The worse 48hours of our sailing life – so far.
After we left Bonaire we experienced some fairly lumpy seas and high winds of 25 – 30kts. The seas were only 2 to 3 m high which for that part of the world wasn’t bad; it changed!
We made good time and covered 165 miles in 24 hours, which was a new record for Camomile. We were off the golf of Venezuela and needed to travel about 150 miles west before we could drop down towards the San Blas islands off the coast of Panama. We had heard about the square waves close inland and intended to stay well away. For the next 24 hours we enjoyed a good sail in a F5/6 with 2 kts of current helping us along and we travelled 177 miles in that 24 hours, another new record for Camomile.
The following 24 hours was a different story. In the middle of the afternoon the winds started picking up to a F7 and the seas started to build. We were heading out to the 4000m-depth contour line, 125 miles off the coast where, we were advised, the conditions should have been better. We had already heard of boats you had cut the corner off and were only 50 miles off the coast and experiencing huge waves. By 10pm we started to head south and shortened the sails. We only had little pocket-handkerchiefs each side but we were still doing 6kts. The wind was very strong and blowing 40kt+ that was now a F8 full gale. The seas were horrendous, I’ve never seen seas like it, 4 and 5 metres high. Bill had a couple of hours sleep but then decided to stay on deck because the boat was being buffered by the wind and waves. We kept expecting the winds to subside because a gale doesn’t usually continue for that long but they got worse. By 2pm the following day we were getting winds of 45kt with gusts of 50kt+ that’s F10 storm force. Our highest recorded gust was 55.6kts! Thankfully all this was coming from behind and Camomile was coping fairly well but some of the waves were pushing us sideways beam on to the sea. We experienced several semi knockdowns so Bill put a drogue out behind us. This is a large cone shaped bag held together by webbing and had the effect of pulling our stern into the waves to keep us up right. We were both very tired, having not had very much sleep, as we went into the 2nd night of the storm. The decks were awash with water but the worse was to come. Bill was down below trying to get a few hours sleep. I had noticed one wave which seemed higher than the others coming towards us. It was breaking as it approached and hit the boat with tremendous force. Luckily we had the washboards in the front of the hatch but the top of the hatch was still open. I pulled it closed really quickly but we still had a lot of water down below. It dropped about 6 inches of water in the cockpit and then it swept away, I just caught my book and binos before they went over the side. If I haven’t been clipped on I would have gone with them. I’m afraid I just became hysterical; I had had enough and just wanted to go home. The water that had come in had soaked the cooker and the gas wouldn’t light so I couldn’t even make myself a cup of tea!
After that Bill refused to let me go on deck but put on his dry suit and stood watch harnessed into the cockpit on shortened straps. By this time we were using the Hydrovane self steering gear, the electric autohelm and the drogue to keep Camomile’s beam away from what were now dangerously breaking waves. Even with all of this it was necessary to stay near the wheel in case something failed which would mean that she would quickly have to be hand steered before the next big wave came along. Bill managed a little sleep on deck. While it was my watch and I just put my head up through the hatch every 5 minutes to check for shipping. I could see if anything was coming on the radar. It was impossible to sleep properly because we didn’t know what was going to happen next.
The next morning, after 36 hours, the storm continued. The waves, which were now the size of double decker buses, were mesmerising. The drogue had worked well and kept our aft quarter in the sea but the down side was it had slowed us right down to 3 – 4 kts overnight. It didn’t really matter because we didn’t want to get to Porvenir in the dark but we only had 137 miles to go so we wanted to speed up again. Bill decided the drogue would have to come in and we were going to motor sail south to try and get out of the storm, which we were convinced was following us. We started to winch in the drogue but we got a riding turn in the rope around the winch. We were tired and not thinking straight we should have put it around a second winch or tied another rope around it but we didn’t. The drogue slackened in between waves and Bill decided to take the rope off the winch but it started to pull and he couldn’t get it back on. I was holding the bitter end and tried to hold onto it but it was too strong. Bill said to let go or I would lose my fingers. So we lost it.
It was our lowest point. We still had F9 and huge seas. We continued with our plan and started to motorsail south. After an hour we turned the engine off and started sailing again as the wind dropped to F8. By 6pm nearly 48 hours after the gale had started the wind dropped to F7 and by 10pm F6. The sea had gone back to moderate and we were able to get some proper sleep. The next morning the wind dropped right away as we got closer to the land. We’d pulled the sails right out again and arrived in Porvenir just after 11.30am.
Through all this I had still ran my radio net on the SSB every morning at 10am calling each boat in turn and listened to all the tales of woe from the other boats. Some of the other women were feeling like me, that they had had enough and just wanted to go home, it was great to be able to chat to one another. All the boats arrived safely but there was quite a bit of damage across the fleet. Of the 5 boats who had Hydrovane self steering gear 3 had bent shafts which just shows what a tremendous force that sea had in it. If it hadn’t been for the drogue I think ours would have been bent too. It was a shame we lost it but we’ll certainly buy another one, it may have saved us from other damage.
So we survived the worst 48 hours of our lives, sadly I didn’t take any photos. Throughout our ordeal we felt confident Camomile would bring us through. We later learnt that the Venezuelan peninsular is known as the northern Cape Horn, well I certainly won’t be going round the southern one now!