Sunday, 6 July 2014

The Storm, or Why You Should Love Your Barometer

We were preparing to leave San Vincente de la Barquera at the morning high tide, the only time we could get out of the little branch of the estuary we had settled in for the night.  We had checked two marine weather sites via internet the night before.  All was clear:  14 knots with gusts to 17.  The barometer, however, was screaming at us not to go.  “That’s funny, the barometer says we’ve lost 6 hPa in the last 6 hours and the little high-wind flag is showing,” I said to Patrick as if it were a passing curiosity.  But with 2 trusted internet sites telling us to go, I somehow decided the barometer must be mistaken or simply giving us some highly local advice. 

We headed west for Ribadesella under a milky sky and good winds.  All was smooth sailing until about 1:30 in the afternoon.  In the span of 45 minutes, the winds shifted 90 degrees, and stiffened steadily.  One reef, two reefs, three reefs followed in rapid succession.  The 3rd reef lasted less than 10 minutes.  As we pointed into the wind, both of us saw 50 knots on the anemometer but said nothing to the other about it.  The swell had mounted to 6-7 meters, dead ahead.  An uncontrolled jibe provoked by the swell sent the boom zinging to the other side, ripping the cleat for the 3rd reef off the boom.  The boom brake was on but at the lowest setting (since we weren’t expecting high winds…).  Time for bare poles.   I tried ever-so-briefly to put the boat into a hove-to position with the boat at about 50 degrees into the wind with the bar hard over.  I’m sure my technique was lacking, but this put us in a position of almost being rolled by the breaking swell.  Time to surf downwind and down-swell.

Once things were more-or-less stable, I dashed below to find out where “downwind” was taking us.  If there was any good luck in this situation, it was that the swell was pushing us back to Santander, the only deep water port in the area that we could enter in bad weather.  The bad news was that we had to keep things stable and moving forward for another 10 hours.   Patrick took the helm most of the time, and I was posted under the dodger, looking back and him and the mountainous swell coming at us, directing him so that we would stay in a good surfing position and not get rolled.  After 4 hours or so, things calmed down a bit… we were never so happy to see 30 knots and 4 meters of swell.

GPS trace of our losing battle against wind and swell.
We pulled into Santander marina after midnight, held each other, cried a little, and vowed never ever to go sailing again.  The boat could be sold in Santander and we could take the ferry home. 

The next morning, we met up with a solo British sailor who had left Santander a few days before us.  He had been caught in the same unpredicted storm and he, too, had been blown back to Santander.  His story was remarkably similar to ours: 1 reef, 2 reefs, 3 reefs, bare poles, surf.  We felt somehow comforted by this.  But it wasn’t unpredicted…we should have listened to our Barometer.

The rule of thumb (which I can never seem to remember) is that a change of pressure of more than 1 hPa / hour or 4 hPa / 3 hours will give you winds of between Beaufort 6 – 7.  More than this is very bad news.  We now monitor the barometer at least 6 hours before departure and every hour while at sea.

After 4 days in Santander, drying out, talking to others, talking to sailing friends back home, we decided not to give up just yet and keep pushing west to Gijon.  One friend emphasized the necessity of waiting for good weather along this coast, and told us he had waited for 4 weeks once before having a good weather window. 

We’re still a bit traumatized by it all, but some good lessons were learned.  Despite a few other mishaps (stay tuned…) we both agree that we do love the cruising life and it would be a shame to give up after a knock-down that caught better sailors than ourselves off-guard.


The Cynical Sailor said...

Wow - I've been following your adventures and you guys have been having a tough time of it lately! Good advice about trusting the barometer. Hand in there. Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor

MH said...

Thanks Ellen ! We're clearly on an accelerated learning program. Morale is okay thanks to lots of fellow sailors sharing similar stories. I'm not really sure why that makes me feel better, but it does.