Marie finally confessed she’d hidden chocolate Toblerone on the boat to eat when alone on watch during the night. I was devastated. When I found out, having at last made landfall in Prince Rupert, she giggled finding the whole thing amusing.
I myself confess to an inherent chocolate addiction and usually stock Sänna with copious amounts for long passages, but on this occasion I’d decided to try and abstain. It was either that or another trip back to the hypnotist. Marie doesn’t usually eat chocolate and I can’t get my head around why she suddenly decided to become a secret-eater during our twenty two days at sea. We finally made port much further north than we’d originally planned, departing Hanalei Bay on the wonderful island of Kauai in Hawaii for Victoria, on the southern side of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. But we didn’t plan for the vicious storm that crossed our path six hundred miles out from the Canadian coast.
One week into our voyage I desperately longed for Cadburys Dairy Milk or even a coconut Bounty but we had nothing, or so I believed. All the time I was suffering the pains of withdrawal there was a secret supply of Toblerone not feet away. By the second week I was pulling my hair out, or the little I have left. And, each evening, whilst alone on watch, Marie consumed little triangular pieces of Swiss milk chocolate with deliciously small bits of sweet nougat buried inside. I thought we had a close relationship… we share everything.
And, another thing… I argued we had too many eggs onboard for a three week voyage. Nearly eighty I believe although Marie denies this. Each one had to be individually greased for preservation and, luckily, our very good friend Sarah joined us onboard in Honolulu for a short holiday. Sarah greased each one for us, in a rather too caressing manner in my opinion, before we ourselves sailed north and Sarah left to return to the UK. I made the point, several times, that we would never get through eighty eggs but Marie and Sarah steadfastly refused to accept this. Not nearly enough they said. To prove her point, once underway, Marie cooked four egg omelettes or double poached eggs on toast each morning and we consumed egg fried rice, egg noodles, egg salads, boiled eggs and egg dishes I’d not come across before. We ate exceptionally well. I suspected at one point I was egg bound. Somehow we consumed the last two eggs in the evening we made port and Marie declared we’d carried just the right amount, as she’d said all along.
Seven years into our eastward circumnavigation voyage from the UK, our three thousand mile sail north from warm Hawaii ended in cold British Columbia just south of the border with Alaska. The weather deteriorated gradually, the first week was again glorious trade wind sailing in sublime sunshine until we reached the infamous North Pacific High, the erroneously static area of high pressure that dominates north pacific weather. We had to sail northwards around the west side of the High, gradually turning east to British Columbia and Alaska. As we did so the temperatures dropped and the dense fog, strong winds and torrential rain began to dominate. The wind at first died away as we approached the High and we had a couple of calm sunny days on engine, until we reached the latitudes where the westerlies blew to drive Sänna eastwards to our landfall destination…
Inevitably, we got caught by deepening weather fronts knowing all along we would. We had planned for strong winds to take us downwind to Vancouver Island. By the end of the second week we’d ridden out a couple of blows and were grateful to leave the calms of the Pacific High behind. We didn’t want to burn diesel. We’d also signed up with Commanders Weather routing service but were finding their course predictions less than useful. We reverted back to our normal practice of downloading weather GRIBs through our SailMail SSB radio link. We were also grateful for email contact with a guy called Skip Kleger, who we’d never met but who was supporting the US yacht Morning Star, a day or two behind us. Skip was based in San Francisco and was clearly a sailor and weather guru. He knew his stuff.
As part of my early morning watch routine I downloaded the latest weather forecast. The dawn watch is always the worst in my opinion because tiredness makes it a struggle to keep my weary eyes open. I normally grab a chocolate bar, telling myself it’s strictly for the caffeine and is therefore a paramount safety requirement. Once convinced, I’ll sometimes grab a second bar just to make sure. Of course, by this time Marie had probably secretly consumed another dozen Toblerones on her watch… and I was anticipating another lovely omelette breakfast.
I looked at the forecast and there was a LOW forming to the south of us which didn’t quite fit the normal weather patterns of the northeast pacific. Although not unusual, it was predicted to deepen and move north east across our now easterly course to Victoria. The resulting ridge would put strong winds and seas on our starboard bow so it was going to be goodbye to pleasant downwind sailing for a while. Nevertheless, we could continue as planned providing the predicted twenty to thirty knot winds prevailed. I made a mental note to check the staysail sheets and furling lines at some point soon as we’d not used our storm sails since leaving Hawaii. Then, I noticed a second email which had arrived from Skip.
Skip was concerned. He’d downloaded the same weather-GRIB as ourselves which showed nothing untoward but he’d also picked up a Canadian weather broadcast issuing a storm warning. They were predicting much worse. There was nothing from Commanders who were supposed to be keeping an eye on things for us. They were the experts after all.
I tuned our long range radio to pick up the broadcast from the Canadian weather service. There it was. I quickly realised the powerful storm they were predicting to head our way would be no spring chicken. We were still six hundred miles out from the Canadian coast and Skip then confirmed the US weather service were also upgrading their forecast for the offshore ocean east of Vancouver Island. As the Low moved north a band of strong south easterly winds, forty to fifty knots, would follow, squeezed by the High now spreading itself east. But the GRIB forecast still showed thirty knots maximum; we’d always found GRIB forecasts quite accurate, more so as the technology and historic information improved. I asked Skip to confirm and he advised that our best tactic would be to dig out our best pirate songs and sea shanties to sing loudly into the big winds coming our way.
Marie, as normal, didn’t show too much concern. She’s unflappable. “We’ve dealt with it before and no doubt we’ll come out the other end as always,” she said, and proceeded to cook a delicious four egg omelette with the last of our cheese and tinned mushrooms. I myself wasn’t quite so certain of things. As always, my mind drifted to our boat design and build. We are a fin keeled vessel with a spade rudder… a design traditional ocean purists scorn. Would our keel or rudder fall off? I tended to ask myself these silly questions in the middle of my night watch, when things play on your mind. Nevertheless, Sänna had got us more than half way around the world and through a number of bad storms, including our dreadful experience in the Red Sea. Nowadays we were grossly overloaded as indeed most long distance cruising boats are… jerry cans of diesel on deck, solar panels, wind generator…
The gale force winds built slowly from the south east and we both agreed we were well prepared. Dusk came and everything was secured down, lines checked with our storm trysail ready, bilge pumps and engine tested. Marie prepared hot food… egg noodles and egg fried rice, all ready with hot tea and soup made up in thermos flasks. Cold boiled eggs if things got too bad. She also checked our emergency grab bag ensuring our passports, wallet and other essentials were inside, normal precautions we always take. Perplexed, I later found Marie’s Kindle in the grab bag too… “I’ll need something to read if we abandon ship,” she explained.
We still sailed our eastward course and the wind and sea were off our starboard bow, we could make a close reach quite comfortably to keep the big sea directly off our beam. We took turns to steer through the sea and around the bigger waves, finding that our Raymarine autopilot once again handled things well. So we rested from time to time and I worked out that in around six or seven hours we’d be through the worst. The winds were only gusting up to thirty five knots so the GRIB forecast wasn’t far out after all. I estimated the sea to be no more that three to four metres so everything was relatively fine, we were sailing well with a double reef in our furling main and staysail jib on our inner furling.
Then the wind began to noticeable increase, we were suddenly gusting sixty knots and not dropping much below fifty. I called down to Marie that we exceedingly quickly needed to put a final reef in the main, prepare our trysail and reef the staysail too. I activated the autopilot to free us both and got ready our safety lines to clip on to the mast. Marie was below decks, I unclipped and quickly moved to join her to change into my ill fitting sea boots. First I checked we were maintaining course and moving through the heavy swell. As I reached the half open hatch and companionway I was instantly horrified. Directly abaft our beam was a huge towering wave which, I could see in the dim light, was easily twice the height of everything else and coming in a different direction. It was about to break over us with incredible speed and ferocity. Sänna was instantly buried under a violent green sea and began to lean heavily on her beam ends.
Everything was chaos. I was thrown down the companionway steps and across the cabin, hitting the heavy wood of the couch on the way. I lay heavily against the open doorway of the heads which could only mean Sänna was lying on her side. Objects were flying across the cabin and out of the bilges… and I couldn’t see Marie. I lay there, utterly useless and motionless, my mind racing. Seawater poured through the open companionway hatch and I thought, quite calmly, this was it. Would Sänna continue her roll and capsize upside down and would she come up again? I’d long ago decided that she’d never recover from a capsize because of the over burden weight we carried, particularly on deck. But, as I lay totally immobile, the big loveable piece of plastic German junk slowly came upright and I fell into a heap onto the cabin floor.
Marie was up fast although we were being tossed around out of control. The red internal cabin lights were still on but I couldn’t move. The pain in my left leg was excruciating. Marie, totally ignoring me for the time being, ran up the steps into the cockpit. She turned the wheel to get us back into the seaway and reactivated the autopilot. She was as cool as a cucumber. Then she came down to drag me out the heads doorway in which I was still half lodged, pulled down my waterproofs, checked over my leg and announced, in quite a pronounced manner, I was fine. But I was in pain, shocked and feeling sorry for myself. “Would a piece of chocolate help?” she offered. Mysteriously, I thought, out of her pocket I got some Toblerone.
She took control in the way that she does and said we quickly needed to get the sails down. The winds were now howling at over sixty knots. I was struggling to move with the pain in my leg so Marie went on deck to wind in our furling main. She left out a scrap of sail because, she said, she’d read somewhere that’s what we should do. So we furled in the staysail and, like frightened rabbits, turned to run north with the storm and the now unbelievable towering seas on our aft end.
Running with the Storm
And that’s what we did. We left out a small amount of mainsail to maintain headway and ran with the sea downwind under bare poles. We still made seven knots. We made ready our Jordan series drogue but I could see the waves passing through us and we were not surfing out of control. Sänna was handling this quite well and we made the dubious decision to leave the autopilot to control the boat, there was only the two of us and we quickly needed to take stock of things. By now it was dark and our navigation lights were thankfully working fine. The winds were easing and we decided not to deploy our drogue. We had taken a lot of water down below and we had to go through what worked and what didn’t. I saw that we’d lost our Dan Buoy and two empty diesel jerry cans.
We went through everything, all the electronics were fine and our two electric bilge pumps running, pumping the bilges as we settled ourselves down. I would operate the manual pump later and get some buckets. Sänna was being turned and twisted, stuff still moving and flying around but, gradually, we got ourselves organised. We didn’t go on deck and left Sänna to her fate; we figured there was not much more we could do. So we closed the hatch and settled down to get much needed rest, warm and comfortable in the knowledge we’d probably make it through the night somehow. We ate the egg fried rice and egg noodles and the next morning we had scrambled eggs without the cheese and mushrooms. It was wonderful. Marie informed me triumphantly we’d not broken any eggs at all.
The gale winds eased more during the night but still sometimes gusted between forty and fifty knots. Our wind instrument had recorded a maximum of sixty nine knots and I realised we’d had consistent winds in the low sixties for a short time. We continued to run northeast and, eventually, we tucked into the foggy west coast shelter of ubiquitous Graham Island and things died down. Desolate Canada sometimes showed herself through the swirling mists and we turned eastward off the hidden Langara Rocks, around the headland making for the infamous Chatham Sound. Captain Cook first came here and called this a savage land.
That’s how we came to arrive in Prince Rupert with the last of our eggs and the mysterious Toblerone secretly consumed. We’re thankful to God we’re alive.
Other than our knockdown we handled things quite well. Once we turned to run north under bare poles we were able to recover, batten things down and sit things out. We felt comfortable although we were far from safe. Perhaps wrongly we relied on our autopilot which, in fact, was fine but as a short handed crew we had little choice. I worried about our stability but then I always worry about something. Later, when on deck at the mast, with the wind reading just under fifty knots, I recalled the seas being around seven to eight metres in height but long in length and somehow organised. We have a Jordan series drogue and would have deployed it… heaving too is never a good option for us because of our fin keel design. Undoubtedly there was excessive strain on Sänna’s spade rudder when running with the sea but there seems to be no apparent damage we can see. We eventually made landfall over three hundred miles further north than planned and our keel didn’t fall off!
Sänna is not the toughest boat on the sea and we don’t know what her limits are. She’s never let us down and her build and design are tougher than we suppose. Much stronger boats have been lost at sea. I didn’t get time to estimate the height of the breaking wave that knocked us down but assume it was over ten metres… or enough to capsize a fifty foot yacht! Undoubtedly it was the breaking of the wave that engulfed us.
British Columbia is the wildest wilderness we’ve seen. We have rain and glorious warm sunshine with snow peaked mountains and pine forests clinging to countless islands. There are Humpback whales, huge Bald Eagles and we’ve seen growling Grizzlies along the shorelines too. The locals are friendly and the fishermen give us crabs and halibut and salmon for free. The beautiful harbours are no tourist traps and we tied alongside hardcore rough men of the sea. They asked if we were out in the big storm and received their acknowledging respect.
I’ve long since realised my wonderful wife Marie is a tough cookie and calm in a crisis. I cherish our long times alone together on the sometimes savage sea… just the two of us, looking out for each other, Marie counting her precious greasy eggs and me eating fabulous chocolate until it melts and dribbles down my stubbly chin.
Dave Ungless. Alaska, July 2013
You can view the Yachting Monthly published article here.
Dave & Marie Ungless are currently sailing their boat Sänna around the world from west to east. Their nine year voyage so far has taken them into the North Pacific and to Alaska where they are now located. Dave is a freelance writer and journalist writing about their travels and the social aspects of their journey.
You can also Like their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/sv.sanna.