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Eclipse's Perfect Storm - as it happened

If you read UK newspapers you may have seen some totally erroneous reports about our latest problems with Eclipse so here is the truth (for obvious reasons there aren't many photos to accompany this series of articles)

Please note, the following account was written on board USS Ford and after only 3 hours sleep. Even so, it formed the basis of the Practical Boat Owner article about our storm.

Eclipse in happier times

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As some of you probably now know, we are no longer on board Eclipse but on navy frigate USS Ford where, apart from saving our lives, everyone has been really friendly and welcoming.

We left Nicaragua on Friday 13th, which probably didn't help matters, and had a very frustrating sail along the coast of El Salvador and then Guatemala. Frustrating, as the weather was really changeable. For example we went from motoring to sailing under reefed genoa alone in under 2 minutes. But we did have some nice sailing for a couple of hours each day - then followed by several hours of motoring. So it was taking longer than we wanted to get to Mexico and we were both getting tired, but Jetti, as always, was preparing good food.

There was a time constraint as we knew there would be a bad gale coming through the Gulf of Tehuantepec on Wednesday afternoon, and we had wanted to get past that area by then. Sadly we didn't quite make it.

The wind got up very quickly from south 7-10 knots to north west 30. As we got away from land the wind increased more. There are several proven, accepted, techniques for handling bad weather in a catamaran. If the wave and wind are not too severe, one can just heave to or take down all sail and lie ahull. But as the wind increases and especially as the wave height increases, this is no longer a safe option. So the next stage is either to run before a gale towing warps, or to lie to a sea anchor.

The problems with the former are that a) you are going with the weather system so you stay in it longer b) if the wind increases you eventually cannot go slowly enough so you begin to surf and overtake the waves ahead c) you end up a long way downwind, at say 50 miles a day d) it would mean that I would be hand steering all the time, as Jetti is not experienced (or in the event as we found later, strong enough) to steer in big seas. So I have always preferred the sea anchor streamed from the bows. However, in 45 years of sailing and around 70,000 of offshore sailing, I have never had to stop sailing because of bad weather.

So it had all been theory for me, until now.

Anyway, at 8pm we decided to stop sailing and use our parachute sea anchor. I had first got this when we did the Azores race in Banshee in 1987, but had only ever used it for practice. This was the first time for real. It took sometime to sort out the bridle so that the boat would stay head to waves. It tended to swing 40 degrees each way and was scary (or so I thought at the time) when we got near-abeam of the waves. Also, from time to time the parachute would collapse, and we'd drift backwards until it reset, which was even more worrying. We spent the night like that, with no sleep of course. Next morning the wind and sea was much worse. Certainly a full gale, but not so bad that I thought the Eclipse was in real danger.

Tests, theory and practice have shown that a catamaran can only capsize if it beam onto waves that are as high as the beam of the boat. So we are 100% OK in waves under 20 feet high, and these were 10 feet. I kept checking the warps and bridles but as the boat swung, the loads on the bridles were very high and eventually first one and then the other 12mm anchor warp bridle broke. Apart from holding the boat into waves the bridle also spreads the load onto 3 wear points. Now, all the load was on one bow roller and the parachute warp was beginning to chafe. I rigged up a second line with rolling hitches, which was rather wet to do on the foredeck. At some stage the forward trampoline started to tear but was still useable with care. (I had planned to get a new one this year as they have about a 5 year life). The wind and sea state had been steadily increasing. Every hour we said, "It can't get windier can it?" By now it was probably a steady 40 knots and 10-15 foot seas breaking over the boat every 10 minutes or so. Our safety depended on our parachute sea anchor holding. But in case it failed, I set up the 2 main anchors to be used as drogues behind the boat.

Surprisingly it was not the warp that broke, but the parachute. This was a 10ft cargo-style parachute specially made for use as a yacht sea anchor. I pulled it on board, the boat drifting beam on at this stage, and on quick inspection found it had shredded and that several parachute lines had pulled out. As I said earlier, I had only used the sea anchor in calmer conditions for an hour or so, just to practice. It seemed an excellent idea, the boat would just bob up and down, just like being on a conventional anchor, but in a real gale the loads were much worse, and the boat was being pulled and jerked as the waves passed. I didn't like it, and I don't think I would recommend a sea anchor again. We threw the anchors over the stern and also added the shredded sea anchor.

It was very difficult to steer, but eventually I got the boat moving downwind. We were sailing at 5-6 knots despite the drogues. We let out more warp which helped slow us to 3-4. I think that might have still meant surfing down some of the bigger waves which would have the potential for a disastrous broach. However the real problem was now the following waves could catch us up and break into the cockpit. For the first time ever on any catamaran I've sailed we had to close the companionway door. The first wave broke into the cockpit. The second wave was much bigger and swamped the cockpit. Even worse it filled the dinghy which we keep in davits. The water weight broke some of the straps, and we had to cut the dinghy loose and so lost it.

Clearly running downwind was not an option. So we now decided to try towing the anchors from one stern. This would allow the boat to lie at a 45 degree angle to the waves. Despite this temporary arrangement it actually seemed to work better than the sea anchor had done. Of course all the time the wind was increasing. We went below again to recover and see how the boat was handling the conditions. An hour later the wind suddenly got up even more. It was now screeching and the rig began vibrating which I had only noticed once before, when tied up in a marina during a 70 knot gale. The waves were now often over 20 feet so it was definitely getting to the dangerous, life threatening stage.

We began to discuss the option of abandoning ship. Unfortunately our Raymarine wind speed indicator was obviously only designed for inshore sailing because it was still reading 32 knots. So I don't know how windy it really was. By 1pm the waves were now consistently over 20 feet, maybe occasionally 30 feet. I know I tend to underestimate wave heights, partly because everyone normally over estimates. For example when sailing in Alaska in the summer I thought we were in 2-3 ft waves, but our skipper wrote 6ft waves in the log. It was getting more and more serious as there didn't seem to be any limit to how high the wind and waves could get.

By 1.30pm the wind really got up. The sea state changed and the whole surface was covered in flying spume, all the wave tops were blown off. It was much the worse conditions I have ever seen, even when standing on a beach looking out at 100 knot winter gales. When I went outside I couldn't stand up except by holding to a tether line. I could feel the skin on my face distorting in the wind. I guess there is a known wind speed when that happens, but I'd never felt it before.

That was when we decided to send out a Mayday, as we knew it would be several hours before any chance of rescue.

Of course it was particularly hard for me as Eclipse is not insured. And of course no one likes the idea of abandoning a boat - usually boats are picked up later undamaged. I can always build another boat, and I had earlier said to Jetti that we might not survive. Accordingly we set off our EPIRB but also called Pip Patterson of the Multihull Centre in the UK using our satellite phone. He gave us the UK's Falmouth Coastguard phone number, and we called the Coastguard direct. We called back every hour to check on progress and to give a weather update and position check. We heard that Mexico was sending out a launch to stand by.

By 6pm it was dark so we could no longer see the waves. We could still hear them crashing onto the boat, but so far, apart from the lost dinghy and torn but useable trampoline there was no other damage. The inside was beginning to become a mess. Normally on a catamaran one can leave cups on the table; there is no need for fiddle rails, etc. Now everything was being thrown around. There seemed little point in putting everything back in place, so most just stayed on the floor or was put on the bunks. The inside stayed dry though, no water had got below except for the one wave when we were running downwind and lost the dinghy. So it was dry and warm below. But all the time a wave/wind squall could have our name on it. We wouldn't survive a capsize.

We were still expecting the Mexican coastguard to call up on the VHF to say they were enroute. So it was a great surprise to hear a female American voice at 11pm saying she was in a helicopter and 10 miles from us. This was the first we knew that the US was involved. We kept in radio contact as they flew in and then set off a flare and made visual contact, although I suspect the pilot had seen us long before through their night vision equipment.

The last book I had read was Perfect Storm, so I knew all about the skills and training of naval rescue personnel. We had earlier prepared some dry bags which we filled with passports, money, ship papers. All those can be replaced, so what else? What I really wanted to take was my computer with all my work on it. But I felt it was too big. In hindsight we could have taken more. We tied the bags to each other and put on shoes and inflated our lifejackets.

The US navy helicopters have a SAR (search and rescue) swimmer who jumps out of the helicopter and swims to the stricken vessel with a lifting strop. It looked very scary to me. A brave man. Eclipse was still moving around quite violently in the seas, but the conditions were fortunately not nearly as bad as they had been when we put out the Mayday. Ironically we probably were over the worst of the gale.

Jetti was the first to jump into the sea and into the swimmer's waiting arms. Five minutes later it was my turn. As I was hoisted out, I looked down and back at Eclipse and hoped I would see it again.

I had not flown in a helicopter before. They look big on the outside, but are cramped inside and very noisy. Our flight back to the USS Ford lasted about 30 minutes. We watched the in-flight movie: the night vision viewer of the frigate as we approached was fantastic. Jetti was shown the weather radar and saw that Eclipse was right in the centre of the storm. We landed on the ship and faced a welcoming party of apparently the whole ship's company, despite it now being 3 in the morning.

A quick debrief, medical check, shower, and then into a set of navy issue jumpsuits. Next, a massive breakfast. We are not sure if it was put in front of us as a test, but it was the biggest meal I've ever eaten. Jetti finished her plates as well. But then neither of us had eaten anything for 36 hours except a few slices of bread.

Then a 3 hour sleep. In the morning we had discussions with the crew. The helicopter pilot said she had great difficulty controlling her helicopter as she was flying at 50 knots to stay in position and going up and down 20ft to stay with the waves. Independent confirmation that it was still a full gale, if not F9. Even so, it was far less severe than earlier in the day. She also said it was her first real sea rescue. She, like the swimmer, had only done simulations in weather this severe. She also admitted that her helicopter had not been airworthy the day before as the rotor blades were being changed.

We met the captain who said he had been steaming his frigate away from the area to keep away from the bad weather. He considers this area worse than sailing round Cape Horn. Even now as I write on board USS Ford, it's hard to keep in my chair as the ship is rolling and pitching. Yet, looking outside, the sea state looks relatively flat compared to what we had been in yesterday.

We have 24 hours before getting to port. We are desperate to see if we can salvage Eclipse. It is undamaged and will probably float for ever. Currently it is only 50 miles from a big fishing harbour, and we hope to find a salvage operator there to tow Eclipse in.

Despite all that happened, I was very impressed with the seaworthiness of Eclipse. No real damage (we didn't like our dinghy anyway), and the boat had survived a major storm without capsizing.

Certainly life would have been much more uncomfortable on a monohull, and ultimately I think had we been on one, we would still have put out a Mayday, as did the yacht in the Perfect Storm.

I'll finish this by thanking all the crew on USS Ford. There will be more about them later. We don't know what the future holds now. In a few days we will know about Eclipse. If it is salvaged, clearly we have to sort that out. If not, we will fly home.

That's it for now. Richard and Jetti, no longer on board Eclipse

Later, when back in the UK I wrote two more articles, which were then severely edited by Yachting Monthly prior to publication