Sunseeker Chapter 11

Sunseeker Chapter 11

We had never hove-to before but I had the theory in my head from accounts of storm tactics which I had read about. Rene, very sensibly, insisted on my wearing a safety harness and clip on to the jackstays along the side-deck. As we tried to turn Sunseeker’s head into the wind and seas she heeled alarmingly; side-decks awash in a raging torrent. Try as we might, her bows could not be made to come up into the wind. We tried to start the engine to give her a push, but, incredibly, the batteries were flat. As I climbed nervously out of the comparative shelter of the doghouse onto the windward sidedeck my breath was swept away by the shrieking wind. Rene struggled with the helm to bring Sunseeker as close to the wind as possible while I clung to the mast atop the wildly bucking cabin-top. Inch by inch the mainsail was clawed down and secured to its boom. Amazingly the motion eased. Sunseeker rose to each massive wave, was held momentarily on the crest before sliding down, behind the hissing, fizzing foam, into the trough. We set the roller headsail to windward, the area of sailcloth hardly big enough to cover an occasional table. With the helm lashed to hold the rudder to windward, Sunseeker tried to turn into the wind; but the wind on the backed headsail pushed her bows away. In this fashion she climbed each wave and gradually we both realised we were now safe. Rene told me later that she had an overwhelming sense of relief when she realised that we could heave-to and effectively stop to have a rest and take stock.

As the pitch-black night slowly gave way to the approaching grey of dawn on Wednesday the wind moderated a little and veered to the northeast. Through a very lumpy sea we ran before the wind with the double-reefed mainsail out to starboard. Throughout the day the wind eased and we added more sail, continually looking over our shoulder for the next ‘Nasty’ to come after us. By teatime the wind had died away to nothing, leaving Sunseeker and us to drift southwards through the night, licking our wounds.

Dawn on Thursday saw the return of the wind, force three to four, but now from the southwest. For the next four days we worked the ship according to my RYA qualification of Day Skipper. Through the days we steered Sunseeker as best we could and overnight, when I was too tired, we pulled into a lay-by for a rest (that is, we hove-to). Rene found the steering too heavy so I steered all day while she made all the meals and gave me moral support. For most of the night, whilst I rested, she kept watch.

After keeping us close-hauled for the whole of Thursday, the wind did an about face, going into and staying in the northeast, building in strength as we approached the area off Cape Finisterre.

By Monday morning the wind and seas were so high that I didn’t have the courage to get underway again. The wind, waves and ocean current were all pushing us in a more or less southerly direction and would keep us well outside of the shipping separation zone off Finisterre. Rene had reconciled herself to sitting out the weather but during Monday afternoon and night I became more and more frustrated thinking that, even with the huge following waves I should be able to steer. What a wimp! I chided myself.

Sunseeker Chapter 11 - Big waves in Bay of Biscay
Big waves in Bay of Biscay

Tuesday morning dawned bright and clear and, girding my loins, so to speak, we got under way as I nervously brought Sunseeker round ‘till the waves, no less diminished, were on our port quarter. That is to say, from behind but a little on the left-hand side. She was immediately caught in the irresistible force of a towering wave and slowly rose on the swell, bows pointing down and stern high in the air. As the wave passed beneath, Sunseeker’s bows lifted and she slid down the back of what seemed like a mountain of water, its crest fizzing and hissing as it sped away from us. We were left in the trough, waiting to be picked up by the next monster. All the while I was tensely feeling my way, gripped by the excitement and hanging on to the wheel. Every so often, a wave grabbed Sunseeker’s stern and threw her, bodily, to starboard. Gradually as the realisation of what we were doing dawned on me my eyes opened wide to the thrill of riding these massive waves. My arms and legs trembled with excitement. It was like a gigantic roller coaster ride, only lasting much longer and with no one else to watch.

As the morning wore on we both felt that the swell was gradually reducing and we realised that Sunseeker must have been coming under the protection of Cape Finisterre. Lots of shipping passed across from left to right now, as we approached the separation lanes around the Cape. Our course was set to take Sunseeker a little south of this extremely busy zone. However, we soon met a steady stream of ships disgorging themselves from the end of the southbound lane. Fortunately, the seas had diminished, we had a good, fair wind and the sun shone from a clear sky. With a line of shipping stretching from horizon to horizon threading our way through the gaps was a very tense operation. Sunseeker was making about five knots. Good going for us, but these monsters bore down on us at anything up to twenty knots! Suddenly, from the sensation of being totally alone upon a wide, wide ocean, we thought, “Oh, so this is how it is to be a hedgehog crossing a busy motorway! “

With the line of ships thankfully receding in our wake Sunseeker gallantly ploughed her way through the lull before coming upon the second, this time north going, line of shipping.

The sun was rapidly falling towards the western horizon when, happily, we realised that the danger was now behind us, although another challenge now faced us. With the setting of the sun and twinkling navigation lights beginning to show behind us as the procession of ships continued undiminished, our valiant wind decided to shut down for the night. When, a long time ago, or so it seemed, we found the batteries to be flat, I had diverted all the power from the wind generator into just one battery, hoping to recharge the starter battery. We had certainly had plenty of wind, but had the energy been placed where it would matter? We had, in crossing the two shipping lanes, covered a lot of ground and should be closing with the coast quite soon. We would likely be meeting coastal shipping and possibly fishing boats. It was important now to have the use of our navigation lights through the coming night. Well, we must try to start the diesel engine! Would she start? As the last of the dying breeze left us I turned the key. We had power, for the starter motor turned strongly. With fingers crossed we waited for it to fire.

Yes, it caught, coughed and then burst into life! Blessed wind power!

With engine slow ahead and Rene on the helm I clambered out onto the deck to lower the sails. The sea now was flat calm and as I glanced away over to the west I fancied we had fetched up on Blackpool promenade. From horizon to horizon stretched a procession of pretty fairy lights, as ships’ navigation lights merged with decklights. Dotted along the chain were pools of sparkling brilliance reflected in the now calm waters. Along these bridges of light travelled the muted sounds of a dance band as a party got under way on a cruise liner. In my mind’s eye I imagined flamboyant evening gowns, on parade for cocktail hour, their owners bedecked in costly, glittering diamonds and understated pearls, discrete mink stoles draped elegantly over slender shoulders.

Well, there are cruises and there are cruises. Returning to the business in hand I set to and lowered Sunseeker’s sails, making them secure but ready to hoist once more if a wind returned. Our own, tiny cruise liner was soon prepared for another night and, with the engine pushing Sunseeker through the water towards the Ria da Vigo and Bayona, I left Rene on watch, steering a steady course by the light over the compass. It had been a long, long day and my bunk called urgently.

End of Sunseeker Chapter 11

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