Thursday 21 May 2015

Pacific Storm

The next leg of our journey takes us to Suwarrow in the Northern Cook islands, made famous by Tom Neale, a New Zealander who wrote about his experiences living there alone for many years. Now it is uninhabited, an atoll famed for its wildlife, visited only by private yachts and manned for three months in the year by park rangers who will stamp your passport for a small fee.

The island is seven hundred miles to the northwest so I email Chris Tibbs, our friend and weather router, for a forecast. There is a cold front developing across our track and we are likely to pass through it in three days time. It looks benign at this stage but as we are to discover, Pacific weather systems are highly dynamic and can quickly develop from gentle depressions into aggressive fronts fuelled by the warm waters of the South Pacific. 

The sea is flat calm as we leave Bora Bora behind us and I am resigned to another twenty-four hours under engine until we pick up some wind. We are sailing in company with two yachts, Aplus2 and Makena.  APlus2 is an Amel 54, owned by a French couple; Jean and Christiane. Amels can be found in anchorages all over the world and are often referred to as Marmite boats; you either love them or hate them - for a number of reasons.  First they are ketch rigged with two masts, increasingly rare in today’s world of performance sloops; second they are quirky, with some curious touches such as faux-teak decks and an offset steering position insisted upon by their founder, Monsieur Amel. But most important of all they are built for long-distance passage-making and in many ways they are the ideal yacht for a circumnavigation.  Amels aren’t renowned for their high performance but Jean sails his boat skilfully and presses hard, always hot on our heels.  He also possesses every gadget imaginable and his chart table is like the flight deck of an airliner, with cameras mounted up the mast and an array of external lights that earns his boat the nickname of the Christmas tree.  Oh yes, and being French he has a wine cellar that would put most London town houses to shame. “Only around two hundred bottles” he shrugs, as if anything less would be indecent.  Jean’s wife Christiane isn’t a natural sailor but she is determined to support her husband on this trip, and with her wicked sense of humour they make a great couple.

The other boat is Makena, a big Lagoon catamaran, 62 feet long and home to Luc, Sarah and Kai. Luc is a tall handsome Frenchman who lived and worked in Silicon Valley for many years and is now sailing around the world with his adventurous young Irish wife Sarah and their gorgeous smiling baby Kai, who was one year old on the very day that we crossed the equator.   Makena is cavernous inside with 6 cabins, a flying bridge and acres of deck space that is the perfect venue for a party - of which many have been hosted by Luke and Sarah who are generous to a fault with their hospitality.  However Makena is not just a floating villa, she is at the upper end of the Lagoon range of catamarans and has a big carbon rig, fibre standing rigging and a wardrobe of sails that drive her fast. With no keel, catamarans have little friction in the water and can be very quick downwind, especially in the hands of Luc who sails her like a big dinghy, always at the front of the fleet despite sailing conservatively with his young family on board.

In company with APlus2 and Makena, our little flotilla of three yachts motors across the flat Pacific in bright sunshine, looking for the wind. Little do we know at this stage that we will find more than we bargained for.  I email Chris for another weather update and this time it is slightly more thought provoking.  The cold front which is due to arrive on Sunday now looks quite aggressive, bringing strong wind from the northwest in the squalls as the front passes through; maybe up to gale force in strength. We have experienced gale force winds in the gusts many times before and we are unconcerned by this development other than it curtails our plans. With the wind forecasted to come directly from our destination of Suwarrow, we decide regretfully that we will have to avoid this mysterious atoll and head west directly towards Niue, the next stop on our itinerary. With our change of course, the route takes us more upwind and we are able to switch off the engine and sail on a gentle beam reach with Makena and Aplus2 in sight as we work our way west towards Tonga.

The front is due to pass over us tomorrow so I get another weather update from Chris. This time the content of his email is more concerning. The front has intensified and there is a lot of energy in the clouds due to the instability in the atmosphere, with thunder and lightning expected in the squalls. Lightning is always a sign of the vertical extent of the clouds and therefore when the rain falls, the downdrafts can be significant.  Unusually for Chris, he sends me a second email. This time he warns that winds could be up to 60 knots in the squalls and that we should consider heaving-to as the front passes. Heaving-to is a tactic employed mainly by yachts in heavy weather, effectively stopping the boat with its bows head to wind while a bad weather system passes through. The reason for considering this approach is that 60 knots is a lot of wind. The Beaufort scale, which is used to describe wind strength in bands using Beaufort Forces, shows 53 – 63 knots as a Beaufort Force 11, “a violent storm with exceptionally high waves, the sea covered in white foam, survival conditions”. In fact there is only one force higher – that’s Gale Force 12, a Hurricane.

I share a summary of the forecast with Andrew and Caroline, and also with Jean and Luc.   On the morning radio net i give the fleet a heads up on the conditions because although they have all seen the front developing on their grib files, it takes an experienced sailing meteorologist like Chris to understand the potential energy in the atmosphere and the possible wind strengths in the squalls. This is the first that many have heard of the intensity of the approaching front and we all start to make our preparations for the storm.  The first thing we do is to head north to position us as far away from the centre of the low as possible.  The storm is due to hit us on Sunday morning with the worst of the front passing through around lunchtime; then abruptly the wind will back to t he southwest, a sign that the front has passed and the wind will abate.  Juno is a big strong boat and designed to take this type of weather in her stride, but nevertheless it is down to the crew to guide her through the storm and to prepare her well for the conditions. Andrew and I remove all loose gear from the deck; we reeve the running backstays to give the mast extra support and lash the anchor and the spinnaker bag on deck.  I tighten the lines on the bimini, adding extra guys at the stern to further secure the canvas and we strap the dinghy down hard against its davits. Down below Caroline secures the cabins and the galley and prepares breakfast, lunch and supper to minimise work down below in heavy seas. As we work through my checklist, it is a glorious day with blue skies and no sign of the impending weather, but as night falls I feel the wind freshen and start to back towards the east, the first signs of the approaching front.

Dawn breaks with dark clouds developing on the horizon. The wind has now backed further to the north and by mid-morning the first drops of rain start to fall.  I reduce sail progressively as the wind builds and we fit our lifejackets and harness lines, clearing the cockpit of our creature comforts of cushions, pilot books, cameras and suntan lotion.  Just ahead of the front it starts to rain quite heavily but still we only have twenty knots of wind and I am conscious that there is lots more to come.   To add to our concerns a cargo vessel is heading across our course so I call them on the radio and ask them to keep clear, as we are restricted in our ability to manoeuvre due to the weather.   To their great credit and despite the deteriorating conditions they stay true to their word and head into the path of the storm to keep clear of us. We have agreed with Makena and Aplus2 to hold a radio call every hour and I can hear the tension in our voices as we compare weather conditions and start to run off south away from the building wind.  

Then I see it. On our starboard quarter a dark black cloud skates low across the water and beneath it the sea is white with foam. Despite their protests I send Caroline and Andrew down below and close the hatch, clipping my harness to the deck fitting in the cockpit. Our mainsail is already tiny, just enough to give us some stability and I quickly furl the jib down to the size of a bath towel. As I push the companionway shut I notice the digits on the wind speed indicator climbing rapidly as the wind builds from 25 knots, to 30, 40, 48 and then when it hits 50 I turn away and face the squall that is screaming in behind us.  It is as if someone has unleashed a monster. The wind shrieks in the rigging as the first big gust hits us like a fist. The waves are flattened by the wind as it blows the crests off in dense white streaks, and all around everything is white. With the sudden increase in wind the waves develop quickly, steep and close together, towering above me in the cockpit, maybe 6 metres high.  Unlike other squalls that we have experienced this isn’t just a gust. The wind speed hasn’t dropped below 45 knots for half an hour and I am steering Juno away from the wind down the face of the waves, tracking slightly north to keep us moving across the waves for directional stability but not wanting to go too fast as we power through the spray and spume like a giant surfboard. We are making nine knots now under just a tiny mainsail and storm jib when the sky suddenly lights up with huge flashes of lightning all around me, then almost immediately the two loud cracks of thunder. I don’t need my schoolboy physics to tell me that the storm is directly overhead. The chart plotter is a mass of solid purple, showing the radar picture of the squall which I measure to be around 20 miles across, with Juno represented by a small grey triangle, slap in the middle.

The wind eases a little as the first front passes and I open the hatch to find Caroline lying in the saloon in shorts and t shirt, insulated from the tempest raging above. She is itching to come up on deck and I am impressed by her composure but I think it’s safer for her to be down below. I later hear that Andrew was on the loo at the time the storm struck and was only mildly inconvenienced; such is the soundproofing and stability of Juno. I exchange my shorts and light weight waterproof for my full offshore foul weather gear and return to the fray, just as the next squall hits. The waves are now getting significantly bigger after two hours of gale force winds and I stand over the helm ready to intervene although the autopilot is handling the boat beautifully. Two waves then hit us in swift succession and the second breaks on our starboard quarter, rounding us up into the wind. I grab the wheel and bear off hard just as Juno heels violently and over my shoulder I see the outboard motor on the dinghy, mounted on davits high above the water, disappear under the sea until Juno recovers her composure, rights herself and shakes off the water like a wet dog. In fact, barring that one incident, Juno behaves impeccably, maintaining a steady track down the waves, despite the wind howling around our ears and the confused sea state.

I hear Jean on the radio for our hourly roll call. Aplus2 has had 48 knots, Makena 62 knots; we are all in the middle of this ferocious storm but everyone sounds calm and in control. As the wind rages and Juno keeps her cool it gives me a great sense of confidence about the sea worthiness of this strong boat. I glance down at the wind instruments. The wind is still over 30 knots but it has backed to the southwest, a sign that the front has passed through and although it is still windy by any standards I know with a sense of relief that the worst has passed. Andrew and Caroline come up to the cockpit and I feel like Noah, seeing the waters recede as the storm abates.  Although the wind is now only a force 7 the seas are still huge and we are careful to keep our guard against a rogue wave that could still knock us down if it broke against our beam.

I check in with Makena and Jean. All is well with them and we briefly exchange war stories from the storm. By evening the wind is down to 12 knots. The sky is overcast but the front has passed through and although I am exhausted after 12 hours at the helm, I am relieved that we passed this test without harm to the crew or to Juno as these were the worst conditions I have experienced at sea.  We were well prepared due to weather forecasts from Chris Tibbs that are, as always, uncannily accurate, almost to the minute. The picture shows our track during the storm; how we headed north to position ourselves away from the centre of the front and then our course as we ran off south.

I sleep like a hound, thanks in part to Andrew who generously stands watch an extra hour overnight and by today the clouds have cleared, our ensign is once more flying proudly at the stern and we are on a beam reach towards Niue, the world’s smallest independent nation.


  1. Amazing Paul, so pleased you are all ok and Juno kept you safe. Brilliant writing - I actually felt like I was there with you. Big love to you all, Lisa x

  2. Well done Frewie et al, on the edge of my seat reading your account! What an experience. So funny to read about Jean, Christine, Luc, Sarah & Kai from here - it is literally a world away - send them our love. Consuelo x

  3. Such an exciting read! Can't wait to see you both in Fiji- less than 3 weeks to go woo! Lucie x

  4. Go Juno...oh and the skipper...and C and the loo crew! Not overly sorry to have missed that part of the adventure but will make a great scene in the forthcoming movie! Saz xx

  5. Thanks for all your comments everyone. Off to Tonga now.

  6. Wow, what an experience for you all and well handled Skipper. Pleased you are all safe and sound on Juno.

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