Waves and Storms
Really bad weather in tropical seas does not happen very often. Violent, dangerous and destructive storms are rare. However, those who are going to go to sea and spend several years there must be prepared for the fact that sooner or later they will face them. As for our experience, in eighteen years of sailing, the really strong storms that we got into can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
In 1991, a hundred miles from Darwin, in northern Australia, a terrible storm with winds of about fifty knots. There were no big waves, since we were between the islands, but it was the islands around that were the danger.
In 1995 off Durban in South Africa, we were caught in an atmospheric storm that lasted a day and a half, with forty knot winds and six meter high waves. The danger was that the current from the north was superimposed on the waves coming from the south. Despite the height of the waves and their tendency to collapse, there were only three or four crests that covered us.
As long as it was possible to avoid maneuvers, everything was fine, but when we approached the lee shore, we were forced to remove the mainsail, it tore apart.
In 1997, an unexpected strong squall covered us near Sumatra. It was night and we did not notice his approach. The wind instantly jumped from fifteen knots to forty-five, and for an hour and a half, lightning flashed continuously and the downpour went like a wall. The waves were not big, maybe from the pressure of the rain, maybe from the fact that they did not have time to rise, but the flashes of lightning were almost continuous and the roar was such that we could hardly hear each other.
- And it's all? - they ask us every time after our stories.
- Everything. Isn't it enough?
There were other situations with strong winds and big waves, but nothing really dangerous or significant.
The advice that I want to give about how to behave in stormy weather is purely personal considerations, which will not tell anything new to someone who already has experience, others may seem too banal, but what to do, advise, is always not an easy task.
When the wind intensifies, the very first, obvious and simple rule, which, however, cannot be neglected, is to reduce the windage in time. Taking reefs and changing the staysail, if done on time, a trifling task, if done late, becomes a difficult, tedious and at times dangerous task. However, most postpone it until the last moment. And this is a mistake that both beginners and veterans make.
They wait in the hope that the wind will weaken, or because they are pestering seasickness, and it is easier to sit dejectedly in the cockpit than to jump around the deck working with sails. Sometimes they wait, because it's great to fly under sail: the boat runs, the bow jumps on the waves and it's a pity not to use this wind. But this is an erroneous impression, with too much windage the boat does not go faster, it only rolls more and experiences large, unnecessary loads on the rigging. Often, after taking the reefs, the speed remains about the same, but the boat goes better and is easier to control.
But how do you decide when it's time to reef?
There is an accounting system: an anemometer on the top of the mast and a table of recommended wind strength for each sail. It is enough to keep the anemometer readings under control and change or reef the sails accordingly. Naturally, the strength of the pennant wind is important, that is, the wind that really affects the sails and rigging.
If you wish, you can do without instruments and tables, evaluate the wind by its effect on the boat and the sea. It is enough to look at the water surface, at the shape of the waves. After a little practice, you begin to determine the speed.
When white lambs start to appear on the waves here and there, then the wind has reached ten knots. And it's time to start taking reefs. When the waves grow up, the crests collapse more often and begin to make noise, which means that it is already somewhere around twenty knots. It's time to take the second row of reefs and set up a small heavy staysail for a strong wind. When the foam begins to break off the ridges and white foam lanes stretch in the direction of the wind, this is about thirty knots and the right moment is to reef the mainsail to the maximum and set the storm jib.
On sharp courses or in Gulfwind, the boat itself will tell you with its excessive roll when the windage is high. On the gybe it lists little and it is very easy to underestimate the wind. It remains to rely on the readings of the anemometer, if you have one, or on your own feeling, if not. When in doubt - reef!
Storm force winds are not that frequent, but sooner or later you will have to deal with them. And here the question is not only to reduce the windage, it is necessary to prepare the boat and crew to withstand the storm.
First of all, again, reduce windage. Decrease at once and a lot to avoid needlessly large loads and too much roll. Taking two shelves of reefs on the mainsail and replacing the staysail with a storm one, or winding it up on a spin, you will see that the wind will not seem so strong to you.
Secondly, you need to prepare the boat. Control walk around the deck, make sure everything is in order: the ropes are well coiled, the tender and sailbags are well secured, there is nothing superfluous on the deck and in the cockpit. The free deck does not create much resistance to the waves and they can roll into the sea without causing harm, and there is no risk of breaking or losing something.
During the control walk inside, you need to make sure that all things are fixed and will not fly from one corner of the cabin to another at the first roll. Lock books in lockers, remove pots and pans from the stove, remove everything but the used map from the chart table. Make sure that the toilet and sink kingstones are closed, all hatches, portholes and other openings are closed, the refrigerator door is locked and that nothing in the refrigerator can turn over. Life jackets and safety belts should be kept on hand, because look for them when the boathe will start tossing on huge waves, climbing bent over, sticking his head into the lockers, when weakness and the first signs of seasickness may already come, it can become very tiring.
With that, everything that could be done has been done. It remains only to adjust the wind rudder to the desired course and wait for what happens. It is important that the boat is in perfect order, because it is the boat and not its crew that must withstand the battle with the storm. The hull, masts and sails take the blows of the sea and resist the fierce wind. And if the boat is in order, its hull and equipment are designed for these conditions, those on board can only make sure that everything works as expected.
They say that the best storm is the one that you experience sitting at a cafe table, watching from afar a grandiose picture of the raging sea. But if you had to participate, there's nothing you can do. Usually a storm comes down to a very big inconvenience, but except in very rare cases, there is no real danger. Waves, even large and formidable, still consist of water, and water does not break boats. Rocks, yes. The real dangers lie along the coast: shallow water, too small bays, with too narrow or difficult entrance. When looking for a place whereyou can take cover, be very careful. If the bay you've spotted is on the windward side, it's worth a try. It will be difficult to approach it, because you will have to rise into the wind, but as you approach the shore, the waves will decrease and become flatter. Before entering the bay, you will find yourself in the sea with almost no waves, in ideal conditions.
If the shelter is downwind, the opposite happens. It will be easy to approach, but near the shore, the waves, due to the decrease in depth, will become even higher and begin to collapse. The entrance to a bay or port will seem tiny to you, and the slightest mistake in management or uncertainty is enough to cause a disaster. Therefore, be very careful. Evaluate in great detail the characteristics of the place on the map and in case of doubt it is much better to stay on the high seas.
If the wind gets too strong to keep sailing, there are ways to drift. Great navigators such as Muatissier, Chichester and Slocum wrote hundreds of pages of stories and advice on how to lie adrift to ride out the storm. And since we are writing, we will also express our opinion.
If you are on the high seas, strong winds and big waves, you have two alternatives: run from the storm with a tailwind, or drift with your bow into the wind.
If the wind is blowing in the direction you want, running with tailwinds is more correct and more convenient. The best course, full backstay with maximum reefed mainsail, securely locked boom and stormy or maximum twisted jib. In extreme cases, the mainsail is removed completely. When going fast with a tailwind, the waves don't seem as big because the speed of the boat is subtracted from the speed of the waves. Traveling this course is relatively comfortable and safe, at times even exciting. Be careful, adapt the windage to the conditionsra: if a lot of sail is closer to the stern, that is, the mainsail is too large, the boat will tend to bring, and may even go into broach, if the windage is low, the boat goes slowly and does not obey the helm.
If the wind intensifies even more, theoretically it is possible to completely remove the sails and continue to go to the backstay, but already under the bare mast. But this is a very rare case. Over the years, we have met such a wind only a couple of times.
If it is impossible or unwilling to go in the direction of the wind, then it remains only to lie down in a drift. Classic position, staysail out to the wind, mainsail partly out of the wind and rudder fixed in the upwind position. Pay attention to the possible friction of the staysail on the shrouds or inner stay. A few hours of rubbing the sail against the metal and the staysail can be ruined. You can close the shrouds with plastic tubes or wrap them with a cloth, but this must be done in advance.
The alternative, which I prefer, is to lie adrift with one mainsail, with the jib fully retracted. A deafly reefed mainsail is packed as much as possible and the rudder is fixed in the extreme position. In this position, the boat is in full-hauled position and moves slowly drifting downwind. The advantage of this drift with one mainsail is that the staysail does not deteriorate and that it can be practiced on boats with a furling, on which it is difficult to raise a storm staysail.
You can stay drifting for hours or days. When everything is fixed, the deck is clean and everything is in order inside, the crew has no choice but to wait until the wind stops. And I can guarantee you that sooner or later it will happen. You can lie down on the bunks, maintaining only short watches. The boat drifts slowly, at a speed of one, maximum two knots. So in ten hours, which lasts the most severe period of the storm, it will carry no more than ten miles. Drift speed can be measured using GPS, but not a lag, since its spinner is installedparallel to the axis of the boat and only measures longitudinal speed. Knowing the speed, you will always know how long you can stay drifting so as not to get too close to the shore.
As the wind strength increases, it becomes more and more difficult to maneuver. Tacking is difficult and jibe can even be dangerous. To take a shelf of reefs with a wind of ten knots and an almost calm sea is a matter of two minutes. To take the third reefs in heavy seas is a very difficult task. It is not worth the risk of falling overboard trying to hold the sail at all costs. If something has to fall into the water, it is better if it is a sail.
In heavy seas, some maneuvers are easier to perform when the wind is blowing aft. We always do this. For example, if we are going full haul and decide to take another shelf of reefs, having lowered most of the mainsail, we set the rudder to full backstay and do the rest of the work with the wind in the stern. Everything turns out much easier, because the wind decreases, the sail rinses less and the boat shakes less. It is also safer because the waves do not roll over the deck. When the reef pendant is well stuffed, we are brought to gulfwind, bywe take the mainsail and only at the very end we are brought to the sidewind. This loses a little of the distance traveled, but what does one mile mean when going into a thousand miles?
The stronger the wind, the more dangerous maneuvers become, both for the boat and for the crew. It is very important to constantly control your position and the position of all others involved in the work on the deck. If there are only two of you, then after a while these precautions become almost automatic. If there are friends or guests on board, be careful if they are in the range of the boom or sheets.
When turning in a gale, the spars and rigging are subjected to heavy loads. Windless sails vibrate violently and transmit the vibration to the mast and shrouds. Therefore, try to make long tacks, reducing the number of turns to a minimum. The most dangerous is jibing, you can damage the sail, boom or someone's head. If the wind is really too strong, it is better not to do it at all. We resort to a not entirely elegant way, lowering the mainsail, turning and raising it again. Not elegant, but reliable.
Tacking is less dangerous, but with too much wind and big waves, it can happen that the boat refuses to tack. In this case, you need to have time and space left to accelerate again before shifting the steering wheel into the wind. If the turn still fails, the reason may be that the mainsail is reefed too much. Keep in mind that if it is not possible to tack, it is probably possible to gybe, preferably without a mainsail and with all the precautions described above, of course, if there is a simple enoughearlyness.
Sailing in the tropics is not dangerous, we have said so far, but this is true only if you avoid the most severe weather phenomena encountered in the sea - cyclones.
Imagine a whirlwind a hundred miles in diameter moving slowly across the ocean and spinning around its axis like a rabid top, with winds reaching speeds of 150-175 knots. If you remember that the maximum Beaufort score, 12, corresponds to sixty-four knots, you can imagine the unprecedented power of this natural phenomenon. The sea below this eddy is covered with irregular waves reaching a height of fifteen and twenty meters, which intersect, overlap each other, forming tall unstable pyramids and deepsome failures. The sea is very dangerous and unbearable for boats such as ours, but also very difficult even for large ships.
The worst begins when the cyclone reaches the islands. Trees are left without branches, roofs of houses explode, the wind blows fences and huts and lifts everything that is not fixed into the air. And all these objects begin to fly at a terrible speed, turning into deadly projectiles, which, in turn, also destroy everything that they meet on their way. Huge waves crash on the shore, the sea level rises several meters and, together with heavy rain, floods the land. Waves roll over dams and breakwaters, penetrate into harbors and liftships are breaking the mooring lines and taking them to the sea, or throwing them on land, tens of meters from the water. Within a few hours, while the hurricane passes, entire villages, islands and archipelagos are leveled to the ground. And when everything ends, the water leaves, the sun reappears and, with complete indifference, illuminates everything that a day before was cheerful tropical turfs.
The physical energy of this rotating mass of air is very large and is comparable to all the electrical energy generated in Italy during the year or to the energy of an atomic bomb of medium power. But their geographical size, fortunately, is small. The diameter of a cyclone rarely exceeds three hundred miles, and its truly destructive zone, with winds in excess of 50 knots, is limited to radii of twenty to fifty miles from the center. The small size and seasonality of cyclones as phenomena make it possible to swim in the tropics without encountering them.
The zones prone to cyclones are located in the zones with the rainy season: from May to October in the north and from November to April in the south.
The first advice for those who are going to swim in the tropics: it is better to completely avoid the hurricane season, and at the same time the unfavorable weather conditions and stuffiness of the summer period. From any vantage point, it's best to choose the opposite hemisphere and sail calmly under sunny skies and moderate, steady winter winds. The thought of not being in the wrong place at the wrong time is central to planning ocean crossings. That is why they leave across the Atlantic in November to come to the Caribbean in December and have in stocka few more months until May, when the risk of cyclones will already appear. For the same reason, Pacific crossings begin in March. They arrive in Polynesia in April and until October there are no problems. But the Pacific Ocean is huge and full of beautiful places, and therefore, after five months, most of the sailboats are still in the Cook Islands or Fiji. It's time to leave now. To avoid danger, it is enough to go south to New Zealand or go north to the Salomon Islands in the equatorial zone, it is very hot there, but cyclones do not reach there.
If for some reason it was still not possible to leave the danger zone, there is no need to make a drama out of it. You just need to be more careful. In the end, the inhabitants of the tropical islands have always lived with these phenomena and have developed their own technique of protection against them. First of all, you cannot allow the arrival of a monster to catch you in the sea, which is not difficult. With current forecasting methods, warnings come many days in advance. Cyclones are studied, observed and tracked from satellites and aircraft of the meteorological service, all their movements are recorded, predictedzy promotion and development are given with a large lead. In the event of an alarm, one should move as far as possible from the predicted cyclone trajectory to the nearest land. Upon arrival, you should try to get the boat into the hurricane hole, one of the natural ports, which, based on the experience of generations, have been recognized as the best shelters from hurricanes. They are usually small natural bays, well shielded from the sea and protected from the wind, either by surrounding mountains or by being surrounded by tall mangroves that can soften the rage of a hurricane. Such mehundred are not always indicated in the sailing directions, but it is enough to ask at the port office or from the fishermen and they will always tell you where they are. It is even better to go there yourself in advance in order to get an idea of u200bu200bthis place, depths, possible obstacles, because if the moment comes, you will have to act quickly.
The most important thing is to anchor the boat as securely as possible. Two anchors from the bow and two from the stern, on the thickest and most durable chains, it is possible to strengthen with an anchor from a dinghy and various scrap metal. If possible, stretch the ropes to the shore, securing them to trees or rocks. Then remove from the deck everything that can create wind resistance: ropes, sails, spinnaker boom, outer halyards, lifebuoys. The deck must be clean and smooth.
After that, nothing can be done, in the sense that everything possible has already been done. You can close yourself in a boat, or even better, go ashore and take refuge in a grotto or pit, located high enough, and wait. Often a cyclone passes somewhere a little there ... aside, or just does not pass, but it can pass. But in the end, if you don't risk it at all...
The December 2004 tsunami wreaked death and destruction across much of the Indian Ocean, from Indonesia to Thailand to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. After that, many called and wrote to us about their fears, such as:
“After what happened, we will never go to the Indian Ocean.
— You say that sailing is not dangerous! What if you get caught in one of those tsunamis?
Our friends in New Zealand wrote to us that they were going to cut short their circumnavigation. They were going to stop there and swim only in the western part of the Pacific for the next years. All this in order not to pass through the Torres Strait and not to go through this terrible Indian Ocean.
This approach has no basis and is generated by the hysteria of the moment, it is quite understandable but not motivated in any way.
The 2004 tsunami was a terrible event. Hundreds of thousands of people became its victims, towns and cities were destroyed. The epicenter of the underwater quake was not far from Sumatra, but the waves generated by the movement of the seabed spread thousands of miles across much of the Indian Ocean. While the waves were on the sea, they did not bring any troubles, but when they reached the land, they turned into indomitable monsters and this tragedy will stand before our eyes for a long, long time.
What can be done to avoid these terrible waves? Nothing, unfortunately! Earthquakes are unpredictable phenomena and sometimes chance makes a choice between life and death. One of our friends was vacationing in Phuket and was sailing in the sea when the wave came:
— I swam every morning. Usually swam far beyond the bay, to a rocky cape. This morning I didn't feel like it and I splashed not far from the beach. The first wave threw me ashore and rolled along the sand like a sausage on a grill. I managed to get up and run up the hill before the second wave arrived. If I swam at the cape, then I would be smeared on the rocks.
Another friend of ours was on his sailboat in Hat Nai Khan Bay in the south of Phuket. We know this bay well and have also been there. The bottom is deep there, fifteen meters in the center, but then it rises sharply and remains at a level of about two meters to the very shore. Therefore, all the sailboats standing there anchor at a depth of fifteen meters and away from the coast. Catamarans and motor boats are anchored off the coast.
When the third wave came up, our friend saw his boat climbing the water mountain. The included echo sounder showed an increase in depth of seven meters. However, the wave did not break, the boat rose, twitched on the chains and sank again. Catamarans and motor sailboats that were several tens of meters closer to the shore were smashed to rubble, along with fishing huts, restaurants and everything else.
However, earthquakes are not marine or even tropical phenomena. They can happen anywhere. It is quite natural to be afraid of them, but it is ridiculous to consider that the Indian Ocean is a dangerous place, just because the last strong earthquake occurred there.