I’ve crossed Biscay 4 times. Had I crossed more, I’d surely have some saga to plump up Biscay’s notoriety. This one is more a saga of human error, misfortune, and technical faults, which happened to be in a storm in Biscay. If anything, I aim to make it thought-provoking in the context of problem-solving..
Intended Course ARC 2019
The fourth time I crossed, I had a near miss. With 3 crew, we set out with a fleet along with the ARC Portugal 2019. We’d torn a 2m rift up the Genoa, which had caught on the middle spreader in an accidental tack the second night. We’d binned it and swapped it out for a small Solent jib on the inner forestay. About 2/3 the way across the bay, while cruising on a broad reach, we’d received a storm warning via Navtex. A small, powerful storm cell had developed about 150miles west of Porto, Portugal, and was heading our way… well, this sharpened us up. Could we make it to shelter in time?
Rassey 42 (not ours) – you can see the spreader shadow on the Genoa
While standing in the galley thinking about this, I became very heavy up against the cooker as gravity skewed sideways. Looking out through the companionway, I saw the horizon up the ending and my crewmate clinging to the guardrail. A squall had come through. We were overpowered on the main. The exact opposite of what you’d want to happen in such a situation. The main furling shaft inside the mast sheared at the base, horrifyingly, deploying the sail in 35knts of wind! The boat dipped her port toerail in the water, we scrambled to uncleat the halyard and drop the main for good. We were minus 2 sails now and only had the small Solent to get us to northern Spain. Thankfully, the wind was on the starboard quarter at 15+kts, but still, we were underpowered for the heavy Hallberg Rassey 42 – and against the clock… the storm was coming… More ‘umph’ would have us surfing the swell effectively and get us promptly into port. We engaged the motor and.. clunk.. it jammed.. it wouldn’t turn over. Not now!
Sailing consistently presents us with a million things we hadn’t thought of. Disasters at sea are usually the result of a human error, often very small, but followed by a series of unfortunate incidents falling like dominoes. One incident passes the baton of bad luck to the next, getting increasingly dramatic, very quickly! Within ten minutes, we’d transitioned from a stunning hull speed cruise on a broad reach, to having next to no propulsion. Hell was over the horizon while we fought lurches of seasickness with our heads twisted upside down in the engine compartment figuring out our last hope of escape from a brewing monster.
The initial diagnosis was a jammed gearbox. We later discovered that the bolts on the drive damper plate were not torqued up, 3 bolts were unscrewed and got mashed up in the ring gear. Some of these bits jammed the starter motor gear. This caused the electronics to shut down due to starter motor overcurrent as it couldn’t engage and spin. The solution was to spin the prop shaft to deploy the folding blades. The boat speed would keep the blades spinning and the gearbox spinning in neutral. We had about 3kts, but thankfully a good swell, so, 4.5kts on the surf. The trick was to get the spin going by hand. I took a line about 3m long and wound it around and around the prop shaft. The next part was tricky.. I had to pull as hard as I could on the line, so the shaft would spin as it unwound and jump-start the prop, like pulling the cord on a lawnmower.
I had limited room to pull, so it was hand over hand while clipping my elbows painfully on every hard thing in the vicinity. It took a few goes.. but we got it.. the prop span on its own as the water flowed over it on the surf. Banging the engine into gear then jolted the engine flywheel which dislodged the metal bits allowing the engine to start! We turned the key, and voila.. it purred away, and so did we, in relief.
It was a feat I’d not have figured out alone. I’ve learned at sea that a skippers voice is good for guidance, but guidance ought to come in the form of open inquisition into the minds of all the crew. Listen, guide by questions, guide their thinking beyond your own.. It is incredible what we know without being told, but it’s not easy to access our inherent wisdom without inspiration. Just like disasters happen in a domino effect, so do good ideas. The ‘aha’ moment is interdependent. A boat is sailed by all.. We made it to Camarines; within four hours, we had 50kt gusts blowing across our Windex in the marina. It was 70kts out to sea. Half of the ARC fleet had turned west into the Atlantic and gone around the storm, adding three days to their crossing.
Lifeboat leaves harbor 2019.
3 crew did not make it back.
Sadly, a French lifeboat capsized in the storm that night, killing 3 crew. I don’t know who they were heading out to rescue. Perhaps someone just like us who’d not figured a way out of their situation.
My hope for this article, is that it leaves the reader with a positive inquisitive attitude to work with all the crew to solve the problems we inevitably face at sea.