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Heading Towards the Roaring Forties

Normally, I’m the most conservative of ocean-sailors. I never drive my boat hard nor adhere to a schedule. I prefer to avoid storms. If I do encounter one, I normally handle it in a very unmacho way. Once the wind is over 35 knots for long enough to build a large sea, I heave-to. I completely chill-out. I just ‘fugetaboutit’ until the wind and seas subside.

Almost always. But not, alas, always. Example: we were only 48 hours from New Zealand and the massive annual Thanksgiving Party that the Opua Cruising Club throws for arriving cruisers, when we heard via Russell Radio that a strong Sou’westerly gale was approaching.

Damn! Just at the wrong time.

All the other south-bound vessels on passage around us hove-to. But Carolyn and I had attended this locally famous Thanksgiving ‘welcome back, sea gypsies’ party in 2000, during our first visit to New Zealand, and had fallen in love with the club and its wonderfully zany members.

We didn’t want to miss the holiday festivities.

So, crazy or not, we decided drive Wild Card right into the teeth of it… dead to windward… in what turned out to be 40 knots plus of wind accompanied by massive seas.

It was stupid, really. The sixty-five foot, Dutch-built, steel ketch sailing next to us elected to heave-to, sensibly so. A 56-foot racing Swan astern decided to run off under bare poles. An old wooden schooner to the north deployed its ‘gale-rider’ drogue. A large cruising catamaran ahead set its para-tech sea anchor.

…only Wild Card carried on.  

The gale started, as most do, with our barometer falling into the bilge. (Well, not literally, but, man, did it DROP!)

Then a solid bank of clouds, pitch blue-black in color and with muted-but-throbbing lightening within, appeared to windward. It seemed crazy to head into it. I shrank back, intimidated. It seemed to be looming over us, towering over us, leaning over us… getting ready to smack us down.

Finally, with a gulp, I gathered up my courage, trimmed my sheets and headed right into it.

It was like hitting a brick wall of wind and seas. Visibility was almost instantly zero in the blowing spume. My anometer began reading a steady 35 knots with gusts into the low 40s. The rapidly building waves began to slow us down almost immediately. First they smashed our bows, then their yawning troughs made us plunge sickeningly, and, finally, the waves began crashing right aboard.

At the height of the storm, they were crashing into us with so much force that my bright stern-light looked like it was illuminating a hokey made-for-TV, spume-filled ‘hurricane disaster’ movie.

In order to ‘reach’ in time, we needed to average around three knots. Often, however, we were slowed down to a mere knot by the breaking waves. If we headed off the wind to increase our speed, we’d get totally clobbered by the waves we were attempting to drive through, and if we pinched up… those same seas would attempt to push us back by brute force… exploding completely over the boat while doing so.

Hour after hour, we clawed our way to windward. At times it seemed as if we were more ‘under’ water than upon it.

Looking forward out the dodger was like looking into a fire hose.

I’d love to tell you Wild Card was tight as a drum throughout this ordeal, but she was not. She’s a ‘flexible flier,’ and that means she leaks if she is flexed beyond her design limits.

She was WAY beyond her design limits!

First she started dripping in the head, near the windward chainplates… then along the loo-ward hull-to-deck joint… next was the mast step spigotting on… then the starboard cockpit locker… finally the entire boat (especially, alas, the hull-to-deck joint) was weeping/oozing/dripping salt water.

Luckily, we actually plan and engineer for our boat to leak, so no water touched our SSB radios, computers, etc, because each had been installed with its own private ‘umbrella’ to shed any water which happened to be in its vicinity. (In essence, we ‘leak-proof’ Wild Card as much as possible and then, knowing that in a severe gales she may leak from flexing, install our sensitive electronics in such a manner there are no vertical holes over them, even at a steep angle-of-heel).

About a dozen times I decided to stop. I was about to drive Wild Card to destruction. But each time Carolyn and I discussed it and said, “Hey, she’s doing it! We’re making it… slow, if unsure. If it gets any worse, even a tiny bit worse, of course, we’ll pack it in, but right now, for the next hour or so, let’s keep doing.”

The barometer dropped another four points.

It got worse.

We kept going. “We’re close,” Carolyn said. “I mean, I think I can smell the turkey!”

“Pumpkin pie, pecan pie, apple pie…” I chanted. “White meat, dark meat… any hot meat-meat is good for me!”

Our arrival on the coast after the stressful nine-day passage from Nuku’alofa, Tonga, was just as the original settlers, the Maoris, described: the first thing we saw was the cloud.

The Maori name for New Zealand is the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ and it was, indeed, just that.

The first actual piece of land we saw was Cape Brett. Unfortunately and, unknown to us, there is a strong southerly current which whips around this point. Fool that I was, I decided to ‘find a lee’ (seek protection from the gale force winds) in the shadow of the Cape, which maximized the amount of time we spent in the steepest (not largest) seas we’ve ever seen.

I could see it up ahead – the frothing breakers.

“How do you pronounce Mill-strum?” I asked Carolyn.

“I don’t like the sound of that,” she signed from belowdecks where she was monitoring our array of nav computers. “But I think it’s maelstrom…”

“Well, what ever it is, we’re about to sail right into it!”

The seas were so steep and so close together it seemed as if Wild Card wasn’t able to actually settle into the troughs… that the crests were just sort of beating her into the air… and she was flying/crashing crest-to-crest.

The waves were hitting her so rapidly, it seemed like machine gun fire.

It was like, I dunno, being hit every ten seconds or so by a few large, very heavy, foam-covered cement trucks.

I couldn’t believe Wild Card was able to stand up to their ceaseless jack-hammering.

Yes, we found a bit of relief from the wind. No, it didn’t help. The increase in the seas was so massive almost all our forward progress was stopped.

There were a few times she actually WAS stopped. A large sea would hit her squarely on the bow and all 20,000 pounds of her would shudder to a halt. We’d hobby-horse up-and-down for a moment or two, throwing huge sheets of spray both fore-and-aft. Without much forward motion and with lots of up-and-down motion, our rudder would aerate and stop functioning. Thus, the next time our bow would rear up like a scared horse, and the wind would blow it off to loo’ard. Instead of Wild Card driving through the next sea, it would bound on deck, schmooshing us deeper down and further back at the same time.

For a moment, Wild Card would feel like a wounded animal: awkward, unbalanced, fearful. But not for long. She’d come back, no matter how many times she was ‘whacked back’ she’d stagger gamely up and lurch bravely to windward. If the next couple of waves weren’t overly-large, her knotmeter would twitch and begin to crawl upwards… 1.5 knots, 2.2 knots, 3 knots!!!… until the next major wave exploded against her and she was, yet again, stopped dead in her tracks.

Yeah, Wild Card’s ‘got game’ as they say. She’s all heart. Neither logic nor cement-truck waves can stop her for long. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” I could almost hear her chanting.

Finally, just as all our hungry sea gypsy friends from around the world were gathering on the Opua Cruising Club’s veranda, Wild Card broke through the New Zealand gloom with the sun.

A mighty cheer went up as both friend and foe united in momentary admiration of Wild Card’s… of her shabby grittiness.

The dinner bell rang just as our anchor chain rattled out. “Welcome back, Wild Card!” floated across the harbor.

** Cap’n Fatty and Carolyn have cruised the world for 35 years——and counting. **

Cap’n Fatty Goodlander lives aboard Wild Card with his wife Carolyn and cruises throughout the world. He is the author of “Chasing the Horizon” by American Paradise Publishing, “Seadogs, Clowns and Gypsies” and “The Collected Fat.” For more Fat-flashes, see fattygoodlander.com

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