As I sit here remembering the events of last Wednesday, I feel in some ways excited! Yes it was pretty terrifying and there is no doubt in my mind that we nearly died, which would obviously not have been ideal! But looking back it was pretty exhilarating - anyone that knows me would definitely say I am a bit crazy so this probably comes as no surprise to them! But hindsight is a wonderful thing and it could have turned out very, very differently. Here’s what happened…
We set off at around 7am in the morning. It was chilly as we raised the anchor, but it soon warmed up when the sun came out and we were expecting a pretty mundane day of sailing. In fact, the plan was for me to do a deep clean of the inside of the boat whilst Ryan took watch for the day. As I was washing the bedroom walls, as you do whilst sailing, the boat went dark and I remember thinking it must be about to rain. Actually, that’s a lie, my actual thought was, “oh good, if it rains I can get out on deck and give it a scrub and get the salt off! – again, anyone who knows me would expect this sort of thinking!
A couple of minutes later Ryan called down and said there was a tornado. I went up on deck, thinking he was joking, but sure enough on the horizon behind us was a bloody tornado! We could see it quite clearly and it was churning the water up where it met the sea. Ryan was at the helm (wheel) at this point and I ran to grab the Go Pro so I could get it on film. I filmed for a few seconds then Ryan suddenly bolted to the winches and started dropping the main sail. Afterwards, Ryan told me he watched the wind go from 13 knots down to 2 knots in a matter of seconds and experience has taught us that when the wind dies like this, it is usually because there is about to be a massive gust. He was right. He had just dropped the main and got back on the helm and I had moved from the back of the boat where I was filming, to the stairs, when everything suddenly flew everywhere and we got 28 knots of wind. The wind alarm started going off and it was clear that the tornado had made its way from the horizon and was closing in on us. I ran downstairs to shut the windows – to Ryan’s annoyance as he is always nagging me to keep them closed when sailing, but I was having a cleaning session and needed some air so I had opened a few! As I whizzed round the boat closing windows and grabbing our lifejackets and clip on lines, he shouted down to me that he could see another tornado coming. Brilliant!
I’m not really sure that either of us were thinking about anything at this point, we kind of just went into auto-pilot. I put my life-jacket on, then put Ryan’s on and clipped us both onto the boat whilst Ryan tried to keep the boat stable. Luckily Poppy had been downstairs so I closed the hatch, so the boat was sealed up and no water could get in. It was absolutely hammering it down with rain by this point and we were already absolutely soaked. The wind built to around 63 knots and we both knew we were in trouble. Every now and again we would give each other a look – I think we were both trying to be calm for the other one, but I’m sure my face showed how scared I was and Ryan’s bulging eyes and occasional shouts of “F****** HELL” kind of game it away that he wasn’t too comfortable with the situation either!
Then things got really bad… our main sail which Ryan had dropped in anticipation of the tornado, had raised itself in the wind and become pinned to our rigging. Ryan shouted out and my instinct was to go up on deck and try to sort it but that was obviously not going to happen with the state of the weather. It would have been way too dangerous and with that sea state and wind, if I had fallen in, there would have been absolutely no way Ryan would have even been able to see me in the water, let alone be able to turn the boat around to get me.
We just had to leave the sail as it was, there was nothing we could have done and because of this, Ryan shouted to me that we were probably going to capsize. I’m not sure why I wasn’t crying or screaming at this point, but I think adrenaline had fully taken hold and my response was “yeah OK I’m ready” – as if anyone is ever ready for a capsize! I put the long seat cushions from our cockpit benches all around me on the floor and laid down bracing myself and hoping that I would remember to hold my breath if we went under!
If we had capsized, because he was at the wheel and so would have been thrown about into things, Ryan would have most likely been injured and possibly knocked out. I knew, if this happened, that it would probably be down to me to firstly, make sure Ryan was safe-ish and then to try to keep the boat from rolling again. I must say, I am pretty proud of myself for being so calm and logical throughout this. I expect my thought process wasn’t up to professional sailing standards, but for a ditsy blonde who had only been sailing a year, I think I did alright with not panicking!
Luckily, we didn’t capsize, but I am not exaggerating when I say the whole of the side of the boat was in the water at times! From my little protective den on the floor, I could see out of the back of the boat that the floor was vertical. Every couple of minutes Ryan would slip and at one point he was literally laying on the floor/standing on the side of the boat, steering! Christ knows how he managed to steer, horizontally or vertically, because we had our main sail pinned up so he couldn’t see anything at all, but regardless, the rain was so strong the visibility was only about 20 meters anyway.
Then, the wind calmed down slightly and the sky brightened up a little. I sat up from my ‘den’ and said to Ryan, “we’re in the eye of the storm aren’t we”, to which he replied “yeah I think so”. We gave each other a knowing look, both blatantly thinking WHAT THE F****** F***!! I said “it’s alright, we’re halfway through it then” – probably the most positive thing I’ve ever said – and with that the wind picked back up and we were onto round 2, this time with the addition of thunder and lightning.
This carried on for what seemed like hours but in fact the worst of the wind only lasted for about an hour and a half. We both kept shouting to each other to check we were still alright, and Ryan just kept telling me to stay down and prepare myself for a capsize. By this point, after being soaking wet for a while, the rain, or more aptly hail, showed no sign of stopping and I was absolutely freezing. I had had no time to prepare at all, so I was in a bikini, my sailing gloves and a life jacket – all that money we spent on foul weather gear for this exact moment and I was in a bloody bikini!
As the wind ‘calmed’ down to 40 knots, to my horror Ryan told me to take the wheel so he could go up on deck and lash down the main sail so it could no longer make the boat uncontrollable. I was like…”sorry what??!! You can barely control the boat in this weather and you want little old me to take over while you casually pop up on deck to tie the ginormous sheet of death down?!” This wasn’t my actual wording at the time. Instead, I said “no I can’t” but as I was saying it, I was taking the wheel as I knew he was right and there literally was no other option. I shouted to Ryan to clip on as he stepped out of the cockpit and onto the deck but he shouted back that he couldn’t because he needed to be able to maneuver around the boat. Excellent. The likelihood of him managing to stay on board was pretty slim, but again there was no other option. I ran through my Mayday / emergency radio training and hoped I wasn’t going to have to put it into practice. I tried to keep the boat traveling into the waves – they were about 2-3 meters now and they were so close together the boat was banging about all over the place. We had to keep the boat going in that direction though so the sail didn’t fly back around with the change in wind direction. Ryan somehow, in the space of about 2 minutes, managed to lash the main sail down successfully and made it back into the cockpit.
This extremely dangerous task of Ryan’s, actually turned into a typically funny moment for us. There was one particular wave that was absolutely massive and came completely over the front of the boat and all over the deck. I could hear Ryan shouting things like “NOT TODAY MATE, NOT TODAY” and I just watched the whole thing happen with my mouth open, expecting to see Ryan wash off the boat with the water. The first thing he said when he got back in the cockpit was – “did you not want to let me know about that tidal wave no?” In all seriousness, I did want to let him know but I was so shocked and scared that the words wouldn’t come out – sorry Ryan!!!
So the mainsail was strapped down and onto the next drama…
Our light wind sail, as the name suggests, is specifically for light wind. Anything above around 13 knots is too much for it and causes the boat to be overpowered and it leans over dramatically. So, you can imagine our reaction when we’re battling it out with a storm, the wind is blowing 40 knots and our light wind sail decides it’s time to shine and unfurls itself. WTF. I wish we had had the Go Pro recording our faces because that would have been a meme that would have gone viral. Both of us taking that split second thought to recognize the sound we could suddenly hear was in fact the light wind sail flapping about, slow motion leaning out the side of the cockpit, mouths drop open as our suspicions were confirmed and then Ryan shouting “you must be having a laugh” as I drop my head and wonder what it was we’d done to deserve it!
We snapped out of that pretty quickly and I began pulling on the furling line to try to get the sail in. I struggle with this at the best of times but Ryan was shouting encouragement and I was very aware now was not the time to complain about my arms being tired, so I just kept on going. I had the thing furled in, when one of the lines from the sail broke off and caused it all to unfurl again. Ryan could see I was really struggling and started pulling too and we eventually got it in.
The wind was sitting at around 30 knots now and Ryan told me he was going to turn back through the wind to head in the other direction. We had been going with the storm to make it easier and we couldn’t have turned because of the situation with the sail, but in doing this we had been moving further and further away from land. We both watched the waves, waiting for a slight break so Ryan could turn the boat and avoid a wave hitting us side on, which can cause the boat to lean over and in that wind, with our messed up sails, it could have caused more problems. He counted down from 3 and went for it and luckily, we turned perfectly. Phew!
We were finally out of the sh** and even though the weather was still pretty bad, we had escaped the worst of the danger and we could relax a tiny bit. We took turns to steer whilst we each went downstairs to dry off and change into our warm clothes/foul weather gear (better late than never!) Then Ryan took over whilst I watched as lightening bolts were coming down a few hundred meters from the boat. We could both feel the warmth on our faces when they hit near to us and the sound of the thunder actually hurt my ears. I’ve never heard or seen a storm so close and so powerful. It was epic!
Over the next few hours the rain slowly stopped, the thunder and lightening moved away, and we made our way to the nearest marina. It was at this point that all our electronics slowly began to fail. During the storm the autopilot had turned itself on a few times and tried to take control of the wheel, so Ryan kept having to turn it off. This continued to happen and then our wind alarm started sounding, which is only supposed to happen when the wind is over 27 knots. We knew the storm had passed and the wind was no more than 20 knots by this point and yet our alarm was still sounding and the instrument showed random readings of 44 knots and 68 knots. It was pretty clear that it had broken. We also noticed we had no depth reading, our ship radio wasn’t working and then the chart plotter started beeping and flashing between the different screen types it has. We realized that it was slowing dying on us. This was the last thing we needed! When you enter marinas or anchorages, there are often hazards like rocks or buoys that you need to avoid and that are marked on the charts. Without a chart plotter, we had no idea where these hazards were!
Eventually the chart plotter gave its final breath, turned itself off and we were on our own. Typically, Ryan’s phone had water damage a few weeks before and my phone wasn’t charging, so at that point we couldn’t even phone anyone for help or look on a map using a mobile. Luckily, as we got nearer to land, my phone started charging and we were able to contact a friend of ours who was anchored outside the marina where we were heading. He was able to send us some photos of his charts for the area so we could see where we had to go and at around 7.30pm we turned the corner and began our approach into the marina.
The main sail was tied down all over the deck making it impossible for Ryan to see out the spray hood, so we requested a berth that was alongside a pontoon instead of a Mediterranean mooring. With a Mediterranean mooring, you must tie up either stern or bow to the pontoon, and Ryan wouldn’t have been able to see clearly enough for us to have gotten into a space without potentially wiping out the boats either side! After the day we had had we just didn’t need the drama! Kindly, the marina accommodated this request and we managed to get moored up safely. We were finally back on land! Poppy bolted off the boat onto the pontoon and was going mad with excitement and we had a crowd of people come to talk to us, wanting to know what had happened as it was clear something had gone wrong because of the state of our sail!
Ryan went to the bar with our friend who was anchored nearby, for a very well-deserved beer and I had a shower and sat quietly for a moment, coming to terms with what had happened! It was a really scary experience and something that I definitely wouldn’t want to go through again in a hurry, but I can’t deny that I didn’t enjoy the buzz I got from it!
When we started this trip, we were aware of the dangers and were not naïve to the fact that being lost at sea is a very real possibility for us … but I love the risk! That’s part of the experience. We are so close to nature; we are literally at the mercy of the weather and sometimes we have no choice but to just go with it and endure it. Whatever that may be. We have days which are beyond incredible and days which are terrifying. That day was terrifying and we went into survival mode because we had to, but there isn’t anything more rewarding than the feeling we got afterwards! You just can’t get that from a typical 9-5 or ‘normal’ day to day life.
So yes, the storm was pretty horrific and the work it has caused for us in the aftermath, trying to get Chelsea fixed, has and is stressful. And yes, lots of people were right to think we were crazy to do this trip and put ourselves into situations like this – we are a bit crazy. But for me, this doesn’t compare to anything else I’ve ever experienced. It’s a tough way of life sometimes but this hasn’t put me off at all and if I could live on the edge, on a boat, sailing the world forever, I would!
Faye - Chelsea Crew
Look out for my next blog post following up on what’s happened with
Chels since we moored up in Arbatax marina, Sardinia.