps might be an improvement from the point of view of reliability, although Jester’s architecture does not lend itself easily to such a solution. The side-hatches leaked slightly – an inconvenience I was prepared to accept for the length of the voyage but which proved more than that.
Jester has no engine. With an injured back I was probably not fit to continue the voyage under jury rig after the storm; that is perhaps a limitation of single-handing. I had lost the 12 ft sweep which I saw as an element of any jury rig, but the sail, boom, yard and battens all survived intact. Perhaps the prudent mariner would always carry the jury spars and sail designed for the boat: I never have. This is all in the realm of conjecture. What is certain is that Jester survived a tremendous buffeting. In other circumstances (or perhaps a more resolute command) she might yet have made land without assistance. Few boats, I think, would have stood up to it so well.
H. G. Hasler writes:
Mike Richey has owned Jester for nearly twice as long as I did, and has done twice as many North Atlantic crossings in her. Now he has had the bad luck to encounter the extreme conditions that were often in my mind but never, by good luck, any closer. I do not think that any small-boat seaman will feel qualified to criticize the performance of the boat, or her skipper, in surviving them. However, like Mike, we can all learn some useful lessons and, on this basis, a few random comments may be in order.
Jester is handled from an enclosable control position amidships. Towing warps would have involved getting out on deck to reach the cleats on her quarters. To do this under survival conditions could have been suicidal. I would certainly have let her lie a-hull, as Mike did, but perhaps with the helm lashed down, which I believe is kinder to the rudder and tends to give her a smidgen of headway and to push her bow a few degrees higher. It would, I suppose, be possible to keep the bight of a long warp ready rigged round her stern, outside the vane gear, with provision for paying it out from the control position, but this would need some ingenious planning. I do not know if she would have been any safer running with a bight of warp astern. Only experience could tell.
I wonder whether the wind may not in fact have veered appreciably from SE during the storm, even if Mike was in no position to monitor it accurately. Clues would seem to be his observation of a breaking wave travelling across the main wave train, and perhaps the fact that his drift was in a direction of 057°.
When reading ‘The weather must by now have eased, for I removed the hurricane hatch…’ just before his final knock-down I was reminded of Bill King’s experience of being rolled in Galway Blazer II, 1000 miles WSW of Cape Town in 1968. To quote from his book Capsize: ‘ The wind started to die down. At about Force 9 I decided to go out on deck. I took the hurricane hatches off and went aft to look at the vane-steering… Then, as if led by a guardian angel, I returned to the enclosed cockpit for a piece of rope to secure the foresail… ‘. A few seconds later she was rolled through 360°, carrying away the top of her foremast and springing the mainmast. It seems that the first lull after a heavy blow may be the most dangerous time for freak waves.
The fact that Jester’s well-secured forehatch cover was sucked off and lost could have been disastrous. In survival conditions a boat’s upper works and hatches should ideally be as strong as her bottom, but I’ve never yet seen a boat that achieves this. The only time I was ever thrown in Jester, off Aberdeen in 1961, she went over to about 120° and dropped into the trough as if on to concrete, bashing a hole big enough for me to crawl through on the lee side of her curved coach-roof. Next year, Souter’s doubled up the thickness of the ply skin for me. Incidentally, on this occasion all the screw-top glass food jars on the heavily fiddled galley shelf shot straight upwards and smashed against the deckhead, teaching me to use plastic jars in future.
Jester’s unstayed mast of hollow spruce had a good innings: 33 years of it, to be precise. Originally built by Camper & Nicholson’s to the order of Vosper’s, who were at that time sponsoring her original ‘Lapwing’ rig, it was later lengthened at the top by See’s of Fareham. The change to junk rig in 1959 merely called for a different masthead fitting, and it has been flexing away happily ever since.
Copyright © Mike Richey (Royal Institute of Navigation 1987)