Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Offhore fears-du-jour

I sat down and had a long chat with myself yesterday (note: a big mint julep does wonders for fine-tuning one’s inner voice).  What is it that worries me about our first solo multi-day offshore passage?  Do I think we’ll be caught in a storm?  That the boat will fall apart under the strain?  That we’ll hit a floating cargo container and sink?  That we’ll be smashed in the night by a fishing boat?  That we’ll be struck by lightning and burn?  None of the above (although it’s funny how that list of disasters effortlessly sprang to mind…):  it’s the fear of being incapacitated with sea sickness. 

On a three-day offshore passage, if things start getting rough, there’s nowhere to hide.  Statistics show that even during the “settled” weather of June and July, it is not rare to have force 7 winds with stronger gusts and 3 meters or more of swell in the Bay of Biscay.  Experience shows that even short-term weather reports can be wrong in this area. 

Even in perfectly acceptable weather conditions, the Bay of Biscay is very lumpy. The bay is exposed to the full force of the Atlantic and prevailing winds, unimpeded for thousands of miles. Over half of the basin is a mind-boggling 4550 meters deep (around 15,000 ft).  Steep canyons connect the abyss to the 200 meter deep continental shelf near the coasts (and in the case of northern Spain, very near the coast, only 12 kms away in some places).  This means that water coming into the bay with the winds and currents gets shoved up onto the continental shelves, where it piles up and then sloshes around trying to find space to spread out.  When a storm rolls in, this can create some of the most ferocious seas found anywhere.  The most dangerous area is right at the shelf break where the water first starts piling up.  In bad conditions, the best strategy is to head for the deep water areas and to avoid the more agitated shallower zones.

Patrick and I have both experienced sea sickness before, although never on Spray.  What gets to us is not the rough stuff that comes head-on but those long offshore swells that roll you relentlessly in a corkscrew motion from the stern quarter, exactly the kind of swell you should expect on a downwind run in the Bay of Biscay.

We have enough experience to know how to avoid sickness: staying warm is the most important for us, and over the years, we’ve had to change our definition of warm and cold.  In general, the instant we feel a hint of coolness anywhere, it’s time to add another layer without delay, even if we don’t actually feel cold.  I’ve had unfortunate situations where I began to feel cold in my hands or arms 10 minutes before the end of my watch and decided to just stick it out.  Big mistake. 

Patrick is more susceptible to sea sickness than I am, but has the advantage of being able to bounce back immediately after he is sick, or at least until the next wave of nausea hits half-an-hour later.  He has been known to eat a big hunk of slimy camembert cheese right after being sick!  (Did I mention he’s French?)  I, on the other hand, don’t get sick as easily, but when I do, I often go down and stay down.  I’ve learned that a lot of my problems are blood-sugar related and as difficult as it is, I have to force feed myself with non-sugary food right after an incident if I hope to stay vertical.  Crackers and soup (prepared in advance and waiting in a thermos) are the best remedies I’ve found, providing not only quick calories but warmth. 

We also aren’t too proud to take motion sickness medicines.  We generally take a ½ dose if we think we might need it and a full dose if we’re sure.  We have some scopolamine patches on board but have never used them.  The list of secondary effects scares us more than being sick.

All of this experience is helpful, though not particularly comforting.  Our previous offshore passages (the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay) have been done with 4 or 5 crew aboard.  You do what you can to avoid being sick, but if you are sick, there’s always a helping hand available.  Not so this time.  It’ll be just the two of us and neither of us can afford to go down for long.  A friend told us recently that the most important thing for a couple crossing Biscay is to make sure that the person not on watch gets sufficient rest.  Easier said that done, I'm sure.

The only comfort I can find at the moment is a big fat waypoint I call “Plan B”:  We can make it from our jumping off point in France (Ile d’Yeu) to the Spanish coast at Santander in 36 hours and then do another 16 hour hop on to Gijon.  Two hops instead of one isn’t so bad (although Patrick is thumping his chest, saying “One hop or not at all !”).  If we assume the weather bulletin is reliable for at least 24 hours, that means we would only have to gut out something unforeseen for 12 hours before getting to a safe haven.  After our storm experience from last summer, we were both pretty wet, cold and tired after only 5 hours, so having to cope for 12 hours seems pretty daunting. 

And you know what the worse thing of all would be?  A perfectly smooth passage.  How would we ever know what we were capable of?  I’d have to relive all this anxiety the next time we planned a long passage!  This reminds me of Monty Python’s The Holy Grail where Sir Galahad (Michael Palin) pleads, “Let me have just a little bit of peril ?” 


Dan N Jaye said...

This is a wise post ... because it shows how you know yourself. That to me is the ultimate piece of safety equipment. Yes, you might get seasick, but you know your triggers (feeling cold? Who knew?) and how you react and how to minimize problems.

MH said...

Thanks Dan N Jaye. The French say that sea sickness is provoked by 4 things: hunger, thirst, cold, and anxiety. A German friend says you must keep a warm body and a cool head.

Astrolabe Sailing said...

Absolutely agree with the seasick tablet - I HATE being sick, and have only been seasick once, but I always take a pill if I think it is going to be rough. Better safe than sorry.
The other thing we do is eat - we practically ate all the way up the coast last year for 36 hours solid. Nuts, sweets, crackers, muesli bars, sandwiches, spaghetti bolognaise, curry, you name it we ate it. I think it helps to give your stomach something else to think about!