Some thoughts on “big weather”…..

The South African Coast has experienced some pretty intense weather during the early days of October. Durban was hit by the exceptionally strong winds and torrential rain associated with a coastal “cut-off low”. Earlier in the same week, the Cape Peninsula was blasted by a North Westerly winter gale. 

A sailor who decided to put to sea from Durban, aware of the impending weather, has predictably been the topic of various opinions after his story was published by Richard Crockett’s online magazine  “Sailing” through the publication’s Facebook page Sailing Mag SA. 

I happened to be at sea during the gale that hit the Western Cape as I was delivering a Dix 38 from Port Elizabeth to Simon’s Town. I had had to be very patient leaving PE as there were only very short gaps between the SW gales blowing up the coast. Eventually there was a three day gap meaning we would probably be able to cover the 400 miles to Simon’s Town, but I also knew it would be a close call. As it turned out, we had a day of light Easterlies following the passing of the cold front in which we motor sailed to keep up the 6 knot average needed to make FBYC before the next forecast front, then a day and a half of glorious downwind sailing in 17-25 knots of ESE. We got 10 miles off Cape Hangklip before the wind died suddenly and just as quickly came through as a North Westerly gale with its frontal wind speeds in excess of 50 knots. It later died down to around 40, gusting 45. Even this was too much wind for us to make progress into and the sea that had built up rapidly compounded the situation. 

The forecast for weather we were trying to avoid being caught in!

The Dix designs are great seaworthy boats but the combination of high winds and short, steep seas caused by the relatively shallow waters of False Bay meant we realistically only had two options open:

1) we could turn and run back to Mossel Bay or 

2) we could “hove to” and sit out the worst of the weather and wait for the wind to back to the South West before sailing on home!

Both options had their pro’s and con’s. In favor of running for Mossel Bay was the fact that it was only 180 miles away or around 27 hours in those conditions. In Mossel Bay we could have refueled and rested before tackling the final stretch again. Counting against this strategy were several considerations. The first was that the passage east to Mossel Bay would see us going against the Agulhas Current from Cape Agulhas to Mossel Bay and with a wind against current scenario, the sea conditions were likely to be much worse than those we were encountering outside False Bay. Secondly, there was another front forecast for two days later, and although it was forecast to be nowhere near as strong as the current one, it would still make the homeward leg long and unpleasant or would have required a further wait of four days in Mossel Bay for the next gap.

The option of heaving to and waiting out the conditions at sea had a solitary con and that was that we would be drifting slowly towards a very busy shipping channel. The pro’s of the heave to option were that it would make the completion of the sail into our destination much quicker when the wind shifted and more importantly, that it would be much easier on the boat and the crew and, as long as we maintained a good lookout, much less risky. 

As it turned out, we spent Monday night slowly fore-reaching with a tiny section of headsail unfurled and backed. The rudder was set to counter the sail pushing the bow to leeward and a slow South Westerly course was made, away from land. The boat adopted an attitude of around 70° to the waves and thus resulted in a slightly rolly action but our progress was slowed to under one knot. By morning it appeared that the wind had dropped to around 30 knots and I decided to get underway again, on a North Easterly heading, back towards Cape Hangklip where I felt our best chance of entering False Bay was. Our progress was short lived! The wind soon increased to over 45 knots as we closed the coast and the only sensible plan of action was to heave to again. This time we adopted a different strategy and rolled away the headsail completely and hoisted the mainsail with three reefs. The boat sat far more comfortably with this configuration and adopted an attitude about 50° to the waves. The result was that the boat rose and fell with each swell but did not roll nearly as much as the previous night. Progress was also reduced to less than one knot in complete comfort, despite the anemometer registering gusts in excess of 65 knots.  

My concern about the shipping was unfounded as without fail, the Masters of ships were exceedingly courteous and accommodating. Only one ship’s offer to alter course for us was accepted because we both felt that one mile may be a little close to pass each other under the conditions. AIS is an amazing safety tool. With us transmitting our position, heading and speed, merchant ships were able to make course correction decisions from more than 30 miles away and we were able to call ships by name if we were concerned about their intentions. I don’t think any yacht seriously contemplating regular sailing in congested waters should do so without AIS, and the transponder type that gives a yacht of any size a digital presence on the bridge of every merchant ship within VHF range is preferable. 

Which brings me back to the question raised by the Durban sailor who chose to put to sea knowing that severe weather was forecast. Foolish and irresponsible? Or perhaps more responsible than it first appears?

I lean strongly towards the latter. Very few sailors will voluntarily put to sea in inclement conditions but there is no better way to learn how to deal with those conditions than by experiencing them! That’s the reality. You can only learn so much from books and the Internet. The designer can suggest a sailplan for dealing with storms and make a better than average guess as to his design’s handling characteristics but the only way to learn for certain is to go out and experience heavy weather for yourself, in your own vessel. The time to test your storm jib, trysail or streaming drogue/parachute anchor is when you are ready for it and have planned to do so, not when you are faced with an emergency situation. I am not for a minute suggesting that novices should head out to sea alone in storms. By all accounts, the Durban yachtsman is an experienced and capable sailor. Good seamanship entails many aspects and the competent crewing of a vessel is paramount. I am all for sailors with sufficient experience and well found yachts, getting together and putting to sea in lousy conditions and getting to know their own and their vessel’s ability. It may just save their lives one day. It’ll certainly expose any weaknesses in vessel or crew and those can be rectified for the future. 

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