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Rafiki - The aftermath of an 11 hour gale

Cally writes:

Thursday 13th December 2012

Sailing this ocean is like moving seamlessly through a series of
different rooms. We are in a completely different "room" now, to the
scary black one we were in last night.

Today the weather has been beautifully sunny and mercifully cool, by
comparison to the horrible, close stickiness we had before the gale.
We have had fun this afternoon averaging 9 kts with the spinnaker and
are making good progress, ahead of a forecasted hole in the wind,
which is set to last for the rest of our journey to St. Lucia.

It's a pity that this will mean motoring (unless we want to be at sea
for an extra week!) - especially as our aim in not using our engine
through our last calm was to manage to sail the whole way.
Ironically, if we had motored then, we would have got ahead of this
latest calm patch and would have been able to sail almost all of the
last bit in. Still, hindsight is a wonderful thing and at least we
have plenty of fuel and are thoroughly enjoying the sailing for now.

It has been great to have contact with other boats. During the gale,
an ARC yacht we haven't met before called Fidelis got in touch with
us. We were showing up on their AIS as 2 miles from them, but we
could not find them on our AIS. Nor could we see each other in the
black night and the waves. Radio contact was so intermittent, that we
were only able to establish between us that they were trying to call
us and we had heard them. Thankfully, they emailed us and we could
confirm on both sides that neither of us was in trouble. They have
since been kind enough to forward weather routing advice that they
have been paying for, which has been very useful as they are so close
to us. We have passed that on to other boats near us, including our
dear friends on Maunie, who we are very pleased to be in touch with

There is a consensus with the boats in our vicinity that the weather
advice we have received from the ARC has not been up to scratch. The
latest forecast had typos in it which made it unintelligible, as you
couldn't work out which bits related to which day. That aside, the sea
areas the forecast covers are very wide and so it has not been useful.

Reflecting on the Force 8/9 we encountered yesterday, I am unnerved
that we should think we are entering yet another squall (which
generally last 10 or 20 mins and are then over) and find out only as
we experience it that it is a 11-hour gale. One almighty squall, in
which 5 or 6 ARC boats have been caught, in one case sustaining
substantial damage.

Our ARC friends on Stormvogel suffered a couple of uncontrolled gybes.
Their skipper, Peter, went up to the mast to take their main sail
down and then got hurt on his leg by the mainsheet thwacking about in
the wind. Their son, on the helm, was also injured by the mainsheet,
which got caught on the binnacle, damaging a compass, the engine
throttle and the autohelm. It then wrapped itself around the
propeller, causing the engine to overheat. The bearing on the
propeller shaft was damaged and even today, after they have managed to
dive down to free the rope and repair the bearing, they have found
that the brand new gear box they had installed in Las Palmas has been

If we had known that this was going to be a sustained gale (ranging
from severe gale to near gale), would we have done anything
differently on Rafiki? Rob just says he would have a put a coat on,
first thing! I felt I had been bordering on the obsessive/compulsive,
going around tidying up the boat in the evenings and putting
everything right away, where it could not jump of a surface and hit
anyone. Now I can thoroughly defend that behaviour as simply being
necessary at sea!

The only thing that would undoubtedly have been different was our sail
plan: We had poled-out twin headsails up, which is the ideal
arrangement for downwind sailing in variable conditions. We use the
boom released right out on one side as one "pole" for our staysail
(the smaller headsail) and our carbon-fibre, telescopic whisker pole
let out fully on the other side of the boat for the genoa. These poles
hold the sails out as far as possible, enabling us to sail dead
downwind or to adjust course for any wind changes of up to 40 degrees.
(For the sailors amongst you: you can't sail more upwind than a broad
reach on either tack with this sail arrangement.) The real beauty of
this arrangement is that the poles stay in a fixed position, but one
person can quickly and easily furl in some or all of either sail from
the cockpit, simply by releasing one rope (the sheet) and pulling in
on another (the furling line).

This arrangement is ideal for nightwatches through your average
squalls, when you want to increase or decrease your sail area quite
frequently and at short notice. However, had we been arranging our
sails for an 11-hr gale, we would simply have had our staysail out and
probably not use our boom and whisker pole arrangement. The genoa
would certainly have been put to rest: the UV strip on the bottom of
that sail is already half-torn due to wear and tear and it is nearly
impossible to furl that large sail under load in windy conditions
without it flogging to some extent - as happened last night. We were
in fact very lucky to be able to bring it in, despite the flogging
having caused one of the sheets to come undone.

Still, strangely, we are pleased to have experienced that tremendous
force and to have come out unscathed. Everybody did their bit to get
through it. It was very humbling to experience and it made us all feel
very glad to be alive, by the grace of God.

On Rafiki we have all been immensely touched by a sense of awe and
wonder at the infinite size, scale and variety of Mother Nature. We
had stormy weather until well into morning, beautiful sunshine and
perfect spinnaker sailing in the afternoon and then a stunning,
cloudless (hurrah!) sunset. Tonight the most spectacular stars any of
us have ever seen. When it came to night watch, instead of the
general feeling of "battening down the hatches" for the night, we all
6 of us lingered on deck, nobody wanting to leave.

Here is James's description of the night:

"Tonight I lay with my head on the dinghy [tied on deck] next to Dad
in the deck sleeping bag looking up at the stars using Mum's ipad app.
I saw 10 or 11 shooting stars; Dad saw 6 or 7. This is the best
night of the trip!"

Meanwhile, Emily decided she would like to take the boat off autohelm
and enjoy steering for a bit.

"It feels like a privilege being able to steer this boat through one
of the big 3 oceans of the world," she says. Too right!


Lunch - sausages, mash and ratatouille with bacon bits in
Supper - smoked salmon and scrambled eggs

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