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
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