Oh the irony. I titled my last blog ‘Turn the Wind On,’ and frankly should have known better. As I write on the morning of January 31 it’s blowing dogs off chains from the NNE and ISBJORN is careening off wave tops, surfing her way west at 11 knots in the big ones. Never complain when you’re going in the right direction, and fast.
In an age when I can request a sophisticated weather model for five days into the future over a satellite phone, literally in the middle of the ocean, it’s easy to take for granted that sometimes the model you get back will be wrong (or, perhaps worse, you’ll interpret it wrong). We were caught off guard, I knew it in hindsight, and we’re lucky nothing is broken right now.
About a week ago, as we approached the Cape Verde Islands, we were at a crossroads. A ‘cutoff’ low was forming just to the west, broken off from the tail of a strong cold front which itself was attached to a big depression in the far north Atlantic (we’re talking up Iceland way). We could either continue SSW, diving all the way down to like 12º north in search of something like a ‘normal’ tradewind pattern. Or we could gybe and commit to going west, taking advantage of a light SSW’ly breeze that would fill in along the bottom of the cutoff low. We might have a few hours of calm, but if we were lucky, we could sail right through it and out the other side, where in five days or so, the trades were to fill back in from the east.
And that’s just what happened. On the morning of my birthday the wind finally veered into the south, then southwest and we spent the next few days close-hauled or close-reaching, certainly NOT the point of sail you plan for in these parts. Nonetheless, the sea was flat and the sailing was smooth and easy. We motored through a 12-hour calm.
And then, as we thought the easterlies had re-established themselves for good this time, a strange little blob popped up on the GRIBs. A slight kink in the 1016 isobar and some heavy blue shading - indicating precipitation - stood in our path a few hundred miles ahead. After negotiating the cutoff low, I told WRI I wouldn’t need another update unless I asked for one, or if something dramatic changed...
To my untrained eyes, the blip on the GRIBs was just some showery activity, maybe some squally squalls, but nothing to really even think about. A slight change in the wind from E to NE and then SE maybe, but that’s normal for the trades, right?
Come yesterday morning, as we approached that blob of blue (rain) on the GRIBs, the skies darkened out in front of us and the drizzle began. We turned on the radar to watch for squalls and saw some patchy showers out in front and to the north of our track. David & Etta were on watch, with one reef in the mainsail and the genoa poled out to starboard, running downwind. I remarked on how the weather really can dictate your mood.
“If we were home right now, today would be a day to sit inside and read a book or watch a movie.”
The crew’s energy was low, in a mellow sort of way, and I for one was thankful to get a respite from the tropical sun. The grey skies and cool breeze felt nice on my sunburned shoulders.
I was about to take a nap when the rain started in a bit harder. Instead I closed the companionway and stayed at the nav station reading a book, on call in case the watch needed my help. The wind increased, and the rain. I stuck my head out the hatch to see David and Etta hunkered under the bimini in a vain attempt to stay dry. ISBJORN was haulin’ the mail. The wind was around 20.
“I’m gonna just go put my contact lenses in,” I said. My glasses were covered in water droplets and I can’t see without them. By the time I came back on deck, this time smartly in a jacket and with my harness on, the rain was really coming down. We rolled the jib entirely, for all of a sudden I had a bad feeling about this one. Now ISBJORN was bombing downwind, 1 reef in the mainsail, the lonely pole sticking out to starboard and the jib secured rolled up on the forestay.
And then...BOOM. The rain came down in buckets, like a fire hose of freshwater from the sky. I’ve never seen anything like it. How the hell can the clouds hold that much water?! With it came the wind. 25. 30 knots. 40 knots. Higher. Just like you read in the books, the wind was blowing the tops off the waves, foam, was streaking in thick white stripes downwind, the rain was slamming the ocean and flattening out what swell there was. 47 knots. 49. That’s the apparent wind. Meanwhile we’ve got the afterburners on with way too much sail up, going 10 knots in zero visibility. To my delight, ISBJORN handled wonderful, finger-tip steering so long as I kept her pointed down and didn’t let her round up.
This wasn’t letting up. I asked Etta to get the gang on deck, as my voice from the helm was quickly carried away on the wind.
Mia was, incredibly, asleep in her bunk on the starboard side aft.
“I heard Etta in her very polite British accent, open the hatch and ask everyone to please come on deck, and make sure you have a lifejacket on!” Mia recalled.
Fred stayed below at the nav station to keep an eye on the AIS and radar, as despite being midday, there was nothing to see on deck in the chaos.
The rain kept coming, harder, harder, pounding the deck, powerwashing the cockpit. No amount of foul-weather gear was keeping you dry just then. At the wheel, I remember feeling a distinct change in the air temperature, thinking we must have just punched through a cold front, and that jeeze louise, the GRIBs really got this one wrong. The wind instrument was showing a steady 50 knots. In that moment, you just don’t know if it’ll keep building. We had to get the mainsail down, but it was pinned against the rigging and we were flat out ripping downwind. No way I could turn the boat beam to the wind, we’d have been knocked flat.
Mia and Walter scurried to the mast and wrestled the sail down inch by inch. With no pressure on the halyard, the battens bent backwards around the shrouds and spreaders. I thought for sure one would snap in half, or the sail would get torn on the way down, but just then I didn’t care. We were out of control and had to slow down, whatever the cost.
They managed to wrangle it down to about the 3rd reef point and I shouted for them to come back to the safety of the cockpit. After a time the wind and rain did let up, of course, and when we came out the other side it felt like there was a distinct change in the air. A few hours later we had the full mainsail hoisted and the genoa on the pole again, continuing west in a 15-knot easterly breeze.
With ISBJORN secured, we could laugh and enjoy the storm. Somebody mentioned Gilligan’s Island, so I led the crew, to Mia’s delight, for she had never heard of the show, in a squally rendition of the theme song.
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip.
That started from this tropic port,
Aboard this tiny ship...
Walter, from Austria, had never heard of it either, so a quick recap of all the characters - and who each of us would have been - ensued.
The weather started getting rough,
The tiny ship was tossed.
If not for the courage of the fearless crew
The MINNOW would be lost! The MINNOW would be lost!
“What the f*ck was THAT!?”
In not so many words, that was my message to WRI later that day. If nothing else, I was curious. There’s no way that was a typical tropical squall, I thought. The violence of that had to come from a different mechanism.
To: Captain, Isbjorn
Prepared: January 30 17:33z
FM: WEATHER ROUTING INC. (WRI)
A strong trough has developed and is extending SW'ward from a mid-level low from 20N/37W SW'ward to 14N/42W and will slowly lift to the northeast through the 01st. The associated trough will lift northeast through the 01st. Latest satellite imagery shows numerous squalls have developed ahead of the trough though the worst of these squalls are situated north of 15-30N. Immediately behind the cold front, winds will quickly increase out of the N-NNE of 20-25kts with gusts to 30kts this evening before lowering to NE-ENE 17-22kts overnight tonight. However if any of the squalls spread farther south, winds could become locally higher of 30-35kts near and just immediately behind the trough.
Best Regards, Weather Routing Inc. (WRI)
Okay then. What the GRIBs had missed, and what I had failed to recognize (because the signs were there), was this frontal boundary which had caught us nearly with full sail up. Sure enough, just as WRI predicted, the wind built overnight last night to 30-35 from the NNE, the breeze we’re sailing on now. The GFS model, which I downloaded just last night before bed, indicates we ought to be sailing in 11 knots from the SE...
My takeaway? Pay the f*ck attention to the sky around you! I knew something weird was in the works from the GRIBs and I should have known better, should have been more conservative when we saw the sky darkening in front of us. I don’t think WRI would have even predicted the short-lived violence in that frontal boundary - the wind was a sustained 50-60 knots for a good 30 minutes - but we shouldn’t have had the mainsail up for that, no way Jose.
We got it right last night at least. Running wing-on-wing just before midnight, with the radar tracking a myriad lightning squalls all around us (yet we had stars overhead), we decided to just cut our losses, drop the main, take the genoa off the pole and mosey on through the night under genoa alone. If those lightning storms came any close, the crew could roll up that genoa in about 30 seconds and hide down below until the worst of it passed.
I was able to (finally) get some sleep. On Mia’s 0400-0800 watch this morning the wind was up into the 30s and we were very happy to have the genoa pulling us along to the west quite happily, a beautiful big swell having built up behind us, the turquoise blue of the ocean showing through as the top of a comber would crest in the early morning sunshine.