Thursday, 12 March 2015

Dodging hurricanes in the North Atlantic (with mixed success)


Iron Bark and I arrived in St Anthony in the north of Newfoundland on 27 July 2013 after spending the previous winter in Greenland. St Anthony is a small, friendly place where slightly odd behaviour is accepted without comment, which was fortunate as it took me a day or two get used to being back amongst people after a year alone. 

After ten days spent provisioning and making minor repairs, I sailed south along Newfoundland’s east coast bound for Fogo. It was a lovely morning with a fair wind, humpback and minke whales blowing in the distance and enough icebergs to be interesting without being a nuisance. That night the wind headed us and faltered and fog rolled in. The number of icebergs and fishing boats meant keeping a constant watch so I used the engine intermittently to avoid a second sleepless nights at sea. The fog cleared as I approached Fogo making finding its narrow, rocky entrance straightforward. I anchored off the government dock at 1530, having taken 32 hours to sail 102 nautical miles and motor a further 24 nautical miles from St Anthony. This was the usual length of each leg as we made our way to Nova Scotia, being a compromise between making decent progress and needing to stop for sleep.

Fogo is a typical Newfoundland outport. Its population has shrunk and got older with the demise of the cod fishery, but the people left are friendly and outgoing. The harbour, which in more prosperous times held dozens of fishing schooners and later big draggers, now has only a few inshore fishing boats and small motorboats.

Strong headwinds kept me in Fogo for six days. There was plenty to do as the town was humming with its annual ‘come from away’ festival when former residents return for a visit, mostly from ‘the west’ (the Alberta oilfields) and the ‘Boston states’ (eastern USA). Each day there was music and traditional Newfoundland food in different locations around town. Newfoundland food relies heavily on corned beef, pork fatback, turnips, salt cod and pootine. I am omnivorous but out of deference to my arteries try to avoid the latter, which is deep fried potato with gravy pored over, topped with melted pork fatback.

The next leg from Fogo to Pudding Bag Cove (what a lovely name) was similar to the one before and those that followed.  I departed at 0600 with a fair wind that later headed us, topsail up then down, reefs in and out and motor on whenever the speed dropped below one knot. It took 31 hours to make 120 nautical miles, 20 nautical miles of that using the engine. The next stop was Catalina. I needed fuel, not have bought any since leaving Greenland. Only untaxed diesel, prohibited to all except fishing boats, was locally available, so Bob the harbour master drove me 30km to Bonavista to fill my jerry cans. The pumps there were not working due to a power cut and it took two further trips totalling 180km before we could buy fuel. Bob refused any contribution towards the cost of his petrol, but instead took me home to meet his wife and have dinner. This sort of hospitality is one reason that I return to Newfoundland.

From Catalina, I could just fetch close-hauled across Trinity Bay to Baccalieu Tickle and on across the mouth of Conception Bay to Cape St Francis. It would take a month to properly explore Conception and Trinity bays, which I passed in a day. From Cape St Francis, it was a long beat down the east coast of the Avon Peninsula to Fermeuse where I anchored for a night’s sleep.

Another 137 nautical miles took us from Fermeuse around Cape Race to Little Lawrence where I spent a night before continuing on for 103 miles to the abandoned outport of Pink Bottom. I spent a couple of days anchored under the spectacular pink cliff that gives the place its name then motored 15 nautical miles to McCallum to visit friends. There is no road along most of the south coast of Newfoundland and McCallum’s 100 or so inhabitants are connected to the outside world by a small ferry, weather permitting. Visitors are rare and welcome. From McCallum, I continued west, poking first into Facheux Bay for a night, then Hare Bay where I waited out a minor blow, and on to Doctors Harbour, an old favourite. Most of these ‘bays’ are fjords and nearly all have abandoned outports clinging to their shores.

Iron Bark was showing signs of needing a mechanical refit. A weld on the exhaust manifold water jacket cracked and leaked coolant, then a wire on the alternator shorted and blew a diode, leaving me without electricity. Repairs needed electric power for welding and more parts than I had aboard so I sailed for Baddeck on Cape Breton Island. The wind died early in the passage and I motored most the way across Cabot Strait, topping up the cooling system with water every 20 minutes for 36 hours.

I spent ten days in Baddeck refitting and visiting friends. Henry Fuller of the Cape Breton Boat Yard was as generous and helpful as ever, arranging for the alternator to be repaired and the manifold welded, besides providing me with a mooring and taking me out to dinner regularly.

The wind was light and foul when I left Baddeck so I motored south through the Bras d’Or Lakes to St Peters Canal and on to River Bourgeois. At least now the batteries were being charged and the cooling water header tank stayed full. I stopped at River Bourgeois to visit Bob and Kathy Groves who own Easy Go, a Badger class junk-rigged dory. We discussed the passage from Cape Breton south to the Caribbean, which we have both done a number of times, and agreed the best time to leave is the last week of October, hoping this to be after the last hurricane and before the first bad winter storm. We both regarded the alternative of motoring down the Intra Coastal Waterway as unattractive for both economic and aesthetic reasons.

Later I learned Bob sailed from River Bourgeois in late October and was caught by a prolonged northeast gale in the Gulf Stream. After several days being bashed by wind against current seas, Easy Go had a variety of gear problems and leaks, none of them catastrophic but cumulatively serious especially as Bob was by then battered and tired. Bob send out a mayday via his Spot satellite reporting device and a freighter picked him up the following day. The transfer was done in six metre seas and 40 knot winds by dragging Bob up the side of the vessel in a life ring after attempts to use a cargo net failed.  It sounds as if he was lucky to survive the transfer. Ten months later when I next saw Bob, he had not fully recovered.

This was all in the future as I continued down the coast of Nova Scotia to the attractive, uninhabited anchorage of Port Howe. After a day waiting for a cold front to pass, I carried on to Halifax, where I spent very social week, then continued towards Maine. Halfway there a gale warning sent me scuttling into Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. I sheltered there for two days then, in calm conditions, motored most of the way across the Bay of Fundy to Falmouth, Maine, where I spent a week socialising. This was becoming less of a cruise than sea-borne soiree with an excessive amount of motoring.

On 19 October I sailed for the Caribbean via Bermuda. It is only 750 nautical miles from Maine to Bermuda but it took 13 days and I sailed 1140 nautical miles to get there. For much of the passage the fair winds were light, the headwinds strong (I spent 62 hours hove-to) and the Gulf Stream against us. It was never dangerous or even difficult, but was often tedious.

After a week bottled up in Bermuda by strong south-easterlies, a forecast of moderate fair winds sent Iron Bark and a dozen other boats to sea on 8 November. For two days the wind held fair and Iron Bark made 230 nautical miles. This was followed by ten days of light airs and headwinds during which I sailed about 900 nautical miles to make good a paltry 650 nautical miles. Eventually, in latitude 19°N, we found the trades and romped in to anchor in Martinique on 23 November 2013, 15 days out from Bermuda.

From Martinique I coasted south to Trinidad to buy paint and see the dentist, then back to Carriacou to chip and paint (the joys of a steel boat) and drink rum with various old and new acquaintances. After a trip back to Trinidad for more dental work and paint, I sailed slowly north up the island chain, stopping along the way to do a bit of maintenance and socialising, and eventually arrived in Dominica in early March. I spent a month there as I needed internet access and a courier service to sort out some personal affairs in Australia. Dominica is a good place for that as everything is within walking distance of a pleasant anchorage.

While in Dominica I spent some time with Charlotte Watters and Dan Johnson of Hestur. Hestur is a simple, practical Bagder class junk that actually sails most places rather than motoring and a refreshing exception to the gadget-laden motor-sailors that are now the norm in the Caribbean. Perhaps this was what decided me go to Scotland and use their homeport of Ullapool as a base for the coming winter.

 On 16 April, a month later than I had hoped, I sailed north from Dominica for the Chesapeake Bay. An old and valued friend, Rob Caldwell, lives there, but the diversion adds about a month to the voyage to Nova Scotia (two extra weeks at sea and two weeks partying), so do not do it as often as I would like. For the first five days out from Dominica we made good progress in steady trade winds before losing them in 25°N. It took two weeks to make the next 850 nautical miles to Norfolk, Virginia at an average of 60 nautical miles/day made good, which is less than half that claimed by most yachts in these latitudes. Although Iron Bark is no light airs flyer especially to windward, I suspect the difference in performance between Iron Bark and her bermudian sisters has more to do with engine size and usage than details of the rig.

Working to windward in light airs

After clearing customs in Norfolk, I sailed north up the Chesapeake Bay. The exhaust manifold had failed again, in a different spot from last time. Without an engine it took three days in light airs to drift to the Caldwell’s house on the Patuxent River. Rob and his wife Phyllis were having a week long gathering of four generations of their extended family, which I enjoyed, but it must have been a strain on Phyllis. An Amish welder, who refreshingly charged what he thought the job was worth rather that what the market would bear, fixed my exhaust manifold for $20.

The passage from the Chesapeake Bay to Nova Scotia can be wearisome, and so it was this year. I sailed from the Chesapeake on 23 May and the first five days were pleasant but slow in light, fair winds. On 28 May a front brought rain, lightning and strong to occasionally gale force headwinds that persisted for five days. When the wind was below near gale (force 7) we plugged into it and hove-to whenever it was stronger. On 2 June, about 150 nautical miles southeast of Nantucket, we were slogging slowly and wetly close hauled into NE force 6/7 when a large trimaran blasted by west-bound on a broad reach under a main reefed to half size and a tiny blade jib. According to the AIS she was Spindrift 2 and was averaging over 25 knots with a top speed of 32 knots. It is hard to imagine two sailing vessels more different than Iron Bark and Spindrift 2. One is the nautical equivalent of a Toyota Landcruiser fitted out for off road work, the other a Formula 1 race car. Both are sail boats well adapted for their tasks, but  almost the only other common ground is that that they both float and use sails for propulsion.

By 4 June we were about 100 miles off the Nova Scotian coast and within range of Canadian VHF weather forecasts. These promised a day of light airs followed by several days of strong to gale force headwinds. I was thoroughly tired of thrashing around in those conditions so started the engine and motored through the calm for nearly 24 hours  to anchor off Shelburne just as the wind picked up and the rain set in.

I have been visiting Nova Scotia regularly for ten years and have friends all along the coast and spent the next month sailing east in easy stages visiting them. The result was that I did not arrive in Baddeck until the beginning of July. I picked up a mooring at the Cape Breton Boat Yard and once more took advantage of Henry Fuller’s hospitality. When Hurricane Arthur loomed I moved to the Washabuck River, a superb hurricane hole that I have used before. Tucked in among the trees the protection was so good that the wind, which caused mayhem elsewhere in Nova Scotia, hardly disturbed the mosquitoes. 

This delay cost a week that I could ill afford if I hoped to make it to Greenland on the way to Scotland. After a brief stop back in Baddeck to say goodbye everyone, I sailed to Otter Harbour and anchored to wait for a fair tide to carry me through Great Bras d’Or. The following morning while hauling the anchor the windlass gave a clunk and stopped. I re-anchored and I stripped the windlass down to find its gearbox was damaged beyond repair. The option of continuing on and hauling the anchor by hand as I did before I had a windlass was unattractive. Greenland anchorages are generally deep, I am seven years older than when I last hauled the anchor by hand and the anchor now weighs 60lb, not 45lb as it did then. So back to Baddeck; Henry must have groaned when I sailed in and picked up one of his moorings.

The North American agent for Maxwell had no gearbox parts but Henry Fuller located them in New Zealand and had them air freighted to Canada. I was ready to go again on 24 July, except that in an excess of frugality I had not hauled and antifouled Iron Bark in the Caribbean but had merely scrubbed her, expecting to be back in cold water by mid June. Delays in warm water meant her bottom was now foul and she needed careening.

Careened for scrubbing in Culotte Cove

After waiting for two days for a fair wind, I sailed 140 nautical miles across the Cabot Strait to Culotte Cove on Newfoundland’s south coast. Culotte Cove is an old favourite, being well protected, uninhabited and having good walks in addition to a sand beach for careening. Strong winds prevented me from beaching Iron Bark for two days, so it was not until 31 July that I had both sides scrubbed, water topped off, rig inspected and ready for sea. It was now too late in the year to get to Greenland and have enough time to do anything useful, but a diversion to Iceland on the way to Scotland seemed feasible.

On 2 August I set off in thick fog with a light, fair wind. The following day when south of Miquelon, still in light airs and thick fog, Hurricane Bertha’s presence was announced on the forecast. Bertha’s track and Iron Bark’s course looked like converging on the Grand Banks so I turned north and drifted in to anchor in Little St Lawrence. Little St Lawrence not in the same class as Washabuck River as a hurricane hole but it is protected from the sea if not the wind, the holding is good and there are only a few skiffs in the harbour to drag into you.

Hurricane Bertha crossed the Grand Banks on 7 August and I sailed from Little St Lawrence two days later on the first fair wind. That breeze died after six hours and when the wind returned it was a headwind that persisted for eight days. Beating to windward in a small gaff cutter is a slow business and with the Labrador Current was against us, it took a week to get clear of the Grand Banks. In that time we sailed 487 nautical miles to make good a derisory 131 nautical miles. That is not the worst week’s run I have made (17 miles drifting becalmed in the Mediterranean has that distinction) but it is the worst for quite a long time. Once clear of the Grand Banks the Gulf Stream gave us a shove, but headwinds and light airs meant it remained slow going.

On 22 August, when about 500 nautical miles west of Newfoundland, I heard a Canadian Broadcasting Service AM transmission from St Johns that mentioned a hurricane forming in the Caribbean was expected to affect Newfoundland in about a week. Those hurricanes that make landfall in North America dissipate quickly and are not a problem for a vessel well out in the Atlantic. Most of the rest recurve to travel east across the Atlantic between 40° and 50°N. If the hurricane, now named Cristobal, followed that path, my safest option was to be to head north. This would put me well north of its centre and in the navigable semicircle and thus blown clear of the hurricane's path.

Whenever the wind permitted I pushed north but this was interrupted by a northwest gale that briefly reached storm force. After this blew over I continued sailing north. On 29 August in 54°N 29°W I spoke via VHF to a passing tanker that told me that Cristobal was now a post-tropical storm centred 570 nautical miles southwest of our position and moving northeast very rapidly. It had hurricane force winds in the southeast and western sectors. I carried on north with all the sail Barky could carry.

In the next 24 hours the wind slowly increased and backed from southwest force 4 to east force 6 with a gradually falling barometer, consistent with us being in the navigable semicircle of a distant hurricane. I gave a very provisional sigh of relief, retracted at 1300 on 30 August when the barometer started to fall rapidly and the wind veered to near gale, southeast force 7. There was little I could do except curse Hughie and continue north under storm jib alone. At 1700 with the wind still in the southeast but now severe gale force 9 and the barometer a depressingly low 980mb and still falling, I took in the storm jib and continued running north under bare poles. The seas were only four or five metres but were breaking aboard heavily at times. I made a final round on deck, doubled the lashings on the sails and dinghy and set up both running back stays.

Four hours later the wind became gusty and variable in direction and the barometer was down to 975mb. The swell was confused but did not seem dangerous. Presumably this was the centre of the storm and we were far enough north to have avoided the dangerous southeast sector. The relatively small seas were probably because Cristobal was moving so fast that it had outpaced the swell it was generating. This happens when the center of the storm is moving at greater than about 30 knots, which is about the maximum forward speed of a wave train. Unfortunately it also meant the wind and seas on the far side of the eye were likely to be extremely unpleasant.

At 2245, in near total darkness, the wall of the eye passed over us. In a few seconds, the wind increased to a shriek and laid Iron Bark over 40°. It was too dark to see the sea state and I do not have wind speed instruments so my estimate of the wind’s strength is tentative, but I logged it as hurricane force, west north west force 12. The Aries wind vane could still steer us so I set it to run southeast on a broad reach. The sea built up very quickly and broke over us often and heavily, but never seemed likely to knock us down completely. I expected the dinghy to be crushed in its chocks or a sail to blow out of its gaskets, but could do nothing about either. Any attempt to work on deck in these conditions would be dangerous or fatal; if the sea did not wash me overboard, the wind would blow me there.

By dawn the shriek of the wind in the rigging had decreased slightly and the sea state was commensurate with severe storm force 11, so my estimate of force 12 earlier was probably not far off. Two hours later the wind was storm force 10 and only reaching hurricane force in squalls, the barometer, which had been rising at 3mb/hour, was now rising at 1.2mb/hour and although conditions were unpleasant, they did not seem to be getting any worse.
Post-tropical hurricane Cristobal from NASA’s Aqua satellite, 31 August 2014 

And nor did they. At noon, although the wind was severe gale SW9, gusting storm force 10 with a vile cross sea, conditions were mild compared to a few hours earlier. We continued running southeast under bare poles at four knots.  At 1700, 18 hours after crossing the eye wall, the wind was down to near gale WSW force 7 gusting gale force 8. I set the storm jib and ran through the night under that sail. By dawn on 1 September even the gusts were not reaching gale force. I set the working lowers with mainsail deep-reefed and bore up for the Scotland.

The rest of the passage to Scotland, which took a further six days, was straightforward with fair winds that never exceeded near gale force 7. We rounded the Butt of Lewis just after midnight on 7 September and ran down the Minch, through the Summer Isles and into Loch Broom to anchor off Ullapool at noon, 29 days out from Newfoundland.

Running before a fresh breeze, just before shaking out a reef

In retrospect, I chose the wrong direction to sidestep Cristobal, which atypically tracked northeast instead of recurving east. If I had turned south instead of north or had beaten back to the west when I first heard of the hurricane’s existence I may have got far enough from its centre to avoid the worst weather. I played the odds as I understood them and lost.

Chance plays a big role in really bad weather and in sustained winds of storm force or higher I think there is a real prospect a vessel of Iron Bark’s size being knocked down. Keeping the vessel end-on to the dominant wave train helps but does not guarantee anything. A religious person might try praying or perhaps sacrifice a virgin if he had one to hand. I just kept pumping. Although I believe it was purely fortuitous that Iron Bark was not knocked down, I also believe her strong hull and hatches would give her a good chance of surviving a capsize. It is even possible her short, stout, well-stayed rig would come up largely intact, perhaps minus expendable spars like topmast and bowsprit.

Working on deck was not feasible for about ten hours, emphasising the importance preparation, most of it done months or years earlier. Below deck all Iron Bark’s lockers are positively secured and nothing came adrift. Anything carried on deck is likely to be lost in this sort of weather and the fact that Iron Bark’s dinghy survived was merely chance. It is a substantial clinker-built plywood affair carried inverted on heavy chocks, but one strake was stove in and another wave in the right place would have reduced the dinghy to splinters. If a sail had shaken loose from its lashings it would have been shredded instantly. To cover these eventualities I have a spare set of lower sails and an inflatable dinghy stowed below deck.

Iron Bark does not have a bimini, dodger, arches with solar panels and aerials and similar erections found on most cruising boats. This is just as well as I think that much windage aft would have prevented her running off, at least until they were washed overboard, and increased the chance of a knockdown. As it was the windage of her long boom was enough to make it difficult to get her to run dead down wind. Drogues may have helped but I never felt they were necessary. However if I had had a series drogue I would have used it and have since bought one. 

It is unusual for me to achieve everything I set out to do on a cruise, but I generally manage to do better than I did this year. Although my plans were fairly modest, I never even made it to Greenland despite sailing 11,139 nautical miles and motoring another annoying and expensive 1195 miles, and getting kicked around by the weather along the way.  Perhaps next year will be better.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Superbly written article, if only all offered the same content as you, the internet would be a far better place..

    MCX Silver Tips for today

  3. Just started reading this subsequent to the amazing photo featured recently in Yachting World. Can't wait to return to the blog to finish reading.