Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Our Cape to Rio Race Wrap-up

First off I want to say thank you to all friends, family and supporters for all of the good wishes that have poured in following our experiences in the Cape to Rio Race the past few days. The five crew of "Black Cat" are all very grateful for the assistance received. As is always the case, stories have varied depending on the source and they have no doubt expanded with the telling and retelling. I will tell it from the very personal point of view of being right there in the middle of the action.

The weather briefing two days before the race start told us there there was bad weather expected and their advice was to sail due west as fast as possible to get through the system to the high that would follow. That would give us SW winds that would turn S then SE. With my navigator, Dave (Wavy) Immelman, we decided to follow that advice as the most logical route. The weatherman warned about being in the SW quadrant of the storm that would follow a day or two later.

The race got off to a good start in light breezes, the course taking us around the perimeter of Table Bay. This was a good indicator for us of our chances of placing well in the race because we were very quick, and staying in the lead group of 4 smaller boats trailing the 3 big guns that led the fleet. Our group opened up a large gap from the others behind us.

We sailed through the first night in gradually strengthening wind that gave squalls of 20-25 knots. Around daybreak the squalls started to intensify and broke through 30 knots with 18-20 knots between them. Feeling a bit over-powered in the squalls we were reefing the mainsail when a squall of somewhat over 40 knots hit us. We were now entering the SW winds behind the front, so I changed from our westerly course to a NW heading, taking pressure off the sails. Despite that, the wind over the deck increased, with gusts of over 50 knots that shredded our new carbon jib, leaving us under main only.

While changing from the #1 jib to the smaller #3, we were running before and gaining speed rapidly. Wavy was standing on the foredeck at the forestay, hauling down the tatters of the jib when we took off down a wave, accelerating to 22 knots. The waves were very short and steep and we ran straight into the back of the next wave, washing Wavy aft against the shrouds, spraining his ankle and inflating his automatic life-jacket. At the same time the tiller went sloppy in my hands. Although "Black Cat" was running fast and straight down the wave she was doing it on her own, we had no steering.

We dropped all sail and elected to sit out the worsening conditions before setting up a jury rudder to take us back to Cape Town. "Black Cat" was comfortable and in no danger. While we waited we saw the German entry "Iskareen" sail past from behind. We thought that this very fast boat was ahead of us so it came as a surprise to see them come past from well astern.

The wind and sea moderated quite quickly from that first storm and we put our minds to making a jury rudder from lazarette floor boards. Sean Collins went over onto the sugar-scoop to screw and strap it to the stub of the rudder that remained below the pintels. It worked reasonably but we treated it gingerly for fear of breaking it. We motored on a heading for Cape Town but as the day progressed the conditions slowly deteriorated as a second storm started to move in. I saw that we were not going to lay Cape Town so elected to rather head for the closer and easier Saldanha Bay.

As evening approached this storm grew progressively more violent. We were in the SW quadrant of the storm about which the weatherman had warned us. We had no desire to be in that position at that time but we had no choice in the matter. Fate had placed us there and we could only do our best to cope with the situation as it developed.

Around dusk there was a massive bang, a noise that sounded like the boat being ripped apart. Sean had shouted a warning from the cockpit that I can't repeat in present company but none of us heard it. Suddenly we were upside down and the cabin was filled with flying bodies and objects that were loose in the cabin and also those that were inside closed and latched lockers. I had been sleeping on the starboard saloon settee and had only a few seconds earlier stood up to walk aft to the cockpit. I was still in the saloon and was hit on my face and top of my head by unidentified flying debris, leaving me with minor cuts and a black eye.

The noise of this impact was so great and our up-turned position so alarming that I thought that the keel had come off. I was on the cabin roof and looked up at the bilge, all cabin soles having fallen out. I saw no gaping hole as I expected but shouted "Everybody out!!", still thinking that we had no keel. This all happened in a few seconds, then suddenly she was upright again and I knew that we still had a keel. We were left with an awful mess of food packages, cabin sole panels, tumblers, containers and anything else that managed to find its way out of its allotted place. And there was water everywhere. There had been some in the bilge but a lot more had come in through the companion hatch and a hole that we had no yet identified.

With no instruction from anyone this very capable crew automatically set about sorting out the chaos, first picking up anything that could block the bilge pumps before starting to pump out the water. The day fridge, which had been bolted into the saloon table, had relocated itself to the settee on which I had been lying only 30 seconds earlier. Three fire extinguishers, mounted in brackets from which they are removed vertically, all fell out when we were inverted and flew across to the starboard side of the cabin. Only two of the five onboard were in steel straps with locking mechanisms that held them firmly in place, the other three fell out and became lethal missiles.

Next we discovered what the hole was that had appeared in the deck. During the inversion process the tail of the mainsheet went over the side and attached itself to the propeller and wound itself up to the point that it stopped the diesel motor. It had so much tension in it that the force downward on the upper guardrail wire punched the nearest stanchion through the 12mm plywood deck. That left a hole about 75mm diameter into the locker below, where my clothes were. From there the water spread itself all over the starboard aft cabin, soaking everything that Wavy and I had in that cabin. That was all of our clothes, bedding, camera bags etc.

Of more consequence, the volume of water that came into the boat spread itself over the chart table, the lid of which had ripped right off, and into the electrical panel and electronics. The two satellite phones and main VHF radio were drowned, leaving us with only a hand-held VHF of limited range with which to communicate. Smelling smoke, Wavy opened the electrical panel to see smoke coming out but it didn't develop into a fire.

Time stands still in these situations. I have no idea how long it took us to clean up the boat but she was back to a semblance of ship-shape before too long. The hole in the deck was plugged as well as possible with some muti that we had brought onboard the day before the race start.

In the midst of all this Sean came down from the cockpit and described what had happened. From inside the boat we had no idea, it was just massive noise and upside-downness.

Sean, a surfer like me, says that he suddenly felt the same feeling as when caught inside the impact zone of a big surf break, where you have no way of escaping the beating that is about to be dealt to you and you just have to take it on the head and cope with it. He did not see the wave coming but became aware of it as it loomed over the boat. It was very large and broke as a hollow tubing wave completely enveloping "Black Cat". She rose up the face of the wave, rotating as she rose until she was hanging from the roof of the tube. Then she fell or was thrown down the face of the wave with the mast going in first. The crash that I heard inside the boat must have been the cabin and deck hitting the water. While this was happening I also looked into the cockpit for Sean and he was hanging from a winch or whatever he had been able to grab as the wave reared up. I required that all crew be hooked on with safety harnesses before going on deck but Sean was hanging on so tight that his harness had no work to do.

This wave was much bigger and more violent than any others we had felt or seen. If that one could clobber us there may also be others, so we streamed warps from the bow and deployed the storm jib as a sea anchor to try to hold her bow-on to the waves. These did not seem to help much because the underwater current seemed to be pretty much the same speed as our drift. We didn't get her to lie more than about 20-25 degrees from broadside-on to the waves but it seemed to be enough to ease the motion a bit and cause other breaking waves to roll past the port quarter instead of hitting us amidships.

The worsening storm and loss of major communications prompted us to ask Cape Town Radio to put out a Pan-Pan message on our behalf to warn of our location in the shipping lane and to ask for the NSRI (National Sea Rescue Institute) to be called to our assistance. We advised that we were in no immediate danger but would appreciate assistance when it could be provided. We switched on the EPIRB to give a signal for rescue services to home in on. We had AIS onboard but it had flooded along with the other instruments at the nav table.

Initially the assistance came in the form of the fishing vessel "Miriam Makeba" heading our way. When they were still a few miles away the navy frigate SAS Isandlwana took over control of the widespread rescue efforts and released the fishing vessel to continue fishing. As the frigate approached in the rain they asked us to send up a flare, then another, to help them to locate us. Once they had located us we confirmed that we were in no immediate danger and they headed off to take care of people and boats that were in much more serious situations.

In the morning conditions again subsided. Wavy went over the side in his diving gear to free the mainsheet from the prop, which allowed us to restart the motor. At the same time he swam the length of the underbody to check for damage or other problems. A new and improved version of the jury rudder was fabricated from more plywood cannibalised from the lazarette and we continued on our journey toward Saldanha Bay at 4-5 knots under our own power. We were well set to reach there during the night.

Early afternoon the NSRI Rescue 3 arrived from Cape Town. They offered us the choice of continuing under our own steam to Saldanha Bay or accepting their tow back to Cape Town. Proceeding to Saldanha Bay presented logistical problems for crew and boat, so we took the tow and headed for Cape Town at 10 knots.

Manoeuvring into the RCYC basin proved to be more difficult than anticipated because the jury rudder boards added to the starboard side of the rudder severely limited rudder movement in that direction. Add a pomping SE gale and we sorely needed the welcoming hands on the dock to catch us as we came in at rather high speed and with negligible control.

Now "Black Cat" is safely back in port but she has some more patching to be done to her. This is for the hole in the deck from the stanchion and for the spot where her bow kissed the marina rather harder than necessary on our return.

My big question out of all of this was "Why did the rudder break?". It had a solid Iroko spine nearly 100mm thick and 150mm wide, extending top to bottom, with plywood fairing to leading and trailing edges. That is a massive piece of timber that can easily support a large car and really should not have been broken by a 22 knot surf. The answer came from the owner, Adrian Pearson. He told me that when "Black Cat" was squeezed between the steel RCYC marinas a few weeks ago when the mooring chains broke, it was not only the hull and keel that were damaged. He said that the rudder was also "graunched". If that is so, it may have started a fracture of the rudder spine that culminated in the blade shearing off at high speed.

We are all very disappointed that our race had to end this way. We were going so well and must have been in with a reasonable chance for a top result. Unfortunately, we will now never know. We are just glad to be back on land safely and are very grateful to NSRI and the crew of Rescue 3 for their part in it, as well as the "Miriam Makeba" and SAS Isandlwana.

I also want to thank the crew of "Black Cat" for being such great and capable shipmates, always ready to do the right thing and with a smile.

Adrian Pearson (owner)
Dave (Wavy) Immelman (Navigator)
Sean (Buttercup) Collins
Gavin (Doris) Muller

And a big thank you must also go to our  Didi 38 "Black Cat". She took a hammering on our behalf and came through with negligible structural damage.