Storm Stories: Against a Cape Horn Snorter

Date: February 9, 1984
Location: 360 miles north of Cape Horn, 100 miles off the coast of Chile
Boat: Gigi, Contessa 32
Crew: 2

“The Horn lived up to its reputation again. In twelve hours its malign influences had transformed an innocuous summer low coming in out of the Southern Ocean into the most dangerous of storms, what old time square rigger sailors used to call a Cape Horn Snorter.”
—Derek Lundy, The Way of a Ship

Technically, our Southern Ocean storm was not a Cape Horn Snorter. But snorter is a great word, and having rounded the Horn just a few days earlier, I think it is fair to use the phrase here. This memorable storm occurred on my long-ago voyage from New York to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn. The passage has been chronicled in many articles over the years and in my book Cape Horn to Starboard. We were sailing Gigi, a Contessa 32, and had planned a three-legged journey retracing the 16,000-mile route of America’s Gold Rush clipper ships.

This storm occurred on leg two from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to Valparaiso, Chile, the Cape Horn run. Gigi’s owner, Ty Techera, was my crew. Gigi may have been the smallest boat to ever double Cape Horn to weather, which means to sail nonstop from the 50th parallel in the Atlantic, south around the Horn, and then north to the 50th parallel in the Pacific. The old sailing ship shanty described the passage: “From 50 south to 50 south you won’t grow fat and lazy, for the winds that blow off Cape Horn will surely drive you crazy.” We also may have been the first American yachtsmen, or at least small boat sailors, to complete this difficult passage. But our voyage was never meant to be about records, and sailing in the shadow of Cape Horn you quickly realized that being the “first this” or the “smallest that” was meaningless. We had rounded Cape Horn a few days before and were nearly a month out of Rio de Janeiro when we encountered the worst storm of the entire passage.

In the Southern Ocean, where incessant westerly winds and huge seas sweep across vast reaches of ocean, the latitude belts have tough-sounding names to remind sailors what they’re up against. While the “Furious Fifties” had been quite manageable, the “Roaring Forties” seemed determined to live up to their dirty reputation. No sooner than we had crossed the 50th parallel in the Pacific when a southwest gale developed. The winds quickly raised a fierce chop, and we beat into it, shortening sail all day long. Although we had sufficient sea room, 100 miles, the southern coast of Chile may be the most notorious lee shore on the planet, and I didn’t want to get anywhere near it. I also didn’t want to tack west, or even southwest, and lose hard-fought ground, so we sailed as close to the wind as possible on a port tack and clawed our way north.

The winds were steady at Force 8 (34 to 40 knots) and gusting higher. We had two reefs in the main and a small amount of furled headsail deployed, fighting for every inch of both sea room and forward progress. A different boat would have struggled to make progress, but the Contessa is made for hard windward sailing, with its fine entry, ridiculously low freeboard, deep draft, and moderately high-aspect rig (at least for its day). But a furled headsail produces lousy sheeting angles and a high center of effort. I knew that we’d have been better off with the staysail, but I was reluctant to trade course for speed. Or at least that’s what I told myself. A note in my journal is revealing:

Gigi, the iconic Contessa 32, departing New York harbor

“I just don’t feel like climbing out there and getting soaked. We seem ok.” The northwest winds persisted. Four days of gale or near gale headwinds is very tough going in any boat, but it is particularly miserable in a small boat. We were wet all the time and able to pound out just a hundred miles or less each day. The winds finally moderated on February 9, but it was only the
proverbial calm before the real storm. There’s an old saying that isn’t always true, but in this case it was: “The waves are the wind’s messenger.” It sounds more like Shakespeare than NOAA, but even the bard would have realized that the distinct swell rolling in from the south meant trouble ahead. Within twelve hours the wind was steady at 45 knots and routinely pegging our wind speed meter at 54 knots. We would later learn that the Chilean Coast Guard
came to the aid of several vessels and classified the storm as Force 11, with 30-foot seas. What makes the Southern Ocean unique is how quickly depressions form and how rapidly they intensify.

We were lucky that the wind was blowing from the south and we were headed north. Because the majority of the 16,000-mile passage was against the prevailing winds, any downwind sailing was seen as a luxury. The seas were truly mountainous. Trust me, my memory has not turned this faraway tempest into something it wasn’t. I just watched the old, grainy video I have of this storm, and I am still amazed by the massive seas and how the wind whips the tops of the waves like a child blowing out birthday candles. I am also rather amazed at how cavalier Ty and I appear. At that point in the voyage, thirty-three days at sea and most of it spent sailing upwind in the Southern Ocean, we were hardened and completely at home in our rugged environment. We didn’t sense how vulnerable we were. Riding on nature’s raw edge is where and when you are most profoundly alive.

We shortened sail in degrees, rolling in the headsail regularly, then taking the main off completely. The ride was exhilarating as Gigi would surf on the long crests, skidding and squirming at breakneck speeds until the wave outpaced her. I have a vivid memory of being picked up by a wave, sinking down into it like an artillery shell into a howitzer, and then firing forward as the wave top overcame the base and started to break. It was madness. I can also recall seeing fish in the wave curls that were higher than we were. The euphoria faded as the storm raged into the night. Although we had just a foot or two of headsail set, I knew we had to set the storm jib on the staysail stay to lower the center of effort and push it aft. Inching forward on my fanny, I started to hank on the staysail just as a wave crashed aboard. Gigi was swamped by the cascading wave, and rushing water swept me into the netting along the lifelines. I came up laughing, and yelled back at Ty, “Hey, watch what you’re doing.” Then I noticed that the lanyard on my safety harness was not clipped to anything. I felt a chill sweep over me. I suddenly knew just how vulnerable we were.

With the storm jib set, the ride slowed and improved, but it was dicey all through the night. Twice we nearly broached. I told Ty that we had to change tactics and start to forereach, but he talked me out of it. “It’s more dangerous to try to change course than to just keep running with it.” He was right, and fortunately by the next morning the winds began to moderate. Once again I had ridden out a severe storm by running downwind. Again, I never considered towing a drogue to slow down, although I am not sure why. If you look at the Ocean 71 and the Contessa 32 in profile (see the Contessa 32 on page 89), they have very similar hull shapes. They’re from the same era and have the same design ethos that puts seaworthiness ahead of all else. They’re two of the three most capable boats I’ve ever sailed. The third is the Hylas 49, which has a similar shape as well (see page 46). Another factor that puts our Cape Horn Snorter in perspective is the crew. Although there were just two of us aboard, Ty and I were completely in concert with the boat. I had sailed Gigi from New York to the bottom of the world by that time, and I knew her every move, her every shudder. Sitting in the companionway I could predict her movements intuitively. Thoroughly knowing your boat is a critical advantage in heavy weather.