CAPTAIN’S LOG September 21-29, 2014
Encountering a Force Ten Gale
At Sea in South Pacific off the coast of New Zealand: Leaving Tongatapu required negotiating the channel between the reefs and Eau Island to the east. The channel was boiling with an inrushing tidal current the severity of which we hadn’t seen since cruising Desolation Sound in British Columbia in 2011. Once outside the channel we could see the waves crashing on shore and the blow holes spouting huge mists of water in the air. After about an hour we reached the open sea and the real show began; the largest swells I have ever seen and only imagined came rolling toward us. They were somewhere around 20ft high on a moment of 12sec. They were massive mountains of water rolling at 30 mph under our keel. It was truly a spectacular, awesome, spellbinding sight! Argo was first lifted up by the waves, then she rolled over the top and came running down the backside. It really looked like a somewhat smaller version of the waves shown in the movie The Perfect Storm. Despite the size of the swells, our travel over them was pleasant due to their long moment. Swells of that size are both things of beauty and amazement, and at the same time, terrifying. As we moved along, the seas subsided to a more normal state; we had twenty knots of wind and 8 -12 ft. seas on the forward port quarter for the balance of the day. We all took meclizine to combat sea sickness and as a result we were all sleepy, but not sick. I slept like a baby as Tyler stood the night watch. My crew mates, however, reported not sleeping so well that first night.
The next day things began to calm down and by the second full day our passage was very pleasant. We downloaded a weather file from the satellite and confirmed that we were on track to avoid the worst of the storms that lay ahead. The current in this part of the ocean can be as high as 2 knots on our nose. It must be because of the upwelling of cold water from the Tongan Trench, which is one of the deepest parts of the ocean at 32,000 feet deep. We ramped up our RPMs to 1500 to try and maintain a speed of at least 8 knots, but often we would barely make 7 knots. We tried to maintain as much speed as possible to sneak past the rough weather emerging to our south; occasionally we made over 9 knots when the current slacked off. During the third, fourth, and fifth day the ocean was like a lake, but our weather files showed the potential for rough seas as we approached New Zealand. We made plans to alter our course for the northern port of Opua if things turned sour. Meanwhile Rebecca and Melanie were cooking up some fantastic meals in the galley. Before we made landfall in New Zealand, we had to eat all our meat and vegetables or the kiwis would confiscate it.
Force Ten Gale: Around 11:00 on September 29, with only 60 miles to go to Great Barrier Island, the radar picked up the image of a storm ahead. The seas were calm, the barometer was 1014, and the wind was only 10 knots. The forecasts had been very accurate during our passage and we were updating them four times a day via satellite. We anticipated seas of 10-12 ft., which is no big deal for Argo; as it turned out, the actual weather we confronted was twice that forecast. I put a picture of the weather chart on www.tischtravels.com so you can see what we wound up facing. By 12:00 the seas had changed direction and were building as expected, and the wind was nearly 20 knots. By 14:00 the wind was about 45 knots +/-, and the seas continued to build. By 15:00 the winds were sustained over 45 knots and mostly in the 50 to 60 knot range, with top winds at 63.3 knots. Seas became tremendous at 20 to 30 feet at 8 to 12 seconds. They were huge, steep; mountains of water stair stepped by the ferocious wind, rolling toward us at 30 mph, sucking the water up from beneath and leaving in their wake a deep and treacherous valley. The wind roared in a frightening howl, the ocean was a tumultuous, angry caldron. I tried to position Argo to quarter the waves. Suddenly a massive rogue wave slammed over our bow into the pilothouse windows. My adrenaline shot up. By now the wind was over 60 knots and I began to contemplate an emergency scenario. At this point everyone was in the pilothouse helping me evaluate options; lucky for us Curtis Hoff has a PhD in marine engineering and many years of boating experience. His council was very helpful. I asked Tyler to call the Coast Guard and report our position; ultimately we reported to Maritime Radio Great Barrier Island every hour until we reached safe waters nine hours later. In the meantime I focused on sea keeping issues; guiding Argo in a direction and speed that prevented her from being broadsided by one of those giant waves, or falling into a trough and pitch-polling. From the pilot house we could see the giants coming our way; at first we could look up to the waves’ crest above our roof line. It seemed as though they were going to crash into us, but then we would roll to starboard, be lifted to the top, see the combing crest and watch the crest flow under us. We would then fall off the back of the wave, roll modestly to our port side and slide down into the trough. Argo performed perfectly. After a half hour or so we became concerned that by quartering the waves on our bow we were inextricably moving into the storm. By this time we had been in the storm about 5 hours. We hoped the wind would subside and the storm would blow out to sea, but instead it was intensifying. We had to turn around and try to approximate a course toward land. We discussed the pros and cons of coming about in these dangerous seas, but in the end I decided to take the risk. Turning is perhaps the most dangerous maneuver a captain can execute in a storm of this severity, but we had to do it. The sun was setting and we didn’t want to lose the light. We looked for a softening of the waves and found a moment in which to bring her about and put her stern to the waves. Although we were afraid she might be breached over the stern or take a wave broadside, that never happened. In fact, after the turn, Argo road the seas more comfortably than before. We stayed on this course for about an hour. By now it was 1900 and we had been in the storm for 6 hours, but we were much more confident in Argo and our ability to survive and ride out the storm. At this point I decide we had to return to our original course, which would take us to the outer fringes of the storm and eventually to Auckland, but this required another turnabout. After executing the turn, we were finally on course for Auckland again. Argo was riding relatively well given the circumstances. The sun had set, it was pitch black outside and the wind was screeching; we had five hours to go! An hour or so later Tyler reported that the sea water pump for the hydraulic system had stopped functioning. Without this pump the hydraulic system would soon overheat, we would lose our stabilizers, and we would be in serious, perhaps catastrophic danger. Once again I had to turn Argo stern-to and position her so that we could turn off the stabilizers before they closed down due to overheating. I found that Argo was most stable in this position. So we turned on our spot light, determined the exact wave direction, waited for the right moment and initiated the turn with wide open throttle. She made the turn between waves quickly and we found a very stable position for her to assume. Tyler sprang into action: he removed the strainer and the cover plate to the impeller: everything was OK. Then he took the input hose off the heat exchanger thinking that perhaps it sucked in some air and became air locked; again everything seemed OK. So we turned the system back on and, thank God, it worked. At this point we needed to turn Argo back into the waves and resume our course toward Great Barrier Island and safe anchorage still five hours away. Now it was pitch dark on the ocean. We were in the middle of this terrible storm and waves were coming at us. Argo road the waves perfectly, up and down, up and down. Once in a while a rogue wave would slam us near the stern and spin us off course, but Argo took the pounding and we moved relentlessly toward safe harbor. Every hour we called Maritime Radio to report our position and to obtain permission to anchor before checking into customs. Finally, five hours later at 01:30, we made Great Barrier Island and Katherine’s Bay. With the storm raging around us, we dropped our anchor, had a drink, and fell into bed.
The next morning we got underway at 08:45 and headed for Auckland, 55 miles away. Winds in the protected channel and Auckland harbor were still in the 30 mph range. We hove to the customs dock at 16:22, cleared-in in an hour, and tied up at our final destination, Viaduct Harbor Marina, at 18:00. After 14,000 miles of travel and 8 months underway, we didn’t put so much as a scratch on this fantastic yacht! All of us are in awe of this boat. She took those huge seas with grace, and could take even more.
We were well prepared for the storm; we conduct engine room checks every hour during normal conditions and on the half hour during high seas (which permitted us to always discover problems before that became emergencies), we had installed storm plates on our large salon windows, we knew from experience how to deal with the problems and conditions we faced, everything was tied down and properly stowed. Nothing was broken. No one was hurt. The outside of Argo and all of equipment was undamaged and in perfect condition. It took a day or two for us to calm down, but we are all better seaman as a result of the experience. However, we do not want to experience it again!
Regarding the storm: it continued to rage for several days and intensified into a cyclone.