And Then This Happened

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Setting up preventer lines on the rough downwind run to the Coral Sea. © Jeffrey Cardenas

Sleep is a rare pleasure on singlehanded passages and I was deep into a blissful state of REM on the comfortable salon berth of Flying Fish when the cabin around me seemingly exploded from within.

The crash was of such intensity it was as if I had been struck hard by a heavy truck. Still in a dream, I thought how is this possible? I should be floating on water, in an ocean 10,000 feet deep. Instead I awoke to a sound unlike anything I have ever heard on the ocean. First there was first a roar followed immediately by impact and detonation. Then, onto my sleepy head, came an awful shower of broken glass, canned food, cookware, and a drawer full of cutlery.

Flying Fish had been knocked down–mast to the surface of the water–rolled broadside by a wave that must have transcended by multiples any wave I had seen since my departure from New Zealand three days earlier.

An abnormal wave is rare. For years “rogue waves” were thought to be mythical, almost embarrassing to talk about, movie stuff. But, abnormal waves have been scientifically recorded. They are real, unpredictable, and they impact anything in their path with a tremendous and unstoppable force.

When I had gone below to rest some 30 minutes earlier, the wind was a moderate 20 knots and the boat sailing smoothly on a broad reach. The mainsail was double reefed, the jib was furled, and a staysail was rigged on the inner forestay. The sea was rough but manageable with a 6 to 8-foot swell from the east. The autopilot was working effortlessly with minimal weather helm. Radar, AIS, and a visual check showed no shipping traffic. Alarms were set.  The satellite forecast GRIB weather files indicated no change for the next 24 hours. It was the perfect time for a short snooze.

After the wave broke, Flying Fish rolled upright and I dug out of the debris field inside the cabin. My first instinct was to move toward light and air and get topside before another wave broke over the boat. But there was no other wave. The sea and wind conditions were the same as they had been 30 minutes earlier–except that Flying Fish was now wallowing in the foaming wash of the wave. The cockpit was full of water, hundreds of gallons. The canvas weather enclosure (custom built in New Zealand only a month ago) was in tatters. Cockpit cushions gone. Engine gauges underwater. And on the deck a 5-gallon jug of diesel had opened spreading a sheen of fuel oil and noxious fumes across the boat.

Flying Fish is a sturdy vessel. It is a 46′ Island Packet, a traditional cutter with a full keel, 32,000 pounds of displacement, and lots of fiberglass. What Flying Fish may lack in speed and sex appeal compared to modern racing sailboats, it more than makes up for in safety and security. I bought the boat specifically for its high rating of something called the “righting moment.” Simplified, the righting moment is the ability of sailboat to recover from a roll. Some boats will recover and some will not. Flying Fish recovered, which is why I am able to write these words.

While this knockdown was not an emergency situation, it was an event that captured my undivided attention. The initial reaction (after I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and realized this was not a nightmare) was one of: What First?

Priority One was to get nearly a ton of the water out of the cockpit and regain buoyancy. An errant t-shirt had clogged one of the cockpit drains. Next I checked the bilge. It was dry, although 10 gallons of seawater was sloshing around the engine compartment (how did it get in there?) I knew I would have to get the engine started soon. The ports and hatches were all dogged and secured. The broken glass in the cabin, I am chagrined to say, was from improperly stowed glasses and plates (I just can’t drink fine wine out of plastic glasses). And there was more good news: The rig was intact. Torque from a mast and boom going into the water can be severe enough to rip the rig out of the deck. Amazingly, I was still sailing. The autopilot, God bless her inanimate soul, was holding course.

Then came the clean up. Because it had been such a passive passage to date, and because the forecast was for it to remain so, I was lackadaisical with my stowage. Imagine taking a full kitchen drawer and dumping it on the floor. Then imagine taking all of the kitchen drawers–and the contents of the cabinets–and throwing them into the mix. This is what the cabin of Flying Fish looked like. It might have been humorous until I saw a deep gouge in an interior bulkhead caused by impact from my cast iron griddle. The griddle had been stored under the stove where it had lived for more than 10,000 miles. But on this knockdown it somehow flew out and up with great velocity, across the entire cabin, passing inches over my head where I lay sleeping in the salon.

If the initial reaction to an event like this is What First, what follows logically is What Next?

I had been en route from Opua, New Zealand to Port Denauru, Fiji. Wind and seas were on the beam. I tried to understand the cause of this abnormal wave, and what the chance was of it happening again. In nearly a half a century of sailing and working on fishing boats I had never before encountered anything like this. Bob McDavitt’, one of New Zealand’s passage weather gurus likes to say, “Weather is a mix of pattern and chaos.” With careful planning ocean passages can be reasonably predictable, but I wanted to avoid more unpredictable chaos. So I turned downwind and down sea, diverting from a landfall in Fiji to one further west in New Caledonia. If Flying Fish was going to take another wave, she was going to take it on the backside where it wouldn’t hurt as much.

Lessons learned? Plenty.

I know that I cannot run before the wind and waves for the entire next 24,000 miles of my return passage to Key West. The ocean will often be rough and the seas will frequently be striking Flying Fish amidships. If I am going to sleep in these conditions I will need to heave to into the wind before I leave the helm. Also, I cannot be lazy about the proper stowage of PFOs (Potential Flying Objects) down below. When I sail again, I will look at my cabin with an eye to what will break free if the boat rolls 90 degrees, or worse. Finally, the cockpit needs to be an uncluttered environment. How humiliating it would have been for Flying Fish to founder because the cockpit drain was clogged with a dirty t-shirt I had tossed in the corner.

Ultimately, I need to better understand the inherent risk of this adventure. If a person walks in the rain they face the chance of being struck by lightning. If a person sails offshore they face the risk of encountering something as unpredictable as an abnormal wave. The alternative is to sit at home and watch reality TV. That’s not going work for me.

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To see where Flying Fish has sailed in the past year click here: https://cruisersat.net/track/Flying%20Fish

For current weather along the route click here: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

Text and Photography © Jeffrey Cardenas 2019

All rights reserved

 

62 thoughts on “And Then This Happened

  1. So glad you are ok and “weathered” this rogue wave. Lessons learned for all of us (well, me anyway) that uncluttered is more than something nice to do. I’m going to make a concerted effort to continue getting rid of the things in my surroundings that are flotsam and jetsam. D
    Sail safe and know we that are following are picking up some life lessons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Marianne. I think the strongest lesson learned was reinforcement of the necessity of wearing the harness in the cockpit, even when the conditions look safe. I learned they can turn unsafe without warning. Had I been in the cockpit without the harness on when the wave swept over the boat there is no doubt in my mind that I would have been in the Coral Sea without a boat. Terrifying…

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    • It has become cliche to say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger but I believe I am a better sailor now as a result of this event. If nothing else, I am certainly more cautious. Thanks for following, John.

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  2. Be safe Jeff… we worry about you here in Columbus Ohio (Fort Myers News Press alum photojournalist for 50 years Mary Duvendack Hagler and Ron Hagler NBC photojournalist -he now bedfast with multiple sclerosis and she full time caregiver) Our 23 ft ODay L’evasion is docked for 10 years in our driveway and I hope to sail her again someday and argue with my daughter saying I should sell her I just snarl and say bronze her and bury me in her… We enjoy your posts and know you are very capable and safety conscious but good golly hoping for smooth sailing on your return home to KW… hugs and good thoughts from afar and all the chaos in our country right now never ending BS from D.C… so happy to be retired… not so happy about being so dog gone old…

    Sent from my iPhone

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    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! What a great image, Mary. Bronze the sailboat and bury me in it! I wish you and Ron the very best. Every now and then consider going out to L’evasion in the driveway and have happy hour in the cockpit. The neighbors will think you are nuts but you gotta show your boat a little love regardless of where she is moored.

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  3. OMG Jeffery, what a freak a rare event, thank God you are safe and I trust you put the worst behind you. Keep strong and safe and smooth sailing wishes for Flying Fish for the duration.
    Byron

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  4. Jeff But for the grace of God.This incident will make a must read in your up ooming book.Kind of reminds me of a movie a few years back about Robert Redford sailing solo and hit a Cargo container that fell off a Container ship..Thank God you are safe.You will be an even stronger person from all of this.God Bless and happy sailing with out any Rogue wavesp

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll never forget that Robert Redford movie, All is Lost. There really are lost metal containers floating around in our oceans but Thank God I have never encountered one. Rocks and reef are charted but containers are like floating land mines. One more thing to think about…

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  5. Wow!! Terrifying, but you handled it!

    It is not clear to me that heaving to would make a difference. It is also not clear to me that having additional crew standing watch would make a difference: if it were a dark overcast night, the wave could still not be avoided or the damage mitigated. Sail on!

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  6. Woo! That was close. I think about you often and wish my life had the space for me to be there with you. However eight grandsons, one grand daughter and a full time guiding service allows me little time. I know you need a second mate aboard if for nothing else but to share the watch. I can imagine you sleeping with one eye open in the future. You and I have fished together and have seen many things on the water, thats what keeps us coming back to the biggest classroom on the planet. I also know having been in the Navy serving as master helmsman in navigation on the USS Essex, America and JF Kennedy all aircraft carrier’s, the sea is unpredictable. I vividly recall going to battle stations (general quarters) due to a North Atlantic (perfect storm) in which I was on the helm of the Essex for 36 hours in 70 foot breaking sea’s. I recall the captain’s shaky hand on my shoulder asking “Is there anything I can get you kid? Do you have this? When the blow was over some of the teak wood flight deck. was gone. All of the welded steel flight deck walkways were gone, the hull had cracked and we were taking on water. We limited water intake to 3 voids which held fast but creating a list. We limped into Boston Harbor Mass. The use Essex was put into a dry dock where she never moved again. Believe me my friend I know what the sea can do. She is a fickle lady who taunts you with her rhythm and beauty, luring you further and further out to sea always knowing, she can take you at anytime. Having read your words I think New Zealand lulled and romanced you but its time to realize you are in a constant state of battle with unforgiving elements that have no conscience. There is no room for error no matter what kind of container you drink your fine wine from. I love you man and I know you will get through this because you have what it takes. With every ounce of your soul “Concentrate.”
    Your friend always
    Barry

    Liked by 1 person

    • What an amazing life you have had, Barry. All of that history and nine grandchildren, too! I also know that you have experienced nature’s fury on land–Hurricane Sandy took everything you had. Your words strongly affect me. Thank you so much for your advice, encouragement, and friendship.

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    • I DO feel good about Flying Fish. I had a professional rigger in New Caledonia spend some time on the boat today inspecting the mast and standing rigging from top to bottom. It all checked out. A mathematician could figure out the force it took to knock a 34,000 displacement boat onto its ear… all I know is that a boat that can withstand that force is the boat I want to sail around the world.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow!. What a story! I’m glad you are ok. I guess being “shipshape” has a deeper meaning for you now. I enjoy getting your posts. Be safe and enjoy your voyage home.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. 😮 WOW!!! Thank God all ended well! Crazy stuff out there. Got to have good faith. Lord have mercy 🙏🙏 but…what an adventure! Glad to read about it! Thanks and safety to you🌞🎈🎈🎈🎈

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Liked by 1 person

    • That you Elena. When it gets crazy out there (or crazy beautiful) I think of the Star of the Sea. It is impossible not to feel a higher presence out here. I have never felt more vulnerable, or more fulfilled than when I am alone on the ocean. I appreciate you following the passage of Flying Fish.

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  9. God and angels were watching over you!
    A good scare always makes me lose the complacent security that is my norm. Alert, prevention, automatic response in critical situations a must in your circumstances. Grateful your investment is safe and worth every penny- the ship can be replaced… you cannot😘

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are right, Sharon, surprise sharpens the focus. It pumps blood and makes us feel alive. I have confidence in the good ship Flying Fish. She is stronger than her captain. Thank you for your comments.

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  10. Jesus Jeffrey!! How ignominious it would be to go by way of a frying pan! VERY GLAD you are Ok and the boat righted itself. When I was working in the Ocean Engineering Dept at MIT, people were always talking about finding a way to predict rogue waves. There’s a reason they are called rogue.

    Stay safe, Love, Marilyn

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am still laughing at your response Marilyn. That would quite the epitaph on a tombstone in the Key West cemetery… Seriously, the more I read about this abnormal wave phenomenon, the more fascinating it is to me. There is a lot of science behind the formation of waves. What a fascinating experience for you to have been in the Ocean Engineering Department at MIT. Thank you for responding.

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  11. Wow! What an experience! So glad all is well with you and the boat and as always, thank you for letting us come along on this tremendous adventure!
    Renard

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Wow, that’s crazy intense Jeffrey! Cyndi shared your post with the office, we are all so glad you made it through okay and that all is well with Flying Fish. Thank goodness for guardian angels! Hopefully all smooth sailing from here…

    ~Rachel, Gowrie Group/IMIS

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kind of like flying is right, Gary. In my 2500 hours I never had an in-flight emergency, but I trained for them all the time—as you do. The flying equivalent of a knockdown would be the same as becoming nearly inverted, something I hope I never experience in the air, or on the ocean.

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  13. Hi there. We met you in opua, on the hard, in January. Quite a crazy story. Best of luck with the rest of your journey and safe travels.
    Lynn and g (intrinsic)

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Well, at least you were not bored! Good to read that Flying Fish took care of you and you of Flying Fish. Every time you see it, that divot will remind you to put PFO’s away and be thankful the divot wasn’t in your head! Hope you are bored the rest of the passage!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think a person would have to have no pulse to be bored on the ocean! Flying Fish took care of me, and took care of herself, when she rolled back upright. A full keel and a conservatively designed sailboat suits this old man just fine.

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  15. Wow Jeffery having spoken with you just an hour before leaving Opua I tracked your progress and knew something had happened when you took that left turn. You have listed the learning points from the experience which is great for all us sailors to take note of. However your preparation from choosing the right boat down to how you set it up for this trip is the true testament to your seamanship. You must be feeling well rested now and I look forward to hearing where flying Fish will take you next. An extra crew member would have meant someone was in the cockpit for that knockdown We can only guess how that would have been.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for responding Roger. In general, I like surprises. Something fresh and new keeps my mind active. I could have done without this surprise, though. When I am offshore and weather becomes tough I always step up my situational awareness. But when when conditions are normal, and then they suddenly become abnormal, it takes a shot of adrenaline to the heart to put things in focus.

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  16. glad you are able to get things back in shape safely. the story had me imagining what it must be like. safe travels…..i hope this will become a book???

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jane, Things are getting back into shape aboard Flying Fish in Nouméa, New Caledonia. Some engine parts could not be accessed on this side of the world so I am eagerly awaiting their delivery from the U.S. before I can begin sailing again. I appreciate your comments, and thank you for following Flying Fish.

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