Mother Ocean's Lesson in Survival

Home Wharram World Mother Ocean's Lesson in Survival
By Mike Lynn

Crossing the Atlantic aboard Pahi 42 'Mother Ocean'.

Deck of Mother Ocean

'Out there' are many Wharram sailors, who have experienced sufficient offshore bad weather to have positive practical knowledge. Would they like to submit their experience to this website?"

Reading these lines in the JWD web propels me back one year and a couple thousand miles to roughly 39 - 40 degrees North and 55 degrees something West. We had left Bermuda a couple days before and were on the road to Horta, Azores: Five Austrian guys on Mother Ocean, my now 16 years old Pahi 42 in full survival mode.

Survival is, as a matter of fact, Mother Ocean´s middle name. Her talent for it is baffling: Being among an estimated 700 boats on the hard in Grenada in autumn 2004, she was one of the precious few to come out of the carnage of hurricane Ivan without visible damage, save one solar panel that came off at the height of the storm and obviously travelled 200 meters through the air across the Grenada Marine boatyard and into the adjacent mangrove where a rasta stumbled upon it months later.

Her 3mm stainless steel keelband has grazed two coral reefs in the Caribbean and one submerged concrete slip in the Ionian without damage to the hull beyond some rubbed-off antifouling.

She has topped 20 knots in a rainsquall that snuck upon her in the dark on the way from Gran Canaria to St.Lucia in 1999 without giving so much as a shrug. And she survived a post-Ivan termite attack in Grenada, though repairing her afterwards was a prolonged nightmare that kept me busy for years, but that is another story.

After all these adventures I decided I had seen enough of the Caribbean and that it was time to take my boat home to Europe. Four experienced sailors joined me for a trip that we all knew would definitely be no holiday: Mother Ocean is fitted with two 20hp outboards, and taking along large quantities of gasoline was out of question. I wanted to sail a boat, not a bomb. Therefore the shorter, safer southern route against wind and current was not an option.

Map of voyage

Instead, we took the classic long way home: Up to a waypoint 40 degrees North and 50 degrees West, and then along the West wind highway to the Azores. When we left Bermuda in the middle of May, an unseasonal low was approaching the island. It brought us Northeasterly winds up to 6 Beaufort for days. We wound up a couple degrees West from our intended waypoint, eventually caught the Westerly winds and started our run to the Azores.

Did we get wind? Yup. Plenty. More than plenty. More than anybody in his right mind could have wished for. The area we sailed in was under gale warning for five solid days, and looking at our track one sees a distinct meandering between 39 degrees and 40 degrees North: Whenever a front system passed, Mother Ocean ran dead before the wind to the Southeast and nudged back up to 40 degrees once conditions allowed for it. There were lots of zigs and zags: the worst day brought three front systems in 24 hours.

In the beginning we were enthusiastic at the speed. Not much later we were scared to death, and after five days we were numb. I vividly remember the first night: We steered by hand, with the wind vane self-steering servo rudder lifted out of the water and tied to the aft netting beam. In the evening we were running under a tiny storm jib through an impressive sea under fast-flying black clouds, dramatically lit by the moon. Speeds were in the double-digit zone and the adrenaline was flowing in rivers.

Whatever fun might have been in all this ended around midnight with a big bang. After a tiny helming mistake by a tired crewmember Mother Ocean did a Chinese gybe and ended up broadside to the waves with the storm jib in heave-to position and no quick remedy for the situation, because the lazy jib sheet had somehow parted company with the sail during the event.

Self steering windvayne

The wind was a solid Force 8 then, and it quickly became obvious that we had gravely underestimated the seas while running before them. A wave hit the side of the boat with an impact that shook everything, including our nerves. I flipped my cigarette butt into the air and and the wind took it away with amazing speed. O.K., let´s be honest: unbelievably scary speed. Another impact. How much could the boat take before disintegrating? I had to think my way out of the situation. Quickly, but without inducing panic, please. “Ahem, Andy?” Addressing our most able deckhand, bowman on racing boats in uncounted regattas, I tried my best to keep my voice from shaking.”If we want to keep that storm jib for another day, it has to come down. Now. Could you do this for me, please? And please hook to the lifelines with both tethers while you do it. It´s kind of rough at the moment.”

I took the helm, and when the storm jib was finally down I coaxed Mother Ocean away from the wind and back to speed until, after what felt like years but was really only two or three minutes, we were running downwind again, now doing high single and low double digit speeds under bare pole. Wind and wave kept picking up over the next hour until we were into solid double digit speeds again. I once saw 14.7 knots on the GPS while surfing down a wave. Too much. Much too much.

“We have to slow her down, people. Get the 50 meter anchor cable and one of those car tires.” I had picked two big, solid old car tires out of the mangroves in the Caribbean. Great sea anchors. But now, the first time I really needed one, I started to worry: Where should I tie the cable? Around one beam? Around the mast and around the beam to give two lines of defence? And… - how would the boat behave dragging a car tire over the now really enormous waves?

“Don´t. We will never get that tire back in once it´s overboard.” The advice came from Raini, my co-skipper, who had ridden out a couple of gales, including 6 days upwind in a force 7 to 8 on a mono. From Gran Canaria to Horta. In February. The customs officer in Horta had called him crazy when he came to hand in the boat documents.

“I know. But we are too damn fast and have to do something about it quickly. Or do you want another broach?”

“Just try the cable first, without a tire.” – “Hm. Do you think that is sufficient? It is still picking up.” Indeed: Looking over our shoulders we saw the waves like black walls that obscured a nice chunk of the moonlit night sky when they approached. Everybody describes the sound of a storm as a terrifying shriek in the rigging wires. Nothing of that: Mother Ocean was instead humming and vibrating, a sound that mixed with the thunder of the waves.

“If it doesn´t work, we can still attach tires, right?” –“O.K. Let´s give it a try.”

I fastened both ends of the 50 meter cable to the genoa winches, hooked into the lifeline leading to the stern and crawled aft to feed the cable into the sea.

It worked like a charm: Speeds immediately fell out of the danger zone. Mother Ocean climbed waves at four to five knots and ran down on the other side at seven to eight. Steering was not exhausting any more, she kept her course even if you let go of the wheel. We were safe.

Mother Ocean galley
Mother Ocean bows

We spent the bigger part of the next five days running the anchor cable behind the boat. Pretty uneventful, apart from another wave that hit the boat from the side on day three, when, after the passing of a particularly nasty front, a Northerly 5 meter swell mixed into the usual six to eight meters from West-North-West. After this impact we had to drag, winch and kick the deckpod back to it´s original location from which it had moved half a foot sideways. We had to clean up the galley, too: The stove was dangling from the rubber gas hose and the spaghetti sauce was all over the floor.

Other damage included the wind vane self-steering: The servo rudder plus one foot of the stainless steel tube it was attached to were knocked off cleanly by one of the many waves that otherwise passed through the aft netting without anyone even noticing. And the nice catwalk that had led over the forward netting for so many years was smashed by one of the first wave impacts from the side: I had made the silly mistake of tying Mother Oceans gangplank on top of it, an aluminum ladder with a plywood plank on top - a typical wavestopper in a place that Jim Wharram defines as necessarily seep-through. The photo emphasizes Jim´s point nicely.

After five days we were so numb that we did not try the north anymore. We kept the boat between 38o and 39o, sorted ourselves out and eventually used our satellite phone to postpone the flights home for the crew member who would leave us in Horta.

Lessons learned? Hm. Yes. A few:

  • A Pahi 42 can take most any wave as long as it comes from behind. Many times on this trip, the helmsman worked with his back turned to the bows, especially in cross-wave conditions.
  • The boat does not take side impacts too kindly: Lying heave-to in an aggressive wave is not an option with a Pahi. Note that this has grave implications for storm tactics near a leeward shore: Don´t get caught!
  • No items that are not 100 per cent seep-through will survive a gale when lashed to the forward and aft third of a Pahi 42. And that includes even smallish items like the servo rudder of the windvane self-steering.
  • 50 meters of anchor cable are sufficient to give you control and safe boatspeeds in a force 9 gusting 10 on this boat. I do not ever want to find out what one needs beyond that. Pretty please!
  • A side impact of a six meter wave moved the hulls so violently that some of the locating blocks on the crossbeams cracked and most of the teflon strips broke off. The screws with which the latter were fastened dug holes into the cabin top for the rest of the trip. With the boat now on the hard in Northern Italy, I am in the process of strengthening this structure. Before someone asks: No, Mother Ocean does not have the optional stainless steel locating bolts through beam and beamtrough, and I will not install them. I feel they might have split the beamtroughs during this particular impact and the boat held together nicely without them.
  • Something I will definitely bolt through now is deckpod and cockpit: The deckpod travelled half a foot, smashing two of it´s locating blocks and winding up balancing on the rest of them. Getting it safely back in place involved the whole crew for half the afternoon of the following day.
  • Having said that, I want to state categorically that I would not have wanted to be on any other boat in this kind of weather. It´s either Mother Ocean - or stay at home where it is safe and warm.