06/11/2015 – It’s not a problem, it’s a challenge!

This was an answer from one of my students many years ago when he needed help with a computer problem and it is a positive way to look at what the weather has confronted us with over the past three days. The challenges have been mitigated to a certain extent by the use of DSC calling on the SSB. DSC was introduced as a compulsory function on all new VHF marine radios in the UK fairly recently but is little understood or used by the majority of sailors. There is also a DSC capability on recent SSB radios, again seldom used. Peter, the skipper of Exody, has galvanised the fleet into action: to enter all the individual ship’s MMSI numbers, rather like a long telephone number; to enter a group number and to maintain a DSC watch. When we left La Reunion we knew we would face various weather challenges, including a frontal system, strong headwinds, variable adverse currents and possibly high winds en route to Richards Bay, South Africa. The 1400 mile passage should take about 10 days, plenty of time for two or three weather systems to develop and challenge us. The faster boats would, of course, encounter the changing conditions before the slower boats. This is where the DSC (Digital Selective Calling) has been very useful. Tuesday morning it was agreed that there would be an extra SSB radio net at 1600 because the fastest two or three boats were expected to have reached the weather front. The earliest boats reported the northerly 20 knot wind reducing to 10 knots before backing around through west to southwest over a period of 10 minutes then increasing to 20-25 knots. One boat found itself meeting the windshift during the net. His windsteering just followed the wind around the compass and within a couple of minutes his course changed from W to SE swiftly followed by heavy rain with no noticeable lessening of the wind at any time. We prepared the boat, gybed the jib to the same side as the mainsail, stowed the spinnaker pole, dropped two reefs in the main and rolled away some of the jib. During the 1800 net one boat remarked that the windshift occurred 3 miles ahead of the front, a helpful warning. At the end of the net we could see dark rain clouds ahead which showed up as a line on the radar. Within 10 minutes, at the three mile mark the wind started to back. John was ready at the wheel and just steered the boat to keep the wind on the starboard beam until we were heading SE and there was no further change in direction, then we tacked through the wind and waited for the front to arrive in less than 3 minutes! During the evening there was a DSC group call from one of the leading boats, warning of lightning. I put the handheld VHF and the Satellite phone in the oven for protection and we waited. We didn’t wait long, it was very bright but stayed within the clouds so no real threat fortunately. Tuesday night was very wet and the seas built quickly and were very confused. The wind direction was more favourable than had been predicted and we managed to sail slightly north of our course all night. The winds were also not as strong as predicted. Wednesday night was another matter. During Wednesday afternoon we shook out the second reef in the main and tightened up the first reef. Hindsight says we were a little hasty but we were trying to increase our boat speed. At 2100 there was a DSC group call from one of the leading boats to warn of 30-40 knot winds. At the time I was off watch and fast asleep. Within 10 minutes we had 32 knots of wind on the beam. John woke me up because he had no idea what would follow. He rolled away the jib and the engine, running in neutral to charge the batteries, was quickly engaged. He also let the boom out further to spill some of the wind. The very big seas, regularly crashing into the boat sending cascades of water over the decks, did not encourage me to venture to the mast to drop in the second or even third reef. We both managed to grab some sleep but it was a worrying, uncomfortable night though the highest gust I saw was 35 knots. By morning it had settled to 25-30 knots and we let out a bit of jib but our progress was very slow, hampered somewhat by the contrary current. The current reversed at about 0800 and after the morning SSB net we altered course, set the sails rather better and started moving! The rest of Thursday was spent trying to coax more speed out of the boat because the weather predictions for our arrival in South Africa suggest a Monday arrival would be far better than Tuesday and if we were to approach the coast later on Tuesday it might be better to turn around and wait out at sea for a couple of days for the next weather system to pass! There are two caveats here; to arrive on Monday we need to average better than 7 knots and weather systems are not really that predictable 5 days ahead. We have found a narrow band of favourable current pushing us in the right direction at about 2 knots, all we need now is for the wind to stay at about 20 knots. The night has been far more peaceful, the seas have continued to flatten as we have reached deeper water. We finally got over the 1,000 metre contour yesterday afternoon and the change was noticeable. We now have more than 4,000 metres beneath us and it seems almost calm. Starblazer has weathered the storm with no damage; the crew have finally caught up on sleep and have continued to eat well throughout! I should mention that the generator refused to start a few days ago, John suspects a blown fuse but sea conditions are such that investigations will have to wait until we arrive in Richards Bay. Finally a belated Happy Birthday to sister-in-law Kathy, sorry but I couldn’t face sitting at the chart table during the past few days. The wave action was so violent I would have been thrown from side to side! Joyce

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