Demolition Watch Reporting for Duty

AKA – The night we almost broke the boat (or Level 2 Training Diary – Part 4)!

After making sure that Dobie was securely fastened to the back of the boat, we left Cowes, with the sun shining and blue skies… it was also bitterly cold and windy, the recurring theme for the week it seems. On the short trip back to Gosport, we practised sailing with the storm trysail in place of our main sail – a small, but pretty effective sail, especially downwind. It was pretty hard to rig onto the mast when we were in the marina; it will be so much more difficult to do for real at sea when the conditions were so bad that you needed to sail with it.

De Lage Landen, who were training alongside us, had also had to make the trip back to Gosport for a replacement main sail after they had ripped theirs the day before. We were both going to make the trip out west towards Weymouth later that day; we would be a few hours ahead of them. As my watch weren’t quick enough to come up with a name for ourselves, ‘Frogs Legs’ watch chose to stand the first watch (18h00-21h00) whilst the ‘Flying Dutchmen’ watch went down below. The rest of the night went something like this:

18h00-20h30 – Once out of my wet weather gear, I tried to get some sleep / rest. It was pretty difficult as the boat was bouncing over and through the waves. Lying in my sleeping bag, with the lee-cloth tied up as tightly as I could to my bunk, there wasn’t much chance of getting any sleep over the next few hours. It was a bit like trying to sleep on a bucking broncho – and if it wasn’t the boat moving on the waves, it was the crew on deck carrying out manoeuvres, very inconsiderate! At least I was warm, and relatively dry in my sleeping bag.

20h30-21h00 – Got up, and into my wet gear. Took a look at the track we had covered over the past 3 hours. Not good – with the strong tides against we were now 4 miles behind where we had been 3 hours ago, having sailed about 18 miles (and done a couple of doughnuts) Managed to get a cup of coffee before going on deck.

21h00-00h00 – Rough weather helming; waves crashing over the deck. Did manage to eat some dinner (meatballs and rice) and have a hot drink. Lots of tankers around, travelling at high speeds, so we need to keep tacking to avoid getting too close. Went down below at 23h30 to wake the next watch up. Got thrown from one side of the boat to the other at the bottom of the companionway steps; landed on face, skinned knees and hands. Hmmm… nobody noticed… picked myself up and went back up on deck. On coming watch crew not impressed seeing the same lighthouse from roughly the same distance that they had last seen 3 hours ago – and we had sailed about 20 miles! Deja vu for us all 🙂

00h00-02h30 – Back in the bunk. Lovely warm sleeping bag. Still no sleep forthcoming. Waves bigger, so the crashes were louder and more violent than before. You can feel the yacht climb up the face of a wave and then there is a feeling of weightlessness, as you lift off the bunk… all the while knowing that in moments to come the yacht will crash down again, and shortly after you will hit your bunk with a thump and a shudder.

02h30-03h00 – Took longer to get gear back on… so no hot drink before going up on deck. Arrive on deck to be told that our watch picked up a lobster pot earlier in the evening which had wrapped the propeller and was caught around the rudder so we would not be able to use the engine until the pot was removed. Going to wait until first light and see if we can dislodge it by doing a few manoeuvres, otherwise De Lage Landen will have to tow us into Weymouth.

03h00-06h00 – The wind had picked up over that past few hours, we were seeing wind speeds of 40 knots with gusts over 50 knots. The waves were even bigger and more and more were crashing over the deck. At least it wasn’t raining so there were a few stars to sail by. Then it was my turn to helm – the feeling of responsibility you have for your fellow crew when you are helming at night is huge, especially when the weather is rough.

Undertaking any manoeuvre in these conditions are hard – when we tacked the boat, someone who was meant to ease the sheet managed to let go of it, so we now had a rope thrashing around out of control which was dangerous to any crew on deck who got in the way. Everyone else had to go up onto the foredeck and brave the crashing waves and pitching boat to try and solve the problem. I am now alone, helming a 68 foot yacht in huge waves and high winds with all other crew members either in their bunks or on the foredeck – bit of a change from a 14 foot Laser dinghy. There are a few prayers being said that everyone up on deck is clipped on to the boat – our man overboard practises from the past few days are more than enough to remind me that recovering anybody in these seas will be difficult.

And then the traveller, which is holding the main sail and boom in the correct position slips; nobody is around to help me and the banging alerts the Skipper who comes up on deck to help out. I am pretty sure he is not too impressed with our antics! The sheet can’t be sorted so the staysail is dropped to the deck – we can sort the issue out later or in the morning. We are now approaching a sandbank which we would normally be fine to sail over, but with the huge swell we are experiencing it is not so clear cut so we tack to be certain.

Our watch leader is on the helm – we are sat on deck recovering from the past half hour. ‘Can someone go down below and get the Skipper?’ he calmly asks us. ‘Sure, no problem’ I reply; ‘What is the problem?’. ‘We have lost the steering’ is the response I heard. My first thoughts – Yikes. This isn’t good. We are hurtling towards France at a good rate of knots towing a lobster pot, with a fouled propeller, and now have no steering. But then you quickly realise that it isn’t such a big deal, we have an emergency steering system that we can rig up which is exactly what happens before the Skipper and the first mate go down into the lazarette to try and fix the main steering. 20 minutes later, we have the main steering back working but as a precaution leave the emergency steering system in place. That is enough havoc and mayhem for one watch – luckily our 3 hours are up and the next watch can take over.

06h00-08h00 – Back in my sleeping bag, I’m pretty sure that I won’t be getting much sleep over the next few hours as there is a fair bit of adrenaline flowing through my system. At least I can’t be responsible for breaking anything else for the next few hours.

08h00-12h00 – At about 8am I get back up – I am not great at lying in bed when I am awake, something I need to work harder on 🙂 I dress and go back up on deck; the wind has dropped a bit by now and as it is daylight, the other watch can sort the sail out that we had dropped in the night and I help them hoist it once more. The rest of my watch comes on deck and we set about tacking the boat. Easing the sheets during the tack, it comes free once more but we are able to get it back under control quickly. Then someone notices that the staysail that we have just hoisted is almost completely torn from one side to the other, probably as a result of the flying sheet making contact with it; that is another thing we have to add to the growing list of breakages, so we quickly drop the sail to the deck once more.

It seems that we weren’t the only boat having problems – at some point in the night De Lage Landen had torn their mainsail again so were returning to Gosport. We were still towing the lobster pot we had collected at the start of the evening and now we had lost our tow into port; Portland Coastguard decides to launch the Weymouth Lifeboat to give us a tow into Weymouth Harbour.

An hour or so after the lifeboat arrived, we are alongside the quay in the harbour, arranging for a diver to come and remove the lobster pot that had hitched a ride with us overnight.

And as if we hadn’t had enough excitement for the day, our Skipper decided that it was a perfect time for each of us to climb the mast! I hadn’t climbed it before, but it was definitely worth the effort to see the views of Weymouth you got from there! Don’t worry – I didn’t break anything whilst I was up there…

Additional photography from crew on the Weymouth Lifeboat.

Related Images: