Sunday, January 16, 2011

Our passage through hell -- Part Two

Day #9 -- After turning slightly south in the very high westerly winds, we fought this mess all afternoon and overnight.  Winds were sustained 35 knots and gusting up to 45 knots the entire time.  We attempted to heave-to again before dark but could not do it.  Even hove-to the boat was "drifting" at over 8 knots!!!  We could not figure out what we could be doing wrong.  We never had problems heaving-to before this.  Never did figure out what was different; only that we could not accomplish heaving-to.  So we rode it out all night while getting further exhausted.  Winds abated ever so slightly in the pre-dawn and we were finally able to heave-to again and rest for 1 hour.  We immediately called Commanders Weather for advice.  Ken was not there, but the man we spoke with told us to go ANYWHERE except south!  Yet that was the direction that this storm was taking us.  At this time we were less than 35 miles from that much-desired waypoint on the SE tip of Sri Lanka.  It was so discouraging to be that close and yet not be able to get there!   Commanders said to get north as quickly as possible!

And while we were hove-to in the pre-dawn is when the storm really decided to build and to build instantly!  The wind hit us suddenly and nearly laid the boat over sideways.  We have no idea how high the wind was at that moment.  Thank God the backed sails did not fill with seawater when laid down suddenly like that.  Bill instantly unlashed the helm and we were off for the ride of our lives.   Later, we realized what had happened.  Commanders was predicting the LOW to relocate and intensify off the SE tip of Sri Lanka about 24 hours later.  They had hoped we could get west of this point before the LOW intensified.  We didn't.  Barometer 1002.4  The LOW relocated and strongly intensified right where we were hove-to off the SE tip of Sri Lanka.  We were caught in the strongest SW winds of the LOW system and there was nothing we could do except ride it out.

For the next 10 hours we went NNE.  We were forced to ride the LOW right to the eye wall.  We never entered the eye.  Instead we were moved around the eye wall. (Note added later:  we did not watch the barometer during this period and did not check it when near the eye wall.  We suspect barometric pressure was lower than the 1002.4 that day but did not record anything.  We were busy enough just dealing with being in the storm.  Numbers did not matter because there was nothing we could do about that.)  When we reached the eye wall coming from the SW we were catapulted around the eye and off to the NW.  Okay, great.  We had done this before and knew the drill for breaking out of the NW corner of a LOW.  We did not know where that point should be located this time, but if we continued NW then we knew conditions would eventually improve.

We have a recording barometer that automatically records every 4 hours.  When we later compared the barometer to our time of position at the eye we learned that 15 minutes after we reached the eye it recorded Barometer 1000.3   This was the lowest barometer reading that we saw during this entire ordeal, but we did not watch the barometer all the time; nor did we have a barometric data recording of the entire time.   This storm was not a cyclone or hurricane because the wind speed was not 74 mph (which would be roughly 67 knots).  But it very definitely was a counter-clockwise circulating tropical storm with an eye and eye wall.   We hope never to experience any storm stronger than this one!

After turning NW over the eye wall, it took several more hours before we began to see a lighter area in the distance.  Bill steered as hard as conditions allowed to get us to that lighter area.  You have heard how when people die, they should "walk toward the light."  Well, when caught in a nasty storm like this, sailors should "sail toward the light."  As night time closed in we reached the lighter area and conditions began to calm noticeably.  As soon as conditions allowed we again phoned Commanders Weather.  This time we got yet another guy; Ken Campbell was not working at this hour.  This latest guy I will call Dick.  I do not want to reveal his real name because someone might use Dick and value his opinions and analysis.  Neither Bill nor I do.  Dick gave us very bad advice.  We later learned why, but that is no excuse for it happening.

Dick said we should continue westward towards the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, then turn south.  WHAT!!!  ARE YOU CRAZY!!!  We just spent an entire day getting up out of that mess!  Dick the Dickhead insisted there was no bad weather south of our current location.  We explained that we had just experienced about 18 hours of sustained 45 knots winds, gusting 50 and over, and violent seas.  It was still there 6 hours ago; how could it not be there now????  Dick insisted, "I am looking at the satellite image.  It is not there now.  There is no bad weather south of you now."  (Again, we later learned why he was so wrong; but that is no excuse considering the scope of his job.)  Well, okay Dickhead; we would turn south.  It went against our better judgment but we would do what he said was the right thing to do.  We turned south.

In less than 2 hours we were entering back in 45 knot winds from the west.  Oh NO!  We were not doing this again.  Obviously Dick did not understand what he was looking at on that satellite image.  We turned around and headed as due north as possible.  We continued north the rest of the night and most of the next day.

The storm.   There is a huge difference between being in a 30-kt or higher storm for a few hours and being stuck inside one for 5 or more days.  The sound of the wind screaming through the rigging and all the constant motion of being tossed about by the high seas wear you out.  Normally when at anchor we notice the difference of noise level when winds kick up higher than 20 knots.  During this storm we now considered 20 knots to be nothing and did not even hear wind at that level.  Wind had to be higher than 30 to even hear it.  And the sound difference between 35 and 45 knots is very, very noticeable.  It just wears you out.

After being almost laid over when the winds kicked up so suddenly, we rode with the storm.  Winds were first sustained in the 35 to 40 knot range.  Soon it was solid 40-45 knots.  That eventually rose to solid 45 knots and gusting higher.  Our wind gauge maxes out at 50 knots.  As we approached the eye wall the gauge was pegged over to 50 knots repeatedly.  We have no idea how high the wind actually reached, but assume it was no higher than 55 knots.  FWIW, a Category 1 hurricane (cyclone) starts at 67 knots of wind speed (74 mph); and certainly this storm was not that high.  Waves were 6 to 7 meters high (over 20 feet) and extremely violent.  Waves at times towered over the bimini on our center cockpit boat and crashed down into the cockpit.  The first time anything like that has ever happened.  Our cockpit is normally dry regardless of how rough the seas.  The waves were the size of houses tossing in all directions at once.  The wind was so strong that it was blowing the tops off many waves and streams of foam were flying through the air.  

Near the eye wall there was a lot of lightning.  At that point, Bill, being reared in Catholic schools, began mumbling Hail Mary's beneath his breath.  I, on the other hand, was reared Southern Baptist; and my reaction was to think:  God has put this trial before me as a sign that I should examine my life.  What faults should be corrected?  Am I guilty of hubris?  Being too judgmental?  Or should the deeper thoughts be put aside.  Is this just Mother Nature being a real bitch?  I decided that this simply was not the time to think about any of that.  When conditions get that violent, one sort of separates from reality and looks around as if watching a movie.  My reaction was to analyze how the boat was reacting to the conditions.  And I very quickly decided that there was no way that our boat was going to sink in those conditions.  She was handling it beautifully.  Walls of water often were washing over the bow and deck, but the bow always rose back up and shed the water quickly.  In the highest winds the boat would lay way over to her starboard side and bury the rail deeply into the water.  A wall of water about 2-feet high would wash from the bow all the way back alongside the cockpit and shed off the stern.  Even if the boat were totally laid over, it was obvious that she would eventually turn upright again.  As long as we stayed inside the cockpit (even if the boat was totally on her side and the cockpit filled with water) then we would eventually be fine.  The biggest worry would be hypothermia, even here in the warm tropics.

We were both literally freezing!!  Our foul weather gear is tropical weight and we were thoroughly drenched and shivering.  I went below and dug out the 2 heavy blankets that friends Donna & Bruce gave us when we sailed south to cold New Zealand.  We wrapped ourselves up in the blankets, which also were soon thoroughly soaked.  Being wrapped in the wet blankets helped trap the heat generated by our bodies.  The wet blankets really helped us warm up.

Day # 10 -- After fleeing north for hours we eventually reached a point that the winds were relatively calm.  By now we had a new meaning of calm.  Sailing in 30 to 35 knots had become our new norm.  Calm was anything less than 20 knots sustained.  Around 15:00 that after we reached the calm area.  We continued to motor farther northward for another 2 hours to ensure that we were well away from this storm.   Then we hove-to for a desperately needed night of sleep.  During the day of the storm neither of us had eaten or drank anything.  We were both dehydrated.  After exiting the eye area Bill had grabbed a few bites to eat and lots to drink.  I could not face neither food nor drink.  Around midnight I managed to force down 5 Wheat Thin crackers and a cup of water.   Bill slept well while we were hove-to.  I was still on an adrenaline high and could not sleep, so I sat in the cockpit all night.  I was afraid the wind would pick up and wanted to be prepared to instantly react.  Barometer 1006.8

Day #11 -- We drifted 6 miles south and then 16 miles west overnight while hove-to.  Both directions were to our advantage when it was finally time to start south again.  Overnight the wind had slowly shifted to come from true north.  Things were looking up!!  At 13:40 Bill decided that conditions had improved sufficiently for us to again try to go south.  We used the satellite phone to call S/V Estrellita and learn what current conditions were in Galle Harbour.  We again phoned Commanders Weather and talked to a guy named Chris.  Chris said we were good to go south.  He recommended that we head SW to the spot of coastline that projects eastward on Sri Lanka; then follow closely to the coastline all the way down.  We agreed that if we encountered ANY winds from the W or SW that we would immediately flee north again.  

Sailing down the coast was a breeze this time.  There were light winds from the north on our stern most of the way; along with a 2+ knot favorable current.  The wind slowly shifted to just east of true north.  That was even better!  This was the wind direction we had been searching for since departing Phuket 11 days ago!  It was a very fast ride down -- often seeing boat speeds of 10 knots and rarely slower than 7.5 knots.  Barometer 1008.1 

Day #12 -- This morning we finally reached that waypoint on the SE tip of Sri Lanka.  We had been blown away from this spot 3 times.  Our 4th approach was in completely different conditions.  Winds were extremely light (like non-existent) and seas were flat and calm.  I did not mind running that engine even one little bit!  I really had had enough wind to last me a long time.  We turned west beneath Sri Lanka and proceeded very slowly toward Galle Harbour.  Bill calculated that we needed to average only 5.9 knots boat speed in order to arrive at Galle first thing after sunrise on Sunday morning; so that was our goal.  We ran the clothes washer and did several loads of laundry.  I was so glad to get those seawater soaked things clean and smelling nice again.  I saved the blankets and sheets and towels and heavy items to send in for laundry service once we reached Galle.  But all our clothes were clean and smelled good again.  

We put the boat into some semblance of order again.  Things had been tossed all over the place during the worst of the storm.  Nothing was damaged, but there was somewhat of a mess strewn about.   I cooked steaks, hash browns and the very last of the fresh produce -- a stir fry of green beans, finely sliced Asian cabbage, onions and topped with grape tomatoes.  It was pure heaven!

We pulled into Galle Harbour around 07:00 Sunday morning.  All safe and sound and very glad to arrive in a port we had not intended to visit.

Why such incorrect weather forecasting?   After the fact we learned why the weather GRIB files and Buoyweather and other such weather forecasting tools were so totally wrong for the Bay of Bengal right now.  All the weather forecasting is done by various computer programs utilizing data from weather satellites.  The USA has the best weather satellites.  However, the USA weather satellites for this portion of the world ceased functioning a couple of years ago.  And the United States has no plans to replace these satellites.  Nor should we, in my humble opinion.  India should step up to the plate and pay for new satellites since it directly affects their country.

Since the USA weather satellites are no longer working, now European weather satellites are being utilized.  Unfortunately, the European weather satellites are not very sophisticated and do not provide the angled images and side-angle images.  The result is that the computer model programs are not receiving the input data required for the programs to function properly.  The old saying  "garbage in; garbage out" directly applies to what is happening today with weather forecasting for the Bay of Bengal.  Man, do we wish we had known this before starting this passage!  Sailors beware!!!  DO NOT TRUST GRIBS FOR THE BAY OF BENGAL.   You are pretty much guaranteed that the GFS and NOGAPS and Buoyweather and BuoySpots are not going to be accurate 90% of the time for this particular area.  You either luck into good weather for an 1100 mile passage.  Or you don't, as exemplified by our recent passage through hell. 

What did we learn?   I cannot relate here all the things we learned on this passage, but here are a couple of highlights.  First thing is that absolutely anything that is secured to a deck cleat will become uncleated with heavy seas washing across and down the deck.  Every halyard or line that was cleated to a deck cleat came uncleated at least once.  We now know that when setting out to sea each halyard or line should be cleated and then the bitter end should be tied off to something stationary.   The second thing is that in very high winds and heavy seas a sailboat cannot be controlled using just an engine -- you must use sails.  We have a 110 hp engine and that was not large enough to maintain maneuverability during this type weather.  We absolutely had to use small bits of foresail and mainsail in order to be able to control movement of the boat. As you can see from the photo, our mainsail was blown out on one seam.  Six other boats that we know also had their mainsails blown out during this storm.

We have a chain counter.  An excellent little device that all cruising boats should have.  It completely eliminates worrying about whether you have put out the correct amount of anchor chain.  If you can multiply by 5 and 7 then you should absolutely never put out too little rode when you have a chain counter at the helm.  During this storm the bow took so much water over the anchor chain counter sensor that it started recording the chain as being pulled in.  At one point it indicated that we had brought in 231 meters of anchor chain.  That would have been a little hard to deal with that much anchor chain strewn all over the deck and filling the cockpit!  Not too worry.  If the sensor is shorted out, we do carry a spare.

With Heavy Hearts:  During the beginning of our ride to the eye of the storm last Wednesday we chanced to hear a distress call on the VHF.  The crew of S/V Bachas was abandoning ship about 20 miles from our position.  Luckily a passing cargo ship (I believe it was the Maersk Europa) rescued the crew and brought them to Port Klang in Malaysia.  S/V Bachas was abandoned with the boat filling with water, the engine still running and the lights still working.  Don't know if she sank or not.  Sure hope another yacht doesn't run into her on a dark night and get damaged.  I think the boat should have been scuttled when abandoned.

Several other boats turned around after hearing of our plight on the morning SSB net.  They were wise to return to Indonedia or Malaysia or Thailand rather than to proceed into this storm.  They were following the GRIBS and had no idea how bad it really was out there until they heard from us.  Several other boats were able to heave-to for a couple of days and let the storm run itself out or move away.  They were wise to do so.  

Our 1100 passage from Phuket to Sri Lanka covered 1600 miles.  I will post an image of our track soon so you can see the round-about way we got here.

Added later:   After arriving at Galle we learned that 29 people on the island had died during this storm.  And more than 1,000,000 people lost their homes due to flooding and mudslides.  Also learned from another sailor caught in the storm during that worst day that his instruments recorded high wind speed of 60 knots.  His wind gauge maxes out at 60 knots and it was pegged to max several times that day.   Remember, our wind gauge maxes at 50 knots; so we do not know what were the highest winds sustained.


  1. Wow! We're so glad to hear that the both of you and the boat made it to Sri Lanka in one piece! Good thing the both of you are experienced, as I think we would have lost our minds if not more. You can bet I will be overly cautious when it comes to the weather. Enjoy Sri Lanka!

  2. Thank goodness you're safe now! What an ordeal, one we hope never to experience.


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